Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Among the animals Darwin spotted on the Galapagos Islands were the blue-footed boobies, Sula nebouxii excisa. The males show off their blue feet to potential mates with high-stepping dances.

Image: Stephen C. Quinn, AMNH. [larger].

Birds in Science

A new study published in the leading ornithological journal Ibis has uncovered that for the vast majority of bird species, there are more males than females. The discovery suggests that populations of many of the world’s threatened birds could therefore be overestimated, because scientists often base population estimates on counts of males. Males are usually more brightly plumaged than females and the males of many species sing to attract mates and defend territories making them easier to hear and therefore count. Researchers then take this as an estimate of the number of breeding pairs, critically assuming an equal number of males and females in the population. But is this assumption a valid one? This study suggests not.

People Hurting Birds

Efforts to revive Ireland’s once extinct red kite population have been dealt a blow after a bird released in the Wicklow mountains was found shot dead, it was revealed recently. The bird, set free six weeks ago with 29 other kites, had been hit with shotgun pellets and was found on farmland north of Arklow yesterday. Gardaí are investigating the killing which is believed to have happened between Sunday and yesterday. Kites are protected under the Wildlife Act and have also been awarded the highest level of protection under European law.

An unusual criminal prosecution for importing rare Black Sparrowhawks 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.

People Helping Birds

The first ever Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) agreement for an American migratory bird species has been announced. The new agreement calls for both Argentina and Chile to coordinate conservation measures that will halt recent declines in the mainland South American population of Ruddy-headed Goose, Chloephaga rubidiceps. The Memorandum of Understanding signed between Argentina and Chile will promote closer coordination of conservation efforts to save the species, pushing for closer working with local farmers, hunters and reserve managers.

The red kite has become the conservation success story of the age in Britain. Seventy years after almost becoming extinct, the most charismatic of Britain’s birds of prey has made a welcome comeback to many of its old haunts — including the Chiltern Hills, Yorkshire Dales and the windswept glens of the Highlands. Today there are more than 1,000 pairs nesting in Great Britain — though persecution elsewhere in Europe is still causing populations to tumble (see “People Hurting Birds” for an example).

Landowners and farmers implicated in poisoning birds of prey face losing tens of thousands of pounds in state aid after the Scottish Executive pledged to step up its efforts to stamp out wildlife crime. Minister for Environment Michael Russell yesterday said he would make full use of existing legal penalties, including the cutting of thousands of pounds in subsidies to farmers who are found to blame for the poisoning of birds.

Rare Bird News

The habitat of the endangered macrocephalon maleo (maleo bird) in the Banggai district of Sulawesi has been reduced to 625 hectares of the 12,500 ha wildlife reserve set by the Forest Ministry in 1982, an official reported. “Rampant illegal logging in the past two decades had caused a e significant decrease in the habitat of the bird which is on the brink of extinction,” Banggai district forestry and plantation office head Djalal Yunus said recently.

The house sparrow, the starling and the cuckoo have been included for the first time in the official list of declining and threatened species requiring conservation action in the UK. The new additions are the result of the most comprehensive review for a decade by scientists which has almost doubled the number of native species on Britain’s Biodiversity Action Plan. Story includes a link to the complete list of endangered species.

Zoonotic News

The Grey Bruce Canada’s first bird dead of West Nile virus for the 2007 season — a crow found in Owen Sound last week — was confirmed recently. That’s about a month later in the season than the first local cases over the last few years, Susan Shular, who manages the Grey Bruce Health Unit’s West Nile surveillance program, said.

A new analysis has confirmed that bird flu spread from person to person in Indonesia in April, U.S. researchers report in what appears to be a disturbing development for the infectious disease. Health officials around the world have been closely monitoring the H5N1 strain of avian influenza spreading among birds from Asia to Africa to Europe. Since 2003, H5N1 has infected 322 people and killed 195. Most have been infected directly by birds. But a few clusters of cases have been noted for which no other explanation can be found except person-to-person transmission.

Director-General of Civil Aviation, Norman Lo, has called for a regional push to curb the spread of avian flu and cut its impact on air travel, due to its potential to spark a human pandemic. Opening the two-day Co-operative Arrangement for Preventing the Spread of Communicable Diseases through Air Travel First Steering Committee Meeting in Hong Kong, Lo said the International Civil Aviation Organisation has initiated the arrangement to co-ordinate the co-operative arrangements among participating jurisdictions and airports to reduce the risk of spreading avian influenza and similar illnesses via air travel.

Vical Incorporated announced the enrollment of the first subject in its Phase 1 trial of the company’s pandemic influenza vaccine. The double-blind, placebo-controlled trial will evaluate safety, tolerability and immune responses in up to 60 healthy volunteers age 18 to 45 at two U.S. clinical sites. “We have designed a promising pandemic influenza vaccine and demonstrated its effectiveness against a highly lethal H5N1 challenge in ferrets, the best available animal model,” said Vijay B. Samant, Vical’s President and Chief Executive Officer, “and we have now begun testing in humans.”

H5N1 avian influenza has been reported in humans in Viet Nam and Bali and in domestic birds in Germany, Thailand.

Online Birds

My fellow ScienceBloggers and their kids and I have all been having fun playing the Audubon Society’s newest bird conservation outreach tool, an online game called Mission: Migration. In thbis online game, you fly flocks of birds over various landscapes and help them find safe and appropriate stopover habitat. It’s fun for all ages! Reviews will appear on several ScienceBlogs tomorrow.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of September 3, 2007: Monday, Juvenile Shorebirds Head South; Tuesday, Parasitic Jaegers; Wednesday, Limericks — some from listeners; Thursday, Tracking Peregrine Falcons, about the Southern Cross Project of the Falcon Research Group; Friday, Wandering Tattlers. 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].

Restaurant goers at Roy’s Restaurant in Koolina, Hawai’i said they get to witness an animal turning the term “bird brain” on its head. They said they call him Hank. The Aku’u — or black crowned night heron — has developed some expert fishing skills to grab fish from the Koi Pond. They said Hank finds a piece of bread, which is not part of a Heron’s diet, and uses the bread to attract fish and when the fish come to eat the bread, he catches them. Includes video of the bird in action.

Miscellaneous Bird News

The Dog Days of August are officially over, but Dog-day Cicadas are still producing that incessant buzzing call that serves as dominant background noise during summer in the Carolinas. To learn more about cicadas and their amazing lifestyle, visit This Week at Hilton Pond. The naturalists at the pond also include a tally of birds banded or recaptured during the period, plus some notes about a close encounter for a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, an “early” Summer Tanager, and other nature topics.

In addition to college football, dove season also begins this weekend. This is the first of three seasons open for doves throughout autumn, with this first one being the most popular and heavily attended. The gray mourning dove, also known as the “feathered rocket” to wing shooters, is a federally regulated migratory bird that is hunted across the nation. This story lists valuable information that hunters must know before going out shooting.

A group of ten greater flamingos stops for awhile in a flooded field in Florida. Includes a wonderful picture.

A first North American sighting of a brown hawk-owl on St. Paul Island, Alaska. Includes gorgeous pictures.

The remains of an extinct great auk have been found in Dorset, UK — the first proof the birds lived on the South Coast. The bones were unearthed on the Isle of Portland and showed butchery marks — proving the penguin-like creatures were eaten in Roman times. “The bones of the Great Auk are a find of great magnitude and are of worldwide importance,” said Association for Portland Archaeology director Susanne Palmer.

A remarkable story of how a two-inch thick bird book saved the life of Stuart Butchart, and what he continues to do to save the world’s birds.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to 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!


  1. #1 Bob O'H
    September 3, 2007

    On flu virus vaccines, YLE news this morning had a report that a trial was starting in Tampere in Finland. From the numbers involved, it looks like a Phase II clinical trial, but I don’t know more.


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