For the Birds Radio Program: GPS

Original Air Date: Sept. 5, 2003 (estimated date)

Russ gave Laura a fairly expensive gift that may allow her to do what any bird can do for free.

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This year for our wedding anniversary, my husband Russ gave me a cool gift—a GPS receiver. Suddenly, thanks to this Global Positioning Satellite receiver, a nifty and fairly expensive little tool, I can know where I am on the planet just about as well as a bird. Of course, this 6.1 ounce little machine does it by locating satellites and using them to calculate its position. A tiny American Redstart doesn’t have a clue about satellites. A redstart’s entire body weighs about a third of an ounce—it would take more than 18 redstarts to balance my GPS. Yet redstarts and other migratory birds know their place on the planet just about as well as we do using a GPS. Birds use a variety of natural clues, all integrated within their tiny bird brains, which even have microscopic deposits of magnetite to give the bird a general idea of where magnetic north is. Baby birds instinctively notice the stars in the sky, and how they move in a circle around the one fixed star. They use Polaris to follow a more precise direction. They also notice the sun’s position in the sky throughout the day. If a bird is somehow brought to another place, it will fly toward home in part by using the sun’s position in the sky compared to where it should be at that time of day. It took humans thousands of years to develop the maps and globes, compasses, sextants, and other tools that do pretty much what birds instinctively do with no equipment. A GPS does this all more efficiently and with incredible accuracy, but if we drop it, where are we then?

So once again, we humans have invented a machine to allow us to do with technology what birds could always do. Eyeglasses, binoculars and magnifying glasses help us to see almost as well as birds. Special microphones and parabolas help us to hear as well as birds. We humans do have slightly better senses of taste, smell, and touch, but birds are superior in the two senses that bring us the most information about our environment. Barometers and altimeters allow us to detect air pressure as well as birds. Flutes, trumpets, and other musical instruments help us to sing as well as birds. Airplanes and helicopters allow us to fly like birds. Rubber swimming fins and wet suits help us to swim like birds. Down jackets keep us as warm as birds. Oxygen tanks and pressurized airplane cabins allow us to be active at the same altitudes that birds negotiate with ease.

Although we’ve long used birds as our inspiration for technological advances, we don’t pay nearly enough attention to other ways that birds have evolved beyond us. Birds are just as territorial as we are, perhaps even more so, but they have worked out a beautiful system of declaring and defending their territory, through song. Male birds inherently shy away from another singing male, so they space themselves simply and naturally, seldom getting close enough to get agitated enough to use visual displays, and virtually never getting close enough to actually come to blows. When two birds do fight, only rarely does one inflict serious injury, and the murder rate among birds is virtually zero. Of course, hawks, owls, and shrikes kill and eat other birds, and jays, crows, and their relatives steal eggs and chicks for food, but this killing, like human agriculture and hunting, is strictly for food, and not waged against their own species. Hummingbirds are pugnacious and feisty when defending a favorite feeding spot, but a female displaying her white tail spots or a male displaying his ruby throat is often enough to drive other hummers away, and when a display isn’t enough, the high speed chases virtually never result in injury, much less death. And there has never been a bird on the planet who has killed another bird, or sent other birds to do its killing, for anything as black and slimy as oil.

Little by little, our technology is making us physically capable of doing what birds do. I can’t wait for the day when we humans set our sights on living the way birds do.