Bird brains more precise than humans’

(Phys.org) —Birds have been found to display superior judgement of their body width compared to humans, in research to help design autonomous aircraft navigation systems.

A University of Queensland (UQ) study has found that budgerigars can fly between gaps almost as narrow as their outstretched wingspan rather than taking evasive measures such as tucking in their wings.

UQ Queensland Brain Institute researcher Dr Ingo Schiffner said previous research showed humans unnecessarily turned their shoulders to pass through doorways narrower than 130 per cent of their body width, whereas are far more precise.

“We were quite surprised by the birds’ accuracy – they can judge their wingspan within 106 per cent of their width when it comes to flying through gaps,” Dr Schiffner said.

“When you think about the cluttered environments they fly through, such as forests, they need to develop this level of accuracy.

“When they encounter a narrow gap, they either lift their wings up vertically or tuck them in completely, minimising their width to that of their torso,” he said.

The researchers wanted to know precisely how birds judge gaps between obstacles before engaging in evasive manoeuvres.

In testing, budgies flew down corridors with variable widths between obstacles, and their flights were recorded with high-speed cameras for analysis.

Dr Schiffner said the research would be applied to robotics work at the Queensland Brain Institute’s Neuroscience of Vision and Aerial Robotics laboratory.

“If we can understand how birds avoid obstacles, we might be able to develop algorithms for aircraft to avoid obstacles as well,” he said.

“For instance, urban drones used for deliveries would need to fly through complex environments such as tight alleyways or between trees at the front of homes.

“For us, it isn’t the ability to tuck in wings that is of interest if we are talking about fixed-wing or rotor aircraft, but whether we can replicate what happens neurologically in birds as they navigate.”

To judge airspeed, budgies use optic flow – the rate visual cues pass by the eyes. They do not see three-dimensionally like humans, due to the lateral placement of their eyes and lack of binocular overlap.

“Seeing in three dimensions requires two eyes or cameras with sufficient visual overlap, so using with just one camera would be very useful, saving weight and keeping autonomous vehicles small.”

The paper, Minding the gap: In-flight body awareness in birds, is published in Frontiers in Zoology.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-09-bird-brains-precise-humans.html#jCp


Migrating birds sprint in spring, but take things easy in autumn

Passerine birds, also known as perching birds, that migrate by night tend to fly faster in spring than they do in autumn to reach their destinations. This seasonal difference in flight speed is especially noticeable among birds that only make short migratory flights, says researcher Cecilia Nilsson of Lund University in Sweden, in Springer’s journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.


Nilsson, in a group led by professor Thomas Alerstam, used a tracking radar to measure over three years the speed by which flew over Falsterbo Peninsula, a bird migratory hot spot in south-western Sweden. The seasonal differences they found correspond with those recorded for other nocturnal passerine migrants at other sites in southern and northern Sweden.

The seasonal differences in airspeed are more noticeable among short distance migrant birds. Nilsson and colleagues suspect that such birds fly faster in spring because they have a greater urgency to reach their breeding grounds first and to choose the best territories, mates and other resources. While the time savings made in spring might seem miniscule, these remain important because they influence the arrival order of individual birds. In autumn, the birds take things more slowly because they are not as pressured to reach their winter grounds.

Wind is the one weather condition that influences birds’ decisions the most about when to take off. In fact, Nilsson and co-authors discovered that passerine birds can actually fine-tune their flights to make full use of winds, making their flying and subsequent migration easier. Short distant migrants have higher ground speeds (speed relative to the ground below) than airspeeds (own speed relative to the air around the bird) in both seasons. Hence, these birds make use of wind assistance. In contrast, long distance migrants often travel with airspeeds exceeding ground speeds, resulting from flying in headwinds, in autumn. These findings correlate with previous studies done at the University of Lund which showed that long distance migrants receive very little wind assistance on average.

Nilsson and colleagues also found that short distance migrants have a more flexible flight schedule, because they are able to wait for good nights. Long distance migrants on the other hand must fly on more nights to reach their destination in good time, even if it means traveling during unfavourable wind conditions. While waiting for nights with good wind conditions will save them energy, it will prolong their migration.

“These results indicate surprisingly fine-tuned seasonal modulation of airspeed and responses to wind. Associated with different behavioural strategies, passerine birds thus are adapted to different levels of time selection pressures during spring and autumn migration,” Nilsson summarizes.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-09-migrating-birds-sprint-easy-autumn.html#jCp


The Birds

Originally posted on Ramble On:

Lately, my Dad’s been experiencing the empty nest syndrome – and it has nothing to do with my brother and me. (We wouldn’t leave if pushed!) It’s the little family of red-vented bulbuls that had become part of our family for a few weeks that he misses.


It started with mamma bird and papa bird scouting the neighbourhood for the ideal spot for their home, however transient. And you know what they say about real estate – it’s all about location, location, location. Apparently, all the trees in the apartment complex weren’t as perfect as the curtain rods in my parents’ drawing room.



They didn’t seem afraid of us, and flew rather confidently into the room whenever they pleased. My Dad welcomed them in by leaving the balcony door open almost all the time. On the rare occasion that it was shut, they’d patiently wait outside. We also had to…

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An interview with David Pimentel

Originally posted on Grist:

Any worthy idea can withstand and even be improved by naysayers; scolds and skeptics play the useful role of pointing out obvious flaws. The biofuels industry has no more persistent, articulate, and scathing critic than David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University.

David Pimentel.

Photo: Chris Hallman / Cornell University Photography.

In 1979, with the price of oil surging and a politically connected company called Archer Daniels Midland investing heavily in ethanol production, the U.S. Department of Energy invited Pimentel to chair an advisory committee to look at ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The committee’s conclusion: ethanol requires more energy to produce than it delivers.

That assessment didn’t stop the government from enacting a variety of subsidies for ethanol, which has since developed into a multibillion-dollar industry. Nor has Pimentel refrained from issuing a series of scholarly articles claiming to show that, after decades of steady government…

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Chernobyl’s birds are adapting to ionising radiation

Birds in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl are adapting to – and may even be benefiting from – long-term exposure to radiation, ecologists have found. The study, published in the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology, is the first evidence that wild animals adapt to ionising radiation, and the first to show that birds which produce most pheomelanin, a pigment in feathers, have greatest problems coping with radiation exposure.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-04-chernobyl-birds-ionising.html#jCp



Coca Cola Draining Groundwater Stores In India

Originally posted on Global Truths:

Coca Cola is one of the most recognisable brands in the world today, arguably second after McDonalds; however it is also one of the most degrading to the environment. The company uses enough water every day to meet the worlds drinking requirements for ten days (The Ecologist 2009), a large amount of which doesn’t go into its drinks. Coca Cola is severely depleting groundwater supplies in several states in India, causing water famines and farmers crops to fail. 70% of Indians’ livelihoods centre around agriculture (The Ecologist 2009), therefore a drop in water can have fatal consequences for their business and consequently their communities. Coca Cola has invested around $1 billion in India, making it one of the country’s largest international investors, and employs around 7,000 people (CSR Asia 2005), in its 52 bottling plants (About.com 2012), all of which are depleting groundwater stores.


Mehdiganj’s Groundwater Table

In the case…

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My conservation education experience with children

In 2013, I took up something I never did before. Though journalism is and always be my first love, there was something that was going on in my mind when it comes to conservation. How can we tell the children the importance of forests and its links to the water we get everyday?

In South India, almost 69 rivers originate from the Western Ghats. The mountains absorbs the rains during monsoon and reserves it. Then it slowly releases the water-drops of water form small rivulets, then a stream flows, and finally the river gushes, giving us our daily supply of water.

The film that portrays this in its best is Save our Sholas by Shekar Dattatri

A bit about the film:

Titled ‘SOS – Save Our Sholas’, the 24-minute film, narrated by celebrated conservationist, Valmik Thapar, showcases the rich biodiversity of the southern Western Ghats forests and the problems that beset this fragile landscape. The film lays particular emphasis on the immense water harvesting capacity of these forests, and underlines the fact that all the major rivers of peninsular India originate in the Western Ghats.

“We felt that a crisp film on the subject was sorely needed as an educational aid, particularly in schools and colleges, to introduce young people to the immense importance of shola forests. It is very gratifying that Delhi based Centre for Media Studies has selected the film for its ‘Greening Young Minds’ project, and is distributing the film to ten thousand schools across India”.

I was fortunate that I was screening this film across 19 schools reaching to 11,000 students last year in Chennai. 

The approach to conservation needs to be linked to human lives in today’s world. If we say, we need to protect the forests, why? We don’t care if forests exist or not? We live in urban areas. Some school principals even raised this question to me when I asked for a time slot for screening. I diligently explained the link and things fell in place.

Children come with such amazing questions. The film not just captures the link between forest and water but also explains the natural behavior of creatures that thrive in these sholas-Travancore Tortoise, King Cobra, weaver ants and even termites, which have a huge role to play in the forest. There was no tiger brouhaha here. It was about smaller creatures of the forest. 

Some pictures from my experience with children. 

I took this chance to screen the film in most of the government schools than the usual schools. These children seldom get such opportunities. It was a good opportunity for me to know the species of animals and birds in my mother tongue.

Children watching King Cobra in fear and excitement!


That was one such moment! I watched their curious faces.



At Bentick School where I addressed 1000 students. The screening and interaction session with children was done in Tamil.


After repeated screenings (sometimes even 4-6 in a day) with no meal or rest, talking continuously, I never felt tired! I wanted to know what children felt about water and the need to save forests. 

A girl at Chennai government school answers my question (Class five)


On the other side, children from BVM Global school were so enthusiastic and excited that I had to spend a lot of energy in raising my voice, despite the mike. They knew Cicadas (the insect that makes noise in the forest) and many other creatures!

They also asked many many questions.

BVM Bollineni Hillside





She was petrified watching King Cobra swallow a rat snake (its favourite meal)


Answering inquisitiveness :)



At Chinmaya Vidyalaya, the most obedient and quiet children I have ever addressed


The largest number of students I addressed was in Holy Angels school (1500 students, class 4 to 9). Many of them wanted to do more than water saving in school and home. They wanted to volunteer and that was inspiring. 

The maximum number of questions came from BVM Global (40 questions). I took them all and spent the longest interactive session of almost 90 minutes with them. There were some questions like what is anaconda comes face to face with King cobra, will they fight? 

Why are we humans so bad? We know its not right to destroy forest but why do we do it? I smile at them and say you can start making a difference and talk to others about it and together we change.

There was one unforgettable kid in my experience. Himanshu from LM Dadha School. He was phenomenal. A student of class 6, he knew already that 33% forest cover has to be maintained. He explained so many things to me, ants carrying geckos which are larger than their weight, the critical role of termites in decomposition, forest fires. I have an audio recording of his talk which I will post soon on this blog.

Change can happen in different ways, first, through awareness and when children are already aware, bring them to action, tell them what they can do, let them experience nature and rebuild their connection with the natural world. I am sure many of my students are spreading the word and embarking on a change. The experience of answering children (tougher than answering adults because they are so innocent and genuine and they ask the right questions) was amazing. I learned more than what I gave.

I was running this show alone. But it would not have been possible with the support of the National Green Corps Head, Mr Thangaraj, school teachers, principals, helpers, and the lovely children. Kudos to Shekar for making this film. Honoured to be knowing him and sharing my experiences!