Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 102

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A pair of Moluccan Red Lories, Eos bornea rothschildi (upper right and lower left (upside down)), and a pair of Rainbow Lorikeet, Trichoglossus haematodus haematodus (center; one bird is hanging upside down), near the north coast of Seram, Indonesia.

Image: Kevin Sharp [wallpaper size].

Birds in Science

The ability to ramp up testosterone levels drives certain male sparrows to mate, but also makes them bad dads, a new study suggests. Researchers had thought that the total amount of testosterone might determine the mating habits and aggressive tendencies of male dark-eyed juncos, a type of sparrow. But the new study of juncos in the wild showed that the speed with which testosterone levels can rise and fall also plays an important role in determining whether dad stayed around to help care for the kids. “This study is one of the first to show for a songbird living in the field under natural conditions that individual variation in the hormone testosterone maps onto variation in aggression and parental behavior,” said study leader Ellen Ketterson of Indiana University Bloomington.

In the jungles of Central and South America, a group of birds has evolved a unique way of finding food — by following hordes of army ants and letting them do all the work. With this type of specialization, flocks of birds track army-ant swarms through the forest. “When millions of these army ants are on the move, they consume every insect, spider and lizard they come across,” said Brumfield. “Naturally, any animal that hears them coming — and they’re very, very loud — runs the other way. The army-ant-following birds have learned to take advantage of the swarm by perching above it and preying on insects and other small animals trying to escape. It’s reminiscent of the mockingbird that follows me when I’m mowing the grass, picking off the insects that had been hiding there,” said Robb Brumfield, assistant curator of genetic resources at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and assistant professor of biological sciences (and who also is my friend and colleague).

The gannet was thought to be the one seabird immune to the food shortages which have caused devastation in colonies across Scotland. Its famed tendency to eat almost anything, its hunting ability and a foraging range of hundreds of miles supposedly safeguarded the gannet from the mass breeding failures affecting colonies of such birds as the puffin, guillemot and kittiwake. But now, scientists have found the first signs that even gannets — which will eat anything from tiny sandeels to large mackerel — are struggling to find enough food for their young. “There is some evidence to suggest the fish the birds are bringing back are of poorer quality. The fish are there, but they have been growing badly because they cannot get enough food,” said Keith Hamer, of Leeds University, UK.

People Hurting Birds

Fred is dead. That’s the word from Maple Grove, Minnesota, where Fred the turkey delighted some but became a hazard when traffic slowed as people watched him strut around the intersection of Zachary Lane and 86th Avenue N. “He’s history,” said businessman Gary Mitsch. He had enjoyed watching Fred peck at trucks and chase geese away. The fowl deed was done last Friday by a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officer after Maple Grove police were unable to trap or snare the wily, quick-footed Fred.

The number of wild farmland bird species breeding in England is at the lowest level since records began, a key government wildlife “indicator” shows. The RSPB called the UK government’s Wild Bird Populations 2006 indicator “extremely depressing”. The data showed that these species had declined by about 60% since 1970. Sue Armstrong-Brown, the RSPB’s head of countryside policy, said: “Farmland birds are the barometer by which the government measures the health of the countryside. We wish there was a better story to tell, but the farmland bird index reaching its lowest point is extremely depressing new.”

Malaysia faces the extinction of 45 bird species in the next five to 10 years if it fails to introduce protected areas and breeding programs for endangered species, a report said recently. A recent survey by conservation group BirdLife International found that five species were critically endangered, four were endangered and the rest were considered vulnerable. “It is sad. Many of the birds have been around for more than 50 years while some, as recently as 10 years,” said Malaysian Nature Society Penang Branch chairman D. Kanda Kumar.

People Helping Birds

A giant sea bird that washed ashore on an Auckland, New Zealand beach after being battered by southern storms last week, is now recovering at a bird rescue center. It is a Royal Albatross, one of the biggest sea birds in the world, with a wingspan of three metres. But even his giant wings were not enough to prevent him being blown off course in the recent southern storms. He was found by two men who took him to bird rescue. They are calling him the ‘big budgie’, and they think he is about three years old.

Ten of the world’s rarest and most imperiled birds, the red-cockaded woodpecker were captured in a national forest near Tallahassee. Releasing them in the 12,000-acre Disney Wilderness Preserve was part of a broader effort to ensure that the woodpeckers outlast their brush with extinction. “We have 10 birds flying the wild,” said Monica Folk, a biologist with The Nature Conservancy, which manages the Disney preserve where none of the woodpeckers has lived for decades. “We hope they explore the site, and they find each other.” [includes streaming video of the birds]

Audubon (BirdLife in the US) have applauded Governor Schwarzenegger’s decision to sign into law a crucial bill that will ban the use of lead ammunition for hunting big game within the range of California Condor, Gymnogyps californianus. The newly-signed Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act will require the use of ‘non-lead centerfire’ rifle and pistol ammunition when shooting big game or coyotes within specific areas of the state. Governor Schwarzenegger ignored the objections of his own Department of Fish and Game in deciding to sign the bill (AB821) recently. “This is a great day for the California Condor and the State of California,” said Glenn Olson, Executive Director of Audubon California. “I would like to commend Governor Schwarzenegger for signing the Ridley-Tree Condor Conservation Act and again putting our state at the forefront on wildlife protection.” GrrlScientist note: It’s about time that Schwarzenegger came to his senses. But I wonder if he waited too long, if this law is too late to protect the condors?

BirdLife International applauds the recent decision by the European Commission to send Malta a final written warning (‘Reasoned Opinion’), regarding the practice of spring hunting of wild birds, which is illegal under EU law. Every spring since its accession to the EU in 2004, Malta has permitted hunting of Turtle Dove and Common Quail, in direct contravention of the EU Birds Directive. “We are pleased to see firm action now coming from the Commission on this,” said Konstantin Kreiser, EU Policy Manager at BirdLife in Brussels. “The Commission needs to be tough on this case, therefore we also welcome Commissioner Dimas’ statement in his blog earlier this week saying Malta will be taken to the Court if spring hunting isn’t stopped.”

Leading conservationists from 23 African nations met recently to sign a petition opposing the proposed chemical plant on the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Natron, which threatens 75% of the world’s Lesser Flamingo. More than half a million pairs of Lesser Flamingos may nest at Lake Natron. The lake is the only reliable breeding site for the species’ East African population — more than 75 per cent of the world’s total. Lake Natron’s isolation and vast salt flats provide crucial safety from predators, while its alkaline waters, rich in cyanobacteria, and lakeside springs supply food and freshwater for parents and chicks. The lake supports the huge concentrations of Lesser Flamingos that feed and roost on other lakes up and down the Rift Valley, hailed as “the greatest ornithological spectacle in the world” and supporting a thriving tourist economy. [site includes a link to the petition that you and your friends can sign and mail to Tanzanian government officials].

Rare Bird News

NBC News did a segment of their “Fleecing of America” on the $27.8 million proposed by the recovery plan, which prompted a flurry of emails in the blogosphere and across birding listservs noting that $27.8 million was a paltry sum — a mere drop in the bucket. Well, yes and no. I agree that $27.8 million over a 5-year period in this day and age is not a jaw-dropping sum when it comes to the U.S. budget. But this only points out how woefully under-funded the budget is when it comes to the protection of endangered and threatened species. [opinion piece that you should read].

Two rare birds that live only on Kauai have been dropping alarmingly in numbers and should be put onto the U.S. endangered species list, a noted Hawaii scientist and a national wildlife group say. The American Bird Conservancy and Eric VanderWerf submitted a petition yesterday to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the akekee, Loxops caeruleirostris, and the akikiki, Oreomystis bairdi, both of which live in the higher elevations of the Alakai Wilderness. The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to decide whether to conduct a yearlong status review of the birds. A review is required before adding a species to the list, said agency spokesman Ken Foote.

Hopes for the survival of one of the world’s most endangered birds have been boosted by the discovery of a huge and previously unknown flock. Sociable lapwings were thought to be down to their last 400 breeding adults four years ago, but a flock of at least 3,200 has been found in Turkey. The flock was detected when ornithologists tagged a sociable lapwing with a satellite tracker in Kazakhstan and followed it to Turkey. It was the smallest bird to have been fitted with the device. When researchers set out to check on the bird feeding in a remote area of Ceylanpinar they were astonished to come across thousands of them. “This discovery is something we didn’t dare dream of. The sociable lapwing is one of the rarest birds on Earth and suddenly it’s been found in these large numbers,” said Rob Sheldon, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), who tagged the bird in Kazakhstan.

Companion Bird News

Snowball is a medium sulphur crested (eleanora subspecies) cockatoo, and he loves to dance and sing. He loves the Back Street Boys. No one taught Snowball to dance … he just heard this song and suddenly felt like dancing. We’re all jealous because he can outdance each one of us … nobody likes a show off! When he’s really in the mood, he dances and sings. And at the end of the performance he takes a bow or two or twenty!! [link to a streaming video of his performance]

When Kristen Fiske comes home from work, the animals in her house don’t bark, purr or meow to greet her. Instead, she says, “Everyone gets so excited; they’re all screaming and talking. It’s so much fun.” She has lived with birds since she was just a fledgling herself, but she got more serious about it six years ago when she brought home Kiwi, a severe macaw. Kiwi quickly taught her that living with a macaw changes a person’s life like no parakeet can. “It has been quite a learning experience,” Fiske admits.

A Dallas homeowner shot to death an intruder early Tuesday after being alerted by his pet parrot that someone was on the premises. Dennis Baker, who keeps several pet birds in his home, said his Mexican red-headed parrot, Salvador, says “hello” whenever he sees someone. Someone passed by a window in his home and Salvador began saying, “Hello, hello,” awakening Baker from a “dead sleep.” Baker said police officers are doing their jobs, but are overworked and understaffed. “I will protect my property and my life,” he said.

A rugby-mad parrot shouts support for his favorite team in a Gloucester accent. The three-year-old African Grey parrot called Severiano Ballesteros chants “Gloucester, Gloucester” in a West Country drawl whenever he sees his team play on television. Owners Taffy Howell, 59, and wife Jean, 50, both rugby fans, were shocked when they realised he was a rugby fan too. Taffy said: “He talks, he swears at the ref, and he says Glawsterrr, which sounds like Gloucester with an accent. “He’s not the prettiest bird, but he’s a lot of fun.”

Avian Influenza News

A study on the effects of the H5N1 avian influenza virus on small land birds suggests it is often lethal in sparrows but has lesser effects on starlings and pigeons and does not readily spread to other birds of the same species. However, the researchers say their findings also suggest that sparrows and starlings could potentially spread the virus to poultry and mammals. Scientists have fleshed out some H5N1 patterns in waterfowl species, which have been shown to shed the virus for prolonged periods and are thought to play some role — along with the poultry business — in the geographic spread among the world’s poultry populations. However, less is known about small terrestrial birds, which also intermingle with waterfowl and poultry.

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 22 October 2007: Monday, the Superb Starling — why females cheat; Tuesday, sentinel birds; Wednesday, Gull Identification I; Thursday, “How Shorebirds Find Their Way”; Friday, seabird crash with Tony Scruton. 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].

A green-breasted mango hummingbird has been visiting Joan Salzberg’s backyard in Beloit, Wisconsin, since July. It’s a South American bird rarely spotted north of Mexico (includes large image). [National Public Radio story and streaming report 3:59]

Miscellaneous Bird News

For the naturalists at Hilton Pond, there’s nothing more breathtaking than a Goldenrod field in autumn, glowing in the sun against a clear blue sky. But their REAL fascination with Goldenrod meadows requires something less than landscape view, for that’s when you get up close and personal with Goldenrod’s many pollinators and the predators that stalk them. “This Week at Hilton Pond” for 8-14 October 2007 offers a photo essay about arthropod inhabitants of the Goldenrod patch. As always, they include a tally of birds banded and recaptured; this week’s diverse list is unusually long. There are also some notes about the current drought and dogwood berries — plus a mug shot of a young male Northern Cardinal.

Circling high over Lake Onalaska, Minnesota, two eagles fought over an American coot in one of the eagles’ talons. The eagle lost its grip, and the coot plunged into the water near Broken Gun Island. It bobbed to the surface but made little effort to escape as the eagles swooped overhead. “He’s probably sick and they know it. It’s easy pickings around here,” said Calvin Gehri, a biological technician with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s La Crosse District. More than 25,000 birds — mostly coots and scaup — have died on the upper Mississippi River since 2002 as a result of eating faucet snails that carry an intestinal parasite, according to federal wildlife officials. From 2005 to 2006, there was a 16-fold increase in bird deaths in pools 8 and 9. Last fall, there were an estimated 5,000 bird deaths in the area between La Crescent, Minn., and MacGregor, Iowa.

A surprise awaited the students at Lakewood Catholic Academy in Cleveland, Ohio, when they arrived for classes Monday morning: a Northern saw-whet owl. Somehow, the soda-pop-can-sized migrant from the boreal forests of Canada had found its way into the school located next to Lakewood Park. The frightened owl perched on an overhead light in the corridor, then flew into a classroom, providing an up-close lesson in ornithology. The excitement ended after Suzanne McCarty and the school’s maintenance man teamed up to catch the owl in a butterfly net and release it back to the wild.

The red kite — a national symbol of wildlife in Wales — has been voted Wales’ favorite bird in a public poll. In the RSPB Cymru and BBC Wales poll, a resounding 36% of voters picked the red kite as their favorite bird, putting it way ahead of the robin, which came second with 15% of votes and the barn owl, in third place with 11%. Iolo Williams launched the vote in the first episode of the autumn series of Iolo’s Welsh Safari and revealed the winning bird in the final episode. He said, “The red kite is an extremely deserving winner with a hugely uplifting story of recovery from the brink of extinction. “We can be proud that, when red kites were facing such a difficult time elsewhere in Britain, they hung on in Wales and have since gone from strength to strength.”

Some of you might recall that Arthur (“Artie”) Morris, one of America’s preeminent bird photographers, has been very generous with me by sharing his bird images with all of you here on this blog, at no cost to me. So of course, the least that I can do is to make sure that he receives as much publicity as I can possibly provide. Arthur Morris will be the speaker for morning and afternoon sessions at the fall meeting of the Nature Photographers of the Pacific Northwest (NPPNW). His topics will be “Birds As Art on the Road” and the “Birds as Art Digital Workflow.” Participants are invited to enter a photo competition. Canon will be present and will offer free light camera cleaning. The event will be held at the Vancouver, WA campus of Washington State University on 3 November from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is $10 by pre-registration or $15 at the door — there will be plenty of room. Please tell Artie that I said hello!


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Marc, 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!


  1. #1 The Ridger
    October 22, 2007

    Another nice edition. Diolch! (“Thanks” in Welsh in honor of the kite…)

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    October 22, 2007

    Sociable lapwings were thought to be down to their last 400 breeding adults four years ago, but a flock of at least 3,200 has been found in Turkey.

    Am I the only one with a mental image of a huge flock of waders standing around having tea and buns?

    In other news, Experts bid to help birds of prey.


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