Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 101

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Male Sincorá Antwren,
Formicivora grantsaui.
Potentially a new bird species that was recently discovered in Brazil.

Image: Sidnei Sampaio. [larger view].


Birds in Science

When male birds know they’re about to get it on, that action is more likely to spawn a bigger brood of eggs compared to spontaneous copulation, a new study finds. Previous studies have shown that when two male birds mate with a female in a competition to pass on their genetic material, they end in a draw and both become fathers to an equal number of eggs. But researchers wondered whether Pavlovian conditioning (the process that set Ivan Pavlov’s dogs drooling for meat whenever they heard a ringing bell) could give one male an advantage over the other.

Recently published research demonstrates that urban birds are better overall survivors than their country-dwelling cousins. Apparently, this is because city-dwelling birds are less specialized in their requirements, and thus, are more broadly adaptable to a variety of microenvironments, such as those found in large cities. While this might seem to be a mere conversational topic to many of you, this observation is important when trying to design conservation programs to preserve threatened and endangered species, particularly when these species’ needs come into direct conflict with the ever-expanding human population.

Christian Rutz, a biologist at the University of Oxford in England, studies the famous tool-using abilities of New Caledonian crows in the laboratory. But when he and his colleagues undertook their first trip to the South Pacific in 2003 to observe the birds in the wild, they knew it would be difficult. “They are very shy, very sensitive to disturbance,” Dr. Rutz said, so efforts to observe the birds’ foraging for larvae and other food with small sticks and leaves could easily affect their behavior. “We really needed a nifty little way to spy on them. That’s when the idea was born, why not hitch a ride with a wild crow?” The result, after several years of development, was a half-ounce video camera, location-tracking transmitter and battery that can be attached to a crow’s tail feathers (and drops off when the birds molt). The lens points between the crow’s legs and transmits about an hour of video to researchers nearby. [story includes crow video!]

Climate change may not be noticeable to all humans yet, but the behavior of birds suggests the seasons have already changed. A researcher at the weather bureau in Australia has found that some spring migrating birds are arriving many days earlier than they used to. Another critically endangered species has adapted its breeding cycle in response to climate change. The change in migration patterns of birds has been well documented in the Northern Hemisphere, but in Australia there has not been much long-term monitoring.

People Hurting Birds

The charismatic, and rather aptly named, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, is now worryingly close to becoming extinct. With only 200-300 pairs left, conservationists are calling for urgent help to tackle the decline. “We’ve seen a 70% drop in the number of breeding pairs at some sites over the last couple of years. If this decline continues, these amazing birds won’t be around for much longer,” says Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, Vice President of the Russian Bird Conservation Union (BirdLife in Russia). The reasons for these losses are complex, involving loss of habitat for migrating birds and loss of breeding areas. What is clear is that nest predation by foxes and disturbance by people and dogs could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the few birds left. (a picture of a spoonbill sandpiper chick).

52 Red-footed Falcons — listed as Near-Threatened by BirdLife — have been found shot at Phasouri in Cyprus, a well-known poaching ‘black spot’. The finding has appalled conservationists throughout Europe, and has led to BirdLife Cyprus renewing calls for action on the issue. “For years, BirdLife Cyprus has been calling for effective anti-poaching action on the peninsula, which is the most important autumn migration stop-over area on the Island for thousands of birds, and birds of prey in particular,” said BirdLife Cyprus Manager, Martin Hellicar.

Nature and sports have collided over tycoon Donald Trump’s plans to build “the world’s greatest golf course” on a stretch of remote and stunning Scottish coastline that is home to some of the country’s rarest birds. The billionaire’s property developer wants to turn sand dunes at the Menie Estate, 15 miles north of Aberdeen, into a $2 billion golf resort — complete with two 18-hole courses, a luxurious 450-bedroom hotel, 950 vacation homes, 36 golf villas and 500 upscale homes costing from $800,000 to $2 million each. tanding in his way are the current inhabitants of the unspoiled sandy beach with rolling dunes: seven species of endangered birds including Skylarks and breeding waders, particularly Lapwings and Common Redshank on the World Conservation Union’s “Red List.”

People Helping Birds

The biggest release ever of orange-bellied parrots will carry the hopes of a conservation program. Up to 80 will fly free from Birchs Inlet in Tasmania’s Southwest. All have been bred in captivity, with health checks and leg-banding today before an air-and-sea trip to their new home near Strahan. The tiny parrot is among the world’s most endangered birds, with fewer than 150 believed to live in the wild. “These are mostly first-year birds, aged eight to nine months. Once released, they start feeding on native food in a matter of hours,” said project manager Mark Holdsworth.

An adult brown booby, Sula leucogaster — a large seabird belonging to the gannet family — thought to have been blown off course by Typhoon Krosa was released into the wild recently. The Society for Wildlife and Nature (SWAN) of Taiwan said the bird was sighted last Monday resting on the deck of a freighter that was anchored in Taichung Harbor. The booby is a rare seabird and there are just nine species worldwide, only one of which appears near Taiwan’s east coast. After examining and feeding the brown booby, SWAN specialists found that the bird was exhausted but had suffered no physical injuries. They decided to let it rest for two days before setting it free.

Titi is the Maori name for the Hutton’s shearwater. It is related to the muttonbird (sooty shearwater) of New Zealand’s southern islands. The children of Hapuku School (New Zealand) say the titi deserves recognition. They consider the endangered seabird worthy to stand for Kaikoura on banners, posters and pamphlets. The youngsters back up their claim with studies they have done of the titi. They have followed this up by publishing a book, which they wrote (in Maori and English) and illustrated.

A rare bird of prey thought to have been poisoned was recently released back into the wild in Scotland. The year-old female red kite was found in a distressed state in Dunblane, Perthshire, last month. It was carrying a tag on its wing identifying it as one that had been hatched in Perthshire last year.

An international summit meeting in Scotland will aim to end the annual slaughter of endangered birds of prey as they migrate across three continents. It is hoped the gathering, at Loch Lomond from 22-25 October, will make progress in agreeing concerted action to tackle the problem. Government representatives and conservationists from China to South Africa will be among the delegates. Many of the bird losses are linked to habitat destruction, collisions with structures such as wind turbines and illegal shooting and poisoning.

BirdLife Cyprus, with active support from BirdLife Finland, have this year launched an anti-bird hunting education campaign aimed at schools across Cyprus. A colourful poster, highlighting the wealth of migrating birds passing through Cyprus will appear on classroom walls across the country. The poster carries a positive message, focusing on the beauty of the migrant birds flooding through Cyprus each spring and autumn. It notes that thousand of these migrating birds are killed every year on the Island and calls for support for putting an end to the cruel practice of bird trapping.

Birds Needing YOUR HELP

This just in from Don Brightsmith, conservation biologist and ornithologist at Texas A&M: The government of Peru is trying to give away a huge chunk of the national park up river from Tambopata Research Center. TRC and the park that surround it is one of the most wonderful pieces of rainforest anywhere. We can’t let a shortsighted government turn it in to a gas field! The project seems to have stalled in Peru because of the national and international pressure. But WE REALLY NEED MORE SIGNATURES NOW. This area has some of the best parrot communities anywhere in the world along with jaguars, tapirs, and hundreds and hundreds of other bird species. We need everyone to sign this petition so we can show Peru that the world will not let them just give away these wonderful parks.

Rare Bird News

A new species of bird, designated as the Sincorá Antwren, Formicivora grantsaui (see picture, top), was recently discovered in eastern Brazil. The bird was captured, studied and its vocalizations were recorded by ornithologists. The data collected from these birds, particularly this species’ vocalizations, were used to write a formal scientific description of this new species.

Conservationists on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are joining hands to save an endangered sea bird from extinction. They are urging fishermen to stop collecting and eating the birds’ eggs. The conservationists will begin cooperating next summer on research to determine the population of the Chinese crested terns and their migration track. Experts say the bird could become extinct in five years if protection efforts are not stepped up. A recent survey found that the number of crested terns has fallen to 50, about half the number of three years ago. The sea bird was first spotted in 2000. [second link includes streaming video]

Keen birdwatchers are heading north to the eastern Cape York (Australia) rainforests between the Rocky and Pascoe rivers to spot this “not uncommon” but elusive local. The red-cheeked parrot lives only in this area and in Papua New Guinea and looks like an oversized fig parrot, says professional wildlife sleuth John Young. Young should know — he photographed the rarest of all fig parrots — the Coxens, in the Border Ranges last year, sparking a controversy which divided the birdwatching world, with detractors inferring that he had “photoshopped” color on the little parrot’s face. [story includes image of the bird]

A vulture with an 8ft wingspan which escaped from a rescue centre in Aberdeenshire, UK, has been spotted in a tree nearby. The rare African white-backed vulture — known as Wee Man — broke free during a feeding session near Huntly. The three-year-old bird has now been seen about 30ft up a tree close to the bird of prey center. Staff now hope to lure Wee Man — who feeds on dead animals — back down to safety.

Domestic Bird News

He calls himself the bird whisperer. He has an awesome way with birds. He rescues and rehabilitates parrots. For Brian Wilson, his efforts are more than a gesture of love. In a way, it’s payback. Wilson is a former Montgomery County firefighter who retired in 1995, after a fire at the county office building burned his lungs. He turned to teaching fire and gun safety with his own three parrots. Less than three months later, while driving home on a lightly traveled road, his car smashed into a parked van. Wilson suffered a brain injury that left him without the use of his right side. “I was supposed to be in a wheelchair, in a nursing home.” But thanks to his love for his parrots, he is living a full life once more.

When Alex, an African Grey Parrot, famous for his advanced recognition and language skills died last month, his owner, scientist Irene Pepperberg, needed time to grieve over the loss of her pal before she could talk about it. Newspapers and web sites printed his obituary and many people sent condolences. What Pepperberg experienced is a common response to a pet’s death. The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) advises that the grief process is a continuum, with each owner and family member handling pet loss in his or her own way. “We love our pets and feel grief when they die. People need to be given the space and freedom to grieve for their pets,” said Dr. Jeff Smith, president of the CVMA. “A person can be traumatized over the loss of an animal.”

According to the U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook, canines dominate American households at 37.9 million, in close comparison to 33.19 million felines. Approximately 4.8 million households are also home to birds, the sourcebook reports, and avian enthusiasm is taking flight. “About one-third of my practice is dedicated to exotics, and it’s growing,” says Dr. Paul Sedlacek, a veterinarian and avian specialist with the Animal Clinic of Morris Plains, N.J. Birds bring instant song to a household and need as much affection and petting as their four-legged counterparts. Dispelling the Tweety-Sylvester stereotype, birds thrive in the presence of other animals — even cats. “Sixty to seventy percent of our customers own other animals or birds,” says Jessica Kingler, manager of World of Birds in Chester, N.J.

You see a parrot perched in a local park — or a tame quail wandering around your neighborhood. Some naturalists call them “escapee” birds. They’re the avian equivalent of a fish out of water, and they’re not uncommon. The question is: What should you do about them? A parrot or other exotic bird is easy to deal with. Chances are the owner is looking for it, and a call to the local police or animal control officer will get the ball rolling toward a happy reunion. The job will be even easier if the bird’s owner has banded the pet with a name and address.

Avian Zoonotic News

A year ago this month, 343 dead loons and 30 other migratory birds were packed into clear plastic garbage bags and brought to wildlife pathologist Ward Stone for testing and incineration. Stone had seen such seasonal bird kills from New York’s Great Lakes for several years and the deadly culprit, once again in 2006, was Type E botulism, a common bacterium that produces a toxin under certain conditions. After fish-eating birds ingest it, they get sick and die quickly. Last year’s bird kill was one of the worst ever recorded. Thousands of dead loons, grebes, mergansers and other species washed up on New York’s lake shores. Unseasonably warm late-summer and early-fall temperatures this year have delayed what wildlife biologists consider an inevitable killer.

About 35 paralyzed sandpipers that washed up on the short at Huntington Beach, California, had classic symptoms of avian botulism, but the source of the infection was unknown, wildlife officials said recently. All the birds were found within a mile of the mouth of the Santa Ana River, and only one is from as far north as Bolsa Chica, said Lisa Birkle, associate wildlife director of the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach. [story includes images and streaming video]

Often called the most devastating epidemic in the recorded history of the world, the 1918 influenza virus pandemic was responsible for more than 40 million deaths across the globe. The incredible lethality of the 1918 flu strain is not well understood, despite having been under intense scrutiny for many years. Now, a new study published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe unravels some of the mystery surrounding the devastating 1918 pandemic and provides key information that will help prepare for future pandemics.

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

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 15 October 2007: Monday, White-browed Coucal of Africa; Tuesday, “Peregrines and Pigeon Plumages,” — research about pigeons’ white rumps fooling Peregrines; Wednesday, how birders chronicle the years at their special places; Thursday, a tropical wake-up call; Friday, Mozart’s starling. 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

Fall is a terrific time of the year. At Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History the naturalists witnessed lots of fall activity this week and managed to get photos of some of it, from seed pods to skinks . . . mantids to meadowhawks . . . Broomsedge to bignonias . . . and a couple of tanagers, too. To view their latest photo essay on “Autumnal Delights,” please visit the installment for 1-7 October 2007. As always, they include a list of birds banded and recaptured, plus notes about a record early date for a White-throated Sparrow, a relatively late Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and a visit with the Science Teachers of Missouri.

A 20-year-old tawny owl has astonished British conservationists by becoming the oldest ever breeding female found in the wild. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, if she makes it through the winter she will equal the record for the oldest ever tawny in the UK, which is currently held by a 21-year-old from North Yorkshire. On average tawny owls live to just a quarter of that age.

In the same year that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the federal threatened species list, a record number of the migratory raptors have been spotted soaring over Greenwich, Connecticut, birding enthusiasts said. Hawk watchers at the Audubon Greenwich Center already have counted 135 bald eagles soaring overhead. “It’s been a really good year,” said Brian Bielfelt, whose job at the Audubon has him counting the number of bald eagles and other hawks passing overhead this fall on their way south to their winter habitats.

Wichita’s wayward bird has turned up again. After more than two years on the lam, a pink flamingo that escaped from the Sedgwick County Zoo in 2005 was spotted in Louisiana about three weeks ago. Apparently it is traveling with the same companion it had the last time it was spotted. The two birds were seen together at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas in December, 2006. The other bird is a rosy red wild Caribbean flamingo that came up from Mexico during hurricanes Rita and Katrina. “We’re very happy to see he’s been spotted again,” said zoo spokeswoman Christan Baumer.

The annual migration southwards of European birds that spent the summer months in the northern hemisphere has started. The migration, which began with storks back in September, will conclude in November with waterfowls. More than 100 species of birds will fly through Turkey to warmer climes through the end of November. During this process more than 100 species, totaling millions of birds, will pass through Turkey to warmer climes. Every year an estimated 6 billion birds migrate from Europe to Africa using different routes. Dr. Serkan Yılmaz, president of the National Nature Conservation and Documentation Association, explained that the birds generally use the same routes in the autumn and the spring. “We figure out birds’ migration time by following birds’ biological clocks and seasonal patterns; Birds preparing for the migration consume more to store fat for energy.”

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The Fine Print: Thanks to 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
    October 15, 2007

    Another nice issue. Thanks!