The Drinking Bird still has it

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There’s a bird in our house. And even though he has no wings and can’t fly, we can’t take our eyes off him.

He is a “drinking bird,” or what some people call a “dippy bird.” Made of two small glass bulbs connected by a glass tube, the bird is designed to tip over and dip his spongy, felt-covered beak into a cup of water. Once he has a drink, he rights himself once again and continues to rock back and forth until his next drink a minute or two later. Birds drinking birdlike this one have been drinking for nearly a century now, originating back in the early 1900’s.

As soon as I spotted the bird in a toy store, I felt 7 years old again. My older brother had one when we were kids. The science behind what makes the bird drink is far more complex than the bird’s simple design suggests. I did a little research and the driving force behind the repetitive drinking is the thermodynamic cycle and involves smart-sounding words like evaporation, liquid displacement, condensation, pressure equalization and ambient air temperature.

I won’t go into all the scientific details – mostly because even after spending 20 minutes reading and re-reading the explanation, I’m still not sure I understand it myself. (Did I mention I was an English major?) For me, what’s more interesting than the science behind the drinking bird is the reaction he gets from the non-bird residents of the house.

Despite its obvious lack of buttons and apps and Internet connection, the bird continues to capture our attention. While the kids drink their juice boxes, they stand nearby and stare at the unassuming bird wearing a blue top hat, waiting for him to dip down for his next sip of water. There’s something about seeing that pointy beak dive down into the water cup that delights and satisfies us. We watch for several minutes, wondering if he’ll keep going or get stuck during mid-sip.

Our cat Percy, who gets fatter and fluffier by the day, took an interest in the bird, too. She was attracted by the bobbing, bright green feather attached to the bird’s back, and I feared that one swipe of her paw might send the fragile bird flying off the kitchen counter. So I came up with what I thought was a genius solution. I put a tall glass dome over the bird and his drinking cup so we could all see him drink but he’d be protected from Percy, the predator.

But a few minutes after I put the dome over the bird, he stopped. No more rocking, dipping or drinking. When I took the dome off, he got thirsty again. (Apparently, you can take the bird out of the thermodynamic cycle but you can’t take the thermodynamic cycle out of the bird – if you know what I mean.)

So our newest “pet” continues to entertain and requires nothing more from us than a water refill now and then. We’ve caught the cat sneaking a drink out of the bird’s water cup a time or two. She probably wonders what’s so special about that water that keeps the bird coming back for more. I tried explaining thermodynamics to the cat but she fell asleep just as I was getting to the good parts. Apparently she was an English major, too.

But the bird proves something that is kind of refreshing in a world full of Xboxes, Wii’s, Google Glasses and super smart smartphones — that sometimes the simple, oldest toys – powered only by the laws of nature – are still some of the best.

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