Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Gull with Reflection.

California Gull, Larus californicus, with reflection — Great Salt Lake, Antelope Island Causeway, April 2005.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU [really large view]

People Hurting Birds

The bald eagle injured when it flew into a utility line in Plumsted last week has died. Don Bonica of Toms River Avian Care in New Jersey had taken the bird in with hopes of rehabilitating it, but the attempt was unsuccessful, he said. “When I went out to take care of it this morning, it was dead,” Bonica said. The bird was injured Dec. 21 when it flew into power lines and landed in front of a car driving on Brindletown Road.

Time appears to be running out for the Gaviotín Chico, Sterna Lorata, a small bird whose coastal habitat extends from northern Chile to southern Peru. According to the organization BirdLife International, the birds — also known as the Peruvian Tern — nest on broad sandy beaches and dunes. But as houses, hotels, industries and even shanty towns continue to set up shop along the Chilean and Peruvian coastline, the birds are being displaced, leading to a precipitous population decline. BirdLife International, which reports a 70 percent population decline in the past decade, red-listed the species as “endangered” starting in 2005. At the time the organization estimated its total population at 1,000-2,500. Chilean ornithologists, however, fear the total population may be smaller still — maybe even as low as 200. “The way that people use the beaches make then unattractive to the birds. A lot, therefore, can’t nest and thus they have a very low population,” said Juan Aguirre Castro, president of the Union of Chilean Ornithologists (AvesChile).

Birds Helping People

There is, in the end, no telling what tales they had to tell, the two greatest nonhuman linguists of our day: Washoe, the sign-language-wielding chimpanzee with an intense footwear fetish; and Alex, the wildly outspoken parrot, an African gray known to regularly order about his human researchers and to purposely give them the wrong answers to their questions just to alleviate his boredom. After all, we only ever gave them our own words to work with.

Birds in Trouble

Seeing ostriches roam freely in the Negev desert was one of the Israel Nature & National Parks Protection Authority’s (INNPPA) most important missions. But their efforts toward this end have failed. A few weeks ago, the bones of four ostriches, remnants of the second group the INNPPA attempted to return to nature, were found in the Eilat mountains. The massive birds were apparently eaten by stray dogs or wolves that live in the Southern Arava desert.

Avian Zoonotic News

Officials in Washington State have warned that some cockatiels, as well as other pet birds that were shipped by a national distributor, may pose a risk to humans who are in contact with them. Approximately 20 PetSmart stores in 11 Washington counties have had birds delivered to them from this Florida distributor. Some of these birds had tested positive for avian chlamydiosis — infected humans can develop psittacosis after being exposed to these birds.

Apparently, this Florida-based supplier has been busy: it appears that they also shipped sick birds to several Georgia PetSmart stores, which are now under quarantine.

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. A team of American and Canadian researchers based that conclusion on a study of 248 complete avian flu viruses and several thousand gene segments of flu viruses collected from birds in Alberta and on the New Jersey coast from 2001 through 2006. Their report, with Scott Krauss of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis as lead author, was published this week by PLoS Pathogens. The senior author is leading flu researcher Dr. Robert Webster, also of St. Jude. “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.”

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Germany, Poland, Russia and Burma (Myanmar) and in humans in Indonesia, Viet Nam, Egypt 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

If an ivory-billed woodpecker is not found in 2008, John Arvin worries federal funding for the search, and the support of the scientific and birding communities, could become as elusive as his quarry. Arvin, research coordinator at the Gulf Coast Observatory in Lake Jackson, helped lead last year’s searches in the Big Thicket area for a storied creature that might or might not be extinct. “It was one of the most exciting things I have experienced in my life,” Arvin said of learning about the Arkansas sighting. Arvin’s enthusiasm echoed widely and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored searches in forests and river basins of Arkansas, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana — locations in the bird’s historic range.

A particular parrot and an elephant might look like the rest of their species, but according to their owners the two are the most talented animals on Earth. ‘Griffin’, the parrot is as clever as a three-year-old child, and ‘Hong’, the elephant is a fantastic painter. The parrot can easily understand abstract concepts such as time, place and matter. And the elephant is so good at his painting skills, that he once fooled a roomful of art experts into thinking that his daubs were produced by a human. The duo is featured in a documentary series called ‘Extraordinary Animals‘.

BirdLife has published their annual world round-up for 2007: Part One, Climate Change, Part Two, Preventing extinctions and Part Three, rediscoveries and reintroductions that you should read.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, 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 Bob O'H
    December 31, 2007

    Thanks for your work on this over the last year!

    Oh, and thanks to David R. too. I’ve been wondering what to have as wallpaper on my computer, now it’s come back from being repaired. I’ll pretend it’s an albatross.


  2. #2 Dave Briggs
    December 31, 2007

    So many beautiful birds. It is a shame we are losing some of them. I have heard it quoted that over 90% of the species that have lived on earth are extinct. I guess the best thing to do is enjoy them while we have them!
    Dave Briggs :~)

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