Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 81 (v3n8)

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Burrowing owls, Athene cunicularia.

The photographer writes; While driving up to Colorado, I spotted a pair of Burrowing Owls trying in vain to stay dry in the drizzle. Highway 385 North of Brownfield, Terry County, TX.

Image appears here with the kind permission of the photographer, Jay Packer.


Birds in Science

Gone are the days when animals were classified to taxon based solely on bone structure (osteology), body structure (morphometrics) or behavior (ethology), or some combination of these characters. Currently, scientists have a suite of powerful tools for classifying creatures to taxon, and analyses using a combination of these methods is allowing us to come to a deeper understanding of all animal life. As a result of using these techniques, a new species of frogmouth has been reported, and it was under our very noses all along.

Urban European robins living in noisy areas sing at night because they are more likely to be heard, according to research published recently. Scientists in the north of England have discovered that the birds have adapted their behavior to cope with the pressing demands of modern city life. The study, which appears in the journal, Biology Letters, disproves the myth that some robins sing at night because they believe street lighting is daylight.

Alameda County, California, supervisors approved a one-year monitoring system that would study the impacts of the Altamont Pass windmills on scores of birds, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, burrowing owls and other protected species. The $1.4 million price tag for the deal caused concern among the supervisors, who are afraid the cost of the study has spiraled out of control, but saying the study was necessary, they approved it unanimously.

People Helping Birds

A new RSPB nature reserve is set to open on the Aberdeenshire coast, allowing visitors to watch seabirds at Scotland’s only mainland gannet colony. The craggy cliffs of Troup Head provide a home to hundreds of thousands of gannets, guillemots and puffins. The gannet population has exploded since 1988 when there were only four nests. Now there are more than 1,500. “The views from the sea are particularly extraordinary, and the sight of up to 150,000 seabirds, with all the cacophony of noise, commotion and hurly-burly that such a large seabird city gives rise to, makes for a thoroughly memorable experience not to be missed.

A bloom of ocean algae that produces a toxic acid has sickened and killed hundreds of birds, sea lions and dolphins in California, environmentalists say. Birds and mammals have been washing up on shores from San Diego to San Fransisco Bay. “I have been doing this work for 35 years and I have never seen anything like this as far as the number of species affected, other than an oil spill,” said Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Center in San Pedro.

Five years ago, dead flamingos littered the drying shores of Lake Nakuru in Kenya’s scenic Rift Valley. Sickly birds struggled to stand upright while stray dogs scavenged on the depleted flock. The once world-renowned heartland of the majestic birds — with their long necks and striking pink, scarlet and black plumage — was yet another depressing symbol of deforestation, pollution and global warming in Africa. “It was wrong to cut the trees but we had to. We burnt them all when we started farming,” said Jane Macharia, who like so many others slashed the forest to make farmland when she came to Nakuru 10 years ago with no work or means to produce food. “The business of this region depends on visitors,” the warden said. “Destroy the forests and you destroy Lake Nakuru. Then no flamingos, then no tourism — we know about that.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’ s “Celebrate Urban Birds!” event kicks off May 10-13, 2007 with events planned then and throughout the year. Hundreds of organizations are sponsoring activities such as gardening, bird watching, art, and science. These events will raise awareness about birds in the city and help scientists learn how birds use urban habitats. Anyone can participate, either on your own or with local organizations.

People Hurting Birds

Two companies and two almond plantation workers have been charged over the shooting of more than 40 rare parrots in Victoria’s (Australia) northwest late last year. The 40 regent parrots were shot in bush near a large almond farm near Robinvale, on the Murray River 470km northwest of Melbourne, in November last year. The regent parrot is a nationally-threatened species, with only 2400 left in the wild.

An unknown motorist drove over three nene geese near Hilo, Hawaii this week, killing two of the endangered birds and injuring another. The birds were obviously hit by a vehicle but there were no witnesses, said James Weller, a conservation resources enforcement officer with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Harming the endangered bird is punishable under federal law by up to $50,000 in fines and a year in jail.

Two conservation organizations have supported Ecuador’s President Correa in calling that the Galapagos Islands become a national priority for action. On the same day a delegation from UNESCO, the UN’s scientific, educational and cultural body, visited the islands, Correa spoke publicly about the “danger” the islands were facing. In his statement he referred to growing threats from a rapidly increasing population, and increased incidence of invasive species — many of them predators of nesting birds. “The consequences of this growth include an increase in invasive species, increased risk of pollution and finally the likelihood of greater pressures on high value marine resources,” said Graham Watkins, CDF’s Executive Director.

Chicago is trying a form of avian abortion in its war against ring-billed gulls — coating eggs with corn oil to keep them from hatching. A pilot project involves only a few nests and is aimed at determining whether adult gulls behave differently when they do not have young to feed. The gulls, aggressive feeders, hang out on the city’s famed lakefront and foul the waters of Lake Michigan with their droppings. Some experts believe the birds are responsible for high levels of E. coli bacteria that have caused swimming to be banned at beaches.

The Macedonian rare avian species — white-head eagle — is in grave danger of total extinction, after 16 dead birds have been found recently in the Mariovo region. The members of the hunting society “Kajmakchalan” had found ten dead birds yesterday, while the organizations working for protection of these rare birds found another six today, Makfax’s correspondent reported. The latest massive deaths cut the number of this species by a half, as the latest survey showed that as many as 40 of white-head eagles existed in Macedonia.

Wild Parrots

Conservationists in Nicaragua are calling for measures to help control the country’s illegal capture and trade in wild birds. The call comes after a BBC journalist, posing as an interested foreign buyer, was offered a number of parrot species, many for sale on the roadside. The same journalist was later offered a Great Green Macaw, Ara ambiguous, listed by BirdLife and IUCN as Endangered, meaning that it faces a very high risk of extinction in the wild. “In the capital of Nicaragua, any tourist can buy all kinds of threatened species, in particular those from the Psittacid [parrot] family.” said Jose Manuel Zolotoff of Fundacion Cocibolca (BirdLife’s project partner in Nicaragua). “You can get a sense of how profitable the trade is when a Great Green Macaw and Scarlet Macaw can be sold in a buffer zone for an average of $200-$400 [USD], being sold in the US for up to $2,000 [USD].”

Rare Birds

A dramatic drop in sightings of the Akekee and the Akikiki, two very rare birds on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, is raising concern that these species may be on the brink of extinction. Beginning this month the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources will conduct population surveys of forest birds on Kauai to see if the suspected decline is taking place. “The strongest available measures such as captive-breeding, fencing out and removing invasive species, and emergency listing under the Endangered Species Act, are all necessary due to the recent history of Hawaiian birds in similar circumstances going extinct,” said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy (ABC).

A pair of rare white-tailed sea eagles featured on the BBC’s Springwatch program have lost both of their young chicks in what looks like a freak fall from their nest. Local wildlife experts tried unsuccessfully to revive the chicks. The young deaths mean nesting efforts by the adult birds has now failed for this year. Dave Sexton, RSPB Scotland’s Mull Officer, who was first on the scene, said: “We knew something had gone badly wrong when both adult eagles were seen soaring high above the area of woodland containing the nest, when normally one of them should be brooding the chicks.

In the past, adult Grauer’s swamp-warblers have been recorded throughout the Rift Valley in Africa; in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. Yet breeding and nesting behaviour — two vital facets of information for conservationists working to save the species — remained largely unknown, until now. “During our routine surveys of the Kabatwa Swamp in the Volcanoes National Park [in Rwanda], we came across a small cup-shaped nest perched in foliage 35cm from the ground. The nest was built from Poa leptocrada and other sedges. To our surprise there were two chicks sitting in the nest,” said Claudien Nsabagasani, Ornithological Researcher with Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) and IBA Focal Point for Association pour la Conservation de la Nature au Rwanda, ACNR (BirdLife in Rwanda).

Surveys in Senegal, also in Africa, by LPO (BirdLife in France) have revealed a single roost containing over 28,600 Lesser Kestrel, Falco naumanni, and 16,000 African scissor-tailed Kite, Chelictinia riocourii — one of the largest bird of prey roosts ever found. The existence of communal roosts during the non-breeding season — sometimes involving several thousand individuals — has been observed in a number of different countries including Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. However conservationists have described this enormous roost — altogether some 45,000 insectivorous raptors — as exceptional.

Avian Influenza News

The US and Japan agreed this week to provide financial assistance to six developing countries, including Viet Nam, in order to step up domestic avian influenza vaccine production, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Representatives of WHO said Viet Nam, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Brazil and Mexico will receive US$2.5 million each for equipment to manufacture avian influenza vaccines. “The most effective (vaccines) will closely match the properties of the actual pandemic virus. These properties cannot be known with certainty until the pandemic virus emerges,” said Margaret Chan, director general of WHO.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its first approval for a human vaccine against the influenza virus H5N1, the avian flu strain confirmed through laboratory tests to have infected individuals in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The approved vaccine is intended for use in the event of a pandemic, U.S. officials said. “We’re very proud to be part of this historic moment in pandemic preparedness,” said Patricia Tomsky, a spokesperson for the company. “Sanofi pasteur is gratified to take this role in human health.” Rather than sell the vaccine commercially, sanofi pasteur will produce the vaccine under a contract with the federal government for inclusion in the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile. According to Karen Riley, a spokesperson for the FDA, the vaccine will not be on the market since it is intended for use in a pandemic.

Researchers have determined that copper surfaces are significantly better than stainless steel at protecting against influenza A exposure. Influenza A is a viral pathogen responsible for high mortality rates worldwide. The virus is easily transferred and can survive on a range of environmental surfaces. Previous studies have confirmed antimicrobial properties in copper against pathogenic bacteria, but antiviral activity has yet to be tested. “The current study shows that copper surfaces may contribute to the number of control barriers able to reduce transmission of the virus, particularly in facilities, such as schools and health care units, where viral contamination has the ability to cause serious infection,” say the researchers.

Avian Influenza has been reported in humans in Egypt and Cambodia and in birds in Kuwait.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of April 30, 2007: Monday, Swainson’s Thrush’s “power napping”; Tuesday, half-brain sleep; Wednesday, neighborhood birding; Thursday, “Three Brown Thrushes — Three Fine Songs” (Swainson’s, Hermit, and Veery — great sounds!); Friday, Wilson’s Warbler nesting. 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].

For the first time in more than 70 years, an egg laid by North America’s largest flying bird — the California Condor — has been found outside the United States. [NPR: All Things Considered streaming; 2:57]

Miscellaneous Birds

For those of you who study birds or who like to look at them, Julian Baumel’s celebrated Handbook of Avian Anatomy: Nomina Anatomica Avium, 2nd Edition, published in 1993 by the Nuttal Ornithological Club, is now available as a free PDF download. It’s a big file (400 pages), so it might take some time to download, but it is free.

The virtues of the Brown-headed Cowbird are always up for debate among birders, but one has to admire a native species that is successful — even at the expense of other native species. For some historical perspective on this promiscuous “social parasite,” visit “This Week at Hilton Pond” photo essay for 10-21 April 2007. The naturalists there provide, as always, their banding results for the period, with info
about two VERY old individuals they recaptured. There’s also a follow-up photo on the impact of their big Easter freeze, plus other miscellaneous nature notes — including info about thneir first banded hummingbird of the season.

A male osprey has completed his 3,500 mile journey back to Ohio. He arrived at Alum Creek Reservoir on March 27, 2007, 5 days earlier than last year. Observers have reported that he and a female osprey started nest building within days of his return. She was an unbanded female, which indicates she was not his mate from last nesting season. However, after a dramatic fight between the unmarked female and the male’s mate from last year, it appears that the male’s original mate has successfully repelled the intruder.

Ravens can toboggan, ride other animals and spy on their enemies. Their life as cadgers stealing prey from wolves, eagles and bears has made them outstandingly intelligent. But do ravens know what they’re doing and why? Austrian biologists want to find out in this Der Speigel article.

April Konopka said her beloved African Gray Congo Parrot named Dusty escaped and flew away from her New Boston home seven months ago. Konopka attempted to get him back but with no success. “I’m trying to take off after him and I have a prosthetic knee,” she said. “I fell, and I’m crying because he was going higher and higher.” Dusty was recently found in Las Vegas and is being returned to Konopka by truck.

China-Japan relations may be on the mend but on selecting their national bird, some Chinese feel the choice of the Japanese crane is for the … birds. Actually, they have nothing against the endangered bird. The Chinese name for the white-feathered, red-crested bird — which has long symbolized peace and long life in China, Japan and Korea — is Dandinghe. That may be a mouthful, but for some Chinese its Japanese association is even less palatable.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, 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! The featured image appears here with the kind permission of the photographer, so please visit his blog and leave him some encouraging words.

Comments

  1. #1 gladio
    April 30, 2007

    Interesting observation on robins singing during the night; in my own place of residence common sparrows do chirp and call into the wee hours if they are near any source of street lighting. Same goes for canaries whose cages are left in the balcony as well, if they are uncovered.

    Great issue!

  2. #2 biosparite
    April 30, 2007

    Many thanks for the burrowing-owl photo. It brightened my Monday considerably.

  3. #3 genesent
    April 30, 2007

    Although I am not a scientist, I enjoy reading articles that enhance my appreciation for the birds I observe. Thanks for filling an empty spot in my birders education

  4. #4 Rachel Fischoff
    May 1, 2007

    Thank you for a comprehensive, spritely-written update on wild bird news. I have posted a clickhere-link to this article on the Wildlife Rehab Alliance forum at Delphi Forums. We appreciate your care for wild birds. And so do the birds.
    Gratefully,
    Rachel Fischoff, President
    Wildlife Rehab Alliance

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