Question:Cher Ami was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" with Palm for heroic service during World War I. Mortally wounded on his last mission, he still managed to return, helping save 194 of the battalion. There is this curiosity: Where did he get such a superior sense of direction?

Answer: It was a natural because Cher Ami was a registered Black Check Cock carrier pigeon of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, says the Smithsonian Institution Web site. He delivered 12 important messages at Verdun, France. On his last mission, he got back, a message found dangling from a shattered leg, from Major Whittlesey's "Lost Battalion."

Many birds, not just pigeons, are good navigators, using a "sun compass" or detecting subtle features of the Earth's magnetic field. Birds released with magnets glued to their head have more trouble navigating than birds with non-magnetic bars, except on sunny days when they just use the sun. They also follow the moon and stars, or cues of light polarization, wind directions, landmarks, even scents (in parts of Italy, pigeons learn that the smell of diesel fumes comes on the north wind, onion field smells on south winds), says Williams College biologist Heather Williams.

Why are most birds so good at this? Easy: Those that aren't can die from wrong turns, dropping out of the gene pool, says Oklahoma State zoologist Timothy O'Connell. For example, if an indigo bunting flying over the Gulf veers too far east, it will tire and fall in the water before making landfall.

Question:Does your phone voice tip off your age?

Answer: Bad news for you sensitively superannuated guys — it likely does. Pitch begins to rise after about age 45 or 50, often accompanied by a slower speech rate, says Marquette University's Sue Ellen Linville in "Discover Magazine."

Not much you can do about physical changes in the voice box, lungs, mouth and throat. Muscles may atrophy, tissues stiffen, membranes dry out, making vocal cord vibrations unstable and altering resonance. Gals, whatever your age, your speaking pitch stays about the same from young adulthood to middle age, with only a slight lowering at menopause, though some huskiness and volumetric weakening can undermine your relative anonymity.

Both guys and gals, one thing you can try is to talk a little faster (spryer) for "youthful" dramatic effect. For a real disguise, you'd need to attach some sort of electronic filter or masking modulator to the phone. Beats a surgical "voicelift" (like a "facelift"), right? Better still, just let your wise old words shine on through!

Question: Word is these guys speak and breathe just fine, their hearts generally sound good upon examination, pulse rates and EKGs are OK, bowels churn with vigor, they exhale carbon dioxide with the best of us. But then suddenly cardiac arrhythmias set in, their tongues swell, throats spasm, airway obstructions develop. Is there a doctor in the house? Actually, maybe several, yet that won't necessarily save the victims. But hold the tears: They can die again and again as decreed by the facilitators (MDs, RNs, etc.) and the computerized interpretation of the many available body signals. Who are these "guys," anyway?

Answer: They're SimMan (TM) and AirMan (TM) of the University of Pittsburgh's WISER Institute, where life-and-death test situations don't have to lead to prompt medical decisions that carry irreversible results, says John J. Schaefer III, MD, who developed AirMan.

As "simulated humans," these teaching manikins give students a second chance— or third or more — to get it right by recreating unstable patients in outclinics, medical-surgical wards, emergency rooms. "It's likely that Airman — or some variation of it — will become the standard way doctors are trained in the future."


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com