July 30, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

News from the Birds for People

We still have a lot to learn from birds.  They’re really smart and talented for their size.

Crows outwit children:  “Smarter than a first-grader” is the score Science Daily gives to crows.  In a game involving understanding of water displacement, crows studied by UC Santa Barbara scientists consistently beat out 4-6 year old children.  Next, the scientists want to test this puzzle solving test with grackles.

Amazing FactsHummingbird power:  In a quick Science Shot entitled “The Awesome Strength of Hummingbirds,” Science Magazine describes a new study on hummingbirds and their wing physics.  It concludes, “The study also found that the aerodynamic performance of hummingbird wings are “remarkably similar” to that of an advanced microhelicopter rotor. But the wings were up to 27% more efficient.”  A longer article on PhysOrg quotes an engineer who said, “we are not even close to hummingbirds in many other design metrics, such as wind gust tolerance, visual flight control through clutter, to name a few.”

Sunblock for eggs:  Eggshells provide just the right amount of sunblock for developing checks, the BBC News reports.  Embryos need UV light, but not too much.  This can help explain the colors and spots on some bird eggs.  “The study also showed that birds with longer incubation periods had thicker shells with more pigment, to protect against harmful UV rays.”

Migration surprise:  Wood thrushes migrate much farther than expected, Science Daily reports.  In fact, the Canadian species “leapfrogs” over the southern-USA ones on their longer journey from Canada to Central America.  Scientists at York University found this out by equipping the birds with “backpacks” containing small geolocators.  Like the Arctic tern researchers featured in Flight: The Genius of Birds, these researchers had to find and catch the same birds a year later to retrieve the data.

Starling murmuration update:  The Italians have news from the birds.  Studying the famous starling murmurations around Rome (as described in Flight: The Genius of Birds), they have developed a new model for how motions ripple through the flock.  Science Magazine explains how, using high-speed cameras, researchers were able to track individual birds when the flock turned.  The starlings apparently do “the wave,” according to New Scientist; Science Mag prefers likening the phenomenon to quantum mechanics.  The turning action of birds in front ripples through the flock at a constant speed of 20-40 m/sec, indicating that a flock of 400 could turn in a 1/2 second.

Feathered friends in need:  On a more distressing note, PhysOrg reports that populations of swallows are down as much as 95%.  “Swallows, along with other birds that feed primarily on flying insects, are experiencing the greatest population declines for any group of birds in North America, and their declines are particularly pronounced in the Maritimes.”  Conservationists at Dalhousie University are trying to figure out if it’s due to fluctuating insect supply or habitat loss along their migration routes to Central America.

The more details we uncover about birds, the less they look like animals that could have descended from dinosaurs by random mutations.  Science does not require spinning tall tales in order to advance our understanding.


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