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Incubators in the bird world

Picture of a great crested grebe incubating eggs.

Most birds are themselves incubators.

They brood their eggs with heat from their own bodies.

But feathers can be a problem.

They are excellent insulators, and very little body heat can get past them to incubate the eggs.

For many birds it is a built-in answer: brood patches.

Several days before the first egg is laid, the down feathers on the breast are molted, then the blood vessels in this area increase in size and number, the skin thickens and swells.

As the bird settles on the nest to brood the eggs, it fluffs out its breast feathers and shuffles about until the bare, super warmed brood patch is next to the eggs.

Or brood patches, for some birds have three of them.

Once these heat pads touch the eggs, incubation begins.

But not all birds have brood patches that appear automatically.

Ducks and geese, for example, pluck the down feathers from their breasts to bring their skin in contact with their eggs.

Other birds use their feet as incubators.

Picture of a blue footed booby.

The blue-footed booby wraps its brightly colored feet around its single egg, and the large webs, through which warm blood circulates rapidly, are just as effective as the brood patches of other birds.

We hear so much about mother love, but when we turn our attention to the emperor penguin, it’s time for father love to take a bow.

Picture of emperor penguins.

In the depths of the Antarctic winter, the female lays an egg and immediately returns to the sea to eat.

Papa, however, is left holding the egg on his webbed feet—feet richly supplied with blood vessels and therefore quite warm.

He next drapes over the egg a fold of skin that serves as a brooding pouch.

It fits over the egg so snugly that the egg remains tucked into its warm incubator “nest” even when papa walks about.

Temperatures drop to -76° Fahrenheit (-60° C.), icy blizzards rage for days, but papa faithfully incubates the egg on his feet.

Three months, and not a bite to eat!

Mama, however, hasn’t forgotten.

After the egg hatches, she returns to feed her family with predigested fish from her stomach, then takes care of the chick while papa heads for the sea to feed.

Some birds use ready-made hot spots as incubators.

The maleo on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi lays its eggs on the slopes of volcanoes, where the ground is permanently heated by volcanic steam.

Picture of a maleo bird.

Other maleo on the island use the black volcanic sands at the heads of beaches.

They bury their eggs in the sand, which, being black, absorbs heat for incubation.

Wild animals that call mountains home

Picture of a capricorn up high on a mountain.

Lofty mountains that pierce the clouds and reach to dizzying heights may appear to us humans as coldly majestic, lonely, even forbidding.

Yet to a great variety of wildlife they constitute home.

Some of these animals would never think of descending to lower altitudes.

And to see them in a zoo, even if they could long survive such a humiliating experience, one could gain no realistic idea of their way of life among peaks and chasms.

Some of these animals are not very familiar to us, while the names of others have almost become household words.

For example, have you heard of the nyala, with its spiral horns measuring up to forty-four inches in length?

Picture of a nyala antelope.

It was discovered in 1908 at 9,000 feet in the mountains of South Abyssinia.

On the other hand, who has not heard of the chinchilla?

Picture of a chinchilla.

The mountain variety lives at an altitude of 17,000 feet.

Up at those heights, too, there are birds that soar high and make their nests in unapproachable places.

There are birds of great variety, such as hawks, eagles, the black duck, slender-billed chestnut-winged starlings and a host of others.

Can we take a closer look at some of these dwellers in lofty penthouses without risking life and limb?

Yes, we can, for others have clambered up to the giddy heights and recorded their firsthand

observations for our benefit.

The Mountain Gorilla

Picture of a mountain gorilla.

Let’s start with the mountain gorilla, the giant ape discovered in the higher levels of the West African forests in 1847.

This animal’s reported war-likeness, its tremendous strength and the remoteness of its habitation have stirred man’s imagination and posed something of a mystery, arousing popular and scientific interest.

The African Primate Expedition set out in February 1959 to clear up the mystery.

Gaining their objective involved roaming through the forests and climbing mist-shrouded mountains.

Finally, in January 1961 they were on the home ground of the mountain gorilla, whose total population is said to be between 5,000 and 15,000.

During the 466 hours they spent in full view of these mighty animals a great deal was learned and recorded.

All together, members of the expedition had opportunity to study them in 314 separate encounters. Imagine being approached to within fifteen feet by one of these huge beasts—with nothing to bar his nearer approach!

That was the experience of one member of the visiting group.

These big fellows rise early, about 6 a.m., and retire at about 6 p.m.

Breakfast lasts for perhaps a couple of hours, their massive bodies moving from snack to snack.

From about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. they lounge around.

Again they resume the search for food—food in much greater variety than any zoo would be likely to provide.

A total of 100 food plants were collected in various study areas—by no means a monotonous diet!

The observers noted that these animals have a total of some twenty-two distinct utterances or vocalizations, eight of them occurring quite frequently.

There is the soft grumbling sound—sure sign of the contented ape.

A series of abrupt grunts serve to keep the group together.

A harsh scream may sound as if murder is being committed. It is most likely merely a quarrel with lots of bluff.

A high screech means some infant ape is afraid he is being left behind.

Mother will doubtless respond right away.

But what about the gorilla’s notorious chest-beating display?

For that you will need patience, for it happens infrequently.

But when it does get under way, you are in for a real show!

It starts with a series of hoots, following which the animal, hooting at a fast tempo, rises on its hind legs like a mountain of hair, throws some plant into the air, kicks up one leg and at the climax beats its massive chest with cupped hands several times.

Then he runs sideways, slapping and tearing at the vegetation, finally thumping the ground with heavy palm.

The chest beats have been recorded; his roars of high intensity are probably the most explosive sound in all the animal kingdom!

A closer look at these powerful brutes weighing up to six hundred pounds reveals that in sight, hearing and smell their powers are about the same as those of a human.

Almost always they move about on all fours.

The farthest any one of them was seen to walk erect was sixty feet.

Interestingly, too, during all the hours of observation, not once was a gorilla seen using any kind of tool.

The younger members of the group play a variety of games—King of the Mountain, Follow the Leader, and running, climbing, sliding and swinging games.

They lead relatively peaceful lives.

Seldom are they heard quarreling.

Sunbathing is one of their leading forms of relaxation.

They will stretch out on their backs, hairy chests exposed to the warm rays.

Whenever rain comes, a tree provides shelter, or they may just sit hunched over in the open, waiting patiently for the storm to pass.

The Mountain Camels

Picture of a vicuna and her cub.

Now, through the records of mountaineer naturalists, let us take a look at the mountain camels, in their own habitat, high up in the South American Andes, in the stony deserts or punas.

The vicuna is wild, greatly prized for his fur, while the llama (pronounced lyah′mah in Spanish) is domesticated, a genuine ship of the desert.

They look quite different from the animls we are used to calling “camel,” yet both are true camels.

The llama is primarily a beast of burden, but a unique burden-bearer, for he can carry heavy loads even in the ratified air of mountain heights, often below zero and amid battering winds and howling blizzards.

However, he will not accept one ounce more load than he wishes to carry.

Llamas grow fat and sleek up on those barren slopes, where not a blade of grass can be seen, and where only bare rock and sand appear.

But how do they survive?

Here is where their mountaineering ability comes into play!

They seek out delicious morsels (that is, to them) such as reindeer moss, lichen and cacti, getting them on incredibly precipitous pastures.

The llama has some special equipment, too, and he needs it, for some of the great hunters of the animal world stalk him—the mountain lion and the jaguar.

Soft, padded, almost claw-like toes permit him to adhere to impossibly steep surfaces as though he had suction cups for feet.

The feet themselves, very loosely jointed at the hocks, often appear dislocated as they adjust to every angle and crevice.

A common but amazing sight is a herd of llamas grazing on seemingly bare rock, so steep that even the native Indian cannot find a toehold!

Still another thrilling sight is provided when a lone llama is traversing bare ledges or walking across the glass-smooth ice of a glacier a thousand feet above some rushing torrent.

One misstep, it would seem, could plunge the animal down into an abysmal canyon.

The vicuna, on the other hand, is not herded.

It is noted for its wild, lightning-like movements and prodigious leaps.

Three miles above sea level they can dash at such speed that only their dust can be seen, and then stop dead in their tracks.

They can leap up fifteen feet, twist about in midair and, at the instant their feet touch ground, dash madly off in an entirely different direction.

An entire herd of fifty or more may be seen at times running around in circles, playing leapfrog, turning backflips or somersaults as if to advertise their freedom.

At the least sign of danger, they will vanish in a cloud of dust.

Apparently they have no realization of the dangers inherent in their lofty playgrounds however.

Often they are injured or killed by falls, in spite of the popular idea that they never make a misstep.
Interestingly, they seem to have a single-track mind.

Vicunas will return again and again to the same bedding spot, even when some of their number are killed nightly.

So all the hunter has to do, when he locates a bedding place, is wait.

He is sure of his quarry.

The vicuna will not leap over, push against or cross any barrier, however flimsy.

It might only be two fences of light string used by Indians to funnel the animals down to the narrow spoutlike end where they can be killed as they emerge.

They do not attempt to break through the light cord barrier!

Their valuable fur made the vicunas a special target for huntsmen.

A vicuna coat is so fine and light that a robe six feet square may be folded and pressed into a bundle measuring nine by fourteen inches, and not more than four inches thick—a bundle weighing less than four pounds.

Eventually the Peruvian and Bolivian governments had to pass strict laws in order to curb the wanton slaughter of these freedom-loving animals.

Other Intrepid Mountaineers

Picture of a mountain goat.

The scene shifts now to the mountains of America’s Northwest.

Here is the abode of the mountain goat—in reality an antelope.

His white beard waving serenely in the wind, he reminds onlookers of an old professor.

However, no professor could follow this most surefooted of animals.

Clad in warm underwear of wool three to four inches thick, he lives a tough, hard life above the timberline.

His overcoat is long and shaggy, also of pure wool.

But naturalists are not quite sure how, even with such equipment, he manages to survive the Arctic conditions of the northern Rockies.

At times this animal will shed wool so abundantly that Indians are able to rake up several bushels in an area of a few square yards.

This goat’s sureness of step is truly phenomenal.

Rarely will he proceed until he is sure of what lies ahead.

However, if a lofty trail peters out he does not panic.

He may back up until it is safe to turn, or he may rear up on hind legs, with thousands of feet of sheer emptiness below, press hard against the cliff, turn inward and around, dropping again on all fours as easily as you would step up on the curb.

But that is not the extent of his daring.

He may choose instead to defy the yawning chasm below, simply reaching up to grab a tiny rock shelf and pulling himself to a still higher level.

Like the llama, these mountain goats have their own special foot gear.

The sole of each toe is concave and acts as a suction cup.

The clefts between the two toes open toward the front so that when the animal is descending a smooth rocky slope its weight spreads the toes wider for firmer grip.

These animals are very curious about humans, who once in a while poke curiously into their mountain habitat.

And then there is the bighorn, also born into a world of soaring peaks.

Picture of bighorn sheep.

This animal is really a sheep, but a sheep without the traditional wool.

He, too, is agile and nimble of foot.

One old ram in the Sierra Diablo of West Texas was observed going down a near vertical fifty-foot cliff. Another made a leap that spanned nearly seventeen feet.

The bighorns move around mostly in flocks.

Mother animals watch gravely while lambs make merry, playing tag, follow the leader, jump the rock, run around pinnacles, and indulge in petty butting matches.

Another neighbor in this northern mountain area is the mountain beaver.

Picture of a mountain beaver.

This name is really a misnomer, for he is no true beaver.

He has no tail, and does not have the reputation of the real beaver for industriousness.

Why, his tunnel roof is often so thin that it collapses.

If the debris bothers him, he just scoops it up and shoves it out.

All winter he may be seen following his daily routine, for he is not a hibernating animal.

Finally, let’s look in on the hyrax.

Picture of two hyrax sleeping.

Tailless, about the size of a rabbit, this oddity is said to be akin to the elephant and the rhinoceros.

His dung is unique, for it contains the hyraceum used in elegant perfumes.

Less sophisticated and less mobile than some of his mountaineer neighbors, the hyrax lives in burrows slightly above freezing temperature.

He is equipped with a two-inch-thick brown fur coat.

His cousins live in the lowland savannas where it is warmer, so their coats are only half an inch thick.

So, wherever there are mountain heights all around the earth there are interesting animals that call those mountains home.

Inaccessibility to these animals means mainly safety from human predators.

There are large ones and small ones.

They include great variety: the powerful gorilla, the laughably free vicuna, the dignified mountain goat, the stolid pack-bearing llama and the scurrying beaver of the mountains.

If you ever see one of these in a zoo, just picture in your mind the clean, airy world of peaks and chasms that they call home.

How wild animals treat their diseases and injuries?

Funny picture of a frog doctor.

Animal doctors?

Why, that may sound like something out of a child’s storybook.

Yet it is a fact that many animals are quite successful when it comes to treating their ailments.

And they do this in ways that frequently prove to be more effective than those used by man.

Yes, animals have been endowed with an instinctive ability to treat themselves when they have certain afflictions.

Archibald Rutledge, a writer and naturalist, recalls that when he was a plantation boy he kept many wild animals as pets, one of them being a little white-tailed deer.

Picture of a white-tailed-deer.

One day he found that his pet had torn a nasty gash in its side on a barbed-wire fence.

To help heal the wound, he cleansed it and carefully bandaged it.

However, the deer seemed to know better what to do about this than did its human friend.

He fawn pulled the bandage off, carefully licked the hair away from the injured area and then exposed it fully to the fresh air and sunlight.

What happened?

In a short time the wound was healed.

How was this little deer able to get such good results?

It has been found that animals have a first-class antiseptic dressing on their tongues.

The enzymes of their saliva act as a natural, mild germicide.

Experiments have shown that when it was added to cultures of bacteria, the bacteria did not thrive.

But germs flourished in cultures that were not treated with the saliva.

So, right in the mouths of many animals there appears to be a built-in medicine chest.

Their medical methods and medicines

When some injury or sickness threatens the health of an animal, its given instinct diagnoses the problem and dictates what it should do.

This enables it to have the right prescription and to apply the best medication to cure what may be ailing it.

As Frank W. Lane observes in his book Nature Parade:

“Animals act as if they knew different illnesses require different treatments.”

For example, if an animal is injured, it will seek solitude where it can get complete rest.

Picture of a lioness sleeping.

If it has a fever, it seeks an airy, shady place near water.

There it remains quiet, eating very little and drinking often.

If the animal is rheumatic, it exposes itself to the sunlight so as to soak up the heat to relieve its pain.

Sometimes grass is eaten to induce vomiting.

When an astringent is needed, certain animals will eat bark and twigs of oak trees, which contain tannic acid, an astringent medicine.

The effectiveness of animal medicine was demonstrated to Joseph Delmont, a wild-animal collector, in a rather amusing way.

One day he found his pet orangutan sunning itself and holding both hands to its left cheek.

Picture of a pet orangutan.

He noticed that the orangutan had smeared the left side of its face with wet clay and that it was holding another large lump of clay pressed against its lower left jaw.

He also saw that the orangutan had filled its mouth with clay.

Was this some orangutan antic?

No, for Delmont soon noticed that his pet’s jaw was swollen and that it had a severe gumboil.

It became rather obvious what the orangutan was trying to do.

He was doctoring his malady by applying a cold clay poultice to it.

Did he effect a cure by this method?

Three days later the orangutan pulled out the ailing tooth and, to advertise the success of his medical achievement, brought the tooth to his master with obvious pride.

Yes, Dr. Orangutan was not at a loss as to how to care for his painful dental problem!

Mr. African Buffalo is not one whit behind when it comes to coping with his health problems.

Delmont relates that he once came upon a herd of these buffalo that were badly afflicted with scabs.

He followed them to see what would become of them, and after ten days of travel, they reached the shores of a muddy lake.

There the buffalo went on a partial fast and spent most of the day wallowing in the mud, standing up to their necks in the water.

After a month, Delmont was able to examine one, and he saw that the afflicted areas were beginning to grow hair again and that the troublesome mites were almost gone.

Since the herd showed no signs of moving on, he continued to watch them.

After a few days they began working on their necks, rolling them often in the mire and forming hard, thick mud crusts over the last of these infected places.

The buffalo did not go back to their regular diet nor did they stop their muddy medications until they were completely healed.

Preventive medicine

A deer getting rid of excess water from it's body.

Of course, it is one thing to cure an ailment and it is quite another thing to take precautions to avoid it.

And in this latter regard, we find that wild animals are equipped with the instinctive ability to practice preventive medicine.

Yes, many animals, large and small, take steps to help themselves to stay in good health.

“Both birds and animals,” says Rutledge, “bathe regularly to rid their bodies not only of parasites, but of possible sources of infection.

Picture of a pelican taking a bath.

These baths are of many varieties—water, sun, mud, dust.

An elephant spraying mud on itself.

It is also a daily habit of such game birds as the quail, ruffed grouse and wild turkey to take dust baths to discourage insects.

Consider what a wild turkey does to keep its youngsters in good health.

Picture of wild turkey.

When it rains, the young turkeys’ resistance to disease is lowered.

So mother turkey forces them to eat the bitter leaves of a spice bush.

Though these leaves are not regular turkey food, they supply the necessary tonic that the young need at this critical time.

Even vultures that eat the dead bodies of other animals follow a sanitation program of practical hygiene that is really preventive medicine.

Picture of a vulture.

They keep their eating utensils, their large beaks, scrupulously clean.

Also they choose a high place in the open sunlight and sit there with their wings outstretched in order to clean their feathers.

Rutledge notes that the way of the vulture’s life “calls for special caution in sanitation, and he takes it.”

This helps explain why these carrion birds are not infected by what they eat.

Black bears coming out of hibernation in the springtime are susceptible to sickness because of being out of condition.

Picture of a black bear.

What is their preventive medicine?

They eat berries and dig up plenty of certain flower bulbs the laxative action of which helps them get into condition.

Did you know that when certain furry wild animals lick themselves, it is really preventive medicine?

Picture of a caracal licking itself.

Most of these animals do not get vitamin D in their diet.

However, the action of the sun on their furry coats produces it.

So they lick themselves to get this vital vitamin crop into their stomachs.

In so doing, they avoid getting rickets.

We tend to think that wild animals who live in the sea enjoy a continual bath, yet these denizens of the deep are constantly cleaning away dirt that gets on their bodies.

Many crustaceans use their feet to do this.

Picture of a hermit crab.

Some fish have tiny crustaceans sticking to them and these act as filth devourers.

Yes, water animals also use preventive medicine.

Sir Ray Lankester, once head of the British Natural History Museum, said:

“It is a remarkable thing that the adjustment of organisms to their surroundings is so severely complete in Nature, apart from man, that diseases are unknown as constant and normal phenomena under those conditions. Every disease to which the animals are liable, except as a transient and very exceptional occurrence, is due to man’s interference.”

Preening time among wild animals

Picture of a rainbow lorikeet preening.

Powder and powder puffs!

Toothpicks and toothbrushes!

One would hardly think of associating these items with animal life.

In fact, the very idea of it might seem ridiculous to some people.

Nevertheless, students and observers of animal behavior have found that many of our marine, insect and animal neighbors are equipped with toiletries like these and use them regularly to clean and beautify themselves.

Hence, it is by these means that animals can follow a program of practical hygiene that helps them stay in good health.

Powdering themselves

Picture of a heron preening.

Among the beauty aids that some of our animal neighbors use to doll themselves up is some form of powder, in most cases, dust.

However, look on the vanity table in the boudoir of the heron, long-legged birds the diet of which consists chiefly of raw seafood.

Since such slimy fare soils his feathers, the heron needs to clean up right after eating.

He is equipped with two beauty aids to accomplish this.

On his breast he has a powder puff that is made up of short, brittle feathers that are coated with a waxy powder.

The claw of the middle toe of his foot is serrated.

Under a microscope it looks just like a comb.

After dinner, the heron dabs plenty of powder on his head and neck by simply dipping them into his powder puff on his breast.

This soaks up the slime.

Then, balancing himself on one foot, he uses the other to comb the powder off his feathers with his claw comb.

He next grooms his bill and then each wing in turn.

Stretching out a wing, he sweeps his foot underneath it and neatly arranges its feathers.

The bittern is another bird that dolls up in a similar manner, because his diet resembles that of the heron.

Picture of bittern bird.

However, his comb is even more efficient.

It has thirty-six well-formed teeth!

Pheasants and partridges  take dust baths regularly.

Picture of a pheasant bird.
Picture of a partridge bird.

Both have favorite spots or dust bathtubs.

Pheasants use a dusting place so often that it becomes filled with fine powdery dust.

When one settles into it and begins flicking the powdery dust into its feathers, the dust rises in clouds.

During dry weather partridges visit their dust tubs daily, be it on a road or some dry bare place at the foot of a bank.

Elephants relish taking dust baths too.

They prepare their dust bath by shuffling their huge feet back and forth.

When they have scraped up an adequate powder heap, they blow it over their backs.

Elephant sand bath.

They often do this when flies and heat bother them.

Mama Elephant is very particular about Junior’s toilet.

Despite his protests, she forces him into the water and thoroughly washes him down.

Then after his bath, she powders him all over with fine dust and finishes dolling him up with a trunk massage.

Keeping their teeth clean

Picture of bob cat.

Do you know how some animals keep their teeth clean?

The answer is found right in their mouths!

 Inside their lips and cheeks there are outgrowths that form natural toothbrushes.

Some mammals have these outgrowths on the side of their tongues also.

Every time the animal opens and closes his mouth these natural toothbrushes sweep up and down in a cleansing action.

The lemur has six lower front teeth that protrude straight out of his front jaw.

This is his comb, but how does he clean it when it gets clogged up with furry debris?

Picture of a lemur preening.

Well, the underside of the front part of his tongue has small horny projections.

By rapidly moving it back and forth over his teeth, he cleans them most effectively.

Mongooses use their sharp claws as toothpicks.

Picture of a mongoose.

Frank W. Lane in his book Nature Parade tells what a man said about his pet mongoose:

 “He was excessively clean, and after eating would pick his teeth with his claws in a most absurd manner.”

In the sea the parrot fish’s fused plate-like teeth are cared for and cleaned by small wrasses, spiny-finned fishes.

Picture of parrot fish teeth.

These fellows also clean the scales of other fishes.

They will even help the dreaded moray eel in his oral hygiene.

They enter his mouth and clean away parasites.

When this is going on the eel usually refrains from attacking his dentist.

The crocodile’s animated toothpicks come in the form of tickbirds and plovers.

When crocodiles sun themselves on a bank, they will prop their jaws wide open and let the plovers clean their teeth and mouth.

The sharp spurs on the plovers’ wings are said to keep the crocodiles aware of his toothpicks’ presence, lest he should close his jaws on them before their work is done.

Frank Lane reports that once there was an old crocodile that forgot and closed his jaws on the tickbirds that were cleaning up his teeth, crushing them to death.

The other birds seemed never to forget the old boy’s doing this, for they avoided him like the plague.

Beauty help from others

Monkey grooming.

Have you ever watched a monkey studiously picking through the hair of a fellow monkey?

Perhaps you thought he was picking fleas.

No, it is not fleas that he was after but the scaly pieces of skin, the salty taste of which delights him.

Not only that, but the one being dolled up in this manner evidently experiences a most pleasant sensation.

Cattle help each other doll up parts that are not easily accessible.

They will stand facing each other and proceed to lick each other’s head and neck.

Yes, they give each other a facial.

Canadian naturalist Dan McCowan reports witnessing a mule deer dolling up the furry coat of a varying hare.

The hare hopped up to the mule deer that was browsing at the edge of a forest and sat down in front of him.

At once the deer began licking the head, back and sides of the hare.

This went on for ten to twelve minutes.

McCowan found that others also saw deer dolling up hares in this fashion.

Evidently, the deer enjoys the salty substances in the hare’s fur and the petting action of the deer’s tongue simply delights the hare.

Yes, dolling up is a regular routine of animal life.

It is not only humans that do it.

Amazing qualities of flying animals

Picture of bird flight.

Have you ever seen a bird or an insect fly?

Before you answer, “Of course,” let us define more exactly what we mean by “see.”

For instance, many people, when they see a bird, notice only a beautiful array of feathers.

But a cat, seeing the same bird, may see a good dinner.

Then again, a farmer seeing a bird, say a swallow, might see a sign of the approach of spring.

Picture of a white throated swallow.

So “seeing” can mean much more than just receiving an image on the retina of the eye.

Consider, for example, an experienced watchmaker examining an expertly made timepiece.

What does he “see”?

His view goes deeper than just a look inside the watch case.

He judges its timekeeping qualities, weighing the pros and cons of the method of construction used and assessing its efficiency.

His “seeing” might reach into the mind of the watch’s designer, as he equates the result he sees with the problems the designer had to overcome.

He might even strike up a kind of respectful acquaintanceship with the maker by means of his product.

This example of “seeing” will prepare us for an in-depth “look” at the flight of birds and insects.

Without a doubt their flight is graceful, but just how good are they as flying machines?

And what qualities do flying animals reflect?

Versatility of flying animals

Picture of a blue dragonfly up close.

When you last saw, say, a dragonfly, what did you actually see?

Perhaps your attention was drawn to it as it hovered before your eyes.

You probably admired it for its beautiful colors glistening in the sun.

Picture of a red dragonfly.

Then it may have darted off suddenly at surprising speed in a seemingly unpredictable direction.

If you had been interested in the science of flight, you might have wondered how that little fellow was able to combine the peculiar hovering qualities of a helicopter and the high-speed stability of a fixed-wing plane.

What versatility!

The more you pondered, the more it may have impressed you.

Without a doubt the fiercely competing military strategists of the major powers of this world would give a king’s ransom to be able to apply the secrets held by that little insect.

So if you had “seen” with a discerning eye you would have observed, not just a beautiful insect, but a wonderful example of versatility in a flying machine.

This coveted quality of versatility is common throughout flying animals.

Take, for instance, the sparrow hawk, which has a wing structure and mechanism bearing no close resemblance to those of a dragonfly.

Picture of a sparrow hawk.

Yet it, too, is able to hover in one spot and dart off at high speed, two qualities of flight for which humans continually strive.

Environmental efficiency of flying animals

Picture of a hummingbird.

It is worthy of note that a designer takes all things into account, including environmental effects.

He refuses to be enslaved to vested interests or some narrow aspect of technical efficiency.

In fact, a skilled designer is recognized by the way he nicely balances technical and aesthetic requirements and then painstakingly extracts the maximum from each aspect.

With this in mind, consider another aspect of flight.

Have you noticed that flying animals do not disturb the senses?

The sounds made by them, for example, are generally welcomed sounds.

But how different are the nerve-shattering sounds that come from either a fixed-wing plane or a helicopter.

Also, human flying machines pollute the air we breathe, causing sickness and disease.

What a contrast there is!

Aerodynamic efficiency of flying animals

Picture of an eagle in flight.

But how does a bird stand in comparison with a plane in aerodynamic efficiency?

Let us consider the wing.

How efficient is it?

That depends a great deal on its shape.

After much effort involving higher mathematics and experiments in wind tunnels humans have been able to design a wing that provides acceptable flight efficiency.

But, as we might have expected, the bird’s wing also has just the ideal shape for the type of life the particular bird lives.

For example, the albatross and the hawk live widely different lives, and their wings are designed perfectly to meet their varied requirements.

Picture of an albatross in flight.

Picture of an eagle in flight.

Really, who has ever seen an airplane that is able to do what a bird is able to accomplish with its wings?

Propulsion efficiency of flying animals

Picture of a snowy egret take off.

Well, then, what about the method of propulsion?

For simplicity we will consider the propeller, or, more specifically, the airscrew.

How does this method of propulsion work?

As its name implies, it screws its way through the air, thus giving the required pull to the aircraft to which it is attached.

However, it differs from a metal screw working in a solid nut because the air slips as it were, thus constituting a continual loss that the solid nut would not have.

To visualize this kind of loss we might think of an angler winding in a large fish.

If his boat were rigidly anchored to the river bottom or seabed, the only work done would be in winding in the line with his arms.

However, if the boat were not anchored, and he wished to retain his exact position, he would have to run his boat engine just fast enough to prevent being pulled toward the fish.

All the power used by the engine would thus be pure loss due to the fluidity of the environment.

But what about the wing of the bird?

Why, it sidesteps virtually all the slip losses of a propeller due to its marvelously coordinated flapping movements and gliding techniques.

Nor is the jet-propulsion method employed by modern aircraft nearly as efficient as the propulsion achieved by the wings of birds.

The flapping and gliding means of propulsion employed by the bird can, in a sense, be compared to the movements of a skater.

Picture of a trumpeter swan flapping wings.

Try to imagine the skater coasting down a slight incline and then, just before reaching the end of the incline, being able to step up on to the crest of another incline running alongside.

In normal skating this principle is employed, except that the legs are thrust sideways to give the body propulsion.

In the case of a bird, the downward movement of the wings propels the animals.

Maneuverability of flying animals

Picture of seagull landing on water.

What a truly marvelous and efficient flying machine a bird is!

Why, it seems to ooze with evidence of ingenuity.

And, in particular, what a wonderful instrument that wing is!

Have you seen two gulls dive for the same tidbit and have a near collision?

Picture of seagull in flight.

But note, it is only near, for they seem to flow around each other in a flurry of wing flaps as the loser takes evasive action.

Or have you watched a crow landing on a wire fence?

Picture of a crow on a wire line.

Stalling holds no fears for him.

As he comes in for a landing it seems as though he will overrun his mark, but around comes the tip of that powerful wing, which had recently done such efficient service as a propeller, and into a stall he goes.

And what a stall!

How beautifully controlled, as he slides down gently toward the wire!

But likely as not, because he is such a suspicious fellow, he will not even land, but pull right out of the stall and nonchalantly flap away, cawing as he goes, quite oblivious to the remarkable feat he has just performed.

Aircraft designers generally recognize the many benefits of moving wings and wings of variable shape, whether to gain added versatility, or to achieve the difficult movements needed to execute landing maneuvers like a bird.

But the pitiful results that human engineers have attained with flapping wings and wings of variable shape suggest how far humans are yet to go before they can even approach the aerobatic performances seen in nature.

Thus the more we observe and ponder over flying animals, whether from the aspect of versatility, aerodynamic efficiency or maneuverability, the more we can appreciate them.

Seeing how beautiful flying animals are to the eye, as well as how quiet and graceful, we are drawn to nature.