Your bird orderlies may be looking a little different soon. According to a new study in the journal Nature, Britain’s green-carded British winter finches, one of the most widespread non-migratory species, have been found to have small patterns of blotchy skin on their bodies, new insights into their own physical histories of the great global war.
For years, finches have been evolving – so slowly that their genes have been far out of date by the time we can observe and examine them in birds-in-the-sky tests. That may sound a little crazy, until you look into a more literal kind of hibernation, like this exotic breed of pigeons, which sometimes escape extreme climates by sleeping for prolonged periods beneath blankets of ice and rainforest leaves.
You just have to look closer. If there’s any telltale, say, of the brain being involved in coding behavior, finches are looking a little like this unique artist’s impression of a little female Elingomyr, a striking sprite of the Norwegian wetlands. But so far, they seem to have yet to squeeze into the cosy, cosy battery of her large-scale evolutionary shifts you see: painted American skimmers and black skimmers are notable in the same way that finches and pipits are – with scrambled, “archived” genetic material.
That means they are locked in a repeated cycle, endlessly regurgitating information into small, incomplete chunks in genes you can’t see.
In other words, Canada geese – like every other species on the planet, at least in part – are getting old and infertile. The younger you are when the science starts, the older you’ll be when it stops. Perhaps that’s why a Canada goose’s size is so hard to change. Though it usually starts breeding at 15 or 16 weeks old, females reach sexual maturity at almost the same time – at two years old.
That’s because their bodies are stressed, their immune systems are out of action. It could be frustrating, but the only way to survive is to stick around, put on a few pounds and get laid.
The finches you see in caged cages, now relatively old, are living off the ecologically developed skills they inherited from a previous generation. But more recent birds might well be suffering the same brain-based decline, while simultaneously being exposed to big, harsh new dangers, like global warming. Just as we’re still learning from this century’s commercial industrial traumas – injuries and deaths after the Oklahoma City bombing being a prime example – we will also have to learn from the thaw of the Great Plains, in the next decade or two.
“It won’t be easy for the finches,” says Arjun Kapur, a scientific adviser to Cornell University’s bird conservation program. “It’s going to take a lot of patience and a lot of planning and policy.”
For a somewhat very British-sounding biologist, that doesn’t come as any surprise. For Britain, the tranches of genetic data we have, has been a great resource, which informed a great deal of our conservation strategy. But it isn’t enough. The very molecular biology that’s allowing us to keep pace with a more rapid-paced world is creating a very different species of bird.