Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Male Broad-billed Hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris, with a pollen cap.

Image: Greg Scott [wallpaper size].

Birds in Science

A new research paper shows that female blue tits use plumage color to clue in males of the species to their genetic quality: the brighter their blue cap coloring and their yellow collar coloring, the better mothers they make.

Some birds nesting in the central and eastern United States have moved their range over a hundred miles farther north in less than three decades. Scientists at University of Louisiana attribute the northward movement of breeding birds to climatic warming. Among the 26 birds they studied, nine species significantly shifted between 1971 and 1998 the northern limit of where they raise young. Overall, the average shift in range totalled 2.35 kilometres (1.46 miles) a year northwards. The birds that researchers investigated were warblers, flycatchers, sparrows, chickadees and others that eat insects or seeds and live around trees.

People Hurting Birds

Dozens of dying birds have rained down on a Staten Island, NY neighborhood, and officials say they don’t yet know what sickened them. Residents and city officials say roughly 40 to 50 black birds (European starlings, perhaps?) were seen tumbling from the sky, flailing on the ground and expiring on a street near Great Kills Harbor around 3 p.m. Friday. Fire Department Battalion Chief John Giacella says firefighters arrived to find the creatures “floundering and foaming at the mouth.”

Seabirds heading farther north to breed, robins showing up two weeks early, songbirds unexpectedly chirping away in northern Ontario. Many researchers are tying these and other behavior changes in birds to global climate change. According to the American Bird Conservancy, birds that rely on specific types of habitat could become extinct if global climate changes continue. The ABC report “Global Warming Threatens Many Bird Species” says that ranges of many bird species have been changing “consistent with the 20th Century trend of rising average temperatures.” [Free PDF]

An analysis of 124 of Europe’s common bird species has revealed that over a 26-year period 56 species (45 per cent) have declined across 20 European countries. This alarming rate of decline has fuelled fears for the future of many of the continent’s birds, including the Grey Partridge. Five of the ten common European species showing the greatest declines are birds of farmland habitats. And worryingly, a comparison of new and old EU Member states shows that the declines of farmland birds of the newest members appears to be mimicking those of longer-established EU states, where the increasing intensification of farming has been the main cause of the declines.

Illegal trappers on Cyprus killed more than half a million protected birds this fall for sale at local restaurants, conservationists said. It was the worst massacre in four years and came despite a European Union ban on the decades-old tradition, said BirdLife Cyprus Executive Director Martin Hellicar. “Illegal bird trapping in Cyprus is an indiscriminate practice that threatens many protected bird species,” Hellicar said. “The picture emerging from 2007 is grim.”

South Korea’s worst oil spill is threatening two Important Bird Areas (IBAs) which are crucial for large numbers of wintering and migrating birds. Tens of thousands of volunteers and soldiers have battled for 10 days to attempt to clean up thousands of tons of crude oil, some of which is now threatening to enter Cheonsu Bay, about 95 miles southwest of the capital Seoul. The bay is vital for wintering birds and large numbers of birds also use it as a stopover site during migration. If it were to become contaminated it could lead to a wildlife catastrophe.

What The Hell Is Wrong With These People?

Two men have been charged in connection with the October 5 massacre of 52 Red-footed Falcons, Falco vespertinus, in the Phasouri area of Cypus, within the Akrotiri British Sovereign Base Area (SBA). The accused, who are a couple of lilly-livered cowards from the Limassol area, pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a penalty of up to three years imprisonment or a fine of £10,000 (€17,000), or both. The court set the first hearing for the trial for January 8. The shocking massacre of the migrating falcons — the worst incident of bird of prey killing ever reported in Cyprus — made headlines across Europe after BirdLife Cyprus released shocking pictures of the gunned down birds. The shot falcons — a species of global conservation concern — appear to have been shot for target practice. The two suspects, arrested on October 12th following a swift SBA Police investigation, appeared before an SBA court at Episkopi on Tuesday and were charged with deliberate killing of protected birds and unlawful possession of shotguns in a ‘no hunting’ area.

Birds in Trouble

Keoladeo National Park of Rajasthan, India that has long been an alternative habitat for about 370 species of migratory birds numbering about 40,000, is no more an attraction for the avian beauties. These migratory birds included the popular Pelicans, Flamingoes and Siberian cranes to name a few. But, sadly, these migratory birds no longer touch down at the Keoladeo National Park, popularly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, located in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur District. Lack of rain has badly affected the bird population apart from the growing need for water for agriculture and other purposes. The lakes in the bird sanctuary are drying up. “A frank admission is that if this problem is not solved then the results would be awful, as it is an aquatic system and can be sustained only when it gets replenishment of water,” said Sunayan Sharma, Director, Keoladeo National Park.

People Helping Birds

After eight years of work in Tolima, the International project to save the critically endangered Yellow-eared parrot (The Ognorhynchus Project) has achieved two unprecedented records: the finding of 52 Yellow-eared Parrot active nests in April, and of 132 chicks between May and June. This is a major milestone for a bird that was down to a population of less than 100 just 10 years ago. The previous highest number of active nests found during the project, which is supported by Loro Parque Fundación, had just been 25. Compared to 2006, this is a 40 percent increase in the number of active nests in the area, and there was also a much improved food supply.

Domestic Birds News

This story should serve as a holiday warning for pet owners: Too much of chocolate can be bad for health. However, for one greedy parrot in Wellington, New Zealand, it turned out to be positively fatal. The parrot was found dead outside a hotel kitchen in Mt Cook village. When Massey University wildlife pathologist Brett Gartrell decided to find out the cause, he found a “sticky brown gunk” in its stomach, causing him to state that the bird really pigged out.

An unusual lawsuit took wing last week. An Andover man has sued a Pet Goods store in Paramus, New Jersey claiming the store lied about the age of a exotic bird he bought for almost $2,000 in June 2006. The Moluccan cockatoo was isted as nine years old at the time of purchase, according to a complaint filed in Superior Court. But the bird died one year later, after an illness and more than $4,000 in veterinary hospital bills. Plus, the veterinarian had news for Demarest, the suit said: The bird was more than 20 years old. “Initially, when he purchased it, he was told nine,” said Demarest’s attorney, Janet Porro. “Then they backpedaled later on when the veterinarian told him it was nowhere near nine years old.” GrrlScientist comment: 20 years old is not old for a cockatoo, a species that can live to be 50-60 years old with proper care (but they cannot live to be 120 years old, as the news article erroneously states). But lying about the bird’s age was wrong.

What appears to be a lost pet owl has been adopted by a Mt Lambert woman’s pet parrot in Trinidad and Tobago. The nocturnal bird-of-prey showed up in a neighbour’s yard on Tuesday night. It was disoriented and defensive but refused to leave. “My neighbor asked for help. I eventually took my parrot out of her cage and managed to get the owl into it. I got the impression that it might have been someone’s pet,” the owl’s ‘foster mother’ said.

H5N1 Avian Influenza News

Despite recent spikes in H5N1 avian influenza activity in humans and birds, there have been fewer bird outbreaks in fewer countries this year than in 2006, according to a preliminary report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As of Dec 10, 30 countries had reported H5N1 cases in birds this year, compared with 54 in 2006, the FAO reported. This year five countries have reported their first outbreaks: Bangladesh, Benin, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and Togo. Except for sporadic outbreaks in wild birds, most of the H5N1 cases this year occurred in domestic poultry, such as chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and quail.

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic pountry in Germany and in Poland and in humans in China, Indonesia, Benin and Pakistan.

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. 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 24 December 2007: Monday, a myth about how the robin came by its red breast; Tuesday, the birds of the 12 days of Christmas; Wednesday, “The Myth of the Wren”; Thursday, following the honeyguide; Friday, a morning in Oaxaca — meeting up with summer birds in their winter homes. 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].

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

During the first week of December, the naturalists at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History reached an auspicious milestone by banding their 50,000th bird. For a description of that bird and a photo essay about some things they’ve learned from their long-term banding program, please visit the 1-7 December 2007 installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond”. Another installment focuses on their tenth Northern Saw-whet Owl captured at Hilton Pond — which is the 15th ever banded in South Carolina. For a write-up about this uncommon northern visitor, please visit their photo essay for 8-21 December 2007. As always, they include a tally of birds banded and recaptured during the period.

Hundreds of bird watchers flocked to Lake Nockamixon, Pennsylvania over the weekend after a rare, long-billed murrelet was spotted Friday morning near the lake’s fishing pier. The long-billed murrelet breeds in eastern Russia, around Siberia, and winters in Japan. The bird seen Friday at Nockamixon was the first confirmed sighting in Pennsylvania history, according to Jessica Doxsey, assistant manager of Nockamixon State Park in Bucks County. Doxsey said about 100 birders showed up at the park Friday, including some from as far away as Pittsburgh and New York City, after reports of the murrelet were posted on the Internet.

BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest conservation charity and BirdLife Partner, agrees the ruling by the European Court of Justice that the Irish Government has failed to fulfil its obligations under EU law in relation to the designation and classification of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for wild birds. The Court also found that the Irish Government had failed adequately to protect some of Ireland’s most threatened bird species, including the Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, the Chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax and the Corncrake Crex crex.

For 2,000 years the song thrush has brought music to the ears of millions of Chinese. Now the ancient tradition of buying, caging and keeping wild song birds looks destined to die out. A new law banning the trade in seven species of wild birds takes effect on January 1. The aim is to try to save China’s dwindling numbers of birds. It will also undermine the bustling local markets that are a familiar sight across Chinese cities and towns. GrrlScientist comment: China’s birds are dwindling for reasons other than the caged bird issue they are banning, and they know it.l On one hand, preventing the keeping of these wild songbirds in captivity is a good thing, but on the other hand, preventing the keeping of these birds in captivity removed the birds from close contact with people, who are more likely to protect those birds that they know and love.

In Israel, where the decades-old Middle East conflict has long forced residents to choose between hawks and doves, not even a campaign to select a national bird is immune from political controversy. For the next six months Israelis will be choosing from among 10 local birds, with the winning feathered creature becoming the country’s emblem at its 60th independence day anniversary in 2008. But when selecting a single bird that best portrays the Israel’s character, voters face a real dilemma as almost no avian can escape parallels to sensitive social and political realities.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, 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!


  1. #1 Annie
    December 24, 2007

    Those hummingbird jewels-in-motion photographs are just stunning! Thanks to you and the photographers whose work you feature here. I learn so much, and the photos really make it memorable (especially treasured as I have a Swiss-cheese short term memory problem).

    Thanks, as always, for bringing the bird news from parts near and far. This morning, I noticed an unusal quiet and absence of morning birdsong. I scanned the treetops and sure enough, a hawk was canvassing the vicinity.

    Grrl – what about clicker training your birds to ring bells? You could join them in a handbell song!

    Thanks for all of your gifts to us! :*)

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    December 24, 2007

    One of your /i tags has escaped!

    I must have only been half-awake when I heard this, otherwise I would have passed it on earlier, but the Helsinki Resident of the Year is Bubi, a eurasian eagle owl who was featured on this very blog.


  3. #3 Larry Jordan
    December 26, 2007

    Right off the bat I love Gregg Scott’s great hummingbird photo. I try to use top quality photos to start off all my posts. After all, we all love to see these beautiful birds up close right? I put his photo of the Broad-billed Hummingbird on my desktop as wallpaper. The photos on Gregg’s site are just incredible!

    The article on the birds nesting in central and eastern US was very interesting but not suprising. Global warming is changing many of the ways animals and plants react to our environment.

    I hate to say it but when I read articles about people hurting birds and the Cyprus incident of idiots intentionally shooting falcons it just makes my stomach turn. What is with these “people” in Cyprus anyway? I asked my wife who is German and spent time in Italy when she was younger) and she said, oh yeah, when I was there, you could walk into a restaurant in Italy and these little birds were considered a delicacy. Idiots! We need some international pressure on Italy, and any other European country, that does not take these incidents seriously.

    Last but not least, thanks for putting in the Christmas Bird Count story and the BirdNote info. I signed up for the bird note RSS feed as well as yours. Thank you!

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