Archive for August, 2014

Ironing Board Wings

Summer is a slower, laid back time of year. As a result I haven’t posted anything new to this blog for some time. Now is the time to start being more active.

I’ll start with the article below that I wrote and will soon be appearing in the Sept/Oct issue of Bird Watchers Digest magazine.


Just the facts, Ma’am

The Case of the Bird with Ironing Board Wings


Jack Webb, who portrayed Sgt. Joe Friday on the early TV series, Dragnet, uttered the iconic line “Just the facts, Ma’am”. Today, 50 years later, that line is still heard, even among those who have never watched black and white television. Keep the facts plain and simple.

I am a nut about bird facts, the more obscure or remarkable the better. In a bird trivia competition, I could be a finalist. What’s the largest bird? The smallest? The fastest? Who flies the highest, the farthest? I often use remarkable facts to impress new or novice bird watchers.

Recently I attended a program on bald eagles hoping to learn some new tidbits. I didn’t. But I did learn a valuable lesson.  When describing the size of an eagle, the speaker did not, as I would have, simply state that an eagle has a wingspan of 8 feet. That’s a fact, a dramatic fact, I think. But the speaker realized many people do not relate well to numbers. It is like saying the national balance of trade will increase a trillion dollars. Is that good or bad? Who knows how much a trillion dollars is?

Instead, the speaker compared an eagle’s wingspan to something more familiar to the audience – an ironing board.   Each wing, he said, is as long as an ironing board. Place two ironing boards end-to-end and you have the wingspan of an eagle.

Wow! I never thought of it that way. Using his description, I could visual just how big an eagle is. I instantly understood that, in order to make a fact more attention-grabbing, it must be presented in a way the audience can easily relate to.   For the next few days I spent every moment trying to create colorful new ways to describe facts about birds.

How fast is a peregrine?

Consider the well-known fact that a peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth, having been timed at over 200 miles per hour. That sounds pretty fast. But how fast is it really?

A typical city block is about 1/10 of a mile long. A peregrine would be just a blur as it travels the complete block in less than two seconds. To me, that sounds even faster.

Or, here is another way to put speed into perspective. A cheetah is the fastest land mammal reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. A very fast human sprinter may run 20 miles per hour. Let’s say the next Olympic Games holds a 100-meter dash featuring a peregrine, a cheetah and the world’s fastest human. At the sound of the starter’s gun all three competitors take off at top speed. When the peregrine streaks across the finish line, the cheetah will have travelled only 1/3 of the way and the human would barely be out of the starting blocks. That’s fast.

How much does a bird weigh?

I often point out that birds are truly light weight, any excess weight necessitates more energy for flying. So you seldom see a fat bird. A chickadee, for example, only weighs about 0.4 ounces. That sounds pretty lightweight, but who really can sense what 0.4 ounces feel like?

Would you find it easier to relate to that number if, instead of quoting a statistic, I compared the weight of a chickadee to the weight of something more familiar, say a McDonald’s quarter pounder? Well, it would take 10 chickadees to equal the weight of just the meat patty in one quarter pounder. That would be a mouthful of feathers.

Or put another way, one chickadee weighs about the same as a dozen paperclips. That’s light.

A hummingbird is even lighter, weighing only 1/8 of an ounce. How light is that? Say you had 8 hummingbirds laying around and imagine stuffing all of them into a standard business envelope. You then could mail all those hummingbirds to anywhere in the country using just a single 1st Class postage stamp. Eight hummingbirds weigh about one ounce, the same as three sheets of paper.

Do these illustrations give you a better sense of the lightness of birds?

More Facts

Trying to relate facts to common, everyday items was addictive. Once I started, I created more.

An ostrich egg, weighing about 3 pounds, is the largest egg. You can probably sense about how hefty 3 pounds feels. But maybe a better way to depict the size of an ostrich egg is to describe what you can do with it. There is enough material in a single ostrich egg to cook the equivalent of 24 fried egg sandwiches. That is 2 dozen chicken eggs.

The highest flyer

Birds usually fly at an altitude of less than 50 feet. During migration, however, some fly at higher altitudes, often as high as several thousand feet. If you strapped on an oxygen tank and climbed to the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal, the highest place on earth (elevation: over 5 miles), you might see bar-headed geese fly overhead as they migrate over the Himalayas.

Arctic terns make the longest migration – over 24,000 miles round trip – annually flying from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back.   By the time a tern is 10 years old, it has flown enough miles to reach the moon.

I am still working on clever new ways to present common bird facts (including the classic: how much does a pound of feathers weigh?) Instead of just remembering unusual facts about birds, I am now passionate about finding ways to make those facts more relevant.

An eagle’s wingspan is still 8 feet, but I never use that fact anymore. Instead, I have become an advocate for “the bird with the ironing board wings”.


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