Creature of the Week #8: the Budgerigar

Coming to you a bit late this week — I kept picking this up late at night, then holding onto it for hours when folks are more likely to actually be awake. 😉 Hope that you all have had a good week, and hope that all of you on the east coast are staying safe.

This week’s Creature of the Week is one of the most widely known pet birds in the western world — but some quick announcements first!

If you’re into podcasts, interviews, fantasy, video games, gryphons, or fun hosts, you might want to check out this podcast interview courteously given by Shaun and Jen at Skiffy and Fanty. Origins of Andovar, and (I think) its place in the greater world of fantasy fiction, with nods to player rights, gryphons, escapism, and more.

A few reviews came in this week: [info]rdansky‘s review is in the lovely latest issue of Bull Spec. It’s not in the sample this time, but the issue (like the others) is well worth purchasing. Shaun of the aforementioned Skiffy and Fanty has also posted a review of Sword of Fire and Sea up at his blog, in which he says, in part:

In many respects, Hoffman’s balance between adventure, manipulated cliche, and character make for a compelling novel that is a lot of fun to read. Personally, I am not an adventure fantasy fan, and I have a very short leash for the trappings of the fantasy genre. But Sword of Fire and Sea navigated those trappings in a way that allowed me to get lost in the excitement.

Finally, Jon Sprunk has some kind words for Sword, available on Amazon or GoodReads:

Erin Hoffman’s debut shows a remarkable deftness in storytelling and beautiful language. Some of her descriptions are so good they actually made me stop and read them again just to appreciate the lilt of the prose. This is an adventure story with heart.

If you enjoyed Sword of Fire and Sea, you might also enjoy Jon’s Shadow’s Son, assassin-focused fantasy with a rich world and characters I liked and connected with immediately. (And really, who isn’t down with the stabby-stabby? Jerks, that’s who.) Amazon seems to like to pair our books together.

Now back to the budgie!

Chances are you already know what a budgie (formally “budgerigar”) is, even if you call it a “parakeet” — but there’s also quite a lot you might not know about them. They’re colony breeders, and remarkably tough for such little birds — high survival attributes that also made them very adaptable to captivity. Their small size and relative ease of care also make them very common pets. Perhaps because they are so common — and inexpensive — their intelligence is not widely recognized, even though they’re among the smartest birds in the world.

Larger African Grey Parrots (like Vasya) and performing Amazons are well known for their intelligence and ability to mimic — but to this day, the bird with the largest human vocabulary in the world (an amazing 1,728 words documented by the Guinness World Records) was a budgie named Puck. By comparison, the famous Alex the African Grey — who at the time of his death was learning to read and understood the concept of zero, among other feats — had a vocabulary of only about a hundred words.

The use of the budgie’s remarkable mimicking ability in the wild has also been studied with regard to communication in a budgie flock. Budgies in the wild live in gigantic colonies of up to thousands of birds. Considering each bird’s amazing ability to communicate and express a huge variety of sounds, the patterns of sound communication through a budgie flock can be fascinating. Studies have been done on budgie flocks where scientists isolate a handful of birds, teach them a unique sound pattern, then release them back into the flock. The instructed sound pattern will be mimicked throughout the flock, passing through it like a wildfire — for a certain time. The birds teach the sound to each other, but then one bird will modify the sound and pass along the modified version — kind of like a game of “Telephone” — and the sound mutates it, turning it into something else, and the old version dies out entirely. These morphing patterns of communication and sound have been compared to human slang, or could be compared to any sort of memetic communication (lolcat, anyone?). Not only can budgies rapidly learn sound patterns and teach them to other birds, they make up their own language tokens and spread those as well.

So, in addition to having some of the most amazing eyes in the animal kingdom (almost all birds are tetrachromatic in addition to seeing ultraviolet and having amazing motion perception), budgies in particular have amazing ears, and hear at a rate of approximately 10x faster than humans — which is why their warbles sound so garbled to us! Slow that sound down and you experience it more like a budgie, the Micromachine Man of the bird world. Budgies also have a superhuman ability to recover from deafness if the cilia in their ears are damaged (in a human, such loss is permanent).

Birdsong in particular has been studied by several genera of scientists for centuries, both for its communication insight and for sound processing. Studies have shown that not only can small “twittering” birds hear at radically different rates than we can, their brains enable them to sift through types of sound much more efficiently than ours, enabling them to hear each other and communicate across long distances even in noisy environments. Think about that the next time you consider calling someone “bird-brained”!

While its ubiquity in homes all over the world makes it easy to underestimate, the budgie is an amazing creature, worthy of consideration and care. Sometimes the most amazing features of nature are right where you least expect them!

Creature of the Week #6: The Burrowing Owl

Welcome to Creature of the Week #6! First a public service announcement: Sword of Fire and Sea is live on Amazon Kindle! It’s been up for about a day and has popped onto a “top 100” list, so many of you have found it already, but this is a more persistent heads-up. 🙂 Two nice reviews have also come in, one from Scott Barnes at NewMyths.com, who calls SWORD “a swashbuckling fantasy adventure reminiscent of the golden age of high fantasy dominated by the likes of Terry Brooks and Tad Williams.” He also offers up an observation on fantasy politics:

Hoffman has created a fun world populated by gryphons, elemental witches, pirates, and goddesses. I greatly enjoyed the maritime setting, the salty air and cry of gulls never far from my imagination. Many high fantasies ignore commerce all together, as if the economies of their worlds ran on warfare alone and food grew in people’s bellies. But Hoffman’s world is based on politics and trade and the correct assumption (very relevant in today’s political climate) that people in power have the most to lose from change and often will accept a worse fate for their countries in exchange for the status quo.

Thanks, Scott!

This week’s creature was also chosen by voting on the the World of Andovar page! It is, in a way, a hybrid of the two top vote-getters, being both “something from the sky” and “something from down below the earth”: the fabulous little burrowing owl. These guys are so cute that it’s hard to pick just a couple of photos of them, but I did my best.

Burrowing owls have attracted recent attention from conservationists as habitat destruction has driven them into endangered species status in Canada. They’re threatened in Mexico, and under observation in the western US, which comprises the rest of their range. According to Defenders of Wildlife, their wild population is estimated at less than 10,000 breeding pairs.

The burrowing owl isn’t the smallest owl in the world (that’d be the elf owl, but it’s pretty close! With length averaging between 6-10″, males and females being the same size (unusual in raptors). Unlike most owls, burrowing owls are not completely nocturnal, and hunt (insects and small rodents mostly) during the day. They strike prey with their feet, and makes its nest in holes dug out of the ground. Baby burrowing owl chicks can fly at six weeks of age, and make a rattlesnake-like hissing noise when threatened.

Cute enough for the silver screen, the latest highly recognizable Hollywood burrowing owl is Digger, first appearing in Kathryn Lasky’s The Capture, and one of the main characters if the stunning Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole AnimalLogic film.

What do you think? Would you want to meet an owl gryphon?

Just saying… 😉

(Okay, can’t help it. Some more photos, these guys are too cute.)

What do you study?

I went out for lunch yesterday and came back with a large skull that tested the (thus far) good-natured tolerance of my new coworkers. It’s a sculpted replica from a Phorusrhacos, a five-foot-tall mid-Miocene flightless raptor ([info]skkyechan, are they technically raptors?) from Patagonia. When I saw it in the window I thought it might have been from an argentavis and initially had this falsely confirmed, but all that really mattered was that it’s a giant carnivorous bird skull and I had to have it.

It came from The Bone Room, which is dangerously close to my new office and therefore at high risk of taking all of my moneys. The shopkeeper said she could get me a confuciusornis by special order. And they have tons of bugs. And a bumper sticker reading “Australopithecus ends in ‘US’!”

Flighted ancestor or not, it’s probably the closest I’m going to get to a gryphon anatomical reference without commissioning something unnatural. There don’t seem to be commonly available casts of argentavis parts, but if there were, they’d probably look more vulture-like than I’d like anyway. (But they’d be damn cool.)

The store likely exists because of our proximity to Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology and associated research departments, so the fact that I was asked “what do you study?” was perfectly reasonable. But apparently I had the wrong answer, because I was asked twice by the same person in the course of my information gathering on how accurate this stuff was and, uh, whether I could get a confuciusornis. And this after I’d explained that I work up the street at a game design company. I even said “video game design”, which probably still didn’t compute. Yes, sorry, I am a non-scholar, a dirty impostor, in your shop and asking entirely nerdy questions about your bones. But she did sell me the skull anyway. And then asked what I studied again.

The appropriate response, which (in my exuberance over the phorusrhacos) I missed, was: I’m a game designer. I study everything.