Unstable Wing Design Is Essential

Unstable Wing Design
European Bee-eater

“How do birds fly?” is a very old question that remains basically unanswered. We aren’t talking about simple fixed-wing flight, which uses the old physics model that a rapidly moving fluid exerts minimum pressure at a right angle to the direction of motion. We use that model for airplanes, but birds have another feature called unstable wing design. The unanswered question about bird flight is how they can be so agile. Drones have a problem with this issue because, with their fixed-wing structure, they can’t make quick direction changes.

Christina Harvey of the University of California, Davis, and Daniel Inman of the University of Michigan have examined the flight dynamics of 22 bird species. They concluded that unstable wing design is the key to what birds can do. For example, seagulls can change the shape of their wings by adjusting their wrist and elbow joints. Changing their wing shape allows them to handle wind gusts easily. Aerospace engineers have not been able to duplicate that part of flight dynamics, but most bird species manage it quite well.

Drones working in an urban environment must handle sudden wind gusts and rapid direction changes, but with a fixed-wing design, that is almost impossible. The study’s authors point out that future business-level drones or personal aircraft must be able to implement unstable wing design. However, engineers have yet to find a way to do that. Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Academy of Science (NAS) are working to understand how the complex design of bird wings allows unstable flight.

It is fascinating that the earliest birds of flight seen in the fossil record had a wing design that allowed unstable flight. We even find fossil birds that resemble our modern hummingbirds, which have very unstable wing design. We continue to see examples of intelligence in the design of living things. Much of what you and I enjoy, from velcro to rockets and modern aircraft, had their start when thinking people saw the design God built into life and copied it to benefit all of us.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

References: The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in their December 2022 reports,

The Amazing Chickadees

The Amazing Chickadees

If you have a bird feeder on your property, you are probably familiar with the amazing chickadees found throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The six North American chickadee species do not have large fat reserves like some birds, such as finches. Instead, their trim size gives them more mobility to evade predators such as cats or sharp-shinned hawks. However, it also means chickadees must find enough fuel daily to maintain their metabolism.

One way chickadees survive is by lowering their body temperature at night. A chickadee’s daytime body temperature is 108 degrees Fahrenheit, but it drops to around 86 degrees at night. This controlled hypothermia is a nocturnal semi-hibernation that slows their metabolism by about 25%. The next day, they must find enough food to maintain their daytime metabolism while replacing fat lost the previous night.

Besides the seeds at our bird feeders, chickadees eat caterpillars, insects, spiders, and conifer seeds. Since chickadees don’t migrate south for the winter, they store food for use during the cold months. Their stockpiles exist in various places, such as wedged into pine needle clusters or tree bark or even pounded into the ground. They store food in the lower branches of conifer trees, so it will be available when the upper branches are covered with snow. Chickadees prepare insects for storage by removing the heads of larvae and the wings of moths.

Storing food for later use requires remembering where it is, and studies have shown that chickadees can remember where they stored items for months. The hippocampus is the area of the brain involved in memory and spatial learning. In the fall, when food storage moves into high gear, the chickadee brain grows new neurons in the hippocampus. Their brain stores visual cues such as the spatial relationship between significant landmarks, allowing them to remember their cache locations from fall until the following spring.

Those of us who maintain bird feeders frequented by chickadees notice that they are not as shy around people as most birds are. The complexity of the amazing chickadees is extraordinary. They are another example of God’s design in the natural world, enabling the survival of a small creature we take for granted. This design speaks eloquently of the fact that we “can know there is a God through the things He has made” (Romans 1:20).

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: National Wildlife magazine February/March 1998, pages 24 -28.

How Can a Woodpecker’s Brain Survive the Hammering?

How Can a Woodpecker’s Brain Survive the Hammering? - Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

We live in Michigan with massive numbers of trees all around, allowing us to watch various wildlife. The design that allows our woods to survive involves many animals that plant seeds, prune plants, and control insect populations. One of the leading players in the control of insects is our Michigan woodpeckers. That raises the question, “How can a woodpecker’s brain survive the hammering?”

We have a variety of woodpeckers, but the most interesting to me are the pileated woodpeckers and flickers. These birds not only peck at trees removing insects that could damage the plants, but they also use their pecking to mark territories. One woodpecker hammers on the flashing of the chimney that vents our furnace. The sound is so loud that it wakes me up in the morning. But it also sends a territorial message to all other woodpeckers in the area.

The frequency of the hammering of woodpeckers is around 20 hits a second. Their heads move so fast it is hard to see the motion with the naked eye, and even a photograph at a high shutter speed shows only a blur of the woodpecker’s head. So, the big question is, “How can a woodpecker’s brain survive the hammering?”

The textbooks say that a spongy bone in the woodpecker’s skull acts as a shock absorber to protect the brain. However, recent research has shown that isn’t the case. Not only does a dissection of the woodpecker’s head not show any such bone structure, but high-speed video of three different species of woodpeckers shows that the bird’s brain decelerates at the same rate as the beak. There is no cushion for the bird’s brain.

So that does not answer the question, “How can a woodpecker’s brain survive the hammering?” The answer seems to be in the design of the bird’s brain, not in the area that surrounds the brain. Dr. Sam Van Wassenbergh at the University of Antwerp says that the woodpecker’s brain is so small and of such light-weight construction that the pecking does not generate enough pressure to damage it.

The problem with that explanation is that the woodpecker has the same functions as all other birds and does not show symptoms of a deficient brain. We also know from human studies that brain size is not directly related to intelligence. The design of a woodpecker’s brain to enable it to hammer on trees and other objects (such as chimney flashing) is an example of engineering design. Scientists need to do more research to fully understand the design God put into these birds and perhaps learn what practical applications it might have for us.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: The Week for August 5, 2022, page 21.

Twigs Randomly Thrown Together?

Twigs Randomly Thrown Together? - Bird Nests

You may look at a bird’s nest and assume that it is just a pile of twigs randomly thrown together. However, physicist Hunter King of the University of Akron says birds use the twigs in a way that is “totally mystifying.”

Dr. King has done an interesting experiment with the design of bird nests. He took a piston and compressed 460 bamboo rods arranged inside a cylinder in a form similar to the construction of an ordinary bird nest. As the piston applied more force, the sticks slid against each other, rearranging the contact points. As a result, the rods acted as a group and became stiffer and more resistant to deforming.

The new contact points stiffened the “nest,” preventing the twigs from further flexing. King says the fact that birds seem to have a sense of how individual twigs will make a nest with the right characteristics is “something we don’t know the first thing about predicting.”

So a bird’s nest is more than twigs randomly thrown together. Birds construct them to protect what they value—eggs and chicks. From an engineering standpoint, this research will allow scientists to create new structures designed to protect things that humans value. From an apologetic perspective, this is one more example of the design built into the DNA of living things to allow them to survive in the natural world.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

References: Science News for June 18, 2022 page 5, and Physical Review Letters

King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise

 King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise
King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise

Saxony is an area of Germany that hasn’t had a king since 1918. However, in the mountain forests of New Guinea, a bird has borne the name King of Saxony since 1894. It’s the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise (Pteridophora alberti).

The males display beautiful black and yellow colors. They also have two blue brow plumes attached to their heads that can be twice the length of the bird’s body. These birds are so strange-looking that when Europeans one for the first time, they thought it was a fake. Native people hunt the male birds for their prized plumes for ceremonial purposes. However, the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise is not easy to catch. 

Adult males are highly territorial, guarding their domain while perched high in the tree canopy. Their unique courtship behavior consists of two parts. The first step is sitting on a bare branch and attracting females by singing a hissing rattling sound. It accompanies those noises by waving the long plumes independently or in unison. Next, if a female shows interest, the male will fly down to a lower branch to entice her. Then, the male will bounce up and down in front of the female while giving a hissing call. People find the entire ritual very entertaining.

Regardless of the threats they face from hunting, the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise is not endangered. That is beneficial for the ecology because these birds play a significant role in distributing fruit seeds on the island of New Guinea. Plants and fruits rely on animals to ensure their survival. In return, the plants produce fruit for the animals to eat in this marvelously complex system. Meanwhile, tourists to New Guinea enjoy these birds’ beauty and fascinating behavior. 

The King of Saxony bird-of-paradise is a prime example of how each animal is unique, and the Creator has given us many species to study, enjoy, and protect. The interlocking system of birds, other animals, and plants shows evidence of a Creator who is an architect and engineer who has an appreciation of beauty and a sense of humor.

— Roland Earnst © 2022
The Cornel Lab of Ornithology has a video showing the song and dance of these fascinating birds.

An Overlooked Role of Birds and Mammals

An Overlooked Role of Birds and Mammals

Various data sources show massive evidence of climate change. The melting of the ice sheets, the warming of the Pacific Ocean, and the increase of weather anomalies affect all of us. Some of these changes have to do with flooding and the frequency of storms. Others affect our food supply where there is an overlooked role of birds and mammals.

While the effect on human activity is pretty dramatic, the natural changes in living things in the environment are usually less noticeable. The reason is that the design of life anticipates that climate will change from time to time, even if humans have no role in that change. If a plant species faces environmental change threatening its existence, it will disperse its seeds into a different place where the environment is more suitable.

The often overlooked role of birds and mammals is that they are the primary agents for seed dispersal. The National Science Foundation helped fund a study showing that more than half of all plant species rely on animals to disperse their seeds. The NSF website said, “Plants that rely on seed dispersers can face extinction if there are too few animals to move their seeds far enough to keep pace with changing conditions.”

One of the things that plant-eating dinosaurs did was
to spread the seeds of the plants they ate. This means that pruning was not the only benefit of plant-eaters, but seed spreading was also significant. As the climate has changed in the past, animals have spread the seeds over a vast geographic area allowing the incredible diversity we see in plants today.

This kind of research has a variety of practical uses.
It reminds us of the overlooked role of birds and mammals in dispersing seeds in the environment. The study showed a 60% reduction due to the loss of seed-spreading birds and mammals.

We see evidence of God’s wisdom in designing birds and mammals with a diet that allows spreading the seeds of the plants they eat. That design helps to moderate the effect of climate change. God told Adam and Eve to take care of the Garden (Genesis 2:15), and we need to understand our responsibility in that. The fact that creation’s design allows life to survive climate changes is a testimony to God’s wisdom.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: National Science Foundation website and the journal Science

Mother Birds Sing to their Eggs

Mother Birds Sing to their Eggs

Recent studies have shown that mother birds sing to their eggs while incubating them. Researchers found that bird embryos learn to identify the sounds of their species before they hatch from the eggs. They also found that the singing is deliberate and serves a purpose.

The reason mother birds sing to their eggs can’t be for their survival, because singing puts the mothers at risk from predators. Then what is the advantage of the singing? In addition to learning the songs of their species, the young birds learn to recognize unfamiliar songs produced by other bird species. The mother’s singing also affects the heart rate of the unhatched bird. All of the eggs in the study of unhatched baby birds showed a decrease in the babies’ heart rate when their mothers sang to them.

Previous research has shown that the heart rate of unborn humans also slows when the mother is in a stable situation and increases when the mother is under stress. Similarly, the researchers speculate that the singing of the mother bird aids the survival of the chick. The research co-author said, “Birds are like humans in that there is a mother- or father-offspring communication even before birth.”

The message is clear that the individual begins life and learning before being put into the world of self-preservation and survival. Mother birds sing to their eggs, and human mothers sing and talk to their babies before birth. In both cases, the offspring benefit. Whether a bird or a human, individual existence begins when life begins–not when the egg hatches or the baby is born.

— John N. Clayton ©

Reference: Science News, November 6, 2021, page 4.

Cassowary – A Strange Bird

Cassowary – A Strange Bird

When we think of birds, we usually picture songbirds, chickens, pigeons, eagles, and others. However, we are also aware of less familiar birds such as penguins, ostriches, and kiwis. Imagine a bird that stands up to six feet (1.8 m) tall, weighs 130 pounds (59 kg), has spine-like quills in place of feathers, and has a four to five-inch (12.5 cm) claw on its inner toe that it can use to stab and even kill a dog or a human. This creature can run 30 miles (50 km) per hour and jump more than five feet (1.5 m) in the air. The name of this bird is the cassowary.

These birds, native to New Guinea, Indonesia, and Australia, can kick, stab, head butt, and peck. Cassowaries are a factor in the discussion of whether the dinosaurs were birds or reptiles. The wings of most modern birds are for flying, or in some cases, for swimming underwater. Instead of feathers, cassowary wings are tipped with large quills resembling porcupine quills without the barbs. Some dinosaur fossils give evidence of feathers, but we don’t know their function. However, cassowaries demonstrate that wing-like and feather-like structures can have other functions.

The cassowary can teach us many lessons. One is that taxonomy gives us only a limited view of various animals. Another is that birds have more than one role in ecological applications. Cassowaries play an essential role in the ecosystem where they live. They are omnivores, eating fruits as well as small animals. They lay eggs in a nest on the ground and incubate the eggs. The males are the primary caregivers during incubation, and they care for the young after the eggs hatch. We tend to view flightless birds as vulnerable creatures that live only where there are no predators to threaten them. Cassowaries show us that is not always true. They can defend themselves and live for 40 to 50 years.

The biblical view of birds includes only birds that could fly. The Hebrew word commonly used for “bird” in the Old Testament is “tsippor,” meaning a small bird, such as a sparrow. (For example, see Genesis 7:14 and 15:10, and Ezekiel 39:4.) The Hebrew word “oph” refers to a flying bird. (For example, see Genesis 40:17-19, 2 Samuel 21:10, Ecclesiastes 10:20, and Hosea 9:11). “Ayit” refers to a hawk or bird of prey. (See Isaiah 46:11 and Jeremiah 12:9.) In the New Testament, the Greek word “peteinon,” meaning flying or winged bird, is used in Matthew 8:20 and 13:32, Luke 9:58, Romans 1:23, and James 3:7.

The Cassowary does not fit any of those passages, considering that people in the world of both Moses and Jesus did not have contact with flightless birds. Instead, we can view the cassowary as a part of God’s creation to fill a very different kind of ecological niche. However, its role in creation’s design and the world today remains a subject of future study.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Reference: World Wildlife magazine for the summer of 2021 page 6, Encyclopedia Britannica online 9/2/21/, and Wikipedia.

Birds are Better Than Pesticides

Birds are Better Than Pesticides

One of the major scourges that farmers face is crop damage from insects. Farmers spend massive amounts of money on pesticides to get rid of the pests that invade almost every crop they grow. There is also a significant problem with rodents in some crops, and again chemical elimination of rodents is expensive and does a great deal of collateral damage. The solution to all of this is birds. Birds are better than pesticides.

God has always built into the natural environment a way to keep insects and rodents in check. Predators prevent the overpopulation of these pest challenges to human farmers. When humans kill off the predators, the only recourse is using chemicals. New studies have shown how vital birds are to the control of insects and rodents. Birds are better than pesticides. Here are some examples:

FLOOD CONTROL DAMS AND LEVEES – Ground squirrels and gophers burrow under dams and levees, causing the collapse of these structures. Chemical use of anticoagulant rodenticides cost Ventura County, California, $7500 a year and also killed coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions. So instead, the county installed raptor perches to attract owls, hawks, and falcons. Studies showed that those birds were 67% more effective in controlling rodent burrows and saved $7500.

INDONESIAN CACAO PLANTATIONS – Yields of cacao, used for making chocolate, have increased by 290 pounds per acre after adding bird boxes to the fields.

EUROPEAN APPLE GROWERS – Growers have reduced caterpillar damage by 50% by adding nest boxes that attract insectivorous birds known as great tits.

COFFEE BEANS – Farmers in Jamaica added bird boxes and reduced the number of coffee berry borers, increasing profits by $126 per acre.

CALIFORNIA VINEYARDS – Pocket gophers and voles were damaging crops up to $58 per acre. A single family of barn owls placed in a nest box killed 3,000 rodents in a single year. Armyworms are a problem for U.S. Vineyards as well as for beet growers. In California, nest boxes have attracted bluebirds that eat 2.4 times the number of armyworms as areas without bird boxes.

WALNUT GROVES – Moth Larvae are a problem for walnut growers. Placing bird boxes eliminated four times as many of the larvae as other methods.

Humans have created many problems by not using God’s methods of controlling pests. Research shows that chemicals which cause cancer and other issues are not nearly as effective as birds in eliminating the scourges farmers face. Birds are better than pesticides.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Reference: Living Bird, Summer 2021, Volume 40 # 3, pages 33 – 42. Available from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Wonder of Birds

The Wonder of Birds - Bald Eagle

We live on the edge of the St. Joseph River in Michigan. By the river and surrounded by woods, I have the joy of observing the wonder of birds in enormous varieties. As I watch geese, swans and ducks take off and land on the river, I am amazed at the way they put their feet out and water ski to a stop. I enjoy seeing them stand on one foot, seemingly asleep with half of their bodies ready to react to any danger.

When our resident bald eagle flies by 100 feet above the water, the ducks turn their heads to track the eagle. The eagle swoops down and picks up a small dead fish which I couldn’t see from 20 feet away. I watch three species of woodpeckers hammer away at the trees on the edge of the river with such force that bark flies in all directions. Still, the design of their skulls lets them do this for hours on end without brain damage.

I watch the finches and nuthatches pick off berries from the poison ivy and eat them in the dead of winter. They never have any problem with the oil that I am allergic to. I watch the hummingbirds come to my feeders and hover for a long time, eating the sugar solution and engaging in territorial combat. I hear the birds singing as they mark their territories, with each species having its own peculiar melody.

As a person trained in physics and chemistry, I am enthralled by the wonder of birds and their widely varied properties. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an ongoing study of the properties and abilities of birds. One area of research is the specialized equipment individual bird species have. The eagle’s eyes are incredible optical tools that give it the ability to see a small fish from 100 feet above the water.

Woodpecker heads show engineering with their shock-absorbing design to prevent brain damage from the constant hammering they use to get bugs. People researching flight techniques study the wing design of hummingbirds which allows them to hover. The design of the bird’s gut prevents the poison ivy oil from lingering long enough to cause a reaction.

All birds have design features that allow them to survive. Their digestive and waste removal systems avoid the use of a bladder. The vascular system with a unique heart design allows the Swainson’s thrush to travel 3000 miles in a single flight with its heart beating 840 times a minute. Darwin showed us that the design of the bird genetics is flexible enough to allow their beaks to vary depending on what diet is available in their environment.

Humans throughout history have depended on birds as a food source. Where would we be in America without chickens and turkeys? God sustained the ancient Israelites with quails, a provision that continues today in that part of the world. In some areas, songbirds are a source of meat even though they are small. For those of us who look for evidence of God’s design in the natural world, birds are an incredible example of how much has to be done to produce an animal that can do what birds do.

The wonder of birds is not reasonably explained by accidental change. We all need to be concerned about the fact that between human exploitation, the removal of resources and habitat by humans, natural climate change, and pollution, the population of birds on our planet is getting smaller and smaller. Since 1970, three billion birds have vanished from the United States. God told us to take care of the world in which He has placed us. Caring for all of God’s creatures, including birds, is everyone’s responsibility.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data from Cornell Lab of Ornithology