Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 89 (v3n16)

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Lark Bunting, Calamospiza melanocorys — the official state bird of Colorado.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU. [larger]

People Hurting Birds

The number of birds of prey poisoned illegally in Scotland rose to a record high last year after an eight-year campaign by Labour and LibDem ministers to crack down on wildlife crime. A report to be published this week will reveal there were 39 confirmed cases of pesticide abuse in 2006 involving eagles, red kites, hawks, falcons, owls, buzzards and ravens. That is double the number in 2005 and the highest for 12 years. “A tiny amount of poison absorbed through the skin can cause very serious effects. The authorities need to waken up before we have a human fatality. Existing penalties are obviously insufficient and we must now ask sentencing authorities to hand down custodial sentences.”

Rare Birds

RSPB NI are excited to announce that the rarest bird in Northern Ireland — the chough — has successfully boosted its numbers by three, after three chicks hatched on Rathlin island. Liam McFaul, RSPB Warden at Rathlin said, ‘We are obviously delighted that the only breeding pair of chough in Northern Ireland have now become a fully fledged family. “After a shaky start, the ‘choughlets’ seem healthy and happy to be free from their cramped cliff ledge, begging and feeding from their parents along the Rathlin cliffs and flying off to explore as a family party of five.”

An army of volunteers, government officials and biologists in two countries is rallying around north Sauble Beach to help two endangered birds. If the nesting birds produce young, it will be the first time since 1977 the species has successfully nested on this side of the Great Lakes. The rare birds were identified between 2 and 4 p.m. on Mother’s Day, May 13, by 13-year-old Brendan Toews, who was walking the beach with his mother, Kim. “I thought it was a young killdeer,” said Kim, “and Brendan corrected me. ‘No mom, it’s a Piping Plover,'” she added. “I spotted the male near the water. Brendan found the female” further up the beach.

Avian Influenza News

Amid heightened concern over a possible epidemic of bird flu in humans, scientists in the United States and Taiwan are reporting critical new insights into the architecture of a key enzyme in the H5N1 avian influenza virus that enables the virus to spread. Rommie E. Amaro and colleagues focused on what has been termed the “hot pocket,” or more technically “the 150-loop.” This chain of amino acids forms a cavity in the neuraminidase enzyme that facilitates H5N1’s spread. Anti-flu drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors work by entering and binding to the hot pocket, almost like a hand fitting into a glove.

In a nice change of pace, the United States has pledged more than one quarter of all the funds being used to prepare the world for an influenza pandemic, but is still having trouble identifying which countries need the most help, according to a report released last week. U.S. agencies have committed about $377 million to improve global preparedness for avian and pandemic influenza, said the report by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress. “This amounted to about 27 percent of the $1.4 billion committed by all donors combined; exceeded the amounts other individual donors, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and Japan, had committed; and was also greater than combined commitments by the European Commission and European Union member countries,” the GAO report reads.

Treatment with the oral antiviral Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and prophylaxis for people exposed to infected patients could be one of the most cost-effective strategies for reducing illness and death during an influenza pandemic. According to modelling research presented by Beate Sander, University of Toronto, Canada, a stockpile of Tamiflu sufficient to cover 65% of a country’s population could cut deaths by approximately half. “The World Health Organisation provides a strong recommendation for the use of Tamiflu for the prevention of avian flu in people who have been in contact with someone who is known, or suspected of being infected with the virus,” commented Professor Ira Longini, Professor of Biostatistics and Mathematics at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA. “This research suggests that a similar approach may also be an effective strategy in the event of an actual pandemic outbreak, especially as it is unlikely that a vaccine fully matched to the strain will be available in the initial wave of a pandemic.”

Avian influenza was reported in people in Egypt and Viet Nam and in birds in Indonesia, Siberia, Germany, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic and in Togo.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of June 25, 2007: Monday, why the Black-headed Grosbeak can eat Monarch butterflies; Tuesday, the Hoatzin, a bird of the swamps; Wednesday, expansion of the Purple Martin into the San Juan Islands; Thursday, “Nesting Niches,” about how layering shrubbery in your yard can help many species of birds find a place to nest; Friday, the Treasure oil spill of 2000, off the coast of South Africa — and the saving of thousands of penguins. 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].

Miscellaneous Birds

The naturalists at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History can at last report that the end of May was a great time for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds; they had their fastest start ever for newly captured birds AND for old hummers that returned after being banded in previous years. For a photo essay about their bumper crop of hummingbirds, please visit This Week at Hilton Pond for May 2007. There’s also a picture of a female ruby-throat with plumage characteristics worth noting. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded or recaptured — and there were interesting individuals in both categories — plus some miscellaneous nature notes. They include identification for that mysterious purple flower that popped up at the Center when they intentionally allowed the lawn grow.


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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.


  1. #1 Chris' Wills
    June 25, 2007

    I wonder if the amount of identified poisioned birds is due to better reporting & testing due to the efforts of the Scottish parliament.

    Whatever is the cause there does need to be better education and enforcement of the laws regarding the use of poisons.

    Just a minor point for those who don’t know, chough is pronounced chuff when refering to the very pretty bird mentioned above.
    Isn’t English a wonderful language?

  2. #2 John
    June 25, 2007

    Tough like a chough.

  3. #5 a
    June 25, 2007

    The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

  4. #6 Luna_the_cat
    June 26, 2007

    You might also like this fossil tropical giant penguin:

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