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Evolution, visible on a branch near you

What could be a more ordinary sight than the robin, the red-breasted bird that hops around on the ground, yanking worms out of the dirt? Go out with a bunch of birdwatchers on a cold day near dawn and you’ll hear a sigh of disappointment when a bird in the distance turns out to be a boring old robin.

But Arkhat Abzhanov, associate professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, wonders: Have you ever really looked at a robin? What shape is its beak? What about its head?

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Abzhanov, who studies the evolution of birds, sees the 10,000 species that fill our world — including some of the most ordinary ones — as a major opportunity to investigate deep questions about both evolution and developmental biology.

“What I think is the most interesting thing about birds is we see them everyday and we’re so used to them,” he said. “ And very few people realize just how unusual these animals are.”

Take the beak: It’s easy to think of it as a primitive triangular appendage that opens and closes; a standard part that can be penciled into a child’s drawing. But Abzhanov calls it “the ultimate tool” and a source of amazing diversity and specialization in the bird world, from pelicans to finches.

Abzhanov plans to both demystify bird biology and conjure a bit of mystery about the ones we take for granted, at a talk called “What art thou, little bird?” at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Thursday, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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