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10 Delightful Duck Facts

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You may have fed a few ducks in your lifetime, and maybe even seen a couple of ducklings waddling around—but how much do you really know about these birds?

1. Cold temperatures don't register.

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Their webbed feet have no nerves or blood vessels, rendering them incapable of feeling the cold. Which is an important adaptation when you consider that ducks can be found on every continent except for the inhospitable Antarctica.

2. Drakes aren't always fly.

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After a male duck, or drake's, chosen mate is hatching eggs, the birds undergo molting, temporarily losing their bright plumage, as well as their ability to fly. 

3. Preening helps them stay dry.

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Preening is the process by which ducks groom themselves—getting rid of dust, dirt, and parasites from their feathers, while also helping to waterproof their outer layer. During preening, ducks spread a waxy, waterproof oil secreted by their uropygial gland, which is located near their tails. 

4. The amount of daylight affects how many eggs a hen produces.

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The more daylight there is, the more eggs a hen produces. Farmers who raise ducks will often turn to artificial lighting in order to give their hens about 17 hours of light a day

5. Some ducks have expensive taste. 

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The omnivorous birds also tend to consume gravel, small stones, or sand—not for the nutritional value, but so they can store the substances in their gizzards and use the rough textures to break down food. In 1911, according to Ducks.org, gold prospectors flocked to Nebraska after hunters discovered small nuggets of the precious metal in the gizzards of ducks they had shot. However, the fortune-seekers never were able to locate where the gold originally came from. 

6. Ducks have excellent vision.

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Because a duck's eyes are located on either sides of its head, they have a field of vision of nearly 340 degrees. And thanks to the shape of their eyes, they can see objects both near and far simultaneously. To top it off, ducks have three eyelids and can see in color.

7. Mass migrations can cause mass chaos.

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Very rarely, a severe weather event will trigger a mass migration known as a “grand passage.” There have been only three recorded instances of grand passages: one in 1940, one in 1955, and the most recent in 1995, when a reported 90 million waterfowl migrated from Canada after a severe cold front set in, causing major problems at airports along the birds' route. 

8. Good luck trying to sneak up on one.

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Ducks are incredibly vigilant creatures. According to a study done by scientists at Indiana State University, Mallard ducks stay alert even when they doze. While snoozing in groups, the ducks stationed as "guards" on the outside sleep with one eye—generally the eye facing away from the group—open. In doing so, they control which side of the brain stays awake. It's not surprising, then, that ducks are capable of sensing threats in the environment in under a second.

9. Ducklings grow up fast.

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Unlike the young of many other animals, ducklings achieve independence almost immediately after hatching. Babies are born with their eyes wide open, and already possess the layer of down feathers necessary to stay warm. By the time they're two months old, ducklings have usually learned to fly.

10. One myth about them has been debunked (many times over). 

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Despite stories to the contrary, a duck's quack does indeed echo.

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Crafty Crows Can Build Tools From Memory
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Scientists have discovered yet another reason to never get on a crow's bad side. According to new research reported by Gizmodo, members of at least one crow species can build tools from memory, rather than just copying the behavior of other crows—adding to the long list of impressive skills that set these corvids apart.

For the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team of scientists looked at New Caledonian crows, a species known for its tool usage. New Caledonian crows use sticks to pick grubs out of logs, sometimes stashing these twigs away for later. Tools are so important to their lifestyle that their beaks even evolved to hold them. But how exactly the crows know to use tools—that is, whether the behavior is just an imitation or knowledge passed down through generations—has remained unclear until now.

The researchers set up the experiment by teaching eight crows to drop pieces of paper into a box in exchange for food. The birds eventually learned that they would only be rewarded if they dispensed either large sheets of paper measuring 40-millimeters-by-60 millimeters or smaller sheets that were 15-millimeters-by-25 millimeters. After the crows had adapted and started using sheets of either size, all the paper was taken away from them and replaced with one sheet that was too big for the box.

The crows knew exactly what to do: They ripped up the sheet until it matched one of the two sizes they had used to earn their food before and inserted it into the dispenser. They were able to do this with out looking at the sheets they had used previously, which suggests they had access to a visual memory of the tools. This supports the "mental template matching" theory—a belief among some crow experts that New Caledonian crows can form a mental image of a tool just by watching another crow use it and later recreate the tool on their own, thus passing along the template to other birds including their own offspring.

This is the first time mental template matching has been observed in birds, but anyone familiar with crow intelligence shouldn't be surprised: They've also been known to read traffic lights, recognize faces, nurse grudges, and hold funerals for their dead.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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