A Charismatic Match-up Between Two Feathered Friends

17:25 minutes

It’s the third and final matchup of this fall’s Charismatic Creature Carnival, our celebration of six overlooked, and often unfairly maligned, species that deserve a chance under the spotlight. Our audience submitted the carnival candidates, but only one will be crowned the very first inductee into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame.

This week, our match-up is between two fabulous, feathered creatures: the pigeon and the shoebill stork. Defending the pigeon is Elizabeth Carlen, postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. Representing the shoebill stork is Judith Mirembe, shoebill researcher and chair of Uganda Women Birders based in Kampala, Uganda. 

See what you said about last week’s battle between the opossum and the aye-aye!

What You Said!

Listeners had a lot to say about last week’s creature showdown between the opossum and aye-aye. Here are some of the extra credit submissions that came with your votes.

Please refresh your browser if you do not see the audio listen buttons below.


The only lemur of our carnival, the aye-aye, received a lot of love.

Alice from Kansas City, MO said:
Aye-Aye is the best because he has a long, long, long finger. And that’s why I love him.

a hand drawn colored illustration of an aye-aye, which has large light brown eyes and small pupils, as well as large pointed ears
Gregoire from Cleveland, OH sent some aye-aye art.

Ephraim from Las Vegas, NV sent this voice message about what he loves most about the aye-aye:
I’m voting for the aye-aye because, listen I want to say it’s because of the echolocation thing, but I can’t lie, I love those dumb little eyes, go aye-aye eyes!


Ultimately, the opossum came out on top as the most charismatic creature of the week. 

Judy from Sag Harbor, NY said:
I’m voting for the opossum because it’s America’s only marsupial, number one. I live on Long Island and opossums eat ticks, so that’s very cool. And it’s got a face that only a mother could love so we’ve got to love them.

an illustration of an opossum playing dead
On Instagram, @itsmesesame sent some art illustrating the opossum’s unique quality of playing dead.

Haley from White Bear Lake, MN said:
In addition to their super cute noses, opossums are the heroes to our Minnesota summers, managing our tick populations so we can spend more time camping, fishing, and hiking with fewer bloodsucking pests to worry about.

Segment Guests

Elizabeth Carlen

Elizabeth Carlen is a postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Judith Mirembe

Judith Mirembe is a shoebill researcher and chair of Uganda Women Birders in Kampala, Uganda.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. And it’s time, once again, for our Charismatic preacher carnival.


IRA FLATOW: I love that music.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And it never gets old.

IRA FLATOW: No. And joining me today, as always, is our Charismatic Creature Correspondent producer Kathleen Davis. Hi, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Hey, there Ira. Glad to be back.

IRA FLATOW: Now I’m sad to say that this is what– our last match up for the carnival this fall.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: It sure is. If you are just learning about Sci-fri’s Charismatic Creature carnival, over the last month, we’ve been celebrating six underappreciated, and perhaps unconventional creatures. And because we love a little competition, we’ve been doing these head to head matches between two of them to determine our semifinalists.

Next week our listeners will vote for their favorite of the semifinalists. And we will have our first ever audience chosen entry of our Charismatic Creature Corner hall of Fame.

IRA FLATOW: Whoa! Creature Corner hall of Fame. I can’t wait for that one. And I hear that we also have an update about last week. Tell us.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yes. So if you remember, last week’s match-up was between the opossum and the aye-aye. Our listeners went to sciencefriday.com/carnival to vote for their favorite. I’m going to be honest. People felt very strongly about this match-up one way or another, but the votes don’t lie. And we do have a winner Ira. So I would like a drum roll please.

IRA FLATOW: Here we go. The best I can.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Crawling into our second semi-final spot to join the mantis shrimp as a Charismatic Creature carnival semifinalist, the People’s Choice is the opossum.

IRA FLATOW: I have to say this is kind of surprising.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: But sci-fri listeners love the opossum. I’ve learned.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. OK. So who are Charismatic Creature candidates for this week?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So this is our last match-up of the carnival. So really soak it in Ira. We’re celebrating our feathered friends this week. So our first creature, joining us from your nearest city, perhaps even the fire escape outside your window, the ever present, yet mystifying pigeon. The pigeon was nominated by listener Greg from spring Texas.

Greg calls himself your friendly neighborhood pigeon man. That is his name on Twitter. And he left us this message on our scifri VoxPop app.

GREG: I nominated the pigeon for the Charismatic Creature carnival, because they are the most overlooked animal on the planet. They are actually one of the most intelligent birds, and one of the most intelligent animals around, and they can recognize words. And they recognize themselves in the mirror. And they have an incredible homing ability, and I hope they win.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I would not have picked a pigeon to be a Charismatic Creature candidate. So OK, Greg is making– he’s opened the argument.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yes, so representing the pigeon in the Charismatic Creature carnival is Dr. Elizabeth Karlin, postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in st. Louis. Welcome, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH KARLIN: Thank you so much for having me.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And facing off against the pigeon. A truly incomparable and mysterious creature you would be lucky to see for yourself. It is the one and the only shoe bill stork. A couple of people nominated the shoe bill stork for our carnival, including listener Eric.

He wrote us an email and said, the shoe bill stork is, in my opinion, the most charismatic and weird bird that’s living on the planet. It kind of looks like a dinosaur, and clacks it’s beak to make a very strange noise. And it looks a little bit out of time with how big and awkward they are. They are amazing, says Eric.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well let’s see how amazing and impressive they are. So let’s see what happens.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Representing the shoe bill stork in our carnival is Judith Marimba, shoe bill researcher and chair of Uganda women birders based in Kampala, Uganda. Welcome, Judith.

JUDITH MARIMBA: Hey, I’m glad to be here. I’m so excited.

IRA FLATOW: But we’re very excited to have both of you here to help us wrap up the carnival. Just a quick note, this segment was recorded in front of a live Zoom audience. And for more information about how to join a future live recording, go to sciencefriday.com/livestream.

OK. Enough with the preliminaries. Let the competition begin.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: OK. Let’s start with the basics here. That’s what we always do with our carnival. Elizabeth, this might be a silly question, but as our radio show, we have to ask you, please describe the pigeon for us.

ELIZABETH KARLIN: So pigeons are a medium sized bird. They’re about the size of a football. And they are found all across the world, except for Antarctica. Every continent. They are usually often the kind of default is gray with two black bars on their wings. However, there’s a whole variety of colors. You might see some red pigeons, or some all white pigeons.

And that’s one of the interesting things I think about them is that massive variety in plumage color or feather color. And you probably see them walking along the street quite a bit. They’re maybe not always up in the air. I’ve seen pigeons taking the steps very civilized. So they’re one of these very– to me, special creatures that lives in the city alongside us.

IRA FLATOW: OK. So much for the description of the pigeon. Judith, give us a good description of a shoe bill stork.

JUDITH MARIMBA: So they should bill is a large gray bird with a shoe shaped bill, from where the name is derived from. So if you see anything that has a bill that looks like a shoe, and you find it in Africa, just know that it’s a shobill.

So they are quite large. With a height of about 110 140 centimeters. The wingspan is almost twice the height. They live in a wetland habitats, Freshwater wetlands. In Africa, you will not find them elsewhere outside Africa except in a zoo.

So in Africa you find them in Uganda, Botswana, in Rwanda, Ethiopia, southern Sudan currently has the highest population. You’ll find them in Zambia, in the Republic of Congo, Central African Republic. Some people think it is a stork because of the appearance, but the closest relatives the Pelicans.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So for our American audiences, when I look at a picture of a shoe bill stork, to me it looks a lot like big bird from Sesame Street. Our listener Eric, said in his nomination that he thinks it looks a little bit like a dinosaur. I mean, Judith, what is it like to see a shoe bill stork in the wild.

JUDITH MARIMBA: The first time you’ll see it, the reaction is always Wow. The size, it’s very large. And definitely looks like a dinosaur. Or something you’ve never seen before. The cryptic color of the feathers, among the papyrus strands and other wetland vegetation, make it hard to see.

So by the time you see it, you get astonished, you get surprised, and you just love what you see because of the size. So when you– the first encounter what usually is done on a boat in a canoe, to Wade through the wetland. So you can get very close. And when you get very close it’s always astonishing to see it in the floating vegetation, despite the size.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s a great description. Elizabeth, I know that pigeons are found– what? Just about everywhere. You see them in large urban cities. You see them all over the place. Why are they so adaptable. What makes them so adaptable?

ELIZABETH KARLIN: Pigeons have been evolving alongside humans for the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. They are native to North Africa, and southern Europe, and the Middle East, where we started farming grains. And they started living alongside humans.

And because of that, that close relationship with humans, they’ve moved with us. We have brought pigeons with us as we colonize every part of this world. And what do we do in New York with our trash? We put it out on the street.

And that makes this perfect buffet for pigeons and rats, but for pigeons to eat this food, have access to this food and then we build these tall buildings, which mimic the cliff sides that they lived on in their natural habitat, in their native habitat.

We also– there’s something about feeding a pigeon that is very communal. That dropping a couple of chips and feeding this bird is, I think, something that we all connect with. If you think back to movies like Mary Poppins, or Home Alone. There’s some joy in feeding these pigeons, because it connects us with this nature.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Great answer. Let’s go to folks out in the audience. Let’s go to Susan from Tracy, California who has a question about how shoe bills see. Right, Susan, go ahead.

SPEAKER 6: Hi. Yeah, I’ve looked at some images on the internet of shoe bills and I always notice that their eyes are so emotional, just arresting. Almost give you a sense that they’re sad, or they’re– I don’t know. They’re enchanting. So what do we know about the vision of the shoe bill?

JUDITH MARIMBA: Yes, so it should be used as binocular vision. And most of the times, they’ll stand still and motionless for 20 or more minutes or even an hour. So when they are hunting, they keep a stare. So the stare is intense. When you look at them in the eyes.

So when they’re hunting, they’ll either stand and wait for the prey and then they strike, or they will wait and walk slowly within the same area. As they wait for prey to strike at the right time. I wouldn’t say it’s something intimidating or such, but it’s probably the way they were created. And the intense stare also works largely as a defense mechanism.

So if you encountered someone for the first time and they gave you such eyes, and you are the bad guy you would definitely walk away.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: That’s what I do to Ira when he gets too off topic during an interview.

IRA FLATOW: That’s right.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So we’ve been hearing about how patient a bird the shoe bill stork is. In their interesting hunting behavior that Judith was telling us about. Perhaps the opposite of a patient bird may be the pigeon. Just based on walking through a park in New York City and seeing them swarm a person who is eating a sandwich. But what they lack in manners, may be remedied by the fact that I think they might be a little bit smarter than people realize.

Our denominator Gregg said that there in his opinion, one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. I don’t know if that is exactly true, but that’s a pretty good argument. And he said that they can recognize words and themselves in a mirror. I mean, Elizabeth, are pigeons smarter than we give them credit for?

ELIZABETH KARLIN: I think they’re definitely smarter than we give them credit for. Intelligence is obviously a complicated question. And things are evolved to be best suited for their environment. Brain tissue takes up all this energy. And so you could be smart in the sense that, if I don’t have a complex habitat, I don’t need to waste energy on building all this brain tissue.

In terms of pigeons, they have some pretty incredible abilities. There’s been research showing that they can recognize artwork or different paintings by different artists. There’s been some research showing that they may be able to recognize cancer in photographs.

And they have this incredible homing sense that we don’t quite understand how they’re able to do this. So we know that there’s these stories of pigeons being these war heroes, and bringing messages back to base during World War II. So how were they able to do that? How were they able to deliver these messages back? And how are they able to find their way home.

If you put me in a dark box and drove me for a couple hours, and spun me around, and then said go home. I would absolutely not be able to find my way home. But these pigeons can do that. And so they have this incredible homing sense. Where no matter where they’re brought, they can return back to that natal area where they’re nesting.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Just a quick note that I’m Kathleen Davis and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Unfortunately, we are about out of time here. So it’s time for both of you to give your final arguments for why your creature is the most charismatic of the day. Elizabeth, let’s start with you. Why do you love pigeons so much? Why are they the most Charismatic Creature of this match-up?

ELIZABETH KARLIN: For me, pigeons are this great model for evolution. We’ve been studying them since Darwin, they help Darwin understand selection. And for those of you out there that haven’t googled curly pigeons, please do. Go and look at what a curly pigeon looks like. There are these really fascinating curly feathers all over the pigeon.

I think they’re this animal that lives alongside us, and while many might consider them a pest. I think we would be sad if they disappeared from our cities. I think back to TV shows, whenever they want to show urbanization, they’ll show a flock of pigeons taking off as the little bumper in between scenes.

And so they really are the symbol of human community and togetherness. We release pigeons at weddings. We release these white pigeons at weddings to celebrate love. And they are this giant group of really charismatic, happy individuals.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s some defense. Judith, you’re going to have to be able to match that for your final defense of the shoe bill stork. Tell us about why you think the shoe bill stork should win this competition. What is it about the bird that you love so much.

JUDITH MARIMBA: So I just love the shoe bill. So the shoe bill is the most charismatic of them all, because it is big. It is the only member of its family in Baleanicipitidae. So if we lost the shoe bill, that is losing a whole family.

So there should be least globally threatened all over the world, because it is faced by many threats majorly brought about by human disturbance, such as habitat loss, fishing, hunting for pets and zoo trade. A shoe bill can cost up to 20,000 US for someone purchasing it. Simply to put it in a zoo, or keep it for their own entertainment.

So Yeah, we cannot lose the shoe bill, or else we’ll never see a comparison of a dinosaur. Since the dinosaur is gone we have to keep the shoe bill.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: OK, Ira. We’re out of time here. Do you think our listeners have enough information to make a decision about which creature they think is the most charismatic?

IRA FLATOW: I think they do. So let’s explain how people vote.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Our listeners can go to sciencefriday.com/carnival to cast your vote. You have until next Wednesday at 10:00 AM Eastern time to choose your favorite in this match-up. Will the shoe bill stork or the pigeon come out on top. That is up to you, the listeners.

IRA FLATOW: And I don’t think there’s any way we can predict or our listeners vote. If we take our history as any case. Thank you, Judith Mirembe, shoe bill researcher and chair of Uganda women birders based in Kampala, Uganda. Also Elizabeth Carlin, postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in st. Louis

Thank you for making some great arguments for your birds. Thank you for joining us today.

ELIZABETH KARLIN: Thank you so much for having us.

JUDITH MARIMBA: It’s been a pleasure joining you.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, scifri producer Kathleen Davis. Thanks for being our carnival ringleader once again.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Thanks, Ira. I’ll be back next week to cap off the carnival.

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Meet the Producer

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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