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11 Facts About the Bone-Eating Bearded Vulture 

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The bearded vulture, or lammergeier, is one intense bird. It lives on a steady diet of bones and dyes its feathers blood red, giving it the reputation of one of the most metal birds in the animal kingdom.

1. Lammergeier means "lamb-vulture" in German

As a result of its appearance and diet, the vulture has a nasty reputation of carrying away lambs, calves, and even children. This is, of course, disputable; the birds are not known to be hostile toward (living) humans.

2. It eats mostly bones.

Eighty percent of the bird's diet consists of bone and bone marrow. Its stomach acid has a pH of about 1, so the dense material can be digested in under 24 hours [PDF]. The lammergeier is a scavenger; after finding a picked-over carcass, the bird will drop it from a tremendous height to shatter it into swallow-able pieces. Bearded vultures even have favorite breaking spots that are ominously called ossuaries. Besides bones, they also eat small lizards and turtles.

3. Wild lammergeiers rub soil into their feathers to look more intimidating.

Bearded vultures come in various shades, from pure white to orange-red. Soils stained with iron oxide give the birds their fiery appearance. Lammergeiers apply the dirt with their claws and then preen for about an hour to ensure a bright orange glow. They are also attracted to other red things, like leaves and red wood. Captive birds also partake in this behavior, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned [PDF].

4. The bright orange coloring is a status symbol.

The orangey soil doesn't have any practical purposes; it certainly doesn't make for good camouflage (though the birds have no natural predators anyway). Scientists have noticed that the birds' age and size are directly correlated to the intensity of color. It is theorized that the orange hue is a status symbol. More soiled feathers indicates that the lammergeier had the time and resources to find an adequate place to bathe; the brightest-colored vultures should have the most territory and knowledge of their surroundings. Interestingly, these baths are done in secret, so most of the information gathered has been through spying on captive birds [PDF].

5. Lammergeiers are monogamous.

Bearded Vultures are most commonly monogamous, and breed once a year. Sometimes, especially in certain areas of Spain and France, bachelor lammergeiers will join a pre-existing couple to create a polyandrous trio. Females accept secondary mates because it increases the chances of producing offspring and doubles her protection. The birds usually don't lay more than three eggs, so they can use all the help they can get. 

6. It’s one of the largest old world vultures.

These giant birds can grow up to 4 feet tall. They have a wingspan between 7 and 9 feet and usually weigh around 10 to 15 pounds. 

7. Its closest living relative is the Egyptian Vulture.

Together, the birds form a minor lineage called Accipitridae. Egyptian Vultures have white feathers with bright yellow faces. Unlike their cousins, these vultures are tiny; they're usually a little under 4 pounds, with a wingspan of 5.6 feet, making them the smallest of all vultures. 

8. They can live to be as old as 45.

In captivity, lammergeiers can live to the ripe old age of 45. The average lifespan of a wild vulture is only 21.4 years, but that factors in the untimely deaths that come with the dangers of the wild. 

9. Overhunting has led to the endangerment of the species. 

Believing that the vultures would carry off babies, concerned parents hunted the birds to the brink of extinction. The vultures were completely eradicated from most areas in Eastern Europe by the 1990s [PDF].

Today, the vultures have been categorized as "least concern" by the IUCN thanks to having a large range of habitats and the efforts of various environmental groups. 

10. According to the former president of the British Ornithologists’ Union, they make (mostly) great pets.

Thomas Littleton Powys, the 4th Baron Lilford, had a fondness for travel and studying birds. He often wrote about falconing, otter hunting, and his pet birds. The president happened to own a couple of bearded vultures and found them to be perfectly acceptable pets:

We have two fine bearded vultures, or lammergeiers, one of which (with a companion that has died very lately) enjoyed complete liberty since its arrival here as a nestling till a few days ago, when I was obliged to have it caught up and confined, on account of very conspicuous breaches of decency about the roof of the house and our flower garden. I extremely regret this necessity, as the sight of these large birds soaring about the place, generally pursued by a cloud of rooks, was certainly unique in England, and afforded to me, who am well acquainted with the lammergeier in its native haunts, a constant source of interest and pleasant memories of localities that are still to a great extent unspoiled by man. These birds of mine were very tame and perfectly harmless; indeed, with the exception of a few playful attacks on trousers, gaiters, petticoats and boots, I never heard of any malice on their part towards any living creature. Their natural food consists of carrion and garbage of all sorts, tortoises, and other small reptiles; and I hold the many stories that are current on the Continent, of their carrying off children, lambs and kids, as very nearly, if not entirely mythical.

11. There is still a good reason to watch out for them.

Greek playwright Aeschylus could not shake the feeling that he was going to die. A prophecy warned him of falling objects, so he was spending most of his time outside. Unfortunately, a large bird (most likely a lammergeier) mistook his smooth bald head for a rock and dropped a turtle on it. Aeschylus died instantly, and it's unclear if the vulture ever got his dinner. 

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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