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Bringing cameras to a staring contest

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It seems unlikely that the work of Jessica Yorzinski, a sensory ecologist at Texas A&M University, draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” For one, the blackbirds of Yorzinski’s focus are grackles, which are more like crows than ravens.

The aim of Yorzinksi’s research, as outlined in a Biology Letters paper published in December, is to determine why and how often grackles blink. The answer considers factors brought on by the birds’ changing physical environments — such as when they land from flight or move from one setting to another. There is a balance between the need to blink and the need to understand the environment. When humans blink, we sacrifice our ability to ascertain information about the world around us — if only for a millisecond.

As for grackles? Before Yorzinski’s study, we didn’t really know. But quoth the ecologist: “Nevermore.”

A custom headpiece supports a two-camera system, from which Jessica Yorzinski ascertained information about the blinking habits of the grackle. Courtesy of Jessica Yorzinski.


A custom headpiece supports a two-camera system, from which Jessica Yorzinski ascertained information about the blinking habits of the grackle. Courtesy of Jessica Yorzinski.

She began her work by outfitting 10 male grackles with a custom headpiece that was equipped with two video cameras that operated at 30 fps and were pointed separately at each of the eyes of the birds. The location of the birds’ eyes on the sides of their heads made the imaging a two-camera job.

Enticing the birds to fly was less technologically dependent. Video footage courtesy of The New York Times shows Yorzinski performing the experiments. In the footage, she chases the grounded birds around an enclosed space to the point of take-off (the birds, not Yorzinski).

The cameras on the birds’ heads caught every bit of ocular action. The headpiece was connected to a bird-size, battery-powered backpack, allowing the team to make its determinations.

A custom headpiece supports a two-camera system, from which Jessica Yorzinski ascertained information about the blinking habits of the grackle. Courtesy of Jessica Yorzinski.


Male grackles, larger than the female birds, were used in the study. The headpiece did not hinder the ability of the birds to take flight. Courtesy of Jessica Yorzinski.

The results supported Yorzinski’s hypothesis. She said in the paper, “The grackles spent the least amount of time blinking at take-off, during flight, and at landing. They spent the most amount of time blinking at impact. Their blinking behavior was similar before and after flight.”

Each captured video clip included footage of the grackles immediately before, during, and after they flew. The team acquired stage-by-stage information by separating the distinct and clearly defined stages from one another within the video clips they captured.

Increasing the frame rate of the camera system in such an experiment increased the precision of results. Of course, the physical characteristics of the imaging system and its components needed to avoid weighing down the birds. Embedding hardware into headwear outfitted for birds is a heavy ask with a light-as-possible target outcome.

Human pilots, it turns out, exhibit blinking behavior that is similar to that of the birds, according to two separate studies, each conducted in the last quarter-century. The blinks of pilots are also shorter and less frequent when taking flight and during landing.

What else might we share with grackles? Quoth this writer: “Only this and nothing more.”

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2021
GLOSSARY
camera
A light-tight box that receives light from an object or scene and focuses it to form an image on a light-sensitive material or a detector. The camera generally contains a lens of variable aperture and a shutter of variable speed to precisely control the exposure. In an electronic imaging system, the camera does not use chemical means to store the image, but takes advantage of the sensitivity of various detectors to different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. These sensors are transducers...
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