Why do birds fly in a "V" formation? Scientists at the UK's Royal Veterinary College attached sensors to endangered ibises migrating from Austria to Tuscany. What they confirmed is that the aerodynamics of V flocking helps the birds conserve energy and that they optimize this by careful positioning and timing their wing flaps. "Precision formation flight astounds scientists" (Nature)
Back in May, aboriginal rangers placed a motion-sensing camera near Western Australia's Margaret River to collect images of crocodiles. The camera disappeared. Recently though, another ranger found the camera about 110 kilometers away. It appears that a sea eagle had snatched it. (ABC News, thanks Bob Pescovitz!)
Colombian artist Diana Beltran Herrera creates exquisite bird sculptures from paper. She's constructed more than 100 species, all life-size. Her papercraft aviary is currently on display at the Rollins College's Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Winter Park, Florida.
"Diana Beltran Herrera’s Flock of Paper Birds" (Smithsonian)
A new study published at Plos One reveals that cockatoos can pick complicated locks, with one bird unraveling the five interlocking components without being given a demonstration beforehand. Jon M Chang, for ABC News:
Alex Kacelnik, a professor of zoology at Oxford University ... and his colleagues, Alice Auersperg and Auguste von Bayern at the University of Vienna, placed a cashew nut behind a window fastened shut by a thin metal bar. The birds had to get through four additional locks that required them to pull a pin, turn a screw, remove a bolt, and rotate a wheel to reach the reward. More importantly, they had to do those actions in the correct order. If a cockatoo completed the first task, the scientists then rearranged the order of the four locks. They wanted to see whether the birds could modify their lock-picking behavior by doing the same four actions but in a different sequence.
Chemical analysis of Archaeopteryx remains show that the creature was patterned "light in colour, with a dark edge and tip to the feather", say researchers from the University of Manchester.
At Smithsonian, Jimmy Stamp posted a brief history of bird automata. And yes, I know that Bubo from Clash of the Titans, above, isn't real. But... Bubo! Clash of the Titans! From Smithsonian:
The earliest example (of an avian automaton) dates to 350 B.C.E. when the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum, who some credit with inventing the science of mechanics, is said to have created a mechanical wooden dove capable of flapping its wings and flying up to 200 meters, powered by some sort of compressed air or internal steam engine. Archytas’ invention is often cited as the first robot, and, in light of recent technological advancements, perhaps we could even consider it to be the first drone; the very first machine capable of autonomous flight. Very few details are actually known about the ancient mechanical dove, but it seems likely that it was connected to a cable and flew with the help of a pulley and counterweight. This early wind-up bird was chronicled a few hundred years later in the pages of a scientific text by a mathematician, Hero of Alexandria."A Brief History of Robot Birds"
Writer Darren Naish, who blogs at Tretrapod Zoology, took this photo of a Larus gull attempting to chow down on an awkwardly shaped starfish. (And, really, are there any other kind of starfish? Especially when you're trying to fit them in your mouth whole?)
You might remember Larus gulls from a recent piece I wrote on speciation and evolution. According to Naish, they might have another place in the story of evolution, as well. Regardless of how Sisyphean this gull's dinner plans may appear, Larus gulls actually (successfully) eat a lot of starfish. So many, in fact, that, as Naish explains in a recent post, they might be prompting one species of starfish to slowly turn a different color — an adaptation that makes the species less visible to gulls.
Nicotine is one of nature's bug zappers. Seriously. Lots of plants have evolved to produce bug-repelling chemicals as part of their defense mechanisms and tobacco happens to be one of those plants.
So when city-dwelling birds use the fluffy, nicotine-soaked material from discarded cigarette butts to build their nests it might not be the unmitigated ecological disaster that most of us imagine when we hear that "birds are building nests out of discarded cigarette butts". Researchers at Mexico’s Autonomous University of Tlaxcala think the nicotine in the cigarettes might help keep chicks healthy — essentially serving as an urban substitute for the parasite-repelling plants the birds would have used in the wild.
At Culturing Science, Hannah Waters explains the idea...
But birds are actually quite fond of the chemicals found in some smelly plants, otherwise known as aromatics, from which “essential oils” are derived. Aromatic plants produce these chemicals to defend themselves against insects and other animals that would take them for food—but birds have their own use for them. Some nest-building species, including starlings and blue tits, regularly replenish their nests with fresh aromatics, and scientists hypothesize that the birds use these chemicals as parenting tools.
How would plant-derived chemicals help birds raise their chicks? It’s possible that the chemicals boost the immune systems or development of the chicks so that they survive better after they leave the nest; this is known as the “drug hypothesis.” Alternatively, the “nest protection” hypothesis suggests that the plant chemicals act as insecticides, driving parasites and other harmful insects from the nest.
Nicotine is an insecticide, although we don’t often think of it that way. Tobacco plants generate nicotine because it defends against herbivorous beetles that would otherwise devour the plants–which means a smoker’s buzz is caused by a plant’s chemical defense mechanism. Some remnants of that insecticide remains in cigarette butts left in city streets, which are then transported into bird nests.
A house sparrow stands near a cigarette butt in Mexico City. Photo Credit: © Víctor Argaez