Birdy dinosaurs

Wings Over the Rockies offers a deep-dive on ancient birds through the eyes of bird scientist

“Are dinosaurs extinct?” asked Dr. Lisa Buckley, a scientist who studies dinosaurs by studying modern birds.

While the “non-birdy dinosaurs” are extinct, she said birds are “not just descendants of dinosaurs, but they are in fact a different type of fancy, fluffy dinosaurs.”

Hummingbirds, chickadees, robins and ravens might look different than their ancient ancestors, but they’re still meat-eating dinosaurs, she said.

“Hummingbirds are dinosaurs. I mean they’re kind of on a sugar rush but they’re still dinosaurs. The DNA of tyrannosaurus rex is in there somewhere. If you’ve ever seen hummingbirds fight at a feeder…” Dr. Buckley trailed off in a laugh. “Theropods are still alive and kicking and cranky sometimes.”

Dr. Buckley will be in the Valley for Wings Over The Rockies to teach bird and dinosaur enthusiasts what scientists can learn about extinct creatures by studying modern birds.

“I look at present-day birds and I see what sort of information I can get from the present-day bird footprints and then see how I can apply that,” she said over the phone as gulls squawked behind her.

Dr. Buckley collects plaster samples of bird footprints to take back to the lab to study and compare against other birds across history. Because birds have such fragile skeletons and each only leave one behind, she said it’s easier to study them based on the “tons and tons and tons of footprints” left on the ground.

During her walk, she will take guests into habitats in hopes of seeing shorebirds, identifying them and demonstrating how to collect plaster samples of their footprints.

“Our modern birds provide a living laboratory,” she said. “It’s always worth taking a look at what the modern critters are doing because animals haven’t really changed all that much in their behaviour… Extinct animals still have the same needs and drives that our present-day animals do: so feeding, staying alive, mating, nesting.”

She pointed to a study she was involved in where modern bird behaviour offered an explanation of ancient dinosaur markings.

“These very interesting scrape marks were left in the sandstone and we knew that they were made by a large meat-eating dinosaur,” she said.

But scientists didn’t know why the dinosaurs left those marks until Dr. Buckley and her collaborators realized the scrapes were similar to those male plover birds leave behind when trying to impress potential mates.

She said male plovers make ceremonial nest scrapes as if to tell prospective partners: ‘Look at this wonderful nest that I could build for you.’ After assessing how well the nest was made, the lady bird decides whether to mate with her suitor.

The bird scrapes looked like miniature versions of those left by meat-eating dinosaurs. Without studying modern birds, she said the connection may have been missed.

“Extinct animals weren’t weird. They weren’t strange. They weren’t out of the ordinary,” she said. “They really weren’t different from the animals that we see nowadays. It helps people connect with the past a bit more and learn that we’re part of a much-larger story than the one we’re just experiencing now, which is a tiny, tiny little blip in the entire existence of the planet so it’s good to understand that entire story.”

To learn more about that story, guests are invited to join her for demonstrations on how to collect bird tracks on Monday, May 6th and for talks on Tuesday, May 7th.

For more information on her presentations and other birding events including early-bird explorations, learning about birding apps, a bison-bugs-and-birds presentation and field trip, a flight cage open house and much more, visit www.wingsovertherockies.org.

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