Bee-eater (family Meropidae)

I get so excited when it’s time for me to write a post about birds. I think in part it’s because I’ve always loved birds, but mostly it’s because so many of them are bright and beautiful (and yes, fun to draw). Today’s birds, the bee-eaters, are prime examples.

There are 27 species of bee-eater, which comprise the family Meropidae. Almost all species of bee-eaters are found in Africa or Asia, though the odd species lives in Europe, Australia or New Guinea. Bee-eaters live in a wide variety of habitats; they aren’t particularly picky. All they need to be happy is a nice high perch and lovely soft ground in which to dig burrows. Forests tend to be great habitats for bee-eaters, and a a few species are quite attached to their rainforest habitat.

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Bee-eaters are a very brightly coloured family of birds. Most species have some kind of green plumage, though a few are primarily red and some have no green on them at all. Bee-eater feathers can be green, red, blue, brown black, yellow… if you think of a colour, there’s probably be a species of bee-eater that has some of that colour on it. Unusually for birds, there seems to be little difference between male and female colouration. In some species the eyes of males are bright red, while they are brown-red in females (a drastic difference, I know), and the tails of males may be longer. There may be more to these birds than meets the human eye, however: male blue-tailed bee-eaters were more colourful than females when they were viewed under UV light. So sexual dimorphism may still occur in bee-eaters, it might just be in a part of the spectrum that we cannot see.

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A blue-bearded bee-eater. Image credit: Jason Thompson via Wikipedia

Bee-eaters are very social birds, with many species forming colonies during the breeding season. Two species, the red-throated bee-eater and the white-fronted bee eater, are extremely social — their social structures are thought to be more complex than any other species of bird. They live in colonies built into nests on cliffs, and are further divided into social units called clans, family units and breeding pairs. Clans are composed of several breeding pairs, helper birds (the male offspring from the previous year), and the current year’s offspring. After a morning period in which the colony sits in the sun, preen themselves, and socialize, the colony splits into clans to forage. Each clan has its own territory, and they will aggressively defined their territory against other clans.

If you guessed that that bee-eaters eat bees, then you are super smart and should get a prize! Between 20 and 96% of a bee-eater’s diet can be made up of bees and wasps. But though bee-eaters prefer to consume buzzing pollinators, they don’t exclusively prey on bees. They will also eat a variety of other insects, including beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, moths, and more.

Bee-eaters will sometimes catch food on the wing, but more often sit on perches and watch for prey. Carmine bird-eaters have a special way of getting food: they ride on the backs of kori bustards and snap up any insects disturbed by the bustard while it walks around. Bee-eaters’ eyesight is pretty good; they can spot a bee flying around from 60 to 100 meters away. If a prey item is too big for a bee-eater to swallow in flight, the bird will take its meal pack to its perch and then beat it to death. Insects with stingers are more dangerous, so bee-eaters smack them to death on the branch, and then rub the body of the insect to discharge its venom sac.

Courtship in bee-eaters is not very exciting; most species simply call a bit and fluff their feathers up. The white-throated bee-eater does actually have a more prolonged courtship; two birds will fly together in a ‘butterfly display’ before perching together and calling at one another. Bee-eaters do practice courtship feeding, in which males bring their consorts food items during the breeding season. Bee-eaters are monogamous, with sedentary bird pairings lasting from year to year, and migratory birds generally finding new mates each year.

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An example of courtship feeding in blue-throated bee-eaters. Image credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikipedia

All species of bee-eaters nest in cavities that are dug into the ground or into soft earthen cliffs. Both males and females dig the nests, and sometimes the birds start digging several holes before completing one. Digging takes a long time, sometimes as much as twenty days, and the nests are not reused from season to season (seems pretty wasteful to me). Females lay one egg a day, for a total of around five eggs. The eggs hatch in about 20 days, and stay in the nest for about a month. Both adults and chicks defecate in the nests, making them very gross by the time the young are ready to emerge. Perhaps that’s why the birds don’t reuse their nests…

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A drawing of a European bee-eater I did using coloured pencils. 

Thankfully, no species of bee-eater is currently classified as vulnerable or threatened. Despite being affected by habitat loss (especially nest destruction from trampling and river bank damage), bee-eater numbers remain strong, which is great news!

Cover image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

Spiny Bush Viper (Atheris hispida)

I think all snakes are quite beautiful, though I know many people might disagree. That being said, some snakes are more attractive than others, and today’s animal is definitely one of the more flashy ones.

Spiny bush vipers are found in central Africa, in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the DRC. Within this range, bush vipers are found in isolated populations. They are nocturnal, and mainly found in forests, as they are highly arboreal species. Spiny vipers can be seen basking on top of flowers and leaves, soaking up the sun from their leafy vantage points.

Spiny bush vipers are medium sized snakes, growing to be 58-73 cm long, with males being longer and thinner than females. As their name suggests, spiny bush vipers have highly keeled scales, which give the snakes a spiny or bristly appearance. Members of the genus Atheris, known as bush vipers, are known for being very colourful snakes, with much variety in the genus and within species. Spiny bush vipers are no exception, and these beautiful reptiles come in a variety of colours.

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A nice picture showing off how pretty these snakes are. Image credit: Bree Mc via Wikipedia

These snakes are venomous, though not a whole lot is known about their venom. The venom is neurotoxic, and can vary in strength depending on the snake, its locality, and even weather and altitude. Bites can be fatal to people, causing hemorrhaging of internal organs, and there is no specific antivenin for Atheris species. Fortunately bites from this species are rare, thanks to their isolated location and nocturnal nature.

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Don’t the scales look a bit like miniature leaves? Helpful when you live in a forest! Image source

Bush vipers use their venom to hunt, typically hanging from trees until they can ambush prey. Once the victims are killed by the snakes’ venom, they are swallowed whole. Spiny bush vipers eat a variety of small animals, including mammals, frogs, and lizards.

While I might not want to meet a spiny bush viper in the wild, I can’t deny that they are unique, beautiful animals. I wonder what those spiny scales feel like? It’s probably not a good idea to get close enough to find out.

Turaco (family Musophagidae)

Turacos fit many of the criteria I look for when I’m searching for an animal to write about. They have a funny name, they are quite beautiful and interesting looking, and they are neat animals. So let’s learn about turacos!

Turacos are members of the family Musophagidae, and may be in an order of their own, though this is still disputed. There are about 18 species of turaco, separated into eight genera. They are found in sub-Saharan Africa, and like to hang around in forests, woodlands, and savanna. They are not great fliers, but are excellent climbers and move well on the ground.

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A great blue turaco, the largest species of turaco. Image source: Wikipedia

Turacos can grow to be reasonably large, ranging in length from 40-75 cm. These birds have a very flexible fourth toe, which can either be held at the back or the front of the foot. While some turacos are plainly coloured, with grey and white feathers, others are much more colourful. Brightly coloured turacos are mainly blue, purple or green. Almost all species have some form of ornamentation, from fancy crests to long, beautiful tails.

The pigment that makes green turacos green is called turacoverdin. This is the only true green pigment currently known in birds. Other birds that appear green simply have yellow pigments in their feathers, combined with fancy feathers that scatter light, making them appear blue. Another pigment, turacin, makes the turacos’ feathers red. In all other birds, red colour is caused by carotenoids (the pigment responsible for making carrots orange). So turacos are special, because they’re not cool enough to have refracting feathers, and they are cool enough to have a different red pigment from the rest of the bird world.

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A green turaco, showing off his turacoverdin-coloured feathers. Image credit: Ian Wilson via Wikipedia 

The name Musophagidae means ‘banana eater’, and true to that name, turacos like to eat bananas. They are also quite fond of grapes and papayas. Other foods turacos have been known to eat include leaves, flowers, and various invertebrates, such as slugs and insects. Turacos are so in love with bananas that if you feed them enough, they will become tame, and will take bananas right out of your hand.

Turacos live in flocks, usually of up to ten birds. They are known to be noisy, but the loudest of the family are the go-away-birds. These birds make very loud alarm calls, which serve to warn any animal in the vicinity that a predator a approaches. The birds get their common name from this call, as the screech sounds like ‘go-way’.

Turacos really are pretty (if somewhat funny looking) birds. I suggest you go look up pictures of different turaco species, because they are all beautiful, and I can’t include all of them here.

Cover image credit: Dick Daniels via Wikipedia

Chevrotain (family Tragulidae)

Sometimes when it isn’t a blogging day I find super cool animals to write about, and so I have a list of animals for potential future blog posts. Animals usually don’t stay on the list for long, but sometimes one gets consistently overlooked, and I eventually forget about it entirely. Such was the case with the chevrotain, which has been on my ‘To Blog’ list for at least a year and a half, but only came to my attention again thanks to a friend who suggested I blog about it. So now I will finally blog about these neat animals!

Chevrotains belong to the family Tragulidae, which contains ten species, and are also known as mouse deer. They are ungulates, meaning they walk on the tips of their toes, and have hooves. Most species of chevrotain are found in southeast Asia, though one species lives in western and central Africa. They are nocturnal, and prefer areas with dense vegetation, so are found in forests.

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A cute little chevrotain. Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikipedia

One reason for chevrotains prefer covered areas is because of their size. Chevrotains are some of the smallest ungulates in the world, with Asian species ranging from 0.7 to 8.0 kg in weight. The African species is larger, but still only grows to 16 kg. They are about the size of rabbits, which means they are easy prey for many species, including snakes, crocodiles, eagles, and cats. Chevrotains are usually brown with some white markings, generally spots or stripes.

Chevrotains are known for their combination of developed and primitive traits. They are ruminants, meaning they have a four chambered stomach used to ferment plant matter. But they also have a number of characteristics that seem more closely related to non-ruminant ungulates, such as pigs. Canine teeth (which are long and stick out past the jaw in males), short, thin legs, and the presence of four toes on their feet are all somewhat primitive characteristics possessed by chevrotains.

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Water chevrotains are the largest species, and the only chevrotain to live in Africa. They will often escape to water to avoid predators, though they are not strong swimmers. Image source 

Chevrotains are generally solitary creatures, coming together only to mate. Mating in chevrotains is more pig-like than deer-like, in that there is little display behaviour and copulations are prolonged. Males will sometimes use their long canines to fight each other. Breeding can happen at any time of the year, and females give birth to only one young. Sexual maturity is reached between four to ten months, depending on the species.

Because they are so small and secretive, and are only active at night, there is not a lot known about chevrotain behaviour. Still, these half-pig, half-deer animals are pretty cool, so hopefully we keep studying them!

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African Egg-eating Snake (genus Dasypeltis)

Have you ever thought it would be nice to have super flexible jaws so you could eat whatever you wanted? I tend to think about this when I’m eating something that’s too big for my mouth, such as a hamburger or a double decker sandwich. Unfortunately we humans haven’t quite evolved that kind of elasticity in our mouths, but todays animals, the egg-eating snakes, have.

There are actually two groups of egg-eating snakes — the African egg-eating snakes and the Indian egg eaters. Both evolved their unique diets separately, and are not closely related. I’m going to focus on the African snakes, because there are more of them than the Indian variety  (twelve species versus one).

As you’ve likely guessed, African egg-eating snakes are found in Africa. They live all over the continent, in forested areas. Due to their specific diet, egg-eating snakes are limited to living in areas where there are lots of different species of birds.

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A common egg-eating snake in a defensive posture. When threatened, these snakes rub their scales together to make a hissing sound. They aren’t dangerous though, as they don’t have any teeth. Image source

Really the only thing that the different species have in common is their propensity for eating eggs — otherwise there is a great deal of variation between them. Colours range from green to brown and black, while size can be anywhere from 30 to 100 cm in length.

This may come as a surprise to you, but egg-eating snakes eat eggs. It’s pretty much all they eat, and they’re very good at it. The snakes use their sense of smell to locate nests full of tasty eggs. Their smell is so good that they can tell if eggs are rotten, or overdeveloped. The snakes then open their jaws ridiculously wide and place them around their chosen meal. A series of muscle movements brings the egg into the snakes’ throats.

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An egg-eating snake with a big fat egg in its mouth. Image source: Wikipedia

At this point, the snakes look extremely silly, as they have a giant egg lump partway down their bodies. Luckily egg-eating snakes have a way of dealing with this: they have handy spines coming out of their backbones, which are prefect for breaking eggshells. Once the egg has been crushed, the snakes squeeze the eggs until they’ve extracted as much of the tasty insides as possible. The shell is then regurgitated, because who wants to eat eggshells?

I like eggs (especially devilled), but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t want my entire diet to consist of them. I like some variety, though I suppose if you’ve evolved to only eat one thing, you might as well eat it. Hopefully egg-eating snakes actually like eggs!

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Tent-making Bat (Uroderma bilobatum)

Doesn’t the idea of tent-making bats sound fun? I feel like they’d be excellent camping partners, because if you were ever stuck without shelter they could just whip up a tent for everyone to sleep in. Actual tent-making bats really do make tents, but they certainly aren’t large enough for people to stay in. Still, it’s a pretty cool way to build a roost.

Tent-making bats are found in Central and South America, from Mexico to Peru and Brazil. They live in forests, usually at elevations below 600 m. These bats mainly eat fruit, so they need to live in places where there are enough fruits to sustain them.

Tent-making bats are kind of cute, in a batty kind of way. They are not very large, growing to lengths of 5.9-6.9 cm. Their faces are decorated with a modest noseleaf, as well as four distinct white stripes. Each bat also has a white stripe that runs along the back to the base of the tail. The rest of their fur is grey-brown.

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See they’re pretty cute! Image source

These bats are known for their roosting behaviour, which of course involves constructing tents. They do this by chewing at special spots along the middle of large leaves, so that they fold and create a tent-like structure. Tent-making bats usually choose banana or palm leaves for their roosts, and pick trees that are tall, but not overly so. It’s thought that this is because tall trees are better protected against predators, but that very tall trees are more exposed to weather.

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Some tent-making bats in a nice cosy roost. Image credit: Charlesjsharp via Wikipedia

The downside about this tent-making process is that it takes a few nights, and the bats have to build a new one every couple of months, as the leaves dry out and fall off. Luckily the bats have friends to share in the work, as up to 59 bats will share a single roost.

Tent-making bats breed twice a year, in February and June. This is when plants are fruiting and flowering, which provides food for the pregnant bats and their young. The bats give birth to only one pup after four to five months. The babies are kept in communal roosts, and are independent a month after birth.

Although leaf homes might not seem like the greatest of shelters, this system seems to work pretty well for the tent-making bats. They are currently doing very well in their range, and hopefully will continue to do so.

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