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Home Birds & People Science
Scientists band the leg of a Northern Bobwhite Quail
Scientists band the leg of a Northern Bobwhite Quail Zoom
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Scientists have long studied birds simply to learn about the birds themselves: their diets, nesting habits, migratory paths, and more.

It didn't take long, however, for scientists to realize that birds had far more to offer humanity than just knowledge about their own living habits. The study of birds has implications for global health, medicine, communication, transportation, household inventions, and much more.

Here are just a few of the ways birds have sparked the imagination of human beings.

Global Health
Birds serve as a gauge for measuring the health of our environment. Scientists closely watch changes in the feeding, nesting, or migration habits of birds as possible indicators of environmental problems.

Global warming is of particular concern. Some bird species have begun to migrate earlier as their food sources (insects) emerge earlier. This is one direct effect of a warmer climate trend.

Birds can also tell scientists about pollution levels in an area. From the 1940s to the 1960s, eagle populations plummeted when DDT, a harmful pesticide, caused the birds to lay thin-shelled eggs which couldn't withstand the weight of the parents. Seeing the damage DDT was causing to eagle populations helped humans to rethink and change their use of DDT.

Medicine
Some birds can cope with microorganisms that would almost certainly sicken or kill other animals. For example, evidence suggests that vultures can consume meat infected with deadly anthrax. This is of great interest to scientists who study deadly human diseases and ways of treating these conditions.

Communications
Birds have demonstrated remarkable abilities for speech and grammar. These complex language behaviors were once thought to be possible only in humans. Scientists now study certain birds to explore everything from spatial (space related) memory to the grammatical structure of language. The things scientists are learning from birds provide valuable insights into the secrets of the human brain.

Transportation
Airplanes took their inspiration from the flying abilities of birds. For example, birds use their tails as rudders. Tails and feet can also act as air brakes, slowing the bird as it lands. Designers have incorporated similar features into the flying machines humans use.

Fighter jets, like falcons, have small, narrow, tapering wings. These wings provide speed and maneuverability with little drag.

From gliders to helicopters to jet planes, humans have invented machine after machine to try to match the skills of eagles, hummingbirds, and other natural-born flyers.

Zipper

Common Household Inventions
Birds have inspired some items you use every day.

For example, zippers have "teeth" that fit together and are forced part. The zipper was modeled after bird feathers, which have barbules that hook together in this same way.

When the barbules separate in flight, the birds will "zip" or preen their feathers to seal them back up.

 


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