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If You Touch a Baby Bird, Will Its Mom Abandon It?

When I was a kid, our living room opened out onto a back deck through a set of French doors. A pine tree stood over the deck, providing a home for countless birds. Baby birds would regularly fall from their nests onto the deck, and would lie there crying in full view of my brother and me as we sat on the floor watching TV. Our parents always told us that we should never attempt to rescue these birds, no matter how long they were out on the deck, because our scent would cause their parents to reject and abandon them.

Some of these babies would get their act together and find their way back into the nest. Some would get dragged off by neighborhood cats. A few got plucked off the deck by hawks (and, once, devoured as I watched). Whatever happened to the birds, though, my brother and I dutifully listened to our mother.

These days, I feel bad about that. It turns out my mom is full of baloney.

Scent of a Human

Birds will not readily abandon their young because they “smell humans.” For one thing, birds don’t have a great sense of smell. Their olfactory bulbs are small and simple compared to other animals (although this wasn’t always the case, and there are exceptions to the rule, like the turkey vulture, albatross and kiwi), and they’re not going to be able to pick out your scent from all the other smells hitting their beaks at any given moment.

Even if they could detect your scent, and make a negative association with it, they’re not just going to up and leave. You wouldn’t abandon your kids and home at the first sign of danger, would you? Even if you didn’t love either all that much, you already went through the trouble of painting the living room and changing all those dirty diapers, right? Birds will make that same simple economic decision. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy in those babies and they’re not going to give them up for nothing. Mess around with a nest before the eggs are laid or before they hatch, and a bird might re-nest elsewhere, but once the kids are in the picture, they’re no push-overs.

Rescue Mission

So, my mother is obviously no ornithologist, and she’s not your mom, so feel free to ignore her advice. (Sort of. Let me explain.)

There are two types of baby birds you’re likely to encounter on the ground: nestlings and fledglings. Nestlings are featherless or fuzzy and are too young to leave the nest. Fledglings have their feathers and are old enough to leave the nest and be on the ground, making their first bold steps away from home under the watchful eye of mom and dad.

Fledglings you should leave alone. They’ll usually sit around for a few days outside the nest before their flight skills develop enough that they don’t need their parents. If you’ve got a fledgling near your home and are worried about predators, ask your neighbors to keep their cats inside. Hawks? Well, that’s just the circle of life.

Nestlings, though, could probably use a helping hand. Pick them up and put them pack in the nest, and their parents will not think any less of them if they smell a little bit like a human. What you should not do is take the little guys inside and try to care for them yourself. Sure, you’re at the top of the food chain. You’re smart and civilized and have dominion over the natural world. But you are not a bird. You will make a lousy bird mom.

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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