These familiar, feathered, fellow Earthlings are often the subject of much adoration from humans, and most birds that enter our daily lives occupy a place of fondness in our hearts. When we think of birds, we imagine, before essentially anything else, their beauty. They are revered across scores of cultures for their complicated and uplifting songs, a trait that exists as the result of meticulous tuning and retouching by sexual selection. Their wind-blown arias range from the simple, structured trill of the western meadowlark, to the complicated, crystal clear chimes of the white-rumped shama, to whatever the hell this insanity is from the superb lyrebird. Many are also regarded physically beautiful, and are gifted with soft elegance in flight, and their frequently vivid feather pigments make them among the most colorful vertebrates outside of a handful of coral reef fish and perhaps poison dart frogs. We equate grace, tranquility, and majesty with birds of varying flavors. Peace with the dove, might and prowess with hawks and eagles….
I mean, shit, in Abrahamic and Zoroastrian faith traditions, we even envision angels, the shimmering middle-men of the Creator, as having bird wings plastered on their backs. Lots of things have wings and fly (bats, flies, beetles, and R. Kelly for example) but no, it was the bird’s weird, fluffy, elongated arms that were selected to be associated with a supernatural being that, supposedly, is a distilled amalgamation of all things right in the world.
We also appreciate some species of birds for their intelligence and affection, as well as their impressive capacity for vocal mimicry (I’m looking at you, parrots and mynahs). Many groups of birds are startlingly clever, and corvids (the family to which crows, ravens, rooks, and jays belong) are by-and-large tool-using, highly social, unnervingly observant braniacs that exhibit complex puzzle-solving abilities that make your “whip smart” border collie look like an insipid, drooling dipshit, and are more akin to a ruthless contingent of droogs than to tweety birds.
When we aren’t putting their image on national flags, making our clothing out of their feathers, or pasting them on random knick knacks, we are eating them. Birds are a common source of protein the world over, and here in the States, we appreciate poultry so damned much, that we’ve invented a way to shove as many species of fowl as possible up each other’s asses in order to make a delightful Russian nesting doll of bird flesh. We love the taste of birds so much that we’ve managed to slaughter many species permanently into the past tense. Passenger pigeons used to blacken the skies of North America until European immigrants came along and gave them the good ol’ ‘buffalo treatment’ and straight up blasted them out of their volant swarms with as much pause and contemplation as we give the flipping of a light switch. Humans hunted the flightless red rail of Mauritius to extinction by capitalizing on the birds’ affinity for red-colored objects by pulling out red cloths to lure the poor animals in close…and then bludgeoning them into shrieking oblivion with large sticks.
So, we historically have had sort of a “love/love-to-death” relationship with feathered fauna. It is then, perhaps, not surprising that birds, despite all their charm, can also be somewhat of a nuisance…as some sort of karmic retaliation, I’m sure. A great deal of this comes from their incredibly badass pedigree. It’s important to remember that birds are dinosaurs. Literally. Not kinda, halfway, tangentially related to dinosaurs. Nowadays, the paleontological evidence strongly suggests they ARE therapod dinosaurs, through and through. It’s not so much that Polly is descended directly from T-Rex, but goddamnit if they aren’t kissin’ cousins (a reality that is unavoidably observable in this experiment that aesthetically transforms a lowly chicken into a sickle-toed raptor with ease). Every innocently chittering and whistling thrush and sparrow outside your window is a representative of the last remaining groups of dinosaurs (a clade of critters known as the Maniraptorans), the only group to emerge out the other side of the mass extinction that marked the end of the Cretaceous.
Even after their bigger, toothier relatives kicked the bucket, birds sort of took up the mantel of filling the “giant, menacing, everything-runs-away-from-me monster” niche. In South America, they reigned for tens of millions of years over their ecosystem in the form of flightless, knife-faced homicidal maniacs the size of Shaquille O’Neal (something I wrote briefly about here). One group, the pelagornids, or ‘pseudo-tooth’ birds, went retro and evolved spiky projections from their beaks that basically functioned like teeth. Up until relatively recently in New Zealand, massive, Tolkienesque eagles hunted even larger flightless birds (moas), and likely plucked off the first colonizing Maori like modern hawks take down field mice.
So, given their evolutionary legacy, perhaps it isn’t so shocking that birds, given the right conditions, can be, well, downright unpleasant. I’m a lover of birds (if not solely for the fact that they are, as far as we can tell, motherfucking dinosaurs are you kidding me), but even I can admit that they can be obnoxiously loud (the relentless cooing of the ubiquitous zebra doves on the Hawaiian island I live on is beginning to be an unwelcome wake up call) and foul tempered. Anyone who has spent any time around roosters or overly “friendly” swans knows this. Even as pets they can reek something awful, and then there’s the whole issue of birds shitting as much as your average Royal Caribbean patron. Birds are notorious for spreading disease to people and other animals, and can be agricultural pests as introduced/alien species. But, I suppose that might not be enough horror to transform your conceptualization of birds into that of enraged, dead-eyed, screeching, spray defecating, reptilian nightmares. Especially if your most negative associations with birds just come from getting caught underneath a pigeon releasing its bowel ballast, or from a frustrating bird and pipe-themed app game, which shall go unnamed…
We know that birds easily have the capacity for bouts of aggression, towards each other, towards other birds, towards their prey, and towards humans. A certain proportion of it is simply overtly aggressive mating; there’s a good chance that whatever “language” mating vocalizations of many species are in, it doesn’t have a word for ‘consent.’ An endangered species of parrot from New Zealand, the kakapo, can be sexually aggressive; and by sexually aggressive, I mean it will mount and dry hump the back of a human’s head. Male dabbling ducks are down-to-their-core gang rapists that possess a shudder-inducingly brobdingnagian, thorny, spring-loaded death dick that looks like it slinky-ed its way out of Tim Burton’s most Freudian, repressed nightmares.
The sins of these dinosaurian, deceptively innocent beings are common and diverse. Obviously, birds-of-prey like hawks, falcons, owls, and eagles are the tigers and wolves of the sky, and rain death upon fuzzy, soft-bodied mammals and clueless reptiles the world over. Vultures chase off other birds from carcasses. Cuckoos are brood parasites that pass off the child-rearing chore onto small, ill-equipped songbirds…which inevitably leads to the slow, pathetic malnourishment of every other chick in the parasitized nest. Corvids routinely bully other birds just for shits and giggles. Just recently, a crow and a seagull (basically, the avian equivalents of a pipe-wrench-wielding Mob leg-breaker) batterfanged the bejesus out of two hapless doves released by the Pope…to, hilariously, symbolize peace.
You might be aware that the cassowary, a flightless bird closely related to emus, native to northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, has a reputation as a violent animal…prone to defending itself against perceived threats with a casual leaping, roundhouse kick, armed with a razor claw-tipped foot (a behavior that has injured many, and resulted in a single recorded death).
But, the face of badassatry and biker gang ethics in birds isn’t as narrow as bitey swans, prank pulling ravens, and the occasional murderous cassowary. Birds take after their deadly, extinct, dinosaur brethren in more ways than you’d expect, and the reverberations of eons past can be picked up in behavioral and physical attributes across a very wide diversity of these marvelous animals.
The stoic motherfucker above, the one with the icy, blue-eyed stare and unwavering resolve in the face of a snow storm, is the first entry on our list of unappreciated, cantankerous birds; the giant petrel.
While the giant petrel looks very much like a seagull that spent a little too much time reading A Song of Ice and Fire, it is actually a wholly different animal, and genetically and evolutionarily speaking, it belongs to a different taxonomic order of birds. Giant petrels are a part of the Procellariiformes, a group of birds that consists of the most charismatic and well-adapted (and, unfortunately, often times endangered) sea birds on the planet (albatross, shearwaters, petrels, fulmars, etc.). In contrast, gulls are nested within the Charadriiformes, which contains things like plovers, puffins, terns, and snipes (generally considered “shorebirds”). Perhaps predictably, a good rule of thumb to follow is if the bird you are looking at is comfortable being way, way out at sea for long periods of time (in a non-migratory context), it’s more likely to be within the Procellariiformes; if it is ubiquitous along shorelines and inland bodies of water, and not found on far-flung islands in the middle of ocean basins (perhaps with the exception of the tern family)…it’s probably a member of the Charadriiformes instead.
Many of the birds within the Procellariiformes have a tendency to spend an extensive amount of time either feeding or migrating over vast distances of open ocean. Most species are colonial breeders, preferentially seeking out remote islands that are relatively predator-free to nest in massive numbers, and as adults they return to the colonies in which they were hatched year after year for breeding season. While it is thought that navigation back to these colonies relies on astronomical cues, the need for locating nests within these large colonies, and for finding ample food during such long, isolated flights over thousands of miles of open ocean, still exists. The procellariiform solution is found in their exquisite sense of smell.
Procellariiform birds are commonly referred to, collectively, as “tubenoses”; a nickname that refers to the extension of the nasal passages found in this group, forming bony tube (of varying length) that runs along the top of the bill. This is basically like if you had an empty toilet paper roll taped to your nose…but, you know, less stupid looking. This tube likely assists in capturing small particles in the air, and enhances their sense of smell, allowing them to find far-away sources of food on the wing out in the ocean, and potentially their own nest within the congested hustle and bustle of a smelly, shit-encrusted seabird colony. That goofy looking shirt-sleeve nostril is actually their version of Google Maps and Urban Spoon.
Another adaptation to extended time out at sea is the capacity for tubenoses to drink seawater. Yes, these birds engage in a behavior that would surely sicken you or I (or even potentially kill us due to hypernatremia (too much salt in the blood)…to understand the magnitude of the dangerous effect of this condition consider what happens when you pour salt on a slug…that horrific shit is what happens to the hypernatremic brain). Tubenoses are aided by a second installment of evolutionarily-derived gizmos on a head that, apparently, is not that unlike Batman’s utility belt. Tubenoses have the ability to purge salt from the water they drink by use of specially adapted glands at the base of their bill, which, with the help of a number of other organs, re-route sodium chloride from the ingested water away from the blood, and into these glands. The glands then secrete a highly-concentrated salt solution that either dribbles out, or is spectacularly (and grossly) sprayed out. Simply put, tubenoses have the superpower of drinking what is normally toxic levels of seawater because they have little kidneys on their fucking faces.
Many of the larger tubenoses, like albatross and petrels, are superbly adapted to long-distance flight, and have a whole suite of traits that maximize their flight efficiency. The most obvious of these is simply their gargantuan wingspan; long, narrow wings allow for soaring much longer without flapping (unlike short, broad wings (like what is found in many familiar songbirds), which are perfect for maneuverability through dense forest or for evading other, predatory birds…but are shitty for traversing an entire ocean’s breadth, since flapping must occur far more frequently to keep aloft). The side-effect of this is that take-off, and landing, are a bit cumbersome. Most short-winged birds have the luxury of just throwing on the brakes and landing wherever they please. However, the big, bulky albatross, for example, has to engage in long swoops to reduce speed enough so that when they do put down their landing gear (ridiculous, floppy, webbed feet that are poorly equipped for walking, and make albatross terrestrial locomotion charmingly awkward) they don’t strike the earth and tumble beak over tail feather. Just this last weekend, I went out to the Natural Area Reserve for nesting Laysan albatross and wedge-tailed shearwaters at Ka’ena Point on the Hawaiian island I live on, O’ahu, and observed first-hand the challenges of the extremely high-aspect ratio wings of large tubenose birds. More than once, one of the Laysan albatross nesting at the site, made a circuitous, looping cut through the windy tropical air, with wingtips coming within not more than thirty feet of the heads of me and my birding companion. I did not see these birds flap even one time in what seemed like the better part of five minutes as they soared in a great ellipse, eventually finding a deacceleration “sweet-spot” and ending their elegant voyage through the heavens and plopping ungracefully on the hot sand below in what is probably one of the most comically stark contrasts of movement in the entire animal kingdom. Watching this occur, one can’t help but be reminded of the spiraling descent that many large commercial jets make before landing. In terms of airborne agility and ease of take-off and landing, if your backyard robin is a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, then your typical giant albatross is an Airbus A380.
In addition to the simple mechanical efficiency afforded by immense, thin wings (wings that are long enough to make the wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans, owner of the largest wingspan of all modern birds, occasionally reaching 12 feet across), the largest tubenoses also have a little trick that makes it even easier to fly without the slightest bit of effort. Some species have a special tendon that actually locks the wing into place once fully extended, so that the wing can stay in that position for hours at a time. You know that little spring catch that keeps an umbrella in the “open” configuration? These birds basically have that technology incorporated into their wing musculature.
So, it can be said that the Procellariiformes, with their Doomsday Prepper-esque self-contained fluid filtration system, built-in Garmin and cruise control, and wings that catch the trades far more effectively than any sail, are part of faction of seafaring birds that make even the hardest, crustiest, beardiest, veteran sea captain look like a quakey-legged, queasy landlubber.
It is within this already hardy contingent of open-ocean avian gods that the giant petrels (two species of bird within the genus Macronectes) find their relations. These birds, divided into a Northern and Southern species (although both are native to the coastline of Antarctica, and the islands surrounding it) are most closely related to the fulmars, and are, unsurprisingly, a part of the petrel family, Procellariidae. They are the most massive tubenoses with the exception of the regal albatrosses, both of them reaching about the size of an eagle. Outwardly, they don’t appear to be much different than their relatives; muted coloration, large and powerful wings, a hooked beak made up of the nine plates unique to the Procellariiformes, webbed feet, etc. If you were to take a fulmar and beef it up in size a few fold, you’d, at least on the exterior, get a giant petrel.
But the giant petrel has a secret that separates it dramatically from the rest of it’s tubenose kin, a secret buried beneath a deceitful outer visage that makes it appear more as a docile dabbler of the ocean surface (albeit a big and noisy one), rather than the agent of darkness that it actually is. Tubenoses have a diet based upon marine foraging, in which they consume squid, krill and other crustaceans, fish, and occasionally plankton. This is a pretty standard menu among most seabirds and shorebirds. However, somewhere along the line, giant petrels lost their refined taste for sashimi and cocktail shrimp. Giant petrels, instead, primarily fill their bellies with the decayed flesh of beached marine mammals, and fluffy, helpless penguins (sometimes, as this very graphic video illustrates, hollowing out the poor penguin’s body cavity like it was an intestine-filled piñata…while it is still very much alive). Giant petrels are the Antarctic’s answer to vultures, and they take up their ecological role as the cold southern sea’s clean up crew with enthusiasm, beating out all smaller scavengers at whatever felled beast rots on the barren shores of the antipolar continent, diving claw-tipped beak first into the fetid, blubbery jackpot.
And by “enthusiasm” I mean “aggressiveness”…and by “aggressiveness” I mean “pretty sure someone slipped these birds some bath salts.” Giant petrels lay waste to any poor, opportunistic seabird trying to capitalize on the good fortune of a fresh, bloated seal carcass. They are aided by their substantial size advantage over any shorebirds within their home ranges, their strong and sharp bill, and their relatively strong legs (in comparison to their tubenose relatives) that allow them to bear down on their quarry, living or dead, with ease on land. When arriving at a carcass, they adopt a posture designed to make everything with feathers in the vicinity to pack up and get the fuck out; wings arched and outstretched, neck extended with the hooked beak directly facing any contenders, and tail stiffly pointed upwards (an “intimidating” posture I’ve seen similarly employed in testosterone and alcohol-soaked college-age human males). If their “carrion master” pose doesn’t adequately impress, they drop the diplomacy act right quick and get on with beating the everloving shit out of everything around them until they get their way (again…this is something I’ve seen in the wilds of the house-party-full-of-20-year-old-dudes ecosystem).
If undisturbed, they plunge right in, and the formerly intact dead body is torn apart like it was a free pizza thrown to a pit of graduate students (haha, the joke is that we are poor). Apparently evolution didn’t have the foresight to gift these fledgling scavengers the bare neck and face of the vulture, so their feathers on their faces quickly become drenched and sticky with blood and offal. This doesn’t slow them down at all, apparently, because they will run around with this shit plastered all over them like they just waltzed out of the finale of “Carrie”…ravenously waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting little penguin, or unclaimed corpse on the shoreline.
So, obviously, once giant petrels have a meal, they definitely don’t disguise their role as the main purveyors of violence on the Antarctic coast. And violent they are. I’ve already alluded to their impassioned vivisection of penguins, an easy task for them considering that penguins are basically just squishy, clumsily toddling bags of meat. But, they regularly have a go at taking other prey as well, out of necessity. There aren’t a lot of options for blood-thirsty animals like giant petrels in the Antarctic; it’s not like there are a glut of different types of prey animals running around for them to pick from. The great, frigid south is an isolated land without much else than animals that either fly there or swim there, meaning that most everything on the coastline is either a bird or a seal.
Adult seals, especially the gargantuan leopard and southern elephant seals (which can reach weights of 1,300 lbs and 5 tons, respectively), are obviously far too big for a giant petrel to eat (although I wouldn’t put it past these one of these assholes to try). But seal pups? Yeah, those are barely big enough to leave leftovers. It isn’t that uncommon for a group of these soulless bastards to descend upon a seal pup the minute it’s been separated from its parent.
Giant petrels are actually very adept at slaughtering the babies of other animals. They dispatch penguin and albatross chicks with remorseless ease, and just as often as they make the adults their entree of choice. Yes, they even snuff their own close relatives, the albatrosses, and devour them in an act of appalling taxonomic treason.
One thing is certain, if it is cute and defenseless, giant petrels will desire to rend it into tiny, bite-size pieces.
It’s also worth noting that stuff comes out of giant petrel mouths about as often as stuff goes in….because giant petrels are quite fond of vomiting. I should clarify that this isn’t referring to the sweet, altruistic, maternal regurgitation that a great many birds use to feed their chicks. No, giant petrels engage in projectile puking, a la The Exorcist, on a fucking horrifying scale. So, emetophobes beware.
This typically occurs in two distinct types of scenarios. The first is related to the birds’ fondness of food. Being opportunistic foragers, giant petrels tend to eat as much of whatever it is they claim (or slay) as possible, because there’s no guarantee that there will be another meal around the corner…something I can identify with as a graduate student. “Modest portion size” is not a part of their lexicon. They are such, er, “healthy eaters” that early European explorers to the Southern Ocean used to call them “gluttons,” a name probably further supported by the giant petrel’s habit of loitering around sailing vessels, endlessly lusting for food scraps from sailors. Sometimes, these feathered Mr. Creosotes gorge themselves to the point where they are too heavy for take-off. If a human, or anything else that can be considered a predator (something that doesn’t exactly abound in the Antarctic, for much the same reason as why there isn’t much variation in prey…isolation), gives them a spook, they’ll promptly throw their digestive tract on ‘reverse’ and expeditiously shoot a slurry of seal pancreas out all over the ice. Once they are back to their svelte selves, they can muster the strength to take to the air and evade whatever threat forced them to toss their cookies. This is a strategy used by pythons, boas, and me when I accidentally try to jog right after going out for Taco Tuesday.
The other context for this lovely behavior of assertive upchucking comes from a very different place. You see, giant petrels, as well as many other procellariiform birds, have weaponized their barf. Well, more technically speaking, it’s stomach oil, rather than the partially digested contents of its most recent meal. Stomach oil is a mixture of primarily wax esters (a fatty acid) and triglycerides (major constituent of animal fat and vegetable oil) that is very energy-rich, and is stored not in the stomach itself, but in the proventriculus, which is the first ‘chamber’ of the digestive system of birds, and is sandwiched between the esophagus and gizzard. The oil is a by-product of regular digestion, and most tubenoses make the stuff. It’s thought that it has a role in energy storage for long-distance travel, but it has a far more interesting utility as “get-the-fuck-away-from-me juice.” Giant petrels are notorious for spraying this crap at would-be attackers, including both predators and combative, rival giant petrels. It isn’t corrosive, like an acid or strong base, but it is still a potently effective chemical weapon. For mammals (including humans), the stomach oil’s revolting stench is its main deterrent. The experience is a bit like getting a cup of rancid salad dressing, two-week old bacon grease, and decomposed escolar splashed right in your face. Since the oil is well…oil…it doesn’t exactly wash out easily with water, so if you are lucky enough to showered with this liquid offering, your clothes will probably be stuck with the nauseating miasma for a very long time. This nasty, skunk-like defense mechanism is also the origin of the giant petrel’s second old-school nickname from maritime explorer times; the “stinker.”
If you are a fellow bird and you get oiled, the consequences can actually be a little more serious. Stomach oil, once cooled by the outside air, solidifies into a waxy product that ends up gluing feathers into matted clumps…and, again, it doesn’t readily dissolve in seawater. Anyone who remembers the tragic effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (or the far more recent Deepwater Horizon spill) can recall what happens to seabirds when their feathers are dowsed in sticky, heavy, oily substances.
So, yes, giant petrels aren’t exactly a bunch of charmers. Despite the fact that their goofy, webbed feet make them look like they should be trying to sell you payroll deduction insurance, these birds would certainly make their vicious, extinct, therapod cousins proud. The Antarctic is inhabited by a creature that is infamous for callously abusing the vulnerable and powerless, habitual greed, a consistently repellent demeanor, and for spouting copious amounts of loathsome filth out of its mouth. And no, I’m not talking about Rush Limbaugh. The next time you are tempted to schedule a little idyllic excursion to Terra Australis to have a life-changing, grand ol’ time marching with the fucking penguins…remember this princely, dainty beast:
There is another antagonistic avian that frequents the frozen, polar regions of our planet, but unlike the giant petrel, it can be found near both the South and North Poles (but nowhere in-between). It gravitates to the cold, harsh lands and seas, far from the warm embrace of direct sunlight, and perhaps, on a certain symbolic level, appropriately so, given that this creature has a soul as icy and brutal as the places it inhabits.
It is allied closely with the gulls (within the Lari subdivision of the aforementioned shorebird order, Charadriiformes), but it forms its own family (Stercorariidae) within the order. Perhaps even more notably, of the seven species of this group of birds, all of them reside within a single genus (Stercorarius), which is impressive considering that the ranges of some of these apparently closely related species are separated by many thousands of miles. It’s appearance betrays its close relation to the seagulls. It basically looks like a burly, brown gull that’s been excessively hardened by a life scraping out existence on the edge of Earth’s zone of habitability, and with the addition of a beak that looks to be crafted out of scalpel-sharp obsidian, it becomes clear that this bird is doing a bit more than leisurely picking at abandoned fast food in a beach park dumpster.
Stercorarius are common sights both along the coastlines and inland areas of both poles. They are, as I will explain in detail shortly, ecologically important, crafty, and efficient predators in the wilds of high-latitude nations like Russia, Canada, the Alaskan U.S., the British Isles, Scandinavia, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand (as well as various small island chains and isolated isles in the Arctic and Southern Oceans, sometimes in great numbers). Since they range over such a diversity of nations and human cultures, and are invariably imposing, unforgettable birds, it’s no surprise that they are granted unique names that distinguish them from other shorebirds. In Anglophone areas of the Arctic (Canada, U.K., the U.S.), they are commonly referred to as “jaegers”, which is derived from the German word “Jäger”, which translates to “hunter.” Yes, this is a bird which has a name (notably originating from the tongue of a Teutonic barbarian tribe) that has been associated with 30-story tall robots that beat the piss out of giant, alien sea monsters and a liver-melting liquor that tastes like cough-medicine, bad decisions, and the tears of vanquished foes…so, yes, we are off to an epic start. In Norway, it is known as the “storjo.” In parts of Scotland, the “bonxie.” In the far south of Chile, “págalo.” The Māori of New Zealand (Aotearoa) refer to them as “hakoakoa.” The Japanese know it as “Touzoku-kamome.” However, it is the name it was given by the Faroese (the indigenous Germanic peoples of an island chain between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands) that has the most usage worldwide; “skúgvur.” This name has subsequently been corrupted to “skua”…not to be confused with “ska”, which is altogether different. For example, the piercing, ear-shredding screech of the skua is far more tolerable than ska.
Why does this one group of gull-like birds get their own brand in every language? Sure, they are big, powerful, muscular birds, but they aren’t particularly distinctive in that regard. Most species have dull coloration and plain features. What makes them important enough to be considered appreciably distinct by these high-altitude cultures?
Many times this is because a certain animal has some sort of cultural significance, and it would be reasonable to wonder if the skua holds a special place of reverence in these cultures, reflected by the language. Perhaps they have some sort of role to play in the local mythos. Are they viewed as messengers of changing times, for good or bad? Are there parables about them? Do they represent guardians, or perhaps cosmic villains? Or is their strong, direct flight in the face of biting polar winds something to be admired, and therefore noted? Why has the skua repeatedly carved out a unique spot in the communal psyche of all these cultures, out of a wide diversity of fellow smelly, squawking seabirds?
The answer is that it has less to do with any sort of noble trait that is worth emulating or aspiring to…and more to do with the fact that skuas are, by bird standards, belligerent, unapologetic, hyper-aggressive, inherently amoral assholes. Basically, whenever it came time to name all the birds in each of these areas, it’s almost a guarantee that upon watching the skua for a few hours, whoever had the task of doing so wrote down the following footnote for this nefarious beast: “Note: Easily identifiable by how much of a bag of dicks it is to all the other animals.”
So, why the bad reputation? Why does this bird get the same amount of esteem as a run-of-the-mill dog fight coordinator? Why does this bird, apparently, deserve its own “Scumbag Skua” internet meme?
Well, most skuas are, at least part of the time, “kleptoparasites.” To get an idea of what kleptoparasitism is consider the following scenario:
You go into work in the morning, and deposit a perfectly crafted sandwich in the break room fridge, storing it there until lunch. You spent a lot of time piecing this masterpiece together, and you are really damn proud of your creation. Gracefully folded slices of glistening, peppered pastrami, an entire garden of exquisitely prepared, fresh veggies, crisp pickles, muted swiss cheese, a healthy splash of stone-ground brown mustard, and you even added a bit of expensive tangy mayo you picked up at the local mom and pop grocer. You wince at even the thought of calling it a “sandwich”; this is glory between two soft, rich, slices of rye. You’ve wrapped it neatly in paper (never in a goddamn Ziploc bag, that kind of egregiously unsophisticated bullshit would never even occur to you) to let it breathe, and you’ve clearly marked it with your full name in vibrant, cobalt Sharpie ink. Your mouth waters at your desk for a full four hours as you try to work over your rising hunger, your bubbling, painful anticipation. Just when the olfactory siren song that’s been looping in your brain ever since you got that first whiff of your culinary opus currently marinating in the coolness of the company refrigerator becomes unbearable, your lunch hour arrives and you briskly walk back to the break room. You are euphoric. Your hands are quaking, and your stomach is wailing and sending great thunderous bellows throughout your body…but you are elated that your patience has paid off. At long last, you can take part in the gastronomically perfect experience waiting just beyond those dingy refrigerator doors. You open the fridge, alabaster light blinding you like the brilliant glow of Heaven itself. Your smile falls, the life drains from your eyes and your heart rockets to the bottom of you, and your hunger blackens into bilious despair. Where is it? Dead space on the rack where you placed it. Is this real? You pinch yourself, hoping that you are in a nightmare. No, the welt on your skin confirms your unfortunate reality and you slip into a frantic rage, slamming the door and scouring all surfaces of the room. Maybe someone moved it and forgot to put it back, you delude yourself, eyes tearing, breath rapid and shallow. Your gaze moves to the trash can and you drop to your knees, clasping the thin plastic edges as you will yourself to peer inside. You cry out. The once carefully, intricately folded paper is in there, carelessly crumpled and empty of its precious contents, wedged in the bottom in a violated ball. The rye crumbs decorating it may as well be blood. You slump back on your heels, catatonic. Defeat. Treachery.
You’ve been sidelined by the demoralizing club of betrayal…one brandished by a very special type of person. That person? That sociopathic wad of ambulatory after-birth that plundered your lunch and lanced your very soul? That was a kleptoparasite.
A kleptoparasite is an animal that gets by, at least part of the time, by stealing prey from other predators…either by force, or by conniving thievery…as in the sandwich example. The term literally means “parasite by way of stealing”, where the Greek prefix ‘kleptes’ means ‘thief.’ A kleptoparasite is one who engages in unrepentant food looting, at any cost, and skuas are archetypal examples of those that uphold this, er, lifestyle choice.
Skuas are tenacious and fearless thieves, and don’t appear to have any qualms about barreling face first into an animal holding a fresh kill, all sharp beak and wings and shrill screaming. More often than not, this is enough to get the poor animal (almost invariably another predatory bird) to drop its prize, which can be a small mammal, another bird, or most often, a fish. Size of the target is also not much of an issue, which is astounding, considering that while skuas are big as far as shorebirds go, they often take on animals that are several times their mass; in the Arctic this can be a large eagle or a heron, and in the Antarctic this can be the oh-so lovely, blood-soaked, vomiting dynamo that is the giant petrel I described above. One well-placed hammering of an eagle’s scythe-shaped beak, or one oil bath from an ornery giant petrel, could ruin a skua’s week and/or potentially kill it. But the skua has…moxie…and goes right the fuck in there anyways…and on a regular basis, wins. This is sort of the equivalent of someone attempting to rob a bank, which happens to be filled with a dozen armed police officers, by barging in completely in the nude, screaming into a megaphone, and proceeding to wildly slap everyone in the vicinity…and somehow coming out not only alive, but with armfuls of Benjamins.
Skuas really don’t seem to care, and even if the situation is too hopelessly dangerous to take on headfirst by themselves, they’ll sit back and wait for an opportunity…or simply gather more of their criminal friends so they can organize an “Italian Job” style raid later. Threat of crippling injury and excruciating death be damned.
Skuas truly are the honey badgers of the bird world.
While many times the target is a something as simple as a seagull or a tern innocently trying to hork down a few herring, they will sometimes congregate around a seal or whale carcass…which inevitably results in tense showdowns over the spoils between other species of unscrupulous scavenging animals. I find it splendidly dinosaurian.
When skuas aren’t harassing and bullying everything around the polar schoolyard trying to score an easy meal, they are shrewd, opportunistic predators…more than capable of killing for themselves if they need to. Much of the time, their diet consists of small to medium-sized fish, and a smaller complex of species in the Arctic (the ones most commonly referred to as jaegers) are partial to feeding upon small mammals like lemmings. However, they will routinely attack adult penguins, which are many, many times their size…but not to kill and eat them. You see, adult penguins, during certain parts of the year, hide tasty, vulnerable morsels that a skua can more than handle. I’m talking about penguin eggs and tiny, fuzzy penguin chicks, both which are protected by the skin flaps around the feet of the comparatively gigantic parent. All the skua needs to do is distract the adult with repeated stabbing with its spur-shaped beak, and it can root in underneath and dislodge the helpless egg or baby with lightning fast precision.
It’s like the story of David and Goliath…if David nonchalantly gulped down Goliath’s infant children as effortlessly as Kobayashi inhales hotdogs.
Nothing is safe. When a skua is around, there’s a good chance someone is going to die. Cute puffins? Pathetically one-sided aerial dogfight ends predictably violently. Dead. Oystercatcher, minding its own business? Head dashed against rocks. Also dead. One of those coveted penguin eggs? Over-easy. Full grown sheep? Fuck them too.
The skua, cold, calculating, exceptionally bright, and not squeamish about brutally taking what it desires, would have been a fine pet choice for Gordon Gekko. This bird, this depraved, deadly amalgamation of seagull, hyena, and butterfly knife, has a moral compass so twisted and rusty it’d make any serial killer blush.
But, the skua does manage to consciously spare one being from its sadistic bloodshed…its own progeny. Yes, the only thing that isn’t subjected to intimidation and violence from these delinquents are young skuas and skua eggs. Their vicious habits don’t extend into cannibalism (although the young chicks typically have a Spartan upbringing, which ends up resulting in fratricide in the nest…so yeah, they start off with the murdering in the cradle), which I suppose is to be expected.
For their eggs and young, skuas channel the unbridled machinery of their malevolence towards an aggressive defense of the nest, where they unflinchingly dive-bomb anything that strays too close (including humans). So, you know, there are no baby showers at the Stercorarius residence. This strategy of recklessly swooping at everything that moves, with all the paranoia of a meth-head renting a space below a guy who watches Cops really loudly, is sometimes combined with a behavior unique to some populations of skua that may potentially be a boon to fitness. In some populations of the brown skua, Stercorarius lonnbergi, off the coast of New Zealand in an island chain known as the Chatham Islands, the mating system of choice is of the cooperative variety. That is, specifically speaking, polyandry; in which one lady bird is paired with two or more gentleman birds. This setup occurs in other bird species from time to time, but almost always in really stable, terrestrial, non-migratory species that experience very high population density. Shorebirds and seabirds are almost unfailingly monogamous, so this breeding behavior in these specific populations of skuas is a bit unprecedented. We don’t yet understand if this reverse harem situation is conferring some sort of special evolutionary benefit to skuas residing in this specific island chain, or why this breeding system developed in the first place.
One thing is certain; despite the skua’s off-putting veneer of blood-lust, carnage, and unfeeling, surgical dismemberment of baby animals…deep down, they have a soft spot for their kids. I find it appropriate that a bird that makes a living exploiting, extorting, manipulating, and terrorizing everything around them would, through their strong parental defense and support of offspring, accurately emulate the multi-generational organization of a crime family.
The third entry in this list is one that lives about as far away from a marine environment as possible; up in the highest plateaus and mountains of Eurasia and Africa. It is a “proper” bird of prey (meaning that it belongs the order containing familiar raptors like hawks and eagles, Accipitriformes), and maybe it might seem like a cop out to include something that has more conventionally T-Rex-like behavior (i.e. flaying lesser beasts with its claws and face) considering this list is supposed to honor the weird, obscure, and surprising…but I think you’ll be able to see why I’ve made an exception in this case.
Why’s that? Well, this bird, known to many as the bearded vulture, or lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus, to the ornithologist crowd), looks like a goddamned for-real dragon.
Smaug up there is actually just a vulture in name only, and is actually not that closely related to the naked-headed incarnations of vulturedom most of us are familiar with. It’s closest relative is another “vulture” from various parts of the old world (Neophron percnopterus, sometimes known as the “Pharaoh’s chicken” or, more commonly, the Eqyptian vulture), and together, these two species, alone in their respective genera, are thought to form a unique subfamily (Gypaetinae) within the greater hawk/eagle/vulture/buzzard family (Accipitridae). Lammergeiers are exceptionally uncommon, but, as a species, they don’t seem to be threatened with extinction (although there are some localized threats). Instead, their scarcity is likely a natural consequence of their truly expansive home ranges throughout mountainous territory that generally doesn’t have the food resources available to support large, dense populations of bearded vultures anyways.
…not that there should ever be any reason to doubt the lammergeier’s resilience in the face of humanity because LOOK AT IT. Seriously, this thing doesn’t even look mortal, let alone even remotely concerned with the meddling of us ground-tethered peasants. The lammergeier does seem almost entirely separated from the goings on of the rest of the animal kingdom, since it casually hangs out further up in the mountains than even the trees can grow. These heights can be 16,000 feet or more above sea level; far enough up that most humans can’t even get enough oxygen into their bodies to maintain normal physiological status…which generally includes not hallucinating, puking everywhere, and bleeding from your eyes and nose. Not only does it thrive in places that are inaccessible to humans primarily because they are that much closer to the vacuum of outer goddamn space, but it’s been known to hang out near the summit of Mt. Everest. Yes, this bird makes the highest peak on the planet, the global “Mt. Olympus”, its playground.
In addition to the apparently borderline divine character enveloping the lammergeier, is its general aesthetic embodiment of the hyper-masculine, coke-fueled fantasy themes surrounding performances and album art of metal bands of the early 1980s…an element I very much appreciate about this animal. The lammergeier looks like a literal god of rock and roll, birthed from the strings of the very first electric guitar…a being, once summoned, that arrives by ripping through the heavens, propelled purely by 170 decibels of space-time splitting vocal belt, a trail of blow and pyrotechnics in its wake, with eyes bloodshot from the strain of being so awesome. I mean for Christ’s sake, even its name, “lammergeier”, sounds like a damn Rammstein album name. This is less of a bird, and more of fire-eyed wyvern, aloft on great wings, slicing through craggy canyons and scaling glaciated mountain passes, while lightning strikes and alights the roofs of mountain cottages aflame in time with a vociferous bass line.
Oh, and it has a beard…because of course it does.
Surely, you say, such a powerful and otherworldly thing must be a force that instills widespread fear among all animals in the uplands of the Old World. How many metric tons of yak does it consume weekly? Have the Nords of Skyrim learned how to quell its anger by use of archaic, magic incantations? Does it burninate the countryside annually, or just during election years? Do goats sacrifice themselves when a dark shadow passes overhead?
These questions, which I am 100% sure you are asking yourself, are fair…but despite its appearance, there is a good reason it is known as a “vulture”, and that reason is its primarily scavenging lifestyle. A bit of confusion comes in when you examine the German translation behind the other common name, “lammergeier”; it means “lamb-hawk”, and is based upon the old, erroneous, belief that these birds are sheep slayers. It does occasionally take live prey, but it gets most of its nutrition from the deceased.
Before you fold your arms over your chest and pout about your rapidly diminishing opinion of real-life Roc that you preemptively thought palmed horses like a basketball and caused avalanches with its devilish screams, and chalk up this bird to being nothing more than a hermit eagle that has a hairstyle that makes it resemble a cooler version of a Thatcher-era Rod Stewart…know that the manner in which the lammergeier scavenges is like no other vertebrate on Earth.
When a large animal perishes in the wild, vultures are the stereotypical “early birds” to the site of the rotting carcass. They track down the meal by way of both keen eyesight and smell, and in no time are ripping into the bloated bag of goodies. With the aid of scavenging mammals, insects, and additional bacteria decomposition, the dead animal is stripped of flesh/organs/everything in no time, leaving a dry, sun-bleached skeleton. To most animals, and certainly to most birds, at this point in the scavenging/decomposition timeline, the skeleton is a fairly useless food item. It’s caloric capacity has been completely extinguished. But none of these rules apply to the lammergeier, because the lammergeier eats bones. Not bone marrow; that succulent treasure inside large bones is a treat held in high regard by a wide variety of animals. No, the lammergeier eats bones. Sure, there’s marrow attached to it, but the bones are swallowed right along with it. Straight up.
Consumption of bones as a major form of sustenance isn’t exactly common in nature. Meat and skin and offal are all far easier to digest, easier to get to, and very nutritive…bones are far less so for all of these things. Specialization in eating something as…rugged…as bones is, unsurprisingly, an uncommon evolutionary and dietary strategy when there’s so much muscle to glean from. Why eat the “stick” of the drumstick?
There are few organisms that prefer the hard stuff, and one notable example are the bone-boring worms (Osedax) that mow down on whale skeletons once they sink to the dark floor of the ocean. There is a single type of fly, the bone-skipper, which up until last year was considered extinct for the better part of a century and a half, that eerily mimics the lammergeier’s preference for bodies in late decay…although it doesn’t necessary eat the bone matrix itself, and instead breeds and lays eggs within the marrow of pre-broken bones. But these examples are both invertebrates, and osteophagy (bone eating) doesn’t really occur in vertebrates outside of the occasional herbivorous mammal supplementing its diet with the minerals from bones. The lammergeier’s making its livelihood primarily off of bone consumption is a unique one among birds, most assuredly.
So, how does it accomplish this? The first step is to make sure the bone is in manageable pieces. The lammergeier is strong enough to break and crush smaller pieces of bone it acquires with its beak, but for larger bones like the femus and the pelvis, more drastic measures must be taken. These “drastic measures” include gripping a substantially sized bone in the talons, potentially weighing as much as the bird itself, and flying off with it. The bird makes a direct flight to a spot directly several hundred feet above a collection of particularly hard and jagged rocks, where it lets go of the bone, leaving gravity to do the work of splintering the bone into shards that can be easily swallowed. I like to call this the “Newton method,” and it’s something that other birds (like crows) have done with hard nuts and snail shells on hard rocks or asphalt surfaces. The lammergeier then swoops down, checks out to see if it was successful, and if so, gobbles up the best pieces and surveys its territory for additional bones.
It’s because of this behavior that one of its oldest names is the “ossifrage”, which means “breaker of bones.” In Arab cultures, it was once called “al-kasir”, which roughly translates to “shatterer” or “breaker.” I have a hard time conceiving of a more badass series of names for an animal that looks as Herculean as the lammergeier.
Notably, this species uses the exact same method to dispatch living tortoises. The same system is used to smash the turtles’ shells, allowing easy access to everything inside. Supposedly, the ancient Greek playright, Aeschylus, was killed when he was struck in the head by a fucking tortoise falling out of the sky in the year 456 B.C. According to the story, the tortoise was dropped by an “eagle” that apparently thought the shiny top of Aeschylus’s head was the perfect place to cleave the reptile in two. Given the known habit of tortoise tossing by lammergeier’s, it’s possible that this species was actually the “eagle.”
Or, alternatively, someone just made up all that shit.
If you sat down and tried to eat several handfuls of bone shards and marrow, assuming you wouldn’t choke on their descent through your puny, non-lammergeier-esophagus-of-steel, you would end up having a bad time. That would be a one-way ticket to a night in the Painsville emergency room. Human stomachs, and the stomachs of a great many other vertebrates, aren’t up to the task of digesting bone even remotely close to completely. However, the lammergeier has a second trick. Not up its sleeve, but deep in its stomach. The lammergeier has remarkably strong stomach acid. I’m talking xenomorph blood strong, and this highly-concentrated, acidic environment in the stomach much more quickly dissolves both bone and the marrow inside than anything you are I could muster from our own inadequate digestive chemistries. For some context, human stomach acid is a hydrochloric acid solution that hovers around pH 1.5. This is about the acidity of lemon juice, maybe a bit stronger. Lammergeier stomach acid has a pH of half that, meaning that the concentration of acid in the bird’s stomach is an order of magnitude higher, and approximates the corrosive nature of battery acid.
Basically, if a lammergeier were to projectile vomit all over you giant petrel-style, the stomach acid would take the finish off your face like you were a Nazi taking a peek at the Ark of the Covenant.
If you still aren’t convinced that the lammergeier is the most ludicrously hardcore bird to honor our planet in the modern era, get a load of how these animals go about making baby bone-destroyers. Lammergeiers relinquish their hold on their stately, solitary lifestyle cruising between cliffs, scanning their world for woefully unsmashed bones, for one thing only; to…well, bone, so to speak. And it is a sight to behold. Apparently, when two such supernaturally awesome creatures come into close contact with one another, the fabric of the universe that binds basic physics together breaks down. The meeting of complementary lammergeiers for the purpose of copulation is like breaking the speed of light….the consequences are breathtaking and a little terrifying.
The courtship display begins (presumably after deafening, introductory mating calls made up of nothing but brain liquefying guitar solos and thunderclaps) with the lammergeiers meeting in mid-air. This followed by a spiraling, acrobatic dance a thousand feet above the rocks below, full of free-fall plummets back down to earth, talons locked together, only to separate at the last possible moment and start over again. The performance, full of unfathomable g-forces, in-flight engaging and disengaging, resembles a season-ending, frenetic fight scene in Dragonball Z, not foreplay. Hills crumble. Storm clouds gather. Zeus himself watches from on high and weeps, in awe…and to be honest, a little bit of arousal.
Eventually, the deed is done, and another one or two kings or queens of the Ceiling of the World are hatched the coming months.
So, the lammergeier may not be a flame-spitting feathered serpent summoned directly out of a Tenacious D song, but it certainly looks the part. Lammergeier are, in actuality, not particularly aggressive (they don’t even really make noises, let alone battle with other organisms)…but only because they never need to be.They are the solemn, patient tail-end of the scavenging train in their ecosystem. They have no interest in the chaos of devouring viscera that their bare-headed cousins engage in. They are content to wait until the skeleton’s riches go unappreciated. Lammergeiers aren’t ‘angry birds’ in that sense, in the way of the skua and the giant petrel. But they hold a symbolic role in their world that I find significantly more chilling: Other scavengers, the crows, griffon vultures, jackals, maggots, beetles, hyenas, etc., remove everything but the framework of the animal, the scaffolding, the internal structure that the skeleton provides. Without the lammergeier, these would slowly be corroded by high-altitude wind and sun, bleaching and powderizing over hundreds of years, perhaps even fossilizing. The lammergeier steps in and acts as a force of nature, blazing through eons of environmental erosion within the caustic chamber of its own gullet. It is in this sense that the lammergeier fully breaks down the remains of the animal, even the last, hard leftovers, and actually forms, directly, the last link in the circle of life. The last link that returns the deceased animal’s carbon, nitrogen, and amino acids right back into the earth.
It is in this way, this inescapable finality that this bird provides, that the lammergeier is the most appropriate avatar to associate with Death.
Other scavengers clean up the mess. The lammergeier brings them Home.
Image credits:shoebill intro image,potoo,sea captain,giant petrel in snow, giant petrel eating seal, bloody giant petrel (Laurent Demongin), bloody giant petrel (face) (Laurent Demongin), skua in flight, skua face, skua and penguins, skuas and giant petrel, dinosaur showdown paleoart credit to: “Thunder Across the Delta”, Mark Hallett (1996), lammergeier, lammergeier in flight
© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
” While it is thought that navigation back to these colonies relies on ASTROLOGICAL cues!
I think you mean astronomical clues. Or do you mean they wait until Jupiter is rising in the third house over Capricorn and Taurus in the ascendancy?
Oh, that is a most unfortunate typo. Fixed.
Thanks for pointing it out.
I must add. I absolutely loved this post (and your blog in general) and I read it out loud to my kid (who just got an A* in his biology test). The combination of absolutely awe inspiring science and biting humour makes for very readable, very enjoyable essays
The lammergeier is now officially my favourite bird. Wow what a totally magnificent beast. . Thanks for the post and please keep posting You are appreciated.
Thank you so much! That is really nice to hear. I’m glad my writing is being shared with and appreciated by both yourself and your child. And I’m glad I’ve spread knowledge of such a lovely and impressive bird to you!
Damn, son. Another hugely informative and hilarious entry. So glad SYDKAB is back!
Thanks Lara! It feels good to be back. Now if I can manage to update a few times a month, I’ll be set.
Golden eagles are also known to drop tortoises, so perhaps it really was an eagle who killed Aeschylus after all. Doesn’t diminish the grandness of lammergeiers though. One additional factoid about them that would fit right in with this post is that, despite being mostly scavengers, there are anecdotal accounts of them killing large mammals by driving them off cliffs.
Thank you for the article, it’s really interesting. I wonder what’s the point in eating bones, if they have no more nutritional value than limestone. Bearded vulture must shit whitewash lol. Perhaps it’s scraps of bone marrow inside the bones that the bearded vulture actually feeds on?
Yes, they are really after the marrow clinging to the bone pieces that they eat whole. But instead of scraping out the stuff like other animals do (something that’s pretty hard for a bird to do; no long tongue, no front limbs to provide leverage), it just gobbles the shards as they are.
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All of this article was wonderful, but the comparison of the lammergeier to the grim reaper was so poetic and beautiful. I know you are usually going for a cracked-esque level of humour-with-learning, and maybe you think I’m joking or something; I’m not though, you got seriously beautiful and deep there at the end.
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