Art Imitates Life – As Does Technology?

Many of us have heard the famous idea that ‘art imitates life, and life imitates art’. And this is true in many ways. But this is not just true of art – for we see this in science and technology as well! As society becomes more advanced, we often look to nature, with its patterns and perfection, to inspire our next innovations. But where can we see this?

Today, we will look at a bird that we have talked about in the past – the kingfisher. We have talked about its beauty and colors, its similarity to birds like woodpeckers and hoopoes, and the process of identifying them. But today, we are looking at something that has had a fascinating and significant influence on technology – their diving patterns.

White-Throated Kingfisher in flight (Kabini, Karnataka, India), January 2019

This particular story begins in the 1990s in Japan. The Tokaido Shinkansen is one of the world’s most developed bullet train lines, connecting Japanese cities Osaka and Fukuoka over a 322-mile railway line. After attending an ornithology conference in 1990, the railway’s lead engineer, Eiji Nakatsu realized that he could actually use behavior in birds to improve the speed and efficiency of his trains. He also realized that he could streamline their patterns such that issues like sonic booms would not be as severe.

In particular, Nakatsu was drawn towards the Kingfisher. What he noticed was that kingfishers’ behavior of diving into the water when fishing, created little to no splash. This was in contrast to birds like pelicans and eagles, whose aggressive diving technique would instantly create a lot of motion. However, Kingfishers’ unique anatomy – in particular, their long, thin beaks – allow them to penetrate the water like bullets, with little to no disturbance!

Pied Kingfisher (Kabini, Karnataka, India), January 2019

Observe this Pied Kingfisher. The beak is shaped almost like a dagger – it starts normally, but as you go down further, it becomes thinner and thinner. Perhaps this is even more obvious in the bird below, a Blue-Eared Kingfisher. All of these have the same sharp beak, and the same hunting advantage.

Blue-Eared Kingfisher (Kabini, Karnataka, India), January 2019

You may even remember how we discussed the similarities between Woodpeckers and Kingfishers in an earlier post. This is just another of those similarities! This Northern Flicker, for example, has a similar beak pattern – but in this case, it is more useful for drilling holes in trees.

Northern Flicker (Fremont, CA), August 2020

So how could this be used to improve bullet trains? Well, what Nakatsu and his team discovered was that they could redesign the fronts of their Shinkansen trains, to give them a “beak-like” nose. This would increase their speed and prevent them from creating too many ‘splashes’ through the air, thereby reducing the levels of sound interference. Eventually, they were able to create a model that looked like this:

Image of Shinkansen Bullet Train (Kevin San, “Shinkansen 500-series takes a final bow“,

Can you see the similarity? The same pattern of starting with a stocky back, then bridging downwards into a sharp, beaklike nose which can penetrate either air or water with very little interference. This model proved successful, and Nakatsu’s Shinkansens were able to greatly improve their functionality.

How fascinating it is when these disciplines interlock! Ornithology and engineering, physics and biology – and the results they create are truly incredible. I can’t wait to see our next nature-inspired invention. I’d love to hear about other ways that birds have helped to inspire our technology – go ahead and comment them below!





My Process of Identifying A Bird

In recent posts, I have talked a lot about looking at distinctions between different birds, or interesting characteristics exhibited across species. However, there is a key question here that needs to be answered before we get there – how does one go about identifying birds? 

Seeing birds while birding is almost never as straightforward as seeing them in images or books – factors like distance, movement and lighting all make identification much harder – but I find that by preparing myself with the right information and techniques, the identification process becomes much easier!

Let’s look at examples of some experiences I have had, while birding in the field. We will look through my thought process between sighting, preparation and identification.

Seeing The Bird

I talked a bit about how identifying birds can be hard because of how fleeting their appearances sometimes are. But before we even get to identification – even spotting the bird in the first place can be very difficult! It’s perfectly normal to ignore the Common Raven flying above your head when you’re crossing the street. But even when I’m actively birding, I find that unless I am really in the birdwatching mindset, I often miss birds around me.

Great Blue Heron (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

So what is that mindset? Well, take a look at this image for just a second. What do you see? I, for example, can see mountains, dry grass, dead shrubs and the sky in the background.

Take a second look, though. Is there something among those shrubs? Yes! In fact, that’s a Great Blue Heron, one of the most recognizable birds in the United States. Here’s a closer look (a different image, but the same bird):

Great Blue Heron (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

But how do you make sure you are properly seeing the birds around you? My advice would be to take a longer look than normal. By this, I mean you shouldn’t be scanning the surroundings briefly. Of course, this can sometimes work – if there’s a Turkey Vulture circling directly above you, a cursory look should do it. But if you want to spot every bird around you, even distant characters like the Heron, you have to be willing to put in those few extra seconds.

Turkey Vulture (Sunol, CA) – September 2020

Don’t overthink it, though! Unless you are in an area where you know a bird is staying, or will visit, it isn’t that practical to stay there for hours on end. For example, if you are just hiking for fun, there is no guarantee that a Golden Eagle will show up in front of you. So be willing to look around the same place for a few minutes, but if you don’t see anything, be willing to keep going!

Actually Identifying The Bird

Now you’ve got an idea of how to make sure you can see birds. But that’s not much help on its own, is it? Being able to say “oh look, a bird!” isn’t going to get you that many points unless you’re at an optometrist checkup.

In some cases, we get lucky. With the Great Blue Heron, for example, it took a little more effort to find it, but once we saw it, we knew immediately what it was. It’s just so distinctive – the blue color, the size, the long neck, the skinny legs – the list goes on. With the Turkey Vulture, it was close to us, so we could see it immediately. And it has that distinctive Red Head and the black-grey wings – two very distinctive features.

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

But what about a bird like this one? It’s not too far away, and it’s fluttering in the air. The human eye is drawn to motion, so we can immediately see it. But what now? It is dull grey and brown, with some markings on the wings. How can we identify it?

This is probably one of the hardest parts of birding – and the part that takes place before you pick up your binoculars and get into your hiking boots. You have to familiarize yourself with the birds you’re going to be looking for. And really, each birder has their own technique for this.

I personally like to be as clear as I can about a bird’s appearance before I am actively birding. As most birders do, I like to look at as many photos of birds as I can – this can be online, from books, or from my own photos. From this, I build a visual profile of the bird in my mind – its main colors, its size, features like wing shape, where I can commonly find it, and a few key distinguishing qualities. I try to create as general an image of this bird as I can – that way, I can identify it from multiple angles and distances, and I don’t become restricted to only certain perspectives.

So back to the bird at hand! If I’m looking through a field guide, old photos, or the internet to prepare before a bird hike, I might see an image like this:

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

This bird has some distinctive markings! A long, forked tail, a reddish breast, a slight crest, songbird size. With the background knowledge I have, I can assume that this bird belongs in the flycatcher family – I get this from the songbird size and the forked tail. I also happen to be a bit lucky with the fact that there aren’t too many flycatchers on the West Coast – most of them being Phoebes, a part of the Tyrant Flycatcher family. And my Field Guide can affirm to me that this bird is a Say’s Phoebe

But how does this help? Well, I’ve now got a nice imprint of the Say’s Phoebe in my mind – a list of distinctive characteristics, a set of prominent colors – brown, black, grey and rufous – a size, a habitat, and a name. Now I’m back in front of the small songbird fluttering around. Let’s try to take a closer look:

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

At this point, I’m still a bit lost. I know it’s a songbird, given the size. And I can rule out birds like the Chestnut-Backed Chickadee (wrong body shape and coloring), Bewick’s Wren (wrong habitat) or Northern Cardinal (Wrong coloring, shape, range and habitat). But trial and error isn’t really going to help, given the sheer number of birds I’d have to iterate through in my mind. So the best tactic here, I’d say, is to try and get a better angle. If the bird is stationary, try to move around it! In this case, just wait for it to change its fluttering position.

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

Now, this is something I can work with! I can see some features – the slight crest, a shape on the tail and the slight fork inside it, and the rufous breast. My mind is now going back to the bird profiles I built up in my mind, trying to find a match for these features. Forked tail, rufous breast, California, mountains? This must be a Say’s Phoebe!

Do you see what we did there? By building up those ranked profiles of birds, we can use those in the field, coupled with our visual skills, to make these quick identifications!

Identification Tool – FindYourBird

Here’s a tool I’ve built that could help you develop your own identification skills! FindYourBird is targeted at amateurs primarily around the Bay Area, and its identification feature requires that you enter information you spot – size, color, location, and so on. By telling the site what you noticed in the bird, you tell yourself the same thing. And soon, you’ll find that you have built multiple new bird profiles in your mind!

Read a bit more about it under the FindYourBird section, or access it directly over here.

I hope that this helps you! Trust me, once you are in the field birding, nothing beats the thrill of being able to see a speck in the distance and shout out “Look! A White-Tailed Kite!” Hopefully you can make some use out of FindYourBird as well. All the best for your birding adventures, and I’ll see you in the next post!

What Makes Bird Nests Different?

In an earlier article, we had looked at the process of birds building their nests – with the specific example of two Northern Mockingbirds over the 2021 Winter-Spring. But as I have found time and again, nothing is ever the same for all birds – and the same applies to nests! Every group of bird species has their own way of building nests. But just why is that?

This summer, I was biking near a school in my neighborhood, and I happened to notice a large number of curved-winged birds circling around a large grass field on the playground. A closer look, and a glance at the iridescent blue wings and orange undersides, showed me that they were Barn Swallows. I often see swallows flying around near-coastal areas and open grassy spaces, so it wasn’t that strange of a sight. However, I decided to look around and see if I could find any of them perching.

After about five minutes, I found that most of the adults were repeatedly flying under the school’s rafters. Looking under there, I found an amazing sight – a full colony of swallow nests, with parents roosting on some, and fledglings poking up their heads!

What I noticed, though, was that these nests were unlike the stereotypical “nest” image, the one often associated with songbirds. I recently posted an article where I talked about the shape of a Northern Mockingbird’s nest, which is primarily built with twigs. However, take a closer look at the swallows’ nests.

Close-Up of one Barn Swallow’s mud nest (Fremont, CA, August 2020)

These nests are typically constructed with much looser materials – a mud basing, and tools such as grass or rocks to provide structure. As the image shows, this nest is built out of mud! And swallows aren’t the only birds who build their nests this way! Black Phoebes, for example, often use mud for their nests as well! Similarly to many swallows, they are often found nesting in building rafters.

The variety doesn’t stop here – for example, birds like Gyrfalcons often build their nests on rocky cliff ledges. Orioles often create hanging, hammock-like nests which protect them from predators. Horned Larks often create nests on the ground.

So why do birds take on these different strategies when building their nests? A lot comes down to other characteristics of each bird. After all, the range of different species – from songbirds to raptors to waterfowl – causes variety in everything from diet to habitat to body size. And all of these end up influencing the way the bird nests.

For example, Horned Larks, as I mentioned earlier, typically nest on the ground. Although the exact reason why is not known, their habitat, diet and behavior sheds some light on this. As a species that typically lives in open areas like plains or mountains, it is often found foraging for insects and seeds along the ground. As a result, they typically do not need to fly high, and so it makes more sense to nest along the ground. 

Likewise, orioles are commonly found flying around trees, and very rarely along the ground. Additionally, they have plenty of predators, and are easy targets due to their bright coloring. As a result, their nests need to be doubly secure, and so they often build them high up in trees, constructed as tightly-wound hammocks that are hard to attack.

Female Baltimore Oriole constructing a nest (Citation:, William Leaman/Alamy)

Every species of bird is different, and so too is its nest. And as we have seen, all of its characteristics come into play when a bird has to decide on its nest. Next time you see a nest and wonder “which bird built this?”, think a little bit about your surroundings – are you in a forest? Near the ocean? In an open plain? What sort of birds would live here? What sort of food would be common for them? With this mindset, seeing a nest becomes more than an identification game – it becomes a journey into the bird’s entire mindset.



To Raise A Mockingbird – Chronicles of a Mockingbird’s Nest Building

The process of a bird’s development into adulthood is a fascinating story. But one story which often gets overlooked is just how parents build the nests that hold their eggs. You have probably seen nests of many different birds, with or without eggs in them. But have you ever had the chance to observe parent birds working towards building the nest?

This spring, I observed two mockingbirds in different locations around my neighborhood as they collected the materials necessary to build their nest. At first, it was not apparent what they were doing, but the repeated activity eventually revealed that they were building a nest.

Male Northern Mockingbird (Fremont, CA) – February 2021

This was the first time I spotted one of these mockingbirds. The male was on top of my neighbor’s chimney, and carrying a twig. I did not think too much of it at the moment, but what I noticed was that this same bird seemed to be repeating the action over some time, and repeatedly carrying the twigs to a different location.

Female Northern Mockingbird (Fremont, CA) – February 2021

The next day, I spotted another mockingbird in the same location. It appeared to be a female, as it was slightly smaller. I again saw the male carrying juniper twigs, but the female almost appeared to be guarding the location at the chimney while the male collected material.

I was hoping to find the place where the mockingbirds had started to build their nest. It was dark by that time, so I did not expect that I would have that much luck, but the next day, I followed the female mockingbird out, and struck gold.

Female Northern Mockingbird alongside nest (Fremont, CA) – February 2021

Through the branches of the tree, I spotted the female mockingbird alongside the pile of twigs, now turned into a full nest. Although unable to get any closer, this made me want to learn more about the ways in which mockingbirds build their nests. I found some fascinating information about how mockingbirds cooperate as they build their nests, which helps to explain the behavior I observed.

Males typically build nests at many different locations before the female decides on one. It seemed strange that they would feel the need to put in this extra effort – after all, each new nest means more time and resources. However, after looking a little further, I learned that there are a few specific reasons for this. Apart from the obvious reasons of looking to optimize food sources and reduce predators, it is also a subconscious way of expanding their breeding territory, sending a message to other mockingbirds.

Like many other large songbirds, mockingbirds build their nests out of twigs, leaves and other such materials, nesting in lower trees. This explains both the twigs that the male was collecting, and why the nest was so low in the tree. Since the female was not actually in the nest in the photos I got, it is likely that, rather than incubating her own eggs, she was observing the nest as one of several different options.

This concludes my take on the story of how birds bring life into this world. In the same way that we observe how birds collect food to feed themselves and their young, it is fascinating to observe how they collect material to construct homes for themselves and their young, and how different species adapt these methods. Keep an eye out for pairs of mockingbirds working together to build their own nests, and comment any observations in their behavior that you notice!

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Could An Advance-Warning System Predict the Next Zoonotic Pandemic?

When I was 6 or 7, my initial interest in birds lay in sorting them by their characteristics – size, color, behaviors. Later on, the thrill was in discovering new exotic species in my birding books – imagining that giant condors and eagles that inhabited the tops of the eucalyptus trees in our neighborhood. More recently, in my high school years, my interest has moved to questions of “why” or “how” – as I explored in an earlier episode, how the iridescence we see in the hummingbird’s gorgets can be applied to camera lens technology, or how the relationship between woodpeckers could indicate new ancestor species.

I recently participated in a science writing contest. The following post is a bit different from what I have done in the past – it is a research hypothesis that explores using statistical analytical tools to develop a warning system to predict high risk zoonotic viruses. Articles in the Economist and Bloomberg BusinessWeek have referenced similar research efforts underway in labs and institutions worldwide. This research serves as a way for me to combine my interests in ornithology and statistics, and to see how I might apply it to solving a real-world problem!


Several pandemics have been zoonotic – involving animal-transmitted viruses. These animal carriers have exhibited some common features, forming a repetitive data pattern. This study uses past data to predict the future – by analyzing data about past animal transmitters, we can hypothesize about at-risk animal populations.

There have been multiple instances of zoonotic pandemics including COVID-19, Swine Flu, Ebola, MERS and Avian Flu. In each case, some animal attributes were causative and  increased the animal’s likeliness to cause a pandemic. This data can be utilized in a statistical model.

The first step in the study is to identify a set of variables – animal traits most relevant to causing a pandemic. These variables should be causative, unique and measurable. Key variables include numerical values such as population density and population, boolean values such as domestication, and categorical values such as diet type. Other relevant variables could be known pathogen-host (boolean), hibernation pattern (categorical) and range (categorical). However, traits such as plumage and nesting structure would not be as relevant. The matrix below illustrates hypothetical data of two pandemic animals.

Table of data on animal species

Next, we can use data reduction techniques to remove irrelevant and confounding variables. A principal component analysis would yield variables with the highest r2 when compared to the y-value, eliminating the list to only the most relevant data. 

The best predictive model would be a binary logistic regression, which uses numerical, categorical and boolean data to estimate the probability of how likely a given animal is to cause a pandemic. Before creating the model, we must standardize the data. Numerical data such as population is left unchanged, while categorical data is represented with dummy binary values. Boolean values such as domestication can be expressed as 0 or 1, as can categorical data such as  diet type.

Computer software like MATLAB can then create a logistic regression that will estimate each animal’s risk level. Applied to a large collection of species, it chooses the likeliest candidates, allowing scientists to monitor only the top few. Data collected about current animals might resemble this:

Table of analyzed data

This data shows that Rock Doves have characteristics of a potential pandemic animal – high values for population density and human consumption, and truth values for human consumption and human domestication. Similarly, the Common Raven has a high value for population density and a truth value for omnivore. The regression uses this data to estimate the probabilities for both animals. 

Could applying this research have a difference? If a model like this can be designed, governments and scientists could target research and monitor resources more effectively, roll out preventive measures faster.  Predicting which animals could cause the next zoonotic pandemic could greatly reduce the risk of a similar pandemic in the future.



Woodpeckers, Hoopoes, Flickers – Are They Linked?

Birding often evokes a sense of déjà vu – we see birds across different geographies and zoological families, but they so remind us of each other!

One of these cases was when I was on safari in India, and I spotted a small bird in  a thicket of grass. I recognized it as a Hoopoe, a ground-dwelling bird with an elegant crown of feathers often found in Africa and Eurasia. Some of the features I observed when I first saw it were its crest, sharp bill, the striping on its back and wings, and the fact that it was foraging along the ground.

Hoopoe (Kabini, Karnataka, India) – January 2019

These reminded me of some of the birds I had seen in the United States – specifically, most woodpeckers and flickers.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Fremont, California) – August 2020

This is a female Nuttall’s Woodpecker that I observed near my home in Fremont, California. It looks like a conventional woodpecker – black-and-white body, sharp beak, and a speckled, striped body.

Northern Flicker (Fremont, California) – August 2020

The third character in our study is this Northern Flicker which I photographed in my backyard in Fremont, California. It resembles most woodpeckers – stripes and speckles, the sharp bill, and size. But there is one feature here that takes away from the woodpecker-like appearance – it is ground-foraging, which most woodpeckers rarely do.

Flickers are closely related to woodpeckers – both are part of the order Piciformes and the family Picidae. One key  difference between them is that flickers can be found in trees and on the ground, unlike other woodpeckers, which are usually only found in trees. They are closely related, but the Northern Flicker, with its brownish-grey coloring and habit of ground-foraging – seems to show characteristics that resemble the Hoopoe!

The hoopoe has a different classification from woodpeckers. It is part of the order Bucerotiformes and the family Upupidae. Despite their similar appearance and behavior, they do not bear any zoological resemblance to woodpeckers. I soon learned that there was more to this taxonomic mystery than met the eye.

The Bucerotiformes order contains three groups of birds: hoopoes, wood hoopoes, and hornbills. These all have similar habitats, appearances, diets and behavior. Ornithologists have noted a resemblance to the Coraciiformes family, which includes kingfishers, bee-eaters and motmots. Recall a post earlier, where I discussed how kingfishers resemble woodpeckers in flight, but do not have any zoological resemblance. Could this be something similar?

White-Throated Kingfisher (Kabini, Karnataka, India) – January 2019

I further learned that ornithologists are investigating a potential link between the Piciformes, Bucerotiformes and Coraciiformes families. While there is no direct taxonomic link between these families, experts hypothesize that they are paraphyletic, sharing a common ancestor. There might be more to this than meets the eye!

What do you think? I believe that the different families share a common ancestor, and that eventually, these resemblances in behavior and appearance might be explained. This discovery shows that there may be more than a superficial resemblance between hoopoes and woodpeckers,  and now opens up a whole new scientific question – who is the mysterious ancestor that relates all these distant bird families? 

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A New Angle on the Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Some birds, like Treecreepers and Nuthatches, get most of their food, build their nests, and so on, while climbing up and down trees. Most of the time, they can be found inching up and down trees to find insects, seeds and water in cavities.

When we look at these birds, we see them at side angles – inching up or down trees with their strong, gripping claws. I have seen this bird, the Red-Breasted Nuthatch, many times – sometimes at my bird feeder, sometimes while it moves up and down various trees, and so on – but typically, I could only see its sides! This time, when I saw one climbing up my cedar tree, I wanted to do something else. 

I was curious to see if I could capture the top of its head and its body, as it inched down the tree. I wanted to capture its concentrated expression and get a full view of its gripping claws, and all the while, give the effect that it was walking across flat ground. In order to do this, though, I would need to do two things – point my camera directly at the bird’s face as it climbed down. And make sure I wouldn’t scare it. 

When I first tried to take the shot, I was unable to fully see what I was doing – it’s difficult to position your head underneath the camera, and still point the camera 90° up. So instead, I lay on the ground, pointed my head and camera straight up, and was able to get this photo!

The reward was worth the effort. Look at the Nuthatch’s concentration, as it maintains its grip on the tree! And look at how we can now observe its full face, and examine its entire crown – not just the side angles I would get in earlier photos. 

This new perspective also sparked a question – how are these birds able to climb like this, anyway? Surely it must be incredibly difficult! Well, it is all in their anatomy – their short, bent legs make anchoring very easy, and their long, sharp claws hold a firm grip to the tree bark. It’s amazing how something which seems so difficult to us is a straightforward and staple part of life for these birds.

You can learn more about the Red-Breasted Nuthatch on my bird identification website, FindYourBird!

Doves Around The World – Our Different Impressions

Pigeons and doves are universally recognized birds around the world. Whether you look at Turtle Doves and their representation in religion, or the Feral Pigeons found in almost all large urban regions, pigeons and doves have become cultural icons in our time.

With around 300 different species found worldwide, pigeons and doves, both very similar birds in the family Columbidae, are found everywhere in the world, in different habitats – mountains, suburban areas, forests, and at the center of bustling urban life. But does where and how we see them change the way we perceive these pigeons? In this post, I am looking at a couple of different birds from the Columbidae family, and how differently we perceive them in their settings.

Feral Pigeons (Mumbai, Maharashtra, India) – December 2019

This group of birds is universally recognizable – a huge flock of Feral Pigeons. Feral Pigeons descend from the same family of Rock Doves, but descend from groups that were domesticated, and which have now developed in large urban cities. They can be seen anywhere, all cooing loudly and pecking at various objects on the ground. This particular photo is from one of the most active cities in the world – Mumbai, India. Feral Pigeons are a common and active sight here.

Pigeons here are often considered a nuisance, or pests. Given that they tend to interfere in social areas, take over large spaces, and eat humans’ food, they are generally not very well-liked by people. However, they are now a common sight associated with the stereotypical ‘concrete jungle’.

Mourning Dove (Fremont, CA) – May 2020

In much of North American suburbia, the Mourning Dove is a common sight. Known for their pale beige-cream color and its soft, mournful “hoo-OO-hoo hoo hoo” call, these doves can be found sitting in small flocks on lawns or roofs, often foraging for seeds.

This dove, which I photographed in my front yard’s maple trees, embodies the stereotyped image of a Mourning Dove – a calm suburban representative of the Columbidae family, as opposed to the noisy, active feral pigeons of the larger cities.

Rock Pigeon (Vargas Plateau Regional Park, CA) – October 2020

The parent species of the Feral Pigeon, Rock Pigeons live in the mountains and can be commonly found perching on fences, in trees, or on cell towers. They look identical to most of the city pigeons we see, but behave differently.

How would you view this bird? If you saw it on a hike, you would probably be surprised by a lot of things – where are the fifty other pigeons surrounding this guy? Usually, wild Rock Pigeons tend to hang out in groups of 15 or less. Why aren’t they barraging you for food? Living in the wild, they aren’t as accustomed to humans as their urban subspecies, and we intimidate them. Despite looking practically identical, this pigeon and the feral pigeon are so different!

Band-Tailed Pigeon (Fremont , CA) – August 2020

What a beautiful bird! Larger than both the Mourning Dove and Rock Pigeon, the Band-Tailed Pigeon has a pale, purple-grey body, red eyes, yellow bill and talons and a barred collar. When you think of a ‘pigeon’, this may not be the first bird that pops into your mind, especially if you are used to urban life. When I first saw this bird, on the cedar trees outside my study window, I was amazed! At a cursory glance, I thought “oh, that’s a large dove” and then realized – “Oh my god! This is an entirely new species!” This bird looks like it’s from a deep region in the forest, and your first thought is probably not “this bird looks like those irritating birds outside the train station”. 

But the Band-Tailed pigeon is closely related to all of these birds! Like the Mourning Dove, it is a suburban dove and can be found on lawns, trees in your yard, or sometimes on your roof. However, it is only found along the western coast of North America. A closer look and you’ll realize that the bird’s appearance – its shape, body proportions, and so on – are all very similar to most pigeons that you will know. But its unique color scheme and larger size will throw you off, and go against your preconceived notions of what a ‘pigeon’ looks like!

Spotted Dove (Kabini, Karnataka, India) – January 2019

At first glance, this bird looks just like a Mourning Dove. But take a closer look! Red eyes? Barred wings? Is this a Rock Pigeon? Some mix of the two? 

This is actually a Spotted Dove, which I spotted at the Kabini River Lodge in Karnataka, India. These doves have similar behaviors to the Rock Pigeons we mentioned earlier – they don’t like humans and don’t live in areas where humans are abundant (unlike the Band-Tailed Pigeon, Mourning Dove and Feral Pigeons). 

Despite looking like it would fit perfectly in a suburban area, these doves were, at first, completely native to wilder areas. In a way, the Spotted Dove was kind of the opposite of the Band-Tailed Pigeon – although it looks like it would perfectly integrate with suburban life, it could not be found outside the natural wilderness.

Eventually, these doves were introduced to different areas around the world, and are now similar to Mourning Doves in their habitats and behavior. This dove is fascinating, though – it looks like a mix of two different species (The Mourning Dove and Rock Pigeon), and went through a complete change in habitat – from being native to wilder areas, to being completely integrated into suburban life!

All in all, it’s fascinating how despite all being part of the same family – having similar appearances, diets, sounds – these doves are such different birds! And how they all appear so different to us. Despite being important cultural icons in our society, and being well-known, doves and pigeons are a huge family of birds, with species that have completely different behaviors!

You can learn more about the Rock Dove on my bird identification website FindYourBird, over here.

You can learn more about the Mourning Dove on FindYourBird over here.

You can learn more about the Band-Tailed Pigeon on FindYourBird over here.

The Curious Case of the Anna’s Hummingbird’s Gorget

While this may seem like any other hummingbird, it is actually a fascinating sight! This is an Anna’s Hummingbird, one of the largest hummingbirds in the United States, and the largest on the West Coast.

I often spend time in my backyard, looking for birds, and waiting for them to get into the perfect photographing position. In the 2020 Summer, I saw many hummingbirds at our feeders, in trees, and at plants. This was one that I spotted perched on one of our redwood trees.

Notice the little red patch, or gorget, on the hummingbird’s neck! It confused me for a while – I thought it might be a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, but those are incredibly rare in California. It did not strike me as being an Anna’s Hummingbird, because all of the male Anna’s Hummingbirds that I have seen have expansive, brilliant magenta gorgets, but this one was small and dark red. It did not seem likely to be a female, as female Anna’s Hummingbirds have nothing on their throats.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Fremont, CA) – August 2020

I recognized this hummingbird as an Anna’s Hummingbird – even though it was so far away, the pink gorget hit me in the eye immediately. Unlike the small, reddish gorget in the first photo – this one is so bright and big that it can be seen a mile away.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Fremont, CA) – September 2020

I photographed this female Anna’s Hummingbird at the hummingbird feeder in my backyard. It is slightly harder to identify immediately – after all, it doesn’t have the gorget which makes it so striking. However, if you compare the rest of its body to the other two pictures, it is almost the same. Male hummingbirds often use their gorgets to attract females. 

When I noticed these differences, I wondered – how can the same species of hummingbird look so different from different angles?

The answer lies in the way the hummingbird’s throat is structured. All birds have melanosomes, which are cells that produce the pigment in the bird’s feathers. Hummingbirds’ melanosomes are a bit different though – they are shaped as thin shells, almost like soap bubbles. Think of a soap bubble – when you look at it from different angles, it produces different colors! A hummingbird’s throat is the same. 

These melanosomes are then organized in a mosaic pattern, on the hummingbird’s darker-colored throat. Without sunlight, the gorget appears to be more dull by contrast – not that different from other birds’ feathers. But as soon as light hits the hummingbird’s throat, it suddenly explodes with iridescent color! Now, when you look at the hummingbird, its color will appear different based on the angle you approach it from.

What could the purpose of this complex coloring be? Does it help hummingbirds with courtship? To avoid predators? There are many ways that this unique coloring could benefit hummingbirds.  Imagine what we could do with this knowledge! With hummingbirds’ ability to release so many colors at once, we could develop more advanced lenses, better visual technology – the possibilities are endless! The complexity and beauty of hummingbirds’ colors is truly amazing.



White-Throated Kingfisher – The Cobalt Woodpecker?

What a beauty! India is known for its many beautiful kingfisher species, including this one, the White-Throated Kingfisher. I spotted a few different kingfisher species along this trip. This one in particular was quite hard to get to stay still! It was perpetually moving around, perhaps searching for prey.

We had spent the whole day traveling throughout the Kabini River Lodge, both on the river and in the forest. We had spotted a variety of different birds, and kept on seeing this kingfisher. It wouldn’t stay still, though! It would always be flitting around (the way it is in the second photo) and made it extremely hard to get a good, clear photo. However, towards the end of the day, as we were heading back, I spotted a blue flash in one of the trees. A closer look revealed that it was the kingfisher perching, almost as if it had decided to finally pose for us!

Almost immediately after we got the first photo, it took flight. It held the position for a few seconds, and I was able to get a photo that showed the bird’s entire stunning color scheme. All in all, the experience was really fascinating – one which forced me to be patient, and wait for the right shot, and which made getting the photo all the more satisfying.

The first thing you might notice about the kingfisher is its brilliant blue back and tail. When I got a closer look, I realized that it has much more – the chestnut-brown head and breast, and the white throat which gives the kingfisher its name. Once it took flight, I was able to see the entire bird.

Look at its wings – they are tipped with black-grey and white, before merging into the blue of the rest of the body. Does this coloring remind you of any other bird? The first thing I thought of was most of the woodpecker species we see – while their main body is typically dark black, but their wings are tipped with those same colors, in a very similar style! In fact, the kingfisher’s body shape and size seems to resemble that of many woodpeckers.

This is an interesting similarity, given that the two groups are quite different in their classifications. Kingfishers belong to the order Coraciiformes, which includes Motmots, Bee-Eaters, and Rollers. However, Woodpeckers belong to the order Piciformes, a family which include Toucans, Barbets and Jacamars. All of these birds do have similar appearances, though. Isn’t it cool how, despite their classifications being different, they have these similar characteristics?