What Bird Lays the Biggest Eggs Compared to Its Body Size? Where Does ‘Lame Duck’ Come From? And More Questions From Our Readers

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The North Island brown kiwi is a flightless, nocturnal bird that lays the biggest egg relative to its body size. (Marilyn Foehrenbach)
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Q: I’ve read that ostriches lay the biggest eggs. But what land bird lays the biggest egg for its body size?

— Matthew Chase | Washington, D.C.

That would be the North Island brown kiwi, says Kathy Brader, senior bird keeper at the National Zoo, which in 1975 bred the first kiwi outside its native New Zealand. A female kiwi lays an egg that is 15 to 22 percent of her weight. A male then incubates the egg for 68 to 91 days. When the chick hatches, it is soon self-sufficient and won’t imprint on its parents. Unlike most birds, female brown kiwis have two functioning ovaries and, unlike other kiwi species, they will lay multiple eggs per season.

Q: Where does the phrase “lame duck” come from?

— Anonymous | Boston

A British economics term from the 18th century, it referred to someone going bankrupt. The term was first applied to the presidency in the winter of 1928-9, as Calvin Coolidge waited out the end of his term. In 1933, the states ratified the 20th Amendment, or the “Lame Duck” Amendment, to shorten the time between the election and the inauguration. Claire Jerry, curator of political history at the National Museum of American History, suggests that the long wait time didn’t suit an uneasy electorate in the midst of the Depression and underscored that the delay, originally put in place to account for the difficulty of traveling to the capital, had become outdated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inauguration was the last to be held in March; his other three were in January.

Q: How many astronauts work for NASA and what do they do when they’re not in space?

— Anna Andrews | Walnut Creek, California

The number fluctuates, but there are currently 38 active astronauts. They spend their days training for future missions and developing hardware for new missions. Those heading to the International Space Station learn to use its equipment and learn Russian (they have to be fluent) at a training center outside Moscow. Some of the other astronauts are assigned to the two Commercial Crew vehicles being developed by Boeing and SpaceX for flight in 2020, says Mike Neufeld, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department. And some are specializing in the Orion spacecraft and the hardware for the Artemis program to go back to the Moon. There are 16 astronauts no longer on flight status who hold administrative jobs at NASA around the United States.

Q: Why are there so many honeybees hanging around my swimming pool?

— Bill Wacenske | San Diego, California

They might be trying to cool off. When it’s hot out, honeybees go searching for water; if they find it, they return to the hive and perform their waggle dance to communicate the water’s location, says David Roubik, a research entomologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. A group of 15 or so bees will fly there and lap up the water. Back in the hive again, they’ll pass droplets to receiver bees, which deposit the water along the edge of the wax comb. Bees inside the hive will fan their wings and circulate the water-cooled air. This DIY air conditioning helps maintain the hive at what scientists say is the temperature honeybees prefer, around 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s your turn to Ask Smithsonian.

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