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10 Quacking Facts About Ducks

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by Jenny Morrill, Mental Floss UK

“From troubles of the world I turn to ducks,

Beautiful comical things”

Ducks by Frank W. Harvey

From Jemima to Donald, ducks have permeated popular culture due to their friendly and entertaining nature. But far from just being waddling bundles of feathers, ducks are actually very complex creatures...

1. They follow the first animal they see


Image: Cute Overload

This is a phenomenon known as imprinting (nothing to do with the werewolf stuff in Twilight). The basic thought behind imprinting is as follows: a newly hatched duckling will adopt characteristics of the first animal they see. This is usually a mother duck, but could be anything from a dog to a human (which I assume is what happened to Donald Duck). There is even a known case of a group of ducklings imprinting on a cardboard box.

Imprinting takes place due to the duckling's instinct to follow the first thing that passes by, because more often than not this is their mother. To prevent this it is common practice, when hand rearing ducklings, to feed them using a hand puppet of a duck, so that later on the duckling can integrate with its own species.

2. Puzzling parts


Image: Neatorama

Duck romance isn't exactly moonlight and roses. While ducks pair off every mating season, this doesn't stop rival males from forcing themselves on the female. The males of many duck breeds have developed spiky, corkscrew shaped penises, which give them an advantage over rivals when it comes to depositing sperm. This video, charmingly titled Explosive eversion of a duck penis, shows the extent of the weirdness.

However, female ducks do not take this lying down. Over time they have developed vaginas comparable to Hampton Court Maze, with dead ends, and parts that spiral in the opposite direction to the male's penis.

It doesn't end there. Some breeds of duck have penises so long they are able to use them as lassos (see picture above). Researches at the University of Alaska theorise that the Argentinian lake duck will sometimes lasso escaping females in order to mate with them.

Ducks have also been known to have sex with dead ducks. I think it's fair to say that ducks are sex mad.

3. Not all ducks can fly 


Image: Karen Barclay

There is a breed of duck that has more in common with a penguin than with its anatine cousins. The Indian Runner is becoming increasingly popular with UK duck owners, thanks to its inability to fly and comical appearance; the most frequently used description among Indian Runner owners is “a wine bottle on legs”.

Even though the Indian Runner can't fly, it can outrun many predators, and also its owner. Because of this, Indian Runners are occasionally used to train sheepdogs.

4. They're not supposed to eat bread


Image: Down To Earth Mother

At some point in our lives, we've all been to the park to feed the ducks, usually clutching half a bag of stale Warburtons. However, feeding bread to a duck actually does the duck more harm than good.

While ducks are largely omnivorous, and have even been known to eat sand and grit for its mineral content, bread is actually one of the worst things they can eat. Apart from having no nutritional value, regularly eating bread can cause obesity, malnutrition, and a condition known as angel wing, which impedes the duck's ability to fly. On top of this, rotting, uneaten bread will attract pests and predators to the duck's environment.

Corn, oats and chopped vegetables are all good alternatives to try when feeding the ducks.

5. They have have 3 eyelids


Image: Flickr

This is the case with most birds. As well as the standard top and bottom eyelids, ducks also have a third, sideways lid, known as a nictitating membrane. The membrane acts like goggles do on humans, so the ducks can see while their heads are underwater. The membrane also removes things like grit and dust from the eyes.

6. You can tell a male from a female by the tail


Image: Flickr

While many breeds of duck are distinguishable by their colouring (for example, with the mallard), some have identical colouring regardless of sex. With these breeds, the most common way to tell the male from the female is to look at the tail feathers. In many breeds, the male will have curly tail feathers, in contrast to the female's straight, stubby feathers.

7. Not all ducks quack


Image: Notes From The Wild Side

In fact, hardly any ducks produce the characteristic 'quacking' sound we've come to associate with them. The most common UK duck, the mallard, does quack, but other breeds croak, squeak, whistle, or remain mute. You can listen to a few different duck calls here.

And while we're on the subject, duck quacks do echo.

8. Egg laying is affected by daylight


Image: Bebe Styles

Both ducks and chickens slow down their egg production when there is a shortage of daylight, due to the light levels affecting their hormones. This is why most breeds of duck and chicken don't lay many, if any eggs during the winter months.

Ducks aren't as affected by the dark as chickens however, and some breeds do lay all year round (the current record holder producing 364 eggs in one year).

Because of this, farmers and duck keepers are advised to introduce artificial light into the duck house in order to boost egg production.

9. Females are louder than males


Image: Pichost

Sorry ladies, our duck counterparts are giving us a bad name. With most breeds of duck, the female is considerably louder and more talkative than the male. In fact, some male breeds are virtually silent (desperately tries not do do a joke about being hen-pecked). People wanting to keep domestic ducks are often advised to keep only males if they have neighbours, as this will reduce the risk of annoying them with the noise.

10. They can be very indecisive

As this hilarious and adorable video shows -

Main image: Backyard Duck
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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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iStock

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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