Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Groovy Swan Beaks

Blogged out

Here's a drive-by blogging, just to get things warmed up after a few quiet weeks. Truth is, the art retail company I work for got wind of my non-day-job blogging and the inevitable happened: yup, I'm now blogging for them, too. Not that that's a problem, you understand; it's all in work's hours and there's no overlap in subject matter, so I'm not repeating myself. Despite having had two or three Pteroformer articles pretty much ready to go for some time, I have felt somewhat 'blogged out'.

TetZoo Time! and Beware! the Zine

That's not to say I've done nothing else. I shot out a brief TetZoo Time! strip to keep things fresh there, whilst Alberta Claw and John Turmelle were between academic years and I also continued work on another blog, Beware! the Zine, which I run with longtime co-conspirator, Andy Brain. Keep an eye out for TetZoo Podcats references (hint: they're here and here). There are also a couple of books in the works, which I'll come back to nearer to the times of their respective completions - if only because I find estimating end dates for such projects rather difficult! On top of all that frantic activity and inactivity, I was happy to notice a couple of my diagrams used in an article at an infamous fringe paleo site (even if it was just to point out how silly they are) but not so pleased to see that attribution seemed too difficult a step.

Got close to swan; arms not broken

Despite the considerable risk to my personal safety, I recently baited a rock with bird seed and photographed Britain's most dangerous extant theropod feeding, up close. Forget cassowaries, even maximum ones. I don't know what kids are taught in the rest of the world, but in '70s and '80s Britain, children found themselves herded into school sports halls so that government-sponsored liaison officers could expound the dangers of getting too close to swans with families. "A fully-grown swan can break a man's arm with its wing!" was what we were all told, without a hint of irony. The girls were safe, seemingly. So too were the boys, at least until they had got puberty out of the way. Swans only target men's arms.

During the '80s and '90s, I attended a local branch of the Scouts, and we would visit the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Welney, Cambridgeshire, where thousands of waterbirds would overwinter during the seasonal floods. WWT staff were mostly female in those days, owing to the disproportionate number of men injured in horrifying attacks by mute swans. We can only speculate that they never heard them coming. In fact, archaeological evidence has shown that over half of the adult male skeletons in Romano-British cemeteries for the Fens had healed or healing fractures of their humeri, radii and ulnae, some still with the imprints of swan feathers on their surfaces.

The business end of the swan

Leaving fantasy aside for a moment, one particular photo of a mute swan is worth a share. St. Anne's-on-the-Sea in Lancashire has a biggish ornamental pond situated in Ashton Gardens, its main park. Several species of a wetland bird call it home, including swans, mallards, moorhens and canadian geese. Excepting the moorhens none of them are particularly skittish, which is a shame since it's not too long since an unleashed terrier took the head off one of the swans. On the plus side, it makes getting close to them a bit easier, and they'll readily take food, with younger ducks happy enough to take it from your hands.

A swan. A swan and its pigeon prey. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Now, I've not spent much time staring down the barrel of a swan, basically for the reasons mentioned above. A lot of people are familiar with the 'teeth' of ducks, geese and swans, and a good chunk of those people are aware that they're not true teeth.

Mute swan (Cygnus olor) displaying lamella and corresponding grooves (unless the corresponding grooves are also called lamellae - available diagrams didn't seem to agree). (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

Mute swans (Cygnus olor), like the one in this photo, are generally herbivorous, and use an array of lamellae in their beaks to gather aquatic plants and separate inedible material from the mix. These rib-like projections in the upper and lowers beaks interlock neatly, though they're not always obvious from the outside. After all, unlike Hollywood's dinosaurs, extant dinosaurs don't spend every waking hour with the mouths hanging open, screaming at stuff.

Highly-detailed and extremely serious scientific diagram, showing a duck's head with lamellae exposed. Note fleshy projections forming a fringe on the lateral margins of the tongue. (Copyright © Gareth Monger.)

So there you are. Swans, geese, ducks, and a bunch of other birds, have weird rib-like features lining their beaks, improving their ability to grip food and separate out the nice bits from sediment and other, less interesting, items. Some birds take it further than others, such as flamingos, which have an arrangement which allows them to filter small invertebrates from the water. A bit of a long blog when all I wanted to do was wave a photo under your noses, but hey, it's been a while. See you soon.

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