Doin’ the Pigeon

Scientific American‘s 60 Second Science recently featured another interesting animal story titled “Birds Bop to Beat.” Reporter Karen Hopkin describes how some birds, especially parrots, may be able to groove to music, suggesting that “neural circuits for vocal learning may also enable moving to the beat.” Below is the transcript.

Forget “Polly wanna cracker.” Polly wants to boogie. Or so say scientists in a pair of papers in the April 30th issue of the journal Current Biology. They found that some birds, especially parrots, can bob their heads, tap their feet and sway their bodies to a musical beat.

It’s long been thought that dancing is a uniquely human hobby. Chimps don’t move to the groove. And when was the last time you saw Fido or Fluffy shake their furry booties? But Snowball the cockatoo is another story. That bird’s got rhythm. Researchers found that Snowball can adjust the tempo of his dance moves to coincide with the speed of the music. In this study, the tune was “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys, one of the cockatoo’s faves.

But Snowball’s not the only bird who likes to boogie. In a separate study, researchers searched YouTube for videos of dancing animals. Of the 1,000 they turned up, only 15 critters actually moved in sync with the beat. Fourteen of those were parrots, one was an elephant. Pachyderms, parrots and people are all vocal mimics. So the neural circuits for vocal learning may also enable moving to the beat.

Of course, I always knew that birds could get down.

Also interesting, an article linked below the podcast, “Bird Brains: Are Parrots Smarter Than a Human Two-Year-Old?

When Race Horses Die Racing


Winner’s death brings sad note to races

This is a local story about a horse that suffered a fatal heart attack just strides after winning a race. The account of his final moments is sad:

At the March 21 Piedmont Foxhounds Point-to-Point in Upperville, a fatal heart attack at the finish wire sent Quick Line, the winner, careening into the homestretch tailgate parking area.

Rider Noel Ryan, huntsman with Loudoun Hunt, was smiling as the 13-year-old gelding crossed the wire, ears pricked, easily in hand and clearly not distressed.

All that changed a stride later.

Attending veterinarian Ian Harrison of Harrison Equine in Berryville was standing near the finish line, watching Quick Line as he crossed the line.

“The horse finished well,” Harrison said. “I’d say he suffered a heart attack in the next stride,” lurching to the right, while Ryan struggled to keep his mount from veering into the course’s outer rail.

The gelding crashed through the plastic snow fence marking the course, landing between two parked cars. Ryan was thrown clear and — but for a cut on his cheek and a sore hand — was uninjured. The force of the falling horse toppled several spectators who had an instant before been cheering the runners.

According to several people involved, the horse was fit and suffered a heart abnormality that no one knew about.

“There is no blame to be placed on a horse that dies that way. The rider is not to blame, nor the course, nor the race. This just happens. It is terribly rare, but it happens to fox hunters, it happens to pleasure horses, it happens to backyard horses. It happens in people, and it can happen in racehorses. It is very sad, but there was certainly nothing anyone did wrong, and there was nothing that could have prevented it.”

Perhaps it’s true that the horse would have suffered a heart attack at some point in his life whether he was racing or not, but I find it hard to believe that one can claim that “there was nothing that could have prevented it” when he died a stride after finishing a race. My thought, obviously: they shouldn’t have been racing the horse and that would have prevented the horse from dying on that day, at that time. Or am I just talking crazy talk?

Chickens, Flies, and Spreading Disease

I’m a fan of Scientific American‘s 60 Second Science podcast. In a recent episode titled “Chickens, Bacteria and Flies… Oh My, reporter Cynthia Graber described how some recent research shows that the antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that are coming from livestock operations may be able to be spread to the world at large by flies. Below is the transcript (emphasis is mine, as always).

Seventy percent of all antibiotics in this country go to livestock like pigs and chickens. And concern is growing about drug-resistant bacteria that sprout up in crowded livestock facilities and may spread to humans. Now researchers suggest that a vector for that spread may be the common housefly.

Scientists from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health collected samples of both flies and poultry litter at chicken houses along the Delmarva Peninsula. That’s the region where Delaware, Maryland and Virginia meet up, and it has the highest concentration of what are known as broiler chickens in the U.S.

They isolated and analyzed antibiotic-resistant enterococci and staphylococci from both groups. The samples showed that the bacteria in both the flies and the litter have similar characteristics and genes for resistance. The researchers caution that they haven’t shown conclusively that flies are in fact spreading the diseases. But more than 30,000 flies might enter a poultry house over six weeks. And flies are known to be vectors of viral and bacterial diseases such as cholera. Another study to add to the growing pile of research suggesting our cheap meat is not as cheap as it seems.

Brief commentary on the Peter Singer Interview


I’m not exactly a big fan of Peter Singer, and this interview with him solidifies that feeling. I didn’t realize (probably because I wasn’t paying attention) that he gives 1/3rd of his income to charity, mostly to Oxfam…

… as in the Oxfam that provides animal donations (sorry for the PETA link)? The one that allows people to give sheep, baby chicks, goats, and more as if they were just things via their online store?

I don’t like picking apart the ways a person lives to find inconsistencies with their stated philosophies (I’m sure I’ve got plenty of my own), but things like this just baffle me. If you believe in animal sentience and rights, then you don’t donate money to a group that treats animals as commodities, clear even in the wording on their own web site.

Then, of course, there’s this gem:

I remember one of my high school teachers saying I would make a good lawyer because I kept arguing with whatever he said. I’ve never had great respect for conventions, and maybe that’s something to do with my upbringing or the period in which I came of age, the ’60s.

Well, it’s a way of answering the question of what makes it so seriously wrong to kill a being. Once you get rid of the idea that it’s just being a member of a particular species, namely homo sapiens, I argue that can’t be the answer and you need to find something else. You could say it’s wrong to kill a being whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong, but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed.

What is different about humans? Humans are forward-looking beings, and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die.

Karen Davis replies in the comments:

Peter Singer needs to retire. Whatever fire burned in him for animals in the 1970s has burned out. He repeatedly cites chickens as exemplars of animal inferiority, not based on logic or evidence, which he has constantly repudiated, but because he personally doesn’t like chickens. He has even argued that removing the wings and brains of hens is good “welfare” if by doing so they will “suffer” less in industrial conditions. This is not animal rights or even welfare. It’s the shallowest level of ethics.

And if numbers are what partly determine the “tragedy” of innocent suffering, then the millions of people in African nations and elsewhere being tortured and murdered suffer less because there are so many of them.

(… and later…)

I’d like to add to my previous comment the concern that arises over the idea that the scale and routineness of innocent suffering somehow diminishes the significance and importance of that suffering. Just think how such logic can be used to numb ourselves to victims of war and other mass killings. Like deciding that human infants matter less than human adults because the infants aren’t “persons,” in Singer’s philosophy, this line of thought is destructive and pitiless.

Executive Chef: “Pay attention to vegans”


Creating a recipe for success: Q & A with Erik Blauberg, Chief executive of EKB Consulting

This interview with the former executive chef at the ’21’ Club is interesting for this bit (emphasis added):

What’s the first thing you look at when you work on a failing restaurant?

I walk into a place and assess the damage. First of all, the food, the menu. Engineering of menus is very important. They have to have diversity: chicken, fish, vegetables. It has to please a vast majority of people with different tastes. Vegan dishes are becoming especially important.

Vegan? Really?

It seems more and more, if there is a vegan at the table, they will dictate the order. So you need to be prepared.

I can’t say I feel like the vegan Mussolini (Get it?  Order dictator?  Har!), but I was really happy to see vegans being talked about as an actual target market and not “a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.”

(via SuperVegan’s twitter feed)