The idea of making a game about the birds of the UFES (Federal University of Espírito Santo, in southeast Brazil) campus was a sum of long-brewing factors. I have always been interested in the souvenirs offered to people at natural parks, zoos, aquariums, shrines and other similar spaces, especially when regarding the biodiversity and the landscapes of the place. It is beautiful? Funny? Cheap? Does it have educational value? I always asked myself these questions in search of a souvenir that pleased my biologist and traveler self.
In 2016 I was able to spend a few months in the USA, where I visited several natural parks and of course, brought back many souvenirs and ideas. With the end of my degree in Biology, my advisor Viviana Borges (who had some experience with natural parks in South Africa) and I put the ideas together and decided that I would turn a campus bird survey I had done at the beginning of my degree into a game of collectible cards. Then, SuperAves was born.
In the game, each card represents a species, containing its popular name, scientific name, and some features of the bird species it represents, such as: weight, size, year of description (“discovery”), number of eggs it usually lays, its geographic distribution in Brazil, and a bit of trivia. The cards are bilingual: in Portuguese and English.
The game starts with all the cards in a pile, and each round all players take one card and keep it to themselves. In each turn, a new player chooses one of the characteristics of the card that he believes to be superior to the card of other players. Whoever has the highest value for that trait wins the round and obtains the other players’ cards. In the next round, new cards are taken from the pile, and that’s how it goes until the end of the game, where the player who accumulated the most cards is the winner.
In addition to the common bird cards, there are two instructional cards (one of rules and one explaining what each bit of information on the cards represents) and one special card that beat the others, called SUPERAVE. Naturally, it is important that, as an educational tool, the teacher or mediator who applies the game clearly explains that one bird isn’t better than another.
In the Biology events where I presented the game, everyone asked how much it costs! – which makes me very happy, since it means that people liked it so much, they are willing to pay! At the moment, as the initial production demands a certain investment, I only produced a pilot deck, but I am looking for a partnership with the regional public power (so that the game could be distributed in public schools), and with the private sector too (like zoos , aquariums, etc.), proposing customized versions of the game for each of these locations, while I continue to improve the layout of the game.
We hope this game will increase students’ interest in science and biology, facilitate learning about biological diversity, zoology and even ecology, and bring back some interest in the natural world from the lay public, which seems to have decreased over time. The game can be easily played (and collected) by children from 10 years old, or when they become able to read well, as well as by teenagers and adults, students or not. The important thing is to want to have fun and to get to know a little more about nature (in this case, birds).
About the author
Luis F. Gonzaga is a recently graduated Brazilian biologist who enjoys birds, teaches, photographs, organizes events, pies, and more recently, science outreach events. He believes in the power of partnerships to get further and better!
Dr. Viviana B. Corte is a professor in the Biological Sciences Department at UFES and supervised the SuperAves project.
 “Aves” is not only a general term for “birds” in Portuguese, but also the scientific Latin name of the group: Class Aves contains all avian dinosaurs.
Birds have fascinated humankind since forever. Their ability to fly, besides being a constant reminder of our own limitations, was a clear starting point to link birds to deities and the divine realm (Bailleul-LeSuer, 2012). Inevitably, these animals became very pervasive in all human cultures, myths and folklore (Armstrong, 1970). In fact, they are so pervasive that they have found their way to perhaps the most unlikely cultural niche: Heavy Metal.
With some exceptions, such as raptors (Accipitriformes) and ravens/crows (Fig. 1), birds are not typically seen as badass enough to feature on heavy metal album covers and songs, even though sometimes they already have the right makeup for it (Fig. 2).
As we highlighted above, the birds’ power of flight is their main feature, but they have another power up their feathery sleeves. And this feat is one that people tend to consider one of the most human endeavors of all: music. Most birds are deemed melodious creatures, like the slate-colored solitaire (Myadestes unicolor) from Central America and the celebrated nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), although some might seem almost tone-deaf (Fig. 3).
Birds (class Aves) can be largely divided in two groups: the order Passeriformes (with circa 6,000 known species) and “the rest” (several orders, totaling around 5,000 species). Members of the order Passeriformes are commonly called “passerines” or “perching birds” and include most of the species that typically comes to mind when we think of birds: sparrows, robins, starlings, blackbirds and crows. Inside Passeriformes, there is a suborder called Passeri, the “songbirds”, a group with roughly 5,000 species of animals. The vocal organ (called syrinx) of songbirds is modified in comparison to that of other birds and can produce complex sounds (Raikow & Bledsoe, 2000). Typically, these sounds result in bird song, but crows have their own way of communicating.
With all these bird species, some are bound to appear in heavy metal songs, right? We mean, besides eagles and ravens, of course. So, we decided to analyze the lyrics of thousands of metal songs in order to find ‘em birds (Fig. 4).
Here, we show how many songs talk about birds and which specific birds they mention. We also investigate how each bird groups is represented in the genre and in each subgenre. We will also talk a little bit about the biology of some of these animals to make you, our dear headbanging reader, more acquainted with this fantastic slice of Earth’s biodiversity.
MATERIAL AND METHODS
All lyrics used in this project were collected from Metal Kingdom (www.metalkingdom.net), a web compendium on metal music of diverse genres. To collect this data, we built a custom web crawler that navigated all music pages on the website. This collection yielded us three main datasets:
Bands: CSV file listing all bands found on the website.
Genre: CSV file mapping bands to their respective metal genre.
Lyrics: CSV file which contains the actual lyrics, as well a reference to the artist.
On 07/August/2018, we collected a total of 145,716 songs from 6,359 bands, spanning 368 different metal (sub)genres.
When we started going through the data we obviously ran into some problems. (If you’re not finding any problems in your data, you’re not looking hard enough!) In this section, we present some of the hurdles we had to overcome when working with this dataset.
A quick look into the data showed us a problem for our study: not all lyrics were in English. For example, below are the verses of “Ohne Dich” by German band Rammstein (2004):
“Und der Wald er steht so schwarz und leer,
Weh mir oh weh,
Und die Vögel singen nicht mehr.”
We may have some additional language skills to identify ‘die Vögel’, but we certainly won’t know every language in the dataset. Because of this, we decided to restrict our study only to songs in English. However, this posed another problem: we have no structured data about the language of each song, and this information would need to be inferred from the lyrics themselves.
Fortunately, this was also a problem for Google when deciding in which language you’re searching in during your queries, and they were kind enough to opensource their implementation. They used a Naïve Bayes approach, which achieved 99.77% accuracy when classifying news articles in over 49 languages (Nakatani, 2010). Using this approach, we managed to label almost all lyrics by language, identifying 43 different ones in the corpus. The distribution of the languages can be seen in Table 1.
This method, however, is not without its own problems. We were curious, for instance, as to why there were so many lyrics in Romanian (ro). A more in-depth investigation revealed that instrumental songs would have only the text “(instrumental)” listed as their lyrics –the algorithm struggles when classifying such short words. However, since this problem affected only songs without lyrics (that is, songs that won’t mention any birds at all) we opted to just remove them from the dataset.
Another problem we identified was homonyms: words that sound and are written the same, but have different meanings depending on the context. Consider, for example, the following excerpts:
Song: White Synthetic Noise Lyrics
Band: … And Oceans
Band: A Perfect Circle
Sorrow sings of everything but survival doesn’t seem to ring
Isolate, contain your pain to outlast the taste of misery
Show the stars and I can clear the air and love the end
Red flag red, all the sentinels are damned
The Tokyo kitty, swallow, rose, and canary
Tick tick tick, do you recognize the sounds as the grains count down
Trickle down right in front of you?
The word ‘swallow’ has clearly different meanings in these songs. In the former, it is a verb, that is, the act of causing or allowing something to pass down the throat. In the latter, however, we have a reference to a Hirundinidae bird that may or may not be able to carry a coconut.
To address this problem, we must distinguish between the different uses of homonyms. One way of doing this is classifying each word in a text by its Part of Speech. A part of speech is a category in which a word falls given its syntactic function in a sentence. In the first example above, ‘swallow’ is classified as a verb, while in the second example it is classified as a noun. Since we are interested in identifying mentions of birds in lyrics, knowing that a word function as a noun in the sentence can help us reduce the homonym problem. (Unless, of course, they are nouns for both their meanings. In this case, this approach won’t help much.)
The process of classifying words like this is known as Part-of-Speech tagging, or POS tagging in short. POS tagging can be seen as a supervised learning problem, as we can train a classifier to identify these tags given a pre-labeled dataset of token sequences and tags. For this project, we opted to use a pre-trained model available in NLTK. This default English POS-tagger consists of a Greedy Averaged Perceptron implemented by Honnibal (2013).
Let’s see how this works for our examples. POS tagging on the first one yields the following result:
The tags are represented by abbreviations from the Penn Treebank Tagset. In this case, we can see that ‘swallow’ was assigned the POS tag ‘VB’ (Verb, Base Form) and as such, should not be counted as a bird. Let’s see how this works out with our second example:
Here, ‘swallow’ was assigned the POS tag ‘NN’ (Noun, singular or mass) and as such, should be counted as a bird. However, this example also shows that this method is not perfect, as ‘canary’ received a ‘JJ’ tag (Adjective). However, since the alternative would be to manually annotate POS tags for the whole corpus, we decided to proceed with this alternative.
With both language and homonyms out of the way (well, sort of), we can finally tackle our last problem: plurals. Consider the following two examples:
Song: For the birds
Band: 8 Foot Sativa
Band: A Static Lullaby
To close my eyes
Reduce you to black
Nothing more than an insignificant shadow among the vultures
I will walk away
Scavenger, where does the vulturesleep?
And when you speak to him
Will you bring him to me, bring him to me
Scavenger, bring forth the jackals teeth
We can see that both songs mention the bird ‘vulture’: the first one uses the plural form while the second uses the singular. We wanted to count both references as the same bird, so how could we achieve that?
One solution would be to increment our list of “bird terms” to include all plurals of bird name, as well as a mapping to a root form of the word. This, however, would be a lot of work. This looks like a common problem when doing natural language processing, so we searched for what we could do to address it.
Lemmatization is the process of removing inflectional forms, finding the root word, that is, the lemma, so that they can be analyzed as a single group. It is widely used when running searches for terms in documents as a way to correctly match-related terms. Fortunately, there are various lemmatizers implementations for different languages. For this problem, we will use the WordNet lemmatizer available in the NLTK library.
Lemmatizer usually requires the POS tag of the word, but fortunately, we got that covered. Running the WordNet Lemmatizer in our first example yields the following: “Nothing more than an insignificant shadow among the vulture.”
You might be thinking: “Wait. That much work just to take out an ‘s’ from the end of the word?”. However, remember that grammatical number can be way more complex than that (e.g., goose and geese), and using a proper lemmatizer takes all that complexity into account.
OK. We detected the language of our metal songs and filtered only those in English. We tagged the part-of-speech of all our words, and we even lemmatized them to ensure consistency. What is then left to do?
Well, we need to count our birds! For this project, we decided to use a static list of bird names commonly used in cultural works. The list can be seen in Table 2.
We only counted the term in our dataset if the POS tag of it corresponded to a noun. This reduced the likelihood of homonyms such as ‘swallow’ bird and ‘swallow’ verb, but unfortunately will do nothing for homonyms such as ‘tyrant’ flycatcher (Tyrannidae) and ‘tyrant’ Cersei Lannister. The count was done in two different ways:
Occurrence counts: This method counts the number of times a word appears, counting multiple repetitions in the same song as distinct occurrences. For example, when counting the word “bird” in the classic song “Surfin’ Bird”, by The Trashmen, this counting method would yield 82 occurrences.
Song counts: This method counts the number of songs in which a word appear, counting multiple repetitions in the same song as a single occurrence. Keeping with our previous example, “Surfin’ Bird” would only wield 1 as the count of the word “bird”.
To validate our methods, let’s take a look at the top 5 most metal birds:
That corresponded with our expectations, even though we probably are suffering from a homonym problem with all those tyrants showing up. The tyrant flycatchers are not actually that metal (Fig. 5).
We also grouped our bird count by each metal genre. In this way, we will be able to run an analysis on how different birds relate to different types of metal. Given that we had 368 different metal subgenres, we had to summarize this if we wanted to run any meaningful statistical analyses. We summarized them using the definitions from Wikipedia into “just” 37 categories, listed in Table 3.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The word ‘bird’ appears in 2,222 songs, as we’ve seen above. It seems quite a lot, but on a closer look, it’s not quite: that number represents only about 1.5% of all the songs in the database. We honestly didn’t know what to expect when we started this project, so it is hard to decide if that’s a lot of birds or too few of them. We are more inclined to the latter, given that birds are such prominent symbols in most worldwide cultures.
But more specific mentions of popular bird names also appear in several songs. Some likely refer to a single species, like ‘nightingale’ (Luscinia megarhynchos) and ‘blackbird’ (Turdus merula). Most common names, however, refer to a whole group of species, like ‘eagle’ and ‘penguin’, and not to a particular species in each group. Finally, some common names, like ‘dove’ and ‘swan’, while being representatives of larger groups, in this context probably refer to the most common European forms, the rock dove (Columba livia) and the mute swan (Cygnus olor).
We present below the number of times each type of bird is mentioned in a metal song and we do this in two ways. Table 4 shows the total count (the “occurrence count” from the example above), which includes all the times a particular word pops up in the lyrics. As explained above, this includes repetitions within the same song, such as in chorus sections. For instance, ‘eagle’ appears several times in Helloween’s “Eagle Fly Free” (1988). Table 5 shows the counts ignoring all the repetitions (the “song count” from the example above). This way, ‘eagle’ is counted only once in Helloween’s song.
We think the second type of counting (Table 5) is a better representation of bird abundance in metal songs, so we will only refer to this one in our discussion below. However, if should be noted that eagles are the most used bird according to Table 4, but they come in second in Table 5, having switched places with ravens. Even though we knew from simple life experience that these two were the most metal birds, we expected eagles to get the crown in both types of count.
So now we can say with certainty that the most metal bird is the raven (Fig. 6). The word can refer to several species worldwide, but it is logical to assume that people usually think of the common raven (Corvus corax; Fig. 9) when using the word. This species is distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is one of the largest passerines alive. Ravens are omnivorous animals, extremely opportunistic and versatile, and their intelligence is well-known to biologists.
Ravens are undoubtedly one of the most common birds in folklore and pop culture but are generally regarded as birds of ill-omen and related to “evil stuff”. Thus, they are well-represented in Black and Death Metal, with respectively, 328 and 152 occurrences. However, they are sometimes associated with nicer things, like the ravens from the Tower of London (Kennedy, 2004) and Nordic mythology. The relationship with the latter is very clear given the 114 times this bird appears in Pagan Metal songs.
In second place, we have the eagle, a staple of Power Metal and original Heavy Metal (Fig. 1), with 197 and 193 counts, respectively. Eagles are very likely the most prominent bird symbol of all in Western culture (Armstrong, 1970): Zeus, the Roman Empire, European heraldry (especially Germany and Austria), and of course, ‘Murica. As the “king of birds”, the eagle is almost always a symbol of power or leadership. The ‘eagle’, however, will not be the same bird species for every headbanger: American bands and fans will always think of their national symbol, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), while others will possibly think of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) or other more regional species. Eagles are part of the Accipitridae, family together with hawks, kites and Old world vultures (see below); however, the name ‘eagle’ is given to several large species that are not actually too closely related to each other (e.g., booted eagles, snake eagles, sea eagles, harpy eagles; Lerner & Mindell, 2005).
The third most used bird is the vulture. This term does not refer to any specific vulture species, but most likely to a sort of over-generalized stereotypical representation of a vulture in popular imagination. Vultures suffer from a bad press, being often mindlessly associated with corpses, death and decay due to their scavenging diet. Unsurprisingly, it is a prevalent bird in Death and Black Metal songs, with 228 and 143 counts respectively. Trash Metal also has a good number of counts (117), but given this genre’s more political lyrics, ‘vulture’ is here often related to bad people or practices.
The popular name vulture actually refers to 23 species worldwide, distributed in two distinct yet closely related biological groups (Buechley & Sekercioglu, 2016): the Old World vultures (Fig. 7) and the New World vultures (Fig. 8). Old World vultures belong to the family Accipitridae, the same as eagles and hawks, while the New World ones (which include condors) comprise the family Cathartidae. The scavenging habits of vultures evolved independently in these two lineages and in both cases has led to some common adaptations to this way of life: large bodies and wings, powerful beaks and featherless heads (Buechley & Sekercioglu, 2016).
The fourth bird on our list are the crows. Again, ‘crow’ can refer to any out of 30-something species. The typical European black crow is called carrion crow (Corvus corone; Fig. 10); the hooded crow (Corvus cornix) is also very common in the continent, but it is not entirely black and so possibly unsuitable for metal songs. North American headbangers will be typically more familiar with the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos).
Note that all these species belong to the genus Corvus and, in fact, so does the raven (see above). People get confused about these birds all the time and often use the words ‘raven’ and ‘crow’ interchangeably. While neither word has any true biological meaning (that’s what scientific names are for, after all!), we will give you some pointers as how to differentiate the common raven from those crows. Also, after reading this, try checking all those raven and crow illustrations on heavy metal albums – you’ll be surprised how many of them are just plain wrong.
There are several differences to keep an eye out for when trying to identify crows and ravens (BTO, 2013). First off, ravens are huge, with a wingspan similar to a buzzard’s and an even larger body. If you’re uncertain about the identity of the bird you’re seeing, it’s probably a crow. When you finally encounter a raven, you’ll immediately know it. But there are other features that might help you out if the animals are seen far off, flying or just through photos.
Crows have a rounded head, with the plumage arranged neatly on the body; their beak is deeply curved and stout (Fig. 10). Ravens have very long and heavy beaks, ruffled throat feathers, a barrel-like chest and a long neck, which together gives them a heavy-headed impression (Fig. 9). In flight, crows beat their wings more heavily and their fan-shaped tail is clearly seen (Fig. 10). Ravens, however, tend to soar more; the feathers on their wing tips looks more like a raptor’s when flying and they have a long and wedge-shaped tail (Fig. 9). Finally, crows have a far-carrying “caw” vocalization, while the ravens’ calls are a deep and hoarse croak.
There are some unexpected results. For starters, we imagined hawks and falcons would rank higher on the list, as well the nightingale, which is typically associated with song and poetry. We also have lots of mentions to ducks, geese and chicken, but a good portion of them refer to expressions (e.g., sitting ducks) or, metaphorically, to people.
However, there were some actual surprises. From the list of bird “species” we initially came up with (Table 2), we had included some oddballs just to be thorough and have all avian orders represented. To our surprise, however, our search came up with some occurrences for them, like penguins, ostriches, macaws and toucans.
The song Ostrich, by American band Gloomy Grim (2000), focuses on the fallacious idea that ostriches (Struthio camelus) bury their head in the sand to hide. They do not. What they are doing is inspecting and caring for their eggs; they dig shallow nests and from a distance, it might look like an ostrich has its head buried in the sand (American Ostrich Association, 2019). In fact, ostriches have no need to hide; besides being the largest living dinosaur and having a mean kick, they are the fastest animals on two legs (Donegan, 2002; Stewart, 2006).
All mentions of penguins come from a single Swedish Black metal band called Satan’s Penguins. Several of their songs stick to the theme, such as “Antarctic Winterstorm”, “Behind Mountains of Ice”, and “Night of the Penguins”. Despite being thought of as birds from the icy wastes of our planet, most penguin species live in sub-Antarctic or temperate areas (Davis & Renner, 2003). Actually, the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is endemic to the Galapagos Islands, very close to the equator.
Battle of the genres
One curious thing to see was how each genre has its own favorite bird (Table 6). However, when we looked more closely at these results, they are entirely expected. Eagles are the stars in genres such as Heavy, melodic, Power and Speed Metal, while ravens dominate the Gothic, Folk and Pagan genres. The preference of owls in Electronic, however, is a mystery to us.
We could also check which genre is the most biodiverse, that is, which genre cites the largest number of bird “species” in its songs (Table 7). The undisputed crown goes to Death metal, with 46 species; after it, we have Power, Black and Heavy Metal all clustered together with 41, 40 and 39 species, respectively. However, this might just be an artifact of the sheer number of Death Metal songs: this genre has twice more songs in the database (a total of circa 46,000 songs) than the second genre (Black Metal, with circa 23,000). So the change of a bird popping up in a Death Metal song is just higher because of this. (Also, several species are mentioned just once and birds are not mentioned that much in their songs; see also Table 8.) The other three genres we mentioned are better balanced: Black Metal has 23,000 songs total, as shown above, while Power Metal has circa 17,000 and Heavy Metal 22,000.
The least ornithological genre is Grunge, but one could rightfully argue that “grunge’s not metal” or “who cares about grunge anyway?” So the least ornithological true genres are Dark Metal and Christian Metal (Table 7).
However, if you take into account the proportion of songs that mention birds (Table 8), Pagan Metal is the true bird-loving (or should we say raven-loving?) genre. Around 13.5% of Pagan Metal songs mention some sort of bird. The second place goes to Folk Metal/Rock, with 11.2% of songs mentioning birds. The least bird-friendly genres are Alternative Metal (1.7%) and Glam (1.9%).
And what about the songs that have the most birds? Well, we have two worth mentioning, one from a big name in metal and the other from, well, a rather obscure band. First is “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” by Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish, from the album Imaginaerum (Nuclear Blast, 2011), later also released as a single (Fig. 11). As expected from the title, there is a good avian diversity in this song: besides the three titular birds, there is also mention of the swan. The second song is “Proverbs of Hell Plates 7-10” by Norwegian black metal and avant-garde metal band Ulver, from the album Themes from William Blake’s the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Jester Records, 1998). This song mentions the peacock, eagle, crow and owl.
We have certainly been surprised by some of our findings: from ravens overtaking eagles to the odd penguin and ostrich popping up in some lyrics. As we’ve argued, birds are very diverse group of animals, and several species are deep-seated symbols in cultures worldwide. So maybe it’s about time heavy metal left the tropes of ravens, eagles and vultures on the bench for a while and let other avian stars shine (Fig. 12).
Raikow, R.J. & Bledsoe, A.H. (2000) Phylogeny and evolution of the passerine birds: independent methods of phylogenetic analysis have produced a well-supported hypothesis of passerine phylogeny, one that has proved particularly useful in ecological and evolutionary studies. BioScience 50(6): 487–499.
Henrique Soares is an engineer and machine learning enthusiast, not particularly knowledgeable in either birds or metal. When he is not working on unconventional applications of machine learning, Henrique spends his time wondering how could there be people that don’t know about the bird, because everyone knows that the bird is a word! A-well-a-bird, bird, b-bird’s a word, a-well-a…
João Tomotani is a mechanical engineer currently working with Supply Chain. Though he is more of a power/melodic metal enthusiast, he agreed to focus on birds instead of dragons in this research.
Dr. Barbara Tomotani is a biologist and the only one in this group whose work actually focuses on birds. She is not a big heavy metal fan and does not work with heavy metal birds, preferring the tiny flycatchers. But she has certainly liked the new metal bird Corviknight.
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a zoologist who lately has found himself working with a lot of bird-related stuff. One of the first songs he remembers ever hearing as a child was Walk of Life, by Dire Straits – his sister’s “fault” and an influence that eventually led him down the road to metal. He’ll quickly tell you his favorite bands are Queen and Avantasia, but he’s hard pressed to decide his favorite bird.
 We excluded ‘tyrants’ from the analysis due to the homonym problem presented above. Likewise, we excluded ‘roller’, which is typically used in the term ‘rock n’ roller’ rather than referring to the members of family Coraciidae.
 We confess none of us had the slightest idea Ulver even existed.
Wingspan is a game entirely about birds and it has been a wonderful surprise, being considered one of the hottest titles for 2019. This is the first game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave, published by Stonemaier Games, and will be available in March this year.
In this game, the players take the role of bird enthusiasts (researchers, birdwatchers, and ornithologists) and must discover and attract birds to their wildlife preserves. In board game terms, Wingspan is an engine-building game, that is, a game in which you have to establish an effective system to generate and accumulate points. There are 170 unique bird cards in the game and, as you add them to your nature preserve, they help you do more and more on each subsequent turn. In general, forest birds make you better at getting food, wetland birds help you get more cards, and grassland birds make you better at laying eggs.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Elizabeth Hargrave to understand how ornithology and ecology made their way into a board game. You can read the full interview below.
Q: To come up with a game based on birds, you must be a birdwatcher or an ornithologist, is that right?
A: Yes, I’m an amateur birder.
Q: When did your interest in birds began?
A: I’ve always been a nature lover and appreciated birds in general when I saw them, the same way I appreciated any other wildlife. I’ve always had a bird field guide and a pair of binoculars around. But I didn’t really start intentionally birding – like, going out with birds as my primary purpose – until maybe 6 or 7 years ago.
Q: What gave you the idea for a bird ecology game?
A: I felt like there were too many games about castles and space, and not enough games about things I’m interested in. So I decided to make a game about something I cared about.
Q: Did you bring into Wingspan some of your experience with birds? Your favorite species, maybe?
A: I tried to get a diverse set of birds from North America into the game, and a lot of the common ones. But some species definitely got a push just because I like them. Roseate spoonbills are only in a tiny corner of North America, but it’s the corner of North America that I grew up in, and I love them, so they’re in. There’s a lot of room with 170 cards – but it’s still only a fraction of all of the species that live in North America.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Wingspan? How does one win in a bird game?
A: You win by having the most points. A lot of your points will come from playing the birds themselves, but you can also get points by laying eggs or by using certain bird powers. And then there are specific goals and bonuses that change from game to game. You might have the “photographer” card that will give you bonus points for birds with colors in their name, or the “falconer” that gives points for predator birds. And then there are shared goals that you can compete for, like having the preserve with the most eggs in it at the end of a round.
To win, you usually have to choose to focus on some of those things over others. And you need to think about how the different powers on the bird cards could help you get there.
Q: The game’s strategy is spun around a lot of ecology. What sort of information have you brought from the real world into Wingspan? Or, better put, how much scientific data have you included in the game?
A: There is a ton of real-world information on each card. Birds get played into certain habitats on your player mat, based on their real-world habitat. And each card’s cost is food, based on some very simplified categories of the food that the birds actually eat. And each bird’s nest type could play into the end-of-round goals.
When I could, I tried to work in real-life bird behavior for the powers on each bird. For example, predator birds go hunting by looking at the top card in the deck: if the bird has a small enough wingspan that the predator could eat it, you get to keep that card and score a point for it. Nest parasites like brown-headed cowbirds get to a lay an egg on another bird’s nest when another player lays eggs. That kind of thing.
And finally, each card has a little factoid on it about the bird, and a very simplified map of which continents it is native to. Those don’t actually come into play on the game, but sometimes they might explain why a bird’s power is what it is.
Q: Do you hope the players will learn something about the birds by playing Wingspan?
A: I hope that it’s a game that you can play primarily as a game, without feeling like you’re supposed to be learning anything… and then maybe accidentally pick some things up along the way. A lot of educational games feel very preachy to me, and that’s not my intention. But I do hope that as players interact with the birds in the game, some of the real-world information that’s there is interesting to them.
Q: Suppose a player is inspired by Wingspan to do some birdwatching of their own. Would you have some tips to offer to this fledgling birder?
A: Find a list of common birds for your area, and look for them right around where you live. Once you have a few birds that you can reliably identify, things get easier.
A pair of binoculars makes a huge difference. You don’t have to spring for a super-expensive pair right away – there are decent starter pairs for the cost of a board game. But it’s incredibly frustrating to try to ID birds without being able to see all their markings.
Find a local birding club, or hit up a birder friend – most people are happy to share their knowledge, and to have you along as an extra pair of eyes. I once caused a major freak-out in a group of more-knowledgeable birders by saying “hey, what’s that one?” – it turned out to be a golden-winged warbler, a beautiful bird that very rarely visits our area.
Download the eBird app and keep lists of the birds you see. If you’re anything like me, growing your personal list will be addictive – but you’ll also be contributing to a worldwide database that ornithologists use to track trends in bird populations.
Q: Do you think ultimately Wingspan can help with bird conservation efforts?
A: As much as the industry is growing, board games are still a pretty niche hobby. But every little bit helps! I have definitely heard from gamers who have started paying attention to birds in real life because of Wingspan.
Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from Wingspan?
A: I always set out to make it a fun game first, about something that I love. If you have fun playing Wingspan, my mission is accomplished. If you can see why people love birds – or get interested in them yourself – after playing, even better.
ABOUT THE TEAM
This is the first published game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave. Bird art is by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, while art for the player mats and birdhouse dice tower is by Beth Sobel. Christine Santana did the graphic design. David Studley designed the solo version of the game, with help from the Automa team. Jamey Stegmaier managed the whole team, and worked with Elizabeth to develop the gameplay.
During his heroic career Superman fought several foes. Some of these stories are truly memorable, like The Death of Superman (1992–1993), when he faced Doomsday. But many stories just ended up completely forgotten. Granted, there are some stories that most fans prefer to forget, like the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but some are curious or weird enough to eventually deserve a fresh look. The story I’m about to tell you is one of the latter kind.
This one happened during the first years of the so-called Bronze Age of Comics (1970–1985). Comic books from the Bronze Age retained lots of elements and conventions from the preceding Silver Age, but started to introduce stories more in tune with social issues, like racism and drugs. Likewise, comics also began including environmental issues and this is the topic I will focus on here. More specifically, on extinction.
THE LAST MOA ON EARTH
It is the first story on Action Comics no. 425 (July 1973), written by Cary Bates, illustrated by Curt Swan and Frank Giacoia. It is called “The Last Moa on Earth!” and by the title alone, you can see it is about a giant extinct bird.
My goal here is to guide you through the story and offer some Biology inputs every now and then, explaining some things and “correcting” the bits the comics got wrong. I do know that writers should be free to invent and I wholeheartedly agree with that – it is science fiction after all! However, there are some sciency bits and pieces that are so simple to get right that there can be no excuse for giving the public wrong information.
The story starts off with hunter Jon Halaway in a New Zealand forest, being attacked by a giant flightless bird. He shoots and kills it, and decides to visit a local scientist (in Hawera, a town on the west coast of the North Island) to confirm his suspicions of the bird’s identity.
The scientist tells Halaway that he shot a bird thought to be extinct for 500 years and that there were once thousands of these animals in New Zealand. Both pieces of information are correct. Scientists estimated that there were circa 160,000 moa in New Zealand when Polynesian settlers arrived between 1,200 and 1,300 CE (Holdaway & Jacomb, 2000; Wilmshurst et al., 2010). There were nine species of moa in total and the Polynesians (who later became known as the Māori) had already extinguished them all by the early 1,400’s CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007; Perry et al., 2014).
The scientist then says that the bird was the largest of the moa species, Dinornismaximus. While indeed this species was likely the largest, it inhabited only the South Island of New Zealand. The species from the North Island, where Halaway was hunting, is called Dinornis novaezealandiae. So the writer got the species wrong, but we cannot truly blame him: tens of moa “species” were described throughout the years, mostly because of the huge difference in size between the sexes of some species confused early researchers. Thus, the classification of moa species was really messed up until genetic studies started to be conducted from the late 1990’s onwards.
On a similar note, D. maximus is actually an invalid name; the valid name for the South Island giant moa is D. robustus (Gill et al., 2010). That is because “D. maximus” was a second name given to describe the same species; to avoid confusion, only the first name ever used (D. robustus) is valid in these cases.
Halaway estimated the size of the slain moa at 12 feet (approximately 3.6 m), which is quite reasonable. The largest known specimens would have been 2 meters high at their backs or 3 meters high with their necks held straight up (something that they did not do; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). Moreover, Halaway’s dead bird was a female, which are typically much larger than males in the two Dinornis species (Bunce et al., 2003; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).
Box 1. What’s a moa anyway?
The moa belong to a group of birds called “ratites”, which also includes ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwi, rheas, and the extinct elephant birds. Recent research has shown that moa are not closely related to the other notable New Zealand ratites, the kiwi. Rather, they are closer to the charismatic South America tinamous (Mitchell et al., 2014; Yonezawa et al., 2017). Since tinamous still retain some ability to fly, the moa’s ancestor was actually a flying bird (Gibbs, 2016).
The loss of flight (alongside attaining a large body size) is a common occurrence on island environments where no mammalian predator is present. Other New Zealand species have also lost this ability; besides the kiwi (the typical example of a flightless bird), there are parrots (kakapo), rails (takahē) and wrens.
Halaway realizes that what he did was plain wrong. As mentioned above, during the Bronze Age comics became conscious of social and environmental problems – and extinction is a major problem, since it is usually our fault. This is important because, even though more than 350 years have elapsed after the last dodo was killed, most people still do not really grasp the idea that a species can disappear forever (Adams & Carwardine, 1900).
The “good” Mr. Halaway than devoted all his energy and resources into finding the slain moa’s egg. He succeeds and notes that the egg was being incubated in a hot spring with “strange fumes”. The egg was really big and appear egg-shaped in one panel and spherical in the other. Moa’s eggs were not spherical and not that large. Nevertheless, they were quite big and the largest known intact eggs are 20 and 25 cm tall (respectively, for the North Island and South Island Dinornis).
Halaway finally arrives in Metropolis, where he is interviewed by none other than Clark Kent. On the highway, Halaway tells Clark that he wants to redeem himself of his “unforgivable deed” and hope that scientists will figure a way to use the egg to produce more moa. The repented hunter then faints, just as the baby moa hatches and escapes, throwing the car off-balance and into a river.
Clark takes off his suit and glasses and, after he’s more comfortable in his supersuit, saves Halaway and takes him to a hospital. Now I will cut the whole weird plot short and just say that the moa created an “organic link” (whatever that is) with Halaway via a microorganism, and was draining his energy. Typical crazy comic book stuff, but that’s not the point here. So let’s get back to the baby moa.
Superman starts searching Metropolis for the runaway moa and eventually finds it flying. Yes, flying – without wings, the comic-book moa flies by “thrashing its feet at super-speed”. In fact, Superman notices that the moa can fly faster than a super-sonic jet.
Also, even though just a few hours had passed since the moa escaped, when Superman found it, the bird had already doubled in size. And these were not the only superpowers granted to the moa by the mysterious fumes.
Box 2. The moa’s archnemesis
The moa were herbivores, browsing on several types of leafy herbs, shrubs and trees (Wood et al., 2008). They were so abundant that it is thought their presence in New Zealand resulted in the evolution of a set of counter-measures in some plant lineages, which have small and hardened leaves, and sometimes also spines (Greenwood & Atkinson, 1977; Cooper et al., 1993; Worthy & Holdaway, 2002). But who ate the moa? Well, they were were so large that one would think they had no natural predators before the hungry Polynesians arrived. But that would be wrong – moa were hunted by giant eagles.
They are known as Haast’s eagles, after the naturalist who first described them, Sir Johann von Haast. They are the largest known true raptors, in both size and weight. They could reach a 2.6 m wingspan (somewhat smallish for their bulk) and 16 kg in weight, with females being larger (Brathwaite, 1992; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). To hunt and eat their massive prey, Haast’s eagles had strong legs and feet, with huge claws. Unfortunately, these amazing birds could not survive after the moa became extinct and likely did not last much longer than 1,400 CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).
The moa also gained the ability to use its feathers as projectiles that could even pierce an elephant’s hide (according to Superman). Needless to say, birds cannot do that unless they are also Pokémon. Finally, the moa could instantly regrow lost limbs, a feat that few heroes (and absolutely no birds) can achieve.
After some more fighting, Superman understands that the bird just wants to go back home – to that place with the fumes and the lonely pink flower. Superman realizes that the flower is a “Quixa blossom”, as he calls it, and says it is a rare plant found only in northwest New Zealand.
Since my knowledge of plants is fairly limited, I asked a New Zealand botanist for help with this one. I was told that there is no flower with that name in the country and actually nothing that even remotely looks like it.
In any event, Superman finds the moa’s home and takes it back there, thus stopping the energy draining effect and saving Halaway. Superman then proclaims the area a “moa preserve” and sets up a fence around it. A thoughtful move, but one that completely overlooks the fact that the supermoa could fly.
The story ends with Halaway saying that “the world owns the moa another chance for survival”. Unfortunately, reality is not so kind: our species has wiped the moa off the face of the Earth and there is no second chance.
Overall, if you ignore the superpowers and the “organic link” stuff, this Superman story is actually a nice portrayal of an extinct species and its tragic fate on the hands of humankind. If nothing else, I hope it has inspired a reader somewhere to become a scientist or to fight to preserve other endangered animals.
Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. (1990) Last Chance to See. William Heinemann, London.
Brathwaite, D.H. (1992) Notes on the weight, flying ability, habitat, and prey of Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Notornis 39: 239–247.
Bunce, M.; Worthy, T.H.; Ford, T.; Hoppitt, W.; Willerslev, E.; et al. (2003) Extreme reversed sexual size dimorphism in the extinct New Zealand moa Dinornis. Nature 425: 172–175.
Cooper, A.; Atkinson, I.A.E.; Lee, W.G.; Worthy, T.H. (1993) Evolution of the moa and their effect on the New Zealand flora. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 8: 433–437.
Mitchell, K.J.; Llamas, B.; Soubrier, J.; Rawlence, N.J.; Worthy, T.H.; et al. (2014) Ancient DNA reveals elephant birds and kiwi are sister taxa and clarifies ratite bird evolution. Science 344: 898–900.
Gibbs, G. (2016) Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Fully Revised Edition. Potton & Burton, Nelson.
Gill, B.J.; Bell, B.D.; Chambers, G.K.; Medway, D.G.; Palma, R.L.; et al. (2010) Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquairie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica. Te Papa Press, Wellington.
Greenwood, R.M. & Atkinson, I.A.E. (1977) Evolution of divaricating plants in New Zealand in relation to moa browsing. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 24: 21–33.
Holdaway, R.N. & Jacomb, C. (2000) Rapid extinction of the moas (Aves: Dinornithiformis): model, test, and implications. Science 287: 2250–2254.
Perry, G.L.W.; Wheeler, A.B.; Wood, J.R.; Wilmshurst, J.M. (2014) A high-precision chronology for the rapid extinction of New Zealand moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 105: 126–135.
Tennyson, A. & Martinson, P. (2007) Extinct Birds of New Zealand. Te Papa Press, Wellington.
Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108(5): 1815–1820.
Worthy, T.H. & Holdaway, R.N. (2002) The Lost World of the Moa: Prehistoric Life of New Zealand. Canterbury University, Christchurch.
Wood, J.R.; Rawlence, N.J.; Rogers, G.M.; Austin, J.J.; Worthy, T.H.; Cooper, A. (2008) Coprolite deposits reveal the diet and ecology of the extinct New Zealand megaherbivore moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 27: 2593–2602.
Yonezawa, T.; Segawa, T.; Mori, H.; Campos, P.F.; Hongoh, Y.; et al. (2017) Phylogenomics and morphology of extinct paleognaths reveal the origin and evolution of the ratites. Current Biology 27: 68–77.
I am very grateful to Dr. Carlos Lehnebach for the help with flower, to Alan Tennyson for helping me to correct some mistakes on moa/eagle biology, and to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for allowing the usage of the photographs herein.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist/ zoologist who studies mollusks, but just happens to have a soft spot for giant flightless birds. He is a diehard DC Comics fan, but to be honest, he never really liked Superman. Instead, he prefers to read the stories of the caped crusader and his extensive Gotham “family”.
Dinornis means “terrible bird”, just like dinosaur means “terrible lizard”.
 The largest tibia (a leg bone) ever found belongs to this species, being 1 m long (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).
 Tinamous are not typically included in the ratites group, rather being historically considered a separate (basal) lineage and grouped together with ratites in the more inclusive “palaeognaths” group. However, the work of Mitchell and collaborators (2014) have placed the tinamous well inside the ratites.
“The system of life on this planet is so astoundingly complex that it was a long time before man even realized that it was a system at all and that it wasn’t something that was just there.” ―Douglas Adams, 1990
Douglas Noel Adams was born on 11 March 1952 in Cambridge, UK, and grew up to become one of geekdom’s most revered icons. Adams is the author of… Well, that is pretty obvious and I should not have to write this down, but I will nonetheless, just because I won’t be able to sleep well otherwise. So bear with me for a moment – here goes: Adams is the author of the trilogy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the self-proclaimed world’s largest trilogy, with five books in total.
However, unbeknownst to many of his fans, Adams was also an environmental activist. He spearheaded or participated in several conservation initiatives, such as Save the Rhino International. His history with conservation started in 1985, when the World Wide Fund for Nature (better known as WWF) and British newspaper The Observer partnered up, sending writers to visit endangered species to raise public awareness (BBC, 2014). Adams travelled to Madagascar in search of a lemur species, the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). As he put it, “My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise” (LCtS: p. 1).
In Madagascar Adams met not only weird lemurs, but also British zoologist Mark Carwardine. They enjoyed the experience and decided to travel the world to see other endangered animals. I mean, Adams and Carwardine travelled the world, not the lemurs; the lemurs stayed in Madagascar as far as anyone can tell. According to Carwardine, “We put a big map of the world on a wall, Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey out of every place that had two pins” (BBC, 2014).
Their travels resulted in Last Chance to See, a BBC radio documentary series that aired in the end of 1989. The companion book (by Adams & Carwardine, 1990, henceforth abbreviated as “LCtS”) was published in the following year (Fig. 1). As a matter of fact, Adams considered this book as his favorite work (Adams, 2005).
Despite Adams’s calling himself an “ignorant non-zoologist”, world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins politely disagreed, writing: “Douglas was not just knowledgeable about science. He didn’t just make jokes about science. He had the mind of a scientist, he mined science deeply and brought to the surface… humour, and a style of wit that was simultaneously literary and scientific, and uniquely his own” (Dawkins, 2009: p. xiii).
Last Chance to See describes Adam’s and Carwardine’s travels around the globe to see nearly-extinct species, such as the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) and the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). As one could expect, nearly all the species are mammals, since most of the public are primarily concerned with cuddly and relatable species. I, however, will focus here on the only bird on their list that got an entire chapter for itself. And I’ll do that for various reasons: (1) I am not very normal, so I am not that fond of smelly mammals; (2) it is a success story and people like success stories; and (3) this is a very funny-looking bird, I promise you.
This bird is called kakapo.
Mark Carwardine first described the kakapo to Douglas Adams as “the world’s largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot” (LCtS: p. 7). His description might seem a little disparaging at first, but it was meant in an affectionate way – you cannot help but smile when you see a kakapo. Besides, Carwardine’s description is actually spot-on (Fig. 2).
According to Adams, “[the] kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right” (LCtS: p. 108).
The kakapo (or kākāpō, in Māori or Te Reo spelling) is a nocturnal flightless bird and its face resemble that of an owl, with the eyes positioned more to the front. For this reason, it is also known as owl-parrot or night parrot. Kakapos have green feathers, speckled with black and yellow (Fig. 3).
Furthermore, kakapos are solitary birds, have a polygynous lek mating system (don’t panic, I’ll explain that later), lack male parental care, and breed in irregular intervals (with gaps of 2 to 7 years; Powlesland et al., 2006). Kakapos are so unique that ornithologists classified the species in its own family: Strigopidae. They are the very first lineage to have branched out of the parrot group (the Order Psittaciformes). Even their closest “relatives”, the kaka and the kea (also from New Zealand), are already considered to be very distinct from kakapos.
Being such an ancient lineage of parrots, researchers consider that it could have split off the rest of the parrot groups when New Zealand got separated from the what is now Australia and Antarctica around 80 million years ago (Gibbs, 2016). All the southern landmasses had been previously joined in the supercontinent Gondwana, which was made up of South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, Australia and Zealandia (Fig. 4) and was by that time finishing its separation.
This break up left Zealandia with no mammals and a bird “paradise” island started to take shape. It is considered that the kakapo followed the trend of oceanic island bird lineages (where nasty mammals are not present) to evolve larger and flightless forms (Powlesland et al., 2006). For instance, that happened with the lineages of the dodo, moa, and elephant bird.
I cannot overstate how weird kakapos are for a parrot – or for a bird, actually. Adams considered the kakapo the strangest and most intriguing of all the creatures he saw during his travels with Carwardine (LCtS: p. 105). So I’ll illustrate that by highlighting some aspects of its biology that are of broader interest or peculiar weirdness. If you, however, are looking for a complete guide to the species’ biology, do take a look at the work of Powlesland et al. (2006).
We already covered that kakapos are nocturnal and flightless, and thus have good hearing and sense of smell, alongside massive legs and feet to walk around and climb trees. Yes, they do not fly, but do climb trees to feed. Evolution works in mysterious ways, it seems. Elliot (2017) wrote: “They often leap from trees and flap their wings, but at best manage a controlled plummet.” I prefer, however, the way Douglas Adams put it: “it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground” (LCtS: p. 109).
It seems kakapos are not able to follow the suggestion of the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. (…) Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties” (Adams, 1982). Kakapos just constantly fail to miss the ground.
Overall, kakapos are quite large birds, weighing around 2 kg, but males may weigh up to 4 kg and be 40% larger than females (Eason et al., 2006; Elliot, 2017). Their life span is unknown, but is estimated at 60 to 90 years (Department of Conservation, 2018a, 2018b).
Kakapos are vegetarian and eat almost every possible parts of plants. In fact, they only breed in years with a good abundance of fruit (Cockrem, 2006; Elliot, 2017). In their current habitat, kakapo reproduction is tied with that of the rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), an evergreen coniferous tree of the podocarp family (Fig. 5). These plants bloom together every 2 to 4 years (sometimes it takes more); the kakapos must wait for the rimu because they depend on its “fruits” (Fig. 6) to feed the chicks (Cockrem, 2006; Ballance, 2010).
Unlike any other parrot, kakapos are lek breeders. This behavior is common for other groups of birds and even other animals, though. It consists in males gathering relatively close to each other and starting a competition to show off to females. Birds can do this mainly by song or dance (or both), but might also include somersaults and flying maneuvers. Each female will chose the best performer (in their opinion at least) and successful males typically mate with more than one female during a single season.
Male kakapos sing to attract females. Or rather, they do something akin to “Pink Floyd studio out-takes” (LCtS: p. 111). The most common type of call produced by kakapos is called booming. This is a low-frequency (<100 Hz) resonant call, which can be heard up to 5 km away (Merton et al., 1984; Higgins, 1999). To produce this sound, male kakapos fill up internal air sacs; they can inflate until they look like a fluffy watermelon (Figs. 7, 8). Adams described the sound as a heartbeat, a powerful throb you felt before actually hearing it; and this gave the title to the kakapo’s own chapter in LCtS: “Heartbeats in the Night”.
Booming also serves to indicate the male’s overall location to the female. Once they are close by, males can produce a sharp metallic “ching” call to enable females to pinpoint their exact location (Powlesland et al., 2006). A good place to hear kakapo booming and chinging is New Zealand Birds Online (http://nzbirdsonline. org.nz/).
The female nests on the ground, either on a spot covered by dense vegetation or in natural cavities (Elliot, 2017). Kakapos usually lay 2 to 4 eggs and the female raise the chicks alone (Fig. 9; Cockrem, 2006; Powlesland et al., 2006). Young birds leave the nest within 2 to 3 months, but remain close to their mother’s home range until they are 6.5 to 8.5 months old (Farrimond et al, 2006; Powlesland et al., 2006).
So how do we summarize kakapos? Adams gives us a nice idea: “The kakapo (…) pursues its own eccentricities rather industriously and modestly. If you ask anybody who has worked with kakapos to describe them, they tend to use words like ‘innocent’ and ‘solemn’, even when it’s leaping helplessly out of a tree. This I find immensely appealing” (LCtS: p. 121).
Presently, the most famous kakapo is Sirocco, who became a YouTube star after he tried to mate with Carwardine’s head during the filming of the Last Chance to See TV series (Carwardine, 2010). Today, Sirocco is 21 years old and is the official “spokesbird” for conservation in New Zealand (Department of Conservation, 2018b), a title given to him by then Prime Minister John Key.
Kakapos were present in New Zealand long before humans arrived there: some subfossil bones have been dated from 2500 years ago (Wood, 2006). They were very common and lived throughout both the North and South Islands (Tipa, 2006), with few natural enemies. They were successful in their pre-human environment, but that was soon to change.
Polynesian settlers arrived in Aotearoa between 1200 and 1300 CE (Wilmshurst et al., 2010) and became known as the Māori. As typical of all humans, they brought domestic/pest species with them: dogs and rats.
As many island species, kakapos were only concerned with their known immediate predators; these mostly harmless birds were thus unprepared for a wave of invaders. Kakapos have the strategy of staying perfectly still when facing danger, which works fine against predators that rely on sight. However, this had little effect against dogs, which hunt by scent. The parrots were hunted for food and ornamentation (for instance, the Māori used the feathers in cloaks; Tipa, 2006) and the population declined. Polynesian rats also played a major role, preying upon defenseless kakapo eggs and chicks.
European settlers arrived on the 19th century and, as one might expect, colonization (and new mammalian predators, such as cats and mustelids) accelerated the species’ decline. The Europeans also brought naturalists, who collected specimens for study at museums (Fig. 10). British zoologist George Robert Gray officially named the kakapo Strigops habroptilus in 1845. Later naturalists (some already born in New Zealand) went further, observing live parrots in the wild and studying their natural history.
Already in the 1890’s, naturalists became aware that the species was heading towards extinction, so the first efforts in conservation (transferring animals to islands in Fiordland; Fig. 11) were undertaken (Hill & Hill, 1987). They failed and eventually the species fade out from the thoughts of New Zealanders, being considered extinct or nearly so (Ballance, 2010).
BUT DON’T PANIC
That lasted until the work of Williams (1956), which summarized all knowledge about the kakapo and brought it back to the spotlight. With this renewed interest, expeditions were formed to find the species in the southernmost reaches of New Zealand.
A serious take on conservation efforts started again in the 1970’s, when a population of around 200 kakapos was found on Stewart Island (Fig. 11; Powlesland et al., 2006). A new process of translocation and monitoring then began. During the 1980s and 1990s, the animals were all moved to predator-free islands: Codfish, Maud and Little Barrier (Fig. 11; Elliot, 2017). When Adams and Carwardine visited Codfish Island in 1992, there were only around 40 kakapos left (Ballance, 2010; Carwardine, 2010).
However, things started to look brighter after a review in the management of the species (Elliot et al., 2001). A strong and focused policy and full support of the government were essential during the decades since (Jansen, 2006). The kakapo population started to recover and can now be considered one of the greatest successes among global conservation programs – and a good example of how our species can, in fact, clean up after its own mess.
The last report, from June 2017, counted a total of 154 birds (Elliot, 2017), a number exceeding previous population simulations (Elliot, 2005). Recovering the kakapo from the brink of extinction was a feat, but more challenges remain. Presently, the species is considered as “critically endangered” according to the IUCN’s Red List (BirdLife International, 2016). Although this seems better, it is good to remember that this is just one step away from the “extinct in the wild” status in this classification scheme (which the kakapo held during two issues of the Red List in the mid-1990s). Presently, kakapos only survives on offshore islands and there is still lot of work to be done until we have a viable, and self-sustaining population that does not need human management.
Maybe just panic a little bit…
The kakapo is not the only endangered species in the New Zealand – everyone has heard about kiwis, at least. So what about all the other threatened species, birds and otherwise, in the country? Jansen (2006: 190) ominously wrote: “While extinction of kakapo is now less likely than 10 years ago, the future of the 600+ New Zealand species listed as acutely and chronically threatened (…) and that presently do not receive any management is by no means secure.” So yes, there is still a lot of work to be done.
But why should we care if some species go extinct? Why should we strive so much to save them? Carwardine (LCtS: p. 205) gave what Dawkins (2009) considered to be the typical explanations for business-minded humans: (1) we mess with the environment, everything go haywire, and that ultimately affects our survival, and (2) living beings have their uses as food, drugs, etc. However, Carwardine then presented his preferred explanation, one more typical of scientists and that we say to each other over coffee: we try to save them because they are cool. Or, as Carwardine put it: “There is one last reason for caring, and I believe no other is necessary. It is certainly the reason why so many people have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of rhinos, parakeets, kakapos and dolphins. And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them” (LCtS: p. 206).
“Up until that point it hadn’t really clicked with man that an animal could just cease to exist. It was as if we hadn’t realised that if we kill something, it simply won’t be there anymore. Ever. As a result of the extinction of the dodo we are sadder and wiser.” ―Douglas Adams, 1990
Adams, D. (1982) Life, the Universe and Everything. Pan Books, London.
Adams, D. (2005) The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. William Heinemann, London.
Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. (1990) Last Chance to See. William Heinemann, London. [Edition used here: 2009, by Arrow Books, London.]
Ballance, A. (2010) Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction. Craig Potton, Nelson.
Elliott, G.P.; Jansen, P.W.; Merton, D.M. (2001) Intensive management of a critically endangered species: the kakapo. Biological Conservation 99: 121–133.
Farrimond, M.; Elliott, G.P.; Clout, M.N. (2006) Growth and fledging of kakapo. Notornis 53: 112–115.
Gibbs, G. (2016) Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Fully Revised Edition. Potton & Burton, Nelson.
Jansen, P.W. (2006) Kakapo recovery: the basis of decision-making. Notornis 53: 184–190.
Higgins, P.J. (1999) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 4: Parrots to Dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Hill, S. & Hill, J. (1987) Richard Henry of Resolution Island: a Biography. John McIndoe, Dunedin.
Merton, D.V.; Morris, R.D.; Atkinson, I.A.E. (1984) Lek behaviour in a parrot: the Kakapo Strigops habroptilus of New Zealand. Ibis 126: 277–283.
Powlesland, R.G.; Cockrem, J.F.; Merton, D.V. (2006) A parrot apart: the natural history of the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) and the context of its conservation management. Notornis 53: 3–26.
Tipa, R. (2006) Kakapo in Maori lore. Notornis 53: 193–194.
Williams, G.R. (1956) The kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, Gray): a review and re-appraisal of a near-extinct species. Notornis 7: 29–56.
Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108(5): 1815–1820.
Wood, J.R. (2006) Subfossil kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) remains from near Gibraltar Rock, Cromwell Gorge, Central Otago, New Zealand. Notornis 53: 191–193.
I am very grateful to Colin Miskelly, Dylan van Winkel, the Department of Conservation, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for allowing the usage of their photographs herein.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist specializing in the classification and evolution of land snails. Yes, you might say, that has nothing to do with kakapos. But it so happens that the universe conspires to keep him entangled with bird work. As a scientist, he learned with Douglas Adams that knowing the right question is sometimes more important than knowing the answer.
 Or six, if you count And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer (2009).
 Later, in 1992, a CD-ROM set was published, with photos and audio of Douglas Adams reading the book. In 2009, BBC released a TV series of Last Chance to See, in which British comedian Stephen Fry took the place of the late Adams.
 However, he soon changed the tone to blame flying birds instead: “There is something gripping about the idea that this creature has actually given up doing something that virtually every human being has yearned to do since the very first of us looked upwards. I think I find other birds rather irritating for the cocky ease with which they flit through the air as if it was nothing” (LCtS: p. 120).
The video game Overwatch is Blizzard Entertainment’s new hit, released on May 2016 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In the game, the so-called “heroes” spend most of their time trying to kill each other to secure a payload. While the morals of these self-proclaimed heroes are rather open to debate, one of them at least has some redeeming personality traits. The hero Bastion is a nature-loving animal-friend robot. Actually, the single animal to appear in the whole game (besides the hominids, of course) is Bastion’s pet bird, called Ganymede (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Left: Bastion with Ganymede (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. Right: Ganymede (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from “Bastion Reference Kit” (official Overwatch website).
Ganymede’s design is an original creation of Blizzard’s artists, although it resembles in shape and size a northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (Linnaeus, 1758), a common species in Canada and the USA. Cardinals usually have a red plumage (Fig. 2A), but there are rare naturally occurring yellow mutants, called xanthochroic cardinals (Fig. 2B). Ganymede also has a white area around its eyes, a trait not seen in cardinals, but well-known from species of the genus Zosterops (commonly known as “white-eyes”; Fig. 2C), which live in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and Australasia.
Figure 2. Left: A male northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis. Photo by Stephen Wolfe (2011); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. Center: A xanthochroic northern cardinal. Photo by Jim McCormac (2013), extracted from “Ohio Birds and Biodiversity”. Right: A Japanese white-eye, Zosterops japonicas (Temminck & Schlegel, 1847). Photo by Laitche (2016); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Despite being based in an American species, Ganymede seems to be native to European forests. The bird appears on its home forest in the animated short The Last Bastion (from August 2016), which takes place in the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany. There is no bird here in Stuttgart that looks like Ganymede (one of us lives here, by the way). Actually, in the whole European bird fauna, only the golden oriole, Oriolus oriolus (Linnaeus, 1758), comes close to it, with its yellow color and dark horizontal stripe across the eyes (Fig. 3). However, its slenderer body shape, thinner beak and lack of crest are all very different from Ganymede.
Figure 3. A male golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus). Photo by Pawel Ryszawa (2008); image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.
Moreover, in the Eichenwalde stage (which, in the game’s lore, is located nearby Stuttgart), there is a painting resting above the hunting lodge’s fireplace (Fig. 4). This painting shows four local bird species; one of them is the “Ganymede species”, while the others seem to be actual species: the Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus (Linnaeus, 1758)) and two titmice. The latter are American species and seem to represent the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor (Linnaeus, 1766)), even though one of them is more bluish in color.
Figure 4. Fireplace of the hunting lodge in the Eichenwalde stage, with close-up of the painting. Screenshots from the game.
As we pointed out before, Ganymede’s design is an original creation and does not represent an actual species, although some of its features might be traced to the cardinal. Despite the problems with Ganymede’s identification, Bastion’s bird friend can also appear in the guise of actual real-life bird species. To do so, the player must simply equip a “skin” for Bastion (”skin” is basically the gaming jargon for “outfit”). By changing Bastion’s “skin”, Ganymede’s appearance may also change.
The common and rare skins (alongside the legendary Overgrown skin) do not change Ganymede’s appearance, but the epic and legendary skins do. Here we identify all the bird species that most resembles Ganymede’s look and tell a little bit about their biology.
GANYMEDE’S MANY GUISES
Let’s start with the “proper” red northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (Fig. 5A). This species belongs to the family Cardinalidae and is also commonly known as redbird, being easy to identify due to its color, black “mask” and crest. Ganymede appears as a male cardinal (females are light brown). These birds eat mainly seeds, grains and fruits, but feed their young with insects. They are found from Belize and Guatemala, through Mexico and eastern USA, all the way to Canada. The species was introduced by humans in other American states, like California and Hawaii. Cardinals are common in residential areas and visit bird feeders. They were prized as pets due to their bright plumage and song, but thankfully now have full legal protection.
Next, we have Ganymede appearing as a blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata (Linnaeus, 1758) (Fig. 5B). This species belongs to the family Corvidae (ravens, crows, jays and magpies) and has a distinct color pattern. As a matter of fact, the color pattern of Ganymede’s wings is a little bit simplified when compared to the actual bird’s complicated gradation of colors. Blue jays can be found in central and eastern USA and Canada; they eat nuts, grains and small invertebrates. These birds are typically monogamous, pairing for life; genders are similar in plumage and size. Blue jays are very intelligent, with complex social systems.
Figure 5. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s OmnicCrisis skin. Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (photo by Stephen Wolfe, 2011; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons). B. Bastion’s DefenseMatrix skin. Blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata (photo by Mdf, 2005; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons).
Bastion’s two “wooden” skins are fittingly accompanied by a Ganymede looking like two species of woodpeckers (family Picidae): the red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus nuchalis Baird, 1858 (Fig. 6A; although it is also reminiscent of the pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus (Linnaeus, 1758), and the downy woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens (Linnaeus, 1766)) and the Arizona woodpecker, Leuconotopicus arizonae (Hargitt, 1886) (Fig. 6B). The sapsucker, as its name implies, drills hole in trees to feed on the plant’s sap, also eating insects that are attracted to the sap. These birds can be found throughout the Great Basin region and the Rocky Mountains, in North America. The Arizona woodpecker has a more restricted range, occurring in the southern parts of Arizona (obviously) and New Mexico, USA, and in western Mexico. This species feed mainly on insects (especially beetle larvae), but may also eat fruits and acorns. Similar to the case of the blue jay above, the color pattern on Ganymede’s head, chest and wings are very simplified in relation to the real animals. Also, there is some divergence in color: while the male Arizona woodpecker has a red crest, Ganymede has a yellow one, which makes him more similar to female woodpeckers.
Figure 6. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Antique skin. Red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus nuchalis (photo by Glenn Bartley, 2011; extracted from Glenn Bartley Nature Photography, used with permission). B. Bastion’s Woodbot skin. Female (left) and male (right) Arizona woodpecker, Leuconotopicus arizonae (photos respectively by Alan Wilson, 2007, and Nature’s Pics Online, 2007; images extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons).
The last two of Bastion’s skins are based on steampunk designs. Therefore, they needed a more city-dwelling bird to accompany him. Ganymede thus appears as a rock pigeon, Columba livia Gmelin, 1789 (family Columbidae), the common pigeon we have in large cities. The Gearbot skin has a common rock pigeon (Fig. 7A), while the Steambot skin is accompanied by an albinistic pigeon (Fig. 7B). We judge it is an albinistic (instead of a leucistic; see Box 1 below) bird, because the beak also does not have the usual black pigmentation (it is pinkish yellow). We could not check if the same is true for Ganymede’s legs, though, as we have yet to unlock this very expensive skin in the game.
Figure 7. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Gearbot skin. Rock pigeon, Columba livia (photo by Diego Delso, 2012; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons). B. Bastion’s Steambot skin. Albinistic rock pigeon, Columba livia (photo by Maria Corcacas; image extracted from Project FeederWatch, a partner organization of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, used with permission).
Unsurprisingly, all the birds above are American (Blizzard’s headquarters is in California). As explained above, the depictions are not completely true-to-life, but simplified in some instances. This is to be expected, we guess, since the game’s developers would not need focusing too much on a scientifically accurate depiction of a bird. They would rather be more worried about making all the shooting fun. Nevertheless, it seems the team at Blizzard clearly put a lot of effort in making Ganymede, as not only his appearance but also his movements in the game are all very realistic (the model for Ganymede in the animated short The Last Bastion was done based on the pet parrot of a Blizzard employee). The two pigeon “skins” for Ganymede even change his body shape to make him look like a pigeon.
Box 1. Albinism and leucism
Both albinism and leucism are genetic variations, meaning they are conditions defined by the genes the animal inherits from its parents. Albino animals show a complete (or partial) absence of the pigment called melanin in their skin, hair, feathers, scales, cuticles and irises. Melanin is responsible for brown and black colors. Thus, albinos are very light-skinned, with white hairs and red eyes (the lack of pigment in the eyes means that the light is reflected by the blood vessels). This failure to produce melanin is usually caused by the absence or malformation of an enzyme involved in its production. Common albino animals include white lab rats and mice and rabbits. People with albinism are also rather common.
In leucism, however, there is only partial loss of pigmentation. This means paler hairs (or feathers, etc.), often “creamy” in color, but with no changes to the eyes. It is also different from albinism in another regard: leucism is a reduction in several types of pigment, not only melanin. Leucistic peacocks are very commonly bred in captivity and leucistic lions are a fan-favorite in zoos.
On the opposite side of albinism, there is a condition called melanism. The over-deposition of the black pigment melanin in hairs (or feathers, etc.) results in very dark animals, like the black jaguar.
MALE OR FEMALE?
Nevertheless, despite all the care in making Ganymede, there are some major inconsistencies (besides the whole “American-bird-in-German-forest” issue discussed above). Until Gamescom (in August 2016, when the animated short The Last Bastion was premiered), we supposed that Ganymede was a male. This was based on: (1) the name, which is a male one (originally from Greek mythology); (2) it is crested and colorful, which is common of male birds, while females often have a plainer look; and (3) it sings a lot, which is also a typical male activity in birds (usually used for defending territory or courtship).However, in the aforementioned animated short, Ganymede is building a nest, which is typical female behavior. It is very rare for male birds to do the nest building (this is only seen, for instance, in species of weavers and megapodes). Moreover, Bastion’s Overgrown skin, which relates to the short, has a nest with eggs place on the robot’s shoulder (Fig. 8). Needless to say, only females can lay eggs. Moreover, the incubation and hatching is usually also done by females; male birds only rarely incubate eggs. Of course, the eggs from the Overgrown skin are way too large (Fig. 8) to belong to Ganymede anyway.
Figure 8. Bastion’s Overgrown skin (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.
Ganymede’s sex is never directly alluded to in the game or official material, although sometimes we could find the pronouns “he” and “his” referring to it on Blizzard’s websites. Curiously, the same is true for Bastion, who is almost always referred to by the pronoun “it”, but sometimes by “he”.
The player can also customize Bastion’s victory pose, which is shown after the match if he/she was part of the winning team. One of Bastion’s poses is called Birdwatching, because, well, he is watching his bird (Fig. 9).
It might sound surprising to some that birdwatching is not only an actual pastime but a very popular one at that. But what exactly is it?
Figure 9. Bastion’s Birdwatching victory pose (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.
Birdwatching, also called birding, is basically an activity of wildlife observation, where you go out to observe, of course, birds. You can do this, of course, with the naked eye, but it is better done with a good pair of binoculars (or sometimes a telescope). It’s a hobby that actually attracts a huge lot of people (Fig. 10), especially when a rare bird is involved. There are, of course, guides for beginners explaining everything about how to start birding, like Birding for Beginners: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Art of Birdwatching (by S. Buff, 2010), and websites like All About Birds (by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology).
Figure 10. Birdwatchers (often called simply “birders”) at Caerlaverock, UK, watching a rare (in Europe) White-tailed Lapwing, Vanellus leucurus (Lichtenstein, 1823). Photo by MPF (2007); Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
After you’ve started your birding campaigns, you will want to know the names of the birds you’re seeing. To identify the bird species, you can use one of the several field guides and handbooks in existence. These books have drawings and/or photos of the birds, with guidelines to identify them. These guides are usually restricted to a single country (or sometimes just part of it, if the country is too large, like Brazil or the USA) or continent (like Europe). It’s very easy to find one at your bookstore or online store, since they are often called “Birds of Somewhere” (Fig. 11). Of course, there are now also websites that act as these guides, such as the RSPB’s Bird Identifier (see References below).
Figure 11. Examples of “bird books”, with the covers of Birds of Australia (by K. Simpson & N. Day, 2010, 8th ed.), Birds of Venezuela (by S.L. Hilty, 2003, 2nd ed.) and Collins Bird Guide (by L. Svensson et al., 2010, 2nd ed.).
Moreover, birdwatching actually involves a lot of hearing, because you will most often hear the bird before seeing it (if you see it at all). Thus, it is also good to know what each species’ vocalization sounds likes. There are several websites to identify birds’ calls, such as the Smithsonian’s Guide (see References below). Of course, both for image and song identification, there are now lots of apps, such as eBird Mobile, BirdsEye, Collins Field Guide and Bird Song Id, among several others. Unfortunately, these websites and apps are still largely restricted to the USA and Europe, while the greatest (and some would say most splendorous) bird diversity is found in Australasia and tropical America.
Birdwatching is all about enjoying nature and having fun, but birders worldwide abide by a “code of conduct” of sorts (see, for example, the code of the American Birding Association). Nowadays, our more ecological-prone society is concerned about the impact that our activities have on the animals and their environment. Thus, birdwatching etiquette usually includes promoting the welfare of birds and their habitats, limiting the birders’ impact (photographing, using playback devices, keeping your distance from nests etc.) and thus mitigating the stress caused to the animals. Basically, have fun, but let the birds live their life – that’s what Bastion does anyway.
Mcgraw, K.J.; Hill, G.E.; Parker, R.S. (2003) Carotenoid pigments in a mutant cardinal: implications for the genetic and enzymatic control mechanisms of carotenoid metabolism in birds. The Condor 105: 587–592.
This particular British Secret Service agent is known worldwide through numerous books, comics, videogames and, of course, films. James Bond was created by Ian Fleming and the series now outlives its creator, continuing to grow on a somewhat constant rate. Fleming’s superspy character was based on many people he met during the time he spent serving in the British Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. In his own words, James Bond “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”.
But what few know is where the name comes from. Actually, it was not invented by Fleming for the character; instead, it was borrowed from a real person. So who was the original James Bond and how Fleming came to know him and to borrow his name?
LICENSE TO MAP
James Bond was born in Philadelphia on 4 January 1900. After his mother’s death during his teens, in 1914, he moved with his father to England, going to Cambridge University and receiving his degree in 1922. Back in Philadelphia, after less than three years working for a banking firm, his love of natural history led him to join an expedition of the ANSP (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) to the lower Amazon River in Brazil. His father, Francis E. Bond, who led an ANSP expedition (when James was 11) to the Orinoco Delta, perhaps influenced James’ decision, as well as his interest in the natural sciences.
After the expedition to the Amazon, James Bond became a true ornithologist (see Box 1 for a glossary) and curator of the ANSP and started to publish many scientific papers on the South American birds. Nevertheless, he soon decided that the focus of his studies would be the Caribbean birds and this became his life’s work. He spent the next decades travelling through the Caribbean islands and studying their avifauna. The main result of his work in the region was the book “Birds of the West Indies” (1936), containing a scientific account (with descriptions, habits, geographic distribution etc.) of all the known species from the islands. The book was renamed “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” on its second edition (1947), but reverted to the original name on the third edition (1961). Also, from the third edition onwards, the book featured color plates of the birds (by Don R. Eckelberry) and more simplified descriptions. This made the book more similar to modern field guides, making it a must for scientists and birdwatchers alike. After the final edition (1985), Bond kept the book updated via a series of 27 supplements. He finished revising a sixth edition shortly before his death (on 14 February 1989, after a years-long fight with cancer).
From all the islands that James Bond visited, perhaps the one that most fascinated him was Jamaica, where he realized that the native avifauna was derived from North America, and not from South America as was previously supposed. This kind of study is part of the discipline known as Biogeography and led Bond, in 1971, to establish a biogeographic boundary between the Lesser Antilles and Tobago. This line separates two zones, the West Indies and South America, each with its own type of avifauna. This later led David Lack to propose, in 1973, the name “Bond’s Line” for this boundary.
Besides the books, Bond published more than 100 scientific papers and was awarded many medals and honors throughout his career. He is known today as the father or Caribbean ornithology. What he did not expected though, was the other Bond, which appeared in Jamaica of all places, and caused him a certain deal of consternation.
It was only in 1960–1961 that Bond discovered his fictional namesake from Ian Fleming’s novels, after several novels had already been published (the first one, “Cassino Royale”, dates from 1953). This led his wife Mary to write the book “How 007 Got His Name” (published in 1966). In this book, she tells how she jokingly wrote a letter to Fleming saying that he had “brazenly taken the name of a real human being for your rascal!”
Fleming was a British novelist and spent a couple of months every year in his estate (named Goldeneye) on Oracabessa Bay, on the northern coast of Jamaica. He was interested in the Jamaican wildlife and had a growing collection of book on shells, birds, fish and flora. Also, as any keen birdwatcher on the Caribbean, Fleming used the “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” (he had the 2nd edition, from 1947) and was thus very familiar with the name James Bond. On his reply to Mary’s letter, he explained that he “was determined that my secret agent should be as anonymous a personality as possible. (…) At this time one of my bibles was, and still is, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, and it struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born.” On a later interview, Fleming explained further his choice of name: “I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, ‘James Bond’ was much better than something more interesting, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers’. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure – an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”
On that letter to Mary, Fleming added that in return for using the name he could offer “your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit. Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” This never happened though. Finally, Fleming also invited the Bonds to visit him in Jamaica. This happened in 1964, when the Bonds were there researching and paid a surprise visit to Fleming. This was shortly before the novelist’s death six months later, and luckily, this one-time meeting was captured in video for a future documentary. At first, Fleming was suspicious of Bond’s identity and asked him to identify some birds. Bond, of course, passed the test with flying colors and Fleming had the happiest day of the rest of his life.
FROM JAMAICA WITH LOVE
Jamaica, despite being a rather small country, has a very diverse avifauna. There are circa 320 bird species living in Jamaica, including migrants. From these, 28 are endemic species, 12 are endangered and 14 are introduced. Some of these species have fascinated James Bond, Ian Fleming and countless other tourists and birdwatchers. Moreover, since Ian Fleming was such a keen birdwatcher, birds sometimes featured in his stories (and later in the films), and a collection of bird trivia can be found in Box 2 further below.
We will now briefly introduce some of the more interesting Jamaican birds and explore a little bit of their natural history and even folklore.
Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus)
The red-billed streamertail, also known as doctor bird or scissortail hummingbird, appears in Fleming’s short story “For Your Eyes Only” (1960). The first lines of the story are: “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.” It is very hard to crown a “most beautiful” bird, but the red-billed streamertail is indeed remarkable. The feathers on the male’s tail (the “streamers”) are longer than their actual body and make a humming sound during flight. James Bond (the ornithologist) seems to agree; well, partially, at least: his book says that the “adult male is the most spectacular West Indian hummingbird”.
This species is the most abundant and widespread bird in Jamaica and was actually selected as the country’s national bird. Frederic G. Cassidy (1962–2000), who studied the evolution of the English language in Jamaica, says that the name doctor bird comes from the way the animals spear the flowers with their beaks to feed. Still, the term “doctor” also carries a superstitious overtone (as in “witch-doctor”) and Cassidy notes that natives referred to these hummingbirds as “god birds”.
Jamaican Tody (Todus todus)
The todies belong to the order Coraciiformes, a group that also includes kingfishers, rollers and bee-eaters. The Jamaican tody was at first believed to be a species of hummingbird. Later, it received the name of robin, due to its small size and round appearance. This early folk name still survives in Jamaica as robin red-breas’, an allusion to the bird’s red colored patch below the beak and a copy of the English name of another bird. Robin redbreast is the old name of the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), a totally unrelated species.
The Jamaican tody is a tiny bird that feeds on insects and fruits, nesting in excavated burrows. James Bond was especially interested in the nesting behavior of birds and studied this topic at length. He chose the Jamaican tody as the cover of the first edition of “Birds of the West Indies” (1936). It has a very small geographic distribution and its population seems to be steadily decreasing in the last decade.
Jamaican Poorwill (Siphonorhis americana)
Also known as Jamaican pauraque, this nocturnal bird is a species of nightjar, of the family Caprimulgidae. The family name comes from the Latin caprimulgus (goatsucker) and reflects the absurd folk “lore” that these birds sucked milk from goats.
Very little is known about the Jamaican poorwill – it had been extinct long before Bond’s studies, since 1859. It was driven to extinction by introduced rats and mongooses, alongside the usual human-caused habitat destruction. Since the birds nest on the ground, their eggs are easy prey for these introduced mammals. Nevertheless, there are some recent (1998) records of caprimulgids from the regions of the Milk River and the Hellshire Hills in the country, but they remain unconfirmed. Thus, a very small population of poorwills might still exist in these remote regions. Curiously, Bond had also previously alluded to the possibility of a surviving population of these birds on the semi-arid Hellshire Hills.
Jamaican Blackbird (Nesopsar nigerrimus)
The Jamaican blackbird (family Icteridae) is the only species in its genus and all of its names are rather misleading. Firstly, it is not an actual blackbird (Turdus merula, family Turdidae), which is a species of thrush. Nevertheless, the family Icteridae is popularly known as “New World blackbirds”, so we can let this one slip. As for the scientific name, the genus name comes from the Greek neso (island) and psar (starling) and, as one might guess, this bird is completely unrelated to true starlings (family Sturnidae). Finally, the specific epithet (see Salvador, 2014, for a crash course in species’ scientific names) means simply “very black”, which might not be so descriptive of a “blackbird” after all.
Nevertheless, a local Jamaican popular name for this bird is “wild-pine sergeant” and is more accurate than the other names. These birds feed on insects they find in tree bark or bromeliads (locally known as “wild-pines”) and are adapted to climbing trees, similar to woodpeckers. They inhabit the montane forests of Jamaica and are arranged in pairs of birds, each pair occupying a vast territory. The severe deforestation caused by mining, forestry, charcoal production and agriculture has led to an extreme habitat loss incompatible with the blackbirds’ large territories. The species is thus considered endangered, but only some very shy efforts have been made towards its preservation.
Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris)
The sad flycatcher (together with the lesser Antillean pewee, Contopus latirostris) is commonly called little Tom-fool by the Jamaican people, for its habit of refusing to fly away when threatened. This flycatcher species inhabits the forests of Jamaica and, as their name imply, feed on insects. In fact, the genus name comes from the Greek muia (fly) and archos (ruler), while the specific epithet refers to the presence of rictal bristles. These bristles are modified feathers (that look like mammals’ whiskers) projecting from the beak; they not only provide tactile feedback (as whiskers do), but also supposedly protect the birds’ eyes as they consumes their wriggly insect prey.
To avoid confusion, we must note here that the sad flycatcher is part of the group known as “New World flycatchers” or “tyrant flycatchers” (the family Tyrannidae). The “Old World flycatchers” belong to another family, Muscicapidae, which is only distantly related to the Tyrannidae.
Jamaican Crow (Corvus jamaicensis)
This bird is locally known as “jabbering crow” of “gabbling crow”, for it can produce a variety of jabbering sounds (besides the common “caw” of crows). Their incessant jabbering may also sound like indistinct human languages and, to the British, rather like Welsh people, which led to the birds being nicknamed “Welshmen” in a typical bout of Brit humor.
The Jamaican crows live mainly in the country’s uplands, but may come down to the lowlands during the dry season. They feed mainly on fruit and invertebrates, but may occasionally eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
Bond’s work with the Caribbean avifauna set the basis for ornithology in the region and most of his insights have been continuously proved accurate. As such, his influence in science shall remain relevant for a long time to come. Well, at least until humans have extinguished all the bird species in the region – unfortunately, birds live only once and Jamaica has already lost three of its endemic species. Meanwhile, the other Bond also remain a relevant figure in popular culture and imagination, with his over-the-top stories, exotic locations, strange villains, Bond girls, fancy suits, weaponized cars and a number of crazy gadgets. James Bond has thus the (somewhat dubious) honor of having his name twice immortalized in History, as a brilliant ornithologist and as a womanizing superspy. (We believe the latter is better remembered than the former though.)
But for those of you thinking that a birder’s life is much duller than a spy’s life, some words from the naturalist and writer Alexander F. Skutch (1904–2004) might change your mind or at the very least make you revisit your beliefs: “our quest of them [birds] takes us to the fairest places; to find them and uncover some of their well-guarded secrets we exert ourselves greatly and live intensely.”
Bond, J. (1993) A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. Fifth edition (Peterson Field Guides). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.
Bond, M.F.W.P. (1966) How 007 Got His Name. Collins, London.
Cassidy, F.G. (2006) Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica. University of the West Indies Press, Kingston.
Clements, J.F.; Schulenberg, T.S.; Iliff, M.J.; Roberson, D.; Fredericks, T.A.; Sullivan, B.L.; Wood, C.L. (2014) The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world. Version 6.9. Available from: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/ (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).
Chancellor, H. (2005) James Bond: The Man and His World. John Murray, London.
Cruz, A. (1978) Adaptive evolution in the Jamaican Blackbird Nesopsar nigerrimus. Ornis Scandinavia 9(2): 130–137.
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). (2014) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Available from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/ (Date of access: 03/Apr/2015).
Lederer, R. & Burr, C. (2014) Latin for Bird Lovers. Timber Press, New York.
MI6-HQ. (2015) MI6 – The Home of James Bond 007. Available from: http://www.mi6-hq.com/ (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).
Parker, M. (2015) Goldeneye. Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica. Pegasus Publications, Winnipeg.
Parkes, K. (1989) In Memoriam: James Bond. The Auk 106(4): 718–720.
Rothschild, W. (1907) Extinct Birds. An attempt to unite in one volume a short account of those birds which have become extinct in historical times – that is, within the last six or seven hundred years. To which are added a few which still exist, but are on the verge of extinction. Hutchinson & Co., London.
Since Pokémon is a recurrent topic on this journal, I would like to call your attention to this little fellow: the fletchling.
Fletchling (yayakoma, in Japanese), as it appears in official Pokémon artwork.
Fletchling is a tiny normal/flying-type robin pokémon with an orange head and grey body. Both Pokédex and Bulbapedia tell us that they sing beautifully, send signs using chirps and tail movements and are also merciless to intruders in their territory. It evolves to a fire/flying peregrine falcon (how a robin becomes a falcon is a topic for further discussion) that is a very common sight in competitions.
Back to fletchling. Even though I like all sorts of birds (I am an ornithologist after all), we always have our favorites; mine is the robin. And so, the tiny robin fletchling became my all-time-favorite pokémon. Now let us take a look at the robin I find in my garden.
Well, they look somewhat similar, but the color differs. Could my garden robin and fletchling be the same thing then? Are there any other robins outta there?
No no, I meant bird robins.
So it is finally clear that fletchling was based on the Japanese robin and not on the European one from my garden (even though the entire Pokémon XY games supposedly been based on France – good job, Game Freak Inc.).
Now let us take a closer look at the bird robins (please refer to the figures above). We can see that the Japanese and European robins are very similar between themselves, especially when you compare them to the American and Australian robins (see figure below). This is expected, since the former share the same genus (Erithacus), meaning that they are more closely related. That is why they are so similar in appearance despite the difference in color. There is yet another Erithacus robin in Japan which has even more distinct plumage color (the Ryukyu robin, see figure below), but that is still very similar in shape to the European and Japanese robins.
American robins, on the other hand, are much more different. They belong to another genus (Turdus), which also includes blackbirds, song thrushes and fieldfares. As such, they are only distantly related to the species belonging to Erithacus. Actually, Turdus might even belong to a completely different family – this is a hotly debated topic in ornithological circles, but I will not dwell on it.
So why we call all these different birds “robins”?
Robin is a popular English name to refer to passerines with red breast. The first one to be named as such was the European robin and the name was later on “exported” by colonizers and travelers for the birds in other continents. In other languages, the red breast feature of the European robin is always the focus: “Rotkehlchen” (German), “pisco-de-peito-ruivo” (Portuguese), “rouge-gorge familier” (French), “petirrojo” (Spanish), “pettirosso” (Italian) etc. Folklore says the red breast was earned by the brave small European robin as a token for its heroic acts (Greenoak, 1997).
European/Japanese and American/ Australian robins all share the red breast feature, being, thus, all called “robins”. However, as we saw, one pair is not closely related to the other – they do not share the same genus. This is because their popular name is not based on any evidence of how closely related they are. Popular names are just useful tools for people’s everyday life. Scientific names, however, are more than that. As we saw, color is not the only characteristic that make a bird a Turdus or an Erithacus – The other Japanese robin (the Ryukyu robin) does not even have an orange breast; what makes it an Erithacus is its body shape, skeleton, anatomy etc. Giving a name is not an easy matter in science (this branch of Biology is called Taxonomy, by the way). The act of classifying and naming a species is based on studies that analyze the morphology and even the DNA of living beings to decide who is more related to whom (and therefore belong to the same genus or family). Therefore, scientific names also contains information on the relationship between species and will never confuse someone as popular names like “robin” do.