BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
When it comes to strange bird names, even biologists sometimes need a little convincing about etymology.
The best family vacation I ever had was in the Galapagos Islands. Located six hundred miles off the western coast of Ecuador, these islands are among the world’s most famous ecological wonders. It was here that Charles Darwin studied many birds—especially Galapagos finches—in developing his science-shattering studies that led to his theories of natural selection and species evolution. The Galapagos are also famous as nature preserves where birds and other animals have no fear of humans.
I had long heard this reputation, but as a career wildlife photographer and biologist, I was very skeptical that wildlife—especially birds—would allow humans to walk right up to them without flying away. Plus some of the names of the birds just sounded ridiculous. Blue-footed boobies—please, who ever heard of such a thing? They can’t possibly be real!
A pair of Blue-Footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) sit on their nest in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
The first island we visited in this natural wonderland, Española, provided me with all the proof I needed. As we glided breathlessly along the trail accompanied by our naturalist guide, we had to carefully plan each step to avoid crushing an egg, nest, or even an entire bird. We walked right through the middle of huge rookeries full of nesting masked, red-footed, and—yes, there they were in all their cerulean splendor—blue-footed boobies by the thousands!
OK, so exactly what, you may ask, is all this “blue-footed” nonsense anyway? As you might guess, it has to do with attracting the ladies. The males with the bluest feet are the ones that are the most successful at catching nutritious fresh fish. In fact, when boobies are kept in captivity and fed already dead or frozen fish, the color of their feet starts to fade within two days. Thus the combination of the males’ fabulously bright blue feet—signaling “hey, I’m the best provider”—and some nifty prancing, dancing, and stamping quickly has the females falling for the showiest males, and the nesting games soon begin. The blue-foots also use their fabulous feet in the chick-rearing process, using them to cover the nestlings for extra warmth.
Flying in tight formation like fighter jets from the movie “Top Gun”, blue-footed boobies dive head-to-tail in search of their piscatory quarry. (Photo Copyright: Walter Rijk — Galapagos Conservation Trust)
Spanish explorers called the blue-foots bobo, meaning stupid, because they appeared clumsy on land. But when we got back to our tour boat and watched their amazing aerial artistry, the word awesome—not stupid—was what came to mind. A large feeding flock of blue-foots repeatedly soared up to more than fifty feet above the water. When they spotted fish down below, they turned into sleek avian guided missiles, folding their wings against their bodies, sticking their necks and heads straight out, extending their feet behind them, and zooming down in extreme power dives. The effect was like watching hundreds of miniature torpedoes exploding below the water’s surface all at once.
Demonstrating their amazing aerial artistry, a flock of blue-footed boobies dive-bombs a school of fish. (Photo Copyright: Christopher Swann)
Text excerpted from book: Bird Brains: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.