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The Whippet #158: Jackdaw Democracy

McKinley Valentine — 7 min read

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Good morning!

A few issues ago I was talking about when people describe books as "life-changing" 5 seconds after they finish it, and how I always think "How can you possibly know if it's changed your life yet! You have to wait for some life to happen before you can see if it's any different from before! You just mean you're feeling a big emotion!"

So I was very happy about this tweet:

"Ten books that will change your life," is a reasonable claim. Or "A thousand really good books". But you've gotta match the number to the descriptor! It's like those magazine articles of "48 Must-Have Dresses for Spring" or whatever. If there's 48 of them, they can't be must-haves, it's not possible.

I'm not immune to clickbait, I just fall for the opposite type. I click on articles titled "the only two dresses you'll ever need". I want to know what those uberdresses are. (They're never even good, let alone optimal.)

If you want to tell me something, tell me what type of clickbait headline you're a sucker for, despite having been burned by mediocre content many times before:

'Articles' icon

'Janitor' comes from Janus, Roman god of doorways

Two-faced Janus is always looking forward and backward, so he represents points of transition (like doorways), portals and sea ports, beginnings and endings – which is why January is named after him. 'Janitor' originally meant doorkeeper rather than cleaner, but you can see how you'd get there via 'building custodian'.

Ancient Romans also had Portunus (god of doors, keys and ports), Iana (goddess of archways), Forculus (protector of doors), Limentinus and Lima (god and goddess of thresholds), and Cardea (goddess of door hinges + handles).

And then there's Terminus (god of boundary stones/markers). On the holiday of Terminalia, neighbours would go and bless and decorate the boundary stone between their properties. So you've really got the pick of the drawer if you want divine help with boundary-setting.

(A god for everything and every god in its place.)


Jackdaws vote to decide when to take flight

Before I tell you about jackdaw democracy, read this description of jackdaws by Steven Lovatt, so you know what to picture:

A small crow. Sooty black with silver cape and a smoky opal iris. Socialises in small flocks. Infinitely curious. A municipal inspector of kerbs, with a wide-legged gait, as though its bootlaces had come undone. An arsenal of caws: harsh and affronted to intimate and genial. A delightful, companionable bird.

Around sunrise on winter mornings, a roost consisting of hundreds or thousands of jackdaws will all take to the skies simultaneously. When each bird feels like leaving, it caws (or tchaws) to indicate that it wants to go. Once enough jackdaws have cast their vote in favour of leaving, they all take flight at once.

“After roosting in a large group at night, each jackdaw will have a slightly different preference about when they want to leave, based on factors like their size and hunger,” said researcher Alex Dibnah. “However, it’s useful to reach a consensus. Leaving the roost together has various benefits, including safety from predators and access to information such as where to find food.”

The researchers were able to rig the vote by playing pre-recorded jackdaw calls, getting the birds to believe leaving had a lot more popular support than it really did, and departing early.

Sometimes, the birds failed to reach a consensus and left in a stream of smaller groups.

Source: A statement from the research team at University of Exeter.


Cabot's Tragopan: This guy

A species of pheasant that lives in south-east China. Wikipedia: "Cabot's tragopan is a plump ground-dwelling bird with relatively short legs." (This feels like a prime opportunity to say "it me", ruined only by the regrettable detail that it not me. "There goes Ol' Normal-Length-Legs McKinley," they say, as I head to my dwelling on the second floor.)

Not a lot going on with the tragopan, except its pretty horns, plus it has kind of a weird name for a bird. It turns out the name was taken from Pliny the Elder (Rome, 1st Century AD), who only mentioned it to say it was fake news:

70. FABULOUS BIRDS [McK: he means made up, not gorgeous]

I look upon the birds as fabulous which are called "pegasi," and are said to have a horse's head; as also the griffons, with long ears and a hooked beak. The former are said to be natives of Scythia, the latter of Æthiopia. The same is my opinion, also, as to the tragopan; many writers, however, assert that it is larger than the eagle, has curved horns on the temples, and a plumage of iron colour, with the exception of the head, which is purple. Nor yet do the sirens obtain any greater credit with me.

Well you don't obtain any great credit with me, Pliny. #justicefortragopan


'Island Syndrome' – how species change when they move to isolated islands

The Cabot's Tragopan colours reminded me of this – on remote islands, male birds lose their fancy colours and plumage, because it's a small dating pool and the female birds don't have any better options. Since there are fewer different species overall, birds also don't have to bother distinguishing themselves from other species.

Isolated ecosystems – which includes not just islands, but caves, valleys, desert oases and 'sky islands' (isolated mountain-tops) – have fewer predators, less biodiversity and less interspecies competition, so they tend to change in predictable ways:

  • Big animals get smaller ("insular dwarfism") and small animals get bigger ("insular gigantism"). See: pygmy elephants and coconut crabs.
    With a smaller variety of species, there's less need for animals to occupy a specific niche, so they all shift towards the middle.
  • Birds and insects lose their wings (see: the kiwi and kakapo) because they don't need them to escape predators
  • Colours get duller; the male and female of a given species look more alike.
  • Mothers have smaller litters of fitter animals – it's more about getting one awesome kid to adulthood than having thousands and playing the numbers game.
  • Their brains shrink.
  • They get docile and less territorial (see: the dodo)

Fancy colours, clever brains, big pectoral muscles for flapping wings, hypervigilance – they all take a lot of energy, and animals that waste energy on unnecessary things get out-evolved.

Plants do the same thing – the big ones get smaller and the small ones get bigger, and there's fewer massive herbivores going around eating them, so they lose their defensive spikes and toxins.

Wikipedia page on Island Syndrome

Bonus fact: Galapagos Tortoises were long thought to be an example of insular gigantism, but they're now understand to be the last pocket of a species of tortoise that was giant wherever it went.


Legs (ca. 1000-800 BC)

Vessel with Two Feet. Ancient Near Eastern. Clay, height: 18 7/8 in. (48 cm). Brooklyn Museum.

Look at the unnecessarily realistic ankles!

Unsolicited Advice

Mobility Routine Experiment update

I immediately undermined myself by getting an eyeliner tattoo (permanent make-up), which came with the instructions not to sweat for the next 7 days. At least a few of those days were so humid that I was barely allowed to sit alone in a dark room.

But I did manage to get a few in. Some observations:

  • If I do a mobility routine first thing when I get up, I shake off morning sluggishness a lot faster, and get a sense of having more time (since I have more useable time, because I'm spending less of it as a slug).
  • If I do it at any other point in the day, I dunno, it's a nice break, but it doesn't really give me any additional energy, so I might as well play Slice & Dice instead, which is an even nicer break.
  • Slice & Dice is a super-fun little battle game on Android, macOS and Windows (dice as in rolling dice, not chopped salad). There's no microtransactions – you pay for the game, you get the game, there's no ads or forced wait times or in-game currency. You can download a free demo here.
(I'm not getting any kickbacks from Slice & Dice, it's just so rare for a mobile game to be properly fun and not a cynical cash-cow)
  • I really hate it when yoga etc. instructors refer to movements and stretches as 'yummy' or 'scrumptious'. I can't justify this opinion.
  • My favourite routine so far is this one (10 minutes).


Thank you so much for reading!

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