It’s a cold, grey day in East Yorkshire: a grit-your-teeth day, as the cold nips at exposed flesh and the drifting rain ruins hairstyles, drips from eyebrows and makes everyone grumpy.
It’s mid-afternoon and the high street is nearly empty, and the gulls have taken over. They festoon the roof of the Methodist church in an interesting way – and I decide to pay attention.
For starters, why are they all pointing the same way?
Unfortunately I have no idea how birds work. Despite my late father being an avid ‘twitcher’, and despite being a proud member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologist’s Club, I’m clueless. I know they flap, and have feathers. I know certain types of them found at British seaside resorts will steal your chips/fries if you’re not paying attention. And I know they’re distantly related to dinosaurs.
But that was about it.
In fact, as my research uncovered this afternoon, birds are supremely useful to long-distance walkers.
THE POINTING THING
Generally speaking, perched birds point into the wind. It’s the best position from which to take flight, and it stops their feathers getting ruffled the wrong way (which is probably supremely irritating, but it also vents precious heat in cold weather).
It also may have something to do with being able to communicate better. A human analogy here is useless: we’d turn away from the wind to chat to each other. But then, bird ears aren’t external like ours, so maybe they don’t suffer that roaring sound that makes us shout “EH?” at each other like we’re elderly Canadians.
Anyway, that’s the best guess from the world of bird science.
Here’s how it’s useful to walkers: it turns birds into a useful substitute for weathervanes, except working in reverse. Too close to the ground to tell which way the wind is blowing (or trying to spot a weather wind?) Simple: look at where the birds are pointing. That’s where the wind is coming from.
THE NOT-GOING-BANG THING
Every looked at a bird perched on a power-line and thought, “how are you still alive, dude?”
The answer is, birds can take it – and so could we, if we did it right.
This next paragraph comes firmly under the category of Never, Ever Try This For Yourself Ever, Seriously, I Saw You Think It Just Then, You’re On A Verbal Warning, Just No In Every Way.
Birds avoid going BANG because they have both feet on the power line. Electricity is the flow of electrons from one state of electrical potential to another. On the wire, everything is at the same state – and the electrons don’t flow. No flow = no electricity. We human beings get electrocuted by wires because we’re usually touching something else, most commonly the ground, earthing us into destruction – because that creates a current that flows through us with catastrophic results.
If we create a current, we’re dead.
Birds don’t, so they’re not.
(Some power-line engineers actually use helicopters to do repairs, to avoid touching the ground. It’s still insanely dangerous work, with the added thrill of huge metal blades whirling a few feet above your head, bobbing up and down with every gust of wind. I’ll pass, thanks.)
THE HIGH-FLYING THING
You probably know that on clear, calm days, birds take to the air and ascend to great heights, warbling and chirping happily and making everyone feel like everything’s going to be OK.
They’re able to do that because of pressure.
Birds have a tiny pressure receptor in their ear called the paratympanic organ, and it responds to changes in atmospheric pressure. When you see birds circling high in a blue sky, that probably means the bird’s inner ear is deliciously pain-free, the pressure is stable, and the weather’s going to stay clear. Yay!
But if they’re staying close to the ground, the pressure is changing, and probably causing them pain – a kind of atmospheric hangover. They stay low to minimise the pressure gradient they have to fly through. If that’s happening in good weather, you can bet foul, wet weather is rapidly approaching.
And if there are no birds at all?
THE RUNNING-AWAY THING
Thanks to their sensitivity to infrasound (very, very low-frequency sounds), it’s possible that birds can hear storms approaching from days and days away – and alter their flight patterns accordingly.
In 2014, golden-winged warblers in Tennessee all scarpered en-masse, just before a huge storm front barrelled in and lashed the landscape with a total of 84 tornadoes. Once the bad weather had moved on, the warblers all came back.
So – can’t see any birds at all?
Well, forget walking.
BONUS: Check out this stunning piece of music composed using birds sat on power-lines. (Hat-tip to Suzi Richer for the link.)
(Nearly) every weekday this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?
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PREVIOUSLY: A Mile A Day #8 – Yeah, But Is It An Adventure?