Want to learn more about birds, but don’t know where to start? Take a trip to the McWane Science Center! The center and the Birmingham Audubon Society (BAS) have teamed up to create the NatureScope laboratory, where you can see some of Alabama’s most interesting, majestic, and beautiful birds up close and personal. The station is on the second floor, just outside an authentic-looking log cabin that serves as BAS’s office.The first station squawking for your attention introduces a sampling of the birds found in Alabama throughout the year. The birds are taxidermies – meaning they are the beaks, feathers, and legs of real birds mounted in lifelike poses. Most were killed when they collided with windows, cars, power lines, or towers. While some birds live in the state year round, others visit Alabama for only part of the year. Some of the visitors spend the winter in the tropics and then migrate north during the spring to set up territories, feast on the abundant supply of summertime insects, and breed. In the fall, they return to the tropics before the North American forests go dormant for the winter and food supplies decline. Some of Alabama’s birds are winter visitors, northern species that come to the Southeast for the warmth and food supplies that can’t be found farther north. Others are species just pass through during spring and fall migration. They breed farther north but spend the winters even farther south than Alabama.
Several exhibits offer a close-up look at some of the Southeast’s most spectacular birds. You can stand eye-to-eye with an adult Bald Eagle and face off with a male Wild Turkey. Perhaps not as eye-catching – but far more unusual – is the pair of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers on display. Each is about the size of a crow, which makes this the largest woodpecker in the U.S. The species was once found throughout southeastern river basins, but due to logging and hunting, its populations were decimated. The last Ivory-Bills documented in the wild were filmed in 1935, but there’s some evidence that a population may still survive in the Florida Panhandle.
You can also see a display of bird eggs of North American species and learn why eggs vary so much in appearance and size. Many have intricate patterns that provide camouflage. A few are colored and patterned in ways that have puzzled scientists for many decades. For instance, scientists still don’t know why the American Robin’s eggs are turquoise.
In another display, you’ll find bird skulls, which reveal the intimate details of a bird’s main toolkit – its beak. Other than fly, birds can’t do much with their wings. And their legs and feet do little more than aid in perching, walking or hopping, and, for some, grasping food. But as the exhibit explains, birds can do with their beak what most of us can’t even do with our hands. You can see how bird beaks have evolved into a great range of tool types, from seed-crushing plier-like bills to long thin forceps-like bills used to pull critters from deep in the mud. In addition to skulls of Alabama natives such as the Bald Eagle and Barred Owl, you’ll find skulls showing some of the most spectacular beaks in the world, including a Hornbill, a Roseate Spoonbill, a Toucan, and a Flamingo. There are even skulls of the Dodo and the Great Auk – two extinct birds.
Once you’ve come to know the different types of birds and how they live in the environment, you can design your own bird. On a touch-sensitive computer screen, you can choose from a selection of beaks, heads, bodies, and legs to create unique anatomical combinations new to science! The computer will then display the habitat appropriate for your bird and describe what its behaviors would be like. You can also try to assemble the parts in the correct combination to match a real species.
When you’re ready to go on an outdoor expedition to see some of Alabama’s most unusual and beautiful species in the wild, talk with a Birmingham Audubon Society office representative at the center, or check out their field trip schedule (trips are free!) at http://www.birminghamaudubon.org.
-R. Scot Duncan