Multitasking Birds

Multitasking Birds

16558-an-american-kestrel-in-flight-pvResearch has demonstrated that we humans don’t multitask well; instead we switch quickly from one single task to another. But this switching produces a mental bottleneck and interferes with performance. This means that the moron in the BMW next to you texting his girlfriend is either driving or texting at some level, but not both simultaneously. He is as dangerous as an alcohol-impaired driver. So how can birds fly through trees and catch insects, or, like swifts, copulate in flight? How can a gannet dive from 100 feet into a wavy ocean, swim, and catch a fish in two seconds or less?

Because bird brains are built differently than ours. Human brains are adapted for thinking (cellphone/texting drivers excepted) while bird brains are, with a proportionately larger cerebellum and smaller cerebrun, adapted for muscle coordination and provide birds with the ability to react instinctively rather than having to mentally process their next move. So an owl or Cooper’s Hawk can fly through a dense forest in pursuit of a scurrying rodent as the raptor isn’t thinking that much but mainly following its genetically ingrained instincts. It all happens very smoothly with no need to stop one task and refocus on another and then switch back again. Hummingbirds flap their wings 40-80 times a second, move forward or back, hover, suck nectar, and defend their territories all in a miniscule amount of time. Flying requires a very complex set of motions unlike anything humans can do. Even the best gymnasts or high divers don’t approach the level of coordination a bird must have to control its movements. The primary flight feathers for propulsion, secondary feathers for lift, the thumb feathers (alula) to avoid stalls, the tail for turning and braking, must all work in perfect concert with exquisite timing.

Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, and other birds of grasslands sing while flying to attract mates and defend their territory, difficult but essential activities which these birds perform adroitly. The idiot behind you in her new SUV, however, having a breathy conversation, complete with hand motions, about her new four-slice toaster she got on sale at Crate and Barrel, is not aware she is about to make a left turn from the right lane, using only one hand of course.

The laws of physics and biology control bird behavior; we depend on society’s laws to govern ours. We might have more mental abilities than birds, but behind the wheel, I wonder where they go. In California where texting and hand held phones are prohibited behind the wheel, the first violation is $20 and each subsequent ticket $50, it’s a small price to pay for the “right” to drive like a drunk driver. I wonder how much cell phone companies donated to political campaigns?

 

 

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