Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 116

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The Little Bustard, Tetrax tetrax, is one of the birds that occurs in the new Special Protection Areas (SPAs) approved by the Portuguese government.

Image: Gabriel Sierra. [larger view].

Birds in Science

Scientists believe they could be a step closer to solving the mystery of how the first birds took to the air. A study published in the journal Nature suggests that the key to understanding the evolution of bird flight is the angle at which a bird flaps its wings. Scientists investigating this area tend to fall into two camps. Those who believe that birds learned to fly from the “top down” — by falling out of trees and gliding, and those who think that birds took to the air from the “ground up” — by running and flapping their wings, possibly to escape predators.

Every summer, male lark buntings shed their dull winter plumage and fly north from Mexico and Texas to build ground nests on the short-grass prairie of the Pawnee National Grassland, northeast of Denver. By the time female birds arrive two weeks later, the males are brightly adorned, often with glossy black feathers and white wing patches that flash as they zoom skyward and float back to the ground, singing all the while. These fancy traits and aerial displays may ward off other males, and they also send a come-hither signal to females. Scientists have always assumed that female birds, looking for good fathers, consistently choose males that exhibit the same exaggerated sexual traits. But new research shows that their preferences change from year to year. But contrary to the current paradigm, female choice doesn’t appear to be fixed. Some females even select partners that look completely different from the previous season’s mates

People Harming Birds

Police and the Department of Conservation (DOC) in New Zealand are appealing for information that will help them catch the sadists who stapled two kea to a road sign in Arthur’s Pass. Members of the public spotted the birds about 10km outside of Arthur’s Pass National Park three days ago. Post mortem results, expected next week, will reveal how the birds died and whether they were dead before they were stapled to the sign.

People Helping Birds

Two severely emaciated and dehydrated bald eagles are clinging to life at Washington State University. The two were found separately in Stevens County around Christmas and were first taken to the Mount Spokane Veterinary Hospital.The rehab program has eight eagles, as well as other animals ranging from owls to bobcats to beavers. Nickol P. Finch, a veterinarian in the teaching hospital, says practically all eagles in the program have lead poisoning.

A giant tropical seabird is being nursed back to health in an animal rescue center after making a rare visit to the Bay Area in California. Animal experts say they have positively identified the bird rescued earlier this month in Healdsburg as a magnificent frigatebird. A wildlife rehabilitator for the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Cordelia says they’ve never treated a frigatebird in the 37 years of the center.

A draft Safe Harbor Agreement that proposes to establish a breeding population of the endangered ko’ko’, or Guam rail, on Cocos has been published. The last remaining wild ko’ko’ were collected from the forest on Andersen Air Force Base in 1985. One captive population is located in Mangilao, Guam, and others are spread throughout 17 participating zoos on the mainland U.S. The ko’ko was federally listed as endangered in 1984. “Thanks to the Cocos Island Resort and its cooperators in local and federal governments, wild ko’ko’ may once again be seen on Guam,” said Patrick Leonard, field supervisor, Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office.

A violent storm that blew through Central Florida a year ago wiped out a flock of endangered whooping cranes. All but one of 18 young whoopers perished in the storm, which spawned deadly tornadoes and killed 21 people in Lake County. The bird that escaped died later about 25 miles away. This winter, a program that helps the cranes has a new flock that has spent the past 94 days — a record-long migration for the program — getting to Florida from Wisconsin. “To say that we were devastated would be an understatement,” Liz Condie, spokeswoman for the nonprofit group Operation Migration, said of last year’s calamity. “You watch a whole year of blood, sweat and tears — gone.”

Thousands of people are expected to spend an hour this weekend taking part in a national survey of garden birds. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch aims to find out which species are the most common visitors to UK’s gardens. In 2007, some 400,000 people took part in the survey and counted six million birds in 236,000 gardens.

Fishing fleets from more than 30 countries on the high seas of the Atlantic and Pacific will now use new ways to avoid accidentally snaring seabirds going after bait on long lines. The new protections are the focus of strong international measures, promoted by NOAA, that go into effect this year. The measures will protect many albatross and seabird species that fly far from land and whose populations are declining faster than most birds around the world, in part due to their incidental catch in fishing long lines used to catch tuna, swordfish and other tuna-like fish.

Eight new Special Protection Areas (SPAs) have been approved by the Portuguese Government. This represents an important step for the conservation of the threatened birds of the Alentejo dry grasslands. SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal) was instrumental in this important nature conservation victory — back in June 2000 SPEA sent a formal complaint against the Portuguese Government to the European Commission (EC), for insufficient designation of SPAs (an obligation under the EU Birds Directive) for the conservation of steppe birds. Eight years later, and following a lengthy court proceeding, the Portuguese authorities decided to designate eight new SPAs, totalling 40,349 ha. At least 60 pairs of Lesser Kestrel, Falco naumanni, 180 Great Bustards, Otis tarda, and 3,000 Little Bustards, Tetrax tetrax, occur in the new SPAs.

Parrot News

We keep them in cages in our homes, but in their natural state they are independent birds who can seek out water over hundreds of miles through pure instinct. We feed them seed from a pet store, but they can find food in a wide variety of habitats. We give them plastic toys and mirrors to play with when in fact in the wild some have figured out how to use tools to communicate and attract mates. For tens of millions of years, parrots have survived and thrived in Australia even as the continent underwent dramatic changes, including some brought about by man. Though some, like the golden-shouldered Parrot are threatened, these tough Aussies have adapted well to deal with harsh life in the outback. Clever, resourceful, opportunistic and resilient, parrots may be Australia’s toughest survivors, and they’re certainly its most beautiful. Parrots in the Land of Oz premieres Sunday, January 27th at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

A Pennsylvania Game Commission proposal to ban nanday conure parrots is raising a squawk in Harrisburg. Bird fanciers say it’s unfair to single out the green South American birds. “If they can justify banning the nanday,” said Chet Fuhrman of Columbia, “then they can justify banning any pet bird species.” Rumors aside, said PGC spokesman Jerry Feaser, the commission has no plan to confiscate birds. “A lot of this is based on the false assumption that there would be a roundup and euthanization of these animals. That is not part of this proposal.”

Although now contained, fires in the ecologically significant Fitzgerald River National Park in Western Australia continue to burn.The fires, which were started by a lightning strike a week ago, broke the northern containment line three days ago and spilled onto private property aided by strong, variable winds. The South Coast Highway, which was closed on the previous Monday, has since been reopened and residents have been informed that the immediate threat has passed. Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) information services officer Aminya Ennis said the Fitzgerald National Park contains a high number of endemic species including one of only two known populations of the critically endangered western ground parrot — of which only 150 birds are thought to exist.

The beak of a bird is a tool with many features. It’s a weapon that can put a dent in any enemy or damage the relationship with a friend. It can be a delicate tool for feeding a newly hatched chick or for the precise adjustment of feathers while grooming. With their beaks, birds can pick a lock, crush a walnut or peel the skin off a grape. Beak shapes and sizes vary widely, depending mostly on the kind of food a certain species eats. The short, straight bill of canaries and other finches is ideal for plucking out seeds, grubs and other edibles. Birds of the parrot family — including budgies, cockatiels and the larger parrots such as macaws — are known as “hookbills,” because of the shape and function of their beaks.

Border guards in Belarus said on Wednesday they had foiled an attempt to smuggle 277 parrots into the ex-Soviet state — aboard a bicycle. Spokesman Alexander Tishchenko said the smuggler abandoned his bicycle and cargo — contained in six cages — and fled back over the border into Ukraine when confronted late on Tuesday at the crossing point of Dubki. “The cages were fixed to an ordinary bicycle. The parrots were stuffed inside like sardines, 40 to 50 to a cage,” he said. Tragically, dumbass veterinarians murdered all of these smuggled parrots because they were paranoid about H5N1 avian influenza.

Avian Diseases and Zoonotics News

Some of the birds flew upside down or threw their heads back between their wings. Some fell out of the sky. Others tried to land a foot or more above the water, or swam in circles when they got there. And then they died. The birds — eared grebes, ruddy ducks, California gulls and northern shovelers, about 15,000 in all — have been discovered over the past month on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. According to the United States Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, they died from avian cholera. The disease is not new to the West, but the recent outbreak was especially potent, said Tom Aldrich, an expert at the Utah division of wildlife resources. It flourishes in cold weather — last November was the coldest on record, Mr. Aldrich said — and rapidly spreads when there are concentrated populations of birds with diminished food resources.

Many migratory birds are dying in lakes of Bengal India’s bird flu-hit areas. But neither the state animal resources department (ARD) nor the forest officials had any clue about steps that need to be taken. While the ARD said it was up to the forest department to decide on the course of action, the latter was waiting for directions from the Center as there are no instances of migratory birds being culled in India. GrrlScientist says: I can’t believe I am saying this, but the general disorganization in India is a good thing because I seriously doubt that wild birds are spreading this virus, especially since no one seems to be able to diagnose it in dead or dying wild birds, even though they can find it in domestic birds — although it is possible that domestic birds are infecting and killing wild migratory birds (but I am sure that the wild birds are dying before they go very far, so why kill them when this is a domestic bird problem that resulted from factory farming practices?).

There is no solid evidence that wild birds are to blame for the apparent spread of the H5N1 virus from Asia to parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, an animal disease expert said recently. There was also no proof that wild birds were a reservoir for the H5N1 virus, Scott Newman, international wildlife coordinator for avian influenza at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said at a bird flu conference in Bangkok. “We know that some wild birds have probably moved short distances carrying viruses and then they died, but we have not been able to identify carriage of H5N1 across large scale spatial distances and then resulting in spread to other birds and mortality in poultry flocks,” said Newman. GrrlScientist note: It’s nice to see that, once again, that my own LOUDLY voiced contention during the past five years that wild birds were not primarily responsible for spreading H5N1 is supported. Does this mean I’ll get a job researching avian influenza now?

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Iran, Turkey, Thailand, India and Bangladesh and in wild birds in the United Kingdom and in humans in Viet Nam and Indonesia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 28 January 2008: Monday, why blackbirds are black; Tuesday, Bohemian Waxwings; Wednesday, the early bird — about a study out of Ohio State University that appeared in The Condor; Thursday, Violaceous Trogons nest with wasps; Friday, “swan song” — the music of swans, classical and avian. 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].

When we feed birds, spread seeds on the ground and pour them into various feeders, we expect finches and chickadees to show up. In southeast Ohio, a good snow may bring 70 northern cardinals to our feeders, stunning testament to the ecological impact of our little seed restaurant. Sometimes, though, a customer swaggers into our vegan bird restaurant, plops down and orders a steak, rare. The waitress, in her table-waiting uniform of flannel pajamas and rubber boots, is taken aback. She puts down the bucket of seed she was carrying. “I’m sorry, sir. We don’t serve meat here.” [All Things Considered NPR: streaming 2:58]

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

After last week’s photo essay about broadleafed plants in winter, the naturalists at Hilton Pond center decided to take a closer look at cold weather greenery adorning the woods at Hilton Pond Center. And by “closer,” they mean they pulled out the old macro lens for some larger-than-life shots. In addition to their photoessay, they include a tally of all birds banded, but of particular interest this week were some old birds returning to Hilton Pond. There are also some miscellaneous nature notes, including a comment about winter weather.

The Birding Community E-bulletin for January 2008 is being distributed online through 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 website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA).

Faith-based Birding

David Baxter, 62, has hunted the Big Woods in eastern Arkansas for most of his life. But these days, his weapon of choice is an old 35-millimeter camera with a zoom lens, which he keeps in his blue pickup truck at all times just in case he comes across an ivory-billed woodpecker. “God help me, I am trying,” said Mr. Baxter, who thinks nothing of camouflaging himself in front of old swampy cypress trees for up to three hours in case the elusive bird makes an appearance. “No matter what I am doing, I am looking.” Before 2005, Mr. Baxter, along with many of his neighbors, had never heard of an ivory-billed woodpecker. They certainly never imagined such a creature would emerge from the darkness of extinction and become a symbol of hope for their increasingly endangered delta towns. Unfortunately, it seems it hasn’t happened, even yet.

Fun Birds

I was listening to NPR yesterday morning (as usual), when I heard Will Shortz, the crossword editor for the NYTimes, challenge the public with this question; Take the three bird names egret, crane and owl. Rearrange the 13 letters to spell three other bird names. They are all common names. What are they? Be sure to apply online to the puzzle program site with your answer by 30 January. Incidentally, if you do get on the air next Sunday, you gotta promote Birds in the News while you are there.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Biosparite, Elke, David, Pete, Barbara, Caren, Ian, 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 Hai~Ren
    January 28, 2008

    Tragically, dumbass veterinarians murdered all of these smuggled parrots because they were paranoid about H5N1 avian influenza.

    WHAT??! *facepalm*

    Sigh…are there any news sources which state exactly which parrot species were involved in the smuggling? If the species concerned are endangered, this incident should be highlighted and condemned by the international conservation community.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    January 28, 2008

    i haven’t been able to find any sources yet, and you also have to remember that most journalists and government officials don’t know anything about parrots, so even if they report that certain species were in the group of smuggled parrots, one must take that information with a HUGE grain of salt.

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