Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News #46

Mountain Owlet-Nightjar, Aegotheles albertisi .
Photo by Bruce Beehler.
Click image for larger version in its own window.

Birds in Science

A team of 25 American, Australian and Indonesian scientists flew by helicopter last December into the midst of a large tract of uninhabited tropical forest in New Guinea where they discovered a “lost world” brimming with new wildlife. Permit me to brag just this once, but I wrote a story about this that you might enjoy.

Congratulations to a colleague of mine from grad school, Brian Walker, because he made the front page of the NY Times Science section this week. In his research, he studies stress in Magellanic penguins, Spheniscus magellanicus. His previous work reveals that the first time these birds see a human, they are frightened, but their reaction is subtle. The scared bird turns its head back and forth, warily staring at the intruder with one eye, then the other. Stress hormones flood its bloodstream. Because of this research, some biologists and conservationists worry that encounters with humans, especially as ecotourism increases, could harm birds and other animals. But new research by Walker’s group shows that at least in the case of Magellanic penguins, the sight of a few more humans quickly reduces their panic. “This head-spinning thing that they do slows down very quickly, within 10 days,” said Walker, who is a professor of biology at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. An earlier paper by Walker and two colleagues at the University of Washington, Dee Boersma and John Wingfield (my advisor!), found that people were a source of stress for baby Magellanic penguins. At less than a week old, the chicks showed levels of stress hormones usually not seen until the age of 3 months. “That’s worrisome,” Walker said. “Early exposure to these stress hormones can have negative effects much later in life.” And this has far-ranging implications: for example, humans who grew up in stressful households suffer greater heart disease as adults. Whether this is also true of penguins is not known. Walker is the lead author of this paper that was published in the February issue of Conservation Biology.

As the morning mists rose on the slopes of Ecuador’s Pasochoa volcano, the burbling of plain-tailed wrens, Thryothorus euophrys (pictured above sonogram of their song), came through the bamboo thickets. Two researchers started their standard procedure of catching wrens, banding them, and letting them go. Soon, however, they were startled when a small cluster of wrens settled into a bush and began singing together. It turned out to be “one of the most complex singing performances yet described in a nonhuman animal,” says Nigel Mann, of the State University of New York at Oneonta. Mann and a colleague went to Pasochoa in the summer of 2002 as part of a team that was surveying the avian genus, Thryothorus spp. That genus is famous for musical duets, in which a male (phrase under blue bar in accompanying sonogram) and a female sings alternate phrases (phrases under red bar in pictured sonogram), sometimes so rapidly that it sounds like only one bird is singing. Ecuador’s plain-tailed wrens, relatives of North America’s Carolina wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus, make a rhythmic, bubbling song together. Most other wrens in this genus pair off and fiercely defend a territory. “If [four wrens] actually got within a few feet of each other, they’d be fighting,” says Mann. That’s why he and Kimberly Dingess of Indiana University at Bloomington were so surprised to find several plain-tailed wrens sharing a bush. “It took a few hours of wandering around for us to realize we had a group-living species,” Mann says. This social oddity has musical consequences. Often, three or more birds sing — males, then females, then males, and so on — to produce what sounds like a single melody.

Sights and sounds fill the world, presenting a panoply of possible foci for the brain. Yet most animals can hone in on whatever sight most demands interest. Then the sounds associated with that sight — be it a loved one talking or a tasty meal skittering through the undergrowth — become all the clearer. This is mental attention and new research shows how an owl’s brain establishes that state. It also provides tantalizing evidence that brains from across the animal kingdom work the same way. Owls are already extremely gifted at tuning in a particular sound, the authors note in their paper published in the current issue of the top-tier journal, Nature, but pairing a sound with a sight enhanced that ability even further. “The ability to hear and the direction of gaze aren’t necessarily linked,” says neurologist and study co-author, Daniel Winkowski. But “the circuits in the brain that control gaze direction affect how the brain processes auditory information.”

New research published recently in Bird Conservation International, BirdLife’s quarterly ornithological journal, highlight the challenges that a poor breeding season can present to threatened species conservation. A group of scientists studied the breeding success of the critically endangered Yellow-crested Cockatoo, Cacatua sulphurea, throughout the September 2001 to May 2002 breeding season in Manupeu-Tanadaru National Park, Sumba (Indonesia). Another paper in the same journal also examines poor breeding success, this time thought to be attributable to infestation by botfly larvae. These groups studied two bird species in Central Brazil, the Campo Suiriri, Suiriri affinis, and Chapada Flycatcher, S. islerorum. They monitored nests of these species between June and December 2003. The percentage of successful nests was 32% for Campo Suiriri and 10% for Chapada Flycatcher, among the lowest recorded for Neotropical tyrant flycatchers. Both studies, from very different parts of the world, show how different natural conditions can lead to low reproductive output — something that is very difficult for conservationists to prevent. Clearly this can have devastating consequences for species already in trouble and facing numerous other threats.

Paleontologists have unearthed two fossilized dinosaurs believed to be the oldest ancestors of the tyrannosaur family, researchers announced last Wednesday. The new species had cranial crests and were probably covered in feathers, but were only one-third the size of their famous cousin, Tyrannosaurus rex. This discovery sets back the clock on the tyrannosaur family by at least 30 million years. This finding is detailed in yesterday’s issue of the top-tier journal Nature.

Blogging Birds

Do you have your own blog yet? If not you’d better hurry up or you’ll be beaten to it by a flock of blogging pigeons. Later this year, 20 of the birds will take to the skies above San Jose, California, each carrying a GPS receiver, air pollution sensors and a basic cellphone. They will measure the levels of pollutants they encounter and beam back their findings as text messages to a blog in real time. “We are combining an air pollution sensor with a home-made cellphone,” says interdisciplinary artist and researcher Beatriz da Costa of the University of California, Irvine. She came up with the idea of the pigeon blog with her students Cina Hazegh and Kevin Ponto. The team has built a prototype of the pigeons’ kit containing a cellphone circuit board with SIM card and communication chips, a GPS receiver and carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide sensors. They now plan to squeeze all the components onto a single board small enough for the birds to carry in a back pack.

People Helping Birds

Today saw a glimmer of hope for three species of Asian vulture that are threatened with extinction. Slender-billed, Gyps tenuirostris, Indian, G. indicus and White-rumped Vultures, G. bengalensis, native to Southern Asia have suffered one of the most rapid and widespread population declines of any bird species, declining by more than 97% over the last 10-15 years. These declines were caused by the widespread veterinary use of the drug diclofenac to treat sick domestic livestock throughout the Indian subcontinent. Diclofenac kills vultures that feed on the bodies of livestock that have been given the drug shortly before death. In a new report published in PLoS Biology, a team of scientists led by Gerry Swan of the University of Pretoria, found that the drug meloxicam appeared to be safe for vultures. Meloxicam, which is similar to diclofenac in its effectiveness for treating livestock, has recently become available for veterinary use in India and could easily be used in place of diclofenac. “It is essential that the government of India acts quickly to make good use of this new information. Diclofenac must be replaced by meloxicam as soon as possible and there are many things that government can do to speed this up,” said Dr. Asad Rahmani, Director of BirdLife in India.

The Toronto, Ontario City Council unanimously adopted a resolution on 31 January that will protect migratory birds by controlling light from buildings. For all new buildings in Toronto, the resolution specifies “that the needs of migratory birds be incorporated into the Site Plan Review process with respect to facilities for lighting, including floodlighting, glass and other bird-friendly design features.” Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker states “This is an historic day — The City of Toronto, instead of having 10,000 birds killed downtown each year, is working toward saving 10,000 birds. That’s a magnificent thing for the city to do.” The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), a Toronto-based charitable organization, has been working to address the issue of bird collisions with structures since 1993. It was the first organization of its kind in the world; similar organizations have since sprung up in Chicago and New York. “FLAP has dreamed of this day. Finally, through policy, a city has recognized the need to address the tragedy of bird collisions with its buildings and is setting an example for other cities around the world to take action,” says Michael Mesure of FLAP. [View report; PDF or html]

People Hurting Birds

In yet another recent story regarding the links between unusual weather patterns and seabird health, scientists say that the mass starvation deaths of murres on Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula, Washington state, may be due in part to unusual weather patterns along the West Coast. “The whole process broke down,” said University of Washington researcher Julia Parrish, who witnessed bird deaths repeatedly last summer while observing 6,000 nesting murres on the island about a half mile off Cape Flattery at the tip of the peninsula. “We don’t know what happened.” Researchers met over this issue earlier this month in Seattle, but were unable to trace the source of the strange weather, except to consider global warming’s effects in the past year. Global warming has upset the birds’ normal dietary habits, with dire consequences. In Puget Sound, the number of seabirds has dropped by nearly half since the 1970s. Nearly a third of seabird species are legally protected or are candidates for protection. “All kinds of things are changing, and the biology is responding in funny, nonlinear, confusing ways,” said John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “It’s all the way up and down the coast. … There’s a lot of evidence there are important changes going on in the Pacific coast system.”

Something is sickening pigeons in Juneau, Alaska, making the birds lethargic and susceptible to attacks by ravens. A biologist and some birders suspect salt on Juneau’s roads and sidewalks may be affecting pigeons. A little more than a week ago, longtime resident Sharon Kelly saw about a half dozen crows or ravens gang up on a passive pigeon that did not try to defend itself. “They killed one [pigeon] and started into another one,” she said. “It was like a little massacre.” Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Ryan Scott spent part of Friday and Sunday downtown looking for samples of dead pigeons. He found two and sent them to the department’s wildlife veterinarian in Fairbanks. Susan Sharbaugh, senior biologist at the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks, said ravens are opportunistic hunters.

Avian Influenza News

Researchers say they have genetically engineered an avian flu vaccine that completely protected mice and chickens from infection in a study. The scientists, from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said they built the vaccine from bits of the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus. Avian flu has devastated bird populations in Southeast Asia and Europe and so far has killed more than 80 people. Because this vaccine contains a live virus, it may stimulate the immune system better than vaccines prepared by traditional methods, say the researchers. And because it is grown in cells, it can be produced much more quickly than traditional vaccines, they add. “The results of this animal trial are very promising, not only because our vaccine completely protected animals that otherwise would have died, but also because we found that one form of the vaccine stimulates several lines of immunity against H5N1,” said the university’s Andrea Gambotto, lead author of the study. The vaccine could be used to prevent the spread of the virus in domestic livestock and, potentially, in humans, according to the study, which will published in the Feb 15 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Virology.

A 15-year-old Iraqi girl recently died of H5N1 bird flu virus, Iraqi and international health officials confirmed Monday. Their report indicates the arrival of the disease in yet another country — one that, in its current war-torn state, may be ill prepared to control spread of the disease. More alarming still, officials said, was the finding that suggests the disease may be spreading widely — and undetected — among birds in countries of Central Asia that are poorly equipped to pick up or report infections. Bird flu has never been reported in animals in Iraq. GrrlScientist note: Who wants to bet that soldiers returning from Iraq pose a real danger for bringing this virus with them? (remember WWI, anyone??)

Parrots in the News

The ring-necked parakeet, Psittacula krameri, a mostly green parrot that is native to India, made the “top 20 most spotted birds” in some areas of Britain. Surprisingly, it even made it into the “Top 10” in some areas of London. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that by 2010 the ring-necked parakeets population will approach 50,000. Its findings show that two colonies – one in Lewisham, south-east London and one covering Esher, Surrey and parts of west London – will soon join, forming a swathe of colour across the region. They have been seen in almost every English county, and occasionally in Scotland and Wales. Last year they were recorded in 21 of London’s 32 boroughs, and were one of the 10 most spotted birds in Richmond upon Thames and Hounslow. The ring-necked parakeet is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Streaming Birds

I am doing something new: I will begin presenting a preview for this upcoming week’s BirdNote instead of the previous week. To make that transition, I am linking to this previous week‘s topics where you can learn more about southward-bound Snowy Owls, Bubo scandiacus; then, on Tuesday, Sizing Up Birds of Prey; Wednesday, Myth of the Thunderbird; Thursday, The Savvy Winter Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes; and Friday, Consider the Ostrich, Struthio camelus. This coming week on BirdNote, you will learn about preening crows; Valentine Lovebirds (lovebirds are diminutive parrots and parrots are a favorite topic of mine); Raven and the Winding River; Birdwatching by train; and the Great Backyard Bird Count. BirdNote programs are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting — and in some cases, truly amazing — abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM in Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia on KPLU radio and now also in North Central Washington state on KOHO radio. All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. Listener ideas and comments are welcomed. [rss mp3/podcast].

The California condor, Gymnogyps californianus, is an impressive bird — with a bald, leathery head, red eyes and a big, razor-sharp beak. In fact, with a nearly 10-foot wingspan, it’s the largest living thing currently flying over North America. Despite its grandeur, the condor nearly went extinct. Its numbers dwindled to just 22 birds in the wild by the 1980s. So all the wild condors were trapped and sent to zoos for breeding programs. As a result, more than 140 condors have been released to the wild, wearing numbered ID tags and radio transmitters so researchers can track their movements. (Text and mp3).

Miscellaneous Birds

Can you identify birds, at least to family, solely by looking at their feet? This website features 14 photographs of feet from some avian patients that were treated at PAWS in Lynnwood, Washington. The original photos were from perching or walking birds or from birds being held for exams, but everything was digitally erased so you only have the feet to focus on. Look closely at each photo and you will notice tremendous differences in toe arrangement, claw shape/size, digit length, scale/feather pattern, and other attributes.

An unusually mild winter on Prince Edward Island, British Columbia (Canada), means that thousands of Canada geese, Branta canadensis, haven’t bothered to migrate south for warmer weather. “I’ve never seen this number of birds around,” said Randy Dibblee, a provincial wildlife biologist. “But I can’t recall a winter like this either.” Dibblee said the birds aren’t likely to migrate now, even if the weather gets colder. They would be returning to the Island in a few weeks regardless. “It’s a very unusual year,” said Dibblee. “It’s unusually warm, very little snow cover. Our bays and rivers and estuaries are virtually free of ice. As a consequence, we have over-wintering geese.” GrrlScientist: Hrmmm .. global warming or a local weather anomaly?

Sometimes a chicken does have lips, just not her own. In this story, Marian Morris saves her brother’s exotic chicken, Boo Boo, by administering “mouth-to-beak” resuscitation on the bird after it was found floating face down in the family’s pond.


The Fine Print: Thanks to my bird pals; Caren, Dawn, Ellen P., Janice, Mike, Scott, Rod, Jo, Russell, Maureen, Ellen B. and Ron for some of the news story links that you are enjoying here. Thanks to Wallace and Dawn for the $upport, and to ELT who works at JetBlue, for the gift of a round trip flight to Seattle so I could attend my friend’s memorial service.

I also appreciate long-time readers, Jamie, Tony and anonymous blog reader, for nominating Birds in the News for a 2005 Koufax Award for Best Series! Voting will probably begin at the end of January sometime before I die. There will be an announcement here, along with more details, when voting begins.

Be sure to check out the other animals in today’s Friday Ark #73.

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Academic Job Applications: one paper submitted for peer review, one paper awaiting internal approval before submitting for peer review.

Survival Job Applications: none this week. Yeah, I know, I know; I deserve to starve to death.


  1. #1 Tabor
    February 10, 2006

    You have such wonderful photos since you moved. Your network is growing and growing and must lead to something with money attached someday!

  2. #2 Tabor
    February 10, 2006

    Oh, almost forgot, I saw “Rare Birds” on DVD last night and while is on peripherally about a bird, I thought about you!

  3. #3 Caio de Gaia
    February 14, 2006

    Nice as usual. There were some silly news in the press about giant owls chasing dogs, and I sort of expected to see them here. Apparently, according to Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology blog, the problem is much more serious than just a few pets being eaten, other raptors risk extinction.

    By the way, why are all your articles appearing at the bottom of the page? Did you just ruin your template file?

  4. #4 GrrlScientist
    February 14, 2006

    yes, i have ruined my template and have been trying to fix it whenever i had the chance to look at it all day long. as you can see, the ads in the right sidebar slipped into my text body, thereby pushing my text (presumably the reason that people come here at all) down to the bottom. all i was trying to do was to change the body font style, and here i am, going mad, trying to fix this other problem. any suggestions as to how i might fix this?

  5. #5 Caio de Gaia
    February 14, 2006

    Without seeing your template it’s hard to know the cause. I had once the opposite on blogger (the sidebar at the end) because I had erased the closing “}” in the body thingy at the beggining of the template.

    On the plus side, thanks to you now we are more aware than ever about the benefits of backing up everything.

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