Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Why do birds suddenly appear...?

>> Wednesday, June 15, 2011

And thank you, Debbie; I don't know about folks at home, but I'll never look at Worcester Sauce the same way again. In just a moment, we'll have part three of roving reporter Steve Bendlebergman's series on the recent rise in activity of violent helper monkey gangs, but first we have another edition of Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets, the feature where viewers like you present questions for our staff. Today's question comes from Carol Elaine, who writes in to ask:

Eric, why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?

Well, Carol, it's the damnedest thing: because bird bones tend to be fragile, paleontologists have had a hard time figuring out exactly when or how birds suddenly appeared at all. To this date, the earliest undisputed "bird" is Archaeopteryx, a winged and feathered dinosaur from the Jurassic era. Apparently there is another possible candidate for earliest "bird" (I'm using the quotes because we're talking about transitional forms bridging the dinosaurs and avians) that would push the appearance of birds back another eighty million years or so, but that would raise all sorts of issues with our current understanding of the timeline and familial connections and there are reasons to think that maybe the real issues are with the discovery and identification of the fossils themselves, and not with the model. (See the previous link in this paragraph for details.) Of course we'll see if any more fossils turn up that may clarify things.

Assuming that Archaeopteryx is the earliest bird to suddenly appear, and that I am near suddenly appearing birds, it logically follows that this must be the Jurassic era, approximately 150 million years ago. This may surprise you, and certainly raises all sorts of questions. E.g. how am I getting such a good Internet connection approximately 149,999,865 years before Alexander Graham Bell successfully tested a voice connection on his newfangled telephone, much less the invention of the painfully-slow dial-up connection? I don't have a good answer to that, I'm afraid. I can only state unequivocally that logic dictates that this must be the Jurassic, and who am I to question logic?

Photo by Domser via Wikimedia CommonsAm I the only one who takes especial delight in birds knowing that they're tiny dinosaurs, more or less? I might be walking to my car in the parking lot after work, for instance, and I see a mockingbird hopping around on the ground, and I imagine it's a little raptor and wonder if bigger dinosaurs hopped around like that. Probably not. Heavier bones with more on them, no doubt they strode and stalked around or, if we're talking big dinosaurs, lumbered about, possibly knocking over anything in their path like leviathans in an old Ray Harryhausen film. Still, isn't it delightful to imagine a Deinonychus hopping the way birds do when they're on the ground?

It thrills me, I swear.

When I was young, the idea that birds were wee dinosaurs was a radical heresy, and now it seems everybody's on board with it. I have to confess it's one of those things I feel ought to be true anyway, though I'm delighted there's lots of evidence for it, since having evidence for things is much better than merely wishing something to be true. Birds = dinosaurs has this virtue of being a claim that is supported by evidence and is just an awesome idea, because it means that the world is still crawling with dinosaurs (or their cousins, at least--yes, I know birds aren't, strictly speaking, dinosaurs, just the descendants of a common lineage) and it means that dinosaurs were probably much more interesting than the ginormous alligators they were generally made out to be when everybody thought they were reptiles (and yes, I also know that dinosaurs weren't, strictly speaking, reptiles or birds, just creatures sharing common lineages). It's not so far-fetched to imagine dinosaurs nesting, dinosaurs singing, dinosaurs feathering the plumage we now know some of them possessed.

We come full circle to Carol Elaine's question, I think, or a refinement of it: I don't think birds do suddenly appear when I am near. I'd prefer to think, Calivin-like, that dinosaurs appear whenever I am near. And sure, they may just be small ones now, but at some point... at some point one will show up that can stomp a house.

Because that would be awesome.


Carol Elaine Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 1:04:00 PM EDT  

Thank you, Eric. I feel my question has been answered quite sufficiently.

And yes, dinosaurs appearing whenever you are near is pretty damned awesome.

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