Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 123

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Wilson’s snipe, Gallinago delicata. It is a little unusual to see a shorebird off the the ground, but this fellow decided he needed a higher perch to take in some of the scenery.

Image: Jerry Kram. [larger size].

Birds in Research

The songs that each spring announce when birds are ready to compete for homes and sex have been traced to changes in the brain, according to a study that can shed new light on winter depression in people. While some birds, such as robins, sing throughout the winter, other species of bird take up singing at this time of year again, both to attract potential mates and to signal to other birds the boundaries of their ‘patch’. The birds burst into song in mid January because cells on the surface of the brain trigger hormones when the days get longer, expanding male testes as a result, says a study in the journal Nature by a team led by Prof Takashi Yoshimura of the Nagoya University, Japan, who worked with Prof Peter Sharp of the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh. “Although it remains to be proved, several lines of evidence suggest that a similar mechanism might apply in other birds and mammals,” says Prof Yoshimura. “We are now working on this question.”

People Hurting Birds

Marilyn Stapleton looked outside her backyard Saturday morning and thought one of the 10 plagues of Egypt had struck down the birds in east Moxee, Washington State. Hundreds of them lay motionless everywhere, and beyond her property lay bodies of thousands more. She spent several hours picking up the small black birds until she filled three trash bags, all the while wondering what the heck happened. “They were just everywhere … just like they fell right out of the sky,” she said. “I was really upset because nobody said anything about this.” As it turns out, the plague was a controlled poisoning by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the request of surrounding farmers to try and reduce the population of European Starlings in the area, estimated at 45,000.

People Helping Birds

Due to a recent court order, bald eagles in the Sonoran Desert of central Arizona are again protected as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon publish an emergency interim rule in the Federal Register to comply with the court order.

The Azores Bullfinch, Pyrrhula murina, has become the latest Critically Endangered species to find a Champion through the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Program. Birdwatch magazine has stepped forward to provide vital funds for the work of the Species Guardian, SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal). “It is fantastic news that Birdwatch has joined the Preventing Extinctions Programme and has become one of a growing number of Species Champions”, said Jim Lawrence, the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Program Development Manager.

The government must do more to protect seabirds across the north of England, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). A new report says dwindling populations of species like the puffin could be due to the fact only 0.001% of sea area is protected from damaging activities. “We have plundered the riches of the UK’s seas for centuries at great cost to wildlife,” said Kate Tanner, marine policy officer at the RSPB. “We don’t want to make areas no-go zones but people who carry out damaging activities need to think more about how they are affecting seabirds.”

Parrot News

At least three dozen different parrot species are now considered threatened or endangered in their quickly shrinking native tropical and sub-tropical habitats (mostly in South America). As such, the health of wild flocks in the U.S. and other developed countries around the world may well be key to preserving these birds that could otherwise go extinct. Today wild parrot flocks thrive in urban and suburban areas of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, Washington State and elsewhere. San Francisco and Brooklyn each host particularly large flocks, especially considering their relative lack of green space. Wild parrot flocks are also reportedly thriving in cities across much of Western Europe. GrrlScientist note: This article is too optimistic because it erroneously claims that these feral parrots are endagered in their former homes — not true!

H5N1 Avian Influenza News

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today warned that H5N1 avian influenza levels in Indonesia’s poultry are so high that conditions may be ripe for the type of viral mutation that could spark an influenza pandemic. “I am deeply concerned that the high level of virus circulation in birds in the country could create conditions for the virus to mutate and to finally cause a human influenza pandemic,” said Joseph Domenech, the FAO’s chief veterinary officer, in a press release. Also, new H5N1 virus strains have recently emerged in Indonesia that might limit the effectiveness of the poultry vaccines used there, Domenech said.

Already, a teenager in Jakarta has been identified who is infected with both H5N1 Avian Influenza and a human seasonal flu strain H3N2 — a situation that is ripe for forming a new strain of H5N1 that can easily infect humans.

Southern China may have been the source for much of the spread of the H5N1 avian flu virus, researchers suggested. A genetic analysis of the virus shows that strains that showed up in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia in 2002 and 2003 closely resemble a strain from poultry markets in China’s Yunnan Province, the flu experts found. “These results suggest a direct transmission link for H5N1 viruses between Yunnan and Vietnam and also between Hunan and Indonesia during 2002 and 2003,” wrote the researchers, who included Guan Yi of the University of Hong Kong and Robert Webster of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in Nigeria, Vietnam, India and Turkey and in humans in Vietnam.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 24 March 2008: Monday, they talk about how to help birds survive windowstrikes; Tuesday, Sandhill Cranes; Wednesday, a Red-winged Blackbird harem; Thursday, they explore why bluebirds are blue and Friday, they consider the Northern Flicker, a most unlikely woodpecker. 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].

Here is a link to the BBC’s Natural History Radio podcast archives that you should check out.

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?

Audubon (BirdLife in US) and National Geographic have teamed-up to allow people online around the globe to witness the largest concentration of Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis, in the world from a unique ‘cranes-eye view’. The Crane Cam is providing outstanding views of Sandhill Cranes in the shallow waters of the Platte River within Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary. The last day to view this year’s Crane Cam is 6 April 2008.

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.

Western Field Ornithologists announces the first volume of its new monograph series, Studies of Western Birds, with the publication of California Bird Species of Special Concern: A ranked assessment of species, subspecies, and distinct populations of birds of immediate conservation concern in California, edited by W. David Shuford and Thomas Gardali. You can order this book online at Allen Press for $12.00.

Miscellaneous Bird News

The naturalists at Hilton Pond were fortunate this March to journey to southern Wisconsin to speak about their hummingbird research, but the highlight of the trip for them was a behind-the-scenes tour of the old stomping grounds of conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold. Among other things, they got to visit “The Shack,” the almost-mythical structure where Leopold formulated many of his thoughts for his beloved book, A Sand County Almanac. For a photo essay about Leopold and their visit, please see the 1-15 March 2008 installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond“. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded or recaptured at Hilton Pond during the period, as well as miscellaneous nature notes. There’s also a link to a map of Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration–the better to know when to put out your feeder(s) this spring.

Never once in his 65 years did Cecil Pitts imagine that his life would be upended by pigeons, or that his love of them would land him in court, facing off against the City of New York. “Generally, at times, a nuisance is something that is legal but taken to excess,” said Gabriel Taussig, the city’s lawyer in the case. “Clearly, people have bird feeders in their backyard. And that’s not a nuisance. However, when you start feeding in excess, so there’s a level of bird droppings that’s unhealthy, it rises to the level of nuisance.”

Some of the world’s most beautiful — and rare — birds are flying free among visitors to a new enclosure at London Zoo. The attraction has been renovated at a cost of £2.5m to showcase the central London zoo’s exotic birds. The Victorian Blackburn Pavilion has been modernised to involve visitors with up to 200 tropical birds. Here’s a link to zoo keeper Adrian Walls’ guided tour of ZSL London Zoo’s new tropical bird enclosure.

Wildlife is threatened by a move to cut trees from a five-mile stretch of the River Thames in Great Britain, campaigners have said. The Port of London Authority (PLA) is concerned that roots from hundreds of trees on the south-west London stretch damage the bank’s flood defences. A PLA spokesman said: “It’s our view that the only course of action is to remove these trees.”


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Thomas, 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 Philip Hotlen
    March 24, 2008

    That snipe appears to be a male full of hormone testosterone. From such high perches, they fly up and do their aerial thing. I recall the snipes in Germany doing the same in the spring.

  2. #2 DeafScientist
    March 24, 2008

    (Re that snipe.) Nah, s/he’s just a strong individualist! :-) Philip, I’m sure you’re right. But I still think my answer is more fun :-)

  3. #3 DeafScientist
    March 24, 2008

    re Avian ‘flu. Leaving aside Vietnam, no other country comes close to the cases/deaths of avain ‘flu than Indonesia: Its an interesting, if rather worrying, story.

  4. #4 Chardyspal
    March 25, 2008


    Is the paper described in the Birds in Research section available as a PDF to the general public? That sounds like a very interesting paper!

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