Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 72 (v2n23)

European Robin, Erithacus rubecula, grabbing a mealworm.


Birds in Science

Scrub jays can plan on saving tasty treats for the future and do it in a way that shows they are truly planning ahead, British researchers reported. They set up a careful experiment to allow the birds to cache food in a certain way if they were indeed planning, and found the birds were up to the task. Their study, published in the journal Nature, adds to several others that show animals such as great apes and certain birds can plan ahead in much the same way as people do. “Knowledge of and planning for the future is a complex skill that is considered by many to be uniquely human,” Nicola Clayton and colleagues at the University of Cambridge wrote.

Researchers from BirdLife International and RSPB combined state-of-the-art scientific analysis with traditional fieldwork to unravel the mystery surrounding Aquatic Warblers‘ unknown wintering sites. The research team analysed feathers from the warblers caught in Europe to help narrow their search. Knowing that the feathers would have been grown on African wintering grounds, the researchers looked for patterns of isotopes and compared these alongside isotope maps of West Africa. “[K]nowing where they are in winter now provides a starting point to mirror the successful European conservation efforts in Africa,” said Lars Lachmann of RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) who co-organised the expedition to West Africa together with the BirdLife International Aquatic Warbler Conservation Team (AWCT) and the French organisation “Bretagne Vivante”.

Genetic tests of North American birds show what may be 15 new species including ravens and owls — look alikes that do not interbreed and have wrongly had the same name for centuries, scientists said on Sunday. If the findings from a study of birds’ DNA genetic “barcodes” in the United States and Canada hold true around the world, there might be more than 1,000 new species of birds on top of 10,000 identified so far, they said. GrrlScientist note: while I have no doubt that there are more cryptic species than are currently recognized among birds, I do not think the techniques used in this study are appropriate for identifying them. There are many many problems with DNA barcoding as a methodology, so I will await more rigorous data before I get excited about splitting or lumping any avian species.

People Hurting Birds

The ivory gull, Pagophila eburnea, has more mercury in its eggs than any other seabird in the Arctic, researchers have found – a fact that could explain why numbers of the boisterous seabird have plummeted dramatically over the last 20 years. Population counts done during the early 1980s found about 2,400 birds, while a survey done from 2002 to 2006 by Canadian Wildlife Services only found several hundred birds – a drop of 80 per cent. This decline prompted the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada to assess the ivory gull as an endangered species last year.

People Helping Birds

One of New Zealand’s rarest birds — the Stitchbird, Notiomystis cincta (pictured, Image: Michael Szabo) — has returned to the Auckland mainland for the first time in 125 years. Thirty of the rare birds, locally called ‘Hihi’, are to be released in the Waitakere Ranges after being brought over from the Tiritira Matangi Islands, itself a reintroduction site for Stitchbird. “Hihi are currently still vulnerable to extinction and establishing additional populations is a core focus for their recovery.” commented Sandra Jack of Forest & Bird. “We hope that a self-sustaining population will become established in the forest in the Waitakere Ranges, improving the species’ chances of long-term survival.”

A new wetland habitat for the threatened reed bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus, is being created at Lower Moor Farm near Oaksey. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, UK, which owns the nature reserve, hopes to boost the population of the songbird, whose numbers halved between 1970 and 1998. “We are digging a series of scrapes up to two-feet deep that will provide a source of shallow water and wetland plants near the newly-built visitor centre,” said Dave Turner, Head of reserves. “The water will attract a wealth of insect life in the summer, while the plants will offer a good variety of seeds, all of which will help the reed bunting.They will also be great for attracting winter birds, such as snipe, jack snipe, green sandpipers and other waders.”

Two rare vultures said to be the first of their species bred in captivity have died after only a few weeks, a scientist said, in a blow for conservationists trying to save the endangered South Asian birds from extinction. The Oriental white-backed vulture, Gyps bengalensis (pictured, Image source), chicks had been warmly greeted when they hatched in January at a breeding centre in Pinjore in the north Indian state of Haryana. Both chicks died later in January, said Vibhu Prakash, the principal scientist of the Bombay Natural History Society’s vulture breeding program. Prakash blamed the parents. “They were first-time parents and they just didn’t know what to do with their chicks,” he said. “That happens very often even in the wild.”

Once a year, Marines get to drive their 27-ton amphibious assault vehicles to their heart’s content, and a range of endangered bird species benefit from the crushing force. The Marine vehicles flatten invasive pickleweed, and create mud mounds that are perfect for nesting by birds like the endangered Hawaiian stilt. “What we’re doing is improving the habitat for several of our endangered species and also some protected migratory waterfowl that make Nu’upia Ponds their home,” said Diane Drigot, senior natural resources manager for the Marine Corps base.

While tremendous progress has been made in bringing the California condors, Gymnogyps californianus, back from the brink of extinction, poisoning from lead ammunition is regarded as the single greatest threat to the continued recovery of the birds. Lead ammunition poses a threat to the condors when the birds eat carrion containing the bullet fragments. But the Tejon Ranch Company today joined with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Audubon California to further protect the Condor by announcing it would discontinue the use of lead hunting ammunition on Tejon Ranch, the 270,000-acre privately-owned ranch in California’s Tehachapi Mountains, portions of which have historically been used by the condors for foraging and roosting. “Twenty-five years ago the world’s population of California condors was only 23 birds,” said Steve Thompson, Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Today, through the efforts of many, 70 condors fly freely above California. Today’s historic decision by Tejon Ranch to eliminate lead from its hunting program is a major step forward in our efforts to recover this magnificent bird.”

Scientists are struggling to explain the rare death of 17 loons in New Hampshire, saying warm weather may have confused the threatened species of bird which typically heads to the ocean for winter. Twenty-two male and female Great Northern Divers, known as Common Loons, Gavia immer (pictured, Image: DNR), were found on Saturday and Sunday on Lake Winnipesaukee, many them covered in snow from wind gusts with their heads tucked into their wings to keep warm. Biologists are unclear why the loons congregated on the ice deep in New Hampshire when they normally migrate to open water such as the ocean in winter. The five that survived were transported to the ocean and released. “This is the first time I ever have seen this,” said senior biologist and executive director of the Loon Preservation Committee, Harry Vogel. “It’s unprecedented.”

Avian Influenza News

This past week, H5N1 avian influenza has been confirmed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and surprisingly, in Laos

A ban on importing live birds from the UK to the Channel Islands following an outbreak of avian flu has been lifted. Birds are permitted from all areas of the UK apart from the restricted zone that is in force around a poultry farm in Suffolk. All turkeys at the Bernard Matthews plant there were killed after a strain of H5N1 was discovered on 3 February. The ban was put in place as a precautionary measure to protect the islands’ birds.

Streaming Birds

This week on BirdNote, for the week of February 26, 2007: Monday, Barred Owls, Strix varia; Tuesday, the song of the American Dipper, Cinclus mexicanus; Wednesday, Sanderlings, Calidris alba; Thursday, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Regulus satrapa — Bernd Heinrich’s research; Friday, “Drumming with Woodpeckers”. 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].

Miscellaneous Birds

Do you drink coffee? Even if you don’t, have you ever wondered how coffee growing in Central America might affect birdwatching in your own backyard in the U.S. or Canada? Do you know what folks mean when they talk about “shade-grown” vs. “sun-grown” coffee? Coffee — and birds and orchids and butterflies and sustainable farming — are all covered in the most recent edition of “This Week at Hilton Pond.” (The photo essay really should be called “This Week at Finca Cristina,” an environmentally friendly organic coffee farm in Costa Rica that’s doing shade-grown coffee the “right way.”). There’s an essay with LOTS of photos of Costa Rican flora, fauna, and habitats, so be patient if it takes a while to load; if the site’s busy, please bookmark it and come back later. Next week we’ll report on our just-completed hummingbird research expedition in another part of Costa Rica.

Landfills are big, smelly mountains of compacted garbage. No one could call them even passably picturesque. But if you are a herring gull or a great black-backed gull — or a human who likes to watch gulls — they are akin to the Garden of Eden. “They would come in every day,” said Ed Hagen of Woodbury, who used to watch gulls at the New Milford landfill, where he commonly saw 5,000 to 10,000 birds. “That was true of even the smaller landfills.” But that particular paradise is lost, covered over with plastic liners and topsoil. The state’s landfills are all closed, or about to close. And as a result, gull populations, once supersized, are coming down to earth. “It brings everything back to where it should be,” said Milan Bull, senior director for science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Surveys suggest the Eastern migrating population of Rusty Blackbirds, Euphagus carolinus, have lost 19 of every 20 birds over the past 30 years, a drop the North American Breeding Bird Survey calls the most profound population decline for any North American songbird. Nearly all of the birds found by a Smithsonian Institution survey team in the Southeast this winter were found in a few small flocks in the Low country. Its miles of marsh and waterfowl impoundments might be the blackbirds’ last stand. “They used to fly to and from the swamps every night and darken the skies,” said Nathan Dias of the Cape Romain Bird Observatory. “It’s a little shocking how hard it is to find them now. It used to be no big deal. Now you have to go to the best of the best habitat.”

Two snowy owls, Bubo scandiacus (pictured, image W. Barr), have been seen together in the UK for the first time in more than 30 years, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.However, the birds are thought to be male which threatens to dash initial hopes they might be a breeding pair. They have been seen at Galson near Barvas Moor on the Isle of Lewis on the Western Isles. RSPB Scotland said the last snowy owls to breed in the UK was a pair on Shetland in 1975.

Dennis, who has been a wildlife photographer for 20 years, says European robins, Erithacus rubecula (pictured, top), are naturally tame birds and can be tempted by a free feed of mealworm (see picture, top). And he says he even talks to the birds and lets them fly around his house so they can get used to him. “Taming a Robin is actually quite simple – anyone can do it,” he said. “The secret is that they will sell their soul for a mealworm! And talking to them really helps too – I use simple, common phrases like, ‘come on cheeky’. This particular Robin has been in my garden for four years. He comes into my house during the day and never flies away when I feed him.”

Follow the amazing migratory journey of Brant (geese), Branta bernicla, from Ireland to the arctic.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Mike, Biosparite, Ian, Diane, Jeremy, Ellen and Ron for sending story links. 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 appears here with the kind permission of the photographer, so please contact him if you also wish to purchase this or other of his images. Other images are resized and are either linked from the news story that they accompany or they are credited and linked back to the photographer.

What is the point of Birds in the News? I publish BITN each week because I want to increase people’s awareness of the importance of birds in our everyday lives. Birds represent many things to us; beauty, freedom, music, wildness. But everywhere, birds are coming under increasing pressure for their very survival, and by linking to news stories about birds, I hope to make the smallest impression upon the public and the mainstream media, as well as our decision-makers, that birds are an important feature of our everyday lives, that there are so many reasons that we could not do without them.

Comments

  1. #1 biosparite
    February 26, 2007

    I hope the isolation and deaths of common loons in New Hampshire is just a fluke. A few years ago I watched a solitary common loon in winter feeding out on a Texas bay SSW of Houston. It was so small and brave, paddling along with none of its fellows in sight. I watched it for a long time with a telescope, enjoying the sight of its beautiful eyes and plumage. A world without the opportunity to see a living thing of such extraordinary color, form and beauty would be a depauperate world indeed.

  2. #2 gladio
    February 26, 2007

    Ooohh! I will try to entice some robins with mealworms.
    What a lovely issue, as always.

  3. #3 Rebecca
    February 26, 2007

    That first picture really doesn’t look like a robin to me. That’s almost certainly what I’d call an eastern bluebird.
    See http://www.birds.cornell.edu/BOW/EASBLB/

  4. #4 Rebecca
    February 26, 2007

    Ah… the shame of premature commenting. Upon further investigation, I see that it is an ENGLISH robin.

    Oops.

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    February 27, 2007

    Follow the amazing migratory journey of Brant geese from Ireland to the arctic.

    Brent? Although the image of a flock of geese acting like David Brent is not one I care to contemplate…

    Bob

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