Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Clark’s Grebe, Aechmorphus clarkii, in the foreground with a Western Grebe, Aechmorphus occidentalis, behind. Both were photographed on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (north end of the Great Salt Lake) in the spring of 2005. Similar birds, but the field marks are straw-yellow bill (Clark’s) cf. greenish-yellow bill (Western); white feathering around the eye (Clark’s) cf black (Western), and whiter flanks on the Clark’s Grebe. This pair of birds was hanging out together, and that was not unusual, making one wonder if splitting these into two separate species (which occurred sometime in the 1980′s) was really justified. Apparently they do hybridize as well.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU [wallpaper size]


Birds in Science

I recently received the devastating news that Alex the African grey parrot, who was both a study subject and colleague to Irene Pepperberg, died unexpectedly on 7 September 2007, at 31 years of age. Link includes a video of Alex and Alan Alda.

Cellular phones can be used to talk with owls in the wild, researchers report. Beyond phone calls consisting entirely of “Who?” placing networks of cell phones in the wild could help call to and listen for birds and beasts, enabling researchers to study faraway wildlife in their natural habitats. “We’re in talks to set up such networks in Costa Rica, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea,” said researcher Dale Joachim, an MIT electrical engineer. “It might be good for ecotourism, to hear the richness of sound there.”

An 80-million-year-old fossil recently uncovered in the Gobi desert could be a key piece of the evolutionary puzzle of how massive dinosaurs gave rise to today’s comparatively tiny birds, paleontologists say. The newfound species, dubbed Mahakala omnogovae, measures just 27.5 inches (70 centimeters) from its head to the tip of its feathered tail. Dinosaur digs over the last decade — including many in China — have suggested that several dinosaurs were covered in feathers, a hint of their potential link to birds. [abstract].

People Hurting Birds

A live cockatiel, its mate lying dead by its side, was discovered by city workers in Maine early one morning last week, bagged up by the roadside — bird cage and all — ready for the garbage truck. Had crew members not gotten curious, the birds would have been placed in the truck’s trash compactor, according to Carl Morse, superintendent of the city Highway Department. “My packer crew was picking up rubbish and they came along this — it was in a plastic bag — they felt something kind of strange and saw the cage, then they noticed the live bird in there,” Morse said. Police were called to the Mathews Avenue address. The animal control officer also was notified of the incident and will investigate.

Thrill seekers practising extreme sports at a Calderdale reservoir in Halifax, England are endangering lives and putting rare wildlife at risk, a councillor said. Groups of youngsters have been kite-surfing at Ringstone Reservoir. The water is home to a specialist birding site designated for the breeding of little ringed plovers, an endangered species. Nick Carter, chairman of Calderdale Bird Conservation Group who set up the habitat, said: “The slightest disturbance can scare these birds away and that would mean a season without mating which may be critical. So for these kids to be out there could have really serious implications.”

Taking your dog for a walk could be having an impact on local birdlife, a study suggests. An Australian team found dog-walking was prompting birds to take flight, causing numbers to plummet by 41%. The researchers, writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, said the birds were fleeing because they viewed the dogs as potential predators.

According to some experts at the sixth International Penguin Conference, as many as 12 of the world’s 17 species of penguins are in serious trouble, the Australian reported today. The United States has considered petitions to list 10 on the endangered species list. Penguins face a variety of existential threats, none larger than global warming. The March of the Penguins, the unlikely 2005 Hollywood hit, side-stepped this issue to some consternation of environmental advocates by focusing on the family lives and extraordinary migration of the Emperor Penguin. But the movie illustrated beautifully how inextricably the fortunes of penguins are tied to the solidity of the ice under their feet.

The spread of farms and towns on Malaysia’s coasts has destroyed some of the world’s most important winter homes for migrating birds, said a report released recently. Wetlands International, a global monitor of coastal areas and their wildlife, said the number of shore birds wintering in Malaysia had plunged by 22 percent over the past 20 years as the country aggressively developed its coastline for new housing, shrimp farms, industry and recreation. The shrinking habitat means a loss of food and a break in the chain of wetland rest stops for migrating birds, the group said. “A larger number of young will starve. Slowly, the number born every year is declining,” Wetlands spokesman Alex Kaat said. Climate change also may be a factor. The report cited the construction of sea walls to protect against storm surges and rising sea levels as contributing to the changing coast line. Mud flats — ideal for wading birds — were being eroded or reclaimed for human use.

People Helping Birds

This website has pictures of whooping cranes that are being taught their migratory route in one of three ways; wild born chicks that learn their route from their parents, captive born birds that are released in the utumn immediately before migration, and captive born birds that learned their route by following an ultralight plane. Includes pictures of chicks in the third group (cute!).

The International Crane Foundation hopes to raise $2 million from next month’s auction of rare bird art and books it inherited from a Chicago philanthropist. Brooks McCormick, chief executive officer of International Harvester Co., willed one of the nation’s most significant collections of ornithology to the nonprofit when he died last year. Sotheby’s in New York City will auction the collection that includes works by John James Audubon and Charles Darwin on Oct. 5. Experts estimate its value at $1.5 million to $2 million.

The California Senate has passed legislation to ban lead ammunition that is poisoning endangered California Condors. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Pedro Nava is designed to protect condors by requiring hunters to use non toxic ammunition for hunting deer and wild pigs and varmints, so that condors, which are scavengers, will not consume lead particles in any carcasses not recovered or left in the field. The measure also creates a program that would provide coupons to hunters venturing into condor territory that subsidize the cost of lead-free, copper bullets. “American Bird Conservancy applauds the California Senate’s action and urges Governor Schwarzenegger to sign the lead-ammunition ban into law to protect the California Condor,” said Dr. Michael Fry, American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Conservation Advocacy who testified before the California Fish and Game Commission and advocated on behalf of the legislation. “With alternative ammunition now available for hunting that doesn’t use lead – there is no logical basis on which to oppose this ban.”

It might have been a rotten summer, but the birds at the Lake Vyrnwy nature reserve in the UK have been enjoying themselves. A survey of species like hen harriers, curlews and black grouse has revealed a healthy increase in birds nesting at the RSPB Cymru-managed reserve. Curlew numbers have increased significantly, with eight nesting pairs surveyed during the breeding season, compared to only two pairs last year. Six pairs of hen harriers and three pairs of ring ouzels have also nested at the reserve, along with a pair of barn owls, a pair of kingfishers, and several pairs of breeding crossbills in the conifer forest. The eight pairs of nesting merlins and five pairs of goshawks are the same as last year.

The city of Toronto now has a rating system for measuring how “bird-friendly” buildings in the city are. The grading system is a follow-up to guidelines the city released in the spring intended to prevent the deaths of migratory birds, many birds get confused by lights and glass, and then crash into buildings. The color-coded system — yellow for “minimum,” green for “preferred” and blue for “excellent” — will be used mainly by developers of new buildings who want to market their structures as “bird-friendly.” The program isn’t mandatory.

Birds Helping People

A novel bird control method being developed in New Zealand in Marlborough’s vineyards could be replicated to protect Canterbury’s seed and cereal crops, farmers at a Foundation of Arable Research bird management seminar heard earlier this week. “Taking the long-term view, if this pilot project is a success I can see native falcons being established all over the arable land of New Zealand,” Lincoln University researcher Valerie Saxton said. Saxton was speaking about the much publicised Falcons for Grapes project on the Wairau Plain. The project is now entering its third of five years and while there have been some hiccups, preliminary results suggest a win-win situation for grape growers and conservationists.

Rare Bird News

Of 13 breeding attempts by Critically Endangered California Condors, Gymnogyps californianus, in the wild in southern California between 2001 and 2005, only one resulted in successful fledging. A paper published in Bird Conservation International finds that ingested anthropogenic material — swallowed junk — was directly responsible for the deaths of two condor nestlings, and is strongly implicated in the deaths of several more. Four dead nestlings and two removed from the wild held substantial quantities of junk such as glass fragments, metal bottle-tops, washers, cartridge cases, electrical wiring and plastic pipes.

Eight pairs of a rare bird of prey have successfully mated and produced 11 chicks at a North East park. Almost 100 red kites were released into Gateshead’s Derwent Valley between 2004 and 2006 after an absence of 150 years. Red kites were formerly widespread and common in the UK, but human persecution led to their extinction in England and Scotland by the end of the 19th Century.

Tasmanians will be signed up for a swift parrot nest project that won a $26,000 grant yesterday. Urgent action was needed to protect the nests of the endangered bird which breeds along Tasmania’s East Coast, said the proponent, the Tasmanian Conservation Trust. The Australian Federal Government grant of $26,114 would allow a project officer to train volunteers, said Threatened Species Network co-ordinator Peter McGlone. “There are only 1000 to 1300 pairs left of the swift parrot, which only nests in Tasmania and primarily in eastern Tasmania within 10km of the coast,” McGlone said. It is hoped the project will start as early as this month, to fit in with the breeding season of the swift parrot which runs from September to November.

Australian researchers believe climate change may be affecting the oranged-bellied parrot population. Experts say there are only 140 birds left, making it one of the world’s rarest birds and the biggest concentration of them is along the south-west Victorian coastline. Today is Threatened Species Day and Birds Australia’s Chris Tzaros says a lot is being learnt from a research project that is under way. “One thing that we’ve noticed in the last couple of years is that they’re no longer consuming some of the species that were considered key food plants as recently as 10, 15 years ago and then conversely we’re finding them feeding on species of plants that they were not recorded feeding on 10, 15 years ago,” he said.

The success of a wild bird in Scotland despite declining numbers in the rest of Europe has mystified experts. RSPB Scotland said it was delighted but puzzled by breeding figures for the red throated diver (loon). The rarer black-throated diver (loon) is also on the increase, possibly thanks to the anchoring of man-made rafts in lochs.

Avian Influenza News

Researchers say studies do not confirm whether wild birds are carriers of the H5N1 bird flu virus. VOA’s Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok, where experts are gathering this week to figure out better ways to track how the disease is spreading. Experts say they have been dealing with data that might be unreliable because there is no uniform system of checking H5N1 infection among wild birds. The Food and Agriculture Organization brought together more than 70 experts from 12 countries. While the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus has a devastating effect on poultry, it appears to pose less of a danger to wild birds.

An international meeting on “Key Partners on Avian Influenza and Pandemic Preparedness” will be held in Jimbaran, Badung District, Bali Province on Tuesday, September 11. Three Indonesian ministers, namely Coordinating Minister for People`s Welfare Aburizal Bakrie, Health Minister Dr Siti Fadilah Supari and Agriculture Minister Dr Anton Apriyantono would attend the meeting, Iqbal, a member of the meeting`s organizing committee said recently. Around 150 participants from several countries, especially those which have been providing financial assistance to Indonesia for bird flu (avian influenza/AI) control, would join the international meeting on bird flu, he said.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been found in people in Indonesia and in domestic birds in Germany and Russia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of September 10, 2007: Monday, the Whip-poor-will; Tuesday, the Green Heron; Wednesday, the watchfulness of Barn Owls; Thursday, “Migration: Long, Short, and In-between” and; Friday, “Living Alone on Earth” with thoughts from E.O. Wilson. 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].

You know those little kids who are always bringing home turtles or tadpoles? What happens when they grow up? At least some of them end up in places like Eastern Island, one of the islets that make up the Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific. Goose-sized Laysan Albatross chicks snap their long, sharp bills as field biologist Jimmy Breeden walks past. “Sometimes they get a good pinch on you and break the skin. I have had them run into me at about 35 miles per hour — flying into me. And that feels like somebody were to take a feather pillow and hit you as hard as they could. It will take you down to one knee,” Breeden says with a chuckle. [streaming story: 7:46] This is a blog written by Pete, a colleague of Jimmy’s.

Miscellaneous Bird News

When the naturalists at Hilton Pond are asked what sorts of animals prey upon hummingbirds, they usually say they just don’t have very many predators. They thought their short list was pretty complete until this week when friends from North Carolina reported an almost-unbelievable near-predation on a Ruby-throated Hummingbird — by an insect no less! Along with the predator photo essay they include their usual tally of birds banded or recaptured during the period, plus a mug shot of a Parula Warbler and a note about late-breeding American Goldfinches.

Just across the Delaware Bay in Cape May, N.J., birding is big business. Birders crowd several renowned watching areas for a glimpse at migrating shorebirds, spending their money at area restaurants, inns and hotels along the way. It’s part of a thriving ecotourism industry in the Garden State that brings in more than $800 million in economic activity and helps support some 14,000 jobs, according to a study by that state. The Delmarva Peninsula has all the ingredients to become an ecotourism powerhouse, promoters say. “You really feel like you’ve had a real adventure,” said Jim Rapp, executive director of the Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences group.

Meet George Rogers, a 7-inch tall talking black-billed magpie with a remarkable vocabulary who lives with the Bankson family. Kathy Bankson has raised George since March, when the wind knocked down a nest of three baby doves and another with three magpies. One semi-crippled baby black bird with a yellow beak was the only survivor. It survived because Bankson got up every two hours to feed and nurture it. She named the bird George Rogers, after a ditchtender who was like a grandpa to her during her childhood on the family farm. The human Rogers had once offered 50 cents for every magpie Kathy and her siblings caught. “When I got the magpie, I immediately thought of George,” she said.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, Caren, Barbara, Bill, 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 Bob O'H
    September 10, 2007

    Wow, I like the tale of the birds being predated on by flies – that one’s going round to all my entomology friends.

    Bob

  2. #2 Devery
    September 11, 2007

    I’m so happy every time you post “Birds In The News.” Thank you!

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