Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 93 (v3n20)

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A winning photo of a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Galbula ruficauda.

Image: Marcelo Ismar Santana.


Birds in Science

Scientists are looking in the brains of songbirds for clues to human speech impediments like stuttering. For the first time, they’ve managed to image the brain activity of zebra finches while the birds listen to different songs. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found that different sounds triggered different responses in the birds’ brains, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The very fact that we are able to do fMRI imaging in such a small animal is a new thing,” said Santosh Helekar, associate professor of neuroscience at the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, Texas and the lead author of the paper. “It’s an innovation in itself.” [Includes video]

Scientists at Smithsonian’ s National Zoo have used an electronic egg to properly incubate a threatened African bird species. As part of their research, the scientists placed a telemetric egg in the nest of the kori bustard, a threatened African bird, when the mother laid her eggs. The electronic egg contains sensors that record temperatures on four quadrants of the egg’s surface as well as in the egg’s interior. Motion detectors record how frequently the mother turns the egg during incubation. The data is recorded 24 hours a day and downloaded to a computer every 48 hours. National Zoo staff use the information to mimic natural incubation in a controlled setting in the lab. “The information we gather helps us both understand more about the biology of these birds and how to better incubate them artificially,” said National Zoo biologist Sara Hallager.

One way scientists try to gauge the extent of environmental contamination by substances like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, is to measure the levels in animal tissue. In marine environments, seabirds are a useful gauge, because as predators high on the food chain they accumulate such organic pollutants in their body fat as they eat other organisms. The problem has been figuring out how to monitor PCB contamination easily. The surest way is to sample blood or fat from the birds. Needless to say, that is invasive and expensive. Some scientists have suggested another way, analyzing preen oil, which is secreted from a gland near the base of the tail feathers and which birds use when preening to protect themselves from water and parasites.

People Hurting Birds

The owner of a Sunderland trout hatchery was sentenced Tuesday to six months in a halfway house and another five years of probation for killing more than 200 herons and ospreys and a bald eagle. A day before his 60th birthday, Michael Zak was also ordered to pay a $65,000 fine for shooting the birds that were feeding at his fish pools. Zak pleaded guilty in April to killing the herons and ospreys, but said he stupidly thought the eagle he shot was actually a hawk, as if hawks are not protected under the law. U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor wisely convicted him of shooting the eagle. “I feel sorry about the fact that I had to kill the birds,” Zak complained to Ponsor, whining that the birds were literally eating away at his $36,000-a-year fish farm business. “That’s farming. It’s a very hard way of life.” Especially for the birds. Citing Zak’s $1.2 million net worth, Ponsor scolded the owner of the Mohawk Trout Hatchery for being a lameass skinflint by not spending the money necessary to cover the trout pools with nets that could have protected the fish from the birds.

Golden eagles are on the verge of disappearing from their natural habitat in northeast Scotland because grouse moor managers illegally kill them, a new study claims. Scientists point the finger at land managers, who shoot or poison the eagles to prevent them from eating young grouse. The study published by the British Trust for Ornithology reports that the eagle’s current status is threatened by “continued illegal persecution associated with grouse moor management in eastern and central Scotland”. It added: “It is possible that this killing could be preventing the expansion of the population back into areas of suitable habitat that were once occupied.”

People Helping Birds

Biologists recently confirmed a new condor chick produced in the wild by captive-bred California condors at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. They believe another chick is likely in the Grand Canyon. This brings the total number of chicks hatched in the wilds of Arizona to six confirmed, and seven probable, since 1996, the year that endangered California condors were first reintroduced in northern Arizona as part of a cooperative recovery program by federal, state and private partners. “This confirmed visual allows for a brief sigh of relief,” said Chris Parish, the biologist leading the recovery effort for The Peregrine Fund, an international conservation organization. “The next big step, however, will be after the chick fledges and integrates into the wild flock. One step at a time.”

Clapper rails have been endangered in the United States since 1970, a victim of coastal development that has encroached on their salt-marsh habitat. But they appear to be making a comeback, with help from a breed-and-release program at the Chula Vista Nature Center, in partnership with SeaWorld in California. “Through a combination of releasing and better habitat management, the clapper rail population has increased,” said Charles Gailband, the Nature Center’s bird curator.

Rare Birds News

Australian king parrots, Alisterus scapularis, are fighting for their lives after a nasty strain of spironucleus has seen the usually excitable birds turn limp and lifeless. Spironucleus is a single-celled parasite that lives and multiplies in the bird’s stomach, eating away at the lining of its bowel until the bird becomes too weak to fly and eventually dies. Rupert Baker is a senior veterinarian at the Healesville Sanctuary and says it is an all too familiar scene in winter. “Each year at Healesville Sanctuary when the weather gets cold we are presented with several thin and sick young Australian King parrots,” Baker said.

The great bustard, which were found in large numbers in the Iranian provinces of Hamedan and Kurdestan some 30 years ago, is presently on the verge of extinction in Iran due to illegal hunting and destruction of its habitats. Esmail Kahrom, an environmentalist and wildlife expert, has carried out extensive research on this bird in Iran, Romania, Russia and Spain. “Currently, only 20 great bustards have been spotted in the east and west Azarbaijan provinces,” he said. Kahrom noted that unless the situation improves, the extinction of great bustard will be inevitable.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has welcomed news of the first breeding great bustards in Great Britain for 175 years. The Great Bustard Group (GBG) has been releasing birds on Salisbury Plain each year since around 2004, but did not expect nesting to take place until 2008, as males have to reach four or five years old before they can breed. Chicks are raised in Russia from eggs rescued from nests destroyed by cultivation, but then released in the Wiltshire countryside.

The ivory-billed woodpecker people are still clinging to the fantasy that this bird is amazing “the bird that lived!” despite man”kind”‘s best efforts to exteminate them forever. To do this, they are celebrating the power of conservation as The Nature Conservancy presents the behind-the-scenes story of the um, er, “rediscovery” of the ivory-billed woodpecker at its “Hope Takes Flight” luncheon on Friday, November 4. Long-time Nature Conservancy member President Jimmy Carter, honorary chair of the event, will present remarks by video.

Zoonotic Diseases News

The country’s top watchdog on products quality has urged local quarantine authorities to tighten inspections of birds and poultry from the United States after a shipment of carrier pigeons from here were found to be infected with psittacosis, or “parrot fever“. Forty-one pigeons were seized at Beijing International Airport on June 21, after they were found to have not gone through proper quarantine procedures before being exported, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said on Friday. In addition, the Beijing quarantine authority also found the animal health certificates issued by the US stated that some of the pigeons were psittacosis positive. The disease can be transmitted from infected birds to humans and cause symptoms similar to that of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. The disease can be fatal.

Educators nationwide now have an additional information resource for teaching high school biology students about avian influenza, specifically highly pathogenic H5N1. The Understanding Avian Influenza lesson plan and instructor’s guide were offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service on May 22. The lesson explains to students the many reasons why they should know about the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus that currently is spreading overseas and what it would mean if it is detected in the United States. “Agriculture’s basic life lessons link together many subjects such as science, economics and social studies for a student’s improved understanding and well-rounded education,” said Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics Gale A. Buchanan. “Understanding Avian Influenza will challenge teachers and their students to think about the many impacts highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza already has had throughout the world and why it’s critical that the spread of this virus be stopped.”

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in humans in Egypt and in birds in India.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of July 30, 2007: Monday, Bird Sound Types and Qualities I, about whistles, rattles, and trills, etc.; Tuesday, Bird Sound Types and Qualities II, about qualities such as liquid, metallic, ratchety, or ringing; Wednesday, “Evening’s Last Singer,” the American Robin; Thursday, woodpeckers as “keystone species”; Friday, ham radio operators track Burrowing Owls. 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].

Now you can find the Award-winning video magazine, Birdwise, on the internet. This 1/2 hour video magazine is devoted to birds, as their name implies. The June, July (25mins), and August (30 mins) editions may be found at BirdWise.com.

Powerful and fast-flying, the peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus, hunts medium-sized birds, dropping down on them from high above in a spectacular stoop. Virtually exterminated from eastern North America by pesticide poisoning in the middle 20th century, restoration efforts have made this species a regular, if still uncommon sight in many large cities. [steaming video].

Miscellaneous Bird News

One of my blog pals, Laura Erickson, has a wonderful webpage that you will enjoy, The Owls of Harry Potter.

It’s a familiar summer scenario: a nest rests in the low crook of a crab apple tree. Inside, a baby oriole stretches its wings, attempting to trill. A little girl’s face looms overhead. She reaches out her colossal finger to stroke the still-wet feathers. Just before contact, her father’s voice booms: “Don’t touch that bird!” According to folklore, birds will reject their eggs and young if humans have so much as laid a finger on them. This prevalent belief, however, is for the birds: it denies animal parents’ innate drive to nurture their broods and ignores a bird’s basic biology.

The Oklahoma City Zoo is now one of more than a dozen wildlife parks across the county that have received popular pink flamingos from Hialeah Park. The race track hasn’t held a horse race since 2001, but the 300 flamingos that once flew over the track still live inside its 1 1/8-mile racing oval. The Miami Metrozoo now collects some of Hialeah’s flamingo eggs and distributes them across the country. Hundreds of eggs have been collected there since the 1980s, wildlife officials said. After they are collected by Metrozoo workers, they are stored in temperature-controlled coolers, given an identification number, examined, sorted and placed in an incubator. The eggs are then stowed away until other zoos can claim them. Once the birds hatch, they are hand-reared. “It’s going to be a lot of work,” Henthorn said. “But it’s going to be well worth it.”

The second Brazilian Bird Fair, Avistar 2007, gave SAVE Brasil (Birdlife in Brazil) an opportunity to showcase the work done since the BirdLife International-Programa do Brasil was founded in 2000. Around 5,000 people attended Avistar at the Parque Villa-Lobos in the city of São Paulo, nearly five times as many as attended last year’s fair.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Biosparite, Ellen, 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 The Ridger
    July 30, 2007

    Another great issue! Thanks.

  2. #2 biosparite
    July 31, 2007

    Your posting on peregrine falcons puts me in mind of my day a few years ago at the Smith Point hawk watch station about 40 miles east of Houston. The watch point is on an elevated wooden structure by East Bay and is most active during the fall hawk migration across the Gulf of Mexico. I watched any number of hawks dither and hesitate before starting out across the water, but when a peregrine appeared out of the north, it never even slowed but instead made like a corporate jet, ripping out over the Gulf before we could even get our binoculars focused.

  3. #3 Waltfrey
    August 2, 2007

    I enjoy every issue, Thank you for the great main picture and the further sources.
    On the Kori Bustard story: are there any graphs, summary data available from the telemetric egg? Do you know of any other studies with same?
    Thanks and keep up the good work!

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    August 4, 2007

    after much searching, i have come to the conclusion that the telemetric egg data are not published anywhere. it is possible the data are in-house only, or that they might be published in the future, but so far, i’ve found nothing.