When birds collide

In “Collision course” (SN: 9/21/13, p. 20), Susan Milius told the stories of two ornithologists working to develop windows that birds won’t fly into.

With few exceptions, readers were sympathetic to the plight of birds that either don’t see windows or incorrectly interpret reflections. William Thompson e-mailed about his Colorado home: “At the height of bird activity, we see about five such collisions per month with a 20 percent mortality rate. These collisions usually occur when there are a large number of birds flying, and the level of aggression/agitation is heightened. We suspect a significant number of these collisions result from the bird essentially attacking [its own reflection].” His response to the problem was to consider the underlying cause: “We readily admit that as the owners of an overly large house we are complicit in the more fundamental problem, faced by all species other than humans, which is loss of habitat. How about fewer people and fewer buildings?” Patricia Williams e-mailed that she was surprised when she moved from country to city to find that mourning doves would swoop onto her window ledge to eat birdseed without ever hitting the windows. “Maybe evolution will let the smart ones survive to reproduce, so none will require special windows anymore,” she suggested. But evolving window smarts sounds like a monster of a challenge, Milius says: “Glad to hear your doves coped, since mourning doves are among the species that surveys report finding dead at windows. Perhaps your window isn’t prone to tricky reflections, or the birds are aiming for the seeds on the ledge.”

Singing in focus

Bruce Bowerexplored the mental mechanics of off-key singing in “The tune wreckers”
(SN: 9/21/13, p. 26).

Singers seemed especially fascinated by this story. “I wonder what the role of vibrato is,” e-mailed Jose Alonso. “I often find well-known and respected operatic voices to sing with such a high degree of vibrato that it is difficult to even establish the pitch of the note being sung.” Bower replies that a vocalist or instrumentalist produces vibrato by creating rapid fluctuations in the pitch of musical notes. “When done well,” he says, “this technique adds emotional punch to a musical performance. Vibrato may contribute to the tendency of listeners to allow for more mistuning from singers than from violinists, but researchers have yet to test for that possibility.” More research could also address a question e-mailed by reader Nathan Meleen, who asks how speakers of tonal languages, which use changes in pitch to distinguish between otherwise identical words, might fare in identifying off-key crooning compared with speakers of nontonal languages.

New website keeps getting better

Science Newslaunched a new website on October 3, part of a larger effort to better link the online presence of the magazine with its publisher, Society for Science & the Public, and the organization’s science competitions and other educational programs. The new site allowssubscribers (now also members of the Society) to use a single username and password to access content on the website and in the tablet edition on the iPad.

Editor-in-Chief Eva Emerson said after the launch: “You can’t make a new website without a few hiccups.” We knew going in that the most difficult technical feat would be linking our subscriber database with the website and the Apple App Store to allow a seamless sign-in process. And unfortunately, many subscribers did run into problems that first week. Now, the technical gurus assure us, the log-in system is working, though you may need to create a new password. Other fixes, such as a way to e-mail favorite stories, are high on the “fix-it” list. In the meantime, keep the feedback coming!

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