A curious case: The Color of Baby Coots.

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Why do American Coot chicks who develop into mainly greyish-black birds as adults begin their lives with such a splash of color? 1

That is a question a team of biologists have been asking for quite some time and, as is typical in science, the answer was not what they first expected. Previous studies conducted by this same laboratory concluded that coot parents preferentially feed chicks that display brighter coloration. The goal of the present study was to determine why this was the case.

The researchers noted that coots lay between 8-10 eggs and these eggs hatch in the order they were laid. Additionally coots are nest predators and lay eggs in other coots nests. One hypothesis was that the chicks hatched from predatory eggs were the more brightly colored chicks and thus would have gotten fed more. This turned out to be false. The researchers discovered that the chicks hatched from the latter laid eggs were the more brightly colored. Typically chicks hatched latter in a brood have to catch-up to their larger siblings if they are to survive. The researcher noted that if these smaller and brightly colored latecomers survived the parents would use their coloration as a way to preferentially feed these chicks more and allow them to catch-up to their earlier siblings. 2

A wonderful survial strategy reveled in a nicely done study. Hat’s off to science and to the coot.

References:

1. University of California – Santa Cruz. “The mysterious case of the ornamented coot chicks has a surprising explanation: The bright colors of the chicks of American coots help their parents choose favorites, according to a new study.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 December 2019. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191231111817.htm.

2. Bruce E. Lyon, Daizaburo Shizuka. Extreme offspring ornamentation in American coots is favored by selection within families, not benefits to conspecific brood parasites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019; 201913615 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1913615117

 

Black-billed Magpie

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Noisy yes, but oh so beautiful, especially in flight, a Black-billed Magpie sits quietly on a snowy afternoon. The magpies in our area are very skittish and difficult to sneak up on for a photograph. We see them all the time but even a quick look in their direction has them flying away.

“Historically associated with bison herds, it now lands on the back of cattle to clean ticks and insects from them. Large predators such as wolves are commonly followed by black-billed magpies, who scavenge from their kills. The species also walks on the ground, where it obtains such food items as beetles, grasshoppers, worms, and small rodents.”

Intelligent and pretty good looking and a fine way to brighten a cold snowy day.

 

 

Juniper Berries

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It was an overcast morning and difficult to make out the details but it sure looked like there were a handful birds hanging out in a juniper bush as we speed along a quiet road. We decided to turn around and take a quick look and spotted a beautiful trio of Bohemian Waxwings. These three quickly flew off while we were watching but landed just across a small creek in a juniper loaded with berries and a large flock of Waxwings buzzing about in constant motion picking the berries for their morning meal.

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It was a whirlwind of activity with birds coming and going, picking berries, and perhaps, just for a small moment, sitting still.

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The beautiful colors of these birds were flashing brightly in the dull overcast light and made for quite a show.

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The berries and the birds made for a fine start to the day.