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Past Shows

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Canary in a Coal Mine

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

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Topics & Themes:  history

Flying and Molting - A Tricky Balance

Feathers are amazing structures. But after about a year, constant use and exposure to the elements mean they have to be replaced. So how do you replace the roughly 20 feathers in each wing that are essential to flight? Many species — such as this Common Raven — molt just a few feathers at a time... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  plumage

Flightless Birds: Evolving the Inability to Fly

The ability to fly seems to define birds. But there are more than 50 species of flightless birds throughout the world — from the Ostrich and Kiwi to flightless rails, ducks, and this Humboldt Penguin. Why did they evolve the inability to fly? Many dwelt on islands. Others evolved until they were... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  flight

Albatross Surfs the Wind

This Laysan Albatross, with a wing span of about seven feet, is completely at home in the vastness of the open ocean. It glides up and down, back and forth, across the wake, sometimes riding up 100 feet, then coasting right back down near the surface. Its wings stay slightly arched, but don't... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  flight

The Gulls of Summer

Gull-watching is pretty tame along the coasts most of the summer. Many gull species retreat north to nest; a few others nest inland. Along the Atlantic, it’s mostly nesting Herring and Laughing Gulls that stick around through summer. On the Pacific Coast, it’s Glaucous-winged and Western. But by... read more »

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Match Birds with Their Habitats

Particular birds are tied to particular habitats. An American Bittern calls from a freshwater marsh. Wild Turkeys like open woods, with fields and clearings. The House Wren favors gardens, hedgerows, and brushy woods. This Red Knot feeds on beaches and mudflats. The Mourning Dove likes brushy,... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  vocalization

How Birds Stay Cool

On a hot summer’s day, watch a bird such as a crow — or this Purple Martin — very carefully. You’ll never see them sweat, because birds don’t have sweat glands. So how do they keep cool? One way is panting. As the bird breathes rapidly, heat is carried out of its body through the lungs and air... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  science

Cowbird Song and Password

As most young male birds get ready to leave the nest, they learn their species’ song by hearing their male parent sing it again and again. They imprint on their father’s song. So how does a Brown-headed Cowbird, raised by parents of a different species, learn to sing the correct song? The ... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  nesting, vocalization

Night Voices of Summer

At the close of a summer day, the songbirds go silent. As if on cue, the birds of the night make their voices known. In an Eastern woodland, the eerie trills and whinnies of an Eastern Screech-Owl are among the first sounds of the night. Meanwhile, as night falls west of the Rockies, the Western... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  birdwatching by ear, sound, vocalization

Laughing Kookaburra

The voice of the Laughing Kookaburra is so distinctive, it's one of the best known sounds in nature. Its exotic call has been a Hollywood standard for decades, that unseen creature in the depths of the jungle, with heroes ranging from Tarzan to Indiana Jones. Kookaburras are hefty members of the... read more »

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Topics & Themes:  humor
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