Engineering a squirrel obstacle course: Practical deterrent, entertainment, or science?

Like many of us bored during the COVID stay-at-home period, YouTuber Mark Rober turned to a new hobby: backyard birding.  But Mark is a former NASA engineer (you may know him from his glitter bomb bait package video), so when he saw squirrels getting into his bird feeder, this new hobby spun out into an experiment in squirrel-proof bird feeders, which then (naturally) eventually involved into building a Ninja Warrior-style squirrel obstacle course in his yard.

Rober’s squirrel obstacle course

His YouTube video on the subject is highly entertaining, but what impressed me most as a scientist was…the science!  Did you know there was going to be science?  You might have missed it because it was so interesting.

His observations of the course begin by identifying his subjects: 4 particular squirrels were included in this study.  My favorite: Phat Gus aka Phantastic Gus, who turns out to be a pregnant female.  Speaking as another currently-pregnant female, Phat Gus is quite frankly an inspiration to me.

Phat Gus is my spirit animal

The study here really consists of two types of animal behavior science.  The most interesting to me is the part involving ethology, the study of animals’ behavior typically in their natural environment with limited interference.  This type of research was my primary focus during my undergrad; my career goal was to study animal behavior in zoos (spoiler alert: this is not my current field of biology at all).

For example, I would observe the manatees at the Columbus zoo, creating an ethogram of their behaviors (eating, sleeping, social interaction, swimming, surfacing to breathe) to see how much of their time was spent doing each activity, and what part of the exhibit they were doing them in.  This led me to be fascinated by the physiology of how manatees use their tails, flippers, and bodies to rise to the surface to breathe, even while sleeping.

File:Marine mammal animal manatee surfacing to breathe.jpg

Rober is similarly fascinated by the physics of how squirrels are able to land so cleanly even after being launched or dropped from his platforms: lowering their terminal velocity, turning in midair and pulling in/stretching their limbs, spotting their landings, and using their tails to adjust their trajectory.  He nicely ties this back to the evolutionary ecology of squirrels, considering it an adaptation to life in trees.

Spotting his landing

Also under the ethology category would be his initial pilot study of which type of seeds or nuts the squirrels prefer: walnuts, which he then used as his obstacle course final reward.

But why’re the walnuts gone?

The obstacle course itself is a great example of behaviorism, measuring behavioral responses to stimuli (typically in a laboratory environment).  This is the kind of research people typically think of with rats in mazes or Pavlov making dogs salivate to a bell.

The course includes rope and slinky bridges, a maze, spinning obstacles, a dropping platform, a photo op, angled steps, and a (gentle) catapult.

It only took the squirrels about a week to get to the end of the obstacle course, and they were eventually able to do it all in less than 40 seconds.

Rober also highlighted another important aspect of animal research: the safety of the subjects.  I appreciated his repeated comments on how he made the course humane so the squirrels would not actually be harmed.

Gotta keep these guys safe.

This video highlights so much of why I love animal behavior research.  Animals are endlessly fascinating to me, and I find interacting with them, even just by observing in a research setting, to be a rewarding educational experience.

Rober never did find a bird feeder that completely stopped the squirrels.  But in the end, he didn’t really care.

You keep doing you, Phat Gus.

5 K-pop Songs I Sing to My Kid

One of the fun parts of having kids is being able to share your interests with them, things like Star Wars and superheroes.  I have been into K-pop for the better part of a decade, so naturally I am passing that on to my kid, too. Here are some songs that I sing to him (even though I don’t speak Korean haha).

DNA

by BTS

This song came out while I was pregnant, so my kid heard it a lot starting even in utero.  Though it’s a love song, the concept of a connection through DNA always seemed really fitting to me when talking about the relationship of a mother and a child.  Some of the lines translate to things like “We’ll be together forever, DNA” and “The DNA in my blood is telling me/That it’s you who I’ve been looking for.”  Since BTS is one of my favorite groups, I of course sing lots of other songs of theirs, but this one reminds me most of him.

Fire Truck

by NCT 127

This one is pretty simple: my kid loves fire trucks.  For a long time, he called them “wee ooh wee oohs” according to the sound their siren makes.  The chorus in this song simply goes something like “Whoop whoop whoop whoop fire truck.” I really have no idea what the song is actually about, but my kid thinks this phrase is pretty hilarious.

Lion

by (G)-Idle

This is the most recent release on my list; it came out last November, around the time my kid turned two.  One day when I was trying to entertain him, I sang the chorus and did some of the choreography and got the sometimes-desirable/sometimes-dreaded “More!” in response.  Now he asks me to sing the “Ba ba” song, and can even sing it a bit himself. The chorus goes: 

Bababa bababa bababa

It looks like a lion

I’m a queen like a lion

Ay-oh

Which is all just phonetic sounds and English words, including picture book staples “queen” and “lion,” so very easy for a toddler to pick up.

Lollipop

by BIGBANG and 2NE1

I sang a bit of this one to my kid one day, the part that goes “Lolli lolli lollipop,” and he thought it was funny, so I showed him the music video on YouTube and for some reason he absolutely loved it.  He’s never been interested in any K-pop video before, but this one is…some kind of special.

It was 2NE1’s first video back in 2009, so they are very young and the fashion is…interesting. I love 2NE1, they are my favorite K-pop group of all time, but this video is not good.  The best I can say about it is that it made me truly appreciate TOP’s charisma and visuals. But I guess I can’t be too harsh on it, because it was actually just a commercial for a cell phone. And it is colorful, repetitive, and dancy, plus it’s about candy, so I guess it would appeal to toddlers.  We like to put this on and dance around the living room sometimes when we are getting a bit stir crazy.

 

My Star

by Lee Hi

Ah, this one is a bit more personal.  I had just discovered Lee Hi around the time I was pregnant, and after my son was born I spent many, many hours in the dark of night singing to try to calm him.  After quickly running out of lullabies, I moved onto Rufus Wainwright, The Decemberists, and K-pop songs, and I happened to know a lot of the lyrics to this one from listening to it so much.  Again, it’s a love song, but it starts with the lyrics

넌 나의 STAR

넌 나의 SUN

넌 나의 MOON

Which translates to:

You’re my star

You’re my sun

You’re my moon

So I thought it was something sweet to sing to him.  I sang it to him so much that it became part of our nightly bedtime ritual: read books, put on sleep sack, sing My Star, turn out light, get in bed and sleep.  (When my husband has to put him to bed, he just hums it haha.) Nowadays, he cries when I sing it because he doesn’t want to go to bed! Hopefully it’s just a phase and I haven’t scarred him for life with this song.

5 Favorite K-pop MVs of 2018

We had lots of videos from some heavy hitters this year, plus one surprise League of Legends crossover.

1. “POP/STARS” by K/DA

This one is a little complicated, but just watch the video and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

K/DA is a virtual band whose members are the League of Legends game characters Ahri, Evelynn, Akali, and Kai’Sa. But the vocals are provided by real singers, including two K-pop idols of the group (G)I-dle, Soyeon (rapper/Akali) and Miyeon (vocalist/Ahri).  Basically, Riot Games wanted to promote some new skins for LoL characters and ended up creating the most awesome music video of the year.

Soyeon is one of the fastest rising stars in K-pop right now; she’s a great rapper, has amazing stage presence, and is a wonderful leader for her rookie group (G)I-dle, which had two hits this year.

See also:

2. “Sober” by Hyo

I’ve been thrilled to see Hyoyeon, the main dancer of Girls Generation, putting out more solo stuff.  This video just makes me want to dance around the house every time I watch it.  Also, I appreciate the diversity and body-positive visuals.

3. “Idol” by BTS

You knew BTS had to be on this list somewhere.  I love this video for its spunk and energy, its Korean cultural influences, and its drawings of leader RM with kitty ears.  This video was so good it got a Bad Lip Reading treatment.

4. “Egotistic” by Mamamoo

K-pop follows US music trends, so it’s no surprise that many singles this year featured Latin music influences; Mamamoo is one group that did it very well and will have you yelling “bicho malo” right along with them.  They are such a wonderful mix of talent and confidence, and their live performances are some of the best in K-pop.

5. “Ddu-du Ddu-du” by BLACKPINK

Another killer hit by one of my favorite girl groups, BLACKPINK.  I don’t know what else to say about this except that it has all the swag you’d expect, including a glittery tank, and that Lisa is about the only person alive who could make those green gloves look cool.  Rapper Jennie also released a solo with a great MV this year.

Live Performances:

I’ve been watching more live performances from music shows and awards shows this year, so here are a few that I thought were really special.

  1. “Woman” by BoA on KBS Music Bank.  The legendary BoA makes her entrance by walking upside-down, then flipping over and performing the whole song live with the energy of idols half her age.
  2. “Latata” by (G)I-dle on SBS Inkigayo.  Can you believe these girls are rookies?? I can’t!  I think I watched every single stage promotion of this, their debut song.
  3. “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” by Key on You Hee-yeol’s Sketchbook. SHINee’s triple threat Key had a solo debut this year, and while promoting his song he also performed this lovely Coldplay cover.

Just try to get either of these out of your head

I know this isn’t my typical subject matter, but two things I love have come together, and I have to share this with someone, and you guys are it.  One of my favorite K-pop groups, BTS, recently released a new single (or “comeback” in K-pop parlance).  You may have seen them performing it on America’s Got Talent.  Here’s the music video:

There is also a version for their collaboration with Nicki Minaj.  Both great videos: crazy, but entertaining.  The song is super catchy and has great, positive lyrics.

But wait, there’s more!

I’ve previously featured the Star Wars episodes of Bad Lip Reading, which is a YouTube channel that is exactly what it sounds like: the producer re-dubs video based on what it looks like the actors are saying.  He also occasionally makes songs out of it, and they are really good songs.  So thanks to him, BTS is now singing about a “Sample of My Pasta.”

My favorite part is at 0:43 where V yells “Cute bird!” because that seems like something he would do anyways in real life.  He is my favorite singer of the group (aka my “bias”) because he’s kinda weird and crazy (a “4D” personality).  He’s also sporting what looks like lemonade-colored hair in this video.

I’m happy to talk about BTS all day, so I’d love to answer any of your questions in the comments 😀

 

5 Favorite K-pop MVs of 2017

I actually made a playlist of K-pop music on Spotify to take to the hospital with me while I was giving birth.  I suspect that may have been a first for the Labor and Delivery unit.  It’s been another wonderful year of K-pop music videos; here are some of my favorites.

1. “Yes I Am” by Mamamoo

There is so much to love about this song, this video, and this group.  The song is so catchy and has the most body-positive and self-confident lyrics I’ve ever heard in a K-pop song.  The video itself is colorful and cute, and they did the choreography themselves.  But I can’t say enough about these four ladies as performers, because in my opinion they give the best live performances in all of K-pop.  Their vocals are flawless and their stage presence is magnetic.  They are known for changing their lyrics on stage and doing little ad libs.  If you really want to see them at their best, check out some live performances of this song, like this one.

2. “MIC Drop (Steve Aoki Remix)” by BTS

BTS had another huge year, breaking further into the American audience with appearances at the AMAs and on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen.  I loved their first single “DNA,” but I was really struck by the video for their remix of “MIC Drop,” a song I already liked from the first time I saw it performed live.  The remix version is what they’ve been performing recently, and while I like this new version of the song fine (it has more English lyrics), the video just blew me away with its visuals.

3. “Hobgoblin” by CLC

I love finding new, young groups, and CLC is one that came on my radar this year with their badass video for “Hobgoblin.” Hyuna apparently worked with them on this, and you can really feel the 4Minute vibe, which is very welcome since the disbandment of that group.  Most young girl groups have a cutesy concept, which is not my thing, so it’s great to find a next generation capable of taking on the swag of groups like 4Minute and 2NE1.

4. “Rollin'” by Brave Girls

Here’s another group that came across my radar this year with a catchy song and great choreography.  I normally don’t go for concepts that are “sexy,” but this one is on the classy side (I know the title says “Clean Version,” but all that was removed was a few clips of the girls lying in a pile.  I dunno.)  I absolutely love the use of the stools in the choreography.  And in those high heels, too!  Very impressive.

5. “Peek-a-Boo” by Red Velvet

I’ve been a fan of Red Velvet and their catchy songs for years, and they sure had a great year with two big hits.  This is the most recent video on my list, but I’ve already played it on repeat so many times.  It is such a bizarre concept: a cult of girls who lure pizza delivery guys to their house to kill them.  Wearing shiny rainbow dresses.  Or something.  Somehow involving Jell-O.  But Red Velvet pulls it off just like anything else.

Other Honorable Mentions:

  1. “Shall We Dance” by Block B—Mainly for the adorable little girl showing off her moves with them.  Also P.O wearing Burberry lol.
  2. “Move” by Taemin—The maknae of SHINee once again turns out a killer video–actually three videos, but this one is my favorite.  His style blends so well with Japanese choreographer Koharu Sugawara; they are just poetry in motion together.  It has such an emotional and sensual feel in a very gender neutral way, without being overtly sexy.  Beautiful.
  3. “Ninano” by Minzy—Speaking of great dancing, my bias from my favorite K-pop group 2NE1, made her solo debut, and Minzy is such a good dancer it was fun to see her collaborate with Marquese Scott in this video.  It incorporates some of the original video choreography with freestyling.
  4. “Hola Hola” by KARD—This co-ed group is consistently churning out tropical house-style hits with awesome choreography.  This video adds some beautiful scenery and a chance to display some personality of the members.
  5. “Love” by PSY feat. Taeyang—Though this song is by the K-pop idol most famous here in the US, he doesn’t appear in this video at all.  Instead, we are treated to awesome dancing by Parris Goebel and her ReQuest Dance Crew (you may recognize them from Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video).