Conning birds with cutting edge technology
Birds like cuckoos and cowbirds like to hide their eggs in other birds’ nests so that those parents will do the hard work or raising the impostor offspring. Which means that, to better understand the nuances of this process, humans want to hide eggs in those nests too, although we’re not looking to have the birds raise our kids as a result. We just want to figure out how these birds are figuring out which eggs are which.
Researchers have been trying to figure out what the key elements of egg deception are, often with their own fake eggs, for over 40 years. These eggs have been made from wood, putty, plaster and even premade eggs from craft stores. Most researchers wouldn’t claim to be master sculptors, and so this process has lacked a certain amount of refinement. Fortunately, 3D printing is opening a host of new possibilities that should really help confuse some avian parents.
Refined and reproducible
The basic design can start much more accurately, as a real egg can be scanned and replicated. From there, small, quantifiable differences can be introduced, allowing much better control over each variable to be tested. Because the eggs are created from saved data, they can then be replicated by multiple labs to more easily try to reproduce results, eliminating unwanted variables from experiments.
The remaining hurdles are painting, as egg color is something important to the birds, and the strength of the printed plastic ‘shells.’ When a bird decides they’ve identified an egg that isn’t theirs, they don’t just push it out of the nest— they usually try to peck it open to ensure it doesn’t survive first. The 3D printed eggs, however, are too strong for the birds to break, causing confusion. The solution might be to use new materials, such as sugar shells used in confectioneries, especially if they can still be printed.
Source: Higher-Tech Fake Eggs Offer Better Clues To Wild-Bird Behavior by Nell Greenfieldboyce, All Tech Considered