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Erin McCarthy

New App Makes Identifying Bird Species Easy

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Erin McCarthy

Last October, I was petsitting for a friend and, while out for a walk with the pup, came across a strange looking bird (above). It was sitting, shell shocked, on the hood of a car in Brooklyn. When it was still there an hour later, I decided I would take it and release it in a nearby park—but how do you rescue a bird if you don't even know what kind it is?

No one on Twitter or Instagram could help; a friend who is a birder guessed that it might be a woodcock. So, after reading how to best rescue those birds, I gently wrapped the bird in a towel, slipped it into a paper bag, and walked it down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I let it out in some vegetation. It ran away from me, flying in short bursts, as fast as it could.

If only I'd had Birdsnap. This electronic field guide, created by computer scientists at Columbia University and the University of Maryland, can identify 500 common North American birds with nothing but a cell phone photo. The process is simple: Take a photo or choose one from your phone's album; click on the eye and the tail; and wait for the potential matches to show up.

After I'd set the bird loose in the park, my birder friend texted again: another birder believed the bird was a juvenile Virginia Rail, a freshwater marsh bird that mostly keeps to itself. Birdsnap identified the bird correctly on the first try. (How it got on the hood of a car in Brooklyn will forever remain a mystery.)

Columbia Computer Science Professor Peter Belhumeur and University of Maryland Computer Science Professor David Jacobs came up with the idea for the app when they realized that the software and techniques they'd developed for facial recognition could also be used to identify species. Facial recognition algorithms work by finding the resemblance between comparable parts of faces, comparing a nose to other noses and an eye to other eyes, according to Columbia's Engineering Department. In Birdsnap, each species has 17 parts marked; the app detects the parts of the bird so it can compare them with what's in its database and discover species that are visually similar to the animal in an uploaded photo.

"What's really exciting about Birdsnap is that not only does it do well at identifying species, but it can also identify which parts of the bird the algorithm uses to identify each species," said Thomas Berg, a Columbia Engineering computer science PhD candidate. "Birdsnap then automatically annotates images of the bird to show these distinctive parts—birders call them 'field marks'—so the user can learn what to look for.”

And the app, available for the iPhone, does more than just identify birds: It also provides descriptions of the animals and their calls, shows their family trees and similar species, and includes range and sightings maps.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages

Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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