Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Sleeping Flamingoes.

Image: orphaned image [larger size].

People Hurting Birds

A new study, based on the use of “climate envelope modelling”, predicts that without vigorous and immediate action against climate change, the potential future distribution of the average European bird species will shift by nearly 550 km to the northeast by the end of this century, will reduce their range size by a fifth and overlap their current range by only 40 per cent. Alarmingly, the atlas shows that three quarters of all Europe’s nesting bird species are likely to suffer declines in range. Arctic and subArctic birds and some Iberian species are projected to suffer the greatest potential range loss. Projected changes for some species found only in Europe, or with only small populations elsewhere, suggest that climate change could set some species on a path to extinction.

People Helping Birds

Several parrots who had been released into the rural area near Yacolt, Washington now have their very own custom-built, 30-foot-high nesting platform. Joy Tindall spearheaded the project to get the parrots off a utility pole transformer platform that was dangerous for them to live on. “They have been really happy — watching us all day,” Tindall said, pointing to the platform next to her back yard.

Nepal will open its first vulture breeding center to try to save the birds from extinction, according to a leading conservation group. Of the eight species of vultures found in Nepal, the white-rumped and slender-billed vultures are categorized as critically endangered. The numbers of both species have plunged in Nepal and India and scientists say the decline is largely due to farmers dosing their cattle with diclofenac, a drug used to treat inflammation, which also poisons the scavenging birds. Conservationists estimate the number of vultures in Nepal to have dropped to about 500 nesting pairs from 50,000 in 1990, primarily from eating dead cattle treated with diclofenac.

Firefighters in the Australia’s Fitzgerald River National Park will continue back-burning this morning in an effort to contain a blaze before a forecast change in wind direction around midday. Emergency services say the wind will test containment lines they have set up since the fire was sparked by lightning. Crews have faced major problems with parts of the park being inaccessible and trying to protect two species of rare native animals, the Ground Parrot and Dibblers.

Rare Bird News

The Critically Endangered Laysan Duck, Anas laysanensis, had a very successful 2007 breeding season according to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. The year’s total of adults and fledglings on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) has now risen to about 200 individuals. This is only the third year since this species was translocated. In 2004 and 2005, 42 individuals made a 750-mile voyage across the Pacific and were released at Midway Atoll NWR, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to increase the species’s geographic distribution and reduce its risk of extinction. With the translocated population more than quadrupling in only three years, researchers are now optimistic that the project will help promote the conservation of this Critically Endangered species.

Avian Diseases and Zoonotics News

PetSmart has suspended bird sales in more than 700 stores after some tested positive for a bacterial infection, Chlamydia psittaci, that could spread to humans. Random tests have shown some cockatiels tested positive for parrot fever, which can be passed to humans. The condition is treatable, and most birds recover.

Botulism has been blamed for the deaths of thousands of wild birds along Lake Michigan. The sugar-white sand, long buried in the crushed gray shells of invasive mussels and mats of rotting algae was suddenly littered with dead birds. “It was almost like a war zone of birds,” said Rentrop, a Michigan lawyer who recalled his November stroll along a Michigan beach. Rentrop counted 80 carcasses on a remote mile of beach near Cross Village, just a fraction of the estimated thousands of dead mergansers, gulls, loons and other birds whose migration last autumn ended in deadly poisoning from Type E botulism on Lake Michigan.

Avian cholera, a deadly disease to waterfowl that occurs during the winter months, is causing dieoffs at Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley national wildlife refuges. Avian cholera is lethal to waterfowl and other birds, but does not affect humans. “We’ve got boats out today, and so far there have been about 3,000 dead birds collected,” said biologist Mike Wolder at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Willows. “The disease strikes every year during cold spells and fog. ”

An avian reovirus was detected two weeks ago when an alarming wintertime infection worked its way through crows’ roosts in NY state, but the pathogen appears to have done more damage than initially suspected. State wildlife pathologist Ward Stone, who has been leading a scientific investigation of the die-off, said the number of dead crows has reached into the “low thousands.” At the beginning of his probe, he estimated that several hundred crows had succumbed to the infection. When warmer temperatures melted snow in many upstate communities last week, even more dead birds were found. “There were more dead birds out there and more are being sent in,” he said, referring to citizens who are finding dead crows in their yards and sending them to Stone’s laboratory for study.

A research report published last week says that the factors governing whether H5N1 avian influenza viruses can invade human cells are more complex than previously thought and have to do with the particular shape of the cell-surface sugar molecules to which viruses attach. The new study suggests that the virus has an affinity for a particular topology, or shape, of receptor in the human upper respiratory tract.

Thailand will host an international conference from Jan. 23-25 on avian influenza aimed at finding the best solution to dealing with and preventing outbreaks of the bird flu virus. About 400 scientists and health experts from 40 countries will attend the conference, at which more than 140 research programs and studies will be addressed.

The Indonesian island of Bali will host the Sixth International Bird Flu (Avian Influenza/AI) Summit from March 27 to 28, 2008. Top leaders and key decision-makers of major companies representing a broad range of industries will meet with noted scientists, public health officials, law enforcers, and other experts to discuss pandemic prevention, preparedness, responses and recovery of bird flu at the summit, according to a press statement issued by the Summit’s organizing committee, the US-based New Fields Exhibitions, Inc.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been indentified in domestic birds in Ukraine, India, Bangladesh and Iran , in wild birds in Great Britain and Iran and in humans in Indonesia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 21 January 2008: Monday, does the early bird really fare the best?; Tuesday, how feathers insulate; Wednesday, John Burroughs, naturalist and writer; Thursday, more about John Burroughs; Friday, how the robin got its name. 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].

A New York City Council resolution on whether and how to feed the city’s pigeons has engendered debate, recrimination, protest — and now, possibly, pre-approved feeding areas for the birds, whom defenders laud as noble, and detractors deride as “rats with wings.” [NPR; streaming 3:58]

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

At first glance the winter woods may seem brown and lifeless, but a closer examination will reveal a surprising number of still-green broadleafed plants from trees to vines to forbs. This Week at Hilton Pond the naturalists offer a photo essay about these overlooked native evergreens. As always they include a list of birds banded and recaptured during the week, as well as miscellaneous nature notes, a photo of Rufous Hummingbird they just banded in Columbus NC, and a few words of wisdom from Kermit the Frog.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to 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!


  1. #1 Bob
    January 22, 2008

    Alarmingly…Projected changes for some species found only in Europe, or with only small populations elsewhere, suggest that climate change could set some species on a path to extinction.

    Hey, I thought you weren’t opposed to evolution! You can’t have evolution without extinction.

    Anyway, this just means that some species will be replaced by others. Maybe the crows in my backyard will be replaced by parrots! How cool would that be!

    Actually, though, right now I can see three crows huddled together on a branch outside my window, feathers fluffed to the max, surveying the bleak snowscape for something to eat. They really don’t look like they’d mind if it got a little warmer.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    January 22, 2008

    since we are currently in the next great mass extinction, this one due to anthropogenic causes, i would say that no, this dramatic climate has little if anything to do with er “evolution”. (i am unclear as to what you mean by that anyway).

    the fact remains that it is unlikely that crows will be replaced by parrots because animals and the plants that they depend upon must move together. plants, as you might have noticed, are very slow moving, so it is unlikely that “new habitat” will be able to support many displaced animals. further, this doesn’t even take into account the soil conditions and whatnot that serve to prevent plants from colonizing particular areas, etc. additionally, climate change affects weather patterns, such that large areas that formerly supported forest, etc., can become desert, especially since the vegetation is in a huge state of flux, so what defines a habitat is dependent upon a huge complex of interacting factors.

    in fact, climate change and the ensuing extinctions has everything to do with a global natural disaster. just because people live on this planet doesn’t mean we have the right to destroy it and its biological diversity.

    oh, speaking of evolution, do we love cockroaches, rats and mice so much that we wish to wipe the planet clean of millions of other life forms so these species can exclusively take their places? what a diminished life our grandkids will lead!

  3. #3 Bob
    January 22, 2008

    The earth has been both much warmer and much colder in the past. Biological diversity was not “destroyed” by such variations, and in fact you can make the case that it was enhanced. Even mass extinctions can be beneficial in that regard. The mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs made ecological room for proto-rats and mice (which pretty much constituted the class Mammalia at the time) to expand into the vast variety of mammals we see today, including ourselves. That’s what I mean by evolution.

    I’m not going to get upset about climate “change” because I don’t have any reason to believe that the present climate is somehow perfect. Sometimes change is good.

    And plants are in fact quite mobile, because of things called “seeds,” which can travel with the wind. That’s why, when parrots arrived on South Sea islands, there were already suitable plants there for them to eat.

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    January 22, 2008

    i am quite aware that seeds are mobile, using a variety of methods for getting around, but the fact remains that birds in particular can move many thousands of miles within a few days whereas plants cannot. further, plants take years to become established enough in new locales so that birds and other creatures can utilize the habitat that they provide.

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