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Birds have one feature that no other animal possesses – feathers. This allows them to solve life’s challenges in radically different ways.
The key use of feathers across the bird world is, of course, flight. The feathered wing comes in all shapes and sizes to allow for all kinds of flight. The nine-foot wings of the Ethiopian lammergeyer allow it to soar, scarcely expending any energy, as it scans for carrion. They also allow it to fly with great precision as the bird lift bones high in to the air before dropping them onto a rock to smash them up into edible-sized fragments.
Red-billed tropic birds’ wing-shape lends it the extreme speed and maneuverability it needs to escape piratical frigate birds.
Red knots’ flight is so energy-efficient they can migrate 10,000 miles every spring from their wintering grounds in Argentina to their nesting sites in Canada. Yet long-distance flight still demands a good fuel source, so the red knot break their migration on the east coast of America to feed on the eggs of horseshoe crabs during their short period of spawning. If the knot get the timing wrong and miss this window they won’t survive the subsequent journey.
The advantages of feathered wings become clear when birds are unable to fly. During the nesting season they may be grounded for extended periods. Lesser flamingos must build their nests in highly caustic soda lakes. Trapped here the mud can become a lethal quagmire for their chicks. Chinstrap penguins are flightless, beautifully adapted instead for swimming far offshore. But when they get back to land they can only walk to find their chicks – an exhausting trek up the steep flanks of a volcano.
Birds don’t just use feathers for flight. The combination of feather shape and color, together with singing, can be crucial in attracting a mate.
Male sage grouse rub their wings against their chest feathers, making bizarre popping sounds, to tell females how virile they are. Thousands of Lesser flamingos on Kenya’s Lake Bogoria promenade side by side, their neck feathers ruffled, creating a sea of pink during their courtship rituals.
The marvelous spatule-tail hummingbird is the ultimate example. His attractive tail feathers must be so long to get a female’s attention that he can barely lift off. Yet when he does get into the air he performs a spectacular display, the iridescent discs on the ends of his tail feathers flashing at the female.
Feathers are the key to the global success of birds, yet there are always exceptions. Some birds are dull-colored and must show ingenuity in attracting a mate. The male Vogelkop bower bird builds a giant bower around a central sapling which he decorates with colorful flowers, beetles, fungus and even deer dung to try and impress a female. Should it catch her interest, he backs off into the darkness of his bower and calls to her with an impressive repertoire of song.
Life on Location – Hide and Seek
The very last filming trip for the Birds episode for Life was perhaps the most challenging for cameraman Barrie Britton and assistant producer Stephen Lyle. Their aim was not only to film the male Vogelkop bower bird weaving and decorating his extraordinary bower, but to also capture his courtship behavior and the mating ritual itself – an event which has never been filmed before.
To do this Barrie, Stephen and their field assistants spent a month camped deep in the forests of West Papua. Though there were many bowers to choose from, picking the right one to film was always going to be a gamble.
Day-in, day-out Barrie returned to his trusty hide, and after several weeks of concerted effort his patience was wearing thin. Though he had managed to film some wonderful bower construction and decoration, the actual courtship event still eluded him.
It wasn’t until the last few days of the shoot that Barrie was able to capture this extraordinary piece of behavior. It only lasted a matter of seconds, but it was well worth the wait!