Alexa (Photo by Don Reimer)
Alexa (Photo by Don Reimer)
I admit to being somewhat of a dinosaur when it comes to dealing with technology. I wear an analog wrist-watch and carry a basic cell phone strictly for purposes of work duties or dire emergencies. I don’t tweet, Instagram or get social media updates on Facebook or Myspace. I consult grandchildren for advice about routine (to them) technological procedures. But now a new cloud-based voice assistant has entered my house. My wife recently purchased an Amazon Echo, a black cylindrical device equipped with untold databases of computer-spawned information on practically any subject. Alexa is the “spokesperson” for this device, a pleasant female-voiced automated web robot (a bot) avail-able around the clock to answer queries about local weather conditions or myriad other topics of interest. Give her a vocal prompt and she will play your favorite music and adjust the volume to your personal liking.

Sensing my general disdain for Alexa, my wife urged me to ask her an occasional question, but I declined. To my delight, I soon detected some gaps in Alexa’s musical compendium when she couldn’t summon a particular song my wife had requested: “Sorry, I am not familiar with that song,” she said. With smiling glee, I smugly retorted, “Alexa, would it help at all if we hummed a few bars?” “I am not familiar with that request,” she answered.

Eventually I chose to ask her some bird-related questions. “Alexa, what is a bird?” I asked. She replied instantly with a scripted quote from Wikipedia: “Birds are a group of endothermic vertebrates, characterized by feathers, toothless beaked jaws, the laying of hard-shelled eggs, a high metabolic rate, a four-chambered heart, and a strong yet lightweight skeleton.”

If we unpack Alexa’s canned response to my bird question, there is relevant biological content to consider. Unlike groups of reptiles and amphibians, birds are able to generate their own body heat internally. This ability is enhanced by their high metabolic rate and elevated body temperature. Exact temperatures vary for different species, but the average bird’s temperature is 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Layers of insulating feathers help to preserve body heat levels. A bird’s highly efficient heart is proportionally larger than mammal hearts and it beats faster to supply oxygenated blood for flight and other physically demanding tasks.

Possessing a profuse array of customized bill shapes and sizes to crack seeds or secure live prey items, birds don’t actually need teeth; falcons, for example, feature a “tomial tooth,” a sharp, triangular-shaped ridge on the upper mandible used for tearing flesh. Moreover, the powerful intestinal gizzard of birds approximates the work of teeth, grinding food stocks into smaller bits for further digestion.

The laying of hard-shelled eggs is a matter of practical necessity, since incubating birds must sit atop the eggs during incubation. In the 1970s, this became a serious survival issue for incubating raptors as the decalcifying effects of DDT pesticide thinned and weakened eggshells to the point of widespread nest failures.

Bird flight is a demanding but essential function that becomes accentuated during the takeoff and landing phases. Birds’ strong, lightweight skeletal structure is made of mostly thin and hollow bones that are specially adapted for flight. Some bones even have pneumatic air sacs and do not contain marrow. Due to the weight-limited contingencies of flight, birds have a smaller number of total bones than mammals and reptiles.

Then I posed an open-ended question: “Alexa, can you tell me a bird fact?” “Birds live on all seven continents,” she offered. I pressed her further: “Alexa, will Snowy Owls occur in Maine this coming winter?” “I’m not sure about that. I’m still learning more about birds,” she explained.

Me too, I thought.