Posted in History & Literature


In the 1790’s, an Oxford University student by the name of William Buckland pulled an unusual prank. One night, he took buckets of bat guano and spread it on the Oxford College lawn, spelling out “GUANO” with the material. For those who have never heard of guano, it is the excrement of a bird or bat. You could imagine the shock of Oxford authorities the next day at the sight of poop on their prestigious lawn.

The guano was cleaned up immediately. But after a while, a mysterious phenomenon occurred. Everyone could see “GUANO” clearly spelled out on the lawn in tall, luscious grass, rising above the surrounding grass. Even after it was freshly mowed, the letters kept growing back, thicker and faster than the other grass.

The reasoning behind this is that guano is an excellent fertiliser. Animal excrements have long been used in farming as a fertiliser, as they contain vital nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium that plants need to grow. Bat and bird poop in particular contain large concentrations of these nutrients.

Guano had been used as a fertiliser for over a millenium in the Americas, such as by the Incans. It was known to the West by the 1700’s, but the thought of applying poop to prestigious English gardens did not sit right, therefore it was not widely used for a long time.

But by the 1800’s, many European scientists noted the potent ability of guano in transforming sterile fields into plentiful farmlands in Peru. Demand for guano rose rapidly as people caught on to how guano could drastically improve crop output and food production.

Ramon Castilla, the president of Peru, capitalised on this by exporting large quantities of guano to Europe. Peru had some of the largest deposits of high-quality guano thanks to its native seabird population, with entire mountains and islands of guano being available for mining. The massive spike in guano trade resulted in Peru’s greatest age of prosperity – known as the Guano Era. Peru used this newfound economic boom to abolish slavery, eliminate head taxes on indigeneous populations and started a public education system.

This sounds like a success story, where a developing nation enjoys dramatic growth with improved quality of life for its citizens thanks to good timing and natural resources. However, the guano story has a far darker side.

To have better access to guano deposits, wars were fought and genocide committed. Chile invaded Bolivia to seize control of Guano Islands, while the USA and Britain started colonising and annexing Pacific islands to access guano reserves. Aggressive mining of guano disrupted natural habitats of seabirds and bats, resulting in destruction of entire ecosystems dependent on guano for nutrients. In the late 1800’s, approximately 53 million seabirds lived on the Guano Islands, whereas only 4.2 million lived there by 2011. Many people were forced into slavery or exploited to decrease costs of mining guano, with miners often working in horrific conditions.

Guano dominated global economics and politics of the 19th century, but its reign ended in 1913 when German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch successfully started mass-producing ammonia using a novel chemical process (Haber-Bosch process), fixing nitrogen from the air to cheaply produce nitrogen-based fertiliser. This ended the need for guano as a source of nitrogen, while dramatically improving agriculture and food supplies around the world.

Isn’t it fascinating to see how much impact bird poop has had on world history?

Posted in Science & Nature


Extinction is when there are no more members of a given species left. Countless species have come and gone throughout history, such as the dinosaurs. We are currently going through the most recent episode of mass extinction where a vast number of species are being wiped out from the face of the Earth. The cause of this mass extinction is us.

So-called the Anthropocene Extinction, modern humans have been responsible for the extinction of millions of species over the course of our history. This ranges from the death of megafauna such as the woolly mammoth, to the extermination of the dodo on Mauritius, to the imminent extinction of the Northern white rhinoceros (with only two female rhinos surviving). This is the result of over-hunting, climate change, habitat destruction and predator and disease introduction.

Because of the sheer number of extinctions caused and threatened by us, we have also observed many hauntingly depressing stories of identifying the last member of a species. For example, we know that the last passenger pigeon named Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The last Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) named Benjamin died in 1936, neglected in a zoo. These poor creatures who are the last of their kind are called endlings.

A particularly sad endling story is that of a Hawaiian bird species known as the Kaua’i ʻōʻō. They are an extinct species of honeyeater bird that could be identified by their strikingly rich, golden yellow leg feathers. The Kaua’i ʻōʻō were also famous for their flute-like duet songs sang between lifelong mating pairs.

The Kaua’i ʻōʻō became threatened as mosquitoes were introduced to the island of Kaua’i by sailors. The mosquitoes transmitted deadly diseases which decimated the population. To escape the mosquitoes, the birds retreated to higher ground. However, the Kaua’i ʻōʻō were cavity nesters, meaning that they made nests in tree hollows, which are found in fewer numbers at high altitudes. This meant that the birds failed to find nesting grounds and their numbers dwindled further.

The last mating pair was last observed in 1981. Despite ornithologists attempting desperately to protect this pair, they could not locate the female after a devastating hurricane struck the island in 1982. Several years later, ornithologist Jim Jacobi was surveying the Alaka’i reserve when he heard the unmistakable call of the Kaua’i ʻōʻō. He quickly used his tape recorder to record the Kaua’i ʻōʻō’s call. When he replayed the tape to the group, he noticed to his surprise that the male Kaua’i ʻōʻō had flown back towards them. He stared in wonder, then realised: the bird had returned because he had thought it heard another bird calling him; a call it hadn’t heard in however long.

We can still listen to this recording of the Kaua’i ʻōʻō endling. We can hear the clear lack of its duet partner’s call – a deafening silence symbolising the death of a species.

The saddest part of this story is knowing that even though we may never know their name or how their call sounds, countless endlings have died a lonely, quiet death all around the world, marking a full stop to their species’ epic narrative.

You can hear the Kaua’i ʻōʻō endling’s call here:

Posted in History & Literature

Halcyon Days

There is a story in Greek mythology about a woman named Alcyone. Alcyone was married to Ceyx and the two were madly in love with each other. They would go as far as playfully calling each other Zeus and Hera (the king and queen of the gods). When Zeus heard of this, he became infuriated and plotted a way to punish the couple for their sacrilege.

One day, while Ceyx was sailing, Zeus threw a thunderbolt to raise a furious storm. The storm made quick work of Ceyx’s ship and Ceyx sank to the bottom of the sea. With his dying breath, he prayed to the gods to bring his body to the shore so that Alcyone may see him one last time and give him a funeral. The gods took pity and arranged for this to happen.

Meanwhile, Morpheus, god of dreams, appeared before Alcyone in the image of Ceyx, to gently inform her of her husband’s death. Alcyone ran to the shore in grief. There, she found the cold, lifeless body of her beloved husband. The loss of her true love was too much for her to bear. After Ceyx’s funeral, she threw herself in to the sea and drowned, so that she may meet her husband again in the underworld.

The gods, who were admirers of Alcyone and Ceyx’s beautiful love, were deeply saddened by this tragic fate. Zeus decided to atone for his rash actions by transforming the couple into a pair of kingfishers. The two birds lived happily ever after, but found that whenever they tried to lay eggs on the beach during the winter, strong waves would wash them away. Alcyone’s father Aeolus, god of the winds, saw this and calmed the winds for two weeks every winter, so that the couple may lay their eggs and make a nest in peace. Kingfishers have been referred to as halcyons since then.

Nowadays, the term halcyon days refers to a period of peace and calm, particularly during times of hardship.
Perhaps it is an allusion to the fact that we can navigate through any adversity when we are with our loved ones.

Posted in Philosophy


“High in the North in a land called Svithjod there is a mountain. It is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles high and once every thousand years a little bird comes to this mountain to sharpen its beak. When the mountain has thus been worn away a single day of eternity will have passed.”

~ Hendrik Willem van Loon

Posted in Science & Nature

Bird Strike

An airplane flying across the sky faces many dangers. But a very common yet not well-known type of accident is the bird strike. Just as the name suggests, a bird strike is when a plane collides with a flying bird. This may not sound so dangerous, but considering a plane typically flies at 800~900km/h, the energy from the collision is quite significant. If a plane flying at 800km/h collides with a 5kg bird, the energy generated is 92 tonnes. This is not only enough to instantly kill the bird, but also enough to damage the plane.

The most common type of bird strikes is when a bird collides head-on with the windshield or gets sucked into the engine. The latter can cause severe damage to the engine and even cause it to fail. For example, in 1960 a plane flying above Boston collided with a flock of starlings, leading to all four of its engines failing and causing it to crash, killing 62 passengers. Since birds typically fly below an altitude of 9000m, bird strikes most often occur during take-off and landing. However, there are case reports of much higher altitude crashes, with the record being held at 11300m.

According to statistics, the most common type of bird involved are waterfowls and gulls, with 15% of bird strikes being severe. Bird strikes cause $1.2 billion worth of damage annually worldwide and has cost 200 lives since 1988. The first bird strike occurred with the invention of the airplane, as recorded by the Wright brothers (inventors of the modern airplane). As bird strikes cause so much damage, airports place many countermeasures to prevent them. The most frequently used methods are driving away birds from runways by using scarecrows and other methods, or modifying the plane and engines to be more bird-resistant.

Posted in Science & Nature

Alex The Parrot

Alex (Avian Language EXperiment) was the name of an animal psychology experiment that ran for 30 years starting from 1977. The experiment was designed to see if birds could undertake complex problem solving and learn languages like primates. For this, Dr Irene Pepperberg bough an African grey parrot, named him Alex and started teaching him how to speak. Before Alex, scientists believed that animals needed a large enough brain like a primate to handle the complex problems related to language. But Alex proved otherwise.

Before Dr Pepperberg, scientists failed to establish any two-way communication with parrots. She used a new training technique called the model/rival technique, where two trainers act in front of the parrot to teach it things. The method is as follows. One trainer (the rival) shows the other trainer the desired student behaviour they want the parrot to learn. The other trainer then compliments the trainer and shows attention. The parrot sees that the behaviour gets the trainer’s attention and learns it to compete with the rival. This technique was extremely successful and Alex began picking up words at a very fast rate (technically it was more of a two-way communications code than “language”).

Once communication was possible, Dr Pepperberg taught Alex many different concepts. Over the course of his life, Alex learnt 150 words, how to differentiate between seven colours and five shapes and also understood the concept of numbers and sizes. If you showed Alex two objects, he could answer many questions regarding one object (thus showing that his response was not a conditioned one). For example, if you showed him a small blue key and a large green key, he could answer what colour the larger key was, or which one was the green key. Furthermore, if a plate full of objects of different colours and shapes was presented to him, he could correctly count how many green blocks (or any other shape or colour) there was among the objects. The important point here is that he could pick out just the green blocks, excluding green balls or blue blocks from his answers (showing he fully understood the question and could attribute more than one characteristic to one object). He knew how to express himself, such as saying “Wanna go back” when he was tired, and would give playful, incorrect answers when bored of the repetitious experiments. According to Dr Pepperberg, Alex had the intelligence equal to a dolphin, a great ape or a five year-old child. He also knew how to attain knowledge by asking questions, such as when he asked what colour he was to learn the word “grey”.

Alex, who told us so much about the intelligence of a parrot, unfortunately died in 2007. The night before he died, he said the following last words to Dr Pepperberg: “You be good. I love you”.

Posted in Science & Nature

Northern White-Faced Owl

The northern white-faced owl, found in the Sahara Desert of Africa, is a small, cute bird of about 22~24cm length. It is famous for a very unique defence mechanism. As shown in the photo, it normally has a round, puffy appearance, but when faced with a fearsome predator like a hawk, it undergoes a drastic transformation. The owl shrinks itself as much as possible to avoid the enemy’s attention, while looking like a sick bird that has lost a lot of weight. This appearance gives the predator the impression that the owl is not worth the effort of hunting and lowers the chance of it attacking. The ability to shrink to half its original width is achieved through elongating its body and pulling in its feathers as much as possible. Also, when assuming this shape, the owl always faces the predator and poses at an angle to minimise its exposure.

This transformation is only seen when the owl is placed in front of a large predator like a hawk or a much larger owl. When in front of a similarly-sized owl, it exhibits a different transformation where it flares up its wings to make itself look much larger, intimidating the opposition. But this behaviour is common in many other species of owls, whereas the shrinking performance is a rare behaviour only seen in the northern white-faced owl.

(Video showing transformation: