Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 62 (v2n13)

Pale Male over Central Park West in NYC, 6 June 2006 (in moult).
Pale male, an unusual light-morph red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, has lived in NYC for 14 years.
Image: Lincoln Karim. You can purchase your own copy of this image here.

Birds in Science

Researchers found that female songbirds alter the size of eggs and possibly the sex of their chicks according to how they perceive their mate’s quality. The researchers played back attractive (“sexy”) songs and less attractive control songs of male canaries to female domesticated canaries, Serinus canaria. When the females started egg-laying they varied the size of their eggs in the nest according to the attractiveness of the male’s song. That is, the more attractive the song, the larger their eggs. This study was published in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Ethology.

It probably sounds obvious to you, but scientists in Mauritius want to know exactly how the dodo, Raphus cucullatus (pictured), became extinct so they launched a project recently to discover why the giant bird died out. Most hypotheses blame settlers who found the plump flightless bird on the Indian Ocean island in the 16th century and began to hunt it relentlessly. In an attempt to provide a scientific answer, the Dodo Research Program plans to study fossils from a mass dodo grave unearthed in southern Mauritius last October and from an adjacent site, using carbon dating techniques and DNA analysis. The aim is to understand the dodo’s world in the 10,000 years before humans discovered Mauritius, then to determine the impact human colonizers had when they arrived.

People Hurting Birds

Human activity is the greatest cause of extinctions around the world, according to the first global assessment of threats to birdlife. The study reveals that a move towards industrialization and intensive farming, more than the mere growth in human population, is the single biggest threat to life, forcing more species to the brink of extinction than any other factor. Many bird species are already seriously in decline. A recent study from Stanford University concluded that by the end of the century, 10% of the world’s bird population will have become extinct with a further 15% dangerously close to the brink. This study appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

German birds are changing migration patterns. Canadian red squirrels are reproducing earlier in the year. Mosquitoes in Newfoundland remain active longer into August. Traditionally, scientists have viewed such changes simply as behavior modifications in the face of a changing environment-in this case, global warming. But scientists say these shifts provide mounting evidence that for some animals, global warming is sparking genetic changes that are altering the ecosystems we live in.

A renewed operation to rid Cape Town of its unwanted but thriving population of house crows, Corvus splendens (pictured) — an invasive alien species from India that is posing serious ecological and health risks to the city — is about to get underway. House crows are highly intelligent and can only be eradicated through a carefully planned, time-consuming operation that involves habituating them to feeding at a bait station where eventually a poisoned bait is introduced. The species was imported to the east coast of Africa during the 19th century and is now a major pest in coastal cities of Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Mauritius. It first reached South Africa in 1972. [Image: Rajiv Lather]

People Helping Birds

Wildlife managers in the Yukon-Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska are again killing arctic foxes to protect a small goose that travels north from Mexico to breed. Arctic foxes steal thousands of waterfowl eggs and cache them under the tundra for lean times. Wildlife managers want to protect eggs of the Pacific black brant, Branta bernicla nigricans (pictured), whose numbers have been declining steadily. [Image: Glen Smart/USFWS]

Albatrosses on islands in the South Atlantic are being pushed to the brink of extinction, according to research. Populations of three species breeding on South Georgia and outlying islands have declined by about a third in the past 30 years. Conservation groups say the major threat to the birds’ future is deep-sea fishing using a line with a number of baited hooks attached to it. For example, in an effort to help reduce the loss of albatross, BirdLife International recently appointed its first Albatross Task Force (ATF) members. They are based in South Africa and work directly with fishermen onboard tuna longliners, doing bycatch observations and conducting at-sea trials of streamer lines. “A recent trip I made was very interesting, though sad as we came back with 16 dead birds [12 shy albatrosses, Thalassarche cauta (pictured), and four white-chinned petrels, Procellaria aequinoctalis]. One of the hardest things is feeling sad when a dead bird is hauled up. Every time it happens it breaks my heart, but I know I have to be strong and not let my feelings show,” said Meidad Goren, one of the ATF members. [Image: Tony Palliser/BirdLife International]

Preliminary results from the annual national census of the endangered Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus (pictured), the only parrot endemic to South Africa, are positive, suggesting more birds have been seen than in previous years. A member of the Cape Parrot Working Group and the co-ordinator of the research, Professor Colleen Downs of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that during this year’s count over the first weekend in May, some flocks of juvenile parrots were seen, which was very encouraging. Historically, the birds were more common and had a greater range, but their numbers have declined greatly and it is estimated that about 1,000 remain in the wild and only in three of the country’s provinces.

Birds Helping People

Have you heard about Phoebe Snetsinger? She’s a hero to many people, and not just because she accumulated a life bird list with more species than any other person. She is admired for the way she met and conquered personal adversity. In 1981, at age 50, Snetsinger was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and told she had less than a year to live. Instead of making plans to die, she made plans to take her first long-distance birding trip – to Alaska. Her serious interest in birds began with a death sentence. It continued for 18 years until she died on Nov. 23, 1999, in Madagascar. In a van accident. She was on a birding trip and had just chalked up bird number 8,450, the red-shouldered vanga, Calicalicus rufocarpalis (pictured). She had listed approximately 85 percent of the total world bird species — a record that still stands. [Image: Mike Danzenbaker]

Birds and the Endangered Species Act

Top environmental leaders gathered Wednesday, amid the roar of cargo planes and thud of artillery, to celebrate an endangered-species success story at the most unlikely of places. Along with Army paratroopers, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, grows platoons of red-cockaded woodpeckers, Picoides borealis (pictured). The nation’s second-largest population of the endangered bird thrives among its 120,000 acres of longleaf pine forests. In reaching a bird recovery goal five years early, Bragg netted a rare victory for the Endangered Species Act. But a little town 90 miles to the southeast is learning why it’s also the nation’s most feared environmental law. Wariness of legal protections for the birds have stopped development cold. Two property owners have been told they can’t build on their lots. Some predict trees will be mowed down just to keep woodpeckers away.

Florida State wildlife commissioners recently voted unanimously to remove bald eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, from the state’s list of animals in danger of extinction and to downgrade manatees from endangered to threatened. The commissioners also voted to upgrade the statuses of the Panama City crayfish and gopher tortoise to threatened species. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted 7-0 to strip bald eagles of their threatened classification and to downgrade manatees because both populations have shown signs of rebounding. 

Red Knot News

On a remote New Jersey beach, a team of biologists huddled behind a dune, out of sight of a flock of birds that gathered on a stretch of sand. Suddenly, there was a loud bang, and the scientists sprinted to a spot on the beach where a net, propelled by an explosive charge, trapped about 100 birds that were flapping their wings helplessly. Rushing to untangle the birds, the team released the sea gulls and then gently placed the other species — all shorebirds — into cardboard boxes and plastic crates. Their haul included sanderlings, semi-palmated sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and, to their great satisfaction, 24 specimens of one of the most endangered shorebirds in the world, the red knot, Calidris canutus rufus (pictured below). With just 13,000 birds left, the red knot species is highly vulnerable to natural dangers such as bad weather in its Arctic breeding grounds, biologists say. A scientific model published in 2004 projected that by 2010, the red knot could join the passenger pigeon, the Eskimo curlew and the Bachman’s warbler on the list of species that have been lost forever.

A portion of the Delaware Bay coastline is being saved for the birds – the American red knot, Calidris canutus rufus (pictured), to be specific. One mile of shoreline at Mispillion Harbor, purchased by The Conservation Fund, is now under the stewardship of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in the hopes of saving a feeding area critical to the red knot’s survival during spring and fall migrations.

Pale Male and Lola News

The 14-year-old red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis Pale Male, and Lola, his mate (pictured; also featured at top), have lately been seen on the 24th floor tower of an exclusive building on the west side of Central Park that is home to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, opera singer Beverly Sills and to Helen Gurley Brown, the pioneering editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. Lola and Pale Male have attracted a wide following among wildlife enthusiasts because they’ve been nesting and raising chicks in the middle of the city, using Central Park as a buffet. [Image: Lincoln Karim]

Avian Zoonotic News

NY State health officials are warning people who bought or came in contact with birds from a Wayne County [New York] pet store that they may have been exposed to psittacosis, a rare bacterial infection that can be transmitted to humans. State and county officials are investigating whether cockatiels purchased at the Animal Odyssey Pet Store in Newark may have infected 3 members of a Seneca County family. Psittacosis is a common disease among such pet birds as cockatiels, macaws, parrots and parakeets. In humans, the disease can cause fever, chills, muscle aches and even pneumonia, but is rarely fatal. If not properly treated, psittacosis can cause more severe illness in pregnant women. Transmission can occur while cleaning the bird droppings and inhaling the air.

Several studies show that the transnational poultry industry is the root cause of the “bird flu” problem. The spread of industrial poultry production and trade networks have created ideal conditions for the emergence and transmission of lethal viruses like the H5N1 strains of bird flu. Inside factory farms, viruses becomes lethal and multiply. Air thick with viral load from infected factory farms is carried for kilometers, while integrated trade networks spread the disease through many carriers, like live birds and chicken manure.

Streaming Birds

For this week beginning on June 12 on BirdNote, Monday, California quail, Callipepla californica, up and running; Tuesday, sapsuckers; Wednesday, the drunken-robin song of the black-headed grosbeak, Pheucticus melanocephalus; Thursday, the mimicry of the Steller’s jay, Cyanocitta stelleri; and Friday, the olive-sided flycatcher, Contopus borealis. 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].


In a nation obsessed with “The Sopranos,” it’s hard to imagine how a single camera trained on a birds’ nest in Maine could become a hit show on the Internet. Then again, when the birds are baby bald eagles fighting for survival — even pecking their siblings to death to fatten their own food supply — perhaps the popularity of the “Bald Eaglecam” isn’t surprising. Perched high in a massive white pine near the ocean in Maine’s Hancock County, the “Eaglecam” nest was chosen for stardom by state wildlife biologists, who placed a surveillance camera in a nearby tree in January. Their goal was to capture the lives of the resident couple through breeding season, and beam their story live to a worldwide audience. But the biologists never predicted the sharp dramatic turn the tale would take, as thousands of viewers watched live on their computers.

NY State wildlife officials say the three baby peregrine falcons, Falco peregrinus, born atop Syracuse’s tallest building are all perfectly healthy females. A specialist in endangered species from the state Department of Environmental Conservation helped examine the chicks on a 21st floor balcony on the State Tower Building yesterday.

Miscellaneous Birds

The naturalists at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, South Carolina, came across a new vine on the property this week — this is an unusual relative of milkweed called “Anglepod.” What was also unusual was the kinds of pollinators this native flower was attracting, and how it was attracting them. For a photo essay about Anglepod and its pollinators, please visit This Week at Hilton Pond. They also report that they finally banded their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the year and recaptured some returns from previous years. Details about these birds and other bandings and recaptures for the period are included in this account.

A rare mandarin duck, Aix galericulata (male, pictured), was spotted and photographed on Moorhall Reservoir (United Kingdom) recently by a local man. Mandarin ducks are a medium-sized perching duck, closely related to the North American wood duck. The species was once widespread in eastern Asia, but it is now endangered because of large-scale exports and the destruction of its forest habitat. The populations in eastern Russia and in China are both estimated to be well below 1,000 pairs, although Japan may have around 5,000 pairs. GrrlScientist note: I’d bet this is a domestically bred bird that escaped (they are popular avicultural subjects) rather than a lost wild bird. [Image: Aichi Prefectural Shinshiroshitara Regional Office, Japan]

While the nesting season draws to a close at the Lake Martin rookery in Louisiana, conservationists remain puzzled over the almost overnight disappearance of thousands of birds this year from the popular St. Martin Parish nature preserve. Tourists and bird-watchers make the pilgrimage to the lake each spring to spy on the egrets, herons, spoonbills and other wading birds that nest above the swamp on the limbs of cypress and button bush. This year, though, there was little to see.

A clever idea for making bird nest boxes is the brain child of several men in the UK; Bilton’s birds will have something to sing about this summer when “musical bird boxes” are put up in nature hot-spots. The avian abodes have been crafted from recycled church organ pipes by Peter Wood of Bilton and will be located around Nidd Gorge, in the United Kingdom. “The bird boxes are something that Keith Wilkinson from the Bilton Conservation Group came to me with in winter. I said, ‘would it matter if they were made out of organ pipes?’ and he said, ‘not at all’,” said Wood, an organ builder and restorer.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to my bird pals; Bill, Ian, Jeremy, Ellen and Ron for some of the news story links that you are enjoying here. Thanks in advance to Ian for catching my typos; as you probably know by now, I put a few typographical errors in these documents just so Ian can find them! The featured image (top) appears here with the kind permission of the photographer. Images are resized and are either linked from the news story that they accompany or they are credited and linked back to the photographer.


  1. #1 Dendroica
    June 12, 2006

    By the way, the “extinctions around the world” link doesn’t work.

  2. #2 GrrlScientist
    June 12, 2006

    okay, i fixed that link. thanks for letting me know.

  3. #3 llewelly
    June 12, 2006

    I’m always impressed by how well-done birds in the news is. Amazing photos and great story summaries. Now if only the authors of the linked articles could write as well as you can, or select such pretty pictures.

  4. #4 biosparite
    June 13, 2006

    Thanks as always for your dedication to producing such outstanding work each week with BITN. Around the office buildings where I work a pair of red-tailed hawks has taken up housekeeping, and one or the other and sometimes both swoop by pretty close to my 28th-story office windows. I love to see one dive and then soar back up using the velocity imparted by its descent and the rising thrmals of the urban heat island in the Galleria area of Houston.

  5. #5 Rob Miller
    June 19, 2006

    Sorry. A little behind on the reading. Thanks for another great edition of BITN. That is an amazing story of Phoebe Snetsinger! I believe her story is even more inspirational than Lance Armstrong.

  6. #6 Dahlia
    February 11, 2007

    Althought this site gives useful information about birds, it does not help me the least bit on my project about Mozambique (African country). As part of my project, I have to retrieve information and pictures of the animals native to Mozambique, but I have searched and searched, but still found no useful information. I hope you can include more information about different types of birds, from all over the world, so it will be easier for myself, as well as other students, to find the information needed to complete projects, and many other research assignments they will have to do in the future.

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