Weird Science: Angry Birds

by Sue Lange

Take a look at that image to the left. That is not a computer simulation or some mad taxidermist’s display. That is an actual photo of a herring gull sitting on top of a white-tailed eagle. I found it in the November 5 issue of New Scientist. It was taken by Markus Varesvuo. According to one commenter out there in the Internetsphere, the reason the eagle eye looks dead is because it has an inner eyelid that it is using to protect its eye.

Good idea because actually the gull is not sitting on the eagle, it’s attacking it. Apparently the gull is protecting its young. Here’s the interesting part: “Some gulls also defecate or even vomit on the predator for good measure.” Go daddy!

A quick jog around the Internet determined the location of this altercation to be Norway. Oddly, a further search on herring gulls gave me a bunch of pages indicating the range of the bird to be in North America. Even more freaky was that the herring gulls pictured on the webpages all have nice pink legs. Take a closer look at the gams on the gull in photo. Right. Yellow legs.

This was not making sense so I defaulted to Wikipedia. Aha! There’s an American herring gull and then there’s a European herring gull. Mystery solved: this is a European herring gull.

But not so fast. Wikipedia says European herring gulls have pink legs too. There is a species of gull that used to be a herring gull, but due to the vagaries of continuously updated taxonomy, it is now considered a separate species. Guess what its name is? Right. Yellow-legged gull.

Do yourself a favor. Do not try and research this further. If you do, you will hurt yourself. You can see why if you very quickly sample the Wikipedia entry:

“The Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis), sometimes referred to as Western Yellow-legged Gull (to distinguish it from eastern populations of yellow-legged large white-headed gulls)… was formerly treated as a subspecies of either the Caspian Gull L. cachinnans, or more broadly as a subspecies of the Herring Gull L. argentatus. It is named after the German zoologist Karl Michahelles.”

Thank you Mr. Michahellas. Are we sure that it’s not really the gull formerly known as the yellow-legged large white-headed?

I don’t even dare to check out white-tailed eagles. I mean couldn’t that bird just as easily be a “brown-feathered, white tail-tipped eagle.” Or maybe the “buff-headed, black-winged eagle” or the “brown-headed, devious demeanored, slightly-paranoid eaglet.” Or something.

And you thought birds were boring.

By the way, Markus Varesvuo’s photos (including the one above) have been published in a book entitled Birds Magic Moments. For info, visit the publisher’s website.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. Read a free chapter or get your copy right here at BVC.

This essay was originally posted at the Singularity Watch blog on December 4th, 2011

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Weird Science: Angry Birds — 3 Comments

  1. It probably has less to do with the vagaries of orinthologists, as the proclivities of gulls. Trying to categorize all of those half-breed and quarter-descent gulls would turn your hair white. That’s why they like DNA testing.