Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 106

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Black-necked weaver, Ploceus nigricollis.

Image: Basia Kruszewska, author of India Ink. [Wallpaper size]

Birds in Research

A native Hawaiian bird has surprised researchers with its ability to survive malaria, apparently thanks to a number of resistant populations that have spread throughout the Hawaiian forest. The discovery hints that genes for natural resistance to the avian disease may lurk inside the genomes of many of Hawaii’s endangered birds. Two years ago, researchers reported that one species, the amakihi, Hemignathus virens, was making a miraculous recovery in the most heavily malaria-infested forests. Now a genetic study showing how these common songbirds have managed this gives some hope for other birds.

People Hurting Birds

Destruction of valuable habitat favored by the Aplomado falcon has been destroyed by Mexican Mennonites — virtually unhindered by authorities, say environmentalists who fruitlessly tried to use the nation’s endangered species law to save it. “No one knew of the population,” Montoya said of his discovery of falcons in the valley. “And 16 years later, they’re going to disappear.”

It’s a macabre ritual performed in the stealth of night — on the eve of Laxmi puja in India. When the lights dim in this city of malls, it’s time for the tantriks, ‘Aghoris’ (a sect) and the occult world to come alive. There’s much blood-letting and on the sacrificial altar is the rare Indian horned owl [Eurasian Eagle-Owl?]. A sacrifice meant to bring wealth, power and prosperity to men of business. “The owl is the vehicle of Goddess Laxmi and some believe it can reveal hidden treasure. Tantriks cash in on this belief,” says Pandit Acharya Girish Shringi.

Thousands of birds and fish have been killed as oil spills from a stricken tanker in the northern Black Sea. At least 30,000 birds have died, and thousands more are covered in oil and face death in the coming days. The main species reported to be affected are Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo, Common Coot, Fulica atra, Great Crested Grebe, Podiceps cristatus and Black-necked Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis. So far, 50km of Russian coastline is affected by the oil spills. Clairie Papazoglou, Head of BirdLife’s European Division comments: “BirdLife International is very concerned as this incident is an ecological disaster in an important area for wildlife.”

For decades, oil pollution has killed annually between 100,000 and 500,000 waterbirds in the Baltic Sea. Most of the spills are relatively small, but as they occur in all parts of the sea, they are even more disastrous for birds than single tanker accidents. A small amount of oil is often all it takes for feathers to lose their ‘waterproofing’ capacity, and as a result waterbirds drown or then succumb to what are often freezing conditions. Additionally birds also ingest oil while trying to clean their feathers and are then poisoned.

People Helping Birds

I normally do not link to blogs, but this is something that is so important that I am going to propose it to the Performing Arts Library in NYC as a solution to their horrible window bird-kill problem. David Sibley is experimenting by using fluorescent highlighter pens written on window glass as a deterrent to prevent birds flying into windows. The pen ink is almost invisible to people, but the birds, who can see UV light, can apparently see this ink and avoid the window pane that has been written on.

Yorkshire’s skylarks are bucking the national trend — and it could be down to help from the county’s farmers. According to the latest statistics, skylark numbers in Yorkshire rose by nearly a quarter between 1994 and 2006, whereas in the rest of England populations of this delightful little bird have declined. “Perhaps the answer is that farmers in the county manage such a varied range of farmed habitats from lowland grassland and arable up to the pastoral systems of the uplands,” said Chris Tomson, RSPB farmland bird adviser.

Oil from a tanker that sank in Russia’s Kerch Strait on Sunday killed some 30,000 seabirds. Last week, 500 birds died in an oil spill from a tanker crash in San Francisco Bay, and wildlife rescuers are still working to rehabilitate another 700 coated in oil. How do you save an oiled bird? With Pedialyte and Dawn soap.

The BirdLife Partner in Cyprus has welcomed the decision that another twelve Special Protection Areas (SPAs) have been designated on the island, covering key habitats for Bonelli’s Eagle, Hieraaetus fasciatus, Long-legged Buzzard, Buteo rufinus, European Roller, Coracias garrulus and seven other priority species.

Air traffic controllers at La Mercy Airport near South Africa’s Mt Moreland Reedbed, will be among those watching five million migrating Barn Swallows arrive, if necessary informing pilots of the swallow flocks when coming into land so that collisions can be avoided.

People Hurting Pets That Really Hurt Birds Badly

The trial of a prominent birdwatcher accused of animal cruelty for shooting a cat ended in a mistrial Friday after jurors couldn’t reach a verdict. Jim Stevenson, the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society in Galveston, Texas, has admitted he shot the cat last fall because he saw it hunting a threatened species of bird near the San Luis Bridge Pass. If convicted, he would have faced up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Jurors deliberated for 8 1/2 hours before the judge declared the mistrial. Juror Donald Cook, of League City, said in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle that eight jurors voted to convict and four wanted acquittal. He said the discussion became heated at times. GrrlScientist note: I think this is a fascinating legal case because it probes the limits between allowing alien introduced animal species (er, pets) to freely kill native species that are already endangered. I think that this situation needs to be revisited with a more rigorous legal argument because this situation will only occur with greater frequency (and urgency!) in the coming decades.

Bird Books

BirdLife International has just released their new book, Rare Birds Yearbook 2008. This book contains photos, historical information, natural history and conservation status reports on the 189 most endangered bird species in the world. In addition, it has chapters on the organizations that are working to save these birds, individuals who are studying them, and eco-tours that will take you to the places where the birds can be seen. I am going to try to get a review copy of this book, but if (and until) I manage to do this, you will have to purchase the book yourself — part of the funds raised by sale of this book are donated to bird conservation. This book will soon be sold through Amazon, incidentally.

Domestic Pet Bird News

Fed up with fetch? Driven mad by meowing? Well, have you considered getting a parrot as a pet? It is no wonder that more and more people are rejecting traditional household pets in favor of these beautiful birds, who in many cases have been known to outlive their owners. Although these long-living creatures represent a weighty commitment, it is a factor which has attracted many people searching for that pet more permanent. And, just as they can match a human being in terms of lifespan, their intelligence is such that they can also develop similar quirks.

A Bendigo (Sydney, Australia) man trying to retrieve a neighbor’s pet sulfur-crested cockatoo from a tree plunged to his death in front of his wife last week. The man, 58, died after climbing 12 meters up a gum tree to capture the bird, before losing his grip and falling. Police said he died instantly. The man’s death came after the bird’s owner fell from the same tree in an earlier failed attempt to capture the bird, which had escaped from its cage.

H5N1 Avian Influenza Virus News

An analysis of influenza viruses collected from North American migratory birds over a 6-year period suggests that wild birds rarely carry avian flu viruses between Eurasia and North America, implying that the risk of the deadly H5N1 virus reaching the Americas by that route is probably low. “Genomic analysis of influenza viruses from our repository failed to provide evidence of influenza viruses with their whole genome originating from Eurasia,” the report states. “However, we found occasional influenza viruses from North America with single or multiple genes that originated in Eurasia. Our interpretation is that while influenza viruses do exchange between the two hemispheres, this is a rare occurrence.” GrrlScientist sez: I’ve been saying this very thingever since H5N1 popped up in domestic poultry, based on my own education and experience in both virology and ornithology. Even though no one listened to me, it’s nice to know that I was actually right!

World Health Organization member countries will try again this week at resolving a dispute over avian influenza virus sharing that threatens both how the world monitors for potential flu pandemics and the way flu vaccine, seasonal and pandemic, is made. The Third World Network, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the rights of developing countries, has been advizing Indonesia in this dispute. Its legal expert says it is unlikely the four-day meeting, beginning Tuesday, will resolve all outstanding issues. “But I think member states understand the urgency of the matter. And so I’m sure countries are going try their best to actually try and resolve it,” Sangeeta Shashikant says from Geneva.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified this past week in humans in Indonesia and in domestic birds in Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and (predictably) in Bangladesh.

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.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 19 November 2007: Monday, “eagle eye,” about the eagle’s visual acuity; Tuesday, the Common Redpoll, survivor; Wednesday, Northern Shrike, butcherbird; Thursday, “How the Turkey Got Its Name”; Friday, “Giblets and Gizzards”. 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].

Almost as good as Birds in the News, the Birding Community E-bulletin is being freely distributed through the generous support of Steiner Binoculars as a service to active and concerned birders, those dedicated to the joys of birding and the protection of birds and their habitats. You can access an archive of their past E-bulletins on the website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA).

Miscellaneous Bird News

When November comes, nature changes gears. It’s not winter yet, but summer is definitely over as new birds arrive, plants go to seed, and insects have one “Final Fall Fling.” Thus, seasonal change is the topic for “This Week at Hilton Pond” for 1-7 November 2007. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded or recaptured, and the list is extensive. Of particular interest were some really old White-throated Sparrows that returned to Hilton Pond.

With thousands of avian visitors arriving in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state each day from Russian Siberia, China, Eastern Europe and the Philippines, the Kashmir wetlands are a riot of colour and cackle these days. But not all is well in these reserves. “Nearly 600,000 migratory birds have arrived so far in just one wetland reserve of the valley, the Hokersar wetland reserve,” said Rashid Naqash, Wildlife Warden (Central Division) here. “We have four national parks, 14 sanctuaries and 35 conservation reserves in the state.”

A New York City lawmaker wants to declare war on the city’s pigeons and says he will not be dissuaded by the difficulties faced by London and Venice in ridding themselves of the ubiquitous birds. City Councilman Simcha Felder on Monday called on the city to levy a fine of as much as US$1,000 on people feeding pigeons, distribute bird contraceptives, and employ hawks to scare the birds away. “Cities are lifeless places. People don’t appreciate the fact that we have some wildlife,” said Al Streit, director of The Pigeon People, an organization that rescues injured birds. Felder said he doesn’t expect to rid the city of pigeons but that it was time to combat what he called a public health hazard.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Kathy, Rob, Kevin, 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 Chardyspal
    November 19, 2007

    Re the UV highlighter pens…well, I am glad someone is trying this idea. I have mentioned this idea a couple of times, even to a person studying how to avoid bird collisions with buildings, and my feeling about the responses I got was that people seemed to think I was harmless and amusing.

    I look forward to learning how the experiment concludes. I hope it is successful.



  2. #2 BG
    November 23, 2007

    Please revisit the site about the UV and highlighters, the author has a good bit of more information about why their first assumptions about UV light were wrong and that the highlighter method is less effective than they had originally hoped.

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