Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 105

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Song sparrow, Melospiza melodia.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU. [larger size].

Birds in Science

Dinosaurs like Velociraptors had one of the most efficient respiratory systems of all animals, similar to that of modern diving birds like penguins, fossil evidence shows. The bipedal meat-eaters, the therapods, had air sacs ventilated by tiny bones that moved the ribcage up and down. “Finding these structures in modern birds and their extinct dinosaur ancestors suggests that these running dinosaurs had an efficient respiratory system and supports the theory that they were highly active animals that could run relatively quickly when pursuing their prey,” said Jonathan Codd, who led the research. “It provides a mechanism for facilitating avian-like breathing in non-avian dinosaurs and it was there long before the evolution of flight occurred.”

People Hurting Birds

Pillipus Fourie pleaded guilty in Manukau District Court, New Zealand, and was fined $10,000 for possession of unauthorised goods and $5000 for making a false declaration. A further $5000 fine was imposed for trading in threatened species. Fourie was caught by customs at Auckland International Airport, wearing a specially constructed vest under his clothes to conceal 44 eggs — which appeared to be from a variety of parrot species. “Wildlife smuggling is an abhorrent practice and New Zealand treats the illegal importation of wildlife very seriously,” NZ Customs spokesman Paul Campbell said.

Investigations by WCST (WildLife Conservation Society of Tanzania, Birdlife in Tanzania), have confirmed that Diclofenac has been licensed for veterinary use in the country. Diclofenac induces fatal illness in vultures of the Gyps genus. Its use to treat livestock in the Indian subcontinent has driven three Gyps species to the brink of extinction. “This is shocking news, and means that the threat is far greater than we thought,” said Paul Nnyiti of WCST. “We now fear that Diclofenac may also already be licensed and used in other African countries. BirdLife Partners must work quickly to alert governments and veterinary organisations to the dangers of the drug, and campaign for licenses to be revoked and Diclofenac to be withdrawn from sale throught the African continent.”

A temporary lifeline has been thrown to the one million lesser flamingos of Tanzania’s Lake Natron, threatened by huge industrial development on their most important breeding site in the world. The plan to build a soda ash plant on the lake, in northern Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley, has been thrown out for now and the developers, Lake Natron Resources, have been ordered to produce a new and better environmental statement and consider other sites for soda ash extraction. The firm is jointly owned by the Indian company TATA Chemicals and the Tanzanian Government. “The flamingos are not safe yet,” said Mike Rands, Chief Executive of BirdLife. “The developers should choose another location for extracting soda ash and abandon their plans for Lake Natron.”

No one will be charged after the alleged shooting of two protected birds of prey on one of Queen Elizabeth II’s country estates where Prince Harry had been shooting, prosecutors said. The Crown Prosecution Service, which oversees cases in England and Wales, said there was “insufficient evidence” to bring charges over the deaths of two hen harriers at Sandringham, eastern England. It said in a statement the birds’ bodies have not been found and there was no forensic or ballistic evidence. Police interviewed three people during the investigation. Royal officials confirmed that 23-year-old army officer Harry and a friend were in the area at the time but had no knowledge of the incident. They did not say whether the young royal was among those questioned.

People Helping Birds

The 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel that spilled off the Berkeley Marina in California from the Cosco Busan container ship last Wednesday spread out across the Bay on Thursday, coating seabirds and collecting on rocks where small wildlife nest. By 11 a.m., the Berkeley Animal Care Shelter had rescued a duck from the Berkeley Marina and a tiny grebe from the Albany waterfront. They housed them in warm, dry cages at the shelter until they were driven to the International Bird Rescue Center in Cordelia for cleaning. “All I know now is we have about 30 birds with 60 calls in to pick up others,” spokeswoman Karen Benzel said. “There will be more. There are a lot of birds and this covers a wide area.”

Despite vehement objections from birding experts, an amateur ornithologist captured a lost exotic hummingbird, the green-breasted mango, earlier this week in a rescue scheme that will end with the bird being placed in a permanent home in the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. “They’ve assured us, and we know from reputation, they have wonderful capabilities to care for a bird like this,” said Scott Diehl, manager of the Wisconsin Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Milwaukee. GrrlScientist comment: I have no idea why so many people would protest capturing this stray hummingbird and placing it into the local zoo. It has been predicted that this bird will die if it remains in the wild for the winter, yet people are upset if the bird is placed into a safe place where it will be cared for and will probably live much longer than if left to its own devices. So .. what’s the problem?

There will be a renewed effort to restore peregrine falcons to the wild in the Tennessee Valley soon, according to Harold Sharp, an avid birdwatcher and organizer of the Riverwalk Birding Club. Sharp said earlier this week he met with John and Dale Stokes who operate the Raptor Show at Rock City, as well as Bill Chapin, the owner of Rock City and that Chapin and the Stokes have agreed to sponsor a special peregrine falcon hacking program from Lovers Leap in Rock City. “Hacking” it a process of releasing young birds of prey back into the wild in an effort to restore wild populations.

Low population numbers have kept the critically endangered kakapo, a nocturnal parrot, perilously close to extinction for the past 30 years, since a small breeding population was discovered on New Zealand’s Stewart Island. All 86 kakapo, the world’s heaviest parrot, known to exist live on offshore predator-free island sanctuaries in the South Island. As a result, the first artificial insemination of a rare New Zealand bird is planned this summer in a bid to boost kakapo numbers.

The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) National Avian Research Centre (NARC) has plans to release thousands of Houbara Bustards into the wild. The decision follows the center’s success in captive breeding at its facility in Suweihan. The Houbara is listed as an endangered species and its population in the wild is fast decreasing as a result of overhunting. It is also the favorite quarry of Arab falconers and its could have serious a social and cultural impact in the UAE.

As five million Barn Swallows migrate from across Europe to roost in South Africa’s Mt Moreland Reedbed, they will be greeted by more than just birdwatchers. Air traffic controllers at La Mercy Airport will be among those watching the birds come in, if necessary informing pilots of the swallow flocks when coming into land so that collisions can be avoided. The decision was made in response to global outcry last November, after BirdLife outlined its concern about the expansion of La Mercy Airport, in preparation for South Africa’s hosting of World Cup 2010. “This has been a fantastic result, and we’re delighted to report on this outcome after a year of negotiations and meetings. The support of so many people — via letters and petitions — has played an important part,” said Neil Smith, Conservation Manager at BirdLife South Africa.

One of the most globally important sites for the Southeast Asian race of Sarus Crane, Grus antigone sharpii has been declared a reserve after several years of active lobbying by the Wildlife Protection Office of the Forestry Administration in partnership with BirdLife International in Indochina. The sharpii subspecies is the fastest declining of the three races of this Vulnerable species. The Council of Ministers of the Government of Cambodia has now approved a proposal to protect nearly 9,000 hectares, comprising 919 ha of core area and 8,305 ha in total, of seasonally inundated grassland in Takeo Province in southeastern Cambodia. The site is used by up to 300 Sarus Cranes, nearly 40% the global population of the sharpii subspecies.

Birds In Trouble

As many as 10 million blue tit chicks were killed off during the wet summer in the UK, making it the garden bird’s worst ever recorded breeding season. Almost half this year’s young fell victim to a shortage of food, caused by the weather, according to figures released yesterday by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The blue tit was one of seven species that suffered their worst ever breeding productivity – others include the great tit and the willow warbler. “This is an alarm bell for these birds. They have been hit hard,” said Paul Stancliffe, BTO spokesman.

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, Kansas, 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.

Identifying Birds

The USFWS has a new website that provides high-resolution scans of flight feathers of major groups of North American birds as an aid to species identification. Their feather scans illustrate the dorsal surfaces of 12 wing flight feathers (remiges) or six tail feathers (rectrices) from an individual bird. If the ventral surfaces of the feathers reveal distinct patterns not visible in the dorsal view, then a ventral scan is also provided. Sexually dimorphic species are represented by scans of both male and female feathers and flight feather variations among different age classes and color morphs are also illustrated. This is an ongoing project that will continually add new species, so be sure to bookmark this site and check back from time to time!

Birds and Wind Power News

A total of seven whooping swans have been tracked by satellite from Iceland for the BBC’s AutumnWatch program. One of their number — named Doon — has already completed his 500-mile journey to southwest Scotland. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust hopes the route the birds take can influence the positioning of wind turbines in future. WWT Learning Manager Brian Morrell said the study of migration patterns could help answer a lot of questions. “With a lot of applications for wind farms — up in the Western Isles there’s a huge one planned for Lewis — they want to know what route these birds are taking,” he said. “Just knowing exactly the way these birds go allows us to get the management system and everything in place there to help them.”

This piece is food for thought: it summarizes the American Bird Conservancy policy with regards to wind power.

Companion Bird News

Are you thinking of re-homing your pet bird? If so, this article is a must-read!

Avian Influenza News

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in humans in Indonesia and in domestic poultry in Viet Nam.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 12 November 2007: Monday, “eco-birding” — about the win-win-situation when you hire a local guide to help you bird in a foreign country; Tuesday, how birds carried plants to Hawaii; Wednesday, winter birds and suet; Thursday, comparing the Northern Harrier & Barn Owl; Friday, hunters’ names for ducks. 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].

Jeff Wells, author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds At Risk, was interviewed on KUOW radio on Monday, one week ago. He talked about the Boreal forest and answered questions about his book. [more about the book and the author’s book promotion tour and speaking schedule]

Miscellaneous Bird News

As a result of their web sites for Hilton Pond Center and “Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project,” the naturalists at Hilton Pond received many reports in 2007 of white hummingbirds from around the country. So they wrote a discussion of albinism and leucism in hummers — including a gallery of some of the amazing images they received — all of which you can see if you visit their “This Week at Hilton Pond” photo essay for 22-31 Oct 2007. As always, they include a tally of birds banded and recaptured during the period, plus some miscellaneous nature notes and a mug shot of a Cooper’s Hawk that showed up in their nets. There’s also a long comment of the explosion of Northern Cardinals that has appeared this fall at Hilton Pond. Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research and education organization located in York, South Carolina.

Since Urban Bird on Bleecker St., NYC, closed in 2002, its former owner, Nancy Chambers, has devoted her time to fundraising for the Alex Foundation, which studies avian cognition with an eye toward treating human autism. The foundation expands on the work Pepperberg pioneered with Alex. Pepperberg, a psychologist at Brandeis University and Harvard, used a teaching method based on the rival-model technique, where a human would compete with Alex to give the correct answer to Pepperberg’s questions. “We hung on for a year after 9/11, but business was very much affected,” said Chambers. “People stopped buying birds and started buying puppies. It’s a psychological thing, but people didn’t realize that birds are just as affectionate.”

The Bureau of Land Management said an amended management plan for the lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico will allow oil and gas development, grazing and off-road vehicles on federal land used by the birds but still will protect its population. The release of the proposed special status species management plan and final environmental impact statement starts a 30-day period for protests to the plan. The document also was sent to Governor Bill Richardson for a 60-day review. This spring, The Nature Conservancy said the population of the lesser prairie chicken, whose numbers fell as it lost habitat, was holding steady and even increasing a bit. The conservancy bought a ranch in Roosevelt County and leases it for ranching under strict management practices to help the bird.

Ecologist Will Miles said initial research of great skua preying on Leach’s storm-petrel on St Kilda found the behavior was unlikely to be common. The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has been recording “alarming” falls in the smaller petrels on the islands. Miles and fellow researchers used night vision gear to observe the skua. NTS said the Leach’s storm-petrel colony on St Kilda, which it owns, is the largest in Europe and numbers about 40,000 pairs. Researchers from Glasgow University have been investigating suggestions that great skua, or bonxie, may be eating up to 14,000 storm-petrels every year.

Shageluk, Alaska, schoolteacher Joy Hamilton has been teaching her students about the wonders of bird migration and the effect of global warming for more than a decade. But Hamilton and her students recently got a bird’s-eye view of how things can go astray in nature when a brambling, a common finch in northern Europe and Asia, showed up last week at Hamilton’s bird feeder in the small village on the Innoko River, about 350 miles southwest of Fairbanks. “I was like, ‘Gee, what the heck kind of bird is this?'” Hamilton said. “I knew it was some kind of finch based on finch characteristics, but I’d never seen one so brightly colored orange before.”

The pigeon is a heavenly symbol of peace, love and purity but it also produces 12 kilos of excrement a year and is widely decried as a flying rat that soils facades and spreads disease in cities all over the world. “Pigeons have had a gigantic career as a symbol of love, of marital fidelity, of peace,” said Professor Daniel Haag-Wackernagel, a biologist at the University of Basel who has studied pigeons for decades. “Historically it has such a positive, heavenly image that killing the bird is still regarded as immoral and unethical by many.”


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Georgia, Bob, Biosparite, Joyanne, Bill, Ellen, Jeremy and Ron for sending story links and to Chuck, 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 Floyd Craig
    November 12, 2007

    I love your Blog! Great Photos, stories, just awesome!

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