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Researchers create cyborg robo-battle-sparrow of doom

To learn more about bird behavior, Duke University researchers go all Dr. Frankenstein by reanimating a dead sparrow with robotics.

Robo-bird attacked
When sparrows attack. Robo-bird gets a beat-down from a living sparrow.
Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

It's a surprisingly dangerous world out there in the trees. Sparrows sing, flit about, and fight like they're auditioning for a role on "Game of Thrones." Male swamp sparrows will even take their battles to the death. Before they get that far, though, there's a whole lot of wing-waving going on to mark their territory and signal their aggression.

Duke University biologist Rindy Anderson wanted to learn more about how these birds communicate with each other, so she and engineering undergraduate student David Piech built a cyborg robo-battle-sparrow of doom.

The Frankensparrow consisted of a miniature computer and robotics gear stuffed into the body of a dead sparrow. This allowed the researchers to control the wings. They took the Frankenstein sparrow to a breeding ground, played swamp sparrow invasion songs, and made it wave its wings at other males, the sparrow equivalent of flipping them the bird.

"I am broadly interested in male-male competition and in the mechanisms that maintain reliability in aggressive signaling systems," Anderson says.

She discovered the birds were much more aggressive when the cyborg taxidermy waved its wings than when it was sitting still or just twisting around. She believes the wing-waving signals are a method the birds use to warn each other off and avoid a potentially damaging sparrow smackdown.

I'm hoping the first time Anderson and Piech turned the sparrow on for a test drive, it was raining outside. Thunder sounded. Anderson raised her fists to the heavens as lightning split outside the window. "My creation lives!" she called out as the robo-sparrow flapped its wings. At least, that's how I imagine it went.