Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 94 (v3n21)

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A male Henslow’s Sparrow, Ammodramus henslowii, photographed in July on the Konza Prairie [song].

[This is a] species in decline, probably partially due to habitat loss, since they are obligate grassland birds, and grasslands are disappearing. Additionally they require grasslands that have been unburnt or unhayed during the last season, since they only nest in “standing dead” vegetation left over from the last growing season. The current practice of annual burning here in the Flint Hills means that these birds are very uncommon and patchy, even in the heart of the last tallgrass prairies left on the continent.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU [larger]


Birds in Science

Tiny microplanes with unique “morphing” wings have been developed by engineering students in the Netherlands — based on studying the flight of swifts. Their bird-based design makes them much more agile than standard aircraft. The RoboSwifts, which have a wingspan of 50cm (20in) and weigh just 80g (3oz), mimic the swifts’ abilities to change the shape of their wings in flight — potentially allowing them to be highly maneuverable at both very high and very low speeds. “We were wondering if we could apply this to improve small microplanes which are the same size as a swift,” said David Lentink, who has made detailed studies of swifts’ flight. (link includes a video animation).

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society have succeeded in placing satellite collars on wild parrots for the first time ever, allowing the scientists to track the birds across the wild landscape of Guatemala with earth-orbiting spacecraft. In conjunction with the Loro Parque Foundation, Texas A&M University, Amigos de los Aves-USA, North Star Science and Technology, and the US Agency for International Development, researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Guatemala Program recently succeeded in fitting two adult scarlet macaws with satellite tracking (Platform Terminal Transmitter, PTT) collars in an effort to learn more about the habitat use and migration patterns of the birds. “We know where these birds nest, but we have no idea where they go and how they use the surrounding landscape for the rest of the year,” said WCS-affiliated researcher Robin Bjork. “The collars will enable us to track these wide-ranging birds and help inform management strategies to protect the species in Guatemala.”

Some avian parents hit the road when it comes to child-rearing: Both parents flee the nest, in search of new sexual conquests. Males and females of the Eurasian penduline-tit Remiz pendulinus, can mate with up to seven different partners in one breeding season. So childcare can be a time drain, keeping the birds from scoring more mates. A new study of the small perching songbirds in southern Hungary reveals that both parents are willing to abandon the nest to boost individual reproductive success. “As far as we know, this willingness for both sexes to abandon the nest for the sake of new mates is unique,” said one of the study researchers, Tamas Székely of the University of Bath in England.

People Hurting Birds

A mistake by a Metro contractor in Washington DC led to the shutdown of three Metrorail stations yesterday and prompted an investigation by the FBI and local hazardous-materials crews after the contractor spread commercial pest poison at the wrong time of day, a transit agency spokeswoman said. At least 60 birds that apparently ingested the poison, mostly sparrows and starlings, were found dead at six Metrorail stations before the transit agency discovered that its contractor had put out the poison and failed to remove the dead birds as part of the cleanup.

People Helping Birds

For centuries, the people of Central Asia have used eagles and falcons to hunt for food, but now their ancient tradition is dying. Eagle hunting is simply no longer profitable, while poaching has put the saker falcon, a large migratory bird that can be found mostly in Central Asia, on the verge of extinction. A bird of prey in a cage is not a happy sight, but the owners of a falcon farm in the mountains outside Almaty say that captivity gives the rare saker falcon its only chance of survival. Central Asia has always been the most important breeding ground for these large, stunning birds, who are now disappearing, cursed, it seems, by their own impeccable hunting skills. These falcons are in high demand, especially across the Arab world, where falcon hunting is a popular past time.

After just five years as an independent nation, Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor in Indonesia) has declared its first national park, a move which will protect a number of threatened species found nowhere else on Earth. The declaration has been applauded by BirdLife International, one of a number of organizations involved in the site designation process. “This is an incredibly forward-thinking decision, made all the more spectacular by the fact that this is such a young nation,” said Dr Mike Rands, BirdLife’s Chief Executive. “We wholeheartedly congratulate the Timor-Leste government on this declaration, and their commitment to conservation in line with sustaining the livelihoods and heritage of local people.”

Rare Bird News

A spectacular Brazilian blue parrot, the Lear’s Macaw, has come back from the brink of extinction with more than 750 birds in the wild counted in a recent survey, wildlife conservationists report. That is more than 10 times the number reported in the wild in the late 1980s, according to the American Bird Conservancy, which attributed the creature’s comeback to protection of its natural habitat in the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil. The macaw has brilliant blue feathers with yellow patches around its beak and eyes. It nests on sandstone cliffs and feeds primarily on licuri palm nuts, the conservancy said.

A rare mountain bird in the British Isles is to be radio tracked following concerns that its numbers are declining because of climate change. Ring ouzels could be struggling because warmer weather is drying out soil making it harder for them to catch earthworms, according to RSPB Scotland. Also known as mountain blackbirds, they winter in Spain and Morocco. Innes Sim, RSPB research biologist and the project leader, said the decline was not thought to be linked to poor breeding.

A protected European water bird rarely spotted in the UK has set up camp in a nature reserve in east London. Six Eurasian spoonbills have been sighted at Rainham Marshes this year — twice the number recorded in the past 10 years. The bird usually breeds in Holland and migrates to Africa in the winter, said the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

A project that would pump water from the White River to rice fields in eastern Arkansas will not endanger the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials concluded in a review ordered by a federal judge. The wildlife agency worked with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey sites within a mile of a pumping-station construction site scouring the skies and forests for signs of the bird. GrrlScientist comment: Of course, it’s difficult to further endanger a bird species that does not exist, except in the minds of those few rabid ornithologists and birders who indulge themselves in faith-based ornithology.

Avian Influenza News

The mission of medicine is to keep or make people well. But sometimes it takes letting people get sick to figure out how to do that. Scientists and public health officials are exploring the notion of deliberately exposing healthy volunteers to people sick with influenza to chart how flu spreads from one nose to the next. The idea isn’t being driven by idle curiosity. Finding a way to plug a very fundamental gap in knowledge about this common disease could help cut the number of influenza cases every winter and could save lives during the next flu pandemic. “It is gobsmacking in a way that we’ve got to the 21st century and we still don’t properly understand how influenza is transmitted,” admits Dr. Jonathan Van Tam, an influenza expert with Britain’s Health Protection Agency.

GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers, today announced that HHS has placed another order to purchase bulk H5N1 antigen for the US national stockpile of pre-pandemic vaccines. The company also announced the start of the first North American pre-pandemic vaccine trials in the company’s global pre-pandemic influenza program.

H5N1 avian influenza has been found in humans in Indonesia and Viet Nam and in birds in India and France.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of August 6, 2007: Monday, Wilson’s Warbler at the end of the season; Tuesday, Groove-billed Ani; Wednesday, Barred Owl calls throughout the year; Thursday, Laughing Kookaburra; Friday, “The Bird Is the Word” — we have a little fun on Friday! 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].

I absolutely loved this wonderful BBC report about an effort to save the lovely Northern bald ibis by having one person play the mother to the young birds so she can teach the young birds where to migrate. This streaming video includes beautiful footage of this rare species. [2:28].

University of Washington researchers used a caveman mask a year-and-a-half ago when they captured and tagged seven crows on the UW campus. Now, the crows seem to hold a grudge anytime they see someone walking by in the mask. KING 5′s Gary Chittim reports. [2:26]

There are a group of baby white faced ibis that are being hand-fed by human volunteers at the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) in Vacaville, CA. The chicks are a new species to this center; most volunteers have never even seen an adult of this species. A local newspaper did a story and added a narrated slide show with excellent photos of these amazing birds. You will hear the hungry birds begging for food and one of their staff members, Megan Prelinger, talking about how the birds are cared for. [3:49].

Online Bird Publications

Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, with an Appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez is a collection of many individual papers written over a lifetime by Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), which he assembled into two volumes and re-published in 1879. The digital re-publication of this rare work is a tribute both to one of the greatest naturalists in history (well, depending upon whom you listen to), and also to the immense and growing importance of the subject of this particular work, namely the rise and loss of biodiversity and humanity’s role in the matter.

The most recent “Sightings” column from the American Birding Association’s Winging It is now online as a PDF. “Sightings” appears monthly, alternating between Birding and Winging It, in an effor t to keep North American birders abreast of the latest news, reports, and rumors in the ABA area. Sightings are compiled from online discussion groups and RBA’s, with valuable contributions from a growing network of informants continent-wide. All birders are urged to submit documentation of significant sightings to the appropriate state or provincial records committee.

The latest edition of Indian Birds is now available and you can download several articles as free PDFs.

Miscellaneous Bird News

In the 25 years that the naturalists have been at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, they’ve often wondered about the water quality of the pond itself, and how that quality might affect local birds and other wildlife. In This Week at Hilton Pond, they finally had opportunity to get answers to some of their questions when an environmental class from York Technical College came out to conduct a thorough water analysis. To read about their work and what can learn from water analyses, please visit their photo essay. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded and recaptured during the time period.

Cats are as much a part of Cape May’s (NJ) genteel culture as rainbow-colored Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, trolley tours and cocktails on the porch at sunset. They are also the main suspect in many deaths of the endangered piping plover, a fist-size, white-and-brown fuzzball of a bird that has closed beaches and stopped development projects in the interest of protecting their habitat. With only 115 pairs of piping plovers left in the state, the federal government may intervene on the side of the birds. That has set fur and feather flying. Cat lovers fear that the roaming felines will be euthanized. Bird lovers are wary of a rare species being wiped out. “This is a very emotional issue. This really is a cat town,” said resident Pat Peckham. “I think they should leave the cats where they are. I’m a firm believer in letting nature take its course.” GrrlScientist comment: cats are no more a “natural” part of America than are humans. Cats do not belong out-of-doors in this country and to demand that they should be allowed to roam freely, killing rare and endangered wildlife is just plain selfish and arrogant. Even though I have lived with cats for my entire life, in this situation, the birds should win, and win big.

Beginning within the next couple of months, a substance called OvoControl P will be placed in kibble in new rooftop feeders in an effort to reduce the neighborhood pigeon population and the mess that comes with it, say residents of Hollywood, CA, and state and local officials. The substance, which interferes with egg development, generally is viewed as a humane way to lower the birthrate of the birds, which many residents consider a nuisance. “We clean doo-doo all the time and are proud of it,” said Laura Dodson, president of the Argyle Civic Assn., the Hollywood group leading the effort to try the new contraceptive. “But our streets are getting bombarded by the poop way too much.”

A pair of rare albino sparrows have turned up in County Antrim in the UK. The pure white birds, which lack the the common sparrow’s usual brown, grey and black pigmentation, were spotted in a garden near Islandmagee. An RSPB expert says the sparrows are probably members of a brood of entirely white birds, as some birds are born with reduced pigmentation. These leucistic birds, as they are known, are more common than a pure albino brood. (Includes pictures).

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Biosparite, Bill, Robert, Andrea, Jennifer, Aasheesh, Ian, 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!

Comments

  1. #1 The Ridger
    August 6, 2007

    Another great job! Thanks so much.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    August 7, 2007

    Isn’t it ironic that the environmental impact assessment of IBWP the site is only made because of concerns about a birds that isn’t there? What about the poor birds that are there?

    Bob

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    August 12, 2007

    well, yeah, i agree, Bob. which is the main reason that i try not to make TOO MUCH of a big deal about the situation since there are other important species in the same area that are fighting for their survival, but they aren’t as spectacular as the extinct ivory-billed woodpeckers.