This ear-scratching egret was perfectly posed on a balcony in Cedar Key, Florida, framed against the background shadows. Love the feather.
Birds in Science
It was once thought impossible to obtain actual soft tissue, such as proteins, from fossils, but the impossible has happened and now, two research teams who published reports in this week’s Science describe their findings: the closest relative to the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex is .. a chicken. “It has always been assumed that preservation of [dinosaur bones] does not extend to the cellular and molecular level,” said co-author Mary Schweitzer, from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. [Mary Schweitzer was on NPR's Science Friday to discuss this research].
Some of you know that Bernd Heinrich has spent many winters studying ravens and their behavior. This month, Heinrich and his colleague, Thomas Bugnyar, published an article in Scientific American that explores the intelligence of ravens. In this article, I summarize how they investigate the question; do the birds consciously contemplate alternative behaviors and choose the most appropriate ones, or are they merely relying on instinct or learning to perform specific actions by rote?
People Helping Birds
The United States Navy is planning on constructing a jet landing field in eastern North Carolina within 3.5 miles of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most critical wintering grounds for waterfowl in the Atlantic flyway and home to endangered red wolves. This would be a disaster for the refuge and the hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that winter in the area, as well as the many sportsmen, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts who regularly enjoy the refuge. The landing strip would not only put wildlife at risk. It would also pose unacceptable risks to the safety of Navy pilots.
When it’s prairie chicken mating time in April, nothing prevents the dwindling remnants of this native grouse species from performing, which is greatly appreciated by bird-watching voyeurs who agree to a 5 a.m. rendezvous on the Buena Vista Marsh in southern Portage County, Wisconsin. The Buena Vista area is the last bastion of prairie chicken habitat in Wisconsin and steps are being taken to preserve it. Nearly 15,000 acres have been acquired and managed as grassland by the Department of Natural Resources, Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Dane County Conservation League and Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.
On Wednesday, the keepers at the Shedd started rolling out the rocks for the Gentoo and Rockhopper penguins who call the aquarium home. For these types of penguin, nothing says romance like a pile of rocks. “What’s going on here is a very exciting day for the penguins,” said Gretchen Freimuth, senior marine trainer at the Shedd. “This actually cues the birds to start pairing up and building those nests.”
Despite a record release of captive-bred birds last summer, the official spring census of the Attwater’s prairie chicken dropped to 44, down from 50 last year. Officials attributed the decrease to the Texas bird’s natural vulnerability, coupled with an especially brutal year for avian predators at the Texas City Preserve. “It’s no real surprise we had some mortality. It was a little bit higher than it normally is,” said Jim Bergan, director of science and stewardship for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. “We have to stay optimistic, hoping we can turn the corner. We’ve certainly had some bumps in the road. No one has lost hope.”
Avian Influenza News
The evidence is finally out to disprove minister of state Kanti Lal Bhuria’s statement in Parliament that migratory birds could be blamed for the spread of the virulent bird flu. Two research papers published in the journal Ibis have concluded that there is no evidence to link the recent spread of the pathogenic avian influenza to migratory birds. The paper concludes that commercial activities, particularly those associated with poultry, are the major factors that have determined the global spread of the deadly virus. If migratory birds had been the cause of inter-country spread, then, the paper suggests, they would have become the carriers in several regions depending on their migratory pattern. But no such correlation was found between the direction of the onward spiral of the virus and the migratory routes of the birds.
An influenza vaccine produced with the use of insect cells appeared safe and produced an immunogenic response in healthy adults, suggesting promise as an alternative to using embryonated eggs for the development of influenza vaccine, according to a preliminary study in the April 11 issue of JAMA. “All currently licensed influenza vaccines in the United States are produced in embryonated hen’s eggs. There are several well-recognized disadvantages to the use of eggs as the substrate [the base on which an organism lives or grows] for influenza vaccine. Eggs require specialized manufacturing facilities and could be difficult to scale up rapidly in response to an emerging need such as a pandemic,” the authors write.
Scientists in Taiwan are making plans to mass produce a bird flu vaccine using a novel cell-based technology to battle a possible outbreak of the H5N1 virus. The new technology uses a different medium from the usual chicken eggs method for cultivating vaccines. The team uses the so-called Madin-Darby canine kidney cell. “Our cell technology is based on dog kidney cells and this has not been used in any vaccine production,” said Pele Chong. According to Chong, one of the reasons they chose not to use egg-based technology was the possible shortage of eggs in case of a bird flu outbreak.
The newspapers have been full of articles about how the cold will hurt this year’s peach harvest, but what about damage to trees themselves? Many tender new leaves were killed by cold, which undoubtedly will have lasting impact on woody plants — to say nothing of caterpillars that would have eaten those leaves AND hungry birds that will be looking for caterpillars as they pass through in migration. And what about all this dead foliage on Trumpet Creeper? Will the plants still be able to make nectar-laden blossoms that attract hummingbirds? Our sense of smell and how it’s related to the potential long-term devastation wrought by a late cold snap is the topic for their 1-9 April 2007 issue of This Week at Hilton Pond photo essay.
I have been teaching my parrots a few tricks, but I haven’t attempted anything like this (yet). I am not entirely sure how to train my parrots to play basketball or golf, although the other behaviors are something I can train them to do.
Air Force Two carrying Vice President Dick Cheney struck a bird as the plane neared O’Hare International Airport on Friday. The aircraft landed safely. Unfortunately, the bird did not. Mechanics checked the plane while Cheney spoke at the Heritage Foundation’s annual leadership conference, but the incident did not delay his departure from the airport to return to Washington.
The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, Jeremy 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! 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.