Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 99 (v3n26)

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Back from the brink:
The endangered Rimatara lorikeet or Kuhl’s lory, Vini kuhlii,
has been successfully reintroduced to Ātiu.

Image: Phil Bender.

Birds in Science

Migrating birds, it seems, can “see” the Earth’s magnetic field which they use as a compass to guide them around the globe. Specialized neurons in the eye, sensitive to magnetic direction, have been shown for the first time to connect via a specific brain pathway to an area in the forebrain of birds responsible for vision, German researchers said on Wednesday. Scientists have known for many years, from behavioral experiments, that birds use an internal magnetic compass to navigate on their epic annual journeys. But exactly how the system works has been a mystery.

When talking about evolution, some people have wondered aloud about why grandmothers exist in human society since they clearly are no longer able to reproduce. However, these people are conveniently overlooking the fact that grandmothers perform a valuable service; they help their relatives, often their own children, raise their offspring — offspring that are genetically related to them. But curiously, grandmother helpers have not been documented to occur in birds, where most of our research into cooperative breeding systems occurs, so this makes the question even more intriguing: Why are there no avian grandmothers? Further, since cooperatively breeding birds are relatively long-lived, grandparental care should indeed be identifiable, especially if cooperatively-breeding bird societies are observed long enough — which indeed is what has happened as reported in this article.

There is alarm in scientific circles about the effects of climate change on threatened species in Queensland’s tropical rainforests. Recently in Cairns, researchers will present their findings on the ecological aftermath of Cyclones Larry and Monica. With global warming likely to produce even more severe tropical storms, scientists fear the cassowary, a rare flightless bird, could be driven to extinction. The endangered southern cassowary was hit harder than most residents when category five Cyclone Larry tore across the far north Queensland coast in March last year.

People Hurting Birds

Four times in the past two months, bullets have struck and killed protected bird species in Oregon. Among the victims were an osprey in Hood River, another in Vernonia, a great horned owl in eastern Oregon and, last week, a great blue heron in Battle Ground, Wash. The Audubon Society of Portland is offering a $1,500 reward in the latest case, reported Sept. 17 at Southeast 11th Circle and Parkway Avenue in Battle Ground. X-rays revealed that the heron was shot in the right wing.

For the golden eagle, an emblem of Scotland, the blue sky above the Borders is to become a no-fly zone. The wildlife crime officer for Lothian and Borders Police has said a spate of poisoning incidents has made the region too dangerous for the reintroduction of the majestic bird of prey. Last month, a bird from the only breeding pair of golden eagles was found dead in the region after ingesting the banned substance carbofuran. While no one has been charged, police suspect gamekeepers anxious to protect the dwindling number of grouse from the talons of eagles and other raptors.

People Helping Birds

Federal wildlife officials have come up with a road map for boosting populations of the imperiled Western Snowy Plover, a tiny sparrowlike bird that builds nests at several North County beaches and lagoons. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan, released earlier this week, sets a goal of doubling the current number of adult bird species living along the Southern California cost — in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties — to at least 500. And it aims to rebuild the entire Pacific Coast population in California, Oregon and Washington to 3,000, up from 2,000 today.

The endangered Rimatara lorikeet or Kuhl’s lory, Vini kuhlii, experienced a conservation triumph several months ago: twenty-seven of the parrots were translocated from the island of Rimatara, in the Cook islands where a small population still exists, to the island of Atiu in French Polynesia, where they had been driven to extinction by the Maori hunters several hundred years ago. Officials hope that this homecoming will lead to establishment of a reserve population of the endangered birds. Read this piece for an update on these birds.

Avian botulism caused the recent deaths of about 100 ducks in City Park according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife. They confirmed the findings last week to the City & County of Denver.

Rich Harris is passionate about birds; he is prepared to go to great lengths to help them, in this case 150 miles to be exact. Accompanied by his friend Bill Jeffery, they are covering this distance on foot in just 10 days. The reason is to raise money to aid and awareness about the plight of the Spanish Imperial Eagle. About 80% of the young population of these eagles never get to reproduce and it is believed that the majority of them die from human related causes such as hunting, being poisoned, or electrocuted on power lines and destruction of their habitat. One of the ten different species of eagle, it is characterized by its large size, strong beak, robust claws and how its plumage changes with age.

The numbers of one of Britain’s rarest birds, the bittern, have increased in the East Anglian Fens, UK, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Newly created habitats are helping the bittern, known for its “booming” call, recover from losing breeding grounds. The bittern was extinct in Britain between 1886 and 1911 and had to be reintroduced to the country. In the 1990s, research found reedbeds were drying out, threatening their survival once again. But 10 years after the UK’s bittern population hit a new low of just eleven males in 1997, the RSPB and Natural England have recorded at least 51 male birds across 33 sites this year.

Rare Bird News

The first California condor chick successfully hatched in the wild in Monterey County in more than 100 years, Centennia took her first flight from her cave nest in Big Sur last week, said Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society. It was another landmark this year in the Wildlife Society’s condor recovery program, he said, accomplished by the same bird. “She’s out on the wing. She is now an official wild-fledged bird. It’s a pretty historic day.”

A string of recent sightings of one of South America’s most unusual and secretive birds is giving conservationists hope in regional efforts to save crucial habitat for this and other threatened species. Having not been seen for over 40 years, hope was fading for the Recurve-billed Bushbird, Clytoctantes alixii. However, successive sightings from Venezuela in 2004 and then Colombia in 2005 and 2007, have led to renewed efforts to understand the distribution of a bird feared extinct by many. “These sightings really underline the importance of survey efforts: how one observation can be the starting point from which a bird -long thought extinct- can be shown to be of lower immediate conservation concern,” said Rob Clay, BirdLife International’s Americas Conservation manager.

Amazing Birds

It’s official — the godwit makes the longest non-stop migratory flight in the world. A bird has been tracked from its Southern Hemisphere summertime home in New Zealand to its breeding ground in Alaska — and back again. The bar-tailed godwit, a female known as E7, landed this past weekend after taking just over eight days to fly 11,500km from Alaska to New Zealand. Unlike seabirds, which feed and rest on long journeys, godwits just keep going.

Avian Influenza News

Scientists believe the H5N1 virus that is responsible for the bird flu poses one of the most potentially serious public health threats of all time. An international team of researchers says it has discovered what makes the bird flu virus so deadly. It appears the disease affects a wide range of organs other than the lungs in adults and is capable of killing the fetus of pregnant women.

Quick identification of avian influenza infection in poultry is critical to controlling outbreaks, but current detection methods can require several days to produce results. A new biosensor developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) can detect avian influenza in just minutes. In addition to being a rapid test, the biosensor is economical, field-deployable, sensitive to different viral strains and requires no labels or reagents. “We can do real-time monitoring of avian influenza infections on the farm, in live bird markets or in poultry processing facilities,” said Jie Xu, a research scientist in GTRI’s Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory (EOSL).

H5N1 avian influenza is suspected in Mexico and has been identified in people in Indonesia and in domestic birds in Bangladesh

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 1 October 2007: Monday, HawkWatch International; Tuesday, Veracruz, River of Raptors; Wednesday, South Polar Skua; Thursday, Tinbergen’s research on the little red spot on a gull’s bill; Friday, October planting for wildlife. 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, so you can listen to them anytime, anywhere. Listener ideas and comments are welcomed. [rss].

Miscellaneous Bird News

The inconspicuous Common Ragweed has a good thing going. It flowers at the same time as showy Goldenrods that, in turn, get the blame for fall hay fever. It’s a bum rap, of course. To view their current essay about this stealthy ragweed — complete with photomacrographs — please visit the 15-21 September 2007 installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond”. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded and recaptured — and they had a nice mix of each during the period — plus a few miscellaneous nature notes about Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and prolific Northern Cardinals.

An estimated 3,000 arctic birds have been blown off course and have ended up on dry land in the Oslo, Norway region. The guillemot or murre, needs water in order to take off. Experts say the birds will die unless they are assisted in getting back to sea.

The crested crane, a symbol on Uganda’s coat of arms, is a bird worth seeing, especially for those coming to Uganda for the first time. The crested crane is a bird that many would love to touch and feel with their own hands. The crested crane in many ways, depicts the characteristic of Ugandans. It is hospitable, graceful and can live with people in peace. The global population of crested cranes is estimated at between 85,000-95,000, with the majority being represented by the East African subspecies, Balearica regulorum gibbericeps.

A University of Chicago biologist and world-renowned expert on bird speciation has compiled eight years of research and writing into a recently published book, Speciation in Birds. Trevor Price, professor of ecology and evolution at Chicago, evaluates the contributions of sexual selection and natural selection in bird speciation, and the roles of geographical isolation, ecological differentiation and genetic drift. He discusses how nearly 10,000 bird species originated and which factors influenced this process. The author also reviews many publications on bird speciation, with more than 1,000 works cited. GrrlScientist says: I contacted the publisher regarding a review copy, which they assure me is on its way! So be sure to check in here in a couple weeks for my review of this book.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Jeanette, Carol, Dawn, 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 Diane in Ohio
    October 7, 2007

    Oh, Goodie! I’m so tickled to see BITN! And “THANK-YOU!” for another simulating addition Hedwig. t seems I never get enough of good birdie news…:o), Diane in Ohio

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