Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 110

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Male Broad-billed Hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris.

Image: Greg Scott [MUCH larger view].


Birds in Science

A new study by the University of Exeter, UK has revealed that stressed out birds are more likely to take risks than their relaxed counterparts. The research team selectively bred zebra finches to create “laid-back”, “normal”, and “stressed” groups of birds. These groups differ by their levels of stress hormone, which in birds is corticosterone. The research team observed the behavioral strategies of birds to separate them into “bold” and “shy”, or “active” and “passive” groups and then assessed their physiological differences. The group found that the stressed birds (those with the highest levels of corticosterone) were the first to take risks when placed in a new environment — they were the first to investigate new feeders and they returned more quickly when startled than their more relaxed peers.

Geographic range maps that allow conservationists to estimate the distribution of birds may vastly overestimate the actual population size of threatened species and those with specific habitats, according to a study published online in the journal Conservation Biology. “Our study found that species ranges in general tend to get overestimated, but that this trend is particularly pronounced for birds that are threatened, rely on specialized diets or have small habitats,” said Walter Jetz, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UC San Diego and the lead author of the study, which will appear in the February issue of the printed journal. “This suggests that many threatened species of birds may be even rarer than we believe and are in greater danger of going extinct.”

People Hurting Birds

Surprise, surprise: A New Zealand study has turned conventional wisdom on its head, after a cull of feral cats on an island actually harmed a native bird population. A recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a bid by the Department of Conservation (DoC) to remove cats from New Zealand’s Little Barrier Island had unintended consequences. Killing off all the cats in 1980 resulted in a jump in rat numbers, which proved deadly to the local Cook’s petrel population. When both rats and cats were preying on the petrels 32 per cent of the birds had chicks, but this dropped to just 9 per cent after cats were removed. GrrlScientist note: Of course, the linked story doesn’t mention that, after the rats were exterminated, the petrel population began recovering nicely. After all, the rats were also alien species that were introduced by people, and thus, caused a tremendous amount of damage in addition to that caused by the cats.

The feral Quaker (Monk) parrots of Yacolt, in Washington state, got a reprieve last week when the town council gave bird enthusiasts four months to develop a plan for their feathered friends’ future. The feral green-and-gray parrots, also called monk parakeets, fled to the trees in late November when crews hired by Clark Public Utilities removed the five nests they had built atop transformers high on utility poles. The utility said the nests were a safety and service hazard, and three birds were captured and euthanized. The remaining 16 birds, however, flew out of reach. Opinions vary about what to do next.

In a recently published paper, Asociacion Armonia (BirdLife in Bolivia) monitored the wild birds which passed through a pet market in Santa Cruz between August 2004 to July 2005, and recorded nearly 7,300 individuals of 31 parrot species, of which four were threatened species. There are four other pet markets in Santa Cruz, all of which may be handling similar numbers of parrots, and Armonia expects that the situation is comparable in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. “We believe our study describes only a small proportion of the Bolivian parrot trade, underscoring the potential extent of the illegal pet trade and the need for better Bolivian law enforcement”, said Armonia’s Executive Director, Bennett Hennessey.

Grisly snapshots of birds shot dead and displayed on the Internet by the Bacolod Air Rifle Hunting Club and other groups in the Philippines, sparked a drive to gather 10,000 signatures to curb this senseless slaughter [Note: the Bacolod Air Rifle Hunting Club website has mysteriously disappeared]. The petition “requests media to cover shocking activities of these bands,” Lu said. Public revulsion may prod the government to enforce RA 9147. On paper, this law protects wildlife. Neglect renders it inutile. “Nothing prepared (us) for the ‘Quarry’ and ‘Photos’ section of Bacolod Air Rifle Hunting Club’s ghastly website,” admits Lu. “The photos displayed hundreds of slaughtered doves, mallards, whistling ducks and snipes.”

Almost one in three land bird species are likely to become extinct if the consequences of climate change become as bad as some scientists fear. If temperatures rise by 6.4ºC 30 per cent of birds are likely to disappear mainly because of habitat loss by the end of the century. Even if the rise is in the intermediate range of 2.8ºC warming, 400 to 550 land-bird extinctions are expected, according to a new study. An increase of 1ºC from present temperatures is likely to trigger roughly 100 bird extinctions. But if the global average temperature were to rise 5ºC, from that point on an additional degree of warming, to 6ºC, would probably cause 300 to 500 more bird extinctions. Cagan Sekercioglu, a senior research scientist at Stanford and the lead author of a paper detailing the research, which will be published online in Conservation Biology, said: “Of the land-bird species predicted to go extinct, 79 per cent of them are not currently considered threatened with extinction, but many will be if we cannot stop climate change.”

Global warming is threatening the survival of four penguin species in the Antarctic, conservationists warned recently. A new report from World Wildlife Fund, published at the UN conference on climate change in Bali, has found that global warming is occurring five times faster in the Antarctic peninsula than the rest of the world, and threatening the survival of the emperor, gentoo, chinstrap and Adélie penguins that breed on the continent. “As the ice melts, these icons of the Antarctic will have to face an extremely tough battle to survive,” said Emily Lewis-Brown, marine and climate change officer at WWF-UK. “One of the coldest environments in the world is actually seeing some of the fastest rates of global warming, and unless action is taken to reduce global CO2 emissions, the future of many Antarctic species looks bleak.”

People Helping Birds

Bright orange traffic cones that warn drivers of danger on the road are now being used to steer seabirds away from deadly entanglement in fishing nets, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reports. Argentinean marine biologist and inventor Diego Gonzalez Zevallos has conducted research funded by WCS and Fundacion Patagonia National on the issue for over five years. The device, appropriately dubbed the Traffic Cone, dissuades seabirds such as albatross from accidentally striking an exposed cable when they dive for waste discarded by fishing boats. Sea birds often strike the difficult-to-see cables — which are used to lower fishing nets — and are subsequently dragged underwater by the gear.

Domestic Bird News

Pupils from a Tarleton Primary School in the UK had an unexpected visitor to their playground this week — a pet African grey parrot. Headteacher Angela Fleming rescued the bird from circling crows and seagulls. “One of the parents was bringing her child to the school and told me there was a parrot in a tree,” said Flemming. “It had flown into the oak tree and as we were trying to encourage it down, the seagulls and crows were busy circling it.”

A grade II-listed gravestone belonging to a Eurasian bullfinch believed to have been trained to sing the national anthem has been reinstated. The bird, called Bullie, lived with Lady Marianna Percy Lawton at Lawton Hall, South Cheshire, UK, in the 1850s. Lady Lawton wrote a poem for the gravestone, kept in the grounds until the 1990s when developers moved in. However local resident Frank Byatt saved the headstone until it was safe to put it back. The bird was thought to have lived in a cage outside the kitchen of the hall, where it was known to sing God Save The Queen.

Whenever Stuart McNae goes out of his room, his cheeky pet ‘Billy’ starts aping the sound of a phonecall and when his owner dashes back to answer his phone, the birdie bursts out in fits of giggles. Every time the poor 54-year-old man changes his ringtone, the playful blue-fronted Amazon learns it. “I now have the theme from A Fistful of Dollars. Won’t be long before he’s got that, too,” said McNae.

Greek traffic police are threatening to fine Coco the parrot — or rather his owner — with “illegal parking” for letting the bird perch in the road outside his pet shop, press reports said. Every morning, Lambros Mihalopoulos puts Coco out on a perch on the road just off the narrow pavement outside his shop in Patras, in western Greece. Over the years he has become something of a local landmark, exchanging pleasantries with passers-by.

Avian Zoonotics News

Leading researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health have confirmed the excellent on-farm efficacy of DuPont™ Virkon® S in eradicating exotic Newcastle Disease (END) virus in a recent Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigations paper. The study was devised to cover over 50 infected non-commercial poultry farms after the disastrous South Californian END virus outbreaks of 2002-3. In this broad-reaching field research, the authors showed that Virkon® S was 100% effective in eradicating END virus and they concluded that the need for costly sentinel bird placement was eliminated.

Government monitoring for H5N1 focuses on migrating waterfowl in Alaska. According to A. Townsend Peterson, a more effective system to detect the appearance of H5N1 would track wild birds all along the Atlantic and Pacific “flyways” of North America. Peterson said the governmental scheme to detect the arrival of H5N1 in North America — the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Early Detection System — overemphasizes testing of wild water birds in Alaska while neglecting other possible “entry pathways” from Eurasia. “If you take a careful look at bird migration in North America, you probably wouldn’t want to, excuse the pun, ‘put all your eggs in one basket’,” said Peterson. The KU researcher said that the Alaskan focus of the program is sensible for monitoring a set of wild Asian birds that spend winter in Asia and sometimes summer in Alaska. But other birds possibly carrying the avian influenza could be overlooked. “There’s another component of birds which spend the winter in America,” Peterson observed. “They migrate north in the summer and basically consider western Siberia to be eastern Alaska. That component of birds migrates deep into the Americas, doesn’t really stop in Alaska at all, and would be missed by the current monitoring plan.”

Hungary has offered loans to Indonesia to build a plant to develop and produce a birdflu vaccine for humans using Indonesia’s H5N1 avian flu virus strain, a senior industry ministry official said recently. With 93 human deaths from bird flu so far, Indonesia has the world’s highest death toll from the disease. Hungary has offered its vaccine-making technology so that Indonesia could test the virus and make the vaccine, said Rifana Erni, the head of research and development at the Industry Ministry. “They have the technology and funds to develop the vaccine,” said Erni, adding that Hungary expressed an interest in helping because of the high number of cases in Indonesia as well as the fight between Indonesia and the World Health Organization over sample sharing.

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in Viet Nam, Russia, Great Britain, Poland and Pakistan, in domestic ostriches in Saudi Arabia, in wild birds in Germany and Hong Kong, and humans in Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan, China and Indonesia.

Wind Farms and Birds

Wind farms once acted as a death sentence for thousands of birds, but wind farm entrepreneurs are trying to reduce the impact on wildlife before turbines even go up. Research being done before wind farms are built, as well as advances in wind farm technology, are stemming avian deaths, say officials of the Cedar Creek wind farm near Grover, Colorado. With a wind farm planned for construction in 2009, Colorado State University hopes to continue research on the affects of wind power on birds and other wildlife. About .003 percent of human-caused bird deaths are due to wind turbines, said Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that wind turbines kill about 33,000 birds a year. By comparison, housecats kill “hundreds of millions” of birds annually; cars kill about 60 million birds a year; and flying into windows kills at least 97 million birds a year — and maybe as many as 976 million, according to Fish and Wildlife.

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 and results so be sure to email your links to me.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 17 December 2007: Monday, the twelve days of Christmas; Tuesday, “The Dodo”; Wednesday, why woodpeckers don’t get headaches; Thursday, the rooster; Friday, winter solstice. 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].

One of the Sandhill Crane couples in the Suntree area of Florida recently had an exciting addition to their family. When they built their nest near the water’s edge, it immediately drew attention of passers-by. Soon there were two eggs sitting on top of the nest and the mother on top of them. Some people who were really curious passed by the site every morning, and they would stop their cars to see if there were any new cranes yet. Many brought cameras of all shapes and sizes and would stand near the water for long periods of time, hoping to catch a photo of the hatching. Robert Grover, a dentist, didn’t actually catch the birth, but he sure did capture some fabulous shots of the Momma, Papa and baby (you will notice that the second egg never hatched). Then he put together a slide show with music that is just too good to not share it. My favorite images were those with the hiding in momma’s feathers. [Note: the slide show lasts approximately 4 minutes, and the slides and music (which is shorter than the slides) are on autoloop, so they will repeat as long as you them to do so!]

Do you have bird videos that you’d like to share with the public? Do you want to watch other people’s bird videos? If so, Bird Cinema is for you!

Miscellaneous Bird News

The Birding Community E-bulletin for December 2007 is now available due to 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 past E-bulletins on the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA) website and on Steiner Birding. If you wish to receive the bulletin or have any friends or co-workers who want to get onto the monthly E-bulletin mailing list, contact either Paul J. Baicich or Wayne R. Petersen, Director Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program, Massachusetts Audubon.

One hundred and fifty Air-India Express passengers had a narrow escape after their aircraft hit a bird as it came in for landing at the Bahrain International Airport. Sources said 90 passengers were bound for Bahrain and the rest for Doha. They said the Boeing 737-800 aircraft, with a capacity of 180 passengers, was coming from Mumbai and was to go to Mangalore, India via Doha. Air-India manager for Bahrain confirmed the incident and said that the Doha-bound passengers were accommodated in local hotels. “The pilot reported something amiss as soon as the plane landed so a thorough engine check was ordered,” he told the GDN.

A single bobolink, a medium-sized songbird normally found in open grasslands, has been drawing birdwatchers from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland to a Saanich field in British Columbia, Canada. Bill Dancer, 71, first spotted the bobolink on 27 November while out birdwatching with friends on the Vantreight gladiola bulb fields. “Some of us went up there to see sky larks and western meadowlarks but we found the bobolink,” said Dancer, who is retired from the Canadian Coast Guard. “I didn’t know what it was because I hadn’t seen it before, so I went and asked the experts.”

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Katherine, Kathy, Frederick, Genny, Barbara, 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!

Comments

  1. #1 John
    December 17, 2007

    That image is spectacular.

  2. #2 Vireo
    December 17, 2007

    Just a note on cats–the study from New Zealand did show that removing cats harmed birds. But that wasn’t the point at all. The point was that in communities with three trophic levels, removing a top predator will let the next species down the food chain take off.

    I hope that no one takes home the lesson that controlling cats is somehow bad for birds. Worldwide, feral cats have been horrible for birds, and there are lots of places where removing cats has helped bird populations.