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British Gamblers Bet On Cuckoo Migration

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If the high-octane Kentucky Derby—over in mere minutes—isn't exactly your speed when it comes to betting on animal races, perhaps the months-long migration of the British cuckoo would appeal to you. As of this year, gamblers in the United Kingdom can place some pounds on their favorite bird making a speedy trip back from Africa, where the species spends their winter.

It's all in the animals' best interests. Since the 1980s, the population of the British Common Cuckoo has declined by a startling 65 percent, and scientists aren't exactly sure why. To gain a better understanding of the birds' lifestyles, researchers from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) started tagging and satellite-tracking birds in 2011.

This year, with 50 birds tagged, the researchers partnered with William Hill, one of the world’s most prominent bookies, to open a unique betting pool and draw attention to the cuckoos. It's a true high-stakes race—33 of the tagged birds perished early. But the remaining 17 embarked unknowingly on a race tracked in real time on the BTO site.

"The average stake was just a few British pounds, which is typical of a market which nobody has ever bet on before—perhaps in years to come we will have specialist professionals wagering huge amounts on cuckoo races!" Jon Ivan-Duke, a spokesman for the bookie, told Audubon. "Each year we are hoping to grow the market to be a profitable venture and along with the BTO, raise awareness about this unique and brilliant species."

This year's winner has already been crowned—a long-shot named Hennah (odds set at 25 to 1), who was thought missing for much of the "race" after blowing desert sand and canopy cover rendered his UV-powered tracker useless—but you can watch a recap of all the cuckoos' journey here and learn more about the tracking project in the video below.

[h/t Audubon]

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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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