The Happy Drinking Bird is probably one of the most recognizable science
toys. It has been around for decades, it has appeared in The Simpsons (twice!). Its familiar ‘bob-and-drink’ action is memorable to all who see it and at Spectrum it is one of the most requested toys! But lately, something with the Drinking Bird supply has gotten a bit odd.
First of all, let’s talk about how the Drinking Bird works. The idea is simple thermodynamics and the fact that gas shrinks when cooled. When the spongy head of the Bird is wetted and that water evaporates it cools the gas inside the bird’s glass body. That gas contracts when it cools and the liquid insides (a very thin liquid) gets drawn up to fill in the space vacated by the contracting gas. Very soon there is more liquid in the head of the bird that in its base and that causes it to tip over. If you put a glass of water where the bird tips it seems to almost be drinking – and in fact it is re-wetting its head! As long as there is water in its drinking cup it will keep on drinking.
Not all drinking birds work perfectly out of the box. There will almost always need to be some ‘tweaking’ of the bird to get the guy to drink properly. The sides can get hung up, the body can be too high or too low in the frame, the frame can be bent the wrong way. This video shows a couple of the things that can go wrong with the Drinking Bird.
In the past, the Drinking Bird was a bit different. The liquid was more effective (and more dangerous!) and the designs much more varied (as this picture shows). Other designs were made to hang off the sides of the cup it was ‘drinking’ from. In the end the design we know today has been around for a long time with only a few variations out there.
But what has happened to the Happy Drinking Bird of late? When we first started Spectrum Scientifics there were no less than six vendors that we could purchase drinking birds from. They all had different boxes, sure, but the basic model was the same. If you personally wanted a large number of birds and didn’t want to set up a store you could buy them in bulk on eBay for barely a fraction above wholesale cost! The options were plentiful!
Now? Well let’s just say something has gone wrong – perhaps a overloading of the marketplace? All we know is that eBay has only about 40-50 entries for Drinking Birds listed – most of them single birds and often priced higher than retail cost (before shipping). Just a couple of years ago they had hundreds! You can still buy packs of the birds, but they don’t give you anywhere near as much of a discount as in the past. Two of the four vendors we use that dropped the Drinking Bird dropped them at the beginning of the year (if you are wondering why four vendors instead of six: two went away) and only one of them gave any reason (saying the in warehouse breakage of the glass birds was too much). The remaining two have respectively a) raised their price way up and b) did not have them in stock this year until the beginning of this month!
So what is going on? It is hard to say. Perhaps it is a thinning out of some kind of fad supply, much like the recent shaped rubber bands that went into fashion with kids and out again in a period of 3 months. Perhaps more likely is that the main manufacturer changed their rules so that there would be fewer distributors around, or just made it to hard for vendors to get refunded for damaged product. We may never know for certain but one thing is for sure: We still have them, but there aren’t as many as there were before.