The Phoenix

Monday, November 05, 2007

"That's a negative Ghost Rider, the pattern is full"

If you don't know what movie that line above came from, you must've missed the 80s.

Anyway, it's November now - and that means it's time for birds of all sorts to migrate South for the winter. Here in the Midwest, you can look up in the sky and see these creatures flying in huge "V" and "J" shaped formations. Incredibly, the same troop of birds fly right over the neighborhood every year. That sounds like a wonderful show of Mother Nature, and I appreciate all of that. But I can do without all the bird poop that lands on everything.

This year, as I drove near a large lake and several Canadian geese decided to drop their bombs on my windshield, I wondered why these birds fly in that "V" formation anyway. I had heard that it had something to do with aerodynamics of some sort. Also, I thought maybe it made the geese feel they were each a part of a avian gang or something.

So of course I did some research, just in case you were wondering the same thing.

A flock flying in formation is known as an echelon. Now, I think that's an incredibly cool word. It sounds like a great name for a car. "Hey, I drive a Toyota Echelon." I'm going to use echelon in all sorts of ways now in order to impress people.

There are two main reasons why birds fly in such a pattern.

One: birds are able to conserve energy, taking advantage of the updraft of air created at each birds' wingtips. A bird is able to get some free lift, and in the process not have to work as hard to stay up in the air. But what about the bird leading the charge at the point? Well, that dude is going to have to work his beak off. The two birds on the very end are also S.O.L. But as the bird tires, he'll move out of formation and they will all sort of swap positions.

Two: birds are able to communicate easier while flying in formation. Flying in this pattern allows each bird to see the others. Despite this advantage, you can often see that one bird not paying attention. Every echelon has some dummy that decides to daydream during flight and miss the turn...then he's by himself, flapping his little heart out. Hopefully, he'll catch up. If not, he'll be a lone goose. In actuality, he'll probably just find another gang to join. Many times, these idiots will go try to fly in formation with an airplane.

I think the science of aerodynamics can be utilized in all kinds of applications. Jet planes have flown in V-shaped patterns in order to take advantage of less drag. Motorcycle gangs have been seen cruising down the highway in similar fashion.

Recently, I witnessed an echelon of very hungry people get off a tour bus and attack a lunch buffet. The lead person looked like would eat anyone in his way. You can bet I dropped my breadstick and got the hell away from them.

Stay off the Highway to the Danger Zone.

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Blogger Hungry Mother said...

Pretty cool. I've seen birds flying low over the water to take advantage of "ground effect". Lots of scoters do that when they're migrating. I don't know the physics of that kind of low flight in a line.

11/05/2007 4:48 PM  
Blogger Tai said...

Good plan! Avoid being eaten by the echelon!!

As for the Canadian Geese? They ARE an avian gang. From Canada, eh.
(But, like the good Canuck I am, I can't help but want to apologize for the windsheild incident. Sorry!)

11/05/2007 7:32 PM  
Blogger angel, jr. said...

I hate cleaning that stuff off my wind shield.

11/06/2007 9:45 AM  
Blogger delmer said...

A couple of years ago I stepped into the parking lot at work and noticed that some geese had made a strafing run on the lot.

"How did they all know to poop at the same time," I wondered. And then I thought nothing else of it.

A few days later I was in the lot at the end of the day and a coworker appeared. "Did you notice all the bird crap a few days ago," he asked. "It looked like a strafing run."

I thought it was cool we'd both thought of "strafing run."

"How did they all know to poop at the same time?" he continued (and I paraphrased to avoid using the 's' word on your blog).

So I ask you ... how do they all know to poop at the same time? Does this happen just in parking lots? Does the amount of poop released have anything to do with the newness or cleanliness of the autos in a parking lot?

11/06/2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger KC said...

You know that bird formation thing is something I notice and say to myself "I wonder why they do that?". Then I promptly forget that I asked myself that and never bother to look up the information. I'm so glad I have you here to take up my research slack. ;-)

11/06/2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger Sherri said...

My car was dive bombed the other day, I don't know what in the heck these birds were eating, but I can't get the sh*t off the window!


11/07/2007 7:10 AM  
Blogger Mr. Shife said...

I love coming to your blog. Always chock full of good information.

11/07/2007 9:09 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Somehow I knew that about the aerodynamics, but I don't know how.

"She's lost that lovin' feeling."
"She's lost she hasn't"
"Yes she has"
"I HATE IT when she does that."

11/08/2007 12:00 PM  
Blogger Jamie Dawn said...

Ellos tienen mucha hambre.
(They were very hungry.)

I only like buffets when everything has been freshly stocked. Often times, you get up to the food bar, and it looks like a war zone.

It's amazing how birds have such a perfect sense of direction... except for the occasinal dodo.

My hubby and son were in your neck of the woods.
Last night, they went to an Avenged Sevenfold concert in St. Louis. They're on their way home now. They also visited family there, since my hubby is from St. Charles.

11/08/2007 8:29 PM  
Blogger Phats said...

I hate this time of year because it means that winter is right around the corner.

Ever read catcher in the rye when the main character keeps asking where the ducks go when the water freezes over ha this would have been a good post for him.

11/09/2007 2:25 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Its said that in the late 1600's the migration of geese in and about the Chesapeake Bay area would darken the sky for days. Must of made for some rather sloppy "V's."

11/11/2007 5:52 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Can you believe our Robins are still here!

in Michigan!


Lots of our Canadian Geese hang around all winter (think maybe they like our backyard wetland)...

...orrrrrrrrr, maybe it's because of global warming.

ya think!?!

11/12/2007 9:01 PM  
Anonymous weird science said...

Their work is noninvasive—for the apes, that is . . . "Have I been pissed on? Yes," says anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Harvard University. Knott is a pioneer of "noninvasive monitoring of steroids through urine sampling." Translation: Look out below! For the past 11 years, Knott and her colleagues have trekked into Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, in search of the endangered primates. Once a subject is spotted, they deploy plastic sheets like a firemen's rescue trampoline and wait for the tree-swinging apes to go see a man about a mule. For more pee-catching precision, they attach bags to poles and follow beneath the animals. "It's kind of gross when you get hit, but this is the best way to figure out what's going on in their bodies," Knott says.
It's a job that separates the boys from the men, OK, OK, their real job title is usually something like "cryobiologist" or "laboratory technician," but at sperm banks around the country, they are known as semen washers. "Every time I interview someone I make sure I ask them, 'Do you know you'll be working with semen?' " says Diana Schillinger, the Los Angeles lab manager at the country's largest sperm bank, California Cryobank. Let's start at the beginning. Laboriously prescreened "donors" emerge from a so-called collection room that is stocked with girlie mags and triple-X DVDs. They hand over their deposit, get their $75, and leave. The semen washers take the seminal goo and place a sample under the microscope for a sperm count. Next comes the washing. The techs spin the sample in a centrifuge to separate the "plasma" from the motile cells. Then they add a preservative, and it's off to the freezer, where it can stay for 20 years. Or not. Thanks to semen washers (and in vitro fertilization), more than 250,000 babies have been delivered in the U.S. since 1995.
"The hardest part is explaining it to friends," Schillinger says. "But we do have stories." Like what? "Like the donor who was in the room for the longest time. We had a big discussion about who was going to check on him. Turns out he thought he had to fill up the entire specimen cup."
The smell is just the start of the nastiness. Almost 1.5 billion tons of manure are produced annually by animals in this country—90 percent of it from cattle. That's the same weight as 14,432 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. You get the point: It's a load of crap. And it's loaded with nasty contaminants like campylobacter (the number-one cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S.), salmonella (the number-two cause) and E.coli 0157:H7, which can cause kidney failure in children and painful, bloody diarrhea in everybody else.
Farmers fertilize their fields with manure, but if the excrement is rife with E.coli, then so will be the vegetables. Luckily for us, researchers at the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety are knee-deep in figuring out how to eliminate these bacteria from our animals, their poop and our food. But to develop techniques to neutralize the nasty critters, they must go to the source.
"We have to wade through a lot of poop," concedes Michael Doyle, the center's director. "If you want to get the manure, you've got to grab it. Even when you wear gloves, the fecal smell tends to get embedded in your skin." Hog poop smells the worst, Doyle says, but it's chicken poop's chokingly high ammonia content that brings tears to researchers' eyes.
Odor judges are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level—or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people's farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.) Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each "episode of flatulence," Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor judges then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and—eureka!—Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide.
In the early '80s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease's victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits. Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company's kits. You'd have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, "Pardon me, is this stool taken?") and the company motto on the back: "Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!"
Researchers who want animal sperm —to study fertility or for artificial insemination—have a suite of attractive options: They can ram an electric probe up an animal's rectum, shove an artificial vagina onto the animal's penis, or simply do it the old-fashioned way—manual stimulation. The first option, electroejaculation, uses a priapic rectal probe to send electricity pulsing through the animal's nether regions. "All the normal excitatory signals that stimulate ejaculation, like touch, sight, sound and smell, can be replaced with the current from the probe," says Trish Berger, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. "It's fascinating. Of course, this is a woman talking." Electroejaculation generally requires anesthetizing the animal and is typically used on zoo dwellers. The other two methods—the artificial vagina, or AV, and the good old hand—require that animals be trained to the procedure. The AV—a large latex tube coated with warm lubricant —is used primarily to get sperm from dairy bulls (considered the most ornery and dangerous of bovines). The bull gets randy with a steer; when he mounts the steer with his forelegs, a brave technician, AV in hand, insinuates himself between the two aroused beasts and deftly redirects the bull penis into the mock genitalia, which he must then hold tight while the bull orgasms. (Talk about bull riding!) Three additional technicians attempt to ensure this (fool)hardy soul's safety by anchoring themselves to restraining ropes attached to a ring in the bull's nose. Alas, this isn't always absolutely effective: Everyone who's wielded an AV has had at least one close call, and more than a few have been sent to the hospital. The much safer "digital pressure" is used mostly with pigs, who are trained from an early age to mount a small bench while the researcher reaches around with a gloved hand and provides appropriate pleasure—er, pressure.
Natural history museums display clean white skeletons or neatly stuffed animals, but what their field biologists drag in are carcasses flush with rotting flesh. Each museum's taxidermist has his own favorite technique for tidying things up. University of California, Berkeley, zoologist Robert Jones swears by his strain of flesh-eating buffalo-hide beetles and has no problem reaching his bare hand into a drawer to pull out a rancid shrew skeleton swarming with thousands of these quarter-inch bugs. Jeppe Møhl at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum deposits sperm whales and dolphins into vast empty tanks and lets nature take its course. And then there's the boiling method, useful for chemically preserved samples that bugs won't touch—an approach favored by archaeologist Sandra Olsen, who has done her own skeleton work. She recalls a particularly vivid experience boiling down hyena paws: "It felt like inhaling the gases would literally kill us." Nah. It merely gave her a lung infection.

11/12/2007 10:02 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

both ducks and geese first practice V's by swimming in V's -- geese am flying pigs!

11/17/2007 3:23 PM  

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Welcome to the blog that aims to examine the lighter side of science. From the paranormal to wacky inventions, to strange mysteries and goofy experiments, I cover it all. Thanks for stoping by science is always stranger than fiction


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