Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 113

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Clark’s Grebe, Aechmorphus clarkii, in the foreground with a Western Grebe, Aechmorphus occidentalis, behind. Both were photographed on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (north end of the Great Salt Lake) in the spring of 2005. Similar birds, but the field marks are straw-yellow bill (Clark’s) cf. greenish-yellow bill (Western); white feathering around the eye (Clark’s) cf black (Western), and whiter flanks on the Clark’s Grebe. This pair of birds was hanging out together, and that was not unusual, making one wonder if splitting these into two separate species (which occurred sometime in the 1980’s) was really justified. Apparently they do hybridize as well.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU [larger]


Birds and Scientists

The story of a Brandeis University scientist and her African grey parrot, Alex, whose untimely death in the fall made news throughout the world, will be told in a book. Irene Pepperberg’s memoir, tentatively titled Alex and Me, covers her 30 years with the parrot who could count to six, identify colors and even express frustration. It will be released in the fall by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins. In a statement this week, the publisher called the book a story “of bonds built over time that transcend species barriers,” and how Alex and Pepperberg “battled against the prejudices of the academic establishment, which debated rigorously the ability of any other species to learn the human language.”

People Hurting Birds

New York State environmental officials are investigating who used a banned chemical that may have killed dozens of blackbirds and starlings on Staten Island’s South Shore last month. The New York City Health Department first began looking into the deaths of 50 birds on Staten Island on Dec. 21 and seven on Christmas Eve. The agency’s test findings show that some of the birds consumed a toxic dose of Avitrol, which is banned in New York City.

One of Britain’s most notorious “eggers” — the compulsive collectors who trawl the British countryside hunting for wild bird eggs — was sentenced to six months in prison Thursday after pleading guilty to violating wildlife regulations. Gregory Wheal, described by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as the country’s most-convicted egg collector, was arrested after a small stash of peregrine falcon and raven eggs was found hidden in his home in Coventry, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) northwest of London, last year. “This is a particularly British perversion, and particularly male,” said Grahame Madge, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He said eggers could travel thousands of miles (kilometers) in an effort to feed their obsession, planning attacks on remote nests “like a military operation.”

When Australia’s resident godwits, plovers and other migratory shorebirds head north in a few weeks, they may find their most important “pit stop” is dangerously polluted. A tanker collision on December 7 released 10,500 tons of crude oil into the waters off South Korea’s west coast. The slick from the oil spill — the worst in South Korea’s history – has spread hundreds of kilometers, contaminating the Sae Man Geum wetland, a key staging area along the East Asian-Australasian flyway for migrating birds. “The oil spill may have impacts on breeding or feeding success, manifested by fewer birds coming to Australia next year,” said Eric Woehler, a Hobart-based shorebird ecologist with Birds Tasmania.

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 Peruvian Terns — 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.

Ten years of survey work in the San Rafael National Park in Paraguay have established that it is “as important for both avian diversity and threatened species as any other location in South America”. The 405 species recorded so far include 70 Atlantic Forest endemics, and 16 Near Threatened and 12 globally threatened species, including the Endangered Black-fronted Piping-Guan, Pipile jacutinga and Marsh Seedeater, Sporophila palustris. Although San Rafael was decreed a national park in 1992, the boundaries were only delimited in 1997, and still have to be legally recognized. BirdLife Partner Guyra Paraguay raised the money to buy 6,200 hectares of near-pristine Atlantic Forest, but the majority of the park’s 748km2 are unprotected and suffering encroachment from agriculture, particularly soybean cultivation and cattle grazing.

People Helping Birds

Many of you may remember that I’ve written several times about the Kuhl’s lorikeet relocation project undertaken by the Zoological Society of San Diego, in conjunction with the Cook Islands government and others. The project has been very successful and will continue this year with a field survey to determine breeding activity. To help support this project, the American Lory Society has an original framed painting of the Kuhl’s Lorikeet by noted wildlife artist Gamini Ratnavira, to be raffled in March 2008 [free PDF. Now is your chance to help support an amazing conservation project as well as a chance to win this beautiful original painting! The tickets are 1 for $10, and 3 for $20. The ZSSD is a 501(c)(3) non‐profit organization and all contributions, including the purchase of these tickets, will be tax deductible.

Texas is the winter home of the only self-sustaining wild population of Whooping Cranes, Grus americana, in the world and this winter record numbers have completed their migration and returned to the southern state. Whooping Cranes have been on the endangered species list since 1970, when only 56 birds survived in the wild in the world. These birds nested in Canada and migrated south to spend the winter in Texas. Since then, habitat conservation and protection of the birds has enabled the wild population to increase and in 2007 there were a total of 73 pairs which produced 80 chicks, of which 40 survived to the autumn migration.

Karen Cheek Justice has a passion for birds — particularly those in bad situations. She accepts them when their owners surrender them, takes them for a vet checkup, then fosters them out for a month or so for the foster family to assess their health and personalities. She then tries to place them in homes where they will be well cared for. People buy birds without any idea of the time, care, and expense involved. They may take care of the bird for a while but then decide they don’t want it anymore when it starts screaming or exhibiting other normal bird behaviors. “People will hold a grudge against the birds for doing what they do instinctively,” said bird foster mom and Matthews resident Debbie Foster. “Birds are loud and messy, and that’s what they do. But they can be wonderful companions and very loving.”

Paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak following a car accident, former firefighter Brian Wilson credits his parrots with helping him get back on his feet. Now, he is returning the favor by caring for birds others no longer want. “I was supposed to be in a wheelchair, in a nursing home,” Wilson said, recalling how his parrots helped him recover from the brain injury suffered shortly after retiring as a Montgomery County firefighter in 1995. “They kept repeating one word, and they knew I would say it right,” Wilson said.

Birds Helping People

Charlie the Amazon parrot saved his owner Jeff’s life when he found a new perch — on the phone. The exotic bird was flying free in the lounge when Jeff collapsed with a heart attack. As Jeff passed out, Charlie landed on the phone, knocked off the receiver and hit the redial button. That sent a call to Jeff’s friend John, who he had spoken to the night before. John recognised the caller’s number but could only just make out the sound of Jeff groaning in agony. He dashed round, used a spare key to get in and called an ambulance when he found his mate on the settee clutching his chest. Jeff, back home in Telford, Shrops, after nine days in a coronary care unit, said: “Charlie is a life saver. His actions are the reason I am here to tell the story.”

Birds and Wind Power News

The Coastal Habitat Alliance, Inc. (CHA) released the results of a scientific review of two proposed wind energy generation projects for Kenedy County, Texas. According to the results of the analysis that was conducted by EDM International, Inc. using methodologies developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these projects pose a severe threat to migratory and resident birds and bats. In fact, in terms of potential harm to migratory birds, the sites were determined to be almost as sensitive as a nationally renowned National Wildlife Refuge established for bird protection. “The proposed Kenedy County Wind Projects, totaling 1,200 MW, are unprecedented along the Gulf Coast and the operation of these proposed projects could result in the largest and most significant avian mortality event in the history of wind energy. The associated negative repercussions to the expanding wind industry both in the U.S and the internationally could be significant as well.” EDM Report [pg. 51].

Birders’ New Year Resolutions

This is a list of ten New Year’s Resolutions that one birder hopes we all will adopt this year.

Avian Zoonotics and Illnesses News

Scientists said they had figured out how influenza viruses carried by birds latch on to humans, a discovery that may open the way to a vaccine against not just deadly avian flu but against all flu types. There are many strains of flu virus, but only a few have succeeded in crossing the species barrier from animals to humans. Strains known as H1 and H3 are the most common, and are especially efficient in attacking cells in the upper reaches of the respiratory system. Variants of the H5 virus usually remain confined to wild or domesticated fowl. What health officials fear most is the emergence of a new H5 strain that can easily “jump” from birds to humans, potentially unleashing a pandemic on the scale of the “Spanish flu” of 1918-19 that killed tens of millions of people.

A single jab that could give lifelong protection against all types of flu has produced promising results in human trials. The vaccine, made by Acambis, should protect against all strains of influenza A — the cause of pandemics. Currently, winter flu jabs have to be regularly redesigned because the flu virus keeps changing due to evolution. The new vaccine would overcome this and could be stockpiled in advance of a bird flu outbreak, say experts.

If the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza ever comes to Kansas, diagnosticians at Kansas State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory will be the first to know. The lab, which is part of K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is the first place samples would be tested if there were a suspected case of avian influenza in Kansas. “K-State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is known for thorough and timely diagnostic services,” said Dr. Gary Anderson, director of the lab and professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology. “And in the case of bird flu, were it to make it to Kansas, time would be of the essence. We presently have five employees who are certified by the National Animal Health Laboratory Network to perform avian influenza testing, which allows handling of a large number of samples and reporting the results within a short time frame.”

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in Egypt, Bangladesh, Viet Nam, China and in Israel, and in humans in Egypt.

PetSmart has suspended bird sales in 775 stores in 44 states, including nine stores in the Pittsburgh area, because a number of cockatiels have tested positive for psittacosis, also known as parrot fever. Psittacosis is an infection caused by bacteria. Birds can transmit the disease to other birds and to people. “We suspended sales as a precaution,” the PetSmart spokesman said. “Employees wear gloves and gowns” when they feed and care for the birds, and there have been no reports of employees or customers contracting psittacosis.

Avian cholera is killing eared grebes, and likely ducks and gulls, on the Great Salt Lake in what is becoming a familiar event on the important migratory bird flyway. Prevailing northwesterly winds have blown about 1,500 bird carcasses into windrows along a half-mile stretch of the lake’s southern shoreline near Saltair, Tom Aldrich, migratory game bird expert for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said. While the disease doesn’t affect humans, people shouldn’t pick up the birds or let their dogs chew on them, he said. Avian cholera is a blood poisoning that spread when birds are overcrowded and food supplies short.

A mysterious die-off of hundreds of crows throughout New York has been linked to an avian reovirus, a pathogen that has threatened the poultry industry in the past, relentlessly sweeping through flocks, state wildlife officials said. The virus is a bird pathogen and is not likely to jump the species barrier to cause infections in humans. However, state health officials are taking no chances and scientists at Wadsworth Laboratory, a division of the State Health Department, are studying the virus. “Initially, I didn’t know what it was,” said State wildlife pathologist Ward Stone. “You really don’t know until you do the post-mortem examinations,” he said, which include preliminary viral typing. Additional specimens are being sent to a federal wildlife laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, which is expected to provide further molecular details about the strain.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 24 December 2007: Monday, Operation Migration, about Whooping Cranes and the ultralight trip between Wisconsin & Florida; Tuesday, ptarmigan growing snowshoes; Wednesday, “Why Do Chickadees Come and Go” — taking turns at the birdfeeder; Thursday, a reading from Barry Lopez on Snow Geese; Friday, where the term “jaywalking” came from. 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!

Flying an F-15E Eagle fighter may be the sexiest job the military has to offer. The least sexy may be bagging up snarge: the beaks, talons and feathers smeared on the jet’s exterior when an Eagle hits a sparrow at 500 miles per hour. Lt. Col. Del Johnson does both. His day job is firing up the afterburners and flying combat missions out of Bagram, the main U.S. air base in Afghanistan. But as flight safety officer, his duties also include making sure that every time war bird and regular bird collide, the latter is scraped off the former and shipped to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution. [also, a streaming story].

Miscellaneous Bird News

Each December the naturalists at Hilton Pond lead a York/Rock Hill SC Christmas Bird Count under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. The latest census is the topic for their 22-28 December 2007 installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond.” You can view the complete count results — including diagnostic photos of vultures, Ring-billed Gull, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and an uncountable Northern Goshawk. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded and recaptured during the period, plus an interesting weather note.

The neighborhoods of Charlotte, NC, lined with graceful houses and arching trees, are home to a booming population of hundreds of barred owls — adaptable birds as happy in one of the largest cities in the South as in an old-growth forest. Barred owls have provoked controversy: Federal agencies recently proposed shooting them in the Pacific Northwest, where barred owls have invaded old-growth forests that were once the exclusive haunt of the closely related, but endangered, spotted owl. In the past decade, the number of spotted owls in Washington has declined nearly 7 percent a year — in part because the bigger, more aggressive barred owl expanded its range in the state and began driving out its threatened cousin. But barred owls are also interesting and engaging, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland.

They clutter up town centers and parks, spreading disease and leaving behind tons of droppings. But now, the feral grey pigeon — a bird known by detractors as the “rat with wings” — could have met its match. A new study has found that ordinary town pigeons are being ousted from urban areas in the UK by their country cousins — the larger, and even hungrier, woodpigeon. According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s GardenWatch survey, woodpigeons now outnumber the feral version by two to one in many parts of the UK.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Sheri, Scott, Caren, Bill, Ellen, Jeremy and Ron for sending story links. 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!