Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News #48

Note: On 4 March, Birds in the News will be one year old!

The newest Archaeopteryx fossil.
Click image for a slightly larger view in its own window

Birds in Science

A mutant chick, called Talpid, that died before hatching 50 years ago, was found to have a full set of crocodile-like chompers, as well as severe limb defects. But because no one ever looked inside the chick’s mouth, its teeth remained undiscovered until recently. Researchers recently created more Talpids by tweaking the genes of normal chickens to grow teeth. “What we discovered were teeth similar to those of crocodiles — not surprising as birds are the closest living relatives of the reptile,” said Mark Ferguson of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. This is all good news for hockey players. A direct application of this research, Ferguson said, could be re-growing teeth in people who have lost them through accident or disease.

A rare and prized fossil of the feathered Archaeopteryx (pictured, top) — thought to be Earth’s first bird — has become something of an albatross to a small Wyoming museum. While the scientific significance of the fossil is unquestioned and its monetary value thought to be in excess of $1 million, the fact that it is bound for a private museum has drawn scorn from some scientists. “Ethically, in our profession, if a specimen is not in the public domain, its scientific worth is about zero,” said Kevin Padian, a curator of paleontology and professor at the University of California at Berkeley. But Wyoming Dinosaur Center owner Burkhard Pohl, who brokered the sale of the fossil from one private owner to another realizes that the situation is not perfect, but says that the fossil will be available for scientific study and public viewing in the future. “If you can show me what’s wrong with that,” Pohl says, “I’m more than happy to put it back in a bank in Switzerland.”

Paleontologists are intrigued by the scientific possibilities in the wake of last year’s discovery that some of a Tyrannosaurus rex‘s soft tissues — perhaps its blood cells, blood vessels or fibrous cells – could survive the process of fossilization intact. It is thought that someday soon, biochemists will be able to figure out what dinosaurs ate, what diseases afflicted them and how they were related to each other — all by analyzing a bit of organic goo. At least those are the kinds of questions that could be answered by a new field called “paleoproteomics.” Protein sequences could reveal the biochemical signature for a particular species, provide the molecular evidence for telltale vitamin deficiencies, and possibly even indicate diet in a prehistoric ecosystem. That’s the way it works for analyses of modern-day animal and human specimens. “Molecules are fossils, too,” Michigan State University zoologist Peggy Ostrom said Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), conducted in St. Louis. AAAS publishes the top-tier research journal, Science.

Lost Birds, Rediscovered

Following its sensational rediscovery in 2003, after more than a century without being seen, a New Zealand Storm-petrel, Oceanites maorianus (pictured), has been photographed in hand for the first time. On 4 November 2005, a storm-petrel landed on a fishing-boat in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. The skipper, Geordie Murman, instantly recognized it as the bird causing such excitement in the area recently. It was kept overnight in a box. “Karen Baird of Pterodroma Pelagics contacted me and told me she believed it was a New Zealand Storm-petrel,” says Tony Pym of UK birdwatching tour company Ornitholidays, who was visiting the country at the time. “We chartered a boat to go out to the fishing vessel. Imagine our excitement when we opened the box and first saw the bird and confirmed its identification.” The bird was fully measured, ringed, photographed and a feather sample taken before it was released and flew off strongly. The DNA analysis should help a settle controversy over the species’s precise taxonomic status: with some people unsure in which genus it is best placed.

People Helping Birds

In New Zealand, the skippers for the six Volvo Ocean Race Teams pledged their support for BirdLife’s Save the Albatross campaign at a welcoming ceremony in Wellington. “We are lucky enough to live in the albatross capital of the world, but our albatross visit many countries and cross many borders, and they are vulnerable in all of them. Poor fishing practices in one nation can have a profound effect on albatross numbers in another nation. Because of this, the survival of the albatross lies in the hands of the whole international community. The Volvo Ocean Race is a terrific way of emphasizing the responsibility we all share to preserve these remarkable birds,” New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter told spectators at Queen’s Wharf. “As a sailor it’s great to see albatrosses while you’re out in the middle of nowhere. It can get pretty lonely when you’re at sea for weeks on end, so seeing these awesome birds is a great sight for us,” said Mike Sanderson, skipper of one of the vessels, ABN AMRO ONE.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and four East African organizations announced the launch of a group of conservation projects in the Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests of Kenya and Tanzania. [Pictured: Sokoke Scops-owl, Otus ireneae, endemic to east African forests, is one species that will benefit from these projects].

The Vice President of Paraguay, Luis Castiglioni, last week officially praised the purchase of a large tract of vital Atlantic Forest habitat by Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife in Paraguay) to be protected as a national park. The Atlantic Forest region was one of the first to be colonized by Europeans and today is the most densely populated area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. After 400 years of development, these forests have disappeared almost completely. Although San Rafael was decreed a national park in 1992, its boundaries were only delimited in 1997, and still have to be legally recognized. Thus, San Rafael remains very much only a park “on paper”. This area is known to hold populations of 11 globally threatened bird species and 17 near-threatened species, as well as more Atlantic Forest endemic bird species than any other site in Paraguay.

Streaming Birds

For the week of 27 February, the topics explored on BirdNote include; Monday, Sanderlings, Calidris alba; Tuesday, the return of sage sparrows, Amphispiza belli; Wednesday, flocking and foraging birds; Thursday, the secretive varied thrush, Ixoreus naevius; and Friday, the return of rufous hummingbirds, Selasphorus rufus! BirdNotes 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 On The Wing podcast for February 2006 is now available. The programs include; A trip to Washington State’s Upper Skagit River to see Bald Eagles where we run into Libby Mills, a tour guide; A new feature, Notes From An English Garden, with Kate from Birmingham, UK; The rehabilitation of storm-tossed Western Grebes, Aechmophorus occidentalis, with Kevin Mack of PAWS; The Events Calendar lists several birding festivals around the USA that might interest you; and A Birding Gem from Bud Anderson about the Vole National Park

Ivory-billed Woodpecker News

In the latest development in the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a white Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus (pictured, right), was discovered in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas. First observed between 7-13 February 2006, this individual is mostly white with a red crest and red malar stripe, indicating that it is a male. This discovery is of special interest because skeptics have suggested that the bird filmed on video by David Luneau in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in 2004 is not an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, but rather a Pileated Woodpecker with an unusual amount of white on its wings. Documentation of this nearly all-white Pileated Woodpecker, as well as a second Pileated Woodpecker with an unusually large amount of white on its primaries, shows that these striking birds could not have been mistaken for ivory-bills.

Avian Influenza News

Reports that the avian flu was found recently in parts of Western Europe and Africa have many observers concerned, despite the fact that the virus has never been transmitted from one human to another. Experts Pete Marra (Animal Ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center at the National Zoo in Washington DC), Dr. Marc Siegel (Associate Professor of Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine), and Kim Elliott (Deputy Director at Trust for America’s Health), discuss how the H5N1 virus travels, what individuals and the government can do to prepare, and whether the latest discoveries complicate efforts to prevent a global pandemic. This one hour streaming radio program was first broadcast on WAMU radio. It is the first of a series. [Requires RealPlayer or Windows Media Player].

“What can you do to survive bird flu?” Scream the headlines. “How will you and your loved ones survive the imminent bird flu pandemic? Do the recent bird flu stories scare you? They should! Experts put the probability of a global influenza pandemic at 100 per cent — an absolute certainty!” The world wide web is full of such dire warnings, with hundreds of websites launched overnight. And if by any chance, you heed them, you will likely be emptying your pockets for nothing. These websites ask for your credit card number in exchange for their promise to send you books, compact discs, “survival guides” and prescriptions within 24 hours, yet nothing ever arrives in your mail. Hrm, what happened? you wonder. GrrlScientist hint: You were ripped off! Do not be deceived by this rampant fear mongering! If anything actually shows up in your mailbox, it will be junk. As an almost-victim of a scam myself, I can tell you that this is a scam meant to separate you from your hard-earned money.

The problem is one that farmers want to avoid. The solution is a simple, if gruesome, one. When avian flu is detected in a single chicken on a farm, the entire flock — often tens of thousands of birds — must be killed. So, what to do with all those dead birds? Enter the humble compost heap. After trying to burn the bodies (too expensive), burying them (an environmental hazard) and trucking them to rendering plants (risking further spread of the disease), poultry experts believe that the safest means of disposal might be to roll the dead birds into a small hill and let the blistering heat of decomposition burn away the disease inside. “It’s as much of an art as science,” said Nathaniel Tablante, associate professor of poultry health at the University of Maryland.

The Tower of London locked up its famous ravens, Corvus corax, last Monday to protect them from the threat of bird flu, because legend claims that the tower and the kingdom will fall if not occupied by at least six ravens. Special aviaries were built for the birds; Baldrick, Bran, Branwen, Gundulf, Gwyllum, Hugine, Munin and Thor. “Although we don’t like having to bring the tower ravens inside, we believe it is the safest thing to do for their own protection, given the speed that the virus is moving across Europe,” said the tower’s Yeoman raven master, Derrick Coyle (pictured with one of the ravens). “We are taking advice on the vaccinations against avian flu, and in the meantime, we will continue to give our six ravens as much care and attention as they need.”

According to several news stories as well as private emails, parrots and other pet birds are being abandoned by panicked owners throughout Europe. First, avian influenza hasn’t even reached most of these countries, and second, avian influenza cannot infect pet birds that live in relative isolation from other birds inside a house. Abandoning or killing one’s pet birds is ridiculous and cruel behavior on the part of ignorant pet owners who can’t be bothered to learn the truth about avian influenza from a medical professional before they abandon or kill their pet birds and it’s absolutely inexcusable.

According to Indian officials, avian influenza has been contained in the western region of that country. Meanwhile, bird flu has crippled Nigeria’s poultry industry, and the African countries of Zambia, Senegal and Cape Verde are taking measures to prevent importation of the virus. Bird flu is suspected on a turkey farm in France and in the United States where avian influenza has not been reported, 60% of Americans are concerned about avian influenza.

Miscellaneous Birds

Hurricane Katrina decimated most of the local bird population in and around New Orleans, according to those who participated in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which ended last Monday. “I think a lot of them were killed and it will take a little while to build the population back up,” said Ronnie Blackwell of Hattiesburg, a member of the Pine Woods Audubon Society. Like Blackwell, thousands of Americans took time out of their weekend to count birds and report their results to the GBBC organization to get a good idea of the numbers, species and locations of birds across the country. In 2005, participants nationwide sent in 51,926 checklists with a total number of 6,546,606 birds of 613 species, according to the organization’s Web site. Final results will be tallied and posted later.

A University of Tasmania researcher, who was a guest lecturer on a tour ship to Antarctica, found a new colony of emperor penguins, Aptenodytes forsteri (pictured), on that frozen continent. The colony of about 5000 adults and 2500 chicks increases the estimated total emperor penguin population to beyond 200,000 from about 195,000. Mary-Anne Lea of the University of Tasmania and expedition leader, Tim Soper, made the find on Siple Island in an area named Marie Byrd Land but known colloquially as the Phantom Coast because so little was known about the region. “We were lucky … emperor penguin colonies break up in December-January, so the chances of spotting them are pretty slim,” Dr Lea said. Dr Lea, a research associate at the University of Tasmania, spends most of her time at the US National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, studying the winter migrations of northern fur seal pups.

For those of you who think you know your birds well, this is a nifty on-line quiz to test your knowledge. This quiz includes lovely rotating models for you to look at, too. My birding pals’ assessment are generally in agreement with this; Level 1; pretty easy. Level 2; fairly easy. Level 3; sorta easy, you start guessing. Level 4; more guessing. Level 5; all guessing, or you get booted out like I did by guessing too many wrong in a row.

I thought you would enjoy looking at the photography on this website. It is an ad for Bird in Hand, a book comprised of more than 100 truly elegant sepia-tone photographs of birds in the hands of ornithologists. It also includes a link to an interview with the photographer regarding this work. GrrlScientist Note: The bird in the photo captioned, “zebra finch”, is misidentified. It is a Gouldian Finch, Chloebia gouldiae, which is also native to Australia. Also notice that the warblers were identified as “Marblers”. Methinks this website needs an editor! Despite the identification errors, the photography is superb.

The Fine Print: Thanks to my bird pals; Ian, David, Margery, Mike, Dawn, Caren, Ellen P., Ellen B., and Ron for some of the news story links that you are enjoying here. Thanks to Ian for catching my spelling error (hey, it was spelled correctly in the Latin!). Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are either linked from the news stories that they accompany or they are linked to the site from where they were found. You can follow these links by clicking on individual images.

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 #75.

Previous : : Birds in the News : : Next

tags: , , , ,

Academic Job Applications: one paper in peer review (yippee), and one paper being rewritten by me AGAIN before submission for peer review.


  1. #1 Rexroth's Daughter
    February 24, 2006

    There’s so much here, it’s like a fantastic feast once again. You find the best bird photographs and stories. I love that Storm-petrel. And that white pileated woodpecker is just gorgeous. I am so glad someone was able to take such a fine photo. Thanks for all of this.

  2. #2 John
    February 25, 2006

    Are those feather outlines on the Archaeopteryx fossil? Either way it is a neat specimen.

    Oh, and 729 on the bird skulls. For some reason I had an easier time with level 5 than 3 and 4. Maybe it was just better guessing.

  3. #3 Tabor
    February 25, 2006

    I agree wtih Rexroth’s Daughter. This post is so rich. Everything from money and fossils to superstitions about the Tower of London. Wow!

  4. #4 GrrlScientist
    February 25, 2006

    once again, it was a struggle to finish this issue .. this and the previous issue of these things have become a huge time investment, so i am pleased to know that you enjoy them.

    John; yes, those are feather impressions. i am always impressed with how artistic these archaeopteryx fossils are. oh, and i need to spend more time with the skull quizzes this week.

  5. #5 Carl Buell(OGeorge)
    February 25, 2006


  6. #6 Jamie
    February 26, 2006

    The GBBC tally for LA in 2005 was 182 species and 68,652 individuals (similar to 2004 counts of 181/ 66,477). 2006 shows 184 species and 111,468 individuals in Louisiana – a ~ 60% increase (and form submission is still open through 3/1). This doesn’t seem to support the article about Katrina’s effect on bird populations down there.

New comments have been disabled.