Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 100 (v3n27)

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Can anyone out there identify these mysterious birds? I have no information about the birds, such as location, but several experts are already proposing their guesses (one thinks it’s a Chough, another one disagrees). Several ornithologists think these birds are captives rather than wild birds. [larger view].

Birds in Science

Urban birds are regular tough guys compared to their country cousins. The avian urbanites adapt to changing environments and noisy, crowded habitats, a new study shows. Birds that hang out on stoops and city streetlights have to deal with a set of challenges that feathered friends in more natural landscapes never encounter. “The urban habitat is usually more severe than the habitats these birds historically occupied,” said study team member John Wingfield of the University of Washington (who was my dissertation advisor). “Urban habitats aren’t easy, so the birds have to have developed coping mechanisms.”

Do you remember the news reports of the captive tool-using crows? How do these birds live in the wild? Do they make tools in the wild, too? Miniature cameras have given scientists a rare glimpse into how New Caledonian crows behave in the wild. The birds are renowned for their sophisticated tool-using ability, but until now, observing them in their natural habitat has proven difficult. But specially designed “crow-cams” fitted to the birds’ tails have shed light on the creatures, recording some tool-use never seen before.

People Hurting Birds

BirdLife Cyprus, with active support from BirdLife Finland, have this year launched an education campaign aimed at schools across Cyprus to tackle the rampant bird trapping problem. Unfortunately, unless people can be convinced to neither go out and trap birds nor buy and eat them, then some trapping is likely to persist no matter how strict the enforcement effort. BirdLife Cyprus’s field data shows that there has been a large reduction in bird trapping since the late 1990s, when millions of birds were being killed every year. However, tens of thousands of birds are still being caught by increasingly covert and well-organised trappers.

Italian bird hunters have slaughtered tens of thousands of wild birds in the Danube delta’s unique biosphere reservation with illegally issued permits, according to a statement just released by the wetlands’ administration in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. There has been a dramatic drop in the Delta’s bird population as a result of a massive ongoing drought and the depredations of Italian bird-hunting syndicates, Paul Cononov, the governor of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reservation (DDBR) said in the statement. The reserve, which is on the Unesco global reserve network list, is home to six globally threatened and near-threatened species, among them the slender-billed curlew, red-breasted goose, Dalmatian pelican, Ferruginous duck, pygmy cormorant and white-tailed eagle.

A caged sulphur-crested cockatoo, a wood pigeon and a muscovy duck were found shot in the head and body with a .177 slug pistol. A quail in a separate enclosure had died of shock. Three teenagers, aged between 14 and 15, fled but a police dog tracked and caught one of them. A second teenager handed himself in and police were searching for the third. Some of the shootings had been recorded on a cellphone camera, which police confiscated. Feilding SPCA centre manager Jo Finlayson wanted the boys charged, saying: “It’s not just that they killed trapped animals but they did so deliberately so they can put it on YouTube … It’s sick.”

People Helping Birds

Kaytee Products Inc. is donating the four thick-billed parrots to the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, Missouri. Wildlife conservationists at the sanctuary hope to preserve and breed the rare species. The parrots have lived at Kaytee’s Avian Education Center for 13 years. Kaytee is a leading manufacturer of wild and pet bird foods based in Chilton. “With the Carolina parakeet already being extinct, saving the thick-billed parrot is our only hope of preserving the United States’ last parrot species,” said Michelle Goodman, manager at Kaytee’s Avian Research Center. “Reintroduction programs in the early ’90s were unsuccessful, so we are hoping to provide our thick-billed parrot friends — Charlie, Sierra, Sonnora and Guappo — with a safe new home at the World Bird Sanctuary.”

The European goldfinch has become the 11th most commonly spotted bird in Britain’s gardens, according to the British Trust for Ornithology’s garden bird-feeding survey. The return of the goldfinch is a resounding success story for British gardeners as the bird’s comeback is thought to be attributable to a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of seeds left out for them. It is a far cry from 1970, when the bird was only seen in three per cent of British gardens.

Avian Zoonotic News

Veterinary entomologist Greg Johnson of Montana State University said earlier this year that he considered the possibility that lice were transmitting West Nile virus to pelicans. He became suspicious after collecting very few mosquitoes in 2006, but seeing pelicans continue to die at a high rate. Johnson discovered previously that the Culex tarsalis mosquito is the primary carrier of West Nile virus in Montana and that the Medicine Lake refuge was one of the hot spots for the virus.

An H7N3 avian influenza outbreak at a Saskatchewan poultry farm caused U.S. Department of Agriculture officials to confiscate 4,100 game birds from Canada. Customs officials told hunters the confiscated birds were to be deposited in a landfill. U.S. Customs officials, however, misinterpreted “unprocessed avian products” to include game birds, rather than exclusively poultry farm products. The department lifted the ban Saturday. GrrlScientist says; As abhorrent as I think it is to kill “game”birds, I think it is absolutely inexcusable to dispose of their bodies by the thousands in a landfill, simply becausae USDA and US Customs are too fucking stupid to realize that domestic poultry are the source of this disease outbreak, NOT WILD BIRDS!

CSL Biotherapies, a subsidiary of one of the world’s leading manufacturers of influenza vaccine, announced recently that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Afluria (influenza virus vaccine) for active immunization of persons age 18 years and older against influenza disease caused by influenza virus subtypes A and type B present in the vaccine. This approval marks the Australian company’s first entry into the U.S. vaccine market.

H5N1 avian influenza is considered a major global threat to human health, with high fatality rates. While little had been known about the specific effects of H5N1 on organs and cells targeted by the virus, researchers at Beijing University, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and SUNY Downstate report detailed studies of human H5N1 victims that shed light on the anatomic distribution of the virus and its pathogenesis. Using a combination of molecular and protein labeling techniques, the authors found that H5N1 is present in the gastrointestinal tract and immune and central nervous systems, as well as the respiratory tract. In one patient, virus was transmitted across the placenta to the fetus.

H5N1 avian influenza has been reported in people in Indonesia and in domestic poultry in Russia.

Bird Books

A new book is coming out from Princeton University Press by Dr. Jeffrey V. Wells entitled the Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk. It includes status, distribution, ecology, threats, conservation actions and needs, and references. There’s distribution maps, chapters discussing birds as indicators of environmental health, “state of the birds” information, and best of all, ways we birders as consumers can make a difference to reverse the negative trends. Illustrations are by some of today’s best bird artists.

Birds OnLine

The latest “Sightings” column in Winging It, is now on line. Winging It is the official newsletter of the American Birding Association. You can also read past columns, feature articles, and editorials there.

Another avian podcast is joining the line-up; On the Wing is an audio magazine of birds and birding and is ready for you to download and enjoy as you commute home this evening. This time, the programs are; Northern Harrier fledglings at the Green River Natural Resources Area (Kent Ponds, WA state) with Roger Orness; Events Calendar; Notes From An English Garden; Face Recognition in Crows with Professor John Marzluff.

Miscellaneous Bird News

During fall migration, thousands — maybe millions — of spot-breasted thrushes pass through the Carolina Piedmont. Despite their similar appearances, with a little effort one can easily differentiate the birds to species — as was demonstrated by some ten-year-old science students who visited with them This Week at Hilton Pond. To learn about these brown and white birds with spots — and how the kids identified them — please visit their photo essay for 22-30 September 2007. As always, the Hilton Pond naturalists include a tally of birds banded and recaptured, plus some miscellaneous nature notes — one about a Purple Finch banded locally and found far from Hilton Pond.

Biologist Miguel Canals gazed over the majestic cliffs at Guayanilla Bay with a child’s delight, pointing out trees hundreds of years old and rare birds whose songs only resonate in this corner of Puerto Rico. Landowner Víctor González looks at that same scenic shoreline, feels the gusts of coastal wind and envisions the answer to a global crisis: renewable energy. On this picturesque bluff in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico beside Guánica, a tropical dry forest designated as a biosphere reserve, green is colliding with green. ”That forest has been there for thousands of years, untouched,” said Canals, who lives within the forest grounds. “Can you imagine putting windmills there?”

Israeli jets were scrambled on two nights last week after radar tracking stations mistook clouds of migrating birds for enemy aircraft. Radar operators feared the dark images on screen were an attack by Syrian forces, with whom Israel is technically still at war. The birds, flying in tight formation in their tens of thousands and fleeing the harsh Siberian winter, almost caused a major international incident. Ornithologists said the vast flocks of birds were thrushes, finches and other northern forest birds, heading to Britain, southern Europe and the Middle East to escape dwindling food supplies and the biting cold in Russia and Scandinavia.

When researchers at a Washington State fish hatchery implanted one of their tiny steelhead fish with an electronic tag in 2005, they expected to find the little guy to the northwest in the frigid waters near Alaska, where many of the fish end up. The steelhead’s tag, a tracking device similar to those used in household pets, was, much to the researchers’ surprise, recently found in the stomach of a baby bird nearly 8,000 miles away on an island, charmingly called Big Moggy, off of New Zealand. Scientists are attempting to figure out just how the fish’s tag got in the stomach of the chick, known as a sooty shearwater.

With 82 days to go before Christmas, toy stores across Europe are already preparing for parents to dash through their doors in pursuit of the FurReal parrot, known as Squawkers McCaw, which is remarkably lifelike and can repeat every word you say. Children can teach the blue and yellow parrot to talk, dance and copy their actions.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Dawn, katchaya, David, Rick, Diane, Oscar, 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
    October 8, 2007

    Congratulations on reaching the century.

    *Stands up and claps as Grrlscientist waves her bat to all parts of the ground*

  2. #2 Philip Hotlen
    October 8, 2007

    Oct 8, 2007

    The mystery bird seems like some kind of Drongo. With the red bill, it looked at first like a Broad-billed Roller (Asian). I suspect it is a Asian or Afriican species.

  3. #3 Cyril Laubscher
    October 9, 2007

    The bird depicted with its two nestlings is a Black Bulbul (Hypsipetes madagascariensis). This is an Asian species with a widespread distribution from the Himalayas in NW Afghanistan across to SE Tibet, south SW India, Sri Lanka, and across to Taiwan.

    Good picture!

    Cyril Laubscher

  4. #4 Wendy
    October 9, 2007

    FYI, your photo was “Icanhascheezburger”d – it’s actually pretty funny, so I thought you might like to see it:

  5. #5 Roelant
    October 10, 2007

    Looks like a Black bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus



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