Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Male Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, in Central Park.

Image: Bob Levy, author of Club George. [larger size].

Birds in Science

In all three groups of birds with vocal learning abilities — songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds — the brain structures for singing and learning to sing are embedded in areas controlling movement, researchers have discovered. The team also found that areas in charge of movement share many functional similarities with the brain areas for singing. This suggests that the brain pathways used for vocal learning evolved out of the brain pathways used for motor control. “In its most specialized way, spoken language is the ability to control the learned movements of our larynx,” said senior author Erich Jarvis, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology. “It’s possible that human language pathways have also evolved in ways similar to these birds. Perhaps the evolution of vocal learning brain areas for birds and humans exploited a universal motor system that predates the split from the common ancestor of birds and mammals.”

The first study of how individual wandering albatrosses find food shows that the birds rely heavily on their sense of smell. The birds can pick up a scent from several miles away, U.S. and French researchers have found. “This is the first time anyone has looked at the odor-tracking behavior of individual birds in the wild using remote techniques,” said Gabrielle Nevitt, professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior at UC Davis and an author on the study with UC Davis graduate student Marcel Losekoot of the Bodega Marine Laboratory and Henri Weimerskirch of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France. GrrlScientist comment: This is something that I learned in my university ornithology courses, but it’s nice to see this observation being scientifically verified.

A pair of biologists at Memorial University in St John’s, Canada, has shown that facial feathers are more than just a decoration for a little seabird, which uses the plumes on its head like a cat’s whiskers to sense its surroundings while in the dark. The Whiskered auklet, the most elaborately decorated of the six known species of auklet, is known to be nocturnal. They ran 90 auklets through a maze in the dark and found that those birds whose feathers were taped flat bumped their heads more than twice as often as birds whose feathers remained untouched. “That is novel, and interesting. I think this is the first study that shows that there’s a real tactile advantage to having these feathers,” said Robert Montgomerie, a scientist of Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, who was not involved with the research.

People Hurting Birds

Chendytes, an extinct flightless duck, is California’s archaeological equivalent of the dodo bird, and the fate of this all-but-forgotten bird that disappeared 2,500 years ago is reviving debate over the theory that prehistoric hunters drove to extinction woolly mammoths and other large creatures that once roamed the North American continent, according to a new study. The study describes solid evidence that prehistoric people, like their modern counterparts, pushed other species over the brink. said Terry Jones, the lead author and an anthropologist with California Polytechnic State University. “We have the best archaeological record for a human-caused extinction in North America,” Jones said.

The eggs of birds across the state of Maine, from bald eagles and loons in northern Maine to ospreys on the South Portland waterfront, contain a soup of industrial chemicals, according to a study that was recently presented in the Legislature. The Gorham-based BioDiversity Research Institute tested eggs from 23 different kinds of birds and looked for more than 100 toxic pollutants, including pesticides, mercury and carpet stain repellents. It’s the first study anywhere to provide such a broad snapshot of toxic contaminants in the food chain, according to Wing Goodale, the lead researcher. “We found all the major contaminants we looked for in every species, in every habitat,” Goodale said. “We found all of the compounds in the wild and we found many of them above levels that research has established can cause effects.”

In a sign of the blurring of the seasons brought on by climate change, one of the birds has this year shunned migration to Africa and instead spent all winter in Britain. In what experts say is the first documented evidence of the species “overwintering” here, a solitary barn swallow has been monitored from November to the end of February in a village near Truro, Cornwall. “They say that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one swallow overwintering is not concrete evidence of the species starting to overwinter as a whole, but this is an interesting finding,” said Darrell Clegg, from the Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society.

Germany, the country that made the common cuckoo bird famous with its clocks is now worried the bird might follow the tragic path of the dodo — into extinction. Nature and clock preservationists are teaming up and fighting back to save the species. Explaining the existence of cuckoo clocks is already difficult enough. But what if there were no longer any cuckoo birds left in the country that invented the cuckoo clock? “If the birds die out, they’ll become just part of folktales or fairy tales,” said Eva Renz, the museum’s media representative. “It would be something like the dragon stories once told.”

People Helping Birds

Ten Short-tailed Albatross, Phoebastria albatrus, chicks have been moved by helicopter, from their current stronghold on Torishima Island, Japan, to the site of a former colony on a non-volcanic island located 350 km to the southeast. The potential for future volcanic events on Torishima is among the most serious threats to this Vulnerable species. Currently, 80-85% of the world population breeds on a highly erodible slope on the outwash plain from the caldera of an active volcano. Monsoons send torrents of ash-laden water down this slope across the colony site, and a volcanic eruption could send lava, ash or poisonous gases through the colony.

Identifying Important Bird Areas (IBAs), and ensuring their long-term protection, cannot be achieved without detailed information of the bird populations occurring within them. This was highlighted by a study published this month in BirdLife’s journal Bird Conservation International. The authors produced new data from Kazakhstan highlighting the importance of land surrounding the protected Korgalzhynskiy nature reserve. This new information has been used to include the wider area in a new inventory of IBAs in Central Asia, which identifies 124 IBAs covering more than 16,000,000 ha in Kazakhstan alone.

Would you like to help Rwanda develop avian tourism? The government is seeking information from birders that will help them design an ecotourism strategy for the country. To help, you can take this survey (you must use either Firefox or Internet Exploder 5.0 or later versions). If you complete the survey, they will enter you into a drawing for a $200 gift certificate from Amazon, although his is not automatic; you do have to click on a separate link for that. NOTE: I am not connected to this survey in any way, I am just trying to help what appears to be a good cause!

H5N1 Avian Influenza News

It was known that the H5N1 avian influenza virus could only thrive or live in a body with a temperature of 106°F (41°C) — the body temperature for many bird species. A human’s normal body temperature is 98.6°F (37°C). This difference in the temperatures of bodies makes the virus less likely to infect a human, but a recent study suggests the virus has adapted to survive in bodies with temperatures lower than 106°F. “We have identified a specific change that could make bird flu grow in the upper respiratory tract of humans,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the researcher in charge of the study. Kawaoka also stated that the “viruses that are circulating in Africa and Europe are the ones closest to becoming a human virus,” but also stated that the H5N1 virus must undergo several mutations before it can infect a human, who can then spread the virus to other humans.

The Vaccines Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) has recently recommended new strains for the upcoming 2008-09 flu season. These strains are related to the flu viruses that are currently circulating in the U.S. The flu vaccine is formulated every year and it is based on the most common circulating three virus strains of the prior season. So the recommendations for the 2008-2009 flu season are based on the experience from this year’s flu season. The recommendations set the stage for the manufacturers to produce and market the vaccines and sprays before the next flu season starts in October 2008.

H5N1 Avian Influenza is apparently increasing its infectivity: four wild civets which died in Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, officials said as a fresh avian influenza outbreak was reported. It was unclear how they were infected, as bird flu is normally contracted through close contact with infected birds, said Tran Quang Phuong, an officer at the Wild Animal Rescue Center in the park.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in wild birds in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, in domestic poultry in Vietnam, Hong Kong and India, and in humans in Indonesia and Egypt.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 17 March 2008: Monday, they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day; Tuesday, they consider the egg; Wednesday, they ponder the European Starling “nightmare”; Thursday, they track the Rufous Hummingbird on its migration; and Friday, they look for Violet-green Swallows. 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. 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 love good books, then this is the report for you!

This is my review of “Audubon’s Aviary“, the New-York Historical Society’s annual exhibition of John James Audubon’s watercolors of North American birds that were published in his masterwork, Birds of America. Every year, there is an exhibition of a select subset of his 435 paintings, and each show has a different theme. This year’s theme was especially important because it focused on endangered and extinct North American birds as well as some of our conservation success stories.

Miscellaneous Bird News

The fourth and final report on the Hilton Pond naturalists’ recent expeditions to Costa Rica deals with the question of how Ruby-throated Hummingbirds actually get into Guanacaste Province and the Aloe Vera fields where they congregate in winter. The naturalists hope you’ll take at look at the photo essay and respond to their speculations there. As always, they include a tally of birds banded locally during the current period. There’s also mention of an interesting cluster of already banded — and old — Purple Finches that showed up in their traps.

In recent weeks, participants in BirdLife’s Spring Alive campaign have been spotting the arrival of migratory birds all around Europe. Spring Alive invites citizens — especially children — from all over Europe to record their first sightings of Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica, Common Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, Common Swift, Apus apus and White Stork, Ciconia ciconia. The campaign, which is implemented nationally by BirdLife’s European Partners, is being promoted in 28 countries. “The first arrivals were spotted very early this year, possibly due to the mild winter and good weather in Europe”, says Joanna Kalinowska, coordinator of the Spring Alive project. Some of very first Barn Swallows were spotted in Cyprus on the 11th January by the Executive Manager of BirdLife Cyprus, Martin Hellicar.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Biosparite, Diane, Ian, Jeanette, 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 The Ridger
    March 17, 2008

    I think there’s a baby with Mama Owl now.

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