Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Condor in the Torres del Paine.
Photo courtesy of Ron Cook.
Click image for MUCH larger view in its own window.

Special Bird Note

Tomorrow, 4 March, is the anniversary of the first issue of Birds in the News. As of tomorrow, I have been digging up, linking to and commenting on news stories about birds for one calendar year. Originally, I began this link harvest because I wanted to demonstrate the value of birds in our every day lives using real life examples .. and what was better to accomplish this goal than to gather together links for international news stories about birds? I also included photos of the birds whenever possible because I wanted my readers to have a visual image of the species described in these news stories. Later, I realized that many of the original news stories disappeared after a short period of time, so I started writing a sometimes lengthy overview of each piece so future readers could, at a glance, get a general understanding of the nature of each story. Of course, some stories inspired me to add my own comments, which has been the source of amusement for some of you.

This project would not have lasted very long without you, my peeps. What began as a labor of love and as a weekly gift to you has evolved into a group project. Thanks to you, dear readers, for your help, suggestions and generous $upport and to the many kind photographers (both amateurs and professionals) in the audience, the quality of this little project has improved tremendously during its first year. Here’s to an even better second year!

People Hurting Birds

Bird song can be influenced by habitat fragmentation, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Ecology (42: 1183-1193). Analysis of songs of more than 200 Dupont’s Larks, Chersophilus duponti (pictured), in Spain and Morocco found that, in fragmented habitats, there was increased mimicry between neighboring birds, resulting in an intensification of the differences between non-neighboring individuals. Sharing song types — when a male replies to a rival’s song with the same song sequence — is common in birds, and is thought to act as a threat signal between males. “This suggests that males from fragmented habitats perceived as rivals only the close neighbors with which they engaged in counter-singing,” say the study’s authors, Paola Laiolo and José Tella of Spain’s Estación Biologica de Doñana. “Bird vocalizations could become an early warning system for detecting the effects of habitat fragmentation before other indicators — such as genetic markers — show any change.”

As many of you know, dear readers, my most favored part of the world is the South Pacific, so this story is especially worrisome. Apparently, illegal logging is destroying large areas of forest in Papua New Guinea (PNG) despite a government crackdown and policies that regulate the practice, said the global environmental group, Forest Trends, in a report published last Tuesday. Forest Trends said its surveys conducted over a five-year-period revealed that most commercial forestry operations in PNG were illegal and ecologically unsustainable. In 2004, these operations produced 1.3 million cubic meters of logs with an export value of $70 million. This lumber is exported to meet the demand in Europe and North America. “Industry is allowed to ignore PNG laws and, in fact, gains preferential treatment in many cases, while the rural poor are left to suffer the social and environmental consequences of an industry that operates largely outside the regulatory system,” claims the Forest Trends report. A net 7.3 million hectares of forest — the size of Panama or Sierra Leone — was lost each year from 2000-2005, according to United Nations data.

People Helping Birds

The rarest of the three severely endangered Asian vulture species, Slender-billed Vultures, Gyps tenuirostris (pictured), have been taken into the Indian vulture conservation breeding centers run by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK). Asian vulture species have been decimated by the widespread use of the veterinary drug, diclofenac. Although a new alternative, meloxicam, that is not harmful to vultures has been identified, two captive breeding centers have been set up in the meantime. When the environment is diclofenac-free, the birds will be reintroduced to the wild. “The Slender-billed Vulture is the rarest species and nobody before us has ever attempted captive breeding of these vultures anywhere in the world,” said Sachin Ranade of Bombay Natural History Society, who is in charge of the center.

Seven California condors, Gymnogyps californianus, soared over northern Arizona skies yesterday (Thursday) to join other individuals of their species in reclaiming their place in the world. Conservationists who have been working for decades to save the condor from extinction released the endangered birds at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, located near the Grand Canyon on the Arizona-Utah border. About 200 people showed up to watch the release, said Kathy Sullivan, a condor biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. At one time, California condors ranged from the West Coast to the South to western New York. But hunting, pesticides and “development” drove the birds to the brink of extinction.

Scientists are celebrating after successfully testing a procedure that could play a major role in saving the world’s most endangered parrot, New Zealand’s Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus (pictured). Sperm taken from a Kakapo at Codfish Island, New Zealand, two weeks ago has survived its deep freeze in liquid nitrogen. “We’re getting somewhere between 60% and 70% on some of our samples which is pretty high,” said Serean Adams, a research scientist. There are now 86 living Kakapo but virtually all of them are related. “There’s quite a lot of in-breeding and that’s leading to infertility and quite a lot of our birds are quite old now and we don’t want to lose this genetic material before they die,” said Daryl Eason, spokesperson for the Department of Conservation. GrrlScientist note: This story includes a link to a video .. I unfortunately was unable to retrieve it, so you’ll have to tell me about it.

Avian Zoonotic News

And now, for some promising news in the battle with avian influenza, researchers say they have genetically engineered an avian flu vaccine that provides 100% protection from infection to mice and chickens. The scientists, from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said they constructed the vaccine from bits of the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus. 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. Thus the vaccine could be used to prevent the spread of the virus in domestic livestock and potentially, in humans, according to the study, which was published in the 15 February issue of the Journal of Virology.

Health experts were dispatched the previous Tuesday to the southern Bahamas island of Inagua to determine whether an unexplained spate of bird deaths was linked to a strain of the deadly bird flu virus. Over the past two days, 15 of the island’s famed flamingos, Phoenicopterus ruber, five roseate spoonbills, Platalea ajaja, and one cormorant have been found dead with no external injuries, on this island that is located just north of Haiti, officials said. “Anything is possible in nature. You have birds that fly around the world,” said Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources Leslie Miller, declining to rule out the H5N1 bird flu strain that has killed at least 93 people and spread to 20 new countries in the past month alone. GrrlScientist note: This scenario is HIGHLY UNLIKELY because migratory birds travel north-south, not east-west, especially NOT across the Atlantic Ocean — unless they are blown off-course. The most parsimonious scenario is that the Bahamas would be infected AFTER North America. Do you see any reports of “bird flu” in either Canada or the USA, mister agriculture minister? No? Did anyone on Inagua import infected fowl from France, for example? No?? While this die-off is worth investigating for all sorts of health-related reasons, mister agriculture minister, it is absolutely unnecessary to scare the crap out of the locals by prematurely shooting your mouth off about avian influenza! You, mister minister, are a menace to public health and safety.

This week’s global Avian Influenza Watch shows that “Bird Flu” has been newly identified in these countries outside of Asia; Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and Ukraine. Notice that the “Bahamas” was not mentioned anywhere in this list.

While everyone is running around like headless chickens because of “bird flu”, officials did mention that West Nile virus (pictured), remains a serious health risk in the United States even though the number of cases has plunged. “We are entering a new phase, and we can call it the endemic phase,” said Lyle Petersen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Disease. Last year 2,949 human cases of West Nile were reported in the United States, with nearly one-third occurring in California. Of those infected, 116 died. These figures are down dramatically from 2003, when the virus peaked at some 10,000 cases and 264 fatalities. Contrast those numbers with only 93 deaths due to Avian Influenza over five (or is it six? Seven?) years.

And here is more news about an avian zoonotic disease that I have experienced myself; Chlamydosis (pictured), commonly known as “Parrot Fever” despite the fact that it infects many warm-blooded animals, not just parrots. All of the Austin, Texas, PetSmarts have joined other PetSmarts nationwide by quarantining all of their birds. The move comes after two cockatiels, Nymphicus hollandicus, showed signs of the deadly infection “parrot fever”. The infection can be passed easily from bird to bird and bird to human and, left untreated, can be fatal to both. “Parrot fever” is a serious bacterial infection, but shouldn’t be confused with another health concern involving birds that’s getting a lot of attention. “It’s totally different from bird flu. It’s not anywhere near the magnitude or problem as the poultry flu.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fewer than 50 human cases of parrot fever are reported in the US every year, but there could be more because the symptoms are so easily mistaken for influenza.

Streaming Birds

For the first week of March, on BirdNote, you will learn about; Monday, Birds return with the light; Tuesday, Bushtits, Psaltriparus minimus, in spring; Wednesday, Lekking Sage Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus; Thursday, Violet-green swallows, Tachycineta thalassina; and Friday, Pacific Chorus frogs, Pseudacris regilla, which are often mistaken for birds by beginning birders. BirdNotes transport the listener out of the daily grind with 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, Canada, 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].

This video postcard, recorded by All Things Considered and broadcast recently on National Public Radio, describes the high-risk sport of birding during the winter in New York Harbor. [RealPlayer, 3:45]

Miscellaneous Birds

A kiwi chick hatched on 13 February 2006 at the National Zoo. This is wonderful because few kiwis hatch outside of their native New Zealand (the first occurred at National Zoo in 1975). There are five different species of kiwi, all of which are flightless and unique to New Zealand. The National Zoo holds the North Island Brown Kiwi, Apteryx mantelli, the only kiwi that can be seen outside of New Zealand. This site includes streaming video showing the chick eating and is updated daily. [KiwiCam]

Just before the biologists at Hilton Pond left for the tropics, they observed some bizarre behavior by a black vulture, Sarcorhamphus sacra. Fortunately, they were able to document the events photographically. The scenario that they observed and photographed is the topic for their weekly photo essay. As always, they also include an account of bird banding results for the week — their best so far this winter.

A dating service for parrots? Sure, why not. Apparently, this match maker’s success rate is very high: according to ornithologist, Rita Ohnhaeuser, all of “her” parrots eventually do find a mate. “Not one (parrot) has gone back home alone so far.” But her success is a question of time: if one has a group of ten parrots and a new parrot is added to the group, it might not find its match, so one has to wait until another new one comes in. “We have never had one going back home alone.” GrrlScientist note: Hrm. I wonder if she also plays match maker for humans?

The Fine Print: Thanks to my bird pals; Leslie, Sara, Diane, Bill, Caren, Ellen and Ron for some of the news story links that you are enjoying here, and thanks to Ian for catching my errors. I am especially grateful for Jamie’s $upport. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs that appear here 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 #76.

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Survival Jobs: course development and teaching a conservation genetics course that begins in April and lasts five weeks.


  1. #1 Dave S.
    March 3, 2006

    Birds helping themselves:

    I saw something this morning on the way to work that at first looked very odd but then made perfect sense. This black-capped chickadee was perching on a bush, and in his beak was this huge loooking cigarette butt. At first I thought that this bird had gone bad, then he put the butt down and began to tear out the fibers, I realized he (or she) was getting some nice soft nesting material. At least, that’s what I think was happening. Still, I do wonder about the effects of nicotine on chickadees.

    Birds are pretty neat.

  2. #3 Caio de Gaia
    March 3, 2006

    Hi, about the video, if you click on the flash button you get to see the video (I wasn’t able to see it either since it was some window$ format). You can even probably play it here (not sure if you are not violating some copyright).

    I was recently in India and I did look for vultures but I didn’t see any. And there is a real panic there about bird flu.

  3. #4 John
    March 3, 2006

    I think the link on the Kiwi Cam is broken.

  4. #5 GrrlScientist
    March 3, 2006

    AH! thanks for telling me that. i think i’ve fixed the kiwicam link, although i still cannot view the video because i am supposedly missing a plugin of some sort. fweh!

  5. #6 Caio de Gaia
    March 3, 2006

    I can’t see the kiwi movie either, but the kakapo movie is neat, you get to see one of them moving around and even short shot of a female with a chick. But most of it is guys collecting kakapo semen and looking at spermatozoa moving in the microscope.

  6. #7 John
    March 3, 2006

    Right now the Kiwi Cam is showing a couple feeding dishes and a log. I don’t see much sign of a kiwi in it.

    Happy anniversary for Birds in the News. It’s not easy to produce something like this week after week.

  7. #8 Rexroth's Daughter
    March 4, 2006

    Congratulations on one year of extensive bird news reporting. It’s truly a labor of love. Much appreciated.

    BTW– That black vulture story is amazing. Yikes.

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