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7 Awesome Things Birds Can Do

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If you live in any U.S. city, you probably think those pesky, puke-eating pigeons and their feathered friends are pretty brain dead. Don’t be fooled. Birds are capable of some pretty amazing feats, and we’ve provided a sampling below. Know any other cool things birds can do? Share the love in the comments below.

1. Look Extremely Beautiful Without Any Makeup

Humans spend a crazy amount of money on tattoos to dye their skin, and also a hell of a lot of time in front of the mirror. Are we jealous of these ridiculously colored birds? Maybe a little. 

2. Take Photographs

A “carrier pigeon,” which is not a specific breed but rather an occupation, can be trained to fly between two points rather reliably, typically by placing their food at one location and their nest at another. People have actually used this method to deliver messages, but German apothecary Julius Neubronner took it a step further when he strapped a time-delay camera to a bird and invented pigeon photography, which was tested out for military use in WWI.

3. Make and Use Weapons

In fact, a lot of birds use tools to help them hunt. For example, the woodpecker finch from the Galápagos Islands uses a twig to pry insects out of bark, as does the Caledonian crow, who uses its beak to sharpen sticks into spears.

4. Speak Better English Than a Toddler

This goes beyond “Polly want a cracker.” An African grey parrot learned a vocabulary of more than 100 words and the labels of more than 35 objects.

5. Become Art Snobs

A 1995 study showed that pigeons can learn to distinguish a painting by Picasso from one by Monet. The study humorously noted that if birds and students went through the same training methods, the students might too learn the differences.

6. Build Incredibly Small Houses Out of Whatever

And here we are, struggling to construct our IKEA furniture. Ever see how small a hummingbird nest is? The size of a key sounds about right. And house finches will literally use whatever they can find. This photographer is so obsessed with nests, he takes pictures of them all the time.

7. Fly Really Far Distances Without Complaining

Talk about nonstop service! A shore bird called the whimbrel can navigate tropical storms, fly nearly 30 miles per hour, and has been documented as flying nonstop for thousands of miles. One tagged bird researchers were keeping an eye on flew seven nonstop flights of more than 2000 miles each before it was shot by hunters on Guadeloupe.

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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