Discovery Night 2017


discoverynightMarch saw the return of the University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Science and Engineering. For the fifth year running this included Discovery Night, a family outreach evening demonstrating current research within the departments of science, engineering and medicine through demonstrations, talks and hands-on activities. Our research group is usually based in two places- the university and the Natural History Museum in Tring- so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring ourselves and the various sides of our project together to take part in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences’ (APS) offerings.

Despite the publication of our first wide-ranging paper earlier this year, we are not yet finished with data collection. Our aim, to 3D scan the bill and photograph the plumage of as many of the world’s approx. 10,000 species of bird, is a huge undertaking so communicating the scale and scope of this work seemed an interesting approach to take  when sharing our research.

birdspecimensWhilst we aren’t able to remove the irreplaceable specimens we use everyday from museum collections, we are lucky enough to have a small selection of data-less bird skins for testing our methods and for outreach. Museum’s will generally only keep natural history specimens within their research collections if they are adequately labelled with associated information (such as taxonomy, locality, who collected it and when) that makes them useful for research and/or identifiable as historically significant. As such, material will occasionally be deemed unsuitable for these needs but ideal for alternative uses, such as inclusion within handling collections- where material is  set aside to be used in teaching activities.

studyskins2Museum collections are absolutely essential in our work and form an incredible archive for research, interest and education so it was only fitting they took pride of place in our display. Not only are they wonderful to look at up close, illustrating some key points in our study, but they also act as a brilliant starting point in explaining why these primarily historical resources can be such an important resource for the future.

Much of the last two years has been spent extracting  the data we need from these specimens to allow us to explore evolutionary diversity amongst species through 3D scanning and photography.

sarahscanningScanning bird beaks, whilst allowing us to generate incredibly detailed digital replicas, is a hugely varied undertaking- one that requires lots of practice to tackle the bristles, feathers, damaged keratin, hooks, casques, curves and glossy surfaces that we encounter every day working with specimens. We gave scanning demonstrations throughout the evening, showing the process of imaging a bill from a variety of angles to capture a full three-dimensional model. We were also given a run for our money by some particularly talented members of the public!

markmybirdGetting people involved with our research via the next stage of our work, landmarking, is another important point for us. To turn a detailed 3D model into data that we can compare and interpret across all species, we need to place key points on every single scan. This is a time-consuming but engaging task and one we want citizen scientists of all ages to be able to try. Our crowdsourcing site – – has so far seen an incredible input from interested people all over the world, but there is still plenty left to get involved with!

In recent months we’ve also been experimenting with 3D printing, attempting to create accurate physical models of the bills we image. After some trial and error and with the help of experienced staff within the APS department, we were aultimakerble to create models of a selection of bills- much better for handling and demonstrating than the real thing!

We were lucky enough to have the 3D printer in action throughout the evening, slowly but surely creating a model of a sturdy corvid bill. It’s been brilliant to see our digital models taking physical form once again, providing a visual tool for displaying the variety in the form and shape of bird bills. Each model of the size pictured below takes around four hours to print. A life-size replica of a shoebill beak, for example, would take upwards of 24hours!

3DprintedbillsAlongside these demonstrations of our work we also had bill-weirdness Top Trumps, a plumage identification computer game, videos showing our work based in the Natural History Museum’s collections and an opportunity to take your own ultraviolet plumage shots. It was great to speak with so many interested visitors (with so many brilliant questions) and have the chance to show what we’ve been up to- whether as visitors or demonstrators, hopefully we’ll be back next year!




Happy New Year-ish!: Lab Updates January 2017

It’s been another busy few months for all of us here on team MacroBird and time has flown since our last update at the end of the Summer. Team changes, data collection, paper writing, outreach and PhD-beginnings have kept us occupied as we start another year of all things macroevolution!

Data collection will be continuing throughout 2017 using the fantastic ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring. With two remaining research assistants and a new member joining the team, both scanning and photography will be pushing on over the coming months. Emma Hughes, one of our original RAs, is now based with the rest of the team in Sheffield, beginning a NERC-funded PhD exploring the impact of global change on avian diversity.

IMG_8589At the end of September we took part in Science Uncovered- the Natural History Museum’s European Researcher’s Night event- for the second year running. MacroBird PI Dr Gavin Thomas gave a talk about our research and crowdsourcing project whilst we demonstrated our use of the collections with our scanners, specimens and citizen science website. You can read more about the night here.

Data collecting in Tring: 3D scanning & UV photography

Having achieved approaching 90% of species processed (with over 75% successfully scanned), we’re well on our way to completing the scanning component of our project. The remaining species that are available within the Natural History Museum’s collections will be scanned over the coming months and added to our crowdsourcing site MarkMyBird, increasing the diversity of bills available to view and landmark through our galleries. Remaining target families include the Tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae) and Ovenbirds (Furnariidae).


Clockwise from top left: I’iwi or Scarlet honeycreeper (Drepanis coccinea), Brown-capped rosy finch (Leucosticte australis), Long-tailed rosefinch (Carpodacus sibiricus), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

As such, data collection has had a shift of focus in recent months as our efforts have been turned from scanning to photography. After some alterations to the equipment we are using whilst imaging the plumage (male and female) of every extant species in both the human visible and ultraviolet ranges we continue to photograph our way through the passerines. We are currently progressing through the brilliantly varied Fringillidae family, including everything from the European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) to the fascinating Hawaiian honeycreepers.


Fratercula arctica- Atlantic puffinOur crowdsourcing site still needs you! We are aiming to scan the bills of as many as possible of the world’s 10,000 species of bird and now have almost 80% of this total uploaded and ready for you to view and landmark on our dedicated crowdsourcing website. In order to include these incredibly detailed 3D scans in our study, we need citizen scientists to help us ‘landmark’ these models, placing key points and traMagpie2cing curves and edges. The process allows you to get up close to this fascinating and massively variable area of avian anatomy and contribute to this wide ranging research. We have everything from extinct and endangered species to old favourites such as the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica– left) and the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica– right) to explore. This month we reached a fantastic milestone, exceeding 1000 registered users on the site- brilliant stuff! 


Our weekly twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek is still going strong with some especially unusual choices in recent weeks- including the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii), as pictured below. Anyone is welcome to join in and have a guess every Wednesday- you might even be first to get the correct answer and make your way onto our extremely prestigious leader board.



After over two years of data collection, thousands of 3D scans (and even more specimens assessed, measured and processed), the contributions of scores of citizen scientists and months of analysis, we’re thrilled to say that the first paper resulting from this project has been accepted for publication. The paper will available to read very soon and we’ll be sure to make lots of noise when the publication date arrives- watch this space!


All scans (c) of Team Macrobird and The Natural History Museum (London and Tring)
Finch photographs: credits provided.

Science Uncovered 2016


After having a great time showcasing our research last year, we were invited back to take part in the Natural History Museum’s offerings for European Researcher’s Night 2016.


One of the best parts of our role as Research Assistants is the freedom to work with the museum’s collections everyday, moving across all taxa and, at times, preparation methods (study skins, spirit and skeleton specimens) as data collection requires. Without access to such incredible collections, wide-ranging studies such as ours simply wouldn’t be possible and the importance of highlighting the many uses of such diverse and well-maintained resources is becoming increasingly important. When they were collected, primarily during the heyday of Victorian exploration and collecting, nobody could have anticipated the ways in which these specimens would be used. Yet, by preserving them for future generations, this historical material can now be utilised in contemporary science projects, continuing to help us understand the evolving biodiversity of the planet.IMG_8576

There’s no better way to show this than with the real thing so we selected an array of study skins- exactly like those kept in the natural history museum’s ornithology research collections and used in our study- for people to explore up close. Alongside these were a selection of skulls from the museum’s handling collections, ranging from the large, stocky bill of the marabou stork and the curved, pointed bill of the kestrel to the filter feeding bill of a flamingo and the mud-probing bill of an ibis.

With our portable 3D scanner in tow, we were alsIMG_8578o able to give live scanning demonstrations with anyone welcome to have a go at creating their own 3D digital bill model- not as easy as it looks! By demonstrating how we move from a physical specimen to a detailed digital replica it becomes clear why this is only possible with study skins- it would be practically and logistically impossible to replicate this process with living birds in the field.

One of the great things about talking to the public about our research in particular is that anyone interested can actually become a citizen scientist and contribute to the study through the wonders of our crowdsourcing site With over three-quarters of world bird species now uploaded, there are thousands of bills to explore up-close via our gallery as well as opportunities for anyone to have a go at landmarking our 3D scans, assisting with our analysis and helping answer key questions about avian evolution.

In addition to our stand, Principal Investigator Gavin Thomas gave a talk introducing our research and its reliance on ornithology collections. Situated in thIMG_8588e public galleries of the Natural History Museum at Tring- a Victorian zoological collection and display space donated to the NHM by its founder, Walter Rothschild- it was a great opportunity to highlight the value of largely unseen research collections and highlight the questions we are hoping to answer.

Alongside our offerings were demonstrations from expert taxidermists showing how museum specimens are preserved and the opportunity to see some of the manuscript treasures of the Natural History Museum being made available through the digitisation efforts of the amazing Biodiversity Heritage Library. There was also the opportunityscarlet rumped trogon drawing to talk to curators about contemporary museum issues: from a stand exploring the use of bird skins in helping identify material picked up by HM Customs, blocking aircraft engines or contaminating foods to discussions concerning how natural history museums deal with selecting (and declining) new acquisitions.

You can learn more about European Researcher’s Night here, the Natural History Museum at Tring here and us on our team website, twitter and crowdsourcing site!



The Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata)


From the fantastically diverse vanga family (vangidae) the sickle-billed vanga really is sight to behold.  When a species has a bill as distinctive as this you can see why it would be quick to identify on #BeakoftheWeek, and low and behold the bird that the bill belonged to was quickly ascertained in the weekly challenge. Some of the beaks we have had the opportunity to scan at the Natural History Museum collections in Tring are a joy to work with, and this was definitely one of those.

Here is a nice video from the internet bird collection for you to watch to get a feel for what this bird looks like and how it moves.


  • What does it look like?

    The sickle-billed vanga is the largest in its family and it really stands out because of the strongly decurved bill that is possesses. There is no sexual dimorphism in this species, with both males and females being mostly white except for its upperparts, which are black with a blue sheen (as can be seen below). These vangas have blackish-brown irises, its legs are dark grey/pale blue and its bill is bluish grey fading to ivory at the tip.  Juveniles are similar in appearance to adults.

    sickle-billed vanga 2

    Sickle-billed vanga

    This is all very well and good if you can see the bird, but what if it is doing what birds are wont to do and hiding just out of sight? Well then we can rely on what it sounds like, if it decides to make any sound that is. Below is a recording of this species in the wild for you to memorise if you happen to be heading out to Madagascar.

  • Where can you find this bird?

    This species is endemic to Madagascar and is a year round resident along the whole of the western side of the island nation, as can be seen below. They are typically found in dry deciduous forests and Savannah.

    Sickle-billed Vanga range

    Sickle-billed Vanga range

  • Diet

    This species forages in holes and crevices of living and dead trees on the hunt for invertebrates (such as spiders, beetles and cockroaches) and small vertebrates (e.g. geckos). In the non-breeding season they form large foraging groups of between 20-30 individuals and sometimes form mixed groups with other species such as Madagascar Crested Drongos (Dicrurus forficatus).

    Sickle-billed Vanga

    Sickle-billed Vanga


    These vangas breed between October and January in NW Madagascar. Interestingly they are Polyandrous, where more than one male mates with one female and all the males (plus the female) then feed the young. These modern males also help with predator defence, territorial defence and sometimes incubation and brooding.

    This nest itself is built 9-16m off the ground in the fork of a tree and is formed from twigs into a cup-shape before being lined with more comfortable materials. Once it is ready a clutch of 3-4 eggs will be laid, which will then be incubated for 16-18 days. The chicks will then remain in the nest for 19-23 days before entering into the real world.

  • Good news on this front in that this species is seen as of “At Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist for species. It is common to fairly common across it’s large range and it also found in many protected areas.

  • Sickle-billed vangas are polyandrous, as mentioned previously, which is a rare mating system thought to only occur in less than one percent of bird species. It is well documented in phalaropes, although this “strange” mating system did lead to John James Audubon mislabelling all of his males and female phalaropes in his illustrations.

    There are two types of polyandry: Sequential polyandry is where a female mates with a male, lays eggs and then leaves the male to do the rest as she goes off to find another male to mate with, and Simultaneous polyandry, where a female holds a large territory which contains numerous smaller nesting territories where males care for the eggs and young.

    For further reading this week I am providing a link that will explain polyandry in more detail and also provides links to information on different mating systems, such as polygyny and cooperative breeding. Follow this link to a Stanford University site to begin your learning journey.


BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Falculea palliata. Downloaded from on 26/08/2016.

BirdLife International. 2012. Falculea palliata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22708041A39344831. Downloaded on 25 August 2016.

Yamagishi, S. & Nakamura, M. (2016). Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 25 August 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Falculea palliata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1

ian_hempstead, IBC1195731. Accessible at

Keulemans’ Sickle-billed vanga by John Gerrard Keulemans is licensed Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Sickle-billed vanga by Cédric de Foucault is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.


Hans Matheve, XC155300. Accessible at

The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)


I say this far too frequently for it to warrant much merit but this is definitely a #favebird. Not only is it a highly skilled snake assassin but it has some rather fanciful “hair” to boot.

This one was solved pretty quickly on #BeakoftheWeek by our resident expert but it was mistaken for quite a few other accipitriformes first.

Check out the video below for a quick run through about this species before diving into a bit more detail.

  • What does it look like?

    This rather large bird is over a metre tall (125-150cm), that is almost as tall as Kylie Minogue! I would love to say I have seen one of these birds in the wild, but I Should Be So Lucky. I will have to make do with wonderful pictures like the one below for the time being.

    This species weighs between 2 and 4.5kg and has a large wingspan of up to 215cm (as wide as Shaquille O’Neal is tall- wow).  It is an unmistakable bird with it’s long pink legs, bare orange face and black crest feathers. Males are similar to females, although females are slightly less blue in appearance and juveniles have a shorter tail and crest.

    Moving swiftly away from celebrity heights…



    Xeno canto has let us down on this occasion so the best I can do is relate a description of their calls from the fantastic Handbook of the Birds of the World. Their most frequent call, which they make whilst perched/in flight is described as a high-pitched “ko-ko-ko-ko-ka”. They can also be heard making a more audible “kowaaaaa” and a “cockerel-like broken “kurrk-urr””.  I don’t know about you but I feel like I could do quite a good impression of a secretary bird now, thanks again HBW.

  • Where can you find this bird?

    Endemic to Africa the secretarybird is typically found in open grassland and savannah in the sub-Sahara and tends to nest and roost in Acacia trees. As you can see from the range map below they are found extensively across Africa.

    Secretary Bird Range

    Secretary Bird Range

  • Breeding

    This species isn’t fussy, as long as there is a good level of food availability they will nest at any time of the year. Secretarybirds hold territories of 25-45km² in which they build their nests. Nests are formed 3-7.5m from the ground (although they have been seen much higher at 36m) on top of low trees such as an Acacia. The base of the nests is formed with sticks which are then lined with grass, wool and dung. They sometimes re-use nests but more often than not a new one is built.

    One-three eggs are laid, which are then incubated by both sexes (42-46 days). The chicks remain in the nest for typically 75-90 days, and can remain dependent for 62-105 days.

    Nesting Secretarybirds

    Nesting Secretarybirds


    You would be mistaken to think the secretarybird restricts its diet to our serpentine friends, it mostly feeds on arthropods. Particular faves are beetles and grasshoppers, but it isn’t a finicky eater. They have been known to eat a wide range of small animals, ranging from lizards and frogs to tortoises, squirrels, hedgehogs, hares and birds eggs and young.

    In order to kill its prey is usually kicks them to death with its long legs and strong toes, before swallowing smaller prey whole and tearing larger prey apart whilst holding it down.

    This species is known to hunt around grass fires, eating prey as it tries to escape/if it has been killed by the inferno. What a way to go.

    Secretary bird feeding

    Secretarybird with a tasty treat

  • Unfortunately this species is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Redlist, with some surveys estimating that total numbers are only in five figures. Rapid declines have been seen across much of its range, with no sightings occurring in Western African making it perhaps the most threatened raptor in the region.

    There are number of factors which could be causing the decline in this species, such as cultivation, urbanisation, burning of grasslands reducing prey numbers and severe drought. It is hoped that by educating locals on the threats facing this species it will help to lessen this decline.

  • I have gone for a mix of further reading today, a bit of science mixed in with a bit of art.

    Let’s start with art. The illustration below is by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (b1874, d1927), a man synonymous with ornithological art. He produced thousands of drawings and paintings in various mediums throughout his lifetime before tragically dying in a car accident.

    Fuertes made his artwork from animals in their natural setting, as well as from fresh study specimens and in order to create these masterpieces Fuertes went on many expeditions, travelling thoughout much of the Americas and Africa.

    Not many people have a species named after them. Fuertes managed that achievement twice – Fuertes’s Oriole and Fuertes’ Parrot.

    By design this further reading is intended to whet the appetite and encourage you to go off and learn more.  I recommend doing a simple search to see more of his illustrations to start with (here is his fantastic white-cheeked hornbill).  John James Audubon, whom we have spoken about previously (click link and scroll down to further reading) was perhaps the most famous ornithological artist and Frank Chapman, curator of the American Natural History Museum who collaborated with Fuertes many times, wrote a comparison of Audubon’s and Fuertes’s work and personalities that can be read here. Frank Chapman also wrote an obituary of Fuertes in Auk where you can see in what high esteem he was held and read more about his achievements.

    Fuertes secretarybird

    Fuertes’ Secretarybird

    Now for a quick bit of science! Imagine the importance of accuracy when targeting a venomous snake, the consequences of missing could be deadly. This journal article (S.Portugal et al. 2016) looks into the locomotion and mechanisms behind the secretarybird’s kick and gives you a great insight into just how powerful this bird’s kick really is.


BirdLife International. 2013. Sagittarius serpentarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T22696221A49946506. Downloaded on 23 August 2016.

Kemp, A.C., Kirwan, G.M., Christie, D.A. & Marks, J.S. (2016). Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.).Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 23 August 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2013. Sagittarius serpentarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1.

Fuertes’ Secretarybird by Louis Agassiz Fuertes is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Nesting Secretarybirds by Peter Dowley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Secretarybird by Ian White is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Secretarybird with a tasty treat by Jean & Nathalie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Planet Doc Full Documentaries. 2015. Secretary Birds of Africa | Nature. [Online]. [23/08/2016]. Available from:


The Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea)


I couldn’t wait to write a blog about this species, so I have waded straight into it before the dust has even settled from another round of #BeakoftheWeek.

I had the pleasure of working at a research station (Fowlers Gap) in New South Wales a few years ago where there was a group of habituated apostlebirds, which was a fantastic experience. All you had to do was give a whistle and they would fly over and gather around you in the search of tasty treats. This allowed me to get some great photos like the one below.


Apostlebird PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

This social, cooperatively breeding passerine species is an Australian mudnester (Corcoracidae) and is one of many species that had the pleasure of first being described by British Ornithologist John Gould (in 1837). Yup, that is the man who pointed out to Charles Darwin that there was something special about those birds he had brought back from the Galapagos. The 12 seminal ground finch species. This subject could cause me to massively go off on a tangent as I am sometimes wanton to do, but I will stick to the apostlebirds this time.

Apostlebirds are the only member of their genus and one of only two species in the Corcoracidae family, along with the white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos). If you head over to Onezoom you can see what other species they are closely related to.

  • Apostlebirds are around 30cm in length and largely grey in colour (hence Cinerea, which means grey in latin) except for their brown wings and long black tail which has a greeny gloss in certain light. Sexes are similar in appearance, as are juveniles except that they appear to have slightly softer feathers on the head and body.  They have a black bill and legs.

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Apostlebirds are very vocal, with harsh, gritty calls. Xeno Canto, provider of an unparalleled range of bird calls and songs has once again allowed me to share with you the distinctive sounds these birds make.

  • Where can you find this species?

    Apostlebirds are endemic to Australia, across most of inland Eastern Australia with an isolated population in the Northern Territory. They prefer open habitats, and are typically found in arid and semi-arid woodlands/shrublands.  They can become quite bold and tame around places like campsites and farms, so you might be able to get a better view of them there, if you happen to be in Australia that is…


    Apostlebird Range

    Apostlebird Range

  • Breeding

    As I mentioned earlier on in this article, this species breeds cooperatively. This means that the breeding effort in this species is shared amongst members of the group, helping to take some of the burden off of the breeding pair. Members of the group help by assisting with tasks like nest building, egg incubation and nest defence.  The number of helpers in a group can be as high as 17.

    It is in fact the group-living nature of these birds that gave rise to their name.  They are often seen in groups of 12, much like Jesus’s Apostles. Although this species has a whole host of other names, such as the “Cwa-bird” and the “lazy-jack”. Apostlebirds also charmingly called “grey jumpers”, a name derived from their habit of jumping from branch to branch.

    As an aside, this species forms a fission-fusion society with these “breeding units” coming together with other breeding groups in winter to former larger groups, before then breaking off again when breeding season comes around.

    You scratch my back, i'll scratch yours.

    You scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours. PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

    Breeding generally occurs between August and February, with exceptions occurring at other times of the year in drier areas where breeding can commence following rain.

    The mud nest, which all group members take part in building, is typically around 7m (range = 3-12m) from the ground in the horizontal branch of a tree. Nests are commonly built in Eucalyptus , Cassuarina and Acacia trees, and are constructed using dried mud, twigs and grass.

    Typically 3-5 eggs are laid, with the breeding female undertaking most of the incubating (19-20 days), although all group members help somewhat. The whole group then takes responsibility for meeting the nutritional requirements of the nestlings (18-20 days) and subsequently the fledglings for up to 10 weeks. Offspring form a major part of breeding groups and often stay in their natal groups for many years.


    You’ll see these birds foraging on the ground looking for seeds and insects, although they have been known to steal eggs from other species’ nests and eat small mammals. They have been seen to kill mice by thumping them into the ground before eating them, what a delightful way to go.

  • How is this species faring?

    This species is not considered to be under threat according to the IUCN redlist but is seeing population declines in some areas due to drought, fire and clearance for agriculture leading to habitat loss.

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library

    I don’t think we have given a shout out to the Biodiversity Heritage Library as of yet, so this is as good an opportunity as any.  It is a fantastic resource that has digitised a large amount of biodiversity literature, such as the Birds of Australia.  It has been created by a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries, such as the Natural History Museum (London) and Smithsonian Libraries, with the aim of digitising biodiversity literature in their collections and making them available to all (open access).

    This project gives members of the public access to reading material that they would most likely never get the chance to see otherwise, unless they had a wealth of time on their hands and the ability to travel the world on some carefree reading adventure.

    Here is the Birds of Australia for you perusal.


BirdLife International. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22705385A38386489. Downloaded on 29 July 2016.

Rowley, I. & Russell, E. (2016). Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 28 July 2016).

Photos and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1 – range

Investigative Apostlebird by Benjamint444 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


Marc Anderson, XC171837. Accessible at

Lab Updates April 2016


Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

Overall we have scanned 67% of the world’s birds! You can view many of these 6700 species on our MarkMyBird gallery.

Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macrornyx croceus)

Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macrornyx croceus)

Our current target is to scan every species from our list of ‘island bird families’. The remaining island families we are yet to complete such as fantails, monarchs and drongos are quite difficult to scan owing to their dark shiny bills, and rictal bristles that obscure the sides of the gape of the bill and so this has slowed down our progress a little. However, we have also been targeting some easier to scan bird families to keep things moving such as the pipits and wagtails (Motacillidae). As well as having bills that are easy to scan, many have incredibly long hind claws (such as the aptly named yellow-throated longclaw, Macrornyx croceus) which are thought to be an adaptation to help them walk through grass.

To date we have scanned:

  • 6688 (66.93%) of species
  • 3153 (77.81%) of species from island families
  • 3532 (59.20%) of passerines
  • 3153 (78.30%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: UV and Visible Photography

Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri)

Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri)

On the photography side of the project this month we have been lucky enough to work on the birds of paradise. With such an incredible variety of colours, amazing iridescence and some of the most extravagant feathers, this plumage is incredible to see up close (and a practical challenge to image at times!).

It’s particularly fascinating to see first hand just how vivid much of this structural colour remains in historical skins and it will be of particular interest to see how these photographs fare in our later analysis.

We continue to progress through the Passerine families and are currently working our way through the bright and colourful Oriolidae.

To date we have reached:

  • 51 (26.29%) of families completed
  • 2108 (21.09%) of species
  • 9583 specimens: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
  • 57498 photographs: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen

Mark My Bird

Our crowdsourcing site has now exceeded 790 registered landmarkers. The fantastic efforts of these citizen scientists has seen our overall landmarking progress reach 40%, contributing vital data as we proceed further into the analysis stages of the project.

This doesn’t mean the chance to contribute to the study is over, far from it! There are still thousands of these fantastic 3D models of bills in need of landmarking. With new species being added as each family is scanned from museum specimens, you can learn more about this research or join in and have a go yourself by visiting our website

We have a new mailing list for MarkMyBird where we send out a monthly research highlight for our landmarkers. This month you can see how accurate your shoebill mark up was! You can sign up to our mailing list here.


Raptor skull change with size

Raptor skull change with size

Jen was lead author on a paper published this month in PNAS investigating shape change in birds of prey. As the skulls of birds of prey increase in size, they do so in a predictable way. The bills are tightly linked to this change in skull size – one cannot change without the other – indicating a constraint on how the bill can evolve. If this constraint is broken, it could have important implications for avian groups that exhibit high bill diversity, such as the passerines, particularly in families that have undergone rapid and explosive radiations, including the Darwin’s finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers. You can read more on the University of Sheffield’s press release, or by reading the full paper below:  

Bright, J.A., Marugán-Lobón, J., Cobb, S.N. and Rayfield, E.J. (2016). The shapes of bird beaks are highly controlled by nondietary factors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

Our twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has continued every Wednesday, with Tim Blackburn and Paul Sweet remaining at the top of our leaderboard- all are welcome to have a go and perhaps even beat our current contenders to the top slots!

We post regular blogs about some of our favourite species chosen for the weekly challenge over on our website, this month including the fabulous Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas).

Yellow-throated longlaw (Macrornyx croceus) taken by Carmelo López Abad is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri) by markaharper1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

MMB banner (c) Jen Bright

Raptor gif (c) Jen Bright

Lab Updates March 2016


March has been a busy month for all on team MacroBird. Data collection, based at the Natural History Museum’s ornithology research collections in Tring, has continued for both the 3D scanning and photography components of our study.

Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

Overall, we have achieved scanning 60% of all of the world’s bird species – that’s 6000 bills! In addition, we have scanned 74% of species that feature on our island families list, and are currently working our way through the pigeons (Columbidae) and babblers (Timaliidae). With around 500 scannable species left (with suitable specimens available for scanning in the museum’s collection), we hope to have worked our way through the list by the end of May. Our next aim will be to scan 100% of all non-passerine species.

Species scanned plot

The larger of our two scanners, the R3X, has been working brilliantly with its new lenses, allowing us to scan much finer bills and keep our scanning productivity at full speed. Currently preoccupied with the huge number of aforementioned pigeon species, we will be moving on to scanning raptors on this shortly.

Noisy friarbird (Philemon corniculatus)

Noisy friarbird (Philemon corniculatus)

An interesting island family that we have worked through this month are the honeyeaters (Meliphagidae). Honeyeaters are small-medium passerines, largely found in Australia and New Guinea. This group contains the fantastically named ‘Friarbirds‘ that have featherless heads which give them an almost vulture-like appearance. We also worked through the woodpeckers (Picidae) which have one of the easiest bills to scan – the majority are pale and their chisel-like shape means it doesn’t take too many rotations to scan the entire bill. One thing we didn’t realise was quite how variable in size the woodpecker bill is, going from the large 9.5cm bill of the Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis) to the tiny 1.5cm bill of the African Piculet (Sasia africanus).

To date we have scanned:

  • 6323 (63.26%) of species
  • 2028 (96.99%) of genera
  • 3006 (74.19%) of species from island families
  • 3332 (55.85%) of passerines
  • 2988 (74.20%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: UV and Visible Photography

Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis)

Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis)

As mentioned in last month’s updates, the photography component of our project – imaging the plumage of as wide a range of the 10,000 species of birds as possible in both the human visible and ultraviolet spectrum – is now well underway.

This month has seen us continue to target our priority list of species, focussing primarily on passerine families, including the beautiful Australasian robins (Petroicidae) and the fantastically colourful leafbirds (Chloropseidae).

To date we have photographed:

  • 37 (19.07%) of families completed
  • 1808 (18.09%) of species
  • 8102 specimens: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
  • 48612 photographs: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen

Mark My Bird

Our crowdsourcing site has now exceeded 750 registered landmarkers, with over 100 new participants this month alone! The fantastic efforts of these citizen scientists has seen our overall landmarking progress reach 35%, contributing vital data as we proceed further into the analysis stages of the project.

This doesn’t mean the chance to contribute to the study is over, far from it! There are still thousands of these fantastic 3D models of bills in need of landmarking. With new species being added as each family is scanned from museum specimens, you can learn more about this research or join in and have a go yourself by visiting our website

In May we will be holding a Mark-My-Bird-athon at the University of Sheffield – more news on this to follow..

Markmybird 4


Chris gave a talk at the Yorkshire Naturalists Union annual conference. Chris’s talk, and those of the other speakers, are covered in this vlog by Eco Sapien.


Brulez, K., Mikšík, I., Cooney, C.R., Hauber, M.E., Lovell, P.G., Maurer, G., Portugal, S.J., Russell, D., Silas James, Reynolds, S.J. & Cassey, P. (2016). Eggshell pigment composition covaries with phylogeny but not with life history or with nesting ecology traits of British passerinesEcology and evolution.

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

Our twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has continued every Wednesday, with Tim Blackburn and Paul Sweet remaining at the top of our leaderboard- all are welcome to have a go and perhaps even beat our current contenders to the top slots!

We post regular blogs about some of our favourite species chosen for the weekly challenge over on our website, this month including the fabulous Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus) and the striking King Eider (Somateria spectabilis).



Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis) taken by Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel MS MCh is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Noisy friarbird (Philemon corniculatus) taken by Leo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

MMB banner (c) Jen Bright

The Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus)


This #BeakoftheWeek riddle was one for the performers. An undisputed king of the dancefloor, the twelve-wired bird of paradise is truly a sight to behold.

If you’re struggling to find a signature move then maybe a watch of some birds of paradise will set you on the right path.  Either that or you will find yourself drawn into the black-hole that is watching bird of paradise videos. Perhaps I should add a NSFW tag on this post as these videos can be seriously detrimental to work place productivity, you have been warned.

This passerine species is from the relatively small Paradisaeidae family, consisting of 40 species of truly stunning birds from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Eastern Australia. It is well worth taking a look at every single one of these species as they each have something to offer the casual bird lover. If I had to point you in the direction of just three I would go for Wilson’s Bird of Paradise, the King of Saxony and Lawes’s Parotia.

Sir David Attenborough narrated a fantastic documentary on this family recently (“Paradise Birds”) which included some beautiful drawings of how artists thought the birds displayed their feathers before they were seen in the wild. How wrong they were! These remarkable displays have got to be seen to believed so I strongly encourage you to do some exploring into them yourselves.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty you can see what species are closely related to this one, thanks to OneZoom, below.

  • As shown below, this species is found almost exclusively on the island of New Guinea, which is Papua New Guinea in the East, and part of Indonesia in the West. This species is presumed to be a resident and not migratory,

    12 wired BOP range map

    Twelve-wired bird of paradise range map.

    These birds are found up to 180m in flat lowland rainforest, especially in swamp-forest.

  • This sexually dimorphic species ranges in size from 33cm for males to 35cm for females. Males weigh slightly more at 170-217g with females weighing 160-188g.  The differences between the two sexes can be clearly seen in the picture below.  Females are in fact smaller than males but their much longer tails gives them a slightly longer measurement.

    Females are dull-coloured especially in comparison to males,although they do have slightly dull-purple iridescence on their head and upper mantle. Males, with their bright, blood-red irises, are far more showy with their velvety black head with its iridescent olive-green shine and iridescent purple crown. Their throat and breast is also velvety black with olive-green iridescence. Iridescent emerald-green feathers border the lower breast before the remaining lower-parts become brilliant yellow. Lastly but not least the male has 12 recurved “wires” emerging at it’s tail, giving it it’s name.

    12wired BOP 2

    Male (top) and female twelve-wired birds of paradise.

    If you get to see one of these I am extremely jealous, and if you are going into their range you should arm yourselves with all you can to help you spot one. The first steps after knowing what they look like is to discover what they sound like. Over to you Xeno Canto for another useful sound clip:

  • This polygynous species breeds almost all year round (January – early November). You will not be disappointed to hear that the males display, which occurs at traditional perches, is pretty special.  Males finds leafless, vertical, typically dead tree stumps that stand out from the forest canopy and vocally advertise. They have their favourite perches that they defend and they will typically only display on these.

    The display can be seen in the earlier youtube link but if you’d rather read my attempt to describe it – The male endeavors to prove his genetic prowess with a feast of dance moves that would dazzle even the most skeptical of females. Their displays includes perch dancing, bill-fencing and an up-close and personal avian version of twerking – the “wire-wipe display”- where the male attempts to titillate the female by wiping his flank wires across his face.  Just to make sure that he gets his display bang on the money he practices when he thinks no-one is watching.

    Here is a nice video explaining how the male is using his wires.

    Two male twelve-wired birds of paradise

    Two male twelve-wired birds of paradise.

    After all the effort that goes into this display perhaps it is unsurprising the male doesn’t get involved with the nest, which is entirely the female’s responsibility. The nest, built in pandanus or sago palm trees, is a shallow cup made of stems inside pandanus bark and vines atop a base of leaves and sticks. It is lined with plant fibres and can be built up to 14m from the ground.

    Typically 1 egg is laid, sometimes 2, with incubation taking 20 days and the nestling leaving the nest at 3 weeks.


    This species forms mixed-species flocks, when it is foraging, with other birds of paradise and pitohuis. Their diet is roughly 50% fruit (mostly pandanus) and 50% animals. They tend to feed on arthropods, nectar and small vertebrates such as frogs and lizards.  They are acrobatic feeders, hanging upside down to probe inside holes in trees to find tasty morsels.

  • This species is listed as “Of Least Concern” on the IUCN species redlist due to its extensive range and habitat, with the population thought to be stable.

    Hunting is not the same problem that it used to be back in the 19th and early 20th century with legal protection against hunting helping to prevent population declines.  Although some hunting is permitted to tribes for ceremonial purposes.

    Alfred Russell Wallace was a famous collector of these species and his collection exploits are detailed in “The Malay Archipelago”.

    Alfred Russell Wallace's Malay Archipelago.

    Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago.

  • I am going to use this section to point you in the direction of a fantastic resource for all things bird, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and in particular their “Bird of Paradise Project“. The project has gone to great lengths to get pictures of every single species and there is a great deal of information on this site about the different species, how they collected data, female choice, natural & sexual selection and much more.

    What’s that you say? I forgot to mention that this magnificent specimen is also featured on stamps? All the best birds get their own stamps and the twelve-wired bird of paradise is no exception.  Here is a lovely stamp from Indonesia featuring our feathered friend.

    Indonesian stamp.

    Indonesian stamp.


BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Seleucidis melanoleucus. Downloaded from on 29/03/2016.

BirdLife International. 2012. Seleucidis melanoleucus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22706233A38419655. Downloaded on 30 March 2016.

Frith, C. & Frith, D. (2016). Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 29 March 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Seleucidis melanoleucus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-3

LabofOrnithology. 2012.Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise. Online. 30/03/2016. Available from:

Male and female twelve-wired birds of paradise by Daniel Giraud Elliot is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Twelve-wired bird of paradise stamp by Post of Indonesia is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Two male twelve-wired birds of paradise by Bowdler Sharpe is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.


Bas van Balen, XC141153. Accessible at

Lab Updates: It’s been a while!


Straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnoctites rectirostris)

Straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnoctites rectirostris)

Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

We have achieved our target of scanning a species from every genus that is both available to us in Tring’s collection and scannable, giving us excellent coverage across the bird family tree. The last remaining species were those from the Extinct and Endangered, and Type collections. Specimens are classed as a Type if they were the example used for officially describing and naming a new species- they are some of the most important in any natural history collection. One of the most interesting Type specimens we have scanned in recent months was collected by Darwin himself on the second Voyage of the Beagle, the straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnoctites rectirostris), an ovenbird from South America.

Our largest scanner, the R3X, had been largely redundant before Christmas as we had scanned nearly all species with bills large enough for it to scan. This meant that the only scanner we had working was the MechScan which tackles bills from the size of  a grain of rice to about 50mm in length. With only one scanner in action our rate decreased quite considerably. However, we now have some new lenses for the R3X allowing us to scan bills from about 35mm upwards and so both scanners are now running at full speed!

Currently we are working on completing families containing species that live on islands such as white-eyes, finches, sunbirds and storm-petrels.

To date we have scanned:

  • 5766 (57.70%) of species
  • 2029 (97.03%) of genera
  • 3144 (52.70%) of passerines
  • 2613 (64.89%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: Visible and UV Photography

The end of 2015 also saw the photography component of our project start in full force, with the ambitious aim of imaging the plumage colouration and pattern of as many of the 10,000 extant species of bird as possible, in both the visible and ultraviolet spectrum. We are targeting selected families to begin with, such as woodpeckers, tyrant flycatchers and cotingas, but hope to get as wide a coverage as possible by using the Natural History Museum’s incredible collections.

In the first few months we have been able to photograph approximately 900 species, and as we are selecting multiple males and females from each species, this equates to upwards of 4000 specimens. We take photographs of the bird at dorsal, lateral and ventral angles in both the visible and UV spectrums, meaning a total of 6 images per specimen, so overall we have taken around 25,000 individual photographs to date!

With almost 9% of world bird species imaged, this is a brilliant start!

Great Jacamar (Jacamerops aurea) in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum

Great Jacamar (Jacamerops aurea) in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum

Great Jacamar (Jacamerops aurea) in human visible spectrum

Great Jacamar (Jacamerops aurea) in the human visible spectrum








Mark My Bird

Since Mark My Bird launched we’ve had fantastic input from citizen scientists with over 650 registered landmarkers now contributing to our study – thank you! We have so far uploaded 3500 scans of species from around the world for people to view up close and landmark, providing essential data for our analysis. With almost 12,000 bills landmarks, this is a brilliant start to the enormous task ahead.

If you haven’t signed up yet and would be interested to learn more about the crowdsourcing side of our work, explore the 3D models we are generating or actually have a go at landmarking, visit our website

Our stand at Science Uncovered, NHM Tring.

Our stand at Science Uncovered, NHM Tring.

Science Uncovered

At the end of September, Team MarkMyBird took part in the Natural History Museum’s annual Science Uncovered event (part of European Researcher’s Night) at the Tring museum site – home to the incredible ornithology research collections that are essential for our data collection. This was a great opportunity to talk about our research and answer questions from museum visitors of all ages. You can read about our stand and the event itself in our blog post.


Angela attended the EMPSEB21 (European Meeting of PhD Students in Evolutionary Biology) conference in Scotland (8th-12th September 2015) and presented some of her PhD research about  the perks of using variable-rates models of trait evolution.

In November, Jen gave a talk at the 3 Days of 3D conference at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands (2-4th November 2015).


Edwards, D. P., Gilroy, J. J., Thomas, G. H., Uribe, C. A. M., & Haugaasen, T. (2015). Land-Sparing Agriculture Best Protects Avian Phylogenetic Diversity. Current Biology, 25(18), 2384-2391.

The paper also featured in an article in the guardian!

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

Our weekly Twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek is still going strong with Tim Blackburn and Paul Sweet leading the way. If you’d like to know more about some of the birds featured in #BeakoftheWeek, check out our blogs exploring some of our favourites as the competition runs on.

Other News: New Research Assistants!

Two new research assistants, Zoë and Lara, joined our research group towards the end of last year. Lara’s background is in Zoology and she completed her postgraduate studies in Biological Photography and Imaging. Zoë previously worked as a Curatorial Assistant for Bird Group at Tring NHM and read Art History and subsequently Museum Studies at University. You can find out more about the MarkMyBird research group here.

Zoë getting to grips with 3D scanning

Zoë getting to grips with 3D scanning

Lara learning how to take linear morphometric measurements

Lara learning how to take linear morphometric measurements











Straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnoctites rectirostris) taken by Cláudio Dias Timm is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

All other images (c) Natural History Museum, London.