Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 104

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Lesser flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor, in flight.

Lake Natron in Tanzania, Africa, is the only site in East Africa where Lesser Flamingos reliably breed.

Image: James Warwick[wallpaper size].

Birds in Science

The changing of the seasons finds millions of birds migrating over thousands of kilometres. How they find their way is a question that has perplexed biologists for decades. It is known that birds have built-in compasses attuned to the Earth’s magnetic field. But how those compasses work and what they are made of have remained mysteries. Part of the answer, however, seems to have emerged recently. Henrik Mouritsen of the University of Oldenburg, in Germany, and his colleagues, think that proteins called cryptochromes are involved. These proteins are found in the eye, and they seem to tell a bird how its head is aligned with respect to the Earth’s field, and thus which way to set off. Cryptochromes are light-sensitive molecules that are particularly sensitive to blue light. It has been shown experimentally that birds can align themselves to their normal migration routes in blue light but have trouble doing so in yellow or red, so the link seemed worth pursuing.

If you’re a small bird, bound for, say, the Caribbean in the autumn, your stay in New York City will begin around dawn. You’ll be worn out from flying through the night and desperate for a safe place to rest and to eat, well, like a bird, which is to say, like a pig. A forest by a river would be perfect. Asphalt, steel, and glass are not. If you happen to land in actual woodland by an actual river in the Bronx, you could be snatched, alien-abduction style, by intelligent beings. Beings who then weigh and measure you, poke you with a needle, and maybe scan you with a super-magnet. And blow hard on your chest. (They always do that.) Also, fit you with a tiny ankle bracelet, to track you for the rest of your life. GrrlScientist says; This is an interesting New Yorker article that is accessible online.

People Hurting Birds

In an example of the supreme stupidity of humans, the Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID), Diclofenac, has been found on sale in Tanzania, Africa. This drug causes gout, renal failure and death in vultures of the Gyps genus. In India, where Diclofenac was in widespread veterinary use, three Gyps species, formerly of Least Concern, have been pushed to Critically Endangered status, losing over 99 percent of their populations in just over a decade. “This development could be absolutely catastrophic for vultures in Africa if it is not addressed immediately, to prevent this avian killer from becoming an established veterinary drug,” said Jane Gaithuma of the BirdLife Africa secretariat. “Research by BirdLife Partners has established that there are safe alternative drugs available, such as Meloxicam, so there is actually no need for Diclofenac at all.”

Until a few years ago, there was a big mismatch between those hoping to protect wild birds, and those trying to shoot them. In the past decade, Cyprus has made dramatic progress in reducing illegal hunting and trapping. Spurred on by European Union membership, the authorities reduced the number of wild birds being killed from several million a year to a few hundred thousand. But there are signs this year that illegal trapping is increasing again. “Cyprus is very much a Middle Eastern country when it comes to attitudes to animals in general and hunting in particular,” said Martin Hellicar of Birdlife Cyprus. “Birds are seen as a resource. The idea of enjoying birds just for their existence isn’t really part of the culture here.”

Prince Harry and a close friend have been interviewed by police after two rare and legally protected birds of prey were killed on the royal family’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk last week. The prince is understood to have been out shooting on the estate last Wednesday evening, with a friend believed to be from the Van Cutsem family, when witnesses saw two hen harriers in flight being shot, an offence under wildlife protection legislation which carries a prison sentence of up to six months or a £5,000 fine. GrrlScientist says; If it is proven that the prince did shoot these birds (all the police have to do is a ballistics analysis, right??), do you suppose that the prince would actually have to serve prison time? No? I don’t think so, either.

A court appearance has been postponed for a woman accused of stealing a baby parrot and cutting off its leg to remove a store tag. Prosecutors said Pamela Worden walked into a pet store in May, stole the $500 bird and later snipped off one of its legs to remove an identity tag. Police say they found the parrot bleeding in Worden’s apartment along with an amputated foot and a pair of scissors.

A coach who allegedly stomped a pheasant at a high school football game in Salt Lake City, Utah, said that he regrets his actions and never intended to harm or kill the bird. Viewmont High School assistant coach Richard Dean Layton, 47, was issued a citation on an animal-cruelty charge. “It was not my intention to seriously harm or jeopardize the life of the bird,” Layton said in a statement released recently. GrrlScientist comment: What a dumbass — you don’t try to pin down a loose bird using your monster-sized shoe!

People Helping Birds

Officials in Tanzania, Africa, will assess plans for a soda ash plant on Lake Natron, the globe’s single most important breeding site for the Near Threatened Lesser Flamingo, where more than a million of these beautiful birds nest. They will advise Environment Minister Mark Mwandosya on whether to allow Lake Natron Resources, jointly owned by the Tanzanian Government and the Indian company TATA Chemicals, to pump more than 100,000 litres of freshwater and 550,000 litres of brine (saltwater) from the area every hour, for the production of soda ash, a material used in glass and dye production. The lake is the only breeding site in East Africa for the Lesser Flamingo. All the 1.5 – 2.5 million Lesser Flamingos alive in East Africa today were probably hatched at Lake Natron — Africa’s “flamingo factory”.

Conservationists are welcoming the news that the Ugandan government has dropped its plan to give away a third of Mabira Forest Reserve to provide land for sugarcane plantations. The announcement came on Friday 19 October 2007, through a statement from the Uganda Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. “I am excited that our effort to advocate for a better option for Mabira Forest Reserve has been recognised and the fact accepted that the forest is a critical resource for Uganda and globally. The achievement is also for the Ugandan people who stood firm and opposed what was a wrong policy decision,” said Achilles Byaruhanga, NatureUganda’s Executive Officer.

Christmas Bird Count News

The 2007 Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in the United States occur between 14 December 2007 and 5 January 2008. Already, some state CBC schedules are online; already the schedules for Illinois, both North and South Carolina (also see here) and Washington State CBC schedules are in the process of being updated for 2007. Be sure to check back on those links because they are still being updated. Of course, I am eager to link to all online CBC schedules so be sure to email your links to me.

Birds and Wind Power News

Wind energy may be emerging as an important alternative power source for the Northwest, but there are concerns about the danger to hawks and eagles as turbines expand to wild areas of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and Oregon States. By year’s end, more than 1,500 turbines will be churning out electricity in the windy gorge. Until now, most of the projects have gone up in wheat fields. But as wind energy developers move into wilder areas along the ridge of the gorge, near canyons and shrub-covered rangeland, birds could be at risk from the 150-foot blades of giant turbines. Golden eagles and ferruginous hawks — a threatened species in Washington — already are few in number, said Michael Denny of the Blue Mountain Audubon Society. Even a few fatalities could prove devastating, he said.

Companion Bird News

A noisy parrot that likes to imitate sounds helped save a man and his son from a house fire by mocking a smoke alarm, the bird’s owner says. Shannon Conwell said he and his 9-year-old son fell asleep on the couch while watching a movie. They awoke about 3 a.m. Friday and found their home on fire after hearing the family’s Amazon parrot, Peanut, imitating a fire alarm.

Ryan, a fan of pistachio nuts and Milky Way bars who can often be seen perched on Levich’s shoulder on bicycle rides to Danehy Park, is pigeon pewter with crimson tail feathers and a sharp yellow eye. He has a loud wolf whistle and can imitate doorbells and the sounds made by his squeaky toys, but Levich had trouble believing his squawks and beeps could even be heard above the construction at Kornfeld’s home over the summer. Ryan is an African grey parrot, and he has ruffled some Cantabrigian (Boston, USA) feathers with his friendly wolf whistles. He has caused enough tension that his owner feels compelled to move come spring.

German expatriate Freddy von Rabenau is struggling to export her two parrots to the UK, where her family will be relocating. In 2005, von Rabenau rescued Buster, the Blue and Yellow Macaw, from a veterinary clinic where he’d been abandoned after his owner died. At that time she already owned Habeebee, an African Grey parrot. Now, she wants to take her beloved pets home, and it involves a huge amount of paperwork and other procedures. “I began to investigate the export process back in April and the paperwork still isn’t finished,” von Rabenau said. “I never imagined it would be so time consuming and costly. The UK authorities have been very helpful but the export/import is a process involving two governments and several governmental agencies, so we have had constant setbacks. Even a small mistake in a form can cause months of delay.”

As debate rages in Europe over genetically-modified maize and “Frankenstein’s potatoes,” the continent is quietly moving towards a different new species: the Euro-parrot. “Ring-necked parakeets in Europe are isolated from the native population, so they will develop along their own evolutionary path. Given enough time, that should lead to the development of separate species,” observed Graham Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Across Northern Europe, the birds have entered urban legend. From the most precarious of beginnings, small populations of escaped parakeets have managed to gain a foothold in major cities such as London, Brussels and Frankfurt. RSPB experts believe that the birds are “here to stay,” with the population growing “at a reasonable rate,” Madge said.

Rare Bird News

Australia’s second-rarest bird has been sighted in the Coorong, raising new hopes for the parrot teetering on the edge of extinction. Recent surveys in Coorong National Park have detected two small groups of the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. Three of the parrots sighted this winter were identified as first-year birds undertaking their first migrations. The department’s Coorong project officer, Terry Dennis, said the parrots are small, elusive green birds. “They are one of only three parrot species in the world to undertake such a lengthy migration,” Dennis said.

Avian Influenza News

This is an interesting piece that you must read: The top ten myths about flu and flu vaccines.

Medicago Inc. announced that preclinical testing of its pandemic H5N1 Influenza Virus-Like Particles (“VLP”) vaccine has shown positive results. Medicago’s Influenza VLP vaccine triggered a strong protective immune response against the lethal H5N1 Indonesia strain currently in circulation. “We are extremely pleased with the results from this study. Our VLP vaccine offers in our opinion a highly promising avenue and could play a vital role in the world’s response to a flu pandemic. We also believe our proprietary transient expression system will allow us to produce VLP vaccines faster and at lower cost than our competitors using cell culture techniques,” said Andy Sheldon President and Chief Executive Officer of Medicago.

AlphaVax, Inc. announced that it has concluded a phase 1 clinical trial in 216 volunteers of an influenza vaccine based on its proprietary replicon vector platform. This study was designed to further assess the properties of this unique vector system as well as the feasibility of its application to influenza vaccines. Using essentially the same vector technology, AlphaVax is currently also conducting phase 1 safety and immunogenicity clinical trials with a vaccine for cytomegalovirus (CMV), and in collaboration with Duke University, with a therapeutic vaccine for colon cancer. “We were pleased to see the balanced immune response consisting of both humoral and cellular responses”, said Dr. Jonathan Smith, CSO at AlphaVax.

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in humans in Indonesia and in domestic poultry in Viet Nam, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 5 November 2007: Monday, the Black Oystercatcher; Tuesday, Hawaiian honeycreepers; Wednesday, Gull Identification II (w/a BirdNote field trip, Nov. 17!); Thursday, “Goldeneyes and Whistling Wings”. 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

A bizarre jackdaw which is almost totally white has been visiting a garden in Welwyn Garden City in the United Kingdom. “This jackdaw has been a regular visitor to my back garden,” said Len Bennett of Heather Road. “There are others, probably from the same brood, but with varying degrees of whiteness in their feathers.” (story includes images of the bird).

A four-year bird census, being organized by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), will involve more than 50,000 volunteers, who will record every bird they see. The resulting map will provide a comprehensive picture of the nation’s bird life, and will be used in research. Every square mile of the country, from fashionable inner city canal-side parks to wild, open Scottish mountainsides, from suburban back gardens to Cornish coastal coves, will — it’s hoped — be mapped for the birds they contain over the next four years. Suddenly, 50,000 volunteers doesn’t sound like a lot. “The last time we did this was 20 years ago,” Graham said. “We want to find out exactly what is happening to the bird population.”

High Island, one of America’s premier bird-watching meccas on the flat Texas coast where thousands of people from around the world are lured each year, took a direct hit from the tiny but intense Hurricane Humberto. But it doesn’t seem to have bothered the migratory birds who use it as a rest stop. “Mother Nature’s been doing this for eons,” said Winnie Burkett, manager of the Houston Audubon Society’s four bird sanctuaries at High Island, trying to shrug off the frustration of the extensive damage wrought by the hurricane.

The might and grace of that immense New Zealand avian behemoth, the extinct Moa, has been brought back to life in an animated film by a talented bunch of Media Design School’s computer animation students studying the Graduate Diploma of Advanced 3D Productions. “We wanted to the put the Moa into an environment that fully reflected its sheer size, and contrasted it with a 21st century setting,” says Project Manager Josh Burton. The Moa project is a team exercise designed to really push the boundaries of the students’ craft. The project is also a collaboration between Media Design School and the Auckland Museum. The short film blends CGI animation with live footage charting the animated Moa’s hypothetical journey from the bush into the contemporary world, ending up in the Natural History section of the museum — face-to-face with the Museum’s iconic Moa model.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Darrell, Bob, Ellen, Jeremy and Ron for sending story links and to Michael, Kent and Urs for updating and maintaining the online CBC schedules. 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 justawriter
    November 5, 2007

    Not to be a wet blanket, but if prince harry was out bird shooting, he probably was using a shotgun and you can’t get ballistic information off of bird shot.

  2. #2 justawriter
    November 5, 2007

    Also, if you don’t think there are any rodents in wheat fields, then you probably haven’t spent much time around wheat fields. If you ever make it out to North Dakota I can take you down some roads where there is a Swainson’s or Red Tailed hawk every mile, and they aren’t skinny either. I took some good photos this summer and will send them your way shortly.

    I apologize if that sounded crabby, but the notion that agricultural land is a sterile wasteland is a pet peeve of mine.

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    November 5, 2007

    yes, you are right about wheat fields — although modern agricultural practices do cause the death of numerous grassland-nesting birds that now attempt to nest in wheat fields (combines and other farm machinery munch up newly-hatched chicks and sometimes the overprotective adults, too), but rodents don’t have any such problems.

  4. #4 Heidi
    November 5, 2007

    About the High Island note – Winnie is right, but so much of that coast has been denuded in the name of vacation homes that losing a small patch of feeding trees for migrating birds is tightening the belt another notch on a belt that has been shrinking for decades. I’ve not seen High Island since last fall but there’s not a whole lot of habitat like it nearby.

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