In this special episode, we've asked two rock star ornithologists to answer a flock of listener questions about birds. J. Drew Lanham and Corina Newsome talk flying, feathers, eggs, poop and how we humans can help birds. Plus: we test their ears with the Mystery Sound and their obscure bird knowledge with a game called Real Birds or Just Words.

And many, many thanks to The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for providing the bird sounds you hear in this episode.

More from Drew and Corina:

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[BIRDS TWEETING] CREW: You're listening to Brains On!

CREW: Where we're serious about being curious. Brains On! Is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.


GOLDIE: (WHISPERING) Crow! Crow! Get over here. Look, between the mailbox and the tree. See the big human? It's holding a tiny human.

CROW: Oh, whoa, a hairless human young. Great eye my, Goldfinch pal. I've had the HHY on my to-spot list forever.

GOLDIE: This is so exciting. I bet it just hatched. Let's sing Happy Hatch Day.

CROW: I don't think humans hatch, Goldie. Anyway, don't forget we're here to see Small Pants Runners! Our human guide says early morning is the best time to spot SPRs.

GOLDIE: Oh, right. My eyes are peeled for prancing humans Hmm, that one over there is looking at one of those shiny rectangles humans just seem to love.

CROW: Ah, a Zoned Out Phoner. We crossed the ZOP off our list the first day we started humaninh.

GOLDIE: That was such a good day! Remember, we saw that neat bill-headed ballplayer and the super rare mellow blanket sitter?

CROW: We definitely got off to a good start on to-spot list. But I don't like a real human until we spot an SPR.


[GASPS] Oh! Look, our first small pants runner. See?

GOLDIE: And the pants are small and purple. This is more than another human off my list, this is-- a dream come true.

CROW: Ah, just marvelous.

GOLDIE: Wow. Honestly, Crow, you're right. I do think our human watching just reached a new level.

CROW: What a great day to be a humaner. Oh, let's go spot some more!


MOLLY BLOOM: You're listening to Brains On! From American Public Media. I'm Molly Bloom, and this episode is a bird bonanza. We've asked two avian all-stars to help us answer all kinds of bird questions, and I'm going to give them a couple of most valuable birder intros.

From Georgia Southern University, our first bird biologist is now in the nest-- I mean, studio. Please welcome Corina Newsome!

CORINA NEWSOME: Thank you so much for having me. It's exciting to be here.

MOLLY BLOOM: And from Clemson University, put your talon together-- I mean, put your hands together-- for our second ornithologist, Drew Lanham.

DREW LANHAM: Thank you, Molly. Great to be here talking birds today.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, I hope you are both feeling ready to tackle all kinds of bird facts because Brains On! listeners have a lot of questions about these fascinating creatures. But first, Drew and Corina, I want to know, what got you interested in studying birds?

CORINA NEWSOME: So for a long time I've been interested in wildlife, but I never really paid much attention to birds and certainly not the birds where I lived. I grew up in Philadelphia, and we only had a few of the really common city birds like pigeons, house sparrows, and starlings. It wasn't until Ornithology, which is the study of birds, a class I took in college, that I ever began to pay attention. And the Blue Jay was actually the first bird that I ever learned. And since that moment, when I realized Blue Jays had been around the whole time, and they're so brilliant in color, and I never noticed them, the world became an adventurescape. And since then I have been a crazy bird woman.


MOLLY BLOOM: That is so cool. And how about you, Drew? How did you get interested in birds?

DREW LANHAM: As a kid, I would watch birds fly, I would watch Red-tailed Hawks trace lazy circles in the sky. And I wanted to be up there in the clouds with them.

MOLLY BLOOM: So Drew, if you could be any bird for a day and their amazing flight abilities, which one would you choose?

DREW LANHAM: Wow. I think I'd be a Bobwhite Quail. That's the bird I grew up with, and they were all over our farm, and they had these very familiar calls-- this lovely little [WHISTLES].

MOLLY BLOOM: Very cool. So Corina, as someone who is a bird spotter now, how do you go about spotting birds in the wild? What tips do you have for us to sort of open our eyes to all those birds that are out there?

CORINA NEWSOME: So first, I sit still to see if I can find any movement. But, of course, I turn my ears on to see if I hear anything. Because especially, depending on the season, you might be in a time of the year when lots of birds are singing.


If I can hear that, I can identify a bird just by the sound that it's making. And I don't even have to find it. Although, I do always finish the chase and look for it with my eyes as well.

MOLLY BLOOM: So do you need special gear to spot them, or can you just do it just with your eyes in your ears?

CORINA NEWSOME: Well, having binoculars is very important for getting a good visual look at the bird that you're seeking. But if you just want to use your ears, ears are certainly enough.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, that is great. Because bird songs are one of our first things our listeners are curious about. This question comes to us from Micah.

MICAH: Why do birds sing their songs?


CORINA NEWSOME: Most commonly, you'll hear birds singing when they are trying to attract a mate. So when a bird sings, nearby-- and it's typically a male bird that will sing-- females will key in on that song. They recognize the songs of other members of their species. And that song is there to let females know, hey, I'm here, and I'm available, and I have a territory available for you to build a nest and for us to raise a family.

And one of my favorite territorial birds is the Red-winged Blackbird, which has a very distinctive song that it sings. And it kind of marks the beginning of spring for me and for many others in the United States.

MOLLY BLOOM: And Drew, any other bird songs you want to point out?

DREW LANHAM: Carolina Wrens, both the males and the females, will actually sing. They are paired, or so we think, for a good portion of the year in these relatively small territories. So a space the size of a backyard, and they are calling and singing to one another--


--but they have so many variations on their songs.


Listening to birdsong, man, it's like constantly solving a puzzle.

MOLLY BLOOM: So that's a good segue into a question Fiona wondered about.

FIONA: Can birds of different species intercommunicate?

MOLLY BLOOM: So is there a specific situation where different bird species might eavesdrop on each other or communicate?

DREW LANHAM: There's something really sort of-- I don't know-- strange that you may see birders do. It's something that we call pishing and spishing.


GOLDIE: Hey, hey. Hear that?

CROW: Oh, probably just one of those human bird watchers hoping will come out so it can see us.

GOLDIE: It's so meta.

DREW LANHAM: We're imitating Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees, and those calls, when we make them as birders, not only attract the kinds of birds that might make them, but they also arouse the curiosity of other species. And Titmice and Chickadees will travel around this time of year with birds like Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Maybe there is a Blue-headed Vireo mixed in. Maybe Yellow-rumped warblers are there.

CORINA NEWSOME: Not only are other kinds of birds-- other bird species-- responding to those calls, but other kinds of animals like mammals are even keyed in to the alarm calls of birds. And so, squirrels, when they hear, for example, the alarm call of a Tufted Titmouse, will run for cover.

DREW LANHAM: We're learning every day just how complex bird language is, not only within a species-- so crows talking to crows, but maybe crows telling the Red-tailed Hawk, you know, buddy, it's time to leave the hood. It's time for you to go because we don't like you being here.

MOLLY BLOOM: That is awesome. It's so cool that all this communication is happening and so many of us don't even realize it.


Well, next we have a different kind of question for you two.


CREW: Mystery sound.

MOLLY BLOOM: So a listener sent us this sound, and we're going to ask you to try to figure out what it is. So here is the sound.


OK. It's a short one. So let's hear it again.


What are your guesses?

CORINA NEWSOME: So I used to work with a bunch of different kinds of birds as a zookeeper. One of them was a Kookaburra. And I could be totally off base here, but they'll shake their head back and forth, and it clacks their beak around. And it sounds a little like that. But if it's from North America, it is definitely not a kookaburra.


MOLLY BLOOM: Drew, do you have any thought about what it might be?

DREW LANHAM: You know, It. Sounds very flappy and almost something like a Double-crested Cormorant might do in sort of resettling its feathers after they've been ruffled from a swim or from flying. So I'm going to go with flappy or flapping wings.

MOLLY BLOOM: Excellent guesses. We're going to listen to it again a little bit later and have one more chance to guess before we hear the answer.

CREW: Brains, brains, brains on.

MOLLY BLOOM: All right. So let's talk a little bit about how birds live. Isaac and Margaret wonder--

ISAAC: How are birds born?

CORINA NEWSOME: Mother birds are able to make eggs inside of their body that are fertilized by the male. And she builds those eggs using a whole lot of calcium. The female will incubate the eggs. Incubation means that the mother-- sometimes the mother and the father, but the parents-- will sit on top of the eggs. And they have something called a brood patch which is essentially an open area of skin that is very warm to help the babies stay at a good healthy temperature as they're developing.

And once those eggs are fully developed on the inside and the chicks are ready to hatch, they've got a little tiny what's called egg tooth on their beak oftentimes that allows them to pierce through the egg and emerge from the shell. And I mentioned that the mother had a very large calcium expense in making those eggs. Well, one of the really cool things that I've been able to see, and that other scientists have also documented, is that the females will eat the eggs to reabsorb that calcium that they lost when they made the eggs.

And then, incubation doesn't stop. The mother will continue to incubate the chicks. As soon as that offspring, as those chicks, grow their feathers and are able to leave the nest, it's called fledging. That's essentially when the chicks have quote, unquote, "grown up."

MOLLY BLOOM: So our next question is from Carter. Carter wants to know--

CARTER: Why is bird poop white? We're going to answer that and more bird questions in just a bit.


We're working on a series about myths, and we want to hear from you. What mythical creature would you most like to hang out with? Now, for me, I know I might get eaten or destroyed by this creature, but I'd probably pick the Sphinx. Not only does it look super cool, it would ask me great riddles. And who doesn't love a good puzzle? Send us your idea at You can also send in drawings, show suggestions, mystery sounds, and, of course, questions. That's how we got this one--

CREW: How do birds fly?

MOLLY BLOOM: Stay tuned. We'll answer that question at the end of the show. And we'll also hear the latest group to be inducted into the Brain's Honor Roll. So keep listening.

You're listening to Brains On! from American Public Media.

CORINA NEWSOME: I'm Corina Newsome.

DREW LANHAM: I'm Drew Lanham.

MOLLY BLOOM: And I'm Molly Bloom. Let's get back to that last question.

CARTER: Why is bird poop white?

DREW LANHAM: That white portion of the bird poop is-- guess what-- sort of the urine component. But it's urea. Birds poop, but they don't pee. The combination of the fecal matter-- that's the dark component of the bird poop-- and the white is sort of like a gift all in one. And that comes out of birds because they save weight by not having bladders that humans have and that other taxa have that store urine. So that urine takes up weight, which would make it much more difficult for birds to fly.

MOLLY BLOOM: So efficient.

CREW: Brains On!

MOLLY BLOOM: How about this one. Connor wondered--

CONNOR: Why can't bird see glass?

DREW LANHAM: Well, we really can't see glass. I mean, if you've ever walked into--

MOLLY BLOOM: I have. I have.

DREW LANHAM: --sliding glass-- right. So it's the same thing. What helps us to see glass are the reflections in it. But we also know that some birds may have a very different sort of sense of depth perception than we have. And so, that may also cause problems.

That's something that we can do something about from our homes in providing barriers to the glass or sometimes putting things on the glass that helps the birds know that it's there to skyscrapers and turning off lights at night that would confuse birds that would fly into buildings.

MOLLY BLOOM: Definitely good to help the birds. We have a couple more questions for you. But first, we'll give you both another chance to figure out what the mystery sound is. Here is a hint this time. It's an animal, but not a bird. And it's an animal that many of us know pretty well.


CORINA NEWSOME: Oh, I know what it is. Yeah.

DREW LANHAM: Go ahead, Corina. You go ahead.

MOLLY BLOOM: Sounds like maybe you both figured it out.


CORINA NEWSOME: That is a dog that is either wet or is trying to shake something off of it, and it's flapping its face back and forth. And the ears are clapping against its head.

MOLLY BLOOM: Are you in agreement?

DREW LANHAM: I am. I am. That's a very flappy sound.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yes. Well, you both are right. We got that mystery sound from Yoav in New Zealand.

YOAV: The sound you just heard was my friend's dog flapping his ears.

MOLLY BLOOM: So well done both of you.


All right. So next, let's talk feathers and flight. So Drew, that's what got you into birds. A lot of kids want to know too. So Nora would like to know--

NORA: Why do birds have feathers?

DREW LANHAM: Those feathers are a clothing that help us to recognize birds. So that's helpful for us. But what feathers do for birds is first they do clothe them. You have some feathers that are extraordinarily dense, and we call those contour feathers. And those are the feathers that are closest to the body that are often soft, and they're sort of fluffy.

And so, if you think about something like a down jacket that you might have, then those feathers in that coat are performing the same function for you as they would on the goose. Coloration on birds also is communication to other birds.

MOLLY BLOOM: What else are your feathers for, Corina?

CORINA NEWSOME: The feathers on the wings of birds, particularly flighted birds, are arranged in such a way that make them really aerodynamic. And so, when you think about a bird wing, on the inside, the bones, there are a lot of bones which we share with birds actually if you were to look at the bones of a bird's wing. But on top of those bones are feathers that vary in length. They vary in width. They each play a very important function for allowing that bird to move air over its wing and move through the air.

MOLLY BLOOM: Any specific bird feathers you'd mention?

CORINA NEWSOME: Owls, because they are night-time hunters, and they're typically hunting creatures that have good senses of hearing, their feathers are structured in such a way that they have fringes on the edges of them so that when they flap their wings, when they fly, it really doesn't make any sound. So for an owl, not only are there feathers adapted to help them fly, they are adapted to help them fly silently.

MOLLY BLOOM: And before our next question, Harvey--

HARVEY: Yes. Molly.

MOLLY BLOOM: Activate game show mode.

HARVEY: Sure Molly.




MOLLY BLOOM: I love that part. OK, here we go. We have a game to play. It's called Real Birds or Just Words. For this game, I'm going to give you three phrases. Two phrases are the names of real birds, but one phrase is just words. We'll read the phrase. Then you'll each get to choose your answers. Are you ready for the first round?



MOLLY BLOOM: All right. For round one, the phrases are Bananaquit, applequit, and Orangequit. Which is the just words?

CORINA NEWSOME: The just words are applequit.

DREW LANHAM: I would say, applequit.

MOLLY BLOOM: You are correct.


Orangequits sound like this--


--and bananaquits sound like this--


An applequit is just what you do when you take a big bite into a bruised apple. You have to quit that apple. So it's not a real bird.

All right. So the next one is Emperor Goose, Powerful Woodpecker or prince jay. Which is not a real bird-- Emperor Goose, Powerful Woodpecker, or prince jay?

CORINA NEWSOME: Powerful woodpecker. Not a real bird.

MOLLY BLOOM: Drew, what is your guess?

DREW LANHAM: I would agree-- powerful woodpecker.

MOLLY BLOOM: Let's listen to how those guesses turned out. Here is the sound of the Emperor Goose--


And this is the sound of a-- [BIRDS SINGING] Powerful Woodpecker.




MOLLY BLOOM: The prince jay is not a real bird. But it would be cool if DJ Prince J could play all the latest hits at your next birthday party, wedding, or snazzy corporate gathering. All right, for our final round, we have mustached swan, Mustached Flowerpiercer, and Mustached Tinkerbird. Which one is not a real bird-- mustached swan, Mustached Flowerpiercer, or Mustached Tinkerbird.

DREW LANHAM: I'm going to go with mustached Swan I have not heard of mustached Swan but I hadn't heard of powerful woodpecker either so


CORINA NEWSOME: I'll have to agree with him on this one.

MOLLY BLOOM: Here's the Mustached Flowerpiercer--


And the Mustached Tinkerbird sounds like this-- [CALLING BIRDS].

But the mustached swan-- good last-minute Halloween costume, but not a bird. It doesn't exist. You are both correct. Thank you for playing Real Birds or Just Words.


OK. We have one final listener question for this Ask a Scientist Edition of Brains On! It's about hummingbirds and comes from Cailin and Hadley.

HADLEY: How do hummingbirds hover?

MOLLY BLOOM: So how do hummingbirds stay in one place in the air?

CORINA NEWSOME: Well, one of the hallmark differences between the way a hummingbird is able to move through the air and maybe most other birds that are flighted is really in the pattern of the movement of their wings. And so, if you have ever had the opportunity to take a look at a slow motion video of a hummingbird say at a flower, where it's really trying to stay elevated while staying still at the same time, you'll notice that there is a very clear kind of figure eight pattern when it comes to the movement of their wing. And that kind of helps to keep them in one place while their wings are moving back and forth in this eight shape.

DREW LANHAM: , Yeah that figure eight that Corina is talking about, I mean, it takes a lot of energy. So if you've ever treaded water, just trying to stay in the same place and keep your head above water, that's the closest humans sort of get to hovering in water. So the next time you're out swimming, try that. And you'll get to be a little bit of a hummingbird in water for a little while.


CORINA NEWSOME: Birds sing for a few different reasons-- to impress other birds or warn each other of danger.

DREW LANHAM: Birds probably understand calls from their own species the best. It does seem like birds can sometimes understand other species' alarm calls.

MOLLY BLOOM: Birds hatch from eggs. Many birds use a sharp bump on their beak called an egg tooth to get out into the world.

CORINA NEWSOME: Birds poop and pee at once.

MOLLY BLOOM: Birds use their feathers to fly, stay warm, and tell other birds about themselves.

DREW LANHAM: Hummingbirds stay in the air by swirling their wings back and forth, similar to the way we tread water in the pool.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's it for this episode of Brains On! Brains On! Is made by Sanden Totten, Mark Sanchez, and me, Molly Bloom. Menaka Wilhelm is our very talented fellow, and she produced this bird extravaganza episode. We had engineering help from Veronica Rodriguez, Eric Rogers, Scott Smith, and Eric Romani. We had production support from Elissa Dudley, Rosie DuPont, Christina Lopez, and Ruby Guthrie. Special special Thanks to the Macaulay Library at Cornell University for all of their amazing bird sounds.

CORINA NEWSOME: And before we go--

DREW LANHAM: It's time for the moment of--


AURORA: Our names are Aurora--

ARLO: And Arlo.

AURORA: And we're from Asheville, North Carolina.

BOTH: How do birds fly?

DREW LANHAM: The cool thing about being an ornithologist, about being a bird brain, is that we're constantly learning just how complex some of the behavior and the abilities of birds are. So I like to think about birds as superheroes. There are these little things called vortices, almost like little tornadoes, that are created on the surface of the wing that creates something pretty complex called pressure differential. But really, what it is is just sort of this sucking that helps a wing to be pulled upward.

So we're learning that many birds probably have these vortices-- produce these vortices-- along their wings. But the most spectacular birds and the birds that were studied in part to learn this are these birds called swifts. And swifts are called flying cigars by a lot of people because they look like little cigars but with these jet fighter wings.

Studying swift wings allowed scientists to understand that wings are much more complex flight structures than we thought but that those flight structures, they're proposing that most birds sort of have those vortices that are being produced along the wing surfaces. So almost daily we're finding out new things about birds and just how sort of super terrific they are in all sorts of ways.



MOLLY BLOOM: This list makes my heart soar. It's the Brains honor roll. These are the brilliant listeners who share their fascinating questions, ideas, mystery sounds, and drawings with us.


CREW: (SINGING) Brains Honor Roll. Hive five.

MOLLY BLOOM: As always, thanks for listening. We'll be back soon with more answers to your questions.

Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba Brains On!

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