Multi-Tasker

I found a blue jay feather this morning while I was out walking my dog, Dash. That isn’t remarkable — jays are a common species here, and because the color blue is relatively scarce in the natural environment (except for the sky) it’s eye-catching. I’ve started an informal collection, compiled on some shelves near my front door. I admire them on a semi-regular basis while running a Swiffer™ over household surfaces, and when I have to pick them up off of the floor because I’m cleaning like it’s a timed event.

As I ambled along, spinning the feather between my thumb and forefinger, I could feel it lift at the slightest breeze, attempting to return to the sky. I started thinking about the versatility of this keratin assemblage, this trinket both delicate and durable, this multi-tasker extraordinaire.

I’m well aware that researchers say multi-tasking is a myth, at least when it comes to the human brain. We only think we’re doing several things at once, the scientists tell us; actually, we’re just toggling back and forth from one thing to another, which reduces our mental efficiency and even lowers (temporarily) our IQ.  I’m mostly convinced by these studies but, full disclosure, neuroscience isn’t my field so I’m only familiar with what’s summarized and reported by the media… and by “media” I mean NPR. In light of all that has been reported, though, I find it even more fascinating and frustrating that handling more than one task is trivial for so many other, less admired, anatomical features. Wouldn’t you expect our much-lauded gray matter to be every bit as masterful at multi-tasking as, say, a feather?

Think about it…

First of all, feathers allow birds to fly — a feat humans have still not managed to accomplish, even though we reassure each other constantly that we have the largest, most amazingly intelligent brains on Earth (clearly, though, ours is not the most self-confident computer on the planet).

Now, before you think I’ve somehow overlooked the fact that thousands of human beings are flying from one global location to another all day, every day, and have been doing so for quite some time, let me interject that human beings have, without question, figured out how to make machines fly (with the aid of metallurgy and fossil fuels, of course). But we have never, not once, jumped up from the ground or launched from a tree branch to flap off into the wild blue yonder. Superman doesn’t count because he isn’t human, and wing-suits don’t count either because that’s gliding, not flying. Humans ride, birds fly, and they do it by flapping feather-covered arms, using renewable energy sources like insects, berries, seeds, and sugar water.

Next, consider that feathers also provide thermal insulation. This should come as no surprise because people use bird feathers to keep warm, too. We stuff clouds of down and feathers in-between layers of rip-stop polyester made from recycled plastic water bottles to manufacture vests and parkas. Then we slip on the garment, zip up the front, and head out into the elements to do some birdwatching.

Birds can waterproof their feathers with bio-oils stored in a convenient uropygial/preen gland at the base of their tail. This is handy because, having allocated their arms to flying, they can’t hold a spray can of Scotchgard™. Nor are they able to use hammers, saws, and other tools to build a roof overhead that will shield them from rain, sleet, and snow, or to build a boat when they want to go fishing.

But wait— there’s more! Bet you didn’t know that feathers are also an effective communication device. See, humans use an broad assortment of products, including designer label clothing, team-sponsored gear, our vehicles, digital devices, and jewelry to make nonverbal announcements about our group affiliations and availability.

Birds accomplish the same thing using their birthday feather-suits. The colors and patterns they wear say more than any Tinder profile or list of Who’s Who ever could.  Female birds assess a suitor’s sartorial presentation to determine if he’s her type, and male birds parade their plumage to show the ladies they’ve got the goods to be a quality life-partner. Or maybe just a handsome hookup, depending on how the species swings. Those same feathers can be used to warn a trespasser that this territory has been claimed, or warn a romantic competitor to back off.

Kind of puts the old uni-tasking cerebral cortex to shame, don’t you think? And all this time I’ve been under the impression that “featherhead” was an insult.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: bagaball, Richard Hurd, Jonathan Fox, Ingrid Taylar, and Putneypics.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Village voice

white-crowned sparrow by KaCey97007, Creative Commons license

A white-crowned sparrow trying to get a date (Photo: KaCey97007, Creative Commons license)

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seagull (Photo: Dani_vr, Creative Commons license)How can one small voice cut through the cacophony of modern metropolitan life? A recently published study, combined with some earlier work, suggests that contrary to what you might assume, the secret to city communication isn’t shouting.

Urban background noise is heavily weighted toward the lower sound frequencies of 20 to 200 Hz—think diesel engines (50-60 Hz).  That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of higher frequency noises in the concrete jungle but, compared to say, the rain forest’s tenor voice, cities sing baritone… and with enough projection to reach the last row of the balcony. Depending on the location and the time of day, your city may be belting out it’s theme song at anywhere from ~45-90 decibels (dB). Ever try to tweet over a lawn mower (and I don’t mean with your smart phone)?

People who haven’t yet experienced any hearing loss can detect activity in the 20 to 20,000Hz range. The faintest sounds we’re likely to hear register at about 0 dB. By 120 db we begin to experience discomfort or even pain. Now, as someone who loves to listen to nearly every kind of music, laughter in all its forms, Japanese prayer bells playing with a breeze, and rain bouncing on a tin roof, I’d be the first to agree that the human ear is a marvel. But compared to many of our fellow Earthlings, it’s… well, it’s pitiful. My wire fox terrier puts me to shame, easily picking up sounds from 40-60,000 Hz. The super-sensitive hearing of a bat, used for echolocation, ranges from 20-120,000 Hz.

common blackbird (Photo: Oystercatcher, Creative Commons license)

common blackbird

According to the ever-useful Birder’s Handbook, we have more auditory commonality with birds, whose ability to discriminate between frequencies and degrees of loudness is on a par with our own. So perhaps we would be well served to take a page from the songbird songbook when trying to be heard in our rapidly urbanizing modern life. Researchers at the Universities of Copenhagen and Aberystwyth found that great tits (Parus major) living in urban habitats sing at a significantly higher frequency than their rural relatives. This finding coincides with previous studies reporting the same phenomenon for house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys), dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), and common blackbirds (Turdus merula).

European robin (Photo-Steve Harris, Creative Commons license)

European robin

Of course, going all Bee-Gees isn’t the only way a guy can get some attention from the talent scouts.  A 2007 study from the University of Sheffield found that European robins (Erithacus rubecula) living downtown changed their performance times, from doo-wopping during the day to crooning almost exclusively after sundown when the din dies down a bit. In Berlin, nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) take the less subtle approach and just turn up the volume, at least on weekdays. But there’s a price to be paid for setting the amps to 11—a greater metabolic demand and more attention from predators. By broadcasting on a different frequency, some city songbirds have stumbled onto a low-risk solution to a major challenge of city life.

song sparrow (Photo: TC Davis, Creative Commons license)

song sparrow

There’s incentive for avian adaptation (let’s not call it selling out) to make it onto the airwaves. You see, in the bird world the divas are all, um… divos. No, they don’t wear red plastic wedding cake hats and ill-fitting 1980s MTV fashion—that’s Devo. Let me put it another way: boy birds are the rock stars, girl birds are the groupies. Males warble (or learn to shred the guitar, or maybe groove a bass line) to get noticed by the ladies. If a gal likes a guy’s song she’ll hook up with him and probably become his baby-mama. But there’s a lot of competition out there and before you can score, you’ve gotta get heard.

Hey, singing falsetto to some chick may not be the most macho thing a fellow can do, but it beats spending Saturday night getting drunk at the karaoke bar with your buddies and going home alone.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license:  KaCey97007 (white-crowned sparrow); Dani_vr (seagull); Oystercatcher (common blackbird); Steve Harris (European robin); and TC Davis (song sparrow).