Ornithologist Kees Moeliker on How A Dead Duck Changed My Life at TED Talk – Transcript
Kees Moeliker – Ornithologist
This is the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam where I work as a curator. It’s my job to make sure the collection stays okay, and that it grows, and basically it means I collect dead animals.
Back in 1995, we got a new wing next to the museum. It was made of glass, and this building really helped me to do my job good. The building was a true bird-killer. You may know that birds don’t understand the concept of glass. They don’t see it, so they fly into the windows and get killed. The only thing I had to do was go out, pick them up, and have them stuffed for the collection.
And in those days, I developed an ear to identify birds just by the sound of the bangs they made against the glass. And it was on June 5, 1995, that I heard a loud bang against the glass that changed my life and ended that of a duck. And this is what I saw when I looked out of the window.
This is the dead duck. It flew against the window. It’s laying dead on its belly. But next to the dead duck is a live duck, and please pay attention. Both are of the male sex. And then this happened. The live duck mounted the dead duck, and started to copulate.
Well, I’m a biologist. I’m an ornithologist. I said, “Something’s wrong here.” One is dead, one is alive. That must be necrophilia. Look, both are of the male sex. Homosexual necrophilia.
So I took my camera, I took my notebook, took a chair, and started to observe this behavior. After 75 minutes — I had seen enough, and I got hungry, and I wanted to go home. So I went out, collected the duck, and before I put it in the freezer, I checked if the victim was indeed of the male sex. And here’s a rare picture of a duck’s penis, so it was indeed of the male sex. It’s a rare picture because there are 10,000 species of birds and only 300 possess a penis.
I knew I’d seen something special, but it took me six years to decide to publish it. I mean, it’s a nice topic for a birthday party or at the coffee machine, but to share this among your peers is something different. I didn’t have the framework. So after six years, my friends and colleagues urged me to publish, so I published “The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard.” And here’s the situation again. A is my office, B is the place where the duck hit the glass, and C is from where I watched it. And here are the ducks again.
As you probably know, in science, when you write a kind of special paper, only six or seven people read it. But then something good happened. I got a phone call from a person called Marc Abrahams, and he told me, “You’ve won a prize with your duck paper: the Ig Nobel Prize.” And the Ig Nobel Prize — the Ig Nobel Prize honors research that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think, with the ultimate goal to make more people interested in science. That’s a good thing, so I accepted the prize.
I went — let me remind you that Marc Abrahams didn’t call me from Stockholm. He called me from Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I traveled to Boston, to Cambridge, and I went to this wonderful Ig Nobel Prize ceremony held at Harvard University, and this ceremony is a very nice experience. Real Nobel laureates hand you the prize. That’s the first thing. And there are nine other winners who get prizes. Here’s one of my fellow winners. That’s Charles Paxton who won the 2000 biology prize for his paper, “Courtship behavior of ostriches towards humans under farming conditions in Britain.” And I think there are one or two more Ig Nobel Prize winners in this room. Dan, where are you? Dan Ariely? Applause for Dan. Dan won his prize in medicine for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine works better than low-priced fake medicine.
So here’s my one minute of fame, my acceptance speech, and here’s the duck. This is its first time on the U.S. West Coast. I’m going to pass it around. Yeah? You can pass it around. Please note it’s a museum specimen, but there’s no chance you’ll get the avian flu.
After winning this prize, my life changed. In the first place, people started to send me all kinds of duck-related things, and I got a real nice collection. More importantly, people started to send me their observations of remarkable animal behavior, and believe me, if there’s an animal misbehaving on this planet, I know about it.
This is a moose. It’s a moose trying to copulate with a bronze statue of a bison. This is in Montana, 2008. This is a frog that tries to copulate with a goldfish. This is the Netherlands, 2011. These are cane toads in Australia. This is roadkill. Please note that this is necrophilia. It’s remarkable: the position. The missionary position is very rare in the animal kingdom. These are pigeons in Rotterdam. Barn swallows in Hong Kong, 2004. This is a turkey in Wisconsin on the premises of the Ethan Allen juvenile correctional institution. It took all day, and the prisoners had a great time.
So what does this mean? I mean, the question I ask myself, why does this happen in nature? Well, what I concluded from reviewing all these cases is that it is important that this happens only when death is instant and in a dramatic way and in the right position for copulation. At least, I thought it was till I got these slides. And here you see a dead duck. It’s been there for three days, and it’s laying on its back. So there goes my theory of necrophilia.
Another example of the impact of glass buildings on the life of birds. This is Mad Max, a blackbird who lives in Rotterdam. The only thing this bird did was fly against this window from 2004 to 2008, day in and day out. Here he goes, and here’s a short video.
So what this bird does is fighting his own image. He sees an intruder in his territory, and it’s coming all the time and he’s there, so there is no end to it. And I thought, in the beginning — I studied this bird for a couple of years — that, well, shouldn’t the brain of this bird be damaged? It’s not. I show you here some slides, some frames from the video, and at the last moment before he hits the glass, he puts his feet in front, and then he bangs against the glass.
So I’ll conclude to invite you all to Dead Duck Day. That’s on June 5 every year. At five minutes to six in the afternoon, we come together at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, the duck comes out of the museum, and we try to discuss new ways to prevent birds from colliding with windows. And as you know, or as you may not know, this is one of the major causes of death for birds in the world. In the U.S. alone, a billion birds die in collision with glass buildings. And when it’s over, we go to a Chinese restaurant and we have a six-course duck dinner.
So I hope to see you next year in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for Dead Duck Day. Thank you.
Oh, sorry. May I have my duck back, please?