Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 90 (v3n17)

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A forest that is home to nearly one-third of Uganda’s bird life, including the great blue turaco, is under threat, says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. There are plans to change laws protecting the Mabira Forest Reserve to allow huge sugar cane plantations to be grown inside its boundaries.

Image: Nature Uganda.

Birds in Science

New research has found that birds aren’t sentimental when it comes to music. Songs from just 30 years ago are received with equanimity, while newer tunes make the males aggressive and the females randy. Elizabeth Derryberry, a biologist at Duke University in North Carolina, compared recordings of sparrow hits from 1979 to those of 2003 and found that the newer songs have a much slower rhythm and dip further down into the lower registers. And upon playing the different versions to hip, modern-day sparrows in a variety of areas, she found that today’s birds are much more into current chart hits than those of 30 years ago. “I’m not saying a female bird won’t respond to an old song, but not as much as she would to the newer version,” Derryberry told the newspaper the Daily Telegraph. “They regard the old songs as not as interesting, not as good as the new ones.”

Birds can act like copycats, shamelessly imitating even their rival species’ real estate choices, scientists now find. This flow of ideas from one species to another might help animals survive in the wild, the researchers say. And the finding could influence current notions of how competing species coexist and evolve. “Old proverbs, such as ‘Knowledge is power’ by Francis Bacon and ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ by St. Ambrose, seem to hold in the animal world too,” researcher Janne-Tuomas Seppänen, an ecologist at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, told LiveScience.

The most complete skeleton of an extinct Dodo, Raphus cucullatus, ever found was discovered recently in the highlands of Mauritius, an island located in the Indian Ocean. Because this skeleton was preserved intact and isolated in a cave, it appears that it might provide an excellent DNA source for numerous scientific studies, according to the scientist who recovered it. Dodo remains are rare and precious finds: the last time Dodo skeletons were discovered was in 2005, when a mass grave was found in the southeastern part of the island known as Mare aux Songes. Prior to that, Dodo remains were found in 1920.

Discovered decades ago and formally described in 1980, Argentavis magnificens is the largest bird known. It lived six million years ago during the Miocene period throughout Argentina. It is nearly the size of a Cessna 152 light aircraft, with a 23-foot (7-meter) wing span and weighing approximately 150-pounds (70-kilograms). However, even though this bird’s muscles were well-developed, they still were not sufficient to generate enough lift for the giant bird to leave the ground. So how did this, the largest of all birds, fly?

People Hurting Birds

A proposed development near Tanzania’s border with Kenya, threatens the survival of the entire East African population of Lesser Flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor. Lake Natron — the only East African site in which Lesser Flamingo has bred in the past 45 years — currently faces an uncertain future due to a proposed soda ash extraction and processing plant. Lake Natron is recognized internationally as a Ramsar site, and as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International.

State and federal officials have targeted Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative in an investigation into the unauthorized killing of protected seabirds. The power company is required to have an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because its power lines, facilities and unshielded lights may unintentionally harm endangered or threatened species such as Hawaiian petrels or Newell’s shearwaters, officials said recently.

People Helping Birds

Friends of the Red Knot is a club whose members are working to have the Red Knot placed on the Endangered Species List. The club was formed when a few students at the GreenMount School in Baltimore, MD decided to get together and look for ways to help the Red Knot. They are currently conducting a letter-writing campaign asking the Secretary of the Department of the Interior to place the Red Knot on the endangered species list.

Rare Birds

Park ranger Robert “Shorty” Cupitt was repairing a section of track in a remote part of Diamantina National Park, Queensland, Australia, when the blade of his grader exposed the headless corpse of a bird he could not immediately identify. The yellow-bellied bird, which appeared to have flown into a nearby barbed-wire fence and had been decapitated, was eventually passed to experts at Queensland Museum. They identified it as a juvenile night parrot. The ultimate, real-life dead parrot. Dubbed the Tasmanian tiger of the skies, this small, drab, budgerigar-like bird has fascinated scientists, frustrated twitchers and inspired artists, poets and novelists for more than a century. Elusive and enigmatic, the night parrot appears to have been relatively common in central Australia in the 19th century. But numbers mysteriously declined, and it was declared extinct by some experts as long ago as 1915.

Scientists have captured the first pictures of one of the world’s rarest birds: the recurve-billed bushbird, a species found exclusively in bamboo forests of northeastern Colombia. The recurve-billed bushbird was rediscovered in 2005 after a 40-year absence. Scientists estimate that only a few dozen of the birds remain.

The populations of the Northern bobwhite and the lark sparrow are among those being reduced in Texas and nationwide by continuing suburban sprawl and expanding industrialized agriculture, not to mention global warming — all of which eats away at natural bird habitats of grasslands, forests and wetlands. The birds are leaving or dying by the millions. “It’s a crisis,” said Lynn Barber, past president of the Fort Worth Audubon Society. “When the habitat is gone, the birds cannot be there. “They cannot adapt and their populations are dropping.”

A seabird that is so rare that it had only ever been reported in Europe twice before, was discovered in Brean Down, UK, on June 29. The yellow-nosed albatross — one of only 73,000 left in the world — is classed as endangered by Bird Life International, the global organization behind bird conservation.

The European turtle dove, often symbolised as love’s messenger, is in dramatic decline. The latest Breeding Birds Survey, published today, shows that sightings of the summer visitor have declined by 61 per cent since the 1990s. The British Trust for Ornithology, says that the bird has disappeared from the South-West and the North of England and has become increasingly hard to find in its arable stronghold of East Anglia.

It may not have managed to flap its wings yet, but Edinburgh Zoo’s newest chick has a long journey ahead of it – to Mexico. The rare Socorro dove chick is just a few weeks old and was born as part of the zoo’s successful bird breeding program. The Socorro dove has been extinct in the wild for 35 years, having last been sighted on the Socorro Islands off the west coast of Mexico in 1972. But the species will soon be reintroduced to its native habitat.

Rare birds reared on the Scottish estate of Harrods owner Mohamed al Fayed have been poisoned. Three red kites released from the Balnagown estate in Easter Ross have been found dead and another eight are missing, leaving only five of the original group of birds still accounted for alive since they were introduced to the wild. al Fayed was said to be upset after hearing of the fate of the birds.

Avian Influenza

Many countries are making “significant” progress in containing the deadly bird flu, but the virus remains “entrenched” in several countries, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “In the 15 or so countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where the H5N1 virus was introduced during the past six months, it was rapidly detected and eliminated or controlled. They are better prepared today and have improved their response systems,” said FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech.

International pigeon racing from continental Europe to Britain has been banned after H5N1 was discovered in wild birds in France, the Environment Agency in the UK said. Domestic racing will be allowed to continue, Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds said. But racing from continental mainland Europe, including the Channel Islands, has been banned as a precautionary measure. “Given the current period of uncertainty about avian influenza in Europe and the possibility that further spread may occur, a precautionary approach is being taken based on ornithological and veterinary advice,” Reynolds said.

30 experts from 19 countries holding an international summit on bird flu in Aviemore, UK, recently are of the opinion that culls of wild birds are not an answer to the outbreaks of avian flu. The summit was organized by the Avian Flu Task Force under the UN international convention on migratory species. Despite the fact that wild birds have been infected in some cases, the scientists insist that domestic birds, the poultry industry and the trade in live and dead poultry play important roles in limiting the spread of the disease in future.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been found in humans in Indonesia and in birds in Hong Kong, Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, Egypt and Nigeria.

Streaming Birds

I can’t say this often enough (I’ve already mentioned it once here), but there is a YouTube source for birders called BirdCinema that you should check out. Already there are plenty of nice videos of wild birds for you to enjoy.

On BirdNote, for the week of July 9, 2007: Monday, when to find birds on hot summer days; Tuesday, Rufous Hummingbird nest; Wednesday, who’s the first songster of the day?; Thursday, “The Bushtit vs. the Elastic,” a listener’s story; Friday, “Sitting in the Catbird Seat” — the origin of the phrase. 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

Hundreds of dead seabirds that washed up along the Southeast coast in recent weeks apparently starved to death, but experts don’t know why. The deaths of the birds — greater shearwaters — have wildlife officials worried about possible changes in the ocean that could have affected the fish that the birds usually eat. “It’s got a lot of folks talking and wondering,” said Jennifer Koches, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Is this a canary in the coal mine issue? Is there something that serious going on out in the ocean that it should be causing us serious alarm?”

This year, the last week of June was designated by the U.S. Senate as “National Pollinator Week,” so the naturalists at Hilton Pond went out to see some pollination in action. They came across a stand of Buttonbushes, so that shrub and its pollinators are the topics for This Week at Hilton Pond. For some revealing close-ups of Buttonbush’s intricate flowers and the insects that make them work, please visit their photo essay for 22-30 June 2007. Additionally, earlier in the week, a yellow-green bird was captured in their nets one day. It turns out this bird was a female Orchard Oriole, a relatively common Carolinas nester that they seldom catch and band. As always there’s a list of birds banded and recaptured, along with miscellaneous nature notes. The latter includes links to their cumulative 26-year bird banding data for June 1982 through June 2007.

Those of you who wish to get out hiking or birding in Washington state will be pleased to know that there is an interactive map that shows the conditions of the trails that is available online. If there are more such maps out there for other states, feel free to let me know so I can link to them also.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Biosparite, 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
    July 9, 2007

    The uganda reserve is one of their big tourist draws hopefullt the sugar cane producers will be knocked back again (they tried last year to do the same thing telling blatant lies).

    I wonder if this lust for sugar cane, it is happening in Indonesia as well, is related to the desire to create so called green-ethanol.

    I really do hope that Ugandans are waking up to what they’ll lose. Big business doesn’t employ as many people as the forest does

    It is worrying that agribusiness is using the claim of producing environmentally friendly fuels to destroy the environment.

    Grrl, Nice to see you back on top form.

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