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|"QUANTUM SHOT" #606|
Link - article by M. Christian and A. Abrams
What's that thing flying at the cruising altitude of a modern jet? In a deadly cold, without air?
Common ducks routinely reach altitude of 5 to 6 kilometers (20,000 feet)
We see them all the time, rowing across a clear, blue sky, applauding into the air when we startle them, singing their sharp, sweet songs in the trees, spiraling, spinning over our heads … but when you take a bit of time and do a smidgen of research, you realize that birds are fascinating creatures, capable of some truly remarkable things.
A barn swallow flies precisely into a two-inch opening of a door at a speed of 56 km/hr (35 miles per hour) -
(image credit: Keith Ringland)
Take, for example, the members of the anatidae family. Not familiar with them? Sure you are: aside from the city pigeon, they are probably one of the first birds people think of. Still fuzzy? Well, think ‘season’ and you might very well jump to ‘duck.’
It’s common knowledge that many birds migrate – some halfway around the world, others not very far at all – but a few species of duck travel amazing distances as part of their regular travels, and at phenomenal speeds. The black brant is one such record holder, making the trip from the cold climes of Alaska to the much-warmer lands of Baja, California. No need to do the math: that’s more than 3,000 miles. A distance, by the way, covered in less than 72 hours.
The ill-respected duck is also a record holder for not just distance and time but also altitude. Although they commonly aren’t high flyers, preferring to stay relatively close to the ground, ducks have been recorded soaring to close nearly 20,000 feet (that's more than 6 kilometers).
That most definitely is a ‘wow’ thing but what’s an even bigger – more like a real big WOW – is that a duck skeleton was found at 16,000 feet … in the form of a skeleton on Mount Everest. (this scientific paper discusses how ducks can actually breath and keep their body warmth at these altitudes)
For altitude, ducks are amazing, no denying that, but if you want to get really, really high you have to look at the extremely ugly Rüppell's Vulture. That might not be fair to the bird, but ugly or not this vulture wears a handsome medal for going where no bird, or even a lot of airplanes, have gone. Ducks, sure, deserve applause for 20,000 feet but the Rüppell's Vulture goes more than just one better, attaining a remarkable 38,000 feet (almost 12 kilometers). Alas, the record was set when the poor bird got sucked into a jet engine at that height but you still have to admit that it was quite an accomplishment.
Take the Sooty Shearwaters. Sounds like a comedy character, doesn’t it? But what this seabird does is anything but funny. Remarkable, yes.
See, the Sooty holds the current record for the longest migration. Period. Think 3,000 miles was wild for a duck? Well, the Sooty travels from New Zealand, or thereabouts, out to the waters of the North Pacific (Japan as well as California), which is a trip much, much longer than just Alaska to California. In fact, it’s a round trip just shy of 40,000 miles (more info)
(image credit: National Georgaphic)
Here’s something that will really make you think twice about swearing at the next swallow that poops on your windshield: the Peregrine Falcon is not just a regal bird as well as a magnificent hunter: it can spot, and then swoop down on, its prey from more than half a mile away. But what’s astounding is the speed of the falcon, considered by many to be the fastest animal in the entire world, when it attacks. Faster than a cheetah, faster than a greyhound: the falcon has been clocked at close to 200 miles per hour. Yep, that deserves another WOW.
But birds don’t have to be huge or travel long distances to be marvelous (though, in case you’re interested, the biggest living bird in the world is the ostrich, which can weigh as much as 350 pounds). The members of the family trochilidae – Hummingbirds to you and me -- aren’t big, don’t travel far, but they are certainly fast in their own way. Among the smallest of birds, they beat their wings up to 90 times per second – allowing them to fly every direction including backwards – and the hearts that power them can beat at more than 1,000 beats per minute - 16 heartbeats in a second!
Waddling across grassy fields, gliding through the air, becoming elegant silhouettes against the white of clouds, they are all around us: the magnificent – and amazing – owners of the sky. So let’s give the birds their due as well as some well-deserved respect.
(beautiful "stained glass" art by Elizabeth Gast)
PS. Humans of course can not fly. But they keep trying:
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