Springwatch: bird penises and middle-sized gulls

In last night’s Springwatch on BBC 2, Chris Packham said that birds in general didn’t have penises but ducks were re-evolving them. The true situation is, I believe, that two of the three groups of birds alive today, roughly: ratites, and the duck&chicken group, never lost their penises. However, the penis had been lost by the time the ancestor of the big third group, Neoaves, had split away from the ducks&chickens. (Could have used the opportunity to mention the very good chance that all birds alive today were descended from one of three of the species that survived at the end of the dinosaurs… corresponding to the three main groups of today – as seems to be the case with mammals.) Gerald Mayr strongly believes the split between the bird groups should be expressly characterised by the presence or lack of the penis. This probably has more scientific than aesthetic merit.

A couple of good opportunities were missed on the programme when herring gulls were compared with lesser black-backed gulls. I was interested to see that herring gulls were a bit bigger, which I hadn’t realised, but I was surprised to see the main difference characterised by the darkness of the back. There are in fact a lot of gulls of that size in Britain, many more than two with grey backs, as I discovered when I went on a bird walk with Simon King in Totton near Southampton a few years ago. (Not the lion etc photographer Simon King, another one, but still a good one.) In any large flock of gulls in some environments, there are often lots and lots of different “species” that an expert could identify, not to mention hybrids, and I think this might have been mentioned. One doesn’t necessarily need to mention the ring-species concept every time (or the fact that some now doubt it), but surely it should be mentioned that even when the back is a confusing middling grey, the herring gull usually has pink feet and the LBB has yellow feet. I remember it by thinking of the lesser yellow-legs: the lesser BBG has yellow legs. Although this is an unconnected bird, and will only help for people that have heard of it, anyone reading this now has heard of it 🙂 .

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