Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 87 (v3n14)

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King penguin stretches on the Falkland Islands.

Image: BBC News [larger]


Birds in Science

If you’ve looked the articulated 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx fossils, you probably have noticed that they all have a weirdly similar pose; their heads are thrown over their backs, mouths open and tail curved upwards. Scientists have been puzzled for years by what caused this distinctive pose, but now two paleontologists propose an explanation: this characteristic posture was the result of agonized death throes triggered by brain damage and suffocation. “Paleontologists aren’t around sick and dying animals the way a veterinarian is, where you see this posture all the time in disease processes, in strychnine cases, in animals hit by a car or in some sort of extremis,” said Cynthia Marshall Faux, lead author on a paper recently published in the quarterly journal Paleobiology.

Pairs of Australian magpie-larks, Grallina cyanoleuca, that sing in tune and in tempo are more threatening to rivals whose territory they move in on than pairs that can’t quite get their twittering coordinated. Michelle Hall from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, working at the Australian National University in Canberra with Robert Magrath, listened closely to the shared songs of breeding pairs of the birds. The most coordinated magpie-lark pairs sang alternating notes of the song in a way that, to an untrained ear, gave the impression of being a single voice. Uncoordinated pairs don’t get the alternation quite right and produce overlapping notes.

People Hurting Birds

Despite the fact that President Clinton set aside 7 million acres of forest for owl habitat, the northern spotted owl population is still in peril. So the government is using another, very controversial, approach to save this icon of the Pacific Northwest: shooting its cousins, the larger and more aggressive barred owls. Basically, barred owls push the mild-mannered spotted owls from their habitat and they also eat them — or, very rarely, according to wildlife biologists, they mate with them. The rare hybrid offspring, informally known as a “sparred owl,” has a “very strange hoot,” as one wildlife biologist put it, “sort of like a spotted owl being strangled.”

A tiny shorebird is edging closer to extinction, threatened by fishermen who destroy its food staple for bait and loved by ornithologists who are drawn from around the world to count it. The red knot, once a numerous springtime visitor to the beaches of the Delaware Bay on the US Atlantic Coast, has declined to an all-time low of 12,300 birds, down from some 15,000 last year and around 100,000 in the mid-1980s. After a month long ground and air search of the beaches of Delaware Bay in New Jersey and Delaware, scientists this week concluded that the red knot’s population is now even closer to the level where it may not survive. They consider the population would be sustainable at about 100,000. “Because the population is so low, it’s vulnerable to a lot of other things,” said Larry Niles, former head of New Jersey’s endangered species program and the leader of the annual red knot count. The red knot’s numbers have been decimated by overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are its staple diet.

It’s one thing when folks tire of the family goldfish and flush it (cruel). It’s a worse deal for someone to get weary of a pet penguin picked up in South America to then dump it in Alaska. But that’s how wayward Humboldt penguins are apparently arriving in northern climes, according to new research from the University of Washington. Scientists wondered if the waddly black-and-white birds native to Peru were swimming 5,000 miles to the North pole. But that would mean passing through balmy equatorial conditions not well suited to the flightless cool customers. They also ruled out the on-the-lam from zoos scenario, because those birds are typically tagged.

At least 400 species of birds could become endangered within the next 50 years as a result of global warming and changes in land use, a new study finds. Climate change and the destruction of habitats through deforestation and the conversion of grassland to cropland have already pushed many species to extinction, and the process will only accelerate over the next century, the authors of the study report. “We found in our study that under certain assumptions by the year 2100, 950 to 1,800 bird species may be imperiled or even driven to extinction by climate change and habitat destruction,” said lead author Walter Jetz of the University of California, Davis. “Most of these species are currently not recognized as imperiled.”

New research has shown that Europe’s farmland birds have declined by almost 50% in the past 25 years — a trend caused by EU-wide agricultural intensification being driven by a policy in need of urgent reform. The data, collected from 20 national breeding bird surveys spanning Europe over the last 25 years, confirm the extent to which farmland birds have suffered. Across Europe as a whole from 1980 to 2005, common farmland birds have on average fallen in number by 44%-the most severe decline of the bird categories monitored. “Birds can be vital barometers of environmental change – their declines are clear evidence of the environmental degradation that has occurred across European farmland,” said Richard Gregory, Chairman of the European Bird Census Council, and Head of Monitoring and Indicators at the RSPB. “The data are staring us in the face: many farmland birds — and the species and habitats with which they coexist — are under serious threat.”

People Helping Birds

Do you want to help save important habitat for the Cerulean Warbler, and enjoy a good cup of coffee at the same time? Now you can by buying coffee beans! This premium coffee is shade-grown in a pesticide-free environment in central Colombia, and comes from plantations that provide essential wintering habitat for the Cerulean Warbler — North America’s fastest declining neotropical migratory songbird. The coffee beans are purchased at a premium so that growers are not forced to switch to sun coffee, that provides higher yields per acre but destroys shade trees that birds need for foraging. American Bird Conservancy also receives $1.50 per bag to support conservation programs for the Cerulean Warbler and other declining species.

The banning of DDT in 1972, passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and reintroduction efforts by scientists and citizens across the country have all contributed to the conservation success of the American bald eagle. “Once again we have proof that Endangered Species Act works. Only with a strong, fully funded Endangered Species Act will we continue to see bald eagles in our skies, wild salmon in our rivers, and grizzly bears in our American West,” according to the National Wildlife Federation.

A species of bird which has not been seen in Greater London for 141 years has reappeared. A squacco heron was last spotted at the Kingsbury Reservoir, in north-west London, in 1866. The sighting follows a £500,000 project at Crossness by Thames Water, Bexley Council and the charity Groundwork. Work has involved restoring reed bed and ditch habitat for water voles and creating a new wader scrape – a shallow body of water with muddy margins — which has attracted the heron. “It is exciting to see this new wetland area so favoured by a rare bird,” said Martin Wagner, from Thames Water.

Endangered Bird News

What do you do when one threatened species is harming another, as is the case for two of the jewels of New Zealand wildlife? Mammal scientists carrying out research on the Otago Peninsula believe sea lions breeding on the Otago coast are eating yellow-eyed penguins, posing a major threat to the future of the birds. But the NZ Department of Conservation is not panicking, saying it appears a breeding sea lion has simply acquired a taste for yellow-eyed penguins. The researchers, led by University of Otago marine mammal scientist Chris Lalas, say their findings may create a quandary for conservation management with one threatened species harming another. “To do nothing could risk collapse of the Otago Peninsula population of yellow-eyed penguins,” the report said.

A rare peregrine falcon, first spotted four years ago near the North Star Bridge over the Minnesota River, has picked North Mankato as the place to raise her family. The banded falcon was hatched in 2004 on the Prairie Island smokestacks. The smaller male is not banded.

Avian Influenza News

The notion that flu epidemics start in areas of high population density and spread outwards may not hold true for the tropics, suggests a study from Brazil. In that country, new research reveals, flu starts in the less densely populated north and moves towards cities in the south. The results indicate that climate, rather than population density, plays a bigger part in the spread of the disease in Brazil. And that could have implications for how flu is managed in the tropics. “This flips our understanding of influenza in tropical regions on its head and will hopefully improve control strategies,” said Mark Miller of the Fogarty International Center (FIC) for Advanced Study in the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, who worked on the study.

For three years, industry, academia and government have investigated the fastest, cheapest and, they say, most humane way to kill birds en masse. After debating and field-testing, they say they’ve found an answer in an unlikely place. The new poultry-killing instrument of choice is foam. These soapy air bubbles, adapted from what firefighters use to smother blazes, can smother birds within several minutes, with minimal contact between workers and infection. Supporters say this method saves precious hours and costly labor. The problem is that some consider it less humane than gassing. Carbon dioxide at least knocks birds unconscious before it poisons them, say its advocates. Foam simply fills their windpipes and strangles them. “You might as well drop them in a bucket of water,” fumes Mohan Raj, a British veterinarian at the University of Bristol who specializes in animal welfare during disease control.

Canada’s New Government announced the third annual wild bird survey for avian influenza (AI). This is a joint initiative of the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments, the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre (CCWHC) and Canada’s Avian Influenza Laboratory Network. The 2007 survey will include sampling of live birds during the spring, summer and fall and continued year-round sampling of dead birds. The survey is intended to provide early detection of highly pathogenic AI in Canada and determine the presence and characteristics of the AI strains in North America’s wild bird population.

Officials from Indonesia’s avian flu commission said that the H5N1 avian influenza virus may have mutated in a way that makes it more transmissible from birds to humans, but a World Health Organization (WHO) official said the WHO had seen no evidence of such a change. Bayu Krisnamurthi, chief executive for Indonesia’s National Committee for Avian Influenza Control and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness, said that in the past, human infections required high-intensity and high-density exposure to the H5N1 virus. “There are now suspicions that this [infection] has become easier,” he said, adding that a mutation has not been confirmed yet.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been reported in humans in Egypt and Indonesia, and in birds in Malaysia and Ghana.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of June 11, 2007: Monday, Washington’s trio of nuthatches; Tuesday, Frank Chapman’s favorite bird song (Frank Chapman was the creator of the Christmas Bird Count); Wednesday, the Western Grebes of the San Juan Islands; Thursday, Thoreau and the Wood Thrush; Friday, “Father Birds,” in celebration of Father’s Day. 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].

Birdwise is a monthly public access television program based in Olympia Washington featuring birds and the hobby of birding. The program is produced by Tim Sweeney with cooperation and help from the Black Hills Audubon Society and the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Linked is an abridged version of the June show (the calendar and avian forecast have been removed). The program features the winter wren, nesting habits and the Ellis Cove Trail in Priest Point Park. This month’s program also includes a video of a mother robin removing a fecal sac from her nest. [25:03]

Miscellaneous Birds

After reports of sick or dead birds at backyard feeders in Washington, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended that people temporarily discontinue bird feeding or take extra steps to keep their feeders clean. Veterinarian Kristin Mansfield advised for people to stop backyard bird feeding for at least a few weeks, if not for the remainder of the summer, to encourage birds to disperse and forage naturally. She says laboratory analysis of bird carcasses has confirmed Salmonellosis, a common and usually fatal bird disease caused by the salmonella bacteria.

A south Devon UK zoo has culled seven noisy male peacocks following a series of complaints from a neighbor. Paignton Zoo’s peacocks are a symbol of the 80-year-old institution. A spokesman said: “We have had to kill the birds who were making the noise. It was absolutely a last resort, we were pushed into it.”

In what may be a legislative first for San Francisco, the city’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday banned the feeding of a tourist attraction. A flock of wild green-and-red parakeets spend the evening happy hour in downtown Ferry Park, where dozens of locals and curious tourists have been assembling for the last year or so to feed the birds, often by hand. Children giggle; their parents snap photos. “In some ways, people see it as, ‘Well, he did it, why can’t we?’ ” said Mr. Bittner, who credits the feeding — and film — with changing his life. “But I was doing it alone, and I was careful to never let other people feed them.”

A ball hit by Rob Lowe during a celebrity golf game hit the Iowa state bird in mid-flight recently. The 43-year-old actor was hitting an approach shot on the fourth hole when his ball hit a goldfinch, dropping about 50 metres short of the green. “That’s my birdie,” he said after looking at the bird, which lay motionless (and dead) on the ground. “That’s unbelievable. Who comes here and kills the state bird? Only me.”

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Biosparite, 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! Images are resized and are either linked from the news story that they accompany or they are credited and linked back to the photographer.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    June 11, 2007

    Do you intend to write more, in a separate post, about the Jetz study? It is freely available on PLoS-Biology so if you link to it, readers can check it out (it is not too difficult to udnerstand for a non-expert).

  2. #2 John
    June 11, 2007

    The decision on the horseshoe crab moratorium was really discouraging.