December 23, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

News to Enhance Your Birding

Birdwatching is more fun when you learn what’s going on in those feathered bodies.

Record migration (PhysOrg): It’s been called “one of the most impressive bird migrations in the Americas.” The little Blackpolled Warbler, a gold-colored handsome bird that could fit in your hand, undertakes a migration each year from New England to South America. Scientists have banded and studied these little birds for 40 years now. “Migration is one of the most understudied, important, and perilous times in a songbird’s life cycle,” a researcher noted. The systems for navigation, metabolism and hazard avoidance must be incredible to fit into a bird that small.

Pigeon leadership (Current Biology): In this dispatch, James Herbert-Read says, “A new study has decoded which birds become leaders in homing pigeon flocks, finding an unexpected benefit of leadership: faster birds emerge as leaders, and these leaders learn more about their environment than their followers.” There must be some benefit to the followers since there are so many of them.

Parrot toolkit (PhysOrg): New evidence has been found that parrots can use tools. Psychologists watched ten parrots grind calcium from sea shells with pebbles. Not only that, they shared their pebbles with other parrots. “This behaviour, never before seen in this species, is the first evidence of a nonhuman using tools for grinding, and one of the few reports of nonhuman animals sharing tools directly.”

How birds stay colorful (Science Daily): Because blue jays use structural color instead of pigments for their bright blues, those colors don’t fade. Understanding how they construct these patterns “could pave the way for the creation of paints and clothing colours that won’t fade over time.” What’s even more amazing is that the structures, made up of tiny holes in well-organized arrays, don’t become disorganized as the bird ages.

The researchers found that the Jay is able to demonstrate amazing control over the size of the holes in this sponge-like structure and fix them at very particular sizes, determining the colour that we see reflected from the feather. This is because when light hits the feather the size of these holes determines how the light is scattered and therefore the colour that is reflected. As a result, larger holes mean a broader wavelength reflectance of light, which creates the colour white. Conversely, a smaller, more compact structure, results in the colour blue.

How would you like jeans that stay as bright as when you bought them?

Current technology cannot make colour with this level of control and precision — we still use dyes and pigments. Now we’ve learnt how nature accomplishes it, we can start to develop new materials such as clothes or paints using these nanostructuring approaches. It would potentially mean that if we created a red jumper using this method, it would retain its colour and never fade in the wash.”

Kestrel drone (Science Daily): Ever wonder how hunting birds can hover for long periods without moving their wings? Try building a glider that can do that. Australians are working on that problem, getting inspiration from how kestrels use updrafts efficiently by adjusting their wing feathers. Hovering without flapping allows these birds to focus their eyes precisely. If the engineers can mimic that on their micro-aerial vehicle (MAV), the technique could be “used for many tasks in urban environments, such as delivering packages, performing surveillance, and search and rescue,” the article says.

Hummingbird thermostat (BBC News): Have you ever worried about your hummingbirds overheating at the feeder? All that fast flapping and zipping around would seem to make the little birds get heat exhaustion, especially on warm days. It turns out that they effectively shed excess heat in the feather-free “windows” around their eyes, shoulder joints, feet and legs. Scientists in Oregon found this out using thermal cameras.

Penguin dinosaur (BBC News): Here’s another claim of “convergent evolution.” Long before penguins evolved, evolutionists are now saying, marine reptiles swam like them. Penguins literally “fly through the water” with their water wings, and that’s how plesiosaurs swam, according to new models, PhysOrg concurs. Speaking of plesiosaurs, an “enormous” fossil specimen has been found near Patagonia. Live Science tells the story of its discovery and excavation. The flippers alone are four feet long on this beast, estimated 23 feet in length. Most of the long-necked plesiosaurs have been found in North America, so this one seemed out of place.

Huddle of the penguins: Speaking again of penguins, how many “March of the Penguins” movie fans knew that “Penguin huddling is more complicated than thought”? That’s a phenomenon PhysOrg tries to untangle. Who would have thought that the ones in the middle can overheat? It can get up to 100° in there! Scientists observed some of them eating snow, apparently in an effort to cool off. Outsiders try to break up the huddles, but the ones in the middle might feel trapped, wanting to get out.

Watch the birdie evolveNature tries to figure out “How Birds Spread Around the Globe.” Answer: They flew. Over at Live Science, Laura Geggel tells her readers that “Modern Birds Took Flight 95 Million Years Ago” as if she was there watching. “Birds began their evolutionary split from dinosaurs about 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic period,” she drones. Nighty-night.

Darwin’s finches under threat (BBC News): We end on a sad note; the finches of the Galapagos are under threat from parasitic flies that attack the young.  Scientists are trying various strategies because they don’t believe the birds can adapt or “evolve” in time. It makes one wonder how they got past other threats for millions of Darwin Years.

Birdwatching is a fun hobby, without the ball and chain of Darwinian storytelling. The stories are like those annoying pop-ups when you want to watch a video that say, “You can skip this add in 5 seconds.” Just flap your arms for 5 seconds, click “Skip Ad” and get to the good stuff.


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  • John C says:

    Now, wait a second …er..millennium! These birds supposedly overcame environmental pressures of enormous kinds over the eons—now scientists are saying they don’t have time to evolve? Then did they have time to evolve in the past? I could drive a semi through the holes in that inconsistency! The writer for BBC couldn’t pick up on that?

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