Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 76 (v3n3)

A male Superb Bird of Paradise, Lophorina superba (seen from front)
performing a courtship display for a female (brown) in Papua New Guinea,
from “Jungles,” in the “Planet Earth” series.

Image: Fred Olivier/Discovery Channel and BBC.

Birds in Science

Red-breasted nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, appear to have learned the language of black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus. Nuthatches interpret the type of chickadee alarm and can identify what sort of predator poses a threat. Nuthatches have learned to tell if the chickadees are threatened by pygmy owls, which pose a serious threat to small birds, or by much the much larger great horned owls, which rarely attack small birds. “In this case the nuthatch is able to discriminate the information in this call,” said Christopher Templeton, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Most of us would know our mother’s voice on the phone from the first syllable uttered. A recent Cornell study suggests that American crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos, also can recognize the voices of their relatives. By recording and analyzing the alarm caws of American crows, Jessica Yorzinski ’05 found seven subtle acoustic differences in features that differed among individuals — differences that the crows could potentially use to recognize one another’s calls. She also found that female crows had higher-pitched calls than males. “Lots of crows end up breeding in the neighborhood they grew up in so there is no doubt in my mind that they recognize each other. How they do that, we have no idea,” said co-author Kevin McGowan, a researcher and editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who has studied the family lives of crows for 18 years.

More bird species in the USA are ranging farther north and even staying there for the winter in a possible sign of adaptation to global warming, ornithologists and conservation groups say. Some indicators come from the recent Great Backyard Bird Count, which found more swallows, orioles and other common birds in uncommon locations. “We’ve got Baltimore orioles in 14 states, orchard orioles in five different reports and Scott’s oriole in Pennsylvania. They shouldn’t be here. They should be way south,” says Paul Green of the National Audubon Society, co-sponsor of the count with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

People Hurting Birds

Lead poisoning is killing thousands of Laysan albatrosses, Phoebastria immutabilis, each year at Midway Atoll, the American Bird Conservancy said Tuesday, adding the federal government should allocate funds to clean it up. The birds are not endangered but the World Conservation Union says they are vulnerable to extinction. As many as 10,000 Laysan albatross chicks may die each year from being exposed to lead paint chips at old military buildings on Midway, the American Bird Conservancy said. That’s equivalent to about 5 percent of the chicks hatched on the island.

Urgent action is needed to save threatened birds inhabiting Europe’s 21 Overseas Territories (OTs), say conservationists in Europe and based in the EU’s overseas countries and territories. “Altogether the French OTs hold 109 bird species of global conservation concern, of which 72 are globally threatened.” explains LPO’s (BirdLife in France) Bernard Deceuninck in the article “Out of sight, out of mind”. “This puts France ninth in the list of countries with the greatest number of threatened species, ahead of New Zealand but behind India.”

Stop at any traffic lights in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, and you enter a parallel world of retail. Given time, between the red lights, you could almost do your entire weekly shop from the comfort of your car. But one item, in particular, caught my eye. This was an item that moved. It was small and green. Then another appeared. And another. They were birds. All attached to the arms of men eager to show off their beautiful avian armoury.

People Helping Birds

Providing regular and reliable supplies of uncontaminated carcases is a well-established tool in vulture conservation. Among their many applications, vulture restaurants are used to provide a safe food source in areas where carcasses are otherwise commonly baited with poisons. A team from the Peregrine Fund set out to find whether vulture restaurants could be used in the Indian subcontinent to reduce exposure to the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. Recent catastrophic declines in three Gyps species, Slender-billed, Gyps tenuirostris, Indian, G. indicus, and White-rumped (Oriental White-backed) Vulture, Gyps bengalensis, have been attributed to the toxic effects of the drug upon birds which have fed on treated livestock. Affected vultures die of visceral gout. Their findings are described in the current issue of Bird Conservation International.

Rare Bird News

The strange and extremely rare Long-whiskered Owlet, Xenoglaux loweryi, has been seen in the wild for the first time on a private conservation area in Northern Peru by researchers. The bird, a species that wasn’t even discovered until 1976, and until now was only known from a few specimens captured in nets after dark, was seen in the Area de Conservación Privada de Abra Patricia — Alto Nieva. This sighting is considered a holy grail of South American ornithology and has not been accomplished in thirty years, despite the efforts of hundreds of birders.

Until January this year, a single doubtful record from 1981 was the only evidence for the presence of Critically Endangered Uluguru Bush-shrike, Malaconotus alius, in the Uluguru South Forest Reserve, which was believed to be above its normal altitudinal limit. Previous surveys had failed to find it. Now a team from Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST, BirdLife Partner in Tanzania), having repeatedly sighted the bird in the Uluguru South Forest Reserve, has evidence that suggests the bush-shrikes are breeding there. Additionally, later that morning the team heard another Uluguru Bush-shrike about 400 metres from the first pair. “This time it was the highest record of our survey in terms of altitude, at 1,885 metres.”

The nest of a rare migratory bird to the United Arab Emirates, the White-tailed Lapwing, Vanellus leucurus, was spotted in Dubai for the first time. “This indicates the bird’s successful breeding in this part of the region,” said Dr Reza Khan, Head of Dubai Zoo, who spotted the nest recently in a Rhodes grass field off Al Warsan near the Sewage Treatment Plant of Dubai Municipality. Four eggs were laid in a ground nest. Though the species are occasionally spotted in Dubai, this is the first time that a sign of its successful breeding has emerged.

The last East Texas sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, was more than a century ago — in 1904. “There’s a lot of doubters out there that this bird does exist,” said Campbell, from Emmaus, Pa. “I believe it exists.” Helped by a research grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the hunt for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker began November 1 in the Big Thicket. It has continued through this month even as new leaf growth on trees has made looking for the elusive nomadic bird even more impossible. The Fish and Wildlife Service is also coordinating searches in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana with assistance from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is supplying equipment to the efforts.

Parrot News

American Bird Conservancy has teamed up with the Brazilian conservation group Fundação Biodiversitas and the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund to purchase more than 3,000 acres of vital habitat to protect the Lear’s Macaw, Anodorhynchus leari, one of the worlds’ most endangered birds. The project will protect key nesting sites; ensure their protection through hiring of forest guards, and support education efforts in local communities. “The Critically Endangered Lear’s Macaw is one of the rarest and most spectacular of the world’s parrots,” said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy. “We are grateful for the support of the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and the outstanding work of Biodiversitas to conserve a species that is on the brink of extinction.”

The rapid growth of the parakeet population may pose a threat to other birds, authorities have said. There are about 30,000 of the bright green rose-ringed parakeets, Psittacula krameri, in London, with more in Surrey and Kent, and their numbers could reach 50,000 by 2010. ncreasing flocks will compete with native birds, such as woodpeckers and robins, for food and nesting space. “We are not sure what sort of numbers they would have to grow to before becoming a problem but we are aware that they are growing,” said RSPB spokesman Tim Webb. “We do see a cull as a last resort, something only to be considered if a native species were to be under threat.”

Avian Influenza News

Avian Inflenza has been detected in birds in Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia and in people in Indonesia, Laos, Egypt and Kuwait.

Genetic sequencing studies of the influenza virus isolated from a nine-month-old girl recently hospitalized in Hong Kong for influenza A (H9N2) shows all genes from the virus are of avian origin, the Center for Health Protection says. The results suggest the virus was directly transmitted from a bird to the girl without mingling with a human flu virus, it added.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of March 26, 2007: Monday, state birds; Tuesday, the different songs of the urban and rural Great Tits of Europe; Wednesday, “Eagles Rebuild”; Thursday, “Why Are Bluebirds Blue?”; Friday, the story of the nightingale, from Hans Christian Andersen. 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

Spring arrived officially on 21 March, but the whole week preceding was filled with activity at Hilton Pond Center, from native wildflowers to small mammals to insects to reptiles to birds and even a human visitor from the frozen north. Be sure to visit for a photo essay about what was happening in their natural world. As always we include a tally of all birds banded or recaptured, plus a slew of shorter phenology notes. There are also links to some recent newspaper and magazine articles about Hilton Pond.

When Kate St. John tuned in to a Webcam of a pair of nesting peregrine falcons, Falco peregrinus, early one morning, she was met with a rare sight: two birds locked in a death battle, talon to talon, tumbling precipitously on a high ledge of the University of Pittsburg’s Cathedral of Learning. There was no audio, but St. John could tell there was screaming. One of the birds wrestled the other to its back, stabbing at its chest with its beak, drawing blood. It took her a minute to realize what was going on. A third falcon — a male — was trying to take over. St. John flew into action, saving two dozen Web images, which are not archived, during the 20-minute battle. Now, ornithologists are hailing the photos as a phenomenal documentation of an event rarely seen outside ornithological circles, much less recorded. “We got lucky to catch a fight in progress,” said Tony Bledsoe, an ornithologist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Cliff, Hugh, Caren, Ian, Jeremy, Ron and Ellen 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! 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.


  1. #1 llewelly
    March 26, 2007

    Most of us would know our mother’s voice on the phone from the first
    syllable uttered.

    My own mother calls now and then, and sometimes it seems that way, but
    a few months ago, I got a call from a strange lady, who started asking
    to speak to my siblings, and when told they weren’t available, asking
    all sorts of questions about my siblings (by name). As I failed to
    recognize the voice, and the calller ID said ‘unavailable’, I
    stalled. Eventually she said ‘What about Llew [a family short for my
    given name]? Is he home? Can I speak to him?’. When I asked why, she
    said ‘I’m his mother!’

  2. #2 Filipe
    March 28, 2007

    What an amazing opening photo.

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