Terror birds

From what I can see, one would not want to be pecked by a terror bird. These venerable South Americans, called phorusrhacidae as a clade, flourished back when that continent was an island, the last of them perishing scarcely more than a couple million years ago. They could stand up to ten feet tall, and had beaks alarmingly large if narrow, coming to a point at a hawk-like spike, of an exceptionally hard material, which could be driven down and through a victim with uncommon force, opening him like a tin on the recoil. They seem to have eaten almost anything smaller than they were, and almost everything was smaller, so there you go: an apex predator. Fortunately, they were flightless.

My fascination with bio-engineering has been growing lately, with the arrival of spring. The buzzard I described in a previous post has practically moved in, and is now using my balconata rail as an habitual perch, to the distress of my sunflower seed-bribed purple finches, one of whom actually flew in the door of the High Doganate a few days ago, seeking protection. His friends, equally surprised, scattered in other directions as the big, mean-looking bird alighted. I had on my hands, briefly, one seriously distressed little avian, unable to decide whether I or the buzzard would make the better companion.

Now, some of these phorusrhacidae were rather smaller, and would thus be a problem only for the time traveller’s spaniel. From my glance at the skeleton, however, the neck seems sufficiently coiled and articulated for a strike from the side, in a scything action, provided that it does not wobble indecisively. So that, as a traveller myself, I would be seriously reviewing my commitment to biodiversity.

Still, if we can ranch an ostrich, I’m sure we could ranch a terror bird.

There are some parallel, coterminous species whose remains have been exhumed on other continents. As I say, these birds didn’t fly, and the Panama Isthmus to North America rose out of the sea hardly three million years ago. From the look of, for instance, the Titanis walleri who settled in Texas and Florida (no fault of Barack Obama’s here), we see a different design plan entirely. Similarly, or rather, dissimilarly, the North African “cousins.” It seems to me a bird of roughly that design and equipment was simply made for the Cenozoic. Once we get over this Evolution nonsense, we will see that chance plays no part, and that our planetary zoo is intelligently arranged in successive temporal sections.

The phorusrhacidae are stars of the moment, and I see them in all the pop-science ’zines. Last week the BBC picked up a nice item from the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, adding those “artist’s impressions” that make a dry scientific tract into a crowd-pleaser. Argentine palaeontologists have been picking them out of the cliffs by Mar del Plata, before the sea erodes them, and recently found a nearly-complete skeleton of a new species, Llallawavis scagliali (“Scaglia’s magnificent bird”). This included the intact chamber for an inner ear. From this we gather that the bird’s hearing was adapted to quite low frequencies, so that we might imagine it sang in a rich baritone.

The bigger the bird, the lower the pitch, is among the more plausible rules of thumb. Elephants roar and mice squeak, as they say. I seem to recall a (typically fatuous) Darwinoid nostrum, that honesty in signalling is essential to sexual selection and … blah, blah, blah. The observation was never true, of course, and gradually even Darwinoids have noticed that a little wren can sing a very low-pitched line — whether to con a predator into not looking closer, or to impress a chick.

In fact the complexity of birdsong, and its astounding range, not only in solo performances but in conscious choral singing, is only beginning to be appreciated. With the collapse of neo-Darwinism, we will get a much better view into the phenomena of joy in nature, as we once had in the heyday of natural history, before the Great Bearded Killjoy of Down House arrived on the scene.

With joy comes paradox and scintillating reverses. The point was brought home to me recently when a large tall muscular young fellow (human) was singing for his supper at Yonge and Bloor. He had the most amazing high countertenor voice, with which he was doing Schubert’s Ave Maria — easily earning a toonie from me. By analogy I imagine this lately-found Argentine terror bird shocking his audience with the voice of a Franco Fagioli — bringing, as it were, just when they were expecting the floor to resonate beneath them, instead the chandeliers down on their heads.

Actually, I was intending today to launch a brutal and possibly gratuitous attack on the Wright brothers. But I’ve been terribly busy this week, so perhaps will leave that until tomorrow.