A study from three members of Stanford University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering found that lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis) can rotate their heads up to 2,700 degrees in a single second. This allows the birds to maintain their gaze even while executing complicated, turn-on-a-dime, flight maneuvers. Furthermore, it was discovered that the birds are able to coordinate head motion and gaze direction with the flapping of their wings so as to minimize the time that their wings obscure their vision. While this is particularly useful for lovebirds who are fortunate enough to remain in a “dense and cluttered environment like a forest” where “proximity information about tree trunks and branches is essential” the abilities are, of course, also present in the birds who are confined in a university laboratory where PVC piping is the only available perching place.
Now this is all very interesting and it might, for some people in some small measure, increase the amount of respect conferred on the birds. But animal experimenters are quite skilled at tolerating the cognitive dissonance that must seemingly occur when their experiments confirm something remarkable about the the animals in their labs. Experimenters often justify initial experiments by talking about benefits that are purportedly conferred on animals but will almost inevitably call for even more experiments on even more animals regardless of their results. In short, if one didn’t already respect lovebirds it is difficult to understand how precisely quantifying their head rotation would prompt such respect.
Indeed, in the present case, the authors do not bother to suggest that a greater respect for animals may result from their experiment. The study received funding from the Human Frontier Science Program (grant RGP0003/2013) and the Office of Naval Research (grant N00014-10-1-0951). In the abstract for the HFSP grant, experimenters include half a sentence on one putative benefit for animals predicting that “results from these experiments will have implications for the design of bio-inspired aircraft and of bird-friendly, man-made structures such as wind farms” [emphasis added]. It is debatable how “bird-friendly” a wind farm might be but it should be noted that there is no mention of bird-friendly anything in the published study; in the published study we learn that their findings “can inspire more effective vision-based autopilots for drones.” The purpose of the Office of Naval Research grant has been summarized as follows: “to develop a bird-sized, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)…capable of navigating both urban and forest environments using vision-based control.” This explains the interest and the money provided by the military.
That humans need to humble themselves enough to learn from other animals has been a point that has been repeatedly made on this blog but experimenting on captive lovebirds so as to design better drones isn’t really what I had in mind.