Course Info / question of the week

Question Guidelines

A correct answer submitted to Shilo Felton before the answer is posted earns 1 extra credit point. A new question will be posted every Monday morning. Submit a question that is chosen as the question of the week and earn 2 extra credit points. Submit a question that is posted and remains unanswered for 1 week and receive 5 extra credit points.

Note: If you submit an incorrect or incomplete answer, you will not be able to submit another answer for credit. You are welcome to continue to figure it out and talk to us, but no extra credit will be provided.

Week 16

What is the common name of this bird? What two species are you likely to confuse it with and what are two identifying characteristics that allow you to distinguish it from these two similar species? Thank you to Ana for this week’s question!

Thank you to Franco, Khai, and Jens for your correct answers. This is the African Pygmy Kingfisher. The dark blue crown of the adult separates it from the African Dwarf Kingfisher. The smaller size and violet wash on the ear coverts distinguish it from the similar Malachite Kingfisher.

Week 15

Please give the full common name for the species pictured below, along with three characteristics that helped you in your identification. Where would you be most likely to site this bird if you went looking for it this week?

Thank you to Colleen, Mary, Ana, Lucas, Madi, Franco, Lanette, Megan, and Jens for submitting correct responses to this week’s question. The species pictured is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and would most likely be spotted this week on its breeding range in the south-central United States. Though this species tends to “wander widely” during migration and may be seen just about anywhere in North America during this time.

Week 14

Shown below is a common bird egg found in North Carolina. Which species does it belong to? There is a special chemical compound that produces the color in the shell of this egg, what is the compound called, when (where in the female’s repro. tract) is it added to the egg’s shell, and what substance (bodily fluid) is this compound derived from in birds? Thank you to Madi for this week's question!

Thank you to Khai, Franco, Colleen, Kathryn, Mary, Kristen, and Lanette for your correct responses! Pictured is the egg of an American Robin. The chemical compound that produces the bright blue color is called biliverdin and is added in the oviduct when the last layer of calcium is added to the egg. Biliverdin is derived from hemoglobin (heme oxygenase) in birds.

Week 13

For another chance to help out our new friend, the Director of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design, we are providing you with an additional fan identification question this week. From the Director:

“We have come across another mystery bird fan! We only know what was included on the collector’s file card, which dates back to the 1920s, i.e., that the fan was collected by Hector von Bayer in Pará, Brazil ( in 1912. Once again, the purchase-point does not necessarily indicate the origin (that last bird was likely from east Africa). Perhaps the other feathers included in the “arrangement” may help narrow it down? This bird is much smaller than last week's Lilac-Breasted Roller. At first glance (without my reading glasses) I thought it was a hummingbird, but once I put my glasses on I realized that what I had mistaken for a long beak was only a dark feather. Hector von Bayer was another colleague of collector Emma Smith’s ichthyologist husband, Hugh McCormick Smith. I was amused to see blueprints for a South Dakota fish hatchery he designed referred to as "two-dimensional art” (see ). Those were the days!”

The pictures provided below are for the front and back of the fan. As the Director informed us, “[t]he poor bird itself is the wee little thing in the middle. Weird Victorian-era idea of lovely decor, I guess…” The additional ornamental feathers on the front and back of the fan may or may not come from the specimen we are trying to identify.

Please provide you guess for the full name of the species, along with three identifying characteristics that helped you in your determination. Photos to aid in your description are also welcome but do not take the place of your three identifying characteristics. Good luck!

Thank you to Mary for providing a well thought out guess for this mystery fan puzzle! We'll keep you updated with the best guess.

Week 12

A few months back Dr. Simons received another interesting public inquiry. (Warning: the pics are a tad gruesome).

“… I was climbing out in my 6-seat twin engine Cessna northwest out of the Anson County (Wadesboro), NC airport when I struck a bird at about 3,200 feet above ground level. I’ve attached pictures and it looks to me like it was an American Oystercatcher. I have sent a feather to the Smithsonian for positive ID but have not heard back. In my little bit of research on the bird, I found the following quote: ‘During migration, as in the rest of the year, oystercatchers stay strictly within the coastal zone. Although banding records have shown that some oystercatchers cross the Florida peninsula during migration, oystercatchers do not use interior sites during migration.’ By my estimate, I was at least 125 miles from the nearest coast. A search of the FAA wildlife strike database shows only 22 collisions with Oystercatchers in the last 25 years (out of about 135,000 total birdstrikes). None of these produced any damage. Mine would be the first. Since my experience was a little unusual, I though[t] I’d alert an expert and a little Google research led me to you. I have no interest in this other than simple curiosity but if you have any comments, I would love to hear them.”

Assess the pictures provided by the pilot and then decide whether it is strange or not that he would have experienced the collision with the species in the photo under the circumstances experienced by the pilot. Please provide your answer (strange or not strange) and a brief justification for your answer.

Thank you Kathryn for your correct response! Based on the webbed feet, structure and placement of the legs, and plumage, this bird is not an oystercatcher as the pilot suggests. It is instead a loon (either Common Loon or Red-throated Loon). It would not be unusual for the pilot to have encountered a loon under the circumstances he did, nor would it have been unusual for the bird to have caused so much damage to the plane’s wing. We are glad the pilot survived to tell the tail. A more detailed explanation can be found by scrolling down on this blog post.

Week 11

Dr. Simons received the following inquiry from the Director of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design:

“The Gregg Museum recently received a donation of a hand fan collected in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1906, made from a taxidermied bird (see attached photos). We’ve been trying to identify the bird, but with no luck so far, so I am wondering if you could possibly help with this, or might be able to direct us to someone who could. We do not know if the original living bird itself was from Brazil, only that the fan was purchased there. It once belonged to the wife of Hugh McCormick Smith (see and ). The tag still attached to the fan says ‘E.A. Tulian,’ who was a fellow ichthyologist working in Argentina in 1906 (see ). He probably knew that Emma Smith collected fans as a hobby (we now have 400 donated by her descendants) and bought it for her when his ship made a stopover in Rio on the way there or back. Anyway, can you possibly help us find out a little more about the bird it was made from? For the sake of the environment, I am hoping it was not made from a now-extinct species, although for our i.d. purposes it doesn’t matter.”

Help identify the species in the fan. Provide your guess for the full common name of the species and a brief explanation, including at least three identifying feature, to support your guess.

Thank you to Megan and Jens for your guesses! So far the museum director is thinking that it might be an altered Lilac-breasted Roller, but we will keep you updated if we learn of any new opinions.

Week 10

The bird pictured below resembles a species from the Trochilidae family. What are the true order and family of the bird in the picture and which two family groups in that order are likely to be the species’ closest relatives? Thank you to Ana for providing this week’s question!

Thank you to Jens, Khai, Colleen, Kathryn, and April for your correct answers over Spring Break! This is the “San Pedrito” (Todus mexicanus) also known as the Puerto Rican Tody. While the scientific name may lead one to believe it’s from Mexico, it is actually endemic to Puerto Rico. Individuals of this species bear resemblance to hummingbirds in that they are able to lower their metabolism and temperature to conserve energy, though they are not related. “San Pedrito” belongs to the family Todidae. Mitochondrial and nuclear gene studies indicate they are closely related to motmots (Momotidae) and kingfishers (Alcedinidae) within the order Coraciiformes.

Week 9

What is the common name and family of the species pictured below? What is its preferred method of travel and what is one possible explanation for its current IUCN categorization? Thank you to Madi for providing this week’s question!

Thank you to Megan, Ana, Jens, Khai, Lina, and Mary for your correct answers! This is the Kakapo, native to New Zealand. It belongs to the family Psittacidae and Subfamily Strigopidae. This bird treks miles a day on foot rather than flying. While this species evolved on an island devoid of many mammals, this type of locomotion makes it vulnerable to introduced predators, such as feral and domestic cats.

Week 8

What is the full species name for the 2-3 week old chick pictured below? In addition to the physical characteristics of the chick, there is a possible hint for species identification provided in the photo. Please identify this hint along with the implications for the conservation of the species pictured.

This is a Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii) chick from Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. This endangered seabird typically nests in mixed colonies of Common and Roseate Terns on islands off the north Atlantic coast of the United States and Nova Scotia. In order to encourage new nesting pairs and maintain established pairs, managers place nest boxes(shown in the photo), play Roseate Tern call recordings, and deploy Roseate Tern decoys to historical Roseate Tern nest sites. More information regarding these management strategies in Roseate Tern population conservation can be found here.

Week 7

The picture below belongs to an unusual animal that evolved to fill an ecological niche normally occupied by birds. What is the Family of birds, and why did they never colonize this habitat? Thank you to Khai for this week's question!

Thank you to April and Jens for their detailed responses! The family of birds is Picidae (the Woodpeckers). This family of birds does not inhabit the islands of Madagascar, Australia, and New Zealand. It is possible that they were never able to colonize Madagascar because the island has been geographically isolated since the Late Jurassic. There was only a narrow window (20 million years or so) during which the currents flowed toward the island, and at its narrowest point, the Mozambique Channel is more than 250 miles across, allowing ancestral Lemurs to colonize, but not any of their ecological competition. Additionally, it appears that woodpeckers are primarily a Laurasian species and are not considered strong dispersers. Should their ancestors have attempted to disperse to Madagascar in more recent geologic history they would likely have found themselves outcompeted by the already present species.

Week 6

Name the family of the bird responsible for this.

Thank you to Madi, Lanette, Ana, Khai, Lina, Colleen, Emily, Franco, Mary, and Lucas for their correct answers. This is a mouse impaled by a San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike, from the family Laniidae (also known as “butcher birds”. While these are of the order Passeriformes and lack talons, they do have a thick notched bill, helpful in handling prey items. While this strategy may allow shrikes to take advantage of prey items larger than they would be able to otherwise, research has also suggested that this behavior is useful in advertising territory and in mate selection. This behavior is also characteristic of the butcherbirds of the family Artamidae from Australia.

Week 5

To which avian family do the eggs in the picture belong?

Thank you to Khai, Colleen, Megan, Jens, Mary, and Lanette for providing correct answers to last week's question. The eggs in this photo come from the floating nest of an African Jacana, in the family Jacanidae.

Week 4

Alright, I have a tough one for you! Give the common and scientific names of the two species pictured below. Hint: they’re not going to be on your bird list.

Left: Alpine Thrush (Zoothera mollissima sensu stricto).

Right: Himalayan Forest Thrush (Zoothera salimalii, sp. nov.).

Alstrom et al. 2016

BBC News

Thank you, Ana, Lucas, and Khai for providing complete, correct responses. I love how engaged a lot of you were in trying to find the correct answer!

Week 3

There are 3 parts to this question: 1) What is the name of the avian species in this photo and 2) what is the “just so story” often used to describe the relationship between the species captured in this photo? 3) Scientific evidence provides a very different story—what is it?

Thank you to Khai, Frankie, Franco, Colleen, Jens, Mary, Lanette, and Kristen for your correct responses this week. The bird pictured is the Yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus). The typical "just-so-story" is that oxpeckers have a mutualistic relationship with their ungulate hosts (like the African buffalo pictured) by reducing the numbers of insect parasites and removing infected tissue for clean wound healing. In addition to food the oxpecker gets protection through the proximity to the larger mammals. Scientific evidence for the above claims is disputed. It could be that oxpeckers are ectoparasites that use the ungulates as a food source, often opening wounds or keeping old wounds open in order to maintain a supply of blood and tissue to eat. Even the removal of ticks (which is not significant; see Weeks P. 2000. Red-billed Oxpeckers: vampires or tickbirds? Behavioral Ecology 11(2): 154-160) is not very helpful to the host as oxpeckers prefer ticks that filled their stomachs with blood. However, other studies claim that the oxpeckers prefer hosts with higher counts of ticks and ignore the hide thickness (which would be important for foraging ungulate tissue), making them mutualistic symbionts after all (Nunn CL, Ezenwa VO, Arnold C, Koenig WD. 2011. MUTUALISM OR PARASITISM? USING A PHYLOGENETIC APPROACH TO CHARACTERIZE THE OXPECKER-UNGULATE RELATIONSHIP. Evolution 65(5): 1297–1304). Thank you to Jens for providing this well-written response!

Note: I was lenient this week and gave full credit this week even if you just gave me "oxpecker" as the species name for the bird in the picture, because the species pictured was different from that in the Weeks P. 2000 article. In the future I will not be so generous, so remember: FULL species name please.

Week 2

Provide the name missing in this image to the once diverse group of extinct birds. Also name the anatomical characteristic that distinguishes this group of birds from others. Thanks to Jens for providing the question!

Thank you to Khai and Megan for submitting correct answers! The group in question is Enantiornithes which has a shoulder bone (coracoid and scapula) articulation opposite that of other bird groups. Additionally, the fusion of the tarsometatarsus has been shown to be opposite that of living birds, fusing proximally to distally instead of the reverse. This highly diverse clade was perhaps more ecologically disparate than the lineage the would give rise to modern birds, but to the best of our knowledge, none survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene Mass Extinction that also killed off all non-avian dinosaurs as well as many other species (thank you, Khai, for this additional description).

Week 1

This large scavenger was once extirpated from its native habitat, due in large part to _________. While this and other human factors continue to effect the population, a collaborative reintroduction program now sees individuals of this species nesting in cliffs in parts of the southwestern United States and Mexico.

Please name the species, as well as the factor most closely associated with its population decline.

Thank you to April, Khai, Franco, Megan, Jens, Madi, Mary 0., and Lanette for submitting correct answers! The species is the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the factor I was looking for that partially lead to its extirpation (and still continues to be a threat to reintroduced populations) is lead poisoning, though there are many other factors that have contributed to the species' instability. The state of California has recently enacted legislation to limit the use of lead ammunition
in an effort to reduce the amount of lead ingested by wild condors.