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Hummingbirds Can Withstand Turbulence Remarkably Well

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You've probably seen a slow-motion video of a hummingbird suspended in the air, wings flapping furiously to keep himself stationary as he enjoys a mid-flight sugary treat. But what about when there's wind? Hummingbirds can't go hungry just because there's a little weather to contend with. Sridhar Ravi, the lead scientists on a new study out about hummingbird stability in the face of turbulence, explained to Popular Mechanics that hummingbirds have to deal with different wind conditions all the time.

"That's like asking, 'how often do walking animals encounter uneven terrain?'" he said. "The answer is, basically all the time and they need to come up with strategies to contend with the unsteadiness of the medium."

To test how well hummingbirds deal with this unsteadiness, Ravi and his team tracked the body movements of four female ruby-throated hummingbirds as they navigated a wind tunnel to reach a sugar feeder at the far end. What they found was that hummingbirds are unparalleled at staying steady: Faced with winds of up to 10 mph, the hummingbirds kept their heads perfectly still while the rest of their bodies careened around to compensate. For comparison's sake, the 10 mph winds were considered a "turbulence intensity" of 15 percent. When professional pilots attempted the feat with mini drones, none of them could even keep the crafts in the air at a turbulence intensity of 5 percent.

Still too obscure? Ravi compared this feat to "asking a person to maintain perfect handwriting in a car as it is being driven off-road. Also note that the birds are experiencing accelerations up to 1G, implying the person must perform the task in the off-road car while instantaneously experiencing forces equivalent to their own weight!"

What the scientists didn't learn from this study is how the hummingbirds stay so steady. And while that research is certainly upcoming, don't hold your breath for hummingbird-style planes—Ravi said that their wings are just too complicated for us to mimic.

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Tessa Angus
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Art
Surprising Sculptures Made From Fallen Feathers
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire is a British sculptor with an unusual medium: feathers. Her surreal, undulating works often take the form of installations—the feathers spilling out of a drain, a stove, a crypt wall—or stand-alone sculptures in which antique bell jars, cabinets, or trunks contain otherworldly shapes.

MccGwire developed her obsession with feathers after moving to a studio barge on the Thames in 2006, as she explains in a video from Crane.tv recently spotlighted by Boing Boing. The barge was near a large shed full of feral pigeons, whose feathers she would spot on her way to work. "I started picking them up and laying them out, collecting them," she remembers. "And after about two weeks I had like 300 feathers." At the time, concerns about bird flu were rife, which made the feathers seem "dangerous as well as beautiful."

When not supplied by her own next-door menagerie, the feathers for her artwork come from a network of racing pigeon societies all over the UK, who send her envelopes full every time the birds molt. Farmers and gamekeepers also send her fallen feathers from birds such as magpies, pheasants, and roosters.

The cultural associations around birds are a big part of what inspires MccGwire. “The dove is the symbol of peace, purity, and fertility," she told ArtNews in 2013, "but it’s exactly the same species as a pigeon—which everyone regards as being dirty, foul, a pest.”

The same duality is present in her own work, which she frequently shares on her Instagram account. “I want to seduce by what I do—but revolt in equal measure. It’s really important to me that you’ve got that rejection of things you think you know for sure.”

You can see some pictures of MccGwire's work, and watch the video from Crane.tv, below.

Kate MccGwire's installation "Evacuate"
Evacuate, 2010
J Wilde

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Convolous"
Convolous, 2015
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's installation "Gyre"
Gyre, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Gag"
Gag, 2009
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Writhe"
Writhe, 2010
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Quell"
Quell, 2011
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Taunt"
Taunt, 2012
Tessa Angus

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