A National Science Foundation grant will help researchers understand how certain types of muscles help birds control feathers in flight. Bret Tobalske, director of the University of Montana Field Research Station said in a news release, "We have been fascinated by the capacity of birds to change the shape of their wings from one instant to the next. Skeletal muscle is relatively well studied, but we are going in a novel direction by focusing on smooth bird muscle." Smooth muscles, such as those in the walls of blood vessels, are not under conscious control and work automatically, Tobalske said.

Tobalske and Tobin Hieronymus at Northeast Ohio Medical University will start by studying body contour feathers and move into the role of smooth muscles in the wings of pigeons during flight. The title of their grant is a long one - "Establishing the Feasibility of Avian Feather Muscles as a Study System for Neuromotor Control."

Double crested cormorant. (Mike Daniels, Townsquare Media)