Education

Engineers are Studying Birds' Nests

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

When Talkin’ Birds Senior Producer Debbie Blicher was in fourth grade, her class was challenged to design a vehicle that would allow an egg to survive a two-story drop without cracking. She and her partner had both watched birds build nests, so they cradled their egg in loosely packed, shredded paper—a sort of spherical nest—inside a paper lunch bag (even then, Debbie recycled!). Theirs was the only egg that survived the drop.

In view of this triumph, Debbie is pleased to learn that Dr. Hunter King, a University of Akron experimental soft matter physicist and assistant professor of polymer science and biology, has received a three-year, $260,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation to study “the collective mechanical interactions of disordered, randomly packed elastic filaments.” In other words, twigs packed together. In other, other words: birds’ nests.

Birds’ nests have to withstand weather changes, swaying trees, repeated impact from birds sitting on or entering them, and other mechanical factors—all without damaging the eggs they contain. As King puts it, “Nests are lightweight, soft, flexible and shock-absorbent, but made up of hard, durable components – properties which are ideal for packaging materials.”

In the abstract submitted to the NSF, King and his collaborators from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) state that they’re investigating how birds’ nests hold their shape as a “result of a subtle interplay between geometry, elasticity and friction” and point out that this question has not yet been thoroughly studied.

King’s graduate assistant Nicholas Weiner is conducting a series of experiments to analyze the behavior of randomly packed filaments in response to various perturbations. The collaborators at Illinois will attempt to duplicate his findings through computer simulations

Understanding how nests work could fuel advances in civil engineering and architecture, among other disciplines—not to mention packaging.

King plans to collaborate with the Akron Zoo to set up cameras and record birds building their nests: the original engineers at work.

So the next time a kid you know is participating in the “egg drop” challenge, think of birds nests and Dr. Hunter. And who knows? Maybe the kid will grow up to get an NSF grant. (Or to be Talkin’ Birds Senior Producer.)

What Does the EPA Do, Anyway?

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

We here at Talkin' Birds like to keep our listeners in the know about anything affecting birds. We've been hearing a lot in the news lately about Scott Pruitt, President Trump's nominee to head the EPA. However, we're not hearing much about the EPA itself, so we thought we'd explain what the EPA does. 

EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency. (By the way, they don't use "the," so we'll stop too.) Their mission is to protect our health and environment, which they do in more areas of life than we had imagined. No fooling: If you check the A-Z index on their website, you'll see documents on everything from acid rain to the pesticide Worker Protection Standard. EPA researches, regulates, funds grants for, and provides information about pretty much anything having to do with the environment and human health in this country.

Environmental research: EPA has research stations throughout the United States. The scientists who work at them share findings with academic institutions, private sector agencies, and research agencies here and in other countries. 

Regulation: When the United States Congress writes environmental laws, EPA writes regulations to enforce them. EPA then helps businesses and other organizations understand and comply with these regulations so they can obey the law.

Grants: EPA uses about half their funding to make grants to nonprofits, state programs, and educational institutions. These grants go to research and environmental cleanups, among other uses. 

In case you're wondering EPA has done for birds, the answer is, "A lot." We bird-lovers are probably all familiar with such bird conservation initiatives as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, established by EPA in 1986 and the Partners in Flight initiative to increase bird habitats in North and South America. EPA regulates use of pesticides; it was they who banned DDT in 1972 because of the harm it does to humans, wildlife, and especially birds. (In fact, EPA maintains a handy pesticide chemical database ) Then there's their data on birds and climate change: for starters, have a look at this page to see how bird wintering ranges have changed over the last fifty years. This short list above just scratches the surface how EPA benefits birds. If you'd like to see more, go to their website and search on "birds." You'll get 3,860 results. Again, no fooling. 

So why is it important to think carefully about who is in charge of EPA? Because that person controls research, regulation, and information about so much that affects the life of all Americans--not just the human ones.