News for the Birds
Our human readers are allowed to peek in on these headlines for and about our feathered intellectual friends.
The genius of birds: Illustra Media’s recent documentary is titled Flight: The Genius of Birds. New Scientist‘s recent book review is titled “Bird brainiacs: the genius of pigeons.” Although the introductory part of the article pays homage to Charles Darwin for his pigeon breeding, the pigeon is a fine specimen to support intelligent design, Timothy Standish argues in the film. “I believe that intelligent design is the best explanation for the origin of flight [in birds], because it’s the best explanation for every other kind of flight,” he says. “So why would I change the rules when moving from a 747 to a pigeon?” We do these birds wrong by calling them “flying rats” and treating them as nuisances, Kirsten Weir says in her article. “They can count, solve Aristotle’s logic puzzles and appreciate Impressionist art.” Many humans can’t do as much, to say nothing of navigating home with the earth’s magnetic field under controlled, powered flight. Experimenters mentioned in Science Magazine found a “surprisingly simple strategy for such sophisticated behavior” as avoiding obstacles: pigeons look for the biggest gaps, not the nearest ones. They found this with 3-D imaging of pigeons outfitted with LEDs. The findings shed light on “how they steer through small-scale, cluttered environments like forests and city streets.”
Smart turkey eggs: Nature reports that the eggs of Australian brush turkeys take advantage of decaying compost to stay warm. Why, then, don’t they get infected with bacteria in the soil? The eggs have a special layer of calcium phosphate nanoparticles that keeps out most bacteria. Since this also makes the eggshells difficult to crack, engineers are looking at this design for more durable materials. The design in the eggs also makes them super-hydrophobic (water resisting), almost as much as lotus leaves. PhysOrg has pictures of the nanoparticles. Reference: Journal of Experimental Biology.
The early bird gets the digestive system: Yanornis is called an ancestor of birds, but PhysOrg reported on April 18 that a fossil found in China shows that “the digestive system of the ancestors to modern birds was essentially modern in all aspects.” A specialized digestive system is one of the things Illustra’s film discusses as a requirement for powered flight. This article agrees:
Compared to other groups of vertebrates, the digestive system of living birds is unique and highly modified. Compared to mammals the digestive system is proportionately shorter; the oesophagus (throat) is large and flexible with an accessory organ called the crop and two stomachs are present. These specializations are inferred to have evolved in order to produce a highly efficient digestive system capable of meeting the metabolic demands of powered flight within the physical constraints of aerial locomotion, which requires the system to be lightweight.
But if it was already “essentially modern” in the ancestors, and already integrated with the flight systems, where is the time for natural selection to have supposedly produced it?
Tiny migrants: Large birds like geese are well known for their visible V-patterns in the sky, but what about small birds? “In one of the greatest feats of endurance in the biological world, millions of tiny songbirds — many weighing less than an ounce — migrate thousands of miles to Central and South America each year,” a press release from Cornell University begins. “Now scientists are finding out how these featherweights do it: using elliptical routes that take advantage of prevailing wind patterns to save calories.”
Glowing birds: According to the British Ecological Society, some of the birds living around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor appear to be adapting to the high levels of ionizing radiation present after the 1986 disaster. The “region represents an accidental ecological experiment to study the effects of ionising radiation on wild animals,” the BES figured. This kind of adaptation has been seen in the lab before, but not in the wild. The researchers measured higher production of antioxidants that can mitigate the damage caused by radiation. It’s an adjustment to an existing biochemical process, therefore – not a new emergent trait.
Latest on starling murmurations: The Italy group that did the STARFLAG study animated in the Illustra film (watch it on bottom of this page) has a new paper out in PNAS, “Social interactions dominate speed control in poising natural flocks near criticality.” Their updated model still hinges on the effect stemming from each bird watching its nearest neighbors, but finds that the flock can propagate information rapidly throughout the whole flock without loss, because the flock maintains a critical balance point known in statistical mechanics. Did the birds learn this in physics class?
The coherent flight of bird flocks is one of nature’s most impressive aerial displays. Beyond the fact that thousands of birds fly, on average, with the same velocity, quantitative observations show that small deviations of individual birds from this average are correlated across the entire flock. By learning minimally structured models from field data, we show that these long-ranged correlations are consistent with local interactions among neighboring birds, but only because the parameters of the flock are tuned to special values, mathematically equivalent to a critical point in statistical mechanics. Being in this critical regime allows information to propagate almost without loss throughout the flock, while keeping the variance of individual velocities small.
Windmill death penalty: “Green energy” is not without cost; windmills have killed many a bat and bird. As windmill installations grow, bird deaths rise accordingly—including federally protected species like the golden eagle. National Geographic, worried that “Turbines kill thousands of birds and bats annually,” looked into whether newer designs that add flashing lights, sound, bright colors, or changes to blade elevation work. The “jury’s still out” on whether any of these measures are effective. Some have actually increased the death count. Why are birds so susceptible? Contrary to intuition, birds are typically looking down at the ground, not forward, as they fly, the article explains. Unfortunately, federal regulations tend to be lenient for those who grab the subsidies, because the government is eager to expand “green energy.” It’s not a solution to blame cats and glass windows for many more bird deaths than those caused by the windmills; “Comparing our numbers to total bird numbers, they might seem small,” Scott Loss (Oklahoma U) says, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on local impacts on specific species, especially long-lived species like raptors or waterbirds.” There are no quick, easy fixes, the article ends.
Darwinists are at a complete loss to explain birds. They can’t explain their origins from land dinosaurs; they can’t explain their systems, like the digestive system; they can’t explain how all their systems came together in powered flight. Beyond just trying to get a basic bird form, they should be astonished at each species they observe more closely, whether a bush turkey, a starling, or a fossil with a “modern” digestive system near the beginning.
Scientists should always be thinking of the “best explanation.” With birds, it is clearly intelligent design. Did a 747 evolve by unguided natural processes? Then why change the rules when moving from a 747 to a pigeon? Let go of Darwin’s quaint Victorian myth, biologists. He’s hindering your work. The guiding word for 21st century biology is design.