These Babies Can Out-Climb Their Parents Australian brush turkeys (Alectura lathami) fend for themselves the day they hatch, says Ken Dial of the University of Montana Flight Lab. The birds fly the day they hatch, and hatchlings can climb vertical ledges better than adults, according to Dial's latest research.

These Babies Can Out-Climb Their Parents

These Babies Can Out-Climb Their Parents

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Australian brush turkeys (Alectura lathami) fend for themselves the day they hatch, says Ken Dial of the University of Montana Flight Lab. The birds fly the day they hatch, and hatchlings can climb vertical ledges better than adults, according to Dial's latest research.

IRA FLATOW, host:

I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, Flora Lichtman. Hi.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Flora is here with our Video Pick of the Week. What have you got for us this week?

LICHTMAN: This week, we have a creature feature, starring the Australian brush turkey, which is not related to what will be on your Thanksgiving. Not closely related, I should say...

FLATOW: Not closely related.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: ...with what's going to end up on your Thanksgiving table.

FLATOW: Yeah, I don't see that in the freezer section of my grocery.

LICHTMAN: No, I think they're a little smaller. And mainly, their main claim to fame is that they are precocial.

FLATOW: Is that like my kid who's precocious or...

LICHTMAN: It's a similar concept, yeah. I mean, you're right, you know? You talk about kids who develop early who are sort of mature as precocious. But this bird is going to knock your kid out of the park. This bird can fly the day it hatches.

FLATOW: Whoa. Wait a minute, you mean, the eggshell breaks, bird can fly.

LICHTMAN: It's amazing.

FLATOW: And you have this video - you had the video to back it up right there on your Pick of the Week.

LICHTMAN: You're going to have to take my word for it because we don't see it flying. But we do see it doing something else, which is climbing these inclines. So a biologist at the University of Montana, Ken Dial...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: ...has in his lab an incline, a little hill that he basically shuttles the birds up. And he took birds of different ages, and he found that the young birds, the babies, are much better at climbing these vertical hills than their parents.

FLATOW: No kidding.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it's kind of amazing.

FLATOW: Because they were encumbered with all that plumage and feathers or whatever?

LICHTMAN: I think I asked them about this, because I said, you know, if you see a parent and a kid on a jungle gym, you know, most of the times the kids are going to be able to scramble up quicker. And he said, you know, it's a same - it's a similar principle here. The mass to wings, which help them propel them up is - the ratio is smaller for these little birds. But it's not just about being small, because he's looked at other birds that can't go up the incline. So it's partly about just being very highly developed as soon as they hatch. And there's a good reason for this. They hatch and they have no paternal care or maternal care at all, you know, these little chicks and they're all by themselves from day one.

FLATOW: Aww. So they're literally out of the nest from day one and they can take off on their own, so to speak.

LICHTMAN: And they have to because no one is there to feed them or keep them warm. And this allows them some shelter because they're not as fast as the adults, but they can get up on these inclines.

FLATOW: Wow. That's a different kind of bird that we're used to seeing, you know? You see the robins in a nest getting fed. They have to wait until they fly. These birds are shot from guns.

LICHTMAN: Right.

FLATOW: They just jump out of the nest, out of the shell and they're flying away.

LICHTMAN: Right. And this is the difference. I mean, not all birds are precocial is what Dr. Dial told me. You know, some birds are taking care of in the nest for a long time. But these birds happen to be - and the other word, the sort of the opposite end of the spectrum, is called altricial. And he said that humans, we are super altricial.

FLATOW: Oh, absolutely.

LICHTMAN: And I think most of us have had firsthand experience.

FLATOW: We just start leaving at home in the 30s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: That's right. Still depending on mom and dad. But, you know, there are some upsides to this. It's that if you're altricial, you can learn and change.

FLATOW: So even though this is the precocious brush turkey, it's not, as you say, (unintelligible) turkey. That turkey doesn't just precociously jump out of the nest like this one - the Thanksgiving turkey.

LICHTMAN: No. It's just similar looking, but not related.

FLATOW: All right. Well, thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: We've got some great turkey news. And you got a couple of new words, precocial and altricial.

LICHTMAN: Altricial.

FLATOW: Altricial for your crossword puzzles this evening.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: And if you want to see the - you can see the bird, flight of the birds and the birds climbing up and down those inclines, you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, or you can see these precocious birds. It's right there. Click on that little Video Pick of the Week on the left. And there are all kinds of other videos there we have for you from week's past, where Flora was here. Thanks, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks.

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