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BirdNote®: The Auklet’s Whiskers -- Not Just for Show

Air Date: Week of

Whiskered Auklets use their whisker-like feathers to help sense their surroundings while nesting in their dark, cliff-side nest cavities. (Photo: © Sergey Frolov)

Showy feathers on birds are often solely useful for attracting a mate. But as BirdNote®’s Michael Stein explains, the Whiskered Auklet’s feathery whiskers have another function.


BASCOMB: The whiskers on a cat help our feline friends navigate in the dark. But it turns out, some birds have their own kind of “whiskers” too. BirdNote’s Michael Stein tells us more.

The Auklet's Whiskers - Not Just for Show

[Ocean waves and wind]

STEIN: At dusk, in the far western reaches of Alaska’s Aleutian chain of islands, thousands of tiny Whiskered Auklets fly in to nest in cavities deep in rock crevices.

 [Whiskered Auklet calls, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/133048, 0.11-.13, repeated] 

Whiskered Auklets are miniature relatives of puffins and murres. Charcoal gray, they're about eight inches long and owe their name to the long, slender white plumes that sprout from their heads each summer. Two rows down the side of the face and a third set that stands like antennae above their eyes. These fancy white plumes very likely play a visual role in courtship and mate selection. But they're not just for show. 

Whiskered Auklets are close relatives of puffins and murres (Photo: Toshiji Fukuda CC)

[Whiskered Auklet calls, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/133048, 0.11-.13, repeated]

The auklets’ “whiskers” have an important sensory function, too. When the birds enter their cliff-side nest cavities, they find themselves in utter darkness. The “whiskers” enable the auklets to feel their way along in the dark. Much like the whiskers of a cat, they're acutely sensitive. 

[Whiskered Auklet calls, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/133048]

By summer’s end, when nesting is done, Whiskered Auklets return to life on the open sea, like many seabirds. And with no dark crevices to navigate and no mates to impress, they molt their multi-purpose whiskers.

Written by Bob Sundstrom
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Whiskered Auklet [133048 ] recorded by S S Seneviratne. Ambient sounds:  Nature Sound 02 'Wind Mod Soft'; NatureSound 23 'Surf Mod Sandy' recorded by Gordom Hempton of Quiet Planet.com 
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org     June 2017/2019 Narrator: Michael Stein
ID#        WHAU-01-2015-06-29   WHAU-01
Sources: Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense; 
http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/factsheet/22694918; http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/076/articles/breeding

BASCOMB: For pictures of the Auklet’s whiskers, navigate over to our website, LOE.org.



Find out more about this story on the BirdNote website

Learn more about the Whiskered Auklet


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