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11 Surprisingly Smart Birds

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ThinkStock

Next time someone tries to put you down by calling you "bird brain," make them think again by introducing them to these 11 wickedly smart avians.

1. Cormorants Make Model Employees

A researcher in the 1970s observed the behavior of cormorants that Chinese fishermen used to catch fish. The birds were only fed after catching seven fish for their human masters, and once they hit that magic number, they would sit pat and refuse to continue working. The cormorants had learned to count to seven, and they used this to their advantage in their unique salary negotiations.

2. Japanese Crows Enjoy Street Food

In urban parts of Japan, crows have been known to drop shelled nuts onto crosswalks for cars to run over, cracking their shells. The birds then wait for red lights before retrieving the exposed meat.

3. Macaws Take Direction Well

Macaws can correctly tell the difference between left and right when trained with positive reinforcement.

4. Crows Never Have to Eat Crow

Crows aren’t the most glamorous birds, but biologists have dubbed them "feathered primates" for their tremendous brainpower and problem-solving skills. In one study, crows were able to memorize and correctly identify images they had been previously shown. When researchers switched the rules of the game to reward the birds for identifying images that didn’t match, they quickly adjusted and answered correctly mid-test.

5. Ravens Are Excellent Meat Cutters

After chasing a raven that was feeding on a piece of frozen raw beef, a researcher found that the bird had made cuts tracing the fat, allowing it to carry the food as one large chunk instead of making multiple trips. This ingenuity showed the raven was able to plan ahead.

6. Blue Tits Skim the Cream

Back when milk was delivered door-to-door, these birds were able to identify what kinds were being delivered based on the colors of the bottle caps. They learned which bottles contained extra-nourishing whole milk, and the birds then breached and drank from those containers.

7. Hummingbirds Know Their Turf

While these speedsters are tiny—they weigh less than a nickel—they make up for it with their massive memories. A hummingbird keeps tabs on every flower in its territory (which can contain up to 1000 different flowers) and remembers which ones are blooming and which ones have nectar.

8. Rooks Can Be The Bigger Bird

Rooks live in large groups and are prone to getting in fights. After squabbles, the birds make up by preening each other or sharing food. The first observations of this behavior surprised biologists, since for years scientists had thought that only primates were capable of this kind of reconciliatory behavior.

9. Pigeons Appreciate Fine Art

In a now-famous study, three researchers discovered that pigeons were able to differentiate between paintings by Picasso and Monet (although they could not tell the difference if the Monets were placed upside-down).

10. Cockatoos Can Cut a Rug

A famous cockatoo has demonstrated the ability to recognize complex musical beats and dance along in time (which requires an intelligent skill known as “beat induction”).

11. Woodpecker Finches Arm Themselves

These birds from the Galapagos Islands have been known to use sticks to impale grubs and other small invertebrates. Once incapacitated, the prey is easily devoured by the weapon-wielding finch.

Want to learn more about birds’ surprisingly complex brains and meet some lock-picking, puzzle-solving avian geniuses? Tune in to Nova on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup at 9 pm Eastern/8 pm Central on Wednesday April 9.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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