For the birds: Prankster causes delay of game


Q. For Psych 101 extra credit: Apply basic conditioning principles to devise a show-stopping prank at a football game. ­A. Groh

 A. Story circulating on the Net: A college guy spends a summer going down by the football field every day wearing a black and white striped shirt, scattering birdseed all over the field, blowing a whistle, then walking off. Fall arrives, and the school's first home game: The referee walks out, blows his whistle, and the game has to be delayed. Could this really have happened?

"I've never heard this, but it's certainly possible," says Ken Rosenberg of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. Birds are very visually oriented, highly intelligent, and driven to find food.

"I have a friend who studies urban crow populations. He has a beat-up old Toyota, and the crows know his car– when he drives certain streets, the crows see the car coming and come down to the roadside for the inevitable handout."

A very different "dinner bell" was sounded at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. MaryBeth Garrigan of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center recalls a bird-watching assignment there during explosives testing.

Looking through my binoculars, I saw a pair of red-tailed hawks sitting on a telephone pole, and as the bombing started, I expected the birds to fly away in a panic. Instead they flew to a platform closer to the explosions!"

She made sense of this when the bombing subsided and the hawks began flying slowly over the field, diving down and picking up what looked like shell-shocked mice and rabbits.

Q. Are humans ever born with tails? ­B. L. Zeebub

 A. More than 100 such cases have been reported in the medical literature, likened at times to pigs' tails, with their owners sometimes able to wag or curl them, says Jan Bondeson, Ph.D, in A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities.

In 1901, a Johns Hopkins anatomist studied a boy, otherwise healthy, born with a 1.5-inch tail that grew to three inches by the time he was six months, which he could "contract" when he was irritated, or coughed, or sneezed. Covered with normal skin, it had a core of connective tissue and fat, a normal supply of nerves and blood vessels, and strong muscle strands through it, explaining its mobility.

Many tailed infants have had true vestigial tails, where the outer part of the "caudal filament" persists. But dissimilar malformations exist, including the 19th-century case of a man who when asked why he had been rejected from the cavalry said, "Because I have a tail, Sir!" The surgeon examined him and confirmed that the broad, unyielding elongation of his coccyx would have made his career as a cavalryman an extremely painful one.

"It is an open question," concludes Bondeson, "how long a tail can get if allowed to grow indefinitely, for nowadays tails are usually amputated at an early age to spare the child and its parents anxiety and unwelcome attention."

Q. Wouldn't you just guess there'd be more Fridays the 13 than Saturdays the 13 or any other day? ­A. Robinson

 A. You'd be right, says Alfred Posamentier in Math Charmers: Tantalizing Tidbits for the Mind. This fact was first pointed out by B.H. Brown in American Mathematical Monthly. Figuring, the number of days in one four-year Gregorian calendar cycle is 3 x 365 + 366 = 1461. So in 400 years there are 100 x 1461 - 3 = 146,097 days.

"Note that the century year, unless divisible by 400, is not a leap year; hence the deduction of 3."

This number is exactly divisible by seven for the weeks. There are 4800 months in the 400-year cycle, so the 13th comes up 4800 times. As it works out, each cycle has 684 Saturdays the 13, 687 Sundays, 685 Mondays and Tuesdays, 687 Wednesdays, 684 Thursdays and lo and behold 688 Fridays. As (un)luck would have it.

Q. What implications does woodpecker research have for football players and race car drivers? ­A. Hale

A. Slow-motion photography reveals the woodpecker's head accelerating to about 15 mph (the speed of a good human sprinter) before colliding with the tree, reports James W. Kalat in Biological Psychology. That's on every third hit or so. The other two are gentler, setup taps, "like a carpenter lining up a hammer with a nail." The bird avoids brain injury by delivering hard strikes in an almost perfectly straight line, with neck held rigid. "The result is a near absence of rotational forces and whiplash," Kalat says.

Similarly, a better design for sports helmets would be to extend protection down to the shoulders, like the metal helmets medieval knights wore. For non-helmet-wearers seeing a collision coming, he advises, "tuck your chin to your chest and tighten your neck muscles."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich