Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 109

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Winter in NYC means the return of migratory White-throated Sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis (this bird is in its first winter plumage). There are thousands of these birds in Central Park and in the other parks here, subsisting on grass seeds along with crumbs and other foods that people give them.

Image: Kevin T. Karlson [larger view].


Birds in Science

Divers exploring a water-filled sinkhole in the Bahama Islands recently recovered one of the world’s largest and most pristinely preserved collections of animal and plant fossils from a tropical island. Like a time machine, the fossils reveal in stages what ecosystems were like on the island of Abaco from periods between 12,000 to 1,000 years ago. “Their ultra-high quality of preservation puts the fossils in a category all their own,” said David Steadman, who led the project and is curator of ornithology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

People Hurting Birds

Thousands of British seabirds have washed up dead on shorelines sparking calls for more international research into problems that could lead to future population crashes. The discovery of thousands of dead and dying auks, mainly razorbills, around the coasts of Denmark, southern Norway and Sweden, in September and October, didn’t arouse widespread UK attention because there was comparatively little evidence of problems on this side of the North Sea. But alarm bells rang after the latest British Trust for Ornithology BirdTrack Update referred to “a large wreck of auks seen along the north and east coasts, and as far afield as the Oslo fjord … All of these appear to have starved — and most were adults.” GrrlScientist comment: If fishermen were not motivated to overfish thus destroy their very own livelihood due to their sheer, unadulterated greed, we would not have to worry about losing thousands of adult seabirds. However, since fishermen (and everyone else who exploits nature) are so stupidly short-sighted and greedy, my guess is that humans will follow the same population trajectory as these poor birds. Pathetic, really. But deserved.

A UK-wide survey of swifts this summer has revealed interesting variations between birds nesting in urban and rural locations. Virtually all of the UK’s swift populations nests in buildings, but the 3070 homeowners responding to the 2007 RSPB Swift Survey revealed that rural homes were around twice as likely to have nesting swifts as urban ones. Unfortunately, these sites are all too-easily removed during property renovation, potentially denying swifts opportunities to nest. The RSPB is concerned that the UK’s swift population may suffer if suitable sites aren’t available.

A wildlife conservation group in Cameroon said it was considering suing Ethiopian Airlines for complicity after it caught smugglers trying to take 1,000 African Grey parrots out of the central African country. The Yaounde-based Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), working with Cameroon’s security forces, seized a consignment of 500 African Grey parrots on Tuesday aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane shortly before it was due to leave Douala airport. “We’re considering initiating a court case against the airline company, which has been found to be irregularly involved in the transport of wildlife without permission,” LAGA director Ofir Drori said.

Where do you go when you’ve reached the top of a mountain and you can’t go back down? It’s a question increasingly relevant to plants and animals, as their habitats slowly shift to higher elevations, driven by rising temperatures worldwide. The answer, unfortunately, is you can’t go anywhere. Habitats shrink to the vanishing point, and species go extinct. That scenario is likely to be played out repeatedly and at an accelerating rate as the world continues to warm, Stanford researchers say. By 2100, climate change could cause up to 30 percent of land-bird species to go extinct worldwide, if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. Land birds constitute the vast majority of all bird species. ”Of the land-bird species predicted to go extinct, 79 percent of them are not currently considered threatened with extinction, but many will be if we cannot stop climate change,” said Cagan Sekercioglu, a senior research scientist at Stanford and the lead author of a paper detailing the research.

Birds Helping People

For hundreds of years Chinese fishermen have been using hand-reared cormorants to hunt for their supper. The birds, which are considered a pest by some anglers in Britain, swim deep underwater searching for a meal. They are fitted with a ring around their neck before they dive to prevent them from swallowing their catch. This means that when they do resurface, they will regurgitate the fish before returning to hunt again. When the fisherman’s bags are full, the ring is removed and the cormorant rewarded with a meal.

Rare Birds News

The New Zealand storm petrel, which was thought to have been extinct for 150 years until rediscovered in 2003, has again been sighted and recently captured in the Hauraki Gulf off the North Island of New Zealand, but its breeding site remains a mystery. Ornithologist Dr Stephenson, who snared two birds with one shot using a custom-made net gun, said the moment was unforgettable. “It’s not everyday you get to hold a seabird that for 150 years was thought to be extinct, let alone hold two.”

H5N1 Avian Influenza News

Researchers in New York believe they have solved one of the great mysteries of the flu: Why does the infection spread primarily in the winter months? Peter Palese, a researcher at Mount Sinai Medical School, theorized that the flu virus is most stable and tends to stay in the air longer when conditions are cold and dry. He said that experiments showed the virus was most likely to spread among guinea pigs when the temperature was 41 degrees and the relative humidity was 20%. The influenza virus didn’t spread when they set the temperature at 86 degrees or the humidity at 80%. “Influenza virus is more likely to be transmitted during winter on the way to the subway than in a warm room,” Palese said.

London researchers found strong evidence that recent respiratory infections such as influenza — increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Study leaders Tim Clayton and Tom Meade of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Medical Statistics Unit did a clinical case-control study using a general practice database that contains details of data on some 2 million patients registered with some 500 primary care physicians. The study, published in the European Heart Journal, found a doubling of risk of both heart attack and stroke in the week following respiratory infection, however, the risk lessened over time. There was little excess risk beyond one month, the study found.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in Romania, Poland and Bangladesh and in people in China.

Christmas Bird Count and Other Bird Survey 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 Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New York State, 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 3 December 2007: Monday, why birds’ feet don’t freeze; Tuesday, Christmas Bird Count — sign up!; Wednesday, “Carrier Pigeons Go to War,” about Cher Ami and the Battle of Verdun; Thursday, how the pecking order works; Friday, Southern Cassowary. 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].

David Wilcove, one of world’s leading experts on endangered species, discusses his new book, No Way Home, which chronicles the decline of the world’s animal migrations. Wilcove is professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and public affairs at Princeton University. [NPR: 20:08]

Miscellaneous Bird News

The current lack or rain has the naturalists in the Piedmont thinking a lot about the importance of water for birds and other wildlife, as well as the human penchant for wasting this valuable natural resource. For a photo essay on the effects of drought in the Carolinas and beyond, please visit the 22-30 November installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond”. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded and recaptured during the period, a few miscellaneous nature notes, and a reminder about the York/Rock Hill Christmas Bird Count coming up on 22 December 2007.

Birdwatchers have been flocking to a Pembrokeshire nature reserve to see a species never recorded in Wales before. A Pechora Pipit, which breeds in the Tundra of the far north of Asia, has caused a flurry of activity at Goodwick Moor near Fishguard. Staff and volunteers at the Wildlife Trust-managed reserve estimate over 300 twitchers have travelled for a glimpse. Trust officer Nathan Walton said it had not been put off by the crowds and was happily perching close to people. “This is a fantastic little bird and to have such a rarity appear for the first time in Wales on a Wildlife Trust reserve is even more special,” he said.

Recently, the website of the Danks Ornitologisk Forening (the Danish Ornithological Society) posted a remarkable photoessayof a peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus, and its prey, a gull, documented by photographer Christine Raaschou-Nielsen and written in perfect Danish by Jan Skriver: The falcon is plucking its unfortunate prey — a common (mew) gull, Larus canus — taking care of the neck first. Then a buzzard, Buteo buteo, shows up and chases off the falcon, who leaves its prey behind. What follows is the remarkable revival of the gull. The brave bird gets up, stands fiercely on its feet and looks unharmed … except for some missing feathers.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Technical Publication series publications has a new one for you to use; “A guide to nestling development and aging in altricial passerines” [PDF]. This and other publications are available free of charge at the recently updated Biological and Technical Publications list. Paper copies are available from the contact listed on the back of the title page.

Rarely-heard recordings of birdsong from the biodiversity hotspot of Madagascar have been compiled and released by the British Library. The 127 Madagascar birds featured on its new CD include threatened species such as the long-tailed ground-roller and Benson’s rock thrush. Conservationists prize the island for its unique species, notably lemurs. But deforestation and destruction of other habitats is taking many towards the brink of extinction. Most of the bird recordings have never before been published. Among the unusual calls are the drumming sounds of a Madagascar snipe, the screeching alarm of the red-capped coua, and the “rattle and whistle” duet of the white-throated oxylabes.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Blake, Kathy, Diane, Stephanie, Caren, Bill, Ellen, Jeremy and Ron for sending story links and to Glenn, Chazz, Brenda, Chuck, Michael, Kent and Urs for updating and maintaining the online state 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!