National Geographic : 2018 Jan
Emperor penguins incubate their eggs in Ant- arctica in winter. Goshawks nest in the Berlin cemetery where Marlene Dietrich is buried, spar- rows in Manhattan traffic lights, swifts in sea caves, vultures on Himalayan cliffs, chaffinches in Chernobyl. The only forms of life more widely distributed than birds are microscopic. To survive in so many different habitats, the world’s 10,000 or so bird species have evolved into a spectacular diversity of forms. They range in size from the ostrich, which can reach nine feet in height and is widespread in Africa, to the aptly named bee hummingbird, found only in Cuba. Their bills can be massive (pel- icans, toucans), tiny (weebills), or as long as the rest of their body (sword-billed humming- birds). Some birds—the painted bunting in Texas, Gould’s sunbird in South Asia, the rain- bow lorikeet in Australia—are gaudier than any flower. Others come in one of the nearly infinite shades of brown that tax the vocabulary of avian taxonomists: rufous, fulvous, ferruginous, bran-colored, foxy. Birds are no less diverse behaviorally. Some are highly social, others anti. African queleas and flamingos gather in flocks of millions, and parakeets build whole parakeet cities out of sticks. Dippers walk alone and underwater, on the beds of mountain streams, and a wander- ing albatross may glide on its 10-foot wingspan 500 miles away from any other albatrosses. I’ve met friendly birds, like the New Zealand fan- tail that once followed me down a trail, and I’ve met mean ones, like the caracara in Chile that swooped down and tried to knock my head off when I stared at it too long. Roadrunners kill rattlesnakes for food by teaming up on them, one bird distracting the snake while another sneaks up behind it. Bee-eaters eat bees. Leaf- tossers toss leaves. Thick-billed murres can dive underwater to a depth of 700 feet, peregrine fal- cons downward through the air at 240 miles an hour. A wren-like rushbird can spend its entire life beside one half-acre pond, while a cerulean warbler may migrate to Peru and then find its way back to the tree in New Jersey where it nest- ed the year before. Ringed teal Callonetta leucophrys This pair of chest-bumping ringed teals (the male is at left) is native to South America. Many birds form strong pair bonds during the breeding season, but the notion that most species are sexually monogamous is out- dated. We now know from genetic tests that both males and females seek out mates other than their social partners. PHOTOGRAPHED AT SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK, SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA Birds aren’t furry and cuddly, but in many respects they’re more similar to us than other mammals are. They build intricate homes and raise families in them. They take long winter vacations in warm places. Cockatoos are shrewd thinkers, solving puzzles that would challenge a chimpanzee, and crows like to play. (On days so windy that more practical birds stay grounded, I’ve seen crows launching themselves off hill- sides and doing aerial somersaults, just for the 38 national geographic • January 2018 n Society Grant Your National Geographic Society membership helped fund this project.