Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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New wintering sites for critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, have been discovered in Myanmar.

Image: Peter Ericsson.


Birds in Science

There is a lot of controversy among scientists regarding when modern birds first appeared. The current fossil record suggests that modern birds appeared approximately 60-65 million years ago when the other lineages of dinosaurs (along with at least half of all terrestrial animals) were extinguished by a bolide impact. However, it is possible that modern birds were around much longer than that, although corroborating fossil evidence have yet to be found. But scientists can also rely on another way to estimate the age of lineages: molecular clocks. This article presents new data suppoprting an earlier appearance of modern birds, and adds new fuel to the Rocks versus clocks controversy.

A new fossil species of flying reptile with a wingspan of less than 30cm (1ft) has been discovered in China. The nearly complete articulated skeleton was unearthed in fossil beds from north-eastern China. The 120-million-year-old reptile had not reached adulthood when it died, but neither was it a hatchling. Study of the fossil suggests it is one of the smallest pterosaurs known. The new species has been named Nemicolopterus crypticus, which means “hidden flying forest dweller”.

And speaking of new dinosaur species (well, they are almost birds!), two newfound dinosaur species were revealed recently. Both roamed Africa’s Sahara desert some 110 million years ago and were found in present-day Niger. These two dinosaurs have a peculiar horny face structure that may have had a special role. “From the texture of the [skull] bone, it seems like they almost have a bill on the front of their face for sticking their head in and gnawing away at carcasses,” said Paul Sereno. Story includes drawings of these peculiar animals.

The beeps, chirps and whistles made by some hummingbirds that were thought to be vocal are actually created by the birds’ tail feathers, according to a study by two students at the University of California, Berkeley. The students used a high-speed camera to record the dive-bomber display of the Anna’s hummingbird, Calypte anna, the West Coast’s most common hummer now in the heat of mating season. The video established that the chirp a male makes at the nadir of his dive coincides with a 60 millisecond spreading of his tail feathers — faster than the blink of an eye. Story includes video and sound files along with a lot of really interesting pictures.

People Hurting Birds

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under pressure from a pesticide manufacturer and members of Congress to reverse an August 30, 2006 decision to cancel the registration of all uses of the highly toxic pesticide “Furadan” (carbofuran), sold by FMC Corporation. A Scientific Advisory Panel reviewed the decision last week and agreed with EPA that the pesticide poses an unreasonable risk to the environment, particularly birds, and that there was no evidence to recommend reversing EPA’s decision to cancel carbofuran. “Those who support keeping carbofuran on the market are stating their clear indifference to conserving wildlife and to exposing workers to toxins,” said Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy. “Carbofuran is harmful to human health, and one of the most deadly pesticides to birds left on the market. It is responsible for the deaths of millions of wild birds since its introduction in 1967, including Bald and Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, and migratory songbirds. EPA has already said a firm no to the continued use of this substance, and lawmakers need to listen to the experts on this.”

The king penguin, a species that rebounded from near-extinction over the last century, could be wiped out in coming decades due to global warming, researchers report. If the surface temperature of the Southern Ocean rises 0.47 degrees Fahrenheit — an increase well below current forecasts of 0.72 degrees over the next 20 years — declining food availability would lead to a population collapse, the scientists estimated.

People Helping Birds

This Op-Ed piece was written by one of my Seattle bird pals, Kevin Mack. He has an important message about co-existence that is long overdue, in my opinion.

Iowans love their birds — they spend $45 million every year on bird food alone, according to an Iowa wildlife specialist. Jim Pease, an associate professor at Iowa State University and an extension wildlife specialist, spoke recently on migrating birds and birding in Iowa to about 100 avid avian fans. “Migration is dangerous. Storms and big fires can affect their navigation. Thousands fly into tall buildings, towers and guide wires. We’re losing a lot of their resting habitat — wetlands, woodlands and prairie,” Pease told his audience.

Six conservation groups launched a lawsuit against Canada’s federal environment minister on Valentine’s Day to protect the prairie habitat needed by the endangered sage grouse to strut its spectacular mating dance. The bird, native to southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan, gather in breeding grounds called leks every spring. The males fan out their tail feathers and puff air in and out of air sacs on their necks, pushing out their chests. They perform for several hours a day to attract females, while all birds hoot and cackle.

Japanese and U.S. government officials and researchers have begun selecting albatross chicks born on Torishima island in the Izu Islands for use in a breeding program that will see the birds moved to Mukojima island in the Ogasawara Islands, the ministry said recently. An 11-member team from Yamashina Institute for Ornithology in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, the Environment Ministry and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to take 10 albatross chicks to Mukojima island as a volcano on Torishima island is threatening to erupt. The team members will hand-raise the chicks on Mukojima island, where they will instill in them the idea that the island is their home.

Bird populations in urban areas of Britain are directly affected by the wealth of residents, scientists say. They discovered there are more birds in affluent urban areas than in poorer ones because wealthier people are more interested in birds and more inclined to feed them. Scientists say they have discovered that a high density of bird feeders and bird tables raises the overall numbers of birds in urban areas, independently of factors such as the presence of parks and large gardens.

A golden eagle who was blinded after flying into an electricity pylon has had her vision partially restored by a ground-breaking operation. Electra the eagle lost her sight when she developed cataracts after flying into the pylon as she tried to escape attack from crows on Mull. A Glasgow University vet carried out the first cataract operation ever performed on a golden eagle. The operation restored the sight in one of Electra’s eyes.

A new competition has just been launched that seeks photos of the rarest birds in the world, those categorized as Critically Endangered, to be featured in the next edition of Rare Birds Yearbook which is due out in October 2008. The editors are offfering a new category with a top prize of a travel-friendly Minox telescope, for the best photo or painting of those species that did not feature with photos in the 2008 edition. The competition ends on 31 May. Be sure to check out the revised species list for 2009 on and see if you have photos of any of these rare “wanted” bird species. An important objective of Rare Birds Yearbook is to create funds to save these rare birds, and they donate £4.00 for every book sold to BirdLife International, their partner in this project.

Bird Watching News

The Great Backyard Bird Count began 11 years ago to solicit “citizen scientists” to help record the diversity of bird species in all regions of the United States, detect declines in population and recognize shifts in migration patterns and other behaviors. “We emphasize back yards, because we think it’s a great way for people who may be newer to bird-watching to count the birds and see what’s in their back yard and learn what is in their ecosystem,” said Nancy Severance, a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society. Severance said citizen science, in which scientists and bird experts enlist nonscientists, has long been important in monitoring birds and other wildlife.

Rare Bird News

Eighty-four spoon-billed sandpipers have been discovered in a coastal stretch of Myanmar, offering hope for saving the endangered birds, a conservation group said recently. The discovery in early February comes only months after Russian researchers reported that numbers of the tiny birds — with speckled brow feathers and a distinctive spoon-shaped bill — had dropped 70 percent in the past few years in their breeding sites in Siberia and none had been seen this year in their traditional wintering sites in Bangladesh, according to the Britain-based conservation group BirdLife International. The World Conservation Union lists the bird as endangered with only 200 to 300 pairs left in the wild. Maybe you can give your true love a love spoon in honor of Valentine’s Day?

The Year of the Rat may have started off in a bad way for Chinese Crested Terns, protected rare birds found on Matsu Island (馬祖), as they may face extinction because of a rat epidemic. “There have been reports that the rare birds face total elimination because of a rat invasion,” Tien Chiu-Chin (田秋堇), TSES chairwoman said recently. “Since the Chinese Crested Tern is only known to breed on Matsu, when international birding societies were informed that rats were attacking the bird’s habitat and eating their eggs during breeding season, they were extremely alarmed.”

Avian Disease and Zoonotics News

More than 40 birds found dead in and around a holding pond at the Ukiah, California, waste water treatment plant earlier this month were likely killed by avian cholera, according to lab reports. Between 40 and 50 American Coots were found dead in the holding ponds on 4 February. The dead birds were collected and most of them were incinerated, but eight were sent to the California Animal Health Laboratory in Davis for testing, according to reports from the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency.

Widespread flu activity now exists in virtually every state, and many of the infections are being caused by some strains not covered by this year’s influenza vaccine, U.S. health officials said. “After relatively low levels of influenza activity in the early part of the season, since January, influenza activity has been picking up in the nation,” Dr. Joe Bresee, chief of the branch of epidemiology and prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Influenza Division, said recently.

Health officials raised concerns after 10 patients near Chicago tested positive for a drug-resistant influenza, a report said. The flu strain is resistant to the commonly used anti-flu drug, Tamiflu, but has successfully responded to other treatments, the Chicago Tribune reported recently. But this is worrisome to officials. “If you had two viruses in the same cell, they could recombine and generate a new virus. The fact that we’re seeing resistance to first-line medications is worrisome,” said Steven Wolinsky, chief of infectious diseases at Northwestern University.

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has received a $9.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to better control influenza epidemics in the developing world. The three-year grant will allow UTMB scientists to help accelerate development of a new kind of flu vaccine that aims to strengthen people’s natural immunity by linking the two main mechanisms of immune defense, innate and adaptive immunity.

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in Laos, India and Bangladesh and in people in Indonesia and Viet Nam.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 18 February 2008: we feature Old Abe, the war eagle that accompanied a Wisconsin regiment in the Civil War; Tuesday, two listeners’ stories; Wednesday, the Altamira Oriole; Thursday, an interview with Cornell Lab’s recordist and photographer Gerrit Vyn, and Friday, the legend that storks bring babies. 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!

Birds Cams

There is a BirdCam on the top of the Computer Science building at Cal State, Bakersfield, that is streaming the daily life of a nesting female Great Horned Owl. It also includes a fast motion video link depicting a time lapse of Mama Owl’s 2007 stay.

Miscellaneous Bird News

Do you want to practice looking at birds? If so, Eagle Eyes is an entertaining online game that you can try — how did you score?

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Darrell, Caren, Abel, 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!