Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 96 (v3n23)

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Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, preparing to land on its nest, Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service.


Birds in Science

Here’s a question for all of you: whose offspring would do better; those raised only by their parents, or those raised by their parents in addition to an extended family group? A research team led by Andrew F. Russell of the University of Sheffield in England recently asked that very question in their research of superb fairy-wrens, a species where some breeding pairs have helpers while others do not. Surprisingly, they found that both groups of chicks did equally well, even though those that lived in cooperative situations were fed 19 percent more food than those fed only by their parents.

At first glance, postponing one’s own reproductive efforts to help other individuals raise their offspring might seem like a bad choice, evolutionarily speaking. But cooperative breeding, as this behavior is known, is fairly common in the animal kingdom, although the reasons underlying the evolution of this behavior remain obscure. Recently, a new study has shed some light on why this behavior evolves by revealing that climactic uncertainty causes some species of African starlings to group together to help each other raise offspring. In most bird species, young females will leave the family in search of mates while males remain with their families.

Crows have shown that two tools are better than one when it comes to problem solving, scientists say. A University of Auckland study has revealed that New Caledonian crows use separate tools in quick succession to retrieve an out-of-reach snack. The birds were using reasoning that was more commonly seen in great apes and humans. Alex Taylor, lead author of the paper, said: “The creative thing the crows did was to use the short stick to get the long tool out of the box so that they could then use the long stick to get the meat.” This story also includes a link to a streaming video.

Marine bird populations in northern Puget Sound, an arm of Pacific Ocean, have been declining since the late 1970s, a Western Washington University study says. Students gathered data from about 150 sites between Tsawwassen, British Columbia, and Whidbey Island for four years. Nearly 80 north Puget Sound marine bird species, with habitat both in the water and shores, were studied. The early results point to steep declines in a number of key species including the common murre, a long-billed black and white seabird, whose population has declined 93 percent since the 1970s census. The Western grebe, a long-necked black and white seabird, has seen its numbers drop 81 percent.

Bug repellent might not set human hearts aflutter, but it does crested auklets. These arctic sea birds produce citrus-scented secretions that repel ticks — and attract mates, according to new research. The discovery clears up a long-standing mystery over the purpose of the compounds, and — because birds rub each other with the secretions during courtship — it represents the first documented transfer of chemical defenses between birds.

The double-crested cormorant, threatened across the country during the 1960s by the use of the insecticide DDT, is a relatively new arrival to New York Harbor. The first documented sighting in New York City was in 1985. A census this year by a wildlife group counted 1,046 breeding pairs. On harbor islands like Swinburne — where hospitals were built long ago to quarantine contagious immigrants with yellow fever and cholera — they have built boisterous colonies, claiming once-human spaces for their own. Colin Grubel, a graduate student in biology at Queens College, is collecting vomit samples from the birds, an activity he cheerfully compares to “a treasure hunt.” Back in his laboratory, spending long days over “balls of flesh,” he is making a painstaking catalog of what cormorants are eating.

Some parrots in Guatemala are sporting a new fashion accessory: satellite collars. Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recently succeeded in placing the collars on wild parrots, allowing them to track the birds across Guatemala from space. The researchers fitted two adult scarlet macaws with the collars 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 Dr. Robin Bjork. “The collars will enable us to track these wide-ranging birds and help inform management strategies to protect the species in Guatemala.”

Ornithologists have a new way to snoop on bird behavior: an electronic egg that spies from inside the nest. The egg is helping scientists understand how a large African bird — the kori bustard — and others, including the Greater (American) Flamingo, nurture their broods-to-be. The information should offer insight about the species and also give biologists better data on how to incubate real eggs artificially. That ability could prove key to the survival of species like the kori bustard, which is in decline. “We know nothing about how kori bustards or flamingos incubate their eggs,” said Sara Hallager, a biologist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., and head of the Species Survival Plan for kori bustards at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “If we can better mimic what the parents are doing when we artificially incubate eggs, we can do a better job of raising the chicks.”

Funding for Bird Research

The Loro Parque Fundación supports projects which have parrot species as their focus of attention. Its main interest is to utilise these projects to improve the conservation prospects of threatened parrots and to promote biodiversity conservation. Applications for projects to begin in 2008 will reviewed at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees and Advisors of the Loro Parque Fundación. To be included in the review, applications must be received by the Loro Parque Fundación by Monday 3rd September 2007. The total funds awarded by the Loro Parque Fundación for projects beginning or continuing in 2007 were €/EUR 750,000.

People Hurting Birds

The annual slaughter of thousands of juvenile seabirds by men living in a rural Scottish community has been likened by animal rights activists to the clubbing to death of baby seals by Canadian hunters, yet they are powerless to stop it. For centuries the men of Ness on Lewis in the Western Isles have embarked on an annual expedition every August to scale the rocky 300ft cliffs of the remote island of Sula Sgeir and harvest the birds, which are considered a culinary delicacy.

A new report has revealed a drastic population decline in the Red Knot subspecies Calidris canutus rufa. Numbers at their wintering grounds in southern South America have fallen drastically in recent years; from 51,300 in 2000 to approximately 30,000 in 2004, and still further to just 17,200 in 2006. The 2007 Red Knot Assessment Report, prepared by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and based on demographic studies covering 1994-2002, reveals that the rufa subspecies could become extinct within ten years, if adult survival remains low.

A rare colony of Greater Flamingo has left the marshy Camargue region of southern France since a strike at a saltworks deprived them of their breeding habitat. For 30 years, thousands of the iconic birds have nested on an artificial island in the delta of the River Rhone. It sits in a lagoon called Etang du Fangassier. But since March, salt water from the Mediterranean has not been pumped into the lagoon, because staff at the local saltworks have been on a partial strike against redundancies. But the fact that the birds had been breeding at all in the Camargue was a victory for conservationists. The lagoon was created in 1969 to protect the flamingos from predators and since then their numbers had steadily increased, until this year.

Climate change is to blame for a drop in the number of some birds that visit Britain each winter, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said. The charity said many wildfowl no longer needed to migrate as far as the UK from places like Greenland and Siberia because of warmer winters. Numbers of seven regular visitors, including the shelduck, mallard and turnstone, are declining, it warned. But the overall number of waterbirds wintering in the UK has doubled since the late 1970s, a report adds. The State of the UK’s Birds 2006 report, says in particular the number of wading birds including the black-tailed godwit and the avocet, had increased markedly, mainly due to action by conservationists. This story also includes a link to a streaming video.

UK scientists trying to discover what is killing off house sparrows, which has suffered a huge decline in recent years, say that Government plans for a huge house building program will be yet another blow to the species. House sparrow numbers have declined by up to 50% in some areas and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) says this will get worse if millions of homes are built as flats or houses so close together they will not have gardens.

An unusual criminal prosecution for importing rare Black Sparrowhawks, Accipiter melanoleucus, from England properly ended in the conviction of a man who claimed he once owned the largest private collection of birds of prey in the United States, a federal appeals court says. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan concluded in a written decision late last week that Thomas Cullen of Goshen, New York, was properly prosecuted for having no legal right to import the birds to New York in January 2000. The appeals court said he made misrepresentations to U.S. wildlife authorities “every step of the way” and could not now claim that those authorities knew all along what he was doing was illegal. It also rejected his other challenges to his conviction.

Birds Hurting People

Pounded and strained by heavy traffic and weakened by missing bolts and cracking steel, the failed interstate bridge over the Mississippi River also faced a less obvious enemy: pigeons. Inspectors began documenting the buildup of pigeon dung on the span near downtown Minneapolis two decades ago. Experts say the corrosive guano deposited all over the Interstate 35W span’s framework helped the steel beams rust faster. “There is a coating of pigeon dung on steel with nest and heavy buildup on the inside hollow box sections,” inspectors wrote in a 1987-1989 report.

People Helping Birds

From inside their cages, the confiscated parrots squawked and whistled as they were placed inside a truck belonging to Mexico’s environmental protection agency yesterday. Amazon parrots, protected by U.S. and international law, were confiscated from smugglers this year and returned to Mexico yesterday. The 149 Amazon parrots, more than half of them found by border inspectors in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa over the past three months, were going home. They had been plucked from their habitats in Mexican states such as Michoacan, Veracruz and Tamaulipas, and stuffed inside boxes and bags to be smuggled into the United States. In some cases, it was their chattering that gave them away.

Rare Bird News

An endangered California condor that was being treated at the Los Angeles Zoo for lead poisoning died this week, a conservation group reported. Tests showed the bird had 10 times the safe amount of lead in its bloodstream after it was caught at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge last month, according to Audubon California, an environmental and conservation group. Only about 300 California condors remain in the world. “Lead poisoning is a tremendous threat to these remarkable birds,” said Glenn Olson, executive director of Audubon California.

One of the strangest and most endangered birds in the world, the kakapo, is being brought back from the brink of extinction with the help of scientists from the University of Glasgow. The largest of all parrot species, flightless, nocturnal and plant-eating, the kakapo used to be found all over New Zealand. But ecological changes, habitat clearance and the introduction of predatory mammals combined to cause a catastrophic decline in numbers to only 51 in 1995. Another factor in their near extinction is that kakapo breed infrequently. This is because they rear their young on the fruits of native trees. These trees — pink pine and rimu — only fruit every 2-6 years and kakapo only breed on those occasions. During the lean years in between, the kakapo’s natural diet consists of coarse leaves, grasses and herbs which lack adequate nutrients for the rearing of chicks.

There is a gradual disappearance of several endemic Cuban species such as parrots, cateyes, hawksbill sea turtles (careyes), and even molluscs like polymites, siguas, quincontes or black coral, which can only be found now at great depths. According to the 2007-2010 National Environment Strategy of the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, the principal threats to native animal species on the island include the destruction of habitat and ecosystems, the introduction of new species that are harmful to the native ones, poaching, and inadequate control and regulatory mechanisms.

After the discovery last year of four individual Basra reed-warblers in Israel’s Hula Valley, SPNI have this year announced the return of three of these ringed (banded) individuals, along with one unmarked adult — confirmation that Basra Reed-warbler does indeed breed in Israel. “It is remarkable that all three adults ringed last year returned to the same site after probably spending the winter in East Africa,” said Itai Shanni of SPNI.

There are conflicting views on whether the ivory-billed woodpecker even exists, but federal wildlife officials say spending more than $27 million to research the suspected habitat of the elusive bird is worth the cost. The US Fish and Wildlife Service this week released a 185-page draft plan aimed at preventing the extinction of the bird. The draft plan is open for public comment until Oct. 22.

Avian Zoonotic News

Dead birds that were once sure-fire signs of the presence of West Nile virus or Eastern equine encephalitis aren’t that reliable anymore, according to state and local health officials. “It seems like we’re not finding the same number of birds as we used to,” said Jason Stull, state public health veterinarian. “The predominant theory is the birds are developing antibodies to the disease and are not dying as much.” Birds were often faulty indicators, according to Stull, because most did not die immediately after contracting the disease, meaning the time and place the disease originated was uncertain. Mosquito test pools are considered the more accurate indicator of West Nile and EEE, and in tracking and learning about the diseases and the different carriers. But while there are fewer dead birds, the diseases are as prevalent as ever, according to Morrison and Stull.

Researchers have found some of the changes that a flu virus needs to become a deadly pandemic strain, and said on Tuesday the H5N1 avian influenza virus has so far made only a few of them. They said their study can help scientists watch for the mutations most likely to make H5N1 a global threat. David Finkelstein of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and colleagues looked at H5N1 virus samples from people who had been infected. They found none were anywhere near as mutated as flu viruses that caused the three most recent pandemics, notably the 1918 “Spanish flu” that killed millions worldwide.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) has announced the setting up of three more avian influenza (AI) diagnostic laboratories in the Visayas and Mindanao in the Philippines. Agriculture officials said the laboratories will ensure protection of Filipinos from the virus that has already killed 192 people worldwide. Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) officer-in-charge Davinio Catbagan said setting up more avian flu laboratories will help keep the Philippines as one of only three countries in Southeast Asia totally free of the dreaded avian influenza or bird flu virus. The two other AI-free countries in the region are Singapore and Brunei.

H5N1 avian influenza has been found in humans in Bali, Indonesia and in domestic birds in Germany, Pakistan and Viet Nam.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of August 27, 2007: Monday, Roger Tory Peterson’s childhood and young adulthood; Tuesday, 99th anniversary of Peterson’s birth; Wednesday, Vaux’s Swifts roost in chimneys & a field trip! Thursday, Martyn Stewart meets a Rough-legged Hawk; and Friday, Martyn Stewart visits the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 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].

Here is a National Public Radio (NPR) program on gratuities — including commentary by Amy Dickinson (Advice Columnist for the Chicago Tribune) on birders and tipping. In short, birders are terrible tippers! The feature is long, so if you want to go straight to the part on birders, drag the timer to the 24:20 mark.

Miscellaneous Bird News

By mid-summer, most foliage in the Carolina Piedmont has been damaged by insect herbivores, but some of their work is rather aesthetic. For a look at the artsy side of insect damage, please visit This
Week at Hilton Pond
for their photo essay. They include their usual compilation of birds banded during the period, plus a photo and description of a leucistic hummingbird spotted nearby in Rock Hill SC. Here is another photoessay that reveals some of the activity among birds, reptiles, insects, and small mammals as they struggle with the “Dog Days” of August in the Carolinas and beyond.

Here is a photoessay of the UK’s declining birds that you will enjoy. My favorite image is the avocets.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Leslie, Ted, Caren, Diane, 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 27, 2007

    One of these items reminded me – I just read a book which ended with upwards of two dozen illegally imported wild birds – macaws, toucans, etc – being released into the wild in South Carolina because otherwise they’d have been killed. On top of the other problems, I was wondering if such birds would even survive. I’m pleased to know they can be sent home again.

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