Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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King penguins, Aptenodytes patagonicus, swim off the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean near Antarctica. Scientists estimate that a rise in ocean surface temperature of less than half a degree over the next 20 years would lead to a population collapse.

Image: Yvon Le Maho, French National Center for Scientific Research.


Birds in Science

Primitive feathers that represent a key missing link in their evolution have been found, fossilized in 100-million-year-old amber from France. As long as scientists have studied birds, they have puzzled over that most intricate of avian features — the feather. Because it is a marvellous feat of biological engineering, it has been siezed on by creationists trying to find evidence of designs that lie beyond the abilities of evolution. Scientists themselves have squabbled over whether they first emerged to keep warm, to enable the first airborne creatures to fly from the ground, or so they could glide from bough to bough in trees.

People Hurting Birds

The US Government has auctioned leases to drill for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, putting at risk internationally important concentrations of seabirds, and a number of threatened bird species, including the Critically Endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Brachyramphus brevirostri. In a 2006 report on seabirds in Alaska, the US Fish and Wildlife Service commented: “no North American coast where murres occur has been exempt from major kills due to oil spills during the past 50 years.” Audubon Senior Vice President Betsy Loyless, said: “spills in those icy rough waters are nearly impossible to clean up before doing damage to wildlife.”

Virtually unknown just six years ago the snake pipefish’s population has exploded in British waters recently, with potentially disastrous consequences for seabird populations. The bony, rigid fish provides poor nutritional value for adult birds and can actually kill chicks that choke on the bodies. Yet terns, puffins, and other seabirds are increasingly turning to the fish for food as the populations of other fish continue to decline. Sea bird populations have already been dropping in recent years as their primary food source of small fish and eels become more and more scarce. The birds are increasingly turning to pipefish to avoid starvation.

The great cormorant is not an attractive bird. Notwithstanding the regal pose it assumes when holding out saturated wings to dry, or the fine, glossy sheen of its coat, only its close relation, the shag, surpasses its prehistoric ugliness among the breeding birds of Britain. But the overall attitude of fishermen has always been to regard them as a nuisance. “Historically, they have long been persecuted, especially on inland waters,” says Dr Stuart Newson, population biologist of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). “Their numbers have always been kept at really low levels across Europe.” Newson argues that although cormorant numbers appear to be flourishing, they are more vulnerable that they seem. The last wintering data from the BTO is from 2005-06, the year after Defra licensed a cull of up to 3,000 birds. Those figures highlighted a marked drop in wintering cormorants.

Invasive rats on ocean islands are threatening the survival of many of the world’s seabirds, according to a new report. The global analysis found that non-native rats have been observed preying on roughly a quarter of all seabird species, often with disastrous consequences. The voracious rodents attack bird nesting colonies, eating eggs, chicks, and sometimes even adult birds. Now 102 of 328 recognized seabird species are considered threatened or endangered by the World Conservation Union, with predation by invasive species ranking among the top dangers.

Cats versus Birds News

Suspected by the feds of a few killings, Cape May’s feral felines were all set to start new lives far from where endangered shorebirds nest. Then howls from the cats’ backers persuaded the Cape May City Council to back down on the relocation plan and risk losing millions of dollars in federal sand replenishment. Wild cats are as much a part of genteel Cape May culture as rainbow-colored Victorian bed and breakfasts, trolley tours and cocktails on the porch at sunset. Cat-lovers said people are the real threat to endangered shorebirds. “The cats should be kept away from there, but so should people,” said resident Bill Pollock, who feeds a wild cat colony near his house.

People Helping Birds

In Washington state, the Yacolt Parrot Preservation Association, formed in November when the utility removed five nests from transformers, has invited various bird groups interested in the fate of about 15 parrots to help put up seven steel poles and attach nesting sites. The poles and other materials are being paid for by donations, said Joy Tindall, one of the association founders.

One woman created a wetlands Eden at the Salton Sea on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation for more than 135 bird species. Officials hope it’s a microcosm of what will happen when state’s restoration plan gets off the drawing board. Working mostly on her own out of a converted trailer, Debi Livesay won $2.3 million from state and federal agencies and began excavating seven ponds ranging from a few inches to 6 feet deep, and up to 20 acres wide. “You have birds here that shouldn’t be here, birds from Canada all the way down to Central America,” she said. “People come from all over the world to see this sight. There is no other place like it. And that’s why we have to preserve it.”

Hawaii is home to a quarter of the endangered species in the United States. US Marines in Hawaii are doing their part to help the environment while gaining valuable combat experience. Hawaii’s endangered water birds like to nest on muddy surfaces but invasive pickle weed has taken over the ground they used to call home. But weeds are no match for the United States Marines Corps. “Today the training that these Marines are getting their getting training on terrain driving, learning how to drive on terrain that is not just flat,” said Sergeant Justin Varga, a section leader.

The Shorebird Research Group of the Americas (SRGA) is a consortium of researchers from academia, government, nongovernmental organizations, and the public interested in the biology and conservation of shorebirds in the Americas. Their purpose is to encourage collaborative working groups, provide communication between individuals and groups, and be a clearing house for emerging ideas and issues related to shorebirds. The group recently launched its new website which further explains the SRGA and provides information about its next meeting, slated to be held in Mexico in Spring 2009.

The Fisheries Minister of New Zealand has announced new restrictions for long liners and fishing trawlers to protect seabirds from being caught. Minister Jim Anderton put the new rules in place while longer term solutions to the problem are developed. He says some parts of the industry are doing excellent work, but some parts have done little or nothing and continue to kill large numbers of sea birds. “I have been frustrated by recent incidents where vessels ignored voluntary codes of practice, did not take any precautions and killed significant numbers of threatened and endangered albatrosses. This is unacceptable and cannot continue,” says Anderton.

Birds and Wind Power

Maps revealing some of England’s most sensitive sites to wind farm development have been published for the first time. They highlight important but unprotected land where thousands of birds could be at risk if wind turbines were built. “We have been appealing to the government for many years to publish maps like these primarily to help developers avoid sites that are important to wildlife”, said Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director. “Now we have taken the initiative. We strongly support wind farm development to help tackle climate change and these maps clearly show the wealth of land still available for turbines and other renewables.”

The orange-bellied parrot, a bird on the brink of extinction in Australia, was the focus of controversy two years ago when the Federal Government stalled plans for a wind farm in Victoria to protect the species. Now an ambitious recovery project aims to change its fate (read this interview to learn more).

Domestic Bird News

George, an African grey parrot, lost his leg when he was attacked in his aviary by a wild animal a year and a half ago. Ever since, he’s had trouble sleeping as he tends to topple over, leading to him screeching “bloody hell!” That means owner Sheila Weare has been suffering some sleepless nights herself, not only disturbed by George’s outbursts but also by her own worrying about her feathered friend. So the owner contacted a veterinarian who designed an artificial leg for the parrot.

Parrots and other birds are becoming an increasingly popular pets in the United States. Birds bring instant song to a household and need as much affection and petting as their four-legged counterparts. Dispelling the Tweety/Sylvester stereotype, birds thrive in the presence of other animals — even cats. “About one-third of my practice is dedicated to exotics and it’s growing,” said Dr. Paul Sedlacek, a veterinarian and avian specialist with the Animal Clinic of Morris Plains, N.J.

Burglars in a recent run of Quebec bird heists have struck with surgical precision, taking prized parrots while leaving behind valuable jewelry, electronics and even cash. Experts say parrot-theft specialists target the exotic birds to sell for thousands of dollars in a worldwide marketplace. “It’s clearly part of a big racket,” said Yvon Girard, who lost a $4,000 Amazon parrot named Tommy and a macaw named Sonny, along with three purebred chihuahuas.

Avian Disease News

Tests of dead birds that washed ashore at Richardson Bay in Marin County, California, indicate avian cholera is partially to blame, and the state Department of Fish and Game now believes the die-off had nothing to do with two massive sewage spills. Since January 26, some 294 dead birds have turned up on beaches around Richardson Bay. The deaths coincided with the first of two massive spills of raw sewage by the Southern Marin Sewerage Agency.

An endangered group of cassowaries that survived a severe tropical cyclone almost two years ago may now have to fight disease brought on by the storm, an Australian biologist says. Les Moore, a researcher at James Cook University, says the immediate impact of Cyclone Larry, which crossed the North Queensland coast in March 2006, was a large jump in cassowary deaths at Mission Beach. But two years later he fears diseases such as avian tuberculosis may be spreading through the cassowary community near the coastal township, about 140 kilometres south of Cairns.

Indonesia’s Health Minister has suggested that the United States may be involved in a conspiracy to use the bird flu virus to develop biological weapons. The extraordinary allegation is included in a new book, endorsed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which describes Indonesia’s fight to assert its ownership of its virulent strains of avian influenza. Concerns over that issue prompted Indonesia last year to stop sharing virus samples with the World Health Organization. Indonesia’s uniquely virulent strain of H5N1 gave the country “bargaining power” according to Indonesia’s Health Minister Dr Siti Fadilah Supari, in her new book called It’s Time for the World to Change and strangely subtitled “The Divine Hand Behind Avian Influenza”. Even more strange, Indonesia is now sharing its H5N1 Avian Influenza samples with WHO again.

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 wild birds in Hong Kong and in domestic birds in Bangladesh, India, Tibet and Pakistan and in humans in Indonesia, Viet Nam and China.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 25 February 2008: Monday, a BirdNote and Skagit Audubon field trip scheduled for Saturday, March 1st; Tuesday, “Birders and Hunters,” about how Ducks Unlimited et al. help save wetlands; Wednesday, how birds’ names change; Thursday, Snow Geese; and Friday, “Leaping with Sandhill Cranes,” in celebration of February 29th. 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.

Bird Book News

This week’s issue of the Birdbooker Report lists bird and natural history books that are (or will soon be) available for purchase.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Ian, Mike, Kathy, Jeff, Caren, 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!

Comments

  1. #1 Rob
    February 25, 2008

    Thanks for another great edition. I haven’t commented for a while, but wanted to let you know I am still an avid reader. Thanks for your hard work!

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    February 25, 2008

    …who feeds a wild cat colony near his house.

    My reaction to that guy would have taught the unidexter parrot a few new words.

    Come on, mate. If you stop feeding the cats, there won’t be so many, so they won’t be such a problem (I suspect that would be a bigger effect than prey switching).

    Grrr.

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