11:53
TED2013

Kees Moeliker: How a dead duck changed my life

Filmed:

One afternoon, Kees Moeliker got a research opportunity few ornithologists would wish for: A flying duck slammed into his glass office building, died, and then … what happened next would change his life. [Note: Contains graphic images and descriptions of sexual behavior in animals.]

- Ornithologist
Kees Moeliker writes and speaks about natural history, especially birds and remarkable animal behavior, as well as improbable research and science-communication-with-a-laugh. Full bio

This is the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam,
00:12
where I work as a curator.
00:15
It's my job to make sure the collection stays okay,
00:18
and that it grows,
00:21
and basically it means I collect dead animals.
00:23
Back in 1995,
00:28
we got a new wing next to the museum.
00:30
It was made of glass,
00:35
and this building really helped me to do my job good.
00:37
The building was a true bird-killer.
00:43
You may know that birds don't understand
00:47
the concept of glass. They don't see it,
00:49
so they fly into the windows and get killed.
00:52
The only thing I had to do was go out,
00:56
pick them up, and have them stuffed for the collection.
00:58
(Laughter)
01:02
And in those days,
01:05
I developed an ear to identify birds
01:07
just by the sound of the bangs they made against the glass.
01:11
And it was on June 5, 1995,
01:16
that I heard a loud bang against the glass
01:20
that changed my life and ended that of a duck.
01:24
And this is what I saw when I looked out of the window.
01:29
This is the dead duck. It flew against the window.
01:34
It's laying dead on its belly.
01:38
But next to the dead duck is a live duck,
01:39
and please pay attention.
01:43
Both are of the male sex.
01:45
And then this happened.
01:50
The live duck mounted the dead duck,
01:53
and started to copulate.
01:55
Well, I'm a biologist. I'm an ornithologist.
01:58
I said, "Something's wrong here."
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One is dead, one is alive. That must be necrophilia.
02:03
I look. Both are of the male sex.
02:09
Homosexual necrophilia.
02:12
So I -- (Laughter)
02:17
I took my camera, I took my notebook,
02:22
took a chair, and started to observe this behavior.
02:25
After 75 minutes — (Laughter) —
02:30
I had seen enough, and I got hungry,
02:36
and I wanted to go home.
02:41
So I went out, collected the duck,
02:43
and before I put it in the freezer,
02:47
I checked if the victim was indeed of the male sex.
02:49
And here's a rare picture of a duck's penis,
02:54
so it was indeed of the male sex.
02:57
It's a rare picture because there are 10,000 species of birds
03:00
and only 300 possess a penis.
03:04
[The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves:Anatidae)]
03:08
I knew I'd seen something special,
03:11
but it took me six years to decide to publish it.
03:15
(Laughter)
03:20
I mean, it's a nice topic for a birthday party
03:23
or at the coffee machine,
03:26
but to share this among your peers is something different.
03:28
I didn't have the framework.
03:31
So after six years, my friends and colleagues urged me to publish,
03:33
so I published "The first case of homosexual necrophilia
03:36
in the mallard."
03:40
And here's the situation again.
03:41
A is my office,
03:44
B is the place where the duck hit the glass,
03:46
and C is from where I watched it.
03:49
And here are the ducks again.
03:52
As you probably know, in science,
03:55
when you write a kind of special paper,
03:57
only six or seven people read it.
03:59
(Laughter)
04:02
But then something good happened.
04:08
I got a phone call from a person called Marc Abrahams,
04:11
and he told me, "You've won a prize with your duck paper:
04:15
the Ig Nobel Prize."
04:20
And the Ig Nobel Prize —
04:24
(Laughter) (Applause) —
04:26
the Ig Nobel Prize honors research
04:30
that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think,
04:32
with the ultimate goal to make more people
04:35
interested in science.
04:38
That's a good thing, so I accepted the prize.
04:41
(Laughter)
04:45
I went -- let me remind you that Marc Abrahams
04:48
didn't call me from Stockholm.
04:52
He called me from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
04:53
So I traveled to Boston, to Cambridge,
04:56
and I went to this wonderful Ig Nobel Prize ceremony
04:59
held at Harvard University, and this ceremony
05:02
is a very nice experience.
05:04
Real Nobel laureates hand you the prize.
05:10
That's the first thing.
05:13
And there are nine other winners who get prizes.
05:14
Here's one of my fellow winners. That's Charles Paxton
05:17
who won the 2000 biology prize for his paper,
05:21
"Courtship behavior of ostriches towards humans
05:26
under farming conditions in Britain."
05:30
(Laughter)
05:32
And I think there are one or two more
05:36
Ig Nobel Prize winners in this room.
05:40
Dan, where are you? Dan Ariely?
05:43
Applause for Dan.
05:46
(Applause)
05:48
Dan won his prize in medicine
05:51
for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine
05:55
works better than low-priced fake medicine.
05:59
(Laughter)
06:02
So here's my one minute of fame,
06:07
my acceptance speech,
06:09
and here's the duck.
06:14
This is its first time on the U.S. West Coast.
06:16
I'm going to pass it around.
06:21
(Laughter)
06:24
Yeah?
06:29
You can pass it around.
06:30
Please note it's a museum specimen,
06:32
but there's no chance you'll get the avian flu.
06:34
After winning this prize, my life changed.
06:39
In the first place, people started to send me
06:43
all kinds of duck-related things,
06:46
and I got a real nice collection.
06:49
(Laughter)
06:52
More importantly,
06:55
people started to send me their observations
07:01
of remarkable animal behavior,
07:05
and believe me, if there's an animal misbehaving on this planet,
07:08
I know about it.
07:11
(Laughter)
07:13
This is a moose.
07:17
It's a moose trying to copulate
07:22
with a bronze statue of a bison.
07:23
This is in Montana, 2008.
07:27
This is a frog that tries to copulate with a goldfish.
07:31
This is the Netherlands, 2011.
07:35
These are cane toads in Australia.
07:38
This is roadkill.
07:42
Please note that this is necrophilia.
07:43
It's remarkable: the position.
07:47
The missionary position is very rare in the animal kingdom.
07:48
These are pigeons in Rotterdam.
07:53
Barn swallows in Hong Kong, 2004.
07:59
This is a turkey in Wisconsin
08:03
on the premises of the Ethan Allen juvenile correctional institution.
08:07
It took all day,
08:13
and the prisoners had a great time.
08:15
So what does this mean?
08:20
I mean, the question I ask myself,
08:22
why does this happen in nature?
08:25
Well, what I concluded
08:27
from reviewing all these cases
08:29
is that it is important that this happens
08:31
only when death is instant
08:35
and in a dramatic way
08:39
and in the right position for copulation.
08:42
At least, I thought it was till I got these slides.
08:45
And here you see a dead duck.
08:50
It's been there for three days,
08:53
and it's laying on its back.
08:55
So there goes my theory of necrophilia.
08:57
Another example of the impact
09:03
of glass buildings on the life of birds.
09:05
This is Mad Max, a blackbird who lives in Rotterdam.
09:07
The only thing this bird did was fly against this window
09:10
from 2004 to 2008, day in and day out.
09:16
Here he goes, and here's a short video.
09:21
(Music) (Clunk)
09:24
(Clunk)
09:32
(Clunk)
09:46
(Clunk)
09:56
So what this bird does
09:59
is fight his own image.
10:01
He sees an intruder in his territory,
10:05
and it's coming all the time and he's there,
10:07
so there is no end to it.
10:10
And I thought, in the beginning -- I studied this bird for a couple of years --
10:12
that, well, shouldn't the brain of this bird be damaged?
10:15
It's not. I show you here some slides,
10:18
some frames from the video,
10:21
and at the last moment before he hits the glass,
10:23
he puts his feet in front,
10:27
and then he bangs against the glass.
10:29
So I'll conclude to invite you all to Dead Duck Day.
10:34
That's on June 5 every year.
10:38
At five minutes to six in the afternoon,
10:41
we come together at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam,
10:44
the duck comes out of the museum,
10:48
and we try to discuss new ways
10:51
to prevent birds from colliding with windows.
10:53
And as you know, or as you may not know,
10:57
this is one of the major causes of death
10:59
for birds in the world.
11:02
In the U.S. alone, a billion birds die
11:04
in collision with glass buildings.
11:06
And when it's over, we go to a Chinese restaurant
11:10
and we have a six-course duck dinner.
11:16
So I hope to see you
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next year in Rotterdam, the Netherlands,
11:23
for Dead Duck Day.
11:26
Thank you.
11:28
(Applause)
11:29
Oh, sorry.
11:31
May I have my duck back, please?
11:37
(Laughter) (Applause)
11:39
Thank you.
11:42
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Kees Moeliker - Ornithologist
Kees Moeliker writes and speaks about natural history, especially birds and remarkable animal behavior, as well as improbable research and science-communication-with-a-laugh.

Why you should listen

In Kees Moeliker's career (he's now curator of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam) he's rediscovered long-lost birds, such as the black-chinned monarch (Monarcha boanensis) on the remote Moluccan island of Boano in 1991. On the tiny West Papuan island of Boo he collected and named a new subspecies of fruit bat (Macroglossus minimus booensis).

Aaaaand he's the guy who observed and published the first scientifically documented case of homosexual necrophilia in ducks. For this, he was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel biology prize, and that much-coveted award led him to appreciate that curiosity and humour can be powerful tools for scientists and science communicators.

Moeliker later used these tools to tell the world about two other notorious, complicated subjects: the brutally murdered ‘Domino’ sparrow and the feared disappearance of the once-ubiquitous pubic louse. He has pioneered unusual ways to engage international audience — to make people think about remarkable animal behaviour, biodiversity and habitat destruction.

His writings include two books, in Dutch: 'De eendenman' (The Duck Guy, 2009) and 'De bilnaad van de teek' (The Butt Crack of the Tick, 2012).

Each year, on June 5, he organizes Dead Duck Day, an event that commemorates the first known case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. The event also raises awareness for the tremendous number of bird deaths caused, worldwide, by glass buildings.

More profile about the speaker
Kees Moeliker | Speaker | TED.com