Episode 381: Out of Place Birds

Thanks to Richard from NC, Pranav, and Alexandra for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

ABA Rare Bird Alert

One Reason Migrating Birds Get Lost Is Out of This World

Inside the Amazing Cross-Continent Saga of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle

A Vagrant European Robin Is Drawing Huge Crowds in China

Bird migration: When vagrants become pioneers

A red-cockaded woodpecker:

Steller’s Sea Eagle making a couple of bald eagles look small:

Steller’s sea eagle:

A whole lot of birders showed up to see a European robin that showed up in the Beijing Zoo [photo from the fourth article linked above]:

A robin:

Mandarin ducks:

Richard’s pipit [photo by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23214345]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’re talking about some birds again this week, with a slightly mysterious twist. These are birds that have shown up in places where they shouldn’t be, sometimes way way far from home! Thanks to Richard from NC for inspiring this episode and suggesting one of the birds we’re going to talk about, and thanks to Pranav for suggesting we cover more out of place animals.

Last week we talked about some woodpeckers, and I said I thought there was another listener who had suggested the topic. Well, that was Alexandra! Let’s start today’s episode talking about the red-cockaded woodpecker, another bird Alexandra suggested.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is native to the coastal southeastern United States, where it lives in pine forests. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss since the pine forests get smaller every year, and not only does it need old-growth pine forests to survive, it also needs some of the trees to be affected by red heart fungus. The fungus softens the interior wood, which is otherwise very hard, and allows a woodpecker to excavate nesting holes in various trees that can be quite large. The female lays her eggs in the best nesting hole and she and her mate raise the babies together, helped by any of their children from previous nests who don’t have a mate of their own yet. When they don’t have babies, during the day the birds forage together, but at night they each hide in their own little nesting hole to sleep.

It’s a small bird that doesn’t migrate, which is why Beth Miller, a birder in Muskegon, Michigan, couldn’t identify it when she spotted it on July 1, 2022 in some pine trees near a golf course. She took lots of photos and a recording of its calls, which she posted in a birding group to ask for help. She knew the bird had to be a rare visitor of some kind, but when it was identified as a red-cockaded woodpecker, she and nine birder friends went back to the golf course to look for it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the bird again. It was the first time a red-cockaded woodpecker had ever been identified in Michigan, although individual birds do sometimes wander widely.

While bird migration isn’t fully understood, many birds use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way to new territories and back again later in the year. Humans can’t sense magnetic fields but birds can, and being able to sense Earth’s magnetic field helps birds navigate even at night or during weather that keeps them from being able to see landmarks.

But sometimes birds get lost, especially young birds who have never migrated before or a bird that gets caught in storm winds that blow it far off course. If a bird shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range, birdwatchers refer to it as a vagrant, and some birders will travel great distances to see vagrant birds.

One interesting note is that birds navigating by the earth’s magnetic field can get confused if the magnetic field is disrupted by geomagnetic storms, including solar flares, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections. Very recently as this episode goes live, the aurora has been occasionally visible across much of the world. The aurora is caused by charged particles from the sun reaching Earth’s atmosphere, causing a colorful glow or shimmer in the night sky, and it’s usually only visible at or near the poles. This month it was visible in places far away from the poles. Fortunately, a really strong geomagnetic storm like the ones this month can actually make it easier for birds to migrate. Instead of getting a scrambled sense of the earth’s magnetic field, a strong geomagnetic storm can temporarily knock out a bird’s ability to sense the magnetic field at all, and that means it uses landmarks, the position of the stars and sun, and other methods to find its way.

Sometimes a bird just flies the wrong way, like the Steller’s sea eagle that showed up in Alaska at the end of August 2020. Steller’s sea eagle is native to the coast of northeastern Asia and is increasingly threatened due to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, poaching, and overfishing, a real problem if you’re an eagle that eats a whole lot of fish. Only about 4,000 of the birds remain in the wild. It’s a huge eagle, one of the biggest in the world, with a big female having a wingspan over 8 feet across, or almost 2.5 meters. Some unverified reports indicate birds with a wingspan over 9 feet across, or 2.8 meters. It has a huge yellow bill and feet, and is black and white in color. It’s related to the bald eagle but is larger and heavier, and its head is black instead of white.

To an eagle as big as Steller’s sea eagle, the distance between the eastern coast of Russia and the western coast of Alaska is very small, so it’s not all that unusual for birders to see one in Alaska. The difference in 2020 is that the bird was far inland, not on the coast. Then, several months later, a Steller’s sea eagle was reported in Texas. Texas! Very far away from Alaska and the northeastern Asian coast.

No one could definitively say if the Texas bird was the same one seen in Alaska, but a few weeks before there had been a massive storm that could have blown the eagle to San Antonio. It was the first time a wild Steller’s sea eagle had been spotted in Texas.

But the bird wasn’t done traveling. In late June 2021, a ranger in eastern Canada spotted the sea eagle. It was seen by multiple birders and photographers, some of whom got pictures good enough to compare to the Alaska photos from the year before, and it was the same bird! A few months later it was spotted in Nova Scotia, Canada, and in mid-December 2021 it arrived in southern Massachusetts in the United States for a few days. By the end of 2021 it was in Maine.

Since then the eagle appears to divide its time between Maine in the northeastern United States and Newfoundland, Canada, not too far away.

Richard from NC suggested that sightings of Steller’s sea eagle might explain the mystery of Washington’s eagle. I go into detail about Washington’s eagle in the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. There is a rare color morph of Steller’s sea eagle that is almost all black, which matches Audubon’s painting of Washington’s eagle, but Steller’s sea eagle always has a yellow bill, not a dark one as Audubon painted. Still, it’s a very interesting theory that matches a lot better than the theory that Washington’s eagle is just a big juvenile bald eagle.

Eagles are spectacular birds, but even an ordinary bird turns into a celebrity when it shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range. That’s what happened to a European robin at the beginning of 2019. We talked about the European robin back in episode 333. It’s a common bird throughout much of Europe and parts of Asia, but it’s only been documented in Beijing, China three times. The third time was when one showed up in the Beijing Zoo in 2019, at least 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km, away from its usual range. Birdwatching is an increasingly popular hobby in China, and hundreds of birders showed up at the zoo not to see the animals it has on display but to see a little robin that someone in England would barely glance at.

A few months before that, on the other side of the planet, a Mandarin duck showed up in Central Park in New York City. Birders showed up soon after to look at it. The Mandarin duck is a beautiful bird related to the wood duck native to North America, but it’s native to China and other parts of east Asia. The male has a red bill, rusty red face with white markings, and purplish feathers on his sides, while the female is softer and more muted in color. Both males and females have a purplish crest and the male also has a reddish crest on both of his wings that sticks up like a sail when his wings are folded.

In other words, the male in particular is a spectacular duck, and the duck that showed up at Central Park was a male in full breeding plumage, looking his best. Since Mandarin ducks are so attractive and increasingly threatened in the wild, many zoos and private owners keep them, and the Central Park duck did have a band on his leg that indicates he might have been an escaped bird. But no one ever claimed him and in March of 2019 he flew off for good.

Vagrant birds show up in weird places all the time, especially in spring and fall when most migratory birds are on the move. Sometimes a vagrant bird returns to the mistaken area in following years, brings its mate and offspring, and essentially founds a new migratory route. This is what scientists think has happened with several species of songbird that breed in Siberia and migrate to southeast Asia for the winter.

Richard’s pipit is a medium-sized songbird with long legs, a long tail, and a relatively long bill. It’s mainly brown and black, with lighter underparts. It looks like a stretched-out sparrow. It migrates to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and a few other parts of central Asia to nest during the summer, and flies back to India and other parts of southeast Asia to spend the winter. But a small population flies west instead of south and spends the winter in Spain, Italy, and surrounding areas instead of in India.

For a long time scientists thought the birds seen in Europe were just lost. They’re still quite rare in Europe compared to their high population in Asia. Then a team of scientists caught 81 of the birds, installed leg-bands on all of them and GPS loggers on seven of them, and released them again. The birds migrated north to breed, then returned to Europe instead of Asia to spend the winter, where some were caught again and their leg-bands recorded. So just remember that when a bird shows up where it’s not expected, it might not be as lost as people think.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 380: Woodpeckers

Thanks to Joel and Mary for suggesting some really interesting woodpeckers this week!

Further watching:

Rare woodpecker thought extinct spotted in Ohio

The green woodpecker really likes to eat ants [picture by Remyymer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65008314]:

The white-headed woodpecker looks like its face got splashed with paint:

The red-headed woodpecker has the prettiest shade of red [picture by colleen – originally posted to Flickr as Red Headed Woodpecker, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639146]:

The acorn woodpecker looks like it got its face splashed with white paint and then dipped its beak in black paint [picture by Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136903489]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to talk about a type of bird that several people have suggested, the woodpecker! Thanks to Joel and Mary for their suggestions, and I could swear someone else suggested woodpeckers a while back. If that was you, thank you and I’m sorry I didn’t write it down!

It’s funny that we haven’t talked about woodpeckers very often, because they are definitely strange animals. How many animals use their head to hammer holes in wood? The woodpecker has a strong, heavy bill that it uses to drill holes in trees to find hidden insects and other invertebrates. A lot of insects dig little burrows in wood, and the woodpecker hammers away at the wood until it exposes the burrow. Then it has to get the insect or grub out of the burrow without it getting away, so it has a long, sticky tongue with barbs at the end. It can stick its tongue into the burrow and use it to drag the insect out and eat it.

When I say woodpeckers have long tongues, I mean their tongues are way longer than you think. The woodpecker’s skull contains a special cavity that wraps all the way around the brain and back down to the right nostril, and this cavity is where the main part of the tongue is when the woodpecker isn’t actually using it. It also helps cushion the brain and keep it from moving too much while the woodpecker is pecking. The skull itself is lined with spongy bone to soften impacts too.

The woodpecker also has a lot of other adaptations to using its entire head like a hammer. To protect its eyes from debris and pressure damage, it has a thick membrane that it uses to cover the eye, like built-in safety goggles. It has tiny, tough feathers that protect the nostrils from debris, and its nostrils are usually very small and thin too. Even its skin is thicker than that of most birds.

Woodpeckers have weird feet too. Almost all species have four toes, two that point forward, two that point backward. This arrangement is called zygodactyly, and it’s a trait also found in parrots and some other birds, and in chameleons. It allows the woodpecker to climb trees and branches securely and easily. The woodpecker also has a relatively short tail with stiff feathers that it uses to prop itself up against a tree trunk while hammering.

The woodpecker doesn’t just use its hammering ability to find food. It also hammers to communicate with other woodpeckers, the same way other birds use song. Each species has its own pattern of drumming, and the sound can attract a mate or tell rivals that this territory is already taken. When it’s communicating, the woodpecker will drum on different surfaces than when it’s just looking for food. This might be a hollow tree that amplifies the sound, or even an artificial surface. The first time I observed this as a birdwatcher was when I noticed a red-breasted woodpecker hammering repeatedly on a metal light post.

Woodpeckers do make ordinary sounds, though. Mary suggested the European green woodpecker and pointed out that its old name is yaffle, which mimics its call. This is what the green woodpecker sounds like:

[green woodpecker call]

Birders still refer to the sound as yaffling, which is the funniest word I’ve said all day.

The green woodpecker is native to much of Europe and parts of Asia. It has a bright red head and a black mask on its face, and its body is mostly an olive green color with a yellow rump patch. It’s a large bird, with a wingspan up to 20 inches across, or 51 cm. It especially likes to eat ants and spends most of its time on the ground looking for them. When it finds an ant nest, it will use its bill to open the nest up and then it licks up all the yummy ants and larvae with its long sticky tongue. As an example of how long a woodpecker’s tongue is, the green woodpecker has a tongue 4 inches long, or 10 cm, while its entire body is 14 inches long, or 36 cm.

Unlike most woodpeckers, the green woodpecker doesn’t do a lot of drumming or woodpecking. When it does, it’s mostly on very soft or rotten wood, and it’s probably not looking for food but excavating a nest hole to lay eggs in. Its favorite habitat is open woodland, since it can nest and hide in the trees but find lots of ants on the ground.

Joel suggested we learn about the white-headed woodpecker. I’d never heard of that one before, probably because it only lives in mountainous pine forests in parts of the Pacific northwest of Canada and the United States. It’s a glossy black in color with a mostly white head and a streak of bright white on its wings. Males have a red head patch too. It mostly eats pine seeds, which are found in pine cones. The seeds are quite large and the white-headed woodpecker is relatively small, only about 9 inches long, or 23 cm.

It will take a pine seed, wedge it into a crevice in a tree, and break it into bite-sized pieces by hammering it. It also eats insects, but it mainly finds them under the bark of trees, and it will sometimes peck little holes into tree trunks and eat the sap that oozes out. Unlike pretty much every woodpecker known, the white-headed woodpecker’s tongue isn’t especially long, probably because it doesn’t need a long tongue to find pine seeds.

This is what the white-headed woodpecker sounds like:

[white-headed woodpecker call]

One of my favorite birds is the red-headed woodpecker, which has a vibrantly red head and a black and white body that almost looks checkered. It’s native to North America and lives year-round in much of the eastern and central United States, but for some reason it took me years as a birdwatcher before I saw one for the first time. I didn’t know just how beautiful it really is until I saw one in person. Red is my favorite color, and the red-headed woodpecker’s red head is my exact favorite shade of red.

The red-headed woodpecker is about the size of the white-headed woodpecker, or a little larger. It eats lots of insects but will also eat seeds, berries and other fruit, and even the eggs of other birds. It sometimes catches insects on the wing. It’s also one of only a few species of woodpecker that stores food, hiding it in crevices in trees or under the shingles of people’s houses. Occasionally when it catches too many grasshoppers to eat, it will wedge the living grasshoppers in crevices so tightly that the insect is stuck there until the bird comes back when it’s hungry. That’s disturbing.

Another bird that caches food is the acorn woodpecker, which lives in parts of southwestern North America down through Central America. It’s mostly black with white patches on the face and black and white streaks underneath. Males have a red patch on the back of the head too. As you probably guessed from its name, it eats a lot of acorns along with insects, fruit, and tree sap. Because acorns are seasonal foods, only available in the fall, the acorn woodpecker stores acorns to eat later in the year. It hides the acorns in holes and crevices, often pecking little holes in a tree specifically for storage, but as the acorns dry out they take up less space. The bird spends a lot of time throughout the year moving its acorns to better hiding spaces.

The acorn woodpecker lives in small flocks of up to about a dozen or 15 birds. All birds in the flock help raise any babies, and in years where there aren’t very many acorns, only a few of the females in the group will lay eggs. In years where there are lots of acorns, all of the females will usually lay eggs. They all lay their eggs in the same nesting cavity and the babies are raised together.

So why do so many woodpeckers have such bright colors and markings? Many are black and white, often with red or yellow markings on the head or neck. They look conspicuous to us, but the black and white patterning blends in with the pattern of light and shadow under trees. The bright spots of color help attract mates, since a bird with brightly colored feathers shows other birds that they’re healthy. In many species, only the male has a red patch, or the female’s red patch may be smaller than the male’s.

Way back in episode 9 we talked about the ivory-billed woodpecker and some of its close relations. The ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct but possible sightings and audio recordings indicate it may still be alive in remote areas of the southeastern United States. Most recently, video footage of a bird spotted in Ohio has the controversy starting up again. I’ve linked to the video in the show notes. The bird in the video is probably just the very similar-looking pileated woodpecker, but the light isn’t good so it’s hard to tell for sure. It’s just barely possible it might actually be an ivory-billed woodpecker. Let’s hope it is an ivory-billed.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 379: Animals That Inspired Pokemon

Thanks to Pranav, Isaac, and an anonymous listener for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some animals that inspired three Pokemon.

Sandshrew:

Possible Sandshrew inspirations:

Drowzee:

Possible Drowzee inspiration:

Fennekin:

Undoubted Fennekin inspiration:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to do something slightly different. At least two people and probably a lot more have suggested that we talk about some animals that were the inspiration for Pokemon, so I picked three that you might not know about. Thanks to Pranav and Isaac for their suggestions, and if you suggested the same topic at some point and I didn’t write it down, thank you too! Thanks also to an anonymous listener who suggested three of the animals we’ll talk about in this episode. I didn’t intend to cover three animals suggested by the same listener but it worked out that way, which is kind of neat.

Some of you may not be familiar with what Pokemon are. The word is a shortened version of the term “pocket monsters,” and it started as a video game where players catch various monsters and store them in little round cages called pokeballs. A lot of Pokemon are so cute you can’t really call them monsters, but they all have different abilities and can evolve into even more powerful versions with enough training. My only real experience with Pokemon is the game Pokemon Go that came out in 2016, although I don’t play it anymore, but the franchise has had multiple games, including a trading card game that is still really popular, TV shows, movies, and of course lots of toys.

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out what animal inspired a Pokemon. Rhyhorn obviously looks like a rhinoceros, Magikarp looks like a goldfish, and so on. But sometimes it’s not so obvious. Let’s start with Sandshrew.

Sandshrew is a sandy-brown color on its back with a lighter belly and muzzle, and prominent claws. Its tail is big and its ears are small. It’s covered with armor plates, and in some versions of Sandshrew, most notably the Pokemon TV show, it can curl up into a ball. What does that remind you of?

Some of you just said “armadillo” and others of you just said “pangolin.” Both were suggested a while back by an anonymous listener. The two animals aren’t related but they do share some physical similarities, like armored bodies and the ability to curl up into a ball to make their armor even more effective.

We talked about the pangolin in episode 65, about animals that eat ants. The pangolin is related to anteaters, and is sometimes even called the scaly anteater, but it’s not closely related to the armadillo. Their similarities are mainly due to convergent evolution.

The pangolin is a mammal, but it’s covered in scales except for its belly and face. The scales are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up fingernails, hair, hooves, and other hard parts in mammals. When it’s threatened, it rolls up into a ball with its tail over its face, and the sharp-edged, overlapping scales protect it from being bitten or clawed. It has a long, thick tail, short, strong legs with claws, a small head, and very small ears. Its muzzle is long with a nose pad at the end, it has a long sticky tongue, and it has no teeth. It’s nocturnal and lives in burrows, and it uses its big front claws to dig into termite mounds and ant colonies. It has poor vision but a good sense of smell. It’s a good fit for Sandshrew and some species are even the same color as Sandshrew. It lives in southern Asia and much of sub-Sahara Africa, and all species are critically endangered.

Meanwhile, the armadillo is also a mammal that’s covered in armor except for its belly, but its armor is much different from the pangolin’s scales. The armor is made up of bands of hardened, bone-like skin covered with scutes, which are tiny flattened knobs of keratin. Ordinary skin connects the bands so that the animal can move around more easily. Some species roll up when threatened, but others rarely do. Instead they just run into the most thorny, prickly plants they can find. The armadillo’s armor protects it from being hurt by the thorns. Like the pangolin, it has sharp claws and can dig well to get at termites and other invertebrates, and like the pangolin it has poor eyesight but a good sense of smell. Its ears are small, its legs are short, and its tail is long but not as thick as the pangolin’s. Most species are grayish, pinkish, or brownish. It looks less like Sandshrew than the pangolin does, but it might have contributed to Sandshrew’s appearance and habits.

The armadillo lives in the Americas, mostly in South America but also Central and parts of North America. Many species are endangered.

Whichever animal you think inspired Sandshrew, I think we can agree that Sandshrew doesn’t have anything to do with actual shrews.

Our next Pokemon is Drowzee. Drowzee is a chonky, strong-looking monster who looks like it’s wearing gray pants but otherwise has ochre yellow skin. Its nose is drawn out into a short proboscis like a miniature elephant trunk, and it has three pointy toes on its hands and what look like cloven hooves on its feet. It doesn’t have a tail.

Drowzee is inspired by the tapir, probably the Asian tapir. The other tapirs alive today live in South and Central America, but the Asian tapir lives in lowland rainforests in parts of south Asia. It’s mostly white or pale gray with black or dark gray forequarters and legs. It’s also the largest species of tapir alive today, standing more than 3 and a half feet tall at the back, or 110 cm. Like other tapirs, it spends a lot of time in water, eating plants and staying cool.

The tapir looks kind of like a pig but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a large nail that looks like a little hoof. It also has a rounded body with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk called a proboscis. It uses its proboscis to gather plants, and it can even use it as a snorkel when it’s underwater.

The Asian tapir isn’t a perfect match for Drowzee, but its two-part coloration and short proboscis are pretty close. As far as I know, the Asian tapir doesn’t make you fall asleep and then eat your dreams like Drowzee is supposed to do, but that’s an aspect of a monster in Japanese folklore. The baku is supposed to eat nightmares and traditionally it’s often described as being black and white like a panda, but often with tapir-like traits.

Our last Pokemon today is Fennekin, who is based on the fennec fox, also a suggestion by an anonymous listener. Fennekin is yellow-brown in color with white on its face, a red-orange tip to its tail and red-orange tufts in its gigantic ears.

The fennec fox lives in northern Africa and parts of Asia. Its fur is a pale sandy color with a black tip to the tail. Its eyes are dark and its ears are large. It stands only about 8 inches tall at the shoulder, or 20 cm, but its ears can be six inches long, or 15 cm. It eats rodents, birds and their eggs, insects, and other small animals, as well as fruit. It can jump really far, some four feet in one bound, or 120 cm. Because it lives in desert areas, it rarely needs to drink water. It gets most of its water through the food it eats, and researchers think it may also lap dew that gathers in the burrow where it spends the day.

Fennekin is a fire Pokemon, appropriate since it’s based on a desert animal. It’s also extra adorable, and so is the fennec fox.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!