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Ulm Sparrows

As an old story from Germany goes, workers building the world’s tallest church were preparing to install an immensely long beam, but they couldn’t get it through the city gate. Preparing to dismantle the city wall to clear a path to the construction site, workers saw a House Sparrow carry a long... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history

Cetti's Warbler

It took centuries to match the Cetti’s Warbler, a secretive singer, to its disembodied song. In 1819 Italian naturalist Alberto della Marmora was walking along the River Var, in France, when he heard a song he thought he recognized. One well-aimed shotgun blast later, and he knew for sure. He... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history, vocalization

Canary in a Coal Mine

Beginning in 1911, miners in Great Britain carried a canary in a cage with them down into the mines. Why? Carbon monoxide can build to deadly levels, and it has no smell. If the canary weakened or stopped singing, miners knew to get out of the mine — and quickly. Why use a bird instead of, say, a... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history

House Sparrows' Dance

In 1559, Duke August of Saxony ordered that the House Sparrows of Dresden be excommunicated. The birds were slipping into Holy Cross Church, where they interrupted the sermon with exuberant chirping and “endless unchaste behavior” before the altar. Now their manic chirping and courtship displays... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  breeding display, history

Submarine Gulls

Among the most feared weapons deployed in World War I, submarines sank almost 5,000 ships, sending 15,000 sailors to watery graves. Scientists and navy men worked to come up with a way to detect enemy subs. One thought was to feed wild gulls from a dummy periscope, in the hope that the birds... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history

Chandler Robbins, In Memoriam

Chandler Robbins, July 17, 1918 – March 20, 2017A Long Life, Well LivedA tribute by Rick WrightIn December 1956, on the remote south Pacific atoll of Midway, a US Geological Survey ornithologist banded a female Laysan Albatross.Wisdom, as she has come to be known, is still alive more than six... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history, ornithology, recording

Thomas Jefferson's Mockingbirds

Mockingbirds, masters of mimicry, are prone to ramble on and on. Sometimes they even sing at night. Thomas Jefferson kept Northern Mockingbirds in his office and sleeping quarters, while president in the early 1800s. One of Jefferson’s pet mockingbirds — named Dick— would perch on his shoulder... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history, vocalization

The Robin's Namesake

Like the American Robin, the European Robin is a bird of yards and gardens. But it’s not much bigger than a chickadee. The robin’s likeness turns up everywhere from Mother Goose rhymes, Peter Rabbit stories, and whiskey labels to postage stamps and Christmas cards. On at least two occasions, the ... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history

Elephant Birds Laid Really Big Eggs

What bird laid the largest eggs ever known? To date, the record holder is the now-extinct Elephant Bird, a relative of the present-day Ostrich and other large, flightless birds, including rheas, cassowaries, and kiwis. Up to the late 1600s, Elephant Birds lived on the island of Madagascar. But by... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history

Who's Laughing Now? - Gull-billed Terns

During the summer of 1818, German ornithologist Wilhelm Schilling was visiting an island in the Baltic Sea. Out of nowhere came a small flock of seabirds he didn’t recognize. He captured one, but the fortunate others escaped. Schilling later told his friend and colleague, Ludwig Brehm, that the... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  history

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