Just before Christmas, a Southwest Airlines plane carrying nearly 150 passengers was forced to make an emergency landing after colliding with a bird. So how come our feathered friends don’t get out of the way when a giant piece of metal rushes at them? It’s difficult to conduct field experiments without causing actual casualties, so wildlife researchers resorted to virtual reality. They played videos of trucks approaching at speeds ranging from 60 to 360 kilometers per hour toward brown-headed cowbirds in an enclosed chamber and studied the birds’ behavior. The scientists found that the cowbirds paid attention to the distance between them and the truck rather than the truck’s speed, always flying away when the truck appeared about 30 meters away, they report online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The strategy may have saved them from natural predators such as hawks, the researchers suggest, but it proves fatal for dealing with highway cars and other vehicles traveling above 120 kilometers per hour. More studies are needed to determine whether other birds and animals behave in a similar way, but the researchers suggest that installing special lights on planes could alert birds to begin their escape from a longer distance away.
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