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This GreaterGood article, Yulan Magnolia Flowers Look Like Beautiful Birds, shows pictures of flowers that look like birds, including these images from the planetsavioursuk Instagram account.

Two images of flowers

They claim:

when their blossoms appear, they have an appearance of looking like tiny little birds.

They lose this optical illusion as soon as the petals of each blossom start to open up. But for a little while, a far-off photo of them could have you questioning if it’s a photo of a bird.

According to Wikipedia, Yulan magnolias are Magnolia denudata but the images there are not particularly bird-like:

Image of Yulan flower from Wikipedia

(The Wikipedia also describes a Magnolia yulania, as a subgenus.)

Wikipedia does not say that any of them might look like birds. Nor does my experience with Magnolias include such an event. It feels like this is a false image introduced in 2019 or so, and repeated with embellishments, such as eyes added.

Do Yulan Magnolias blossoms look like birds, as depicted in these photos?

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    It appears some of the flowers at a certain stage of their development look like birds, at least from a certain angle, but not all flowers of Magnolia denudata (yulan) do. I'm not sure exactly what claim is under challenge here: that some of them look like birds sometimes, that all of them look like birds, or that they were bred by monks to look like birds. After all, many things look like birds.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 28 at 13:26
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    @StuartF To clarify I meant regularly or commonly rather than as a freak occurrence. Such as - could I purchase one from a nursery and expect to have a tree full of bird-like buds. I have the bird of paradise plant myself. And it pretty much always looks like a bird. But the Magnolias I have have never looked like a bird. Jan 29 at 6:51
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    @StuartF I have so far seen only repeats of the same three images one of which clearly constructed as one of the others with a mirror image. This suggests that either this is very rare, or it was fabricated. I am not sure why you included that link, as I had already included a similar one to indicate what I am asking about. I am asking whether these images show a real and common structure. Jan 29 at 6:58
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    @RedSonja that is not in the spirit in which the question was asked. See the image in the question - is this degree of similarity typical of a type of Magnolia. Quibble as much as you like, it is a real question. Feb 4 at 12:34
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    It is a real question. It not a matter of photographing in the right lighting. It is either true or photoshopped, i.e. false. I am not certain, but after spending several hours researching, I came to conclusion that I shared in my answer. It isn't a rule out answer of real or not real.. The site moderator doesn't think the my answer is sufficiently supported by evidence, and it may not be. Let's see what other answers are given. Feb 7 at 6:21

1 Answer 1

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No, I do not believe that there is a magnolia flower that looks like a bird. First, I will mention a viral tweet that was sourced from an (unlicensed) image appearing on a Chinese state media company's light online entertainment page. Next, I will describe why the image doesn't make sense from the point of view of evolutionary biology. Finally, I will suggest what the true source of the image is.

There is a viral tweet from @ScienceGirl. She said that this is her source, Meet bird-shaped Magnolia flowers via CGTN. CGTN is Chinese state-owned media of the tabloid variety. Yes, there are tabloids everywhere.

Let's start with the theory of evolution as a given. Genetics and reproduction can result in maladaptive outcomes of reproduction, but those maladaptive progeny are unlikely to flourish or be reproductively successful.

Mutations happen producing variations in flowers. Some are more appealing as they bud to birds that eat plant buds, and others less so. The ones that look less appealing have an evolutionary advantage (get eaten less, or not at all). These are very pretty-looking. They seem to have no evolutionary advantage based on their appearance.

The particular mechanism, of plants mimicking animals, is rather odd though. How would plants know what animals look like?! Plants aren't sentient. The Audubon Society was prompted to write about it by redditors in 2019: Did This Plant Evolve to Look Like a Bunch of Hummingbirds? A photo of a strange Australian flower has Redditors proposing all sorts of scientific hypotheses.:

On Reddit, Whitehead also shared a photo of Crotalaria cunninghamii from an angle where the hummingbird resemblance is harder to see. He then linked to a 2016 paper published in Austral Ecology where researchers concluded that the species' pollination traits favor birds like honeyeaters, as well as rodents. This, along with the important fact that there are no hummingbirds in Australia, adds further support to the adaptation angle.

I wasn't sure how to interpret that.

I performed an exhaustive reverse image search, and as OP said, found nothing reputable to support the idea that such flowers on the Yulan magnolia exist. Finally, I found the following on reddit, Meet the bird-shaped Yulan Magnolia flowers. Yulan Magnolia blossoms appear to look like little birds, and this response with 91% likelihood:

These particular images came from r/photoshopbattles

This was adequate to convince me (although not a rule out) that there are Yulan magnolias in China, but they do not look like birds.

Source: https://imgbb.com/VSfc3nR

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    This answer takes 3 approaches, but none seem to be relevant or accurate. (1) Yes, ScienceGirl was one of the vectors that made this image viral, and CGTN was her source, but that does not answer whether the claim is true or not.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 31 at 0:27
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    (2) No-one is claiming that natural selection pushed these flowers to look more like birds. It may be a coincidence (combined with pareidolia). Many other plants, such as the naked man orchid coincidentally look (to humans) like other things. It isn't safe to conclude that, because the flower buds (allegedly) look like birds, that they are more or less attractive.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 31 at 0:33
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    More importantly, you musn't conclude that a plant couldn't evolve mimicry because they aren't sentient - this is not how evolution works, and there are plenty of real life examples of plant mimicry.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 31 at 0:34
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    (3) The PsBattles argument is backwards. Someone started a PsBattle challenge using one of the viral images as a source, and someone else responded by adding a duck to the image. This doesn't show whether the original image is authentic or not.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 31 at 0:37

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