By Bryan Stevens
My ruby-throated hummingbirds set a new record this year, lingering until Oct. 17. Although present on the morning of that date, I didn’t see any that evening. The next morning, their absence — quite notable and somewhat saddening — continued. In all likelihood, I won’t see any more ruby-throated hummingbirds until next April. I hope they arrive early.
Carolyn Baker Martin commented on the post I made on Facebook about the departure of the hummers. Carolyn noted that 2018 has been an interesting year for birds and flowers. Carolyn, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, also shared a recent observation she made of a hummingbird behavior that I’ve never personally witnessed.
“I had a hummer recently in torpor,” Carolyn wrote in her post. “It sat on the feeder a long time without moving or feeding. Finally, a tail feather began to move. It fed constantly for one more day and was gone.”
Despite their small size, most hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated hummingbirds, are less frail than they appear. Torpor is a biological adaptation possessed by hummingbirds and some other creatures that lets them survive a serious cold spell. It’s not quite the same thing, but think of these tiny birds as voluntarily going into a coma when they enter torpor. Comatose or catatonic creatures are a staple of some horror and suspense films, so perhaps a look at how some birds can induce shivers along the spine is in order in view of the celebration of Halloween this week.
The ultimate coma victim is the fabled zombie, but that’s not likely to afflict any of our feathered friends, right? Well, consider the great tits of Hungary, which are relatives of our tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee. These birds — at least the Hungarian ones — have apparently acquired a taste for brains.
Not human brains, thankfully. The victims of these brain-hungry great tits are a species of bat — a flying creature often associated with the modern celebration of Halloween, as well as legends about vampires — that shared the habitat of these birds in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. As it turns out, the tits only hunted bats, in this case a tiny species known as common pippistrelle, out of dire necessity.
Bat ecologists Péter Estók and Björn M. Siemers, after observing the odd behavior of the great tits during some winter seasons, conducted a study to see if great tits are consistent devourers of bats’ brains. They discovered that the birds did hunt the bats and had even learned to detect a special call the bats make as they emerge from hibernation. The ecologists conducted their study over two years and learned that the great tits teach others of their kind the special art of hunting bats. They also learned that the birds made efficient killers, dragging the bats from their roosts and cracking their skulls to get at their brains.
However, when provided with plenty of alternative food, including such favorite items as bacon and sunflower seeds, the great tits chose to eat these items rather than actively hunt bats. The researchers concluded that great tits only resort to harvesting the brains of small bats during times of scarcity during harsh winters. The bizarre story is even featured in the title of a fascinating book by Becky Crew titled “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals.”
So, if humans have nothing to fear from brain-hungry birds, are there any birds that we should fear? Some experts suggest that precautions might be in order if one expects to come into close proximity with a southern cassowary, which is the third-tallest and second-heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.
The cassowary, a native of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has developed a reputation as a fearsome bird capable of injuring or killing humans. According to ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, cassowaries deserve their reputation. In his 1958 book, “Living Birds of the World,” he explained that the second of the three toes of a cassowary is fitted with a long, straight, dagger-like claw which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. According to Gilliard, there have been many records of natives being killed by this bird.
A thorough study, however, has partly exonerated the cassowary from these misdeeds. In a total of 150 documented attacks against humans, cassowaries often acted in self-defense or in defense of a nest or chicks. The only documented death of a human took place in 1926 when two teenaged brothers attacked a cassowary with clubs. The 13-year-old brother received a serious kick from the bird, but he survived. His 16-year old brother tripped and fell during the attack, which allowed the cassowary to kick him in the neck and sever the boy’s jugular vein.
So we can rest easier knowing that murderous birds that reach a height of almost six feet tall are unlikely to terrorize us should we travel to the lands down under. A more ancient relative of the cassowary, however, might have been a different story had humans lived during the same time period. Phorusrhacids, also known as “terror birds,” were a group of large carnivorous flightless birds that once had some members reign as an apex predator in South America before they went extinct around two million years ago. The tallest of the terror birds reached a height of almost 10 feet. Titanis walleri, one of the larger species, even ranged into what is now the United States in Texas and Florida.
Terror birds were equipped with large, sharp beaks, powerful necks and sharp talons. Their beaks, which would have been used to kill prey, were attached to exceptionally large skulls. Despite their fearsome appearance, these birds probably fed on prey about the size of rabbits. Perhaps not knowing this, Hollywood has cast these birds as monsters in such films as 2016’s “Terror Birds” and 2008’s “10,000 BC.”
Besides, casting birds as the villains had already been done back in 1963 when Alfred Hitchcock released his film, “The Birds,” based loosely on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film, which starred some big Hollywood names such as Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright, cast a whole new light on a “murder” of crows. Today, the film has achieved the status of a Hollywood classic. I guess it just goes to show that werewolves, zombies, and other Halloween monsters have nothing on our fine feathered friends.