Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 95 (v3n22)

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Male Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor, photographed in June on the Konza Prairie (this also is my screensaver).

Also known as “bullbats”, apparently from their habit of swooping around cattle in pastures to pick off the insects stirred up by the bovines. You can tell it is a male from the white throat, which is buffy in the females. I just love the feather patterns on these birds; they are a subtle masterpiece. [This species also seems to be declining; the original New York state breeding bird atlas found concentrations of nighthawks in all major cities; the most recent atlas (2000-2002) found none in these areas. Suspects include nesting habitat loss and perhaps declines in flying insects.]

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU [screensaver size]


Birds in Science

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle are proving that crows are smarter than most people think. They may actually be able to recognize individual people and hold a grudge against them. A year-and-a-half ago, UW researchers wore a caveman mask when they captured, tagged and released seven crows. Since then, they have taken regular strolls through campus. Professor John Marzloff starts the experiment by walking around without the mask in plain view. The crows in the area seem to pay no attention to him. But, once he slips on the mask and retraces his route, the crows start chattering. After a few steps, the crows begin scolding him. If he takes the mask off — nothing. “They’re flying around and they could attract enough attention to bring others,” says Marzloff. [includes streaming video]

This past week, the renowned journal Science published a BirdLife International analysis showing that the European Union’s Birds Directive has made a significant difference in protecting many of the continent’s most threatened birds from further decline. This paper shows that the Birds Directive has clearly helped those species considered to be most at risk, partly through the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The Birds Directive was adopted in 1979 and is now binding law for all EU countries, it requires special conservation measures for a number of listed species. Importantly, today’s research, taking into account the fifteen Member States for which sufficient data were available, showed that the populations of threatened birds not only fared better, on average, than other bird species in the European Union, but also that the same species perform better within the EU than in European countries outside.

People Hurting Birds News

The Esperance Port Authority in Western Australia, has been charged over lead contamination which killed thousands of birds and elevated lead levels in the blood of some residents. The port, on Western Australia’s south coast, is alleged to have breached the Environmental Protection Act six times, between last December and March this year. One of the charges is causing pollution with criminal negligence, which has a maximum penalty of $1 million.

More than a dozen dead birds have been found in a suburban lake within the last three weeks, and officials suspect a paralyzing bird disease that can stem from rotting bread or intense heat. Babylon Village, NY state officials said they had never seen so many dead waterfowl in such a short time at Argyle Lake, a popular spot that has at times been stocked with trout for fishing, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation records. The birds included mallard ducks, Canada geese and a swan. Officials reported finding 15 dead birds in the last 2 weeks. Visitors have reported seeing as many as four dead or dying birds a day, sometimes staggering around or gasping for air, officials said.

Birds versus Cats News

In most other cities, cats killing birds would not attract much attention. But this is not most other cities. Cats are as much a part of Cape May culture as rainbow-colored Victorian bed and breakfasts, trolley tours and cocktails on the porch at sunset. But Cape May is also one of the prime bird-watching spots in all of North America; the World Series of Birding is held here each year. And with bird watching and related expenditures bringing in nearly $2 billion a year to New Jersey’s economy, no one wants to kill the golden goose.

Rare Birds News

The rumble of tanks and the blasts of exploding shells at Fort Hood Army base in Texas seem not to disturb the golden-cheeked warbler or the black-capped vireo. These endangered birds are thriving in the oak and juniper groves in lesser-used parts of the sprawling military base. But as private land surrounding Fort Hood is developed, nesting habitat is reduced, so the Army is concerned that the base will become the bird’s last haven — putting areas needed for tank training off limits forevermore. Enter nearby rancher Clay McClellan, a veteran of the “warbler wars” of the 1990s and an unlikely hero in the ongoing story of an endangered species’ quest for survival. He has signed a contract pledging to preserve some warbler-friendly acreage on his property, and the Army is paying him to do it. “Back a few years ago when this came up, we just got bulldozers out and started wiping it out,” McClellan says of warbler habitat. “But these days, the government is taking a friendlier approach toward us.”

The Northern subspecies of the Spotted Owl is in trouble and needs your help. This ambassador of old-growth forests in the United States is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and is now facing two new and serious threats, both presented by the US Fish and Wildlife Agency, which is supposed to protect our nation’s wildlife. Follow the link to make your voice heard.

Two Northern spotted owls have been captured by the British Columbia, Canada, government as part of the world’s first captive breeding program for the endangered species. In late July, an adult male spotted owl named Skye was brought to the Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre in Langley, while a juvenile has been taken to the Grouse Mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife. “He’s a beautiful bird. You fall in love with him when you see him,” said Mountain View facilities manager Vince Beier. So rare is Skye — one of fewer than 20 of his kind left in the province — that he lives under a permanent quarantine. Only select staff are allowed to visit and when they do, they have to change their coveralls and boots and approach the bird wearing gloves and sometimes masks.

The chicks of a pair of rare birds of prey nesting in Northumberland have been fitted with radio trackers so wildlife experts can keep a watch over them. The five young hen (Northern) harriers have been raised at a nest on Forestry Commission land in North Tynedale, UK, which has been guarded round-the-clock to prevent illegal persecution or disturbance. The young harriers have been fitted with miniature radio transmitters by Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project team, along with special wing-tags so that they can easily be identified on their travels. Martyn Howat, chairman of Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project, said: “Each transmitter emits a unique signal meaning that the whereabouts of individual birds can be accurately plotted once they have flown the nest.

As an iconic symbol of Scotland’s wildlife, the Atlantic puffin is a bird cherished by nature enthusiasts. But the long-term sustainability of the puffin population in one of the most internationally important breeding colonies is uncertain — St Kilda’s clowns of the sea are starving to death. The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) says the adult seabirds are not finding enough food around the archipelago, west of the Outer Hebrides. So in the darkness of their burrows, puffin chicks starve to death while food lies decomposing in front of them. The pufflings are not able to swallow the snake pipefish brought back from the North Sea by their parents because it is covered in a hard exo-skeleton. With no fat on their bodies, the pufflings soon perish. Shunned even by predators, they are left to decay atop the cliffs of St Kilda — the latest victims of climate change.

More than a half million penguins will soon have a safe haven, thanks to the Argentinian government’s plan to create a new marine park along the Patagonia coast, it was announced last Thursday. The new park, which covers about 250 square miles of coastal waters and nearby islands, will be home to Magellanic penguins, as well as the only colonies of South American fur seals. Other endangered species to be protected within the wildlife sanctuary include the southern giant petrel, the Olrog’s gull and the white-headed steamer duck. Wildlife on the undeveloped coastline is facing increased threats from commercial industries. The threats include birds getting entangled in fishing nets, oil pollution from tankers transporting petroleum and possible expansion of offshore oil drilling operations.

A yellow-eyed penguin colony on the Otago Peninsula is in danger from being loved to death by tourists. The popularity of the Sandfly Bay penguin colony in New Zealand, about 10km from Dunedin, means thousands of people are annually seeking out the shy birds. Otago University zoology lecturer Philip Seddon said the penguins don’t breed as well as those in other, more remote sites. The aquatic birds at the bay had high amounts of stress-induced hormone concentrations, suggesting they were suffering from the frequent intrusions. And stressed parents led to lighter fledglings and fewer successful births, he said.

Avian Zoonotic News

Researchers studying bird flu viruses said they may have come up with a way to vaccinate people ahead of a feared influenza pandemic. Experts have long said there is no way to vaccinate people against a new strain of influenza until that strain evolves. That could mean months or even years of disease and death before a vaccination campaign began. But a team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland and the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta said they may have found a short-cut. “What Dr Nabel and his colleagues have discovered will help to prepare for a future threat,” NIH Director Dr Elias Zerhouni said in a statement. “While nobody knows if and when H5N1 will jump from birds to humans, they have come up with a way to anticipate how that jump might occur and ways to respond to it.”

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been found in humans in Viet Nam and in birds in the African nation of Togo.

As of July 31, 2007, a total of 22 states in the USA have reported 185 cases of human West Nile Virus (WNV) illness to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), including 60 WNV-associated brain infections and 5 deaths. For comparison, by July 18, 2006, 10 states had reported 15 cases of human WNV. The high level of WNV activity as of the end of July 2007 has the American College of Emergency Physicians concerned, given that the peak mosquito season in August and September is just now getting underway. In a written statement, ACEP president Dr. Brian Keaton said: “Given the jump in reported cases, along with the minute chance of developing life-threatening illness, we are asking people in areas where it is prevalent to become familiar with the incidence and symptoms of West Nile Virus and to take extra precautions against mosquito bites.”

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of August 13, 2007: Monday, Ivan Doig explores a Birdless World; Tuesday, What to expect on a pelagic birding trip; Wednesday, Woodpeckers and Forest Fires; Thursday, Chickens Circle the Earth; Friday, the African Fish-Eagle. BirdNotes 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 Bird News

The full moon in late July is always an awesome sight, unfortunately enhanced by pollution and other airborne particles. But mid-summer also brings a wealth of natural delights, some of which were photographed by the naturalists at Hilton Pond. You can access a photo essay about the full moon and a variety of flora and fauna at This Week at Hilton Pond. As always, they include a tally of birds banded and recaptured during the period — plus notes about a Summer Tanager and two quite ancient Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Rarity bird lovers now have a new tool at their disposal — the GOOGLE GADGET. This is a small device that can be added to an iGoogle homepage, or to any webpage, and displays the week’s rarest birds in whatever state you select (I have one installed). The gadget gives observer name, date, and location, including a Google Map plot of the location of the bird — within seconds you can get printable directions from your home or office! It even gives an indication of whether the sighting has been confirmed by a local expert (something listservs do not always provide). Some people have 5 or more gadgets loaded at the same time displaying all their favorite local states. The gadget is updated every 15 minutes and works only by entering a sighting into eBird. Read more about the gadget, learn how to get it, and enter your sightings (not just of rare birds), at www.ebird.org (once there, click on the Fork-tailed Flycatcher for more information about the gadget). Participation in eBird has the larger goal of providing data valuable to researchers, land managers, and even curious birders. Bar graphs and maps can be easily generated or your sightings or of all sightings submitted of a particular species or a particular location or hotspot.

Okay, I probably should not admit this, but this is my most favorite story this week. As a nearly life-long parrot companion myself, I thought this story was absolutely hilarious; a parrot swooped down upon a man’s head in Sweden and refused to be detached. It eventually took “veterinary assistance” to remove the bird from the man’s head!

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The Fine Print: Thanks to 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 biosparite
    August 13, 2007

    Grrl Scientist,
    Thanks for another excellent issue of BITN. I also enjoy your link to Hilton Pond. Re the parrot that refused to leave a man’s head in Sweden, I would have gone immediately to a pet store for a cage and supplies had this happened to me. How many times does one encounter interspecies love at first sight?

  2. #2 Zuska
    August 13, 2007

    Grrl, thanks for that picture and story from the Konza prairie…and seeing Dave Rintoul’s name…how I miss Kansas and K-State! What a beautiful bird. Thank you.

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