Birds’ good vibrations power mini backpacks

Birds that yield good vibration provide motion excitation … for engineers: As Earth warms, birds may be changing their migratory patterns. But to obtain avian data, scientists need in-flight tracking sensors – and those sensors need energy.

A pigeon with a Cornell mini backpack. Credit: Michael Shafer

A pigeon with a Cornell mini backpack. Credit: Michael Shafer

Cornell’s Laboratory for Intelligent Machine Systems, or LIMS, is developing an ultra-lightweight energy source for small backpacks packed with sensors. The miniature vibrational energy harvesters convert the motion of a bird’s body into electrical power. Ephrahim Garcia, Cornell professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, runs LIMS, and he delves into dynamics and controls, sensors and actuators that involve smart materials.

“You can’t put a 9-volt battery on a bird, so you need a lightweight energy source,” says Michael Shafer, Cornell doctoral candidate who will get his degree in August and begin a new job as an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University.

Shafer is testing his system of removable backpacks and power sources on homing pigeons, which weigh about 300 grams. The birds can carry only about 4 percent of their mass – or about 12 grams (less than one tablespoon of water) – without disrupting their natural flight dynamics.

Much like human-made aircraft, birds employ aerodynamics and balance. They have a center of gravity and roll control – like the roll and pitch of an aircraft. If the ornithological backpack weighs too much, birds cannot maneuver back to an upright position – and fall to the ground.

A close-up view of the Cornell-designed, removable bird backpack that provides energy for in-flight experiments. Credit: Michael Shafer Read more at:

A close-up view of the Cornell-designed, removable bird backpack that provides energy for in-flight experiments. Credit: Michael Shafer

Despite the light weight, the tiny backpacks condense engineering brilliance, as they feature a microcontroller, an accelerometer, a memory module, a wireless receiver and a piezoelectric device that serves to transduce the harvested energy into electric power. The harvester gathers up to 300 microwatts, enough juice to power the microcontrollers.

Garcia explains that like canaries in the coal mine, birds outfitted with these systems could serve as environmental sentinels. While other scientists gather information on bird behavior and the impact of environment, his labs focuses making that data possible.

Says Garcia: “Unlike engineering systems of the past, we are creating self-reliant systems. They gather power from their environs to perform their mission indefinitely.”

Provided by Cornell University


Japanese pigeon bravely flies to Canada, owner won’t pony up dough for its return

In a rare feat of feathered flight, a racing pigeon from Japan has managed to somehow traverse the entire Pacific Ocean and wind up on the west coast of Canada. Sadly, the pigeon’s original owner wasn’t willing to pay to have the brave bird brought back, but things have ended up working out well for the little guy.

According to an AFP interview with Reg Westcott of the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the bird may have been thrown off course by violent weather and wound up heading over 7,000 km to Canada. Over the course of the two or three week journey it must have used cargo ships to rest on.

The pigeon was discovered on the grounds of the Royal Canadian Air Force looking exhausted and gaunt from its trip, and after being treated was put in the custody of Mr. Westcott’s Society.

Being a racing pigeon, this bird came with a leg band attached bearing the phone number of its owner in Japan. The Society contacted the person but they were reluctant to pay for its unexpectedly expensive return delivery.

Frequent RocketNews24 readers may recall that in Japan it’s possible for pigeons to be sent by courier, but it Canada there doesn’t seem to be such a service, and after a quick look online it would seem that UPS and FedEx Canada have no-animal policies. Canada Post does allow some animals to be delivered, but no warm-blooded ones. Interestingly enough parasites are okay under the right circumstances.

There are likely some smaller companies there who cater to pigeon enthusiasts, but they probably don’t operate internationally. In this case, the owner would have to have the bird flown over on a commercial flight which between Canada and Japan can get rather steep.

Anyway, although the plucky pigeon was shunned by his previous owner he was eagerly taken in by a nearby pigeon racing association. They hope to breed him and produce offspring well-suited for long distance racing.

So, after surviving his long ordeal, this little pigeon may now live out the rest of his days getting it on with exotic foreign female pigeons. Endings don’t get much happier than that.

Source: Yahoo! Japan News

Pigeons set to fly high in Gold Coast racing series

PHOTO: Australia's fastest pigeons will compete in Australia’s richest racing series, the Gold Coast 50,000.

PHOTO: Australia’s fastest pigeons will compete in Australia’s richest racing series, the Gold Coast 50,000.

Feathers are set to fly next month when the nation’s fastest pigeons compete in Australia’s richest racing series, the Gold Coast 50,000.

More than 600 birds have been entered in the ‘one loft’ race series.

The pigeons compete in four races over eight weeks, starting with a two-and-a-half hour flight and then steadily build up to a nine-hour marathon on September 8.

Race organiser Steve Zander says most pigeon races start at a common point but then each individual bird sets a course for its own home.

He says the Gold Coast 50,000 is a true test for birds.

“The unique situation of one loft races is where all birds have the same finish line and there’s not a disadvantage to any given flyer,” he said.

Breeders dropped off their best young squabs to Mr Zander’s Willowvale loft in December and he’s feeding and training them up for the four races.

“It’s about competing, it’s about winning, it’s about the excitement, the adrenalin rush of getting a fast pigeon,” he said.

Upper Coomera breeder Jason Hudson has been in the sport for five years and has entered three birds in the series.

“It’s definitely the Melbourne Cup of pigeon racing, it’s the best way to explain it,” he said.

He wants a slice of the $140,000 prize purse and “the prestige of having your pigeons race against the best quality birds in Australia.”

Mr Hudson says breeders become attached to their birds, but not all of them make it home from a training flight.

“The falcons tend to kill quite a few of the birds, unfortunately,” he said.

Mr Zander says predatory birds, power lines and fences claim most of the missing pigeons.

“You do lose one here and one there and sometimes you might have a bad training day when you could lose six or seven,” he said.

Last year’s winner of the final marathon race came from South Australia. The winning bird flew from a release point in Rockhampton, in central Queensland, to the Gold Coast in just under nine hours.

The winning owner walked away with a prized breeding bird and a $65,000 cheque.


Bird Navigation – Great Balls of Iron

cells from the inner ear of pigeons stained with a chemical that turns iron bright blue in color

cells from the inner ear of pigeons stained with a chemical that turns iron bright blue in color

Every year millions of birds make heroic migratory journeys guided by the Earth’s magnetic field. How they detect magnetic fields has puzzled scientists for decades. A combined effort between the Keays’ lab at the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna and researchers at the Australian Microscopy & Microanalysis Research Facility (AMMRF) at the University of Western Australia has added some important pieces to this puzzle. Continue reading

‘My ex-girlfriend cooked and ate one of my beloved pigeons,’ reveals Mike Tyson

He’s famous as a fearsome fighter, but Mike Tyson has a surprising soft spot for his beloved pigeons.

And now the former heavy weight champion has revealed he was traumatised after an unnamed ex-girlfriend cooked and ate one of his birds in front of him.

The 46-year-old, who has called pigeon racing his ‘first love’ and at one pointed owned up to 350 bird, recalled the incident during a interview on US sports talk-radio show Boomer & Carton.

Scroll down to listen

Pretty bird: Mike Tyson with one of his many beloved pigeons

Pretty bird: Mike Tyson with one of his many beloved pigeons

When asked if he had ever eaten one of his animals, he said: ‘I tried. I was dating this young lady and she said, “I don’t know why you’re flying those damn birds, you should be eating them.”

‘She happened to grab one and — and she cooked one and proceeded to eat it. And I just couldn’t do it.’

‘You loved that pigeon so much,’ host Craig Carton responded.

‘Well, ‘cause he’s got a relationship with the pigeons,’ co-host Boomer Esiason interjected.

Pretty bird: Mike Tyson with one of his many beloved pigeons

Current love: The former heavyweight boxer with his third wife Lakiha Spicer at the Scary Movie 5 LA premiere earlier this month

‘It just wasn’t the right thing to do,’ Tyson added. ‘That’s why she’s not my woman anymore.’

When asked why he even allowed the ex-girlfriend to eat the bird in the first place, Tyson responded: ‘It was her house and we were living off of her dime, so she could do [it].’

The Hangover star, who infamously bit Evander Holyfield ear in a 1997 fight, has previously said he adored birds since he nine.

‘They were my escape,’ he said. ‘I was fat and ugly. Kids teased me all the time. The only joy I had was pigeons.’

The Secret of the Pigeon’s Crest

Domesticated pigeons are a bit like dogs: For centuries, fanciers have cultivated a startling variety of colors, feather arrangements, and behaviors, creating more than 350 breeds used in shows for looks and competitions for how fast they fly, how much they tumble in the sky, or how long they can remain airborne. After sequencing the rock pigeon genome, researchers have now tapped into that diversity to track down the genetic basis of one of the pigeon’s more ostentatious traits: the head crest. The gene could be the same one used in wild birds for head crest features, and its discovery paves the way for uncovering the genetic basis of other important avian traits.

Head dress. Though the head crests of domesticated pigeons can vary quite a bit, their presence is due to the same mutation.Credit: Mike Shapiro/University of Utah

Head dress. Though the head crests of domesticated pigeons can vary quite a bit, their presence is due to the same mutation. Credit: Mike Shapiro/University of Utah

Science’s interest in pigeon diversity dates back to at least the mid-19th century. The father of evolution, Charles Darwin, was fascinated by all the different kinds and bred these birds at his home. He wrote about them extensively in his books on natural selection and evolution and speculated, along with others, that the 150 breeds known at the time all descended from the rock dove, also known as rock pigeon. “The domesticated pigeon was just as, if not more, important [as Darwin’s finches] to the evolution of his thinking about how natural selection worked,” says Nathan Young, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

At the turn of the century, classical geneticists were also intrigued by pigeons, and in 1911, breeding studies by T. H. Morgan suggested that head crests were a simple trait. “But this system has remained remarkably unknown among modern evolutionary biologists and geneticists,” says Hans Ellegren, an evolutionary biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Michael Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, wanted to bring pigeons into the scientific limelight again. “We know much more about genetic variation in fish and in mammals than we know about birds,” he points out. Until he came to Utah in 2006, Shapiro had focused on stickleback fish. But then someone pointed out that the range of traits in those fish was meager compared with pigeon traits and proved the point by showing Shapiro the Encyclopedia of Pigeon Breeds. “I was just blown away,” Shapiro recalls.

Utah proved to be a good place to start studying pigeons, as it has a very active pigeon breeders group. In 2008, Shapiro’s team began collecting blood samples and feathers for DNA analyses and last year developed a genealogy of pigeon breeds. Head crests jumped out as a potentially interesting trait to study. Different breeds boast different designs, from a simple peak to a hood of plumage that buries the head. And breeds with crests were distributed throughout the pigeon family tree. Furthermore, wild birds such as woodpeckers and doves have head crests thought to be important in mate selection and communication.

So Shapiro teamed up with by BGI-Shenzhen in China, which sequenced the pigeon genome. The group also sequenced 40 other pigeon genomes, including breeds with and without head crests as well as two free-living pigeon populations. Those data helped establish the range of normal variation among these genomes. With a computer program originally designed to find DNA variants important in human disease, they homed in on places in the genome where DNA’s letters, called bases, were consistently different between those with and without head crests. That search led them to a gene called EphB2 that was responsible for the presence or absence of a head crest. A survey of an additional 69 uncrested birds from 57 breeds and 61 crested birds from 22 breeds confirmed that uncrested birds had one version of this gene and all the crested birds had another version, they report online today in Science. The single base change involved causes the protein to have a different amino acid at a crucial spot, one that likely renders the protein ineffective.

Researchers already know that pigeon head crests form because feathers there grow up toward the head rather than down along the body. The researchers didn’t find any gene activity differences between crested and uncrested birds where and when this feather polarity is established in the embryo. So they think the decision to grow a head crest must be made earlier in development, Shapiro says.

“It’s an interesting example of how a single gene change can have a profound effect,” says Cliff Tabin, a developmental geneticist at Harvard University.

Now Shapiro’s team is looking at other traits. For example, there are birds bred for their tendency to tumble in midair and he’d like to understand the genetics behind these “rollers” or “tumblers” as they are called. Beak shape, size, and color also vary greatly, and their genetics might be simple to work out.

Other researchers may follow suit, Ellegren says. “The work now puts the spot on pigeons … [and] may attract other scientists to start using pigeons as models.”

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