12 Interesting And Lesser-known Facts About Birds

Last Updated On: July 7, 2018

Birds are some of the most intriguing and attractive species. With over tens of thousands of bird species, each has its own set of features. It would be an impossible task to list each set of characteristics of every species of these endothermic vertebrates, so I have assembled a list of some of the most fascinating, and lesser-known facts about birds.

1. Albatrosses have two long tubes along the sides of their bill that accurately measure airspeed much like the pitot tubes in the modern aircraft. This ability helps their large frame for dynamic soaring.

facts about birds: Albatrosses can measure airspeed with high accuracy.
Image credits: Photo by JJ Harrison/Wikimedia

Albatrosses are among the largest of flying birds. Furthermore, the wandering albatrosses have an average wingspan of 10 ft 2 inch,  the largest of any birds.

One would logically expect a bird of this stature to find it hard to fly. Despite this, the albatrosses have perfected the technique of dynamic soaring thanks to their bill tubes. Dynamic soaring is all about gaining energy by repeatedly passing through boundaries of air masses with velocities that differ significantly.

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These birds have two tubes that run through their large bills. It enables the albatrosses to measure airspeed with incredible accuracy. In fact, their nostrils are capable of emulating what the pitot tubes in modern aircraft do.(1,2)

2. Oil engineers utilize the American turkey vulture’s senses to detect underground pipe leaks.

The American Turkey vulture is used to detect gas leaks in broken pipes.
Image credits: Peter K Burian/Wikimedia

The American turkey vulture, usually found in North America has a great sense of smell which is unusual for birds. They primarily feed on carrion (dead flesh) and when an underground pipe leaks, the odor released from the leaked gases is similar to the vulture foods.

While the natural gas leak has no odor by itself, the engineers add the ingredient ethyl mercaptan to give the odor.  Hence, the vultures start congregating near these spots which help the engineers and workers detect some underground pipe leaks they would otherwise not be aware of immediately. Nowadays, higher technology methods are usually utilized to detect leaks, but some places still rely on the American predators.(1,2)

3. Budgies are capable of contagious yawning. They are the first and the only bird species that yawn.

Budgies can yawn, and it is contagious.
Image credits: PuppiesAreProzac/Flickr

People adore budgies for their ability to mimic their owners. However, these birds have another trick up their sleeves.

Scientists had documented yawning only in humans, chimpanzees, dogs, and few laboratory rats. Consequently, the budgerigars are the first non-mammals found capable of yawning. Not only that, when a budgie yawns, its peers are likely to follow it up with yawns – this implies that the yawning is contagious. Scientist Andrew C. Gallop explained that the yawning could have alluded to the budgies’ ability to “mimic and synchronize with the bodies of others.”(source)

4. The common poorwill is the only known bird to hibernate (“torpor”) during the winters in the USA.

facts about birds: The common poorwill is the only known bird to hibernate.
Image credits: created by Connor Long, Image Source: Connor Long/Wikipedia

A native in the western USA, the common poorwill thrives in dry and grassy regions. During the winters, they practice “torpor” for several days to weeks.

Torpor refers to the time period when a species goes into hibernation. During this phase, the species decreases its physiological activities like body temperature and metabolic rate. The poorwill hibernates by concealing itself inside a hollow log or in the grass. In fact, the Hopi Native Americans referred to them as “the sleeping one.”

Few other birds such as hummingbirds also go into torpor on cold nights. However, none bar the poorwill practice this long enough to call it hibernation.(1,2)

5. The nest of the south-east Asian bird swiftlet is principally hardened-saliva. Moreover, the nests are used to make bird’s nest soup, a delicacy in some Asian countries.

Edible-nest swiftlets make nests which serve as delicacy in China.
Image credits: Lip Kee/Flickr, cegoh/Pixabay

The Asian folk aptly dubs the swiftlets as the “edible-nest swiftlets.” In China, the nest is boiled into a gelatinous liquid and served in soups and desserts. Moreover, this has been a Chinese tradition for over 400 years.

The edible bird’s nest soup is acknowledged to have rich nutritional value as the saliva is chiefly composed of proteins and carbohydrates. Furthermore, they are deemed to improve strength and longevity in people. Also, the birds-nest is a favorite among the ladies as it is believed to flush their skin complexion and make them look younger. The birds-nest business is a booming industry in China, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to name a few.(1,2)

6. The hummingbirds are unique birds. They are small and extremely lightweight, exhibit exceptionally high metabolism rates, and possess the multi-directional flying ability.

Hummingbirds have lots of unique physiological characteristics.
Image credits: [Dan Pancamo/Flickr] via Wikimedia

The hummingbirds are some of the smallest birds. The species Bee hummingbird is the tiniest of all birds weighing less than 2 g (0.07 Oz).

Insects excepted, the hummingbirds have the highest metabolism rates of all animals. In fact, they tend to have a meal approximately every 10 minutes. Their heart rates average to around 1200 bpm during flight. Furthermore, their oxygen absorption per unit muscle weight is tenfold that of the athletes.

The name “hummingbird” stems from the evidence that they can flap their wings up to 70 times per second, creating a frequency audible to humans as a “humming” noise. Another rare ability of hummingbirds is “torpor.” These birds enter a state similar to hibernation at nights to conserve energy and protect from cold.

In addition, hummingbirds possess exceptional flying abilities. With the ability to rotate their wings in circles, these little birds can fly forwards or backward, up or down, move sideways, or even hover in the air.(1,2)

Read my list of orchid flowers that resemble animals or humans.

7. Kiwis are the only birds known to have external nostrils.

Image credits: [John Gerrard Keulemans/Buller’s “A History of the Birds of New Zealand, 1st edition. Published 1873.”] via Wikimedia

The flightless birds have external nostrils at the end of their long beaks. While their vision is weak compared to other birds, their olfactory senses make up for it. They can use their smell to locate food underground and in the litter.

However, the smell is not the only nature’s blessing to kiwis. They can also feel the vibrations with the sensory pits on their beaks which is particularly useful for knowing when the prey is around, or even under the soil. A kiwi locates its prey by rapping its beak on the ground, searching for worms underneath.(1,2)

8. Penguins protect themselves from the predators by a form of camouflaging known as countershading.

bird facts: Penguins use countershading to hide from the predators.
Image credits: Wilfried Wittkowsky/Wikimedia

Penguins face considerable threat from the predatory birds and marine mammals. While they are underwater, they use their body’s distinctive black and white colors to camouflage from both types of predators. The black head, back, and flippers help penguins blend with the dark ocean floor from the top view, a perfect way to deceive the predatory birds. On the other hand, their white bellies and undersides merge with the bright ocean surface from the bottom view.

On land too they face considerable risk, especially if they are not in the coldest regions. Slow with their feet, the penguins only flee by sliding on their bellies until they reach the ocean where they can maneuver comfortably.(1,2)

9. Toucans’ magnificent bills are surprisingly soft and serve as thermoregulators.

Toucan's enormous bills serve as heat regulators.
Image credits: Photo by FINTAOBRIEN/GoodFreePhotos

Scientists and researchers had been puzzled with the toucan’s enormous bill for over a century. After all, the bill was not sturdy enough to use as a weapon. Some believed that they were a status symbol among the toucans or they served as fruit-peelers for the birds.

However, in 2009 a scientific examination revealed that the bill serves as a heat regulator. The saffron bills accumulate the heat from their bodies and release it to their environment.

Some believe that toucans could be related to dinosaurs as the latter were blessed with regulators on their bodies in a similar fashion. However, there is no concrete evidence to prove this.(1,2,3)

10. Migratory birds that fly in a V-formation use the laws of aerodynamics to minimize air resistance and hence the energy required to fly long distances.

A group of pelicans flying in the highly efficient V-formation.
Image credits: Richard Mc Neil/Wikimedia

Many scientists have for long debated why some migratory birds that travel from one side of the world to the other use a V-formation. Furthermore, the birds exchanged positions in the formation with the “leader” changing often.

These migratory birds utilize the laws of aerodynamics. When a bird flaps its wings, the vortex of air created pushes the air directly behind the bird downwards. However, the air that is further behind and a bit on the sides get pushed upwards. These are the ideal free-lift zones where the birds fly so that they conserve energy and avoid flapping their wings as often.

The trailing birds in the V-formation are the comfortable ones using the least energy of the pack. In fact, they have the lowest heart rates during the flight. The leading bird requires more energy while leading the flight, so these birds have a group of leaders to exchange their positions time-to-time.

Moreover, theoretical simulations revealed the free-lift zones and the scientists observed that the trailing birds flew in the exact spots.(1,2)

11. The bearded vultures dye their white feathers reddish-brown using mud. These are the only known animal species to indulge in cosmetic coloration.

facts about birds: Bearded vultures like to indulge in cosmetic coloration using natural dyes.
Image credits: Tijs Michels/Wikimedia, Gellinger/Pixabay

Researchers have documented certain species of vultures that like to color their feathers using natural dyes such as mud. The National Wildlife Federation cited the notable biologist Antoni Margalida as saying “It is the only bird that utilizes cosmetics to dye its plumage.”

The exact reason for this is unknown. However, some scientists concluded that the vultures develop their dyeing habits at the age of about seven, which is the phase of adolescence in vulture years. So it is probable that these predators dye to look attractive in the society of vultures.

Observations of the experiment came out that these species use their beaks and talons to carefully smear the dyes from neck to foot. Furthermore, the researchers found that both the genders engaged in the dyeing process.(1,2)

12. The woodpeckers peck around 8,000-12,000 times per day.  Moreover, they can drill into trees at rates up to 20 strikes per second.

Woodpeckers can drill into trees 20 times per second.
Image source: DickDaniels/Caroline Birds, Image credits: Wikimedia

The woodpeckers have a unique feature of pecking into the trees which makes them distinctive. In fact, they possess strong beaks for drilling the trees. Various documentations have revealed that woodpeckers are capable of drumming at incredible rates, sometimes as high as 20 pecks per second.

Not only that, woodpeckers have cushioned brains to protect them from damages of the impact which includes getting concussions. The hyoid bone found in the necks in humans is present near the brains of woodpeckers. This bone protects the brain from suffering concussions in a similar way as a seat belt. Moreover, woodpeckers have a low brain-surface-area-to-weight ratio, allowing them to drill innumerable times without much fear of damage.(1,2)


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