Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 82 (v3n9)

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“Spruce Grouse.”

Image appears here with the kind permission of the photographer, Pamela Wells.
[Larger image].

Birds in Science

A paper was recently published in PLoS One that examines the reproductive and evolutionary arms race between male and female ducks to control paternity. Basically, if males develop large and elaborate genital structures that allow them to manipulate females and to bias paternity in their favor, then females will co-evolve specific genital anatomy that allows them to regain some control over copulation and/or fertilization success — so females can exercise choice over which male fertilizes their eggs.

I often think about differences in morphological and behavioral traits in closely-related species and wonder whether the speed and character of changes in these traits reveal anything about the evolutionary relationships between taxa. For example, in birds, both visual and auditory cues, such as plumage and song patterns, are essential for identifying members of their own species. However, these phenomena have rarely been systematically examined using closely related species.

Urbanization changes landscapes and local environments, which can alter the life histories and traits of the creatures living in and around these areas. Studying European blackbirds, Turdus merula, Jesko Partecke and Eberhard Gwinner (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology) discovered certain adaptive traits, that in the long run, could lead to more offspring. Earlier field studies revealed a greater tendency for birds to over-winter in urban populations of migratory species such as the European Blackbird and the European Robin, especially when compared with populations of the same species living in nearby forest and rural habitats. “The decision to migrate is probably influenced by both genetics and environment,” say the authors in the study. “In this study, we wanted to determine if changing migratory habits were due to changes in genetic composition in urban populations, or were environmental-induced.”

Whether you are an anxious type, or a fearless person — such individual differences in personality could be partly due to the genes you carry. In humans, it is hard to prove the existence of such “personality genes” — there are simply too many factors that influence human behaviour and these factors are hard to control experimentally. “The personality trait can be an important predictor of how individuals will respond to predictable and unpredictable changes in their environment and how well they cope with these changes”, explains Bart Kempenaers. “If we want to understand the ecological and evolutionary importance of variation in personality in natural, free-living animal populations, it would help a lot to know the molecular genetic mechanisms behind the trait.” Typing the behavioural relevant Drd4 polymorphism it should be possible to follow micro-evolutionary changes in populations, which would result from changing selection pressures on different personality types.

In a bid to understand how one of the most complex communication systems of all — human language — came about, scientists are also studying animals that, like us, use sound to communicate. Surprisingly, they have discovered our closest relatives, the apes, do not have much of a vocal repertoire. But other animals do, animals such as birds.

People Hurting Birds

A photoessay of Malta’s annual bird slaughter. A news story about this senseless slaughter.

An Italian scientist working on a study about bird migration in Malta believes the government can obtain a derogation on spring hunting “if this is correctly worded”. Giuseppe Micali said that during a short visit to Malta, he had the opportunity to speak to a number of hunters and trappers and was convinced that “Malta could get away with it”. He said, however, there was no other EU country that allowed spring hunting. As he was about to reply to a question about whether he had seen any illegal hunting, a roller, a protected colourful bird, flew past and was shot at three times but was not killed.

People Helping Birds

University of Georgia scientists are finalizing development of a new vaccine that could effectively eliminate in companion bird populations a debilitating and often fatal viral disease called psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD). The virus has decimated some free-ranging populations of cockatoos and has historically been a problem for companion-bird lovers from around the globe. The virus is not contagious to humans or other pets. More than 40 species of free-ranging and companion birds, most notably lovebirds, cockatoos, eclectus parrots and African gray parrots, are readily susceptible to infection. The virus also can infect and cause disease in other psittacine birds such as budgerigars (budgies), Indian ringneck parakeets, lories, lorikeets and occasionally macaws and Amazon parrots.

World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) is a global initiative devoted to celebrating the beauty of migrating birds and for promoting their conservation worldwide. This year WMBD will take place on the weekend of 12-13 May and its central theme will be “Migratory birds in a changing climate”. Climate change has severe consequences for the nomads of the skies: it causes the loss of essential bird habitats, changes migration patterns and increases the competition for food between migrating birds and residents. The goal of WMBD 2007 is to try to focus world attention on the plight of migratory birds and to highlight the way they are being affected by climate change in the same way as all living things.

The Denver Zoo gave the public a sneak peek into its newest facility recently. The “Avian Propagation Center” will be ready for the zoo’s feathered residents to move in at the end of May. The new building will provide special conditions for birds that might otherwise be too sensitive or shy to mate while on exhibit. Toco toucans, palm cockatoos and the critically endangered Bali mynahs are just some of the bird that will live in the new facility.

Wind Power and Birds

Although the use of wind energy to generate electricity is increasing rapidly in the United States, government guidance to help communities and developers evaluate and plan proposed wind-energy projects is lacking, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council. Currently, federal regulation of wind projects on private land is minimal, the report observes. Wind facilities can have certain adverse environmental effects on a local or regional level, by damaging habitat and killing birds and bats that fly into turbines. Among birds, the most frequent turbine fatalities are nocturnal, migrating songbirds, probably because of their abundance, the report says.

Avian Influenza

U.S. researchers have created an interactive map with Google Earth technology to track the worldwide spread of avian flu. The team of researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Ohio State University say their “supermap” should help researchers and policy makers better understand the virus and anticipate further outbreaks. “This is a completely new method of integrating and sharing knowledge about disease spread, giving people a quick and easy way to make sense of the changes,” said University of Colorado graduate student Andrew Hill, a study co-author. A paper outlining the research appears in the April issue of the journal Systematic Biology.

In a paper in the May issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, an international team of researchers, including University of Maryland professor Steven Salzberg, report the first ever large-scale sequencing of western genomes of the deadly avian influenza virus, H5N1. “This is the first time anyone’s looked at all of the H5N1 genomes in the west,” said Steven Salzberg, the study’s lead author and director of the University of Maryland Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. “Until now, the studies have been primarily on samples from the Far East . Our study shows that the virus is spreading west, and that there have been three separate introductions of H5N1 in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.”

If a super-flu strikes, face masks may not protect you. Even so, the government says people should consider wearing them in certain situations, just in case. The consumer advice issued recently reflects the fact that the science behind it is unclear. Whether widespread use of masks will help, or harm, during the next worldwide flu outbreak is a question that researchers are studying furiously. “We don’t want people wearing them willy-nilly,” said Dr. Michael Bell, a CDC infection-control expert. “The overall recommendation really is to avoid exposure.”

Novavax Inc. said recently that it has received positive study results from a live virus challenge to ferrets inoculated with its pandemic influenza vaccine, paving the way for clinical trials to begin on schedule later this year. In the study, ferrets were inoculated with the company’s virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine made from an Indonesian strain of H5N1 avian influenza. The ferrets, which represent the most relevant influenza animal model for humans, were then challenged with live H5N1 virus. All ferrets that received the Novavax vaccine survived, even those that received the lowest dose.

Outbreaks of H5N1 Influenza has been reported in poultry in Viet Nam, Ghana and Bangladesh.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of May 7, 2007: Monday, the Ruddy Duck’s amazing courtship display; Tuesday, the Blue Peafowl of India — Now seen on farms all over North America + a great video; Wednesday, “Nesting Niches”; Thursday, International Migratory Bird Laws — a bit about the history of the laws that improved the situation for migratory birds + links to IMBD celebrations; Friday … limericks? Oh, no! We celebrate International Limerick Day, in honor of Edward Lear’s birthday — and invite YOU to send in a limerick. 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].

Commentator, author and bird lover Julie Zickefoose provides an update on the birds of spring [NPR; 4:22] — and how they fared during an unseasonable cold snap a few weeks ago, when temperatures dropped to the 20s at night and 30s by day at her home in Whipple, Ohio. Zickefoose was concerned that the migratory birds might not be able to find enough food during the cold spell.

Bonobo apes living at a research facility in Iowa have new neighbors — and they’re not the quiet type [NPR; 3:45]. A pair of breeding trumpeter swans recently joined seven bonobo apes and three orangutans at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines. The apes are expected to name their feathered friends. Scientists say that getting the bonobos involved in naming the swans is important because it gives the apes control over their environment.

Nobody objects when government biologists move to kill off ecologically destructive invasive species, such as zebra mussels or snakehead fish. But when the target is the elegant mute swan — which destroys native wetlands — nasty fights break out [NPR; 4:34]. In Maryland, biologists are using Wesson oil and wiles to destroy swan eggs.

Miscellaneous Birds

This link goes to a six-LP set of science-themed folk songs were produced in the late 1950s/early 1960s by Hy Zaret (William Stirrat) and Lou Singer. They are now available on the web in mp3 format. Zaret’s main claim to fame is writing the lyrics to the classic “Unchained Melody” for the 1955 movie “Unchained”, later recorded by the Righteous Brothers and more recently used in “Ghost”. Three of the albums (the best three in my opinion) were performed by Tom Glazer, semi-famous 1940s folk musician and somewhat of a lyricist himself (he wrote “On Top of Spaghetti”). There are several songs specifically about birds included in all the music.

Missouri could have yet another state symbol. The Senate gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a measure making the bobwhite quail the state game bird. The House passed the bill in early March, so it goes to the governor. A similar measure also was proposed last year but never won final approval. “I’m just not sure about making a state game bird a bird that’s struggling,” Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, said when the Senate debated the bill last week.

South Floridians who want to be buried with their dog, cat, parrot or other pet would be allowed under legislation passed by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Charlie Crist recently. “I call it the Felix and Fido amendment,” said Senate Rules Chairman Jim King, R-Jacksonville, whose longtime canine friend was given to him by his wife. The dog, named Valentine, made many campaign appearances with King over the years before dying a decade ago at age 14. King rewrote his will so that her ashes, housed in an urn, would be interred with him.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Mike, 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.


  1. #1 Chardyspal
    May 7, 2007

    Regarding wind power…
    About a year – or maybe two – ago I saw a special on what I think was the Discovery channel about a group from Holland that had developed a wind turbine that was (forgive my poor recall here) enclosed in what looked like a cannister. It was a a big cannister but the idea was that the turbine would spin inside the cannister (not like a traditional windmill) and it was compact enough that it could be installed on a skyscraper or other building and use the energy of the air that was flowing up the building (such as from wind or from heat from the pavement below – like a thermal) to turn the turbine and create the energy. It was not the same thing as those air vent fans that you see on top of buildings…it was more than that.

    It could be used in other installations as well, but that is the image that I remember most – on a skyscraper – but it could be used for houses or in towns.

    Awhile after seeing the show (I saw it two times about six months apart and thought it was interesting but did not write the information down) I have not been able to find the episode or anything about this technology.

    Does anyone else remember this and if so, do you have the web information? I thought it was very cool and thought it was something that it would be a good idea and worth pursuing or at least reading more about.


  2. #2 The Primate Diaries
    July 27, 2007

    Speaking of bonobos, I’ve just posted an interview at The Primate Diaries with Frances White about these apes. Dr. White is one of the leading bonobo field researchers in the world and is currently in DR Congo conducting a new bonobo study.

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