Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 88 (v3n15)

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American redstart, widespread throughout North America, is under threat from climate change and future land-use changes.

Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [larger]


Birds in Science

Scientists in China revealed that they found a giant bird whose fossilized bones measure 8 meters (26 feet) in length, 5 meters (16 feet) tall and which weighed 1,400 kilograms (3,000 pounds) and lived 85 million years ago. The fossil was uncovered in the Erlian Basin of northern China’s Inner Mongolia, said Xu Xing, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleoanthropology in Beijing who co-authored a paper about the find that was published in the journal Nature. This feathered but flightless specimen challenges the prevailing hypothesis about the evolution of birds. “[This is] the biggest toothless dinosaur ever found because some dinosaurs have both a small beak and many teeth,” observed Xu.

Thanks to the combined effects of global warming and habitat destruction, bird populations will experience significant declines and extinctions over the next century, according to a study conducted by ecologists at the University of California, San Diego and Princeton University. This study, published in the online open-access journal, PLoS Biology, warns that, even under the most optimistic scenarios where climate change is controlled and habitats are protected, at least 400 bird species will become endangered or go extinct by 2050 due to reductions of greater than 50 percent in their geographic ranges.

The populations of 20 common American birds — from the fence-sitting meadowlark to the whippoorwill with its haunting call — are half what they were 40 years ago, according to an analysis released Thursday. Suburban sprawl, climate change and other invasive species are largely to blame, said the study’s author, Greg Butcher of the National Audubon Society. “Most of these we don’t expect will go extinct,” he said. “We think they reflect other things that are happening in the environment that we should be worried about.” Sadly, this is a trend that is also being seen in Great Britain.

We all know the common wisdom; coffee grown on open plantations in Costa Rica is bad for the native tropical forest birds’ long-term survival. But a new study shows that this situation is more complex than originally thought. According to this study, by Cagan Sekercioglu, senior scientist at the Stanford University Center for Conservation Biology, the presence of remnant forest fragments or individual native trees on the plantations can help some forest bird species. “Even modest restoration efforts can increase their land cover and help some forest birds more than you would think,” said Sekercioglu, who was lead author of the study.

Most of the birds in Maine are in the process of nesting now. Among the different bird species, we see great variation in many facets of reproduction. For instance, whether one or both parents brood, the type and location of the nest, the size of the eggs. One striking feature that varies widely among different species is clutch size, the number of eggs laid in a single nesting attempt. Some birds (albatrosses, petrels, some penguins and some terns) have a clutch size of only one. Hummingbirds and doves always have clutch sizes of two. At the other extreme, some ducks and geese, pheasants and rails may have clutch sizes as high as 20 eggs. Our songbirds have clutch sizes varying between two and 12, depending on the species. Why is there such striking variation in clutch size among different species?

Being a devoted husband and father is not enough to keep an avian marriage together for the Nazca booby, a long-lived seabird found in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. Many Nazca booby females switch mates after successfully raising a chick, according to a Wake Forest University study scheduled for publication in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences June 13. This is surprising because there is an advantage to staying together, said Terri Maness, a doctoral student who co-authored the study with David J. Anderson, professor of biology at Wake Forest. The chance of successfully breeding probably improves as the pairs of birds get older and are together longer, as has been found in other birds. “Our study population has 50 percent more males than females, creating the opportunity for females to trade a current mate, which may be worn-out from recent breeding effort, for a ‘refreshed’ non-breeding male,” Maness said.

People Hurting Birds

Local birds in Dubai are fighting for their place in the food chain under a deluge of foreign species, says a well-known ornithologist from Dubai Zoo. Dr Mohammad Ali Reza Khan, who has studied local bird life for 20 years, says the foreign species are now so well established they may completely displace their residential hosts. “We don’t know the real impact but the skies are full. University teachers should come forward with studies – we have to have some sort of record,” said Khan.

People Helping Birds

The whooping crane could be removed from the endangered species list by 2035 if current recovery efforts continue to show progress, say federal officials based in Texas. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials hope to reclassify the iconic, snowy bird to “threatened” status, which would mean that the bird no longer faces imminent extinction. However, protective sanctions still would apply. “The whooping crane plan sets a benchmark of what it will take to downlist the species,” said Stehn. “It is an international whooping crane recovery plan. This one crosses the border. It’s an optimistic plan. If you don’t meet it, you don’t meet it, and the species stays endangered.”

A rare Andean condor has hatched at the Denver Zoo, becoming only the second such bird to hatch at a zoo anywhere in the world in the past year, zoo officials said. The Denver condor, a male, hatched May 13, joining a condor born in Sydney, Denver Zoo spokeswoman Amy Sarno said. The chick, which does not yet have a name, and his parents, Evita and Andy, are the zoo’s only condors, she said. When the Denver chick matures, it will either be taken to another zoo for breeding – most likely in Europe or South America – or it may be considered for a program in Colombia that releases the birds into the wild, Sarno said.

Tourists on board an 80-foot boat watched an unexpected avian rescue when a young Caspian tern was found drowning in a harbor near San Diego, CA. The 20 passengers cheered when lifeguards, who had responded to an emergency call, scooped up the bird out of the water near a steel barge anchored about a half-mile offshore. The bird was taken to a local bird center. “This poor little guy is shivering like a marathon swimmer,” said Susan Kaveggia, a biologist with the International Bird Rescue Research Center in San Pedro. “It’s about 2 to 3 weeks old, judging from the length of the feathers on its neck. The fact that it’s breathing through its mouth and has its eyes closed indicates it’s very stressed.”

Three rare white ravens have been rescued after they were found starving to death in a churchyard in Great Britain. It is thought the birds, which have snow white plumage and blue eyes, had been abandoned by their parents. The fledgelings, which have been named Tic, Tac and Toe, are recovering well on a diet of mince and parrot food. “They were skin and bone and were just sitting, not moving. They just sat in a bush and you could pick them off like an apple, which is not normal behaviour for wild birds. They are starting to feed from me now and could stand a good chance of survival.”

Rare Birds

Wildlife biologists say they’ve discovered an unexpectedly large population of the endangered Hawaiian petrel, or ua’u, in the remote mountains of Lanai. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Friday it deployed a team of biologists to the island to learn more about the birds and their conservation needs after the discovery was made last year. “The Lanai Hale watershed had not been surveyed for petrels since the 1980s, so we didn’t know what to expect,” said Scott Fretz, DLNR wildlife program manager. “We assumed there would be few, if any, birds remaining on Lanai, but once we started the surveys we immediately realized that we had found something special.”

Another Hawai’ian bird is enjoying a small boost to its population: an endangered Hawaiian ‘akepa (ah-KE-pa) hatched June 1 at the San Diego Zoo. At .94 grams (less than 1/30th of an ounce), it is the smallest bird of any species ever hatched and reared in captivity using artificial incubation and rearing techniques. “Hatching any chick of this size is one of the ultimate avicultural challenges we face. The feeding and temperature regulation is of critical importance where any miscue can be disastrous,” said Alan Lieberman, The Zoological Society of San Diego’s conservation program manager for the the Hawai’i Endangered Bird Conservation Program. “We’ve never hatched such a small individual of this species, but after 12 days of life, the nestling is nearing the age of fledge (leaving the nest), we are feeling very confident that this chick will soon become a member of the release flock later this fall.”

Another animal has been added to Manitoba’s no-hit list. Conservation Minister Stan Struthers announced that the Ross’s gull has been moved from the threatened to the endangered species list. Another bird, the Sprague’s pipit, has been declared threatened along with three plant species — hairy prairie-clover, buffalo grass and the hackberry tree. “What this is, is a recognition that numbers continue to go down and we must be even more diligent when making decisions,” said Struthers.

Recent spring counts of the rare black grouse in England reveal that the population in 2007 has increased to an estimated 1,200 males, a 55% increase since 1998 when the population was just 773 males. This remarkable come-back is a huge achievement for those involved in the Black Grouse Recovery Project, including many farmers, gamekeepers, grouse moor managers and conservation organizations. Phil Warren from the Black Grouse Recovery Project said, “Black grouse are responding extremely well in areas where habitat improvements in combination with predator control are being undertaken by moorland gamekeepers.”

A bird watcher has discovered a rare Kirtland’s warbler nest in central Wisconsin, indicating that a breeding pair now calls the state home, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. “That’s a pretty big deal, I would say,” said Christie Deloria, a biologist with the fish and wildlife service in Marquette, Mich. “That would indicate there’s suitable habitat there.”

With all the birders and ornithologists in North America, it is truly rare to find a bird that cannot be identified, especially when that bird was captured in a mist net. After all, when you have a bird in your hand, you have the opportunity to examine its field marks closely. But one day, Dave Junkin removed a bird from his mist nets that even he couldn’t identify. He took a variety of measurements and his wife, Sandy, photographed the bird from several angles. Junkin then consulted his field guides and reference books, but to no avail. He simply couldn’t identify his mystery bird. And neither could anyone else. The mystery bird was even given its own name; Junkin’s warbler.

About 20 pairs of night herons — big, regal-looking birds with a threatened population and a fondness for shellfish — bombarded a suburban New Jersey neighborhood of well-tended older homes this spring. But in recent weeks — before fed-up humans could resort to foul play — New Jersey environmental officials stepped in to broker what they hope is a truce, allowing the removal of some offending nests. “I know that some people are going to take issue with the fact that we are charged with protecting endangered and threatened species and this, on the surface, seems to be in conflict with that mission,” said Christina Kisiel, a biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s endangered and non-game species program, which is part of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The wood thrush has been a common summer bird in Delaware’s forests and wooded parklands, even nesting in a few suburban neighborhoods. Yet it is disappearing from some of those sites and is of “high conservation concern,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the nation’s premier avian research facility. The wood thrush population has decreased a whopping 43 percent overall since 1966, according to Cornell. The wood thrush has become a symbol of the decline in neo-tropical migrant birds, said Roland Roth, University of Delaware professor emeritus of entomology and wildlife ecology, a decline which he and many ornithologists attribute to the loss of tropical rain forest habitats, summer breeding habitats, and between them, suitable migratory stopover sites. Some ornithologists also believe acid rain has been a contributing factor in the decline in some areas.

Avian Influenza

Progress is being made in establishing a global stockpile for developing nations of a vaccine to protect against avian influenza, which has caused 190 deaths in 312 human cases identified since 2003. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced recently that it is working with vaccine manufacturers to create a global stockpile of vaccine for the H5N1 avian influenza virus that it can distribute to the world’s poorest nations on short notice in the event of an H5N1 pandemic.

Researchers have found that when a pregnant woman is vaccinated against influenza, her baby can develop its own immune responses to the virus. The finding is surprising because it is widely held that newborns and very young infants cannot mount an effective immune defence against infection, but rely on protection acquired from their mother in the very early stages of life. Researchers at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, studied umbilical cord blood — blood circulating in the baby — in more than 100 mostly Hispanic pregnant women after they were given a flu shot.

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in humans in Egypt, Indonesia and Viet Nam and in domestic poultry in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Myanmar and Hong Kong.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of June 18, 2007: Monday, Bobolinks; Tuesday, “Peregrines Take Wing”; Wednesday, White-headed Woodpecker; Thursday, comparing the songs of the Bewick’s Wren and the Song Sparrow; Friday, the elusive Virginia Rail. 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].

Hey, good news, everyone! Now there is a new YouTube-like service where people can upload, view and comment on bird videos, BirdCinema. The site so far looks promising. Good bird videos have been posted on Youtube and other video sharing sites, but finding them among all the other videos can sometimes be difficult. This should make that a little easier. Of course, the value of a service like this depends on how many people choose to participate. The sound and video appear to be a little out of sync on some videos, but for the most part the quality is good.

Well, here’s something that you don’t see every day; a wild owl that insisted on watching a soccer game in the Netherlands by flying between the two goals. The commentary is not in English, and the video is somewhat pixelated, but there are a few good shots of this bird when it perched on the goal posts. Can you identify the species, dear readers? [5:56]

Miscellaneous Birds

Do you feel guilty about not cutting your lawn? You shouldn’t, or at least that’s the premise of the current installment of This Week at Hilton Pond. They have a photo essay of what showed up last month when they parked the mower at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History. As always there’s a list of all birds banded or recaptured, a question about an unidentified flower, an update on last year’s hummingbird nest at Mountain Lake Hotel in VA, and a personal comment about the 30th anniversary of their first ornithology course.

Bird Video Games

I haven’t played this game because I don’t have a PC. But you can download and play this video game for free (and then tell me what you think). Basically, the scenario is: the mother birds of the world are tired of gathering food and babysitting all day, so they’re leaving their hatchlings in your care! Tending to several fledglings at once isn’t easy. You’ll have to prepare food, collect water, sing lullabies and even entertain the young birds. Attend to the needs of your fine-feathered friends quickly or their satisfaction will drop and so will your points! But if you do well, you’ll be able to make your nursery the best for miles around!

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ellen, 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 kim boone
    June 18, 2007

    Hi

    Speaking about birds in the news, there’s something goin’on over here. (The other side of the ocean.) The last few days, about 120 Vultures flew over from Spain to Belgium and the Netherlands. Their numbers are expected to rise even more in the following days.
    Apparently, they came here because they couldn’t find enough food in the plains of Spain anymore. Spanish shepherds used to leave the carcasses of dead sheep in the open, and the vultures cleaned them up. But recently, a new law forbids carcasses to be left behind. So, the vultures went on a little foodtrip,… all the way to Belgium. Pretty weird. The biggest birds we’re used to here are seagulls and the occasional raven, and now there’s these huge, 3-meter spanwidth vultures flying around! Pretty awesome!
    I wanted to see if there was anything on SB about it. And when I saw there wasn’t, well, I had to warn you. Check it out.
    Bye, kim.

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