Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Populations of the Southern cassowary, Casuarius casuarius,
around Mission Beach in North Queensland, Australia, are still suffering
from the effects of Cyclone Larry two years ago.

Image: iStockphoto.

Birds in Science

In humans, as in all mammals, sleep consists of two phases: deep, dreamless slow-wave-sleep (SWS) alternates with dream phases, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM)-sleep. In newly published study, sleep researchers found that pigeons can engage in “power sleep” just as mammals can to make up for lost sleep. In their study, the pigeons were prevented from taking naps, something they generally do during the last hours of a day. During the night, the birds were allowed to sleep normally. Although the time spent in SWS did not increase during recovery, the amount of slow-waves did increase, just as in mammals. This means that pigeons, and presumably other birds, have the capacity to recover lost sleep without having to spend more time sleeping.

People Hurting Birds

Tripp “Bird Killer” Isenhour said he made a “one-in-a-million” golf shot when he killed a protected hawk after hitting several balls at it. He claimed that he was only trying to “scare the bird” (he actually threatened to kill it, according to the reports I’ve read) because he normally can’t hit the broad side of a barn, but now he faces misdemeanor criminal charges for the killing (this killing is only a misdemeanor?!). “It was unfortunate, but there’ll be plenty of time for me to tell my story,” (in jail?? One can only hope!) said Isenhour on the Golf Channel’s PODS Championship post-round show Friday, his first interview since news broke that he killed the protected bird 12 December.

Taking your dog for a walk could be having an impact on local birdlife, a study suggests. An Australian team found dog-walking was prompting birds to take flight, causing numbers to plummet by 41%. The researchers said the birds were fleeing because they viewed the dogs as potential predators. “There is an obvious link between people wanting to walk their dogs and the potential disturbance effect on wildlife, and there has been a lot of debate around this, so we wanted to resolve this issue,” said Peter Banks, the lead author of the paper from the University of New South Wales. GrrlScientist comment: This doesn’t surprise me in the least, especially since most so-called “responsible dog owners” walk their dogs off-leash when in natural areas and during the wee hours, under the unfounded delusion that, if they can see their dog(s) nearly all the time, their dog(s) is(are) not causing distress to wildlife and birds. Now we can add “the dreaded dog walking thread” to the “dreaded outdoor cat thread” as topics that piss off people who choose to remain blissfully blind to their (exotic) domestic pets’ damaging effects upon (native) wild animal populations. I like to refer to these twin phenomena as “faith-based wildlife ecology.”

New research by Bird Studies Canada (BirdLife Canadian co-partner with Nature Canada) has highlighted alarming trends in insect-eating birds. In the last two decades alone, populations of many common bug-eating species — such as Sand Martin (Bank Swallow), Riparia riparia, Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor and Chimney Swift, Chaetura pelagica — have declined by over 70%. With many of the birds’ insect prey species also being important plant pollinators, the consequences may be felt by more than just birds. “The magnitude and speed of the declines for some species is quite disturbing,” said Dr Phil Taylor, Chief Scientist, Bird Studies Canada. “It is vital to narrow down the possible reasons as soon as we can.”

The majestic sight of griffon vultures hovering over Cypriot skies may become a thing of the past if the island’s fast dwindling griffon population is not protected from extinction. No more than 20 survivors remain on this eastern Mediterranean holiday island, well below the 40 breeding pairs experts say are needed to ensure their survival. “Griffon vultures are rapidly declining; they are close to extinction and the young aren’t making it,” said Michael Miltiadou, a research officer at conservationist group BirdLife Cyprus. Modern farming methods, in which carcasses are no longer left to rot in fields, as well as diminishing green areas, and, in Cyprus, the widespread poisoning of stray dogs and foxes have all played a part in their demise.

Ski tourism is raising stress levels among Western capercaillie, (wood grouse) the largest member of the grouse family, which could harm the birds’ fitness and ability to breed successfully, ecologists have found. Researchers warn that forests should be kept free from tourism infrastructure if they are inhabited by capercaillie — a species whose numbers are declining markedly across central Europe.

Birds Helping People

[This is my favorite story for the week] Hacker Josh Klein wowed attendees this past weekend at TED — the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference — with his “crow vending machine,” a device that gives the birds peanuts for depositing a coin. It’s all part of Klein’s plan to train crows to save human lives. Klein says this all started when he used a modified version of Skinnerian training to teach his cat to use the toilet, and it worked really well. That made him think that he might be able to use the method with crows. The first inklings that he would work with crows came about 10 years ago, at a cocktail party, when he argued that harnessing the birds to do something useful would be a much better plan for his native Seattle, plagued by crows, than mass slaughter.

Grackles are loud, messy and migratory birds that are pooping all over tourists and residents from trendy areas in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The city tried all sorts of control methods but none worked, so now they are considering using a natural predator to get rid of the grackles, which are similar to blackbirds but larger with a longer tail. Jeff Cattor owns three hawks and a company called “Nighthawk Bird Control.” He demonstrated how a hawk named “Blackjack” could capture a grackle in seconds, and Cattor says when grackles see a hawk, “It is similar to you and me swimming on a beach off the coast of Texas and seeing a shark fin.” The grackles are so terrified that they do not return, Cattor said.

American Bird Conservancy and its partner group Fundación ProAves, have established the first private protected area for the critically endangered Fuertes’s Indigo-winged Parrot. “Until recently, the Fuertes’s Parrot was feared to be extinct,” said Paul Salaman, American Bird Conservancy’s Director of International Programs. “The species inhabits a cloud forest threatened by clearance for cattle ranching and agriculture. By conserving the remaining patches of forest and taking other steps to help this species, we are giving this species a new lease on life.”

People Helping Birds

The Center for Conservation Biology constructed the Nightjar Survey Network in 2007 to begin the process of collecting data on the population distribution and population trends of Nightjars across broad regions of the United States. The Network was initially introduced into the southeast and is being expanded in 2008 to provide coverage throughout the contiguous United States. The Nightjar Survey Network relies on volunteer participation by conservation-minded citizens, biologists, and other like-minded groups to adopt and conduct survey routes and this site is used to collect and share volunteer data about these enigmatic birds.

Fiji’s Long-legged warbler has been placed on the list of endangered world wide birds facing extinction by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Birdlife International Fiji Program senior conservation officer, Vilikesa Masibalavu, said this was a wake up call for the country. He said the long-legged Warblers were only found in Fiji and was thought to have become extinct until 2003 when one was sighted in the Wabu Nature Reserve in central Viti Levu. “The Long-legged Warbler is a ground living bird which means its eggs and young chicks are prey to the Mongoose and rats.”

Birds and Wind Power News

More than 60 years after it was pushed to the edge of extinction, one of North America’s rarest birds, the whooping crane, faces new danger from environmentally-friendly wind farms, conservationists warned. “Companies want to put their farms where the best wind is, and that overlaps with the migration corridor of the whooping crane,” said Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rare Bird News

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to decide within the next two years whether to list up to 58 Hawai’i species as endangered, the agency’s director told Congress this week. Dale Hall, head of the agency, said decisions will be made on whether to protect a total of 92 species nationwide, more than half of which exist only in Hawai’i. “Given how slowly they’ve moved in the past, this feels like a victory,” said Noah Greenwald, science director for the Center of Biological Diversity. GrrlScientist comment: With any luck, if USFWS waits long enough to list these birds, they’ll all be extinct and then developers and other idiots will be able to finish completely destroying the entire island chain without causing any legal repercussions at all!

A rare sea bird not sighted since the 1920s and feared extinct has been rediscovered by a British expedition in waters off Papua New Guinea. The critically endangered Beck’s petrel was re-discovered in the Bismarck Archipelago, in the south-west Pacific Ocean, north-east of Papua New Guinea. “Now it’s been rediscovered. Now we need to do some further survey work looking for the bird and trying to learn more about it” said Nick Askew, spokesman for the British-based bird conservation society Birdlife International. “We haven’t actually found any breeding grounds at present, although there were young birds so they must be breeding in the area somewhere.”

H5N1 Avian Influenza News

The exchange of genetic material between two closely related strains of the influenza A virus may have caused the 1947 and 1951 human flu epidemics, according to biologists. The findings could help explain why some strains cause major pandemics and others lead to seasonal epidemics. It has been a mystery why there are sometimes very severe epidemics that look and act like pandemics, even though no human-bird viral reassortment event occurred. “There was a total vaccine failure in 1947. Researchers initially thought there was a problem in manufacturing the vaccine, but they later realized that the virus had undergone a tremendous evolutionary change,” said Martha Nelson, lead author and a graduate student in Penn State’s Department of Biology. “We now think that the 1947 virus did not just mutate a lot, but that this unusual virus was made through a reassortment event involving two human viruses.

Here is a map of all areas in the world reporting confirmed occurence of H5N1 avian influenza in poultry and wild birds since 2003, status as of 03.03.2008 (latest available update) [PDF].

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Indonesia, Viet Nam and India, in wild birds in Hong Kong and in humans in Egypt.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 10 March 2008: Monday, they talk about the Varied Thrush; Tuesday and Wednesday features Jeff Wells’ new book, Birder’s Conservation Handbook, and what we all can do to help save the boreal forest; Thursday, it’s the Montezuma Oropendola and its strange nest and Friday, it’s a bit of humor, with a story about Sparkie Williams, the famous British budgerigar with a vocabulary of more than 500 words. 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 streaming report about the feral Monk (Quaker) parrots and the utility companies throughout the USA who are too moronic to use their so-called “human intelligence” to think of a creative and non-lethal method for dealing with these birds’ nests.

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. Incidentally, her eggs should be hatching any day now, so be sure to check in often and maybe you will see this event (if so, be sure to screen capture the event for everyone to see!)

Here’s another owl cam, starring Frieda and Diego, a pair of barn owls, for you to watch while you are supposed to be working. Ahem. You didn’t hear this from me, okay?

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.

If you cut down the goldenrod, the wild black cherry, the milkweed and other natives, you eliminate insect larvae, and starve the birds. This simple revelation about the food web — and it is an intricate web, not a chain — is the driving force in a new book, Bringing Nature Home. Gardeners could slow the rate of extinction by planting natives in their yards. In the northeast, a patch of violets will feed fritillary caterpillars. A patch of phlox could support eight species of butterflies. The buttonbush shrub, which has little white flowers, feeds 18 species of butterflies and moths; and blueberry bushes, which support 288 species of moths and butterflies, thrive in big pots on a terrace.

Miscellaneous Bird News

If you like Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, you may be interested in knowing what these little balls of fluff are doing within their tropical wintering range right now — as the naturalists from the Piedmont await their annual spring return to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada. This Week at Hilton Pond is the second installment (Week 2) of the Piedmont naturalists’ recent hummingbird banding report regarding their expedition to Guanacaste Province. Their account includes lots of photos of Costa Rican flora and fauna, people and places, so it may take a while to load. Also included is a summary of their Costa Rica banding efforts, plus a miscellaneous note about Groundhogs and Agoutis. And here is Week Three in their tropics report.

Audubon’s Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species” is the fourth in a series of five planned annual exhibitions drawn from the New-York Historical Society’s unique holdings of watercolors by John James Audubon. The Society owns all of the known 435 original paintings the superstar ornithologist made for the rare double-elephant folio edition of his Birds of America (1827-38), all but one of which were acquired from his widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, in 1863. This exhibition ends on 16 March. With any luck, I will attend this show on Friday, when I can get into the museum for free [last year’s review, written by me].


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Jeanette, Mike, Robert, 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 Rob
    March 10, 2008

    Great edition. You seem a little more fired up on your comments than usual, although I don’t disagree with your perspective. Good luck with the wing, I was sad to hear the news.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    March 10, 2008

    Today seems to be a day for quiffs for me. I just wonder what Elvis hit this cassowary is going to break into.

  3. #3 Bob
    March 11, 2008

    The researchers said the birds were fleeing because they viewed the dogs as potential predators.

    Well, I should hope so. If it weren’t for domestic dogs and cats most city-dwelling birds wouldn’t encounter “predators” at all. If they can’t evade a wiener dog, what chance would they have against non-“exotic” foxes and coyotes? You should thank pets for keeping NYC birds fit and on their toes–you don’t want to see lazy, sluggish, too-fat-to-fly birds waddling down your sidewalks, do you?

    Hope your arm is doing well–have you decided who to sue yet?

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