Many times we see animal behavior that seems impossible to explain. We see an interesting example of that in wading shorebirds called phalaropes. These birds can get food that is too deep in the water for them to reach.
Instead of the typical methods used by shorebirds to capture their food, phalaropes take a different approach. They spin around and around in one place at the breakneck speed of one complete rotation a second. They kick seven to eight times on each spin and move their heads to where they can quickly snap up food. Researchers have found that these birds can detect prey, thrust and seize with their bills, transport and swallow the prey, and do it all in half-a-second.
One of the fascinating areas of scientific investigation is studying animals designed to clean up biological waste. This is especially true in mountainous regions where dry conditions and harsh terrain do not allow normal organic decomposition.
The lammergeier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is an example of such an animal. This large bird lives in scattered mountainous areas in Europe and Africa and across Asia, including Siberia and the Himalayas. It has a wingspan of ten feet (three meters). The main item on its menu is bones.
The World Atlas of Birds reports that this bird picks up the bones of animals that have died naturally or been killed by predators and carries them to high elevations. It then drops the bones onto the ground to smash them into smaller pieces. Lammergeiers do not eat just the bone marrow. They actually swallow large pieces of bone. To do this, they have an extremely elastic esophagus. Their stomach has a group of cells that secrete a highly concentrated acid, which is stronger than battery acid. It is strong enough to dissolve the calcium in the bones to liberate the protein and the fat. Amazingly the bird’s digestive enzymes are specially designed to survive a highly acidic environment and continue to function.
We need animals designed to clean up biological waste. Many animals are designed to survive in environments that are inhospitable to life. With special adaptations built into their bodies, they can do quite well. Trying to find ways that any one of these designs could occur by chance is challenging. Seeing designs in birds that require a large number of things to be changed simultaneously is an even greater challenge. Birds such as lammergeiers, woodpeckers, and penguins are great examples of the creative abilities of God.
It was a flightless North Atlantic bird that stood upright 30-33 inches (75-85 cm) tall and weighed 11 pounds (5 kg). Its small wings were less than 6 inches (15 cm) long. It’s also the story of the great auk and human stewardship failure.
The fact that the great auk couldn’t fly and that it was large enough to provide a meal for hungry sailors is a major reason why it became extinct. People also killed them for their feathers. As the great auk was nearing extinction, people killed the last ones to stuff their skins and display them as trophies in museums and private collections.
Though the great auk couldn’t fly in the air, it did fly underwater. Some might say this bird was poorly designed with its large body and small wings. But underwater, those wings became fins to pursue and catch fish. Larger wings would have been a hindrance underwater. The large size of this bird gave evidence that it found abundant food and had no need to fly in the air.
Great auks had few predators, but since they couldn’t fly and were slow on land, they became easy prey for humans. When it was evident that they were becoming extinct, great auks became more valuable. Collectors wanted a stuffed bird for a trophy, and museums wanted one for display. At last, there was only one breeding pair and one egg left on Eldey Island off the coast of Iceland. On July 3, 1844, three men climbed up on Eldey Island, killed the last two birds, and smashed the egg. The great auk was no more.
The picture shows a monument to the great auk in Iceland facing toward Eldey, the rocky island where the birds made their last stand. It tells the sad story of the great auk and human stewardship failure. God gave humans the duty to care for His creation. He commanded Adam and Eve to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Jesus told us that God cares for the birds. (See Matthew 6:26 and Luke 12:6.) The Apostle Paul in Romans 13:4 talks about human rulers. He wrote that they are “God’s servants for your good.” I think we can apply that concept of rulers to our duty toward the living creatures God created. We are stewards entrusted with caring for the world God gave us, including the living creatures.
One of the enduring UFO claims has been the massive drawings on Peru’s Nazca desert plateau. As far back as Eric Von Daniken’s book Chariots of the Gods in 1968, there have been those who claim that people on the Earth could not have made the drawings. They claim that the lines marked out landing strips for alien space crafts. It has been proven that people CAN, in fact, make huge drawings visible from space. However, there have not been good explanations as to what the Nazca drawings represent. Masaki Eda, a zooarchaeologist from Hokkaido University in Japan, seems to have found some clues in his recent study of the Nazca Lines and birds.
The large hummingbird drawing, which has been popularized, is an excellent portrayal of a bird known as the long-tailed hermit. Two other drawings that Eda has identified are a pelican and a guano bird. This doesn’t answer all of the mysteries of the Nazca lines, however, because those birds are rainforest or coastal birds, and the Nazca plateau is a desert. Social anthropologists studying the religions and myths of the people of the area may tell us more. There is still much to be learned about the Nazca lines and birds.
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? Sometimes we hear a song, and it seems to keep ringing in our brains for days. It may be a song we love. Sometimes it’s an annoying song that we can’t stand but can’t forget. Advertisers often use jingles in their commercials hoping that their little songs will keep haunting us until we buy their products. Whether good or bad, I can’t get that song out of my head.
I can be thankful that whatever the song is, it will eventually go away–and be replaced by another one. Imagine what it would be like if you had only one song for your whole life. More than that, imagine that your children and future descendants still had that same song. That could be the description of the life of a songbird.
We love to hear songbirds, and with a little effort, we can learn to identify different species of birds by their songs. That’s because, for the most part, each species has its unique song that it passes on from generation to generation.
Songbirds are born with a song stored in their brains. As the birds grow, they learn to match their vocal patterns to the song in their heads. Even if a baby bird never hears its parents sing, and although surrounded by the songs of other species, it will still learn to sing the song that its parents sang. There are a few species of birds that can imitate the songs of other birds, or even human voices and other sounds. Those birds are born with a different program built into their brains that gives evidence of a creative Designer of life.
When I can’t get that song out of my head, I can start singing or listening to a different song. Humans have that ability because the Designer has given us a creative capacity. That’s part of being created in the image of a creative God. But what if all people made their houses precisely the same way? Besides singing the songs of its parents, a bird will build only the same kind of nest its parents made. You would have to say that Someone also stored the nest-building instruction book in the bird’s brain.
It is spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and one of the joys of spring is seeing the amazing migrations of birds as they move north from their wintering grounds. We watch the birds without thinking of the logistics that are involved in millions of birds moving over fast distances. How do you feed these hordes of living things? Their needs are even greater than usual because of the energy required for the long flights. We may not realize the importance of insect migrations that occur at the same time. What collateral benefits does this system create?
Dara Satterfield of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. says, “Trillions of insects around the world migrate every year, and we’re just beginning to understand their connections to ecosystems and human life.” This migration not only feeds birds, but they pollinate wild plants and gobble agricultural pests.
We have written in our quarterly journal about the spring migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to North America. In Europe and Africa, the migration is even more amazing and complex. Each spring the painted lady butterfly travels from Africa across the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea into Europe and then retraces that journey in the fall. Because their life expectancy is so short, it takes six generations of butterflies to accomplish this migration. The butterflies avoid the extreme heat of North Africa in the summer, but they arrive in Africa just in time to feed from the flowers in the fall. Those butterflies are vital to the balance of living things in Europe.
Some of the insect migrations are very important to human food production. The marmalade hoverfly eats aphids during the larvae stage, and as adults they pollinate plants. The volume of insects is seen most clearly in the Pyrenees and Alps. Millions of hoverflies use the winds blowing through the mountain passes to get from one place to another. Scientists have been monitoring this migration because of its economic importance to agriculture in Africa and Europe. There is also a hoverfly migration in the western United States, but it has not been studied.
The size of these insect migrations is hard to comprehend, and we fail to understand the complexity of this system. Studies in the southern United Kingdom estimate that 3.5 trillion insects migrate over that area every year. Without those insect migrations, ecosystems on this planet could not exist.
A fascinating area of study is bird migration. With new technologies, scientists are gathering more bird migration data than ever before.
Arctic terns spend their summers in Alaska and migrate thousands of miles to wintering grounds in South America. Years ago researchers demonstrated that the tern didn’t get the migration information from its parents because terns raised in isolation having no contact with other terns could still make the journey. Terns deprived of visual acuity could still make the journey, so the migration was not by landmarks. The Earth’s magnetic field was not the method because terns equipped with a magnetic scrambler could still make the journey. Similar tests showed it was not by smell or by sound. The researchers concluded that the tern used several navigation tools. If one was lost, the bird would switch to another. We suggested that such a complex system was not a product of chance. It is designed into the tern’s DNA suggesting that God had something to do with the design.
In the March 2018 issue of National Geographic, there is an excellent article titled “Epic Migrations.” Scientists use new tools to collect bird migration data that enables a much more precise understanding of both short and long migrations. Nearly half of all bird species are migratory, so there are a large number of species to study, and scientists are gathering new data continuously.
The long-distance winner of migration is the bar-tailed godwit. One specimen flew 7,150 miles non-stop in eight days from its summering grounds in Alaska to its wintering grounds in New Zealand. In the weeks before migration, godwits build up enormous layers of fat adding more than half their body weight. When they arrive in New Zealand, they have lost all of the fat reserves. Because they do not glide or soar in the journey, their wings are beating all the time. On the way back to Alaska, the birds travel 6,000 miles to China near the Yellow Sea where they spend six weeks. Then they fly 4000 miles back to Alaska. Their departure time for these trips is the same from year to year, influenced only by local weather and winds. They seem to be guided by a precise clock.
Researchers have found an assortment of interesting bird migration data. Studies of frigatebirds in the Pacific show that they sleep while soaring, but only for about 12 seconds at a time for a total of 42 minutes a day. Research shows that half of the bird’s brain is asleep and the other half is awake. Other studies have shown that European starlings use the Sun as a compass and that indigo buntings use stars as a compass. European robins use an internal magnetic compass. When researchers artificially rotated the magnetic compasses by 90 degrees, the birds flew the wrong direction until the Sun came up. Then they reset their magnetic compasses using the Sun for orientation.
In the February issue of National Geographic, there is a fascinating article about what birds can do. The skills of bird brainpower include puzzle solving, using tools, studying others, vocal learning, socializing, remembering, and social playing.
These abilities are all related to the size of the forebrain compared to the total brain mass. Bird brains vary enormously. Some species such as ravens have very large brains with 80% of the brain involving the forebrain compared to a pigeon having a very small brain with only 48% in the forebrain. In some cases, birds work together pooling their bird brainpower with each having a different role. Some birds prefer certain kinds of music while others seem to show empathy.
It is important to understand that some scientific questions could be raised about the claims that the article makes. In one case, for example, when air was blown on a chick’s fathers, the mother’s heart rate increased. The investigators claimed that shows empathy. A strong wind can be dangerous to any bird. So the question is whether the mother was feeling empathy for the chick or was she concerned over the cause of the wind and what it might do to her.
The article also mentions a cockatoo who rocks in time to the Backstreet Boys tune “Everybody” and a starling who “is happiest when his owner is playing a classical movement on the piano.” The article says the starling likes Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bach. However, it doesn’t say how you measure starling happiness, or what the owner likes and repeatedly plays in the bird’s presence.
It is a fact that birds show high levels of certain kinds of intelligence, and they can do things that seem almost human-like. However, the things birds can do are not attributes which the Bible ascribes to humans. Many animals are intelligent and can learn from humans, so it is easy to see how the characteristics discussed in the article help the bird survive.
The attributes of being created in the image of God, which is how the Bible defines humans, do not involve any of the characteristics in the article. The creation of art, the creation of music, and the expression of worship are human functions. Also, the expression of the”agape” type of love which does not promote survival or have sexual connotations is a human trait. We don’t see the capacity to be sympathetic and compassionate in these interesting studies of bird brainpower.
Outside of my window in the summertime, I have a hummingbird feeder. It is a real distraction because I am just a few feet from birds that flap their wings up to 90 times a second and have a heart rate of 1200 beats per minute. As I watch them stick their beaks into the feeder, I can sometimes see their tongues. I assumed that hummingbird tongues suck up the fluid using capillary action. My friend Richard Hoyt informed me that I was over-simplifying the process and gave me an article to expose my ignorance.
The article tells of the work of Alejandro Rico-Guevara. He realized that capillary action wouldn’t work in sugar solutions above 40%, but some of the liquids consumed by hummingbirds are twice that level of concentration. Rico-Guevara has photographed hummingbird tongues as they get the nectar. Instead of drawing in the liquid, the hummingbird has tubes down the side of the tongue. When it reaches the nectar, the tongue pulls back, and those tubes zip closed carrying the nectar back into the beak.
Ornithologists still don’t understand how swallowing can take place once the nectar is in the beak. Because hummingbird tongues are so efficient, there are many uses of this process in industry. Fluid traps are the newest thing in fluid dynamics, and the Creator already had this complex device built into one of nature’s most amazing creatures. My old idea that the tongue was a capillary tube was much too limited.