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Who Was That Masked Bird?

Some birds have distinctive black feathers across their eyes
© Pat Gaines View Large

Football and baseball players sometimes wear eye black to reduce glare from the sun or stadium lights. According to scientists, some birds — including many shrikes, like this Northern Shrike — have evolved a band of black feathers across their eyes that helps in the same way. The black markings may also help the birds hunt and fool predators.

Full Transcript



Who Was That Masked Bird?

Written by Bob Sundstrom

[Masked Shrike]
This is BirdNote.
The next time you’re watching a baseball game, pay attention to those dark patches under the players’ eyes. It’s called eye black. Players use it to reduce glare from the sun or stadium lights. 
Many birds have evolved areas of dark feathers across their eyes. Shrikes have a wrap-around sunglasses look, and kingbirds have something similar. Both hunt from exposed perches in the bright sunlight.
Some scientists think the markings help disguise where the bird is looking, helping to catch prey off guard.
Scientists in Israel tested this theory with Masked Shrikes.
[ Masked Shrike ]
Some shrikes were temporarily “unmasked”: the researchers whitened the black feathers. These birds altered their normal hunting angle, facing away from the sun’s glare instead of into it. Success in catching prey dropped.
The researchers think the shrikes that hunt facing into the glare are less easily detected, because they don’t cast a shadow in the direction of their prey.
[Red-breasted Nuthatch ]
Some birds that live in the shade, like this Red-breasted Nuthatch, also have bold black markings across the eye. And still others have black masks only seasonally, and some only in one sex.
Just how these markings work is still a question for future research.
But for the Masked Shrike, a black mask makes it a lot easier to get its next meal.
[ Masked Shrike ]
For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Arnoud B. van den Berg and Geoffrey A. Keller.
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Managing Producer: Jason Saul
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
© 2018 Tune In to   July 2018   Narrator: Michael Stein
ID# mask-01-2018-07-11  mask-01

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