Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 124

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Female Ocellated Turkey, Meleagris ocellata,
in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the Southern Yucatan
in the state of Campeche. They are endemic to the region
and are known locally as both Pavo Ocelado or Guajalote Ocelato.

Image: Kevin Sharp. [larger size].

Birds in Science

If you read nothing else in this issue of Birds in the News, then this is the story to read. A serious affliction has been observed in birds in the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state; Long-billed Syndrome. This is characterized by an overgrown upper mandible of a bird’s beak, a situation that leads to matted, mite-infested plumage and often results in the bird’s death due to starvation. What’s the cause? That remains a mystery. A small band of puzzled, poorly funded scientists is scrambling to find answers. Could it be chemicals? Something genetic? A disease? Maybe a combination? “It’s really tragic,” said Bud Anderson of the Falcon Research Group, based in Skagit County, WA. “It’s grotesque. It’s horrible. It makes me want to puke.” Story includes video and images. GrrlScientist comment: I’ve seen this in black-capped chickadees when I lived in Seattle, and I worry that it could spread across the continent before we discover the cause and can do something about it.

Scientists at the Spanish Council of Research (CSIC) studied the metapopulation system of the Dupont’s lark in northeastern Spain and found an association between individual song diversity and the viability of the population as a whole, as measured by the annual rate of population change. This association arises because males from the most numerous and productive populations, i.e. those less prone to extinction, sang songs with greater complexity. Birds from smaller populations sang less complex songs as they experienced a poor cultural milieu (as songs are learned), and had possibly a lower mating success. Cultural attributes may therefore reflect not only individual-level characteristics, but also emergent population-level properties. This finding opens the way to the study of animal cultural diversity in the increasingly common human-altered landscapes.

Who ever heard of birds cooperating on a project together? Sure, a pair may build a nest together, but cooperating on a single task to get food is something only primates have been thought capable of. Now it turns out that rooks, like chimps, can cooperate with each other — although they may lack the competitive edge needed understand teamwork properly. “Rooks go out and forage in different size flocks,” said Ronald Noë of the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France. “Nobody really knows to what level they live in societies comparable to chimps — mainly because it’s damn hard to follow hundreds or even thousands of birds simultaneously.”

People Hurting Birds

A man who ripped the head off a live duck in a Minnesota hotel has been sentenced to the workhouse and community service. The Missouri man was sentenced to three weeks in the workhouse and 80 hours of community service.

Did your shopping list kill a songbird? Since the 1980s, pesticide use has increased fivefold in Latin America as countries have expanded their production of nontraditional crops to fuel the demand for fresh produce during winter in North America and Europe. Rice farmers in the region use monocrotophos, methamidophos and carbofuran, all agricultural chemicals that are rated Class I toxins by the World Health Organization, are highly toxic to birds, and are either restricted or banned in the United States. In countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador, researchers have found that farmers spray their crops heavily and repeatedly with a chemical cocktail of dangerous pesticides.

On the coral atoll of Midway in the central Pacific — famous for America’s first victory over the Japanese fleet in World War Two — wildlife experts are facing a new battle against a rising tide of plastic waste. BBC environment correspondent David Shukman reports on the plastic peril facing Midway in a daily blog. Plastic debris collects around the atoll, scene of a seminal World War II battle, with serious consequences for its wildlife. Includes lots of images of albatross and sea turtles and streaming videos, also.

The East Coast Economic Region (ECER) states in Malaysia are ramping up swiftlet farming with Kelantan emerging as the country’s second-largest swiftlet farmer, after Perak. The farms produce highly-prized birds nests made by male swiftlets which deposit strands of saliva to make the nests. Hong Kong is the world’s biggest buyer of bird’s nests, purchasing 50%, while China stands at 8%, Taiwan 4% and Macau 3%. The world consumption weight was estimated at 160 tons for 2006.

New research from Namibia, Uruguay and Argentina determined that albatross are dying in large numbers within their waters. All three countries represent globally important hotspots for these iconic seabirds. A recent report shows that Namibian longline fisheries alone kill over 30,000 seabirds, including albatrosses annually. All albatross species are of global conservation concern, and 86% (19 species) are facing extinction. The main cause of these population declines is bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries.

Since the 1980s, electrocutions and collisions with electric power lines have caused the death of thousands of protected birds in Hungary and other European countries. The real extent of the problem, and the approximate number of affected birds, were not clear until the Hungarian Ornithological and Nature Conservation Society (MME) started to systematically gather data on electrocuted birds in 2004. “Electrocution is one of the most significant causes of death for several globally threatened raptor species, such as Eastern Imperial Eagle, Aquila heliaca, Saker Falcon, Falco cherrug and Red-footed Falcon, Falco vespertinus” said Márton Horváth (MME).

People Helping Birds

A young bald eagle found on a sidewalk on Southwest Campus Drive in Federal Way drew a crowd this afternoon. Bruce Richards, a game warden with the Washington State Fish and Wildlife department, said the eagle, about 4 years old, appeared undernourished. After catching the eagle, Richards said he would take it to a specialist to begin its rehabilitation. (Includes images).

A young Cooper’s hawk that crashed into the photography department window of the Bangor Daily News building was just released after spending five weeks on the mend. Marc Payne, co-director of Avian Haven, a bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, Maine, who has been working with birds in distress for 25 years in New Jersey and Maine, said the hawk was brought to the center by DIF&W biologists Sullivan and George Matula. The bird appeared to have a concussion and visual problems, but fortunately, it had no broken bones. While in rehab, the bird ate a steady diet of mice (Cooper’s hawks mostly eat birds).

While the majority of the Canadian boreal is presently considered ecologically intact — and around 8% is currently protected — nearly a third of the land has been allocated for ecologically detrimental activities such as oil and gas exploration, mining and logging. Given that development is proposed in virtually every Canadian province and territory, the future of the boreal ecosystem, and the birds that breed there, is in the balance. “In Ontario alone, over 45,000 migratory bird nests were lost in 2001 due to logging,” according to Jen Baker, Boreal Outreach Coordinator for Ontario Nature.

Every year, more than 10,000 migrating birds crash into Toronto’s highrise towers, then plunge to the sidewalks below, where a heavy-hearted Michael Mesure helps scoop them up in the early morning hours for disposal. “This is a huge problem,” says Mesure. Colliding with a building is “one of, if not the leading, cause of bird deaths in North America.” But now, Mesure has enlisted some unlikely allies in his battle to safeguard birds that pass through Toronto’s air space every spring and fall. They are a trio of Toronto development companies that have signed on to construct bird-friendly condos in the hopes of putting an end to the annual carnage.

Following a successful workshop in Constanza, Romania, the International Species Action Plan for the endangered Red-breasted Goose, Branta ruficollis, has just been updated. Delegates at the three-day meeting also started to formulate National Work Plans which will be implemented by the bird’s six principle range-states.

Rare Bird News

Once a familiar bird, yellow wagtails would commonly feed at the feet of grazing animals in pasture and wet meadows. The birds migrate to Britain from West Africa to breed during the summer months, and the first birds should be returning any day now. However, its numbers have declined by an estimated 65 per cent in the UK since 1970. Dr James Gilroy of the University of East Anglia found that birds looking to establish new nests for their second brood will switch to non-cereal crops including peas and field beans, with potatoes by far the most preferred as the loose canopy appears to be the ideal habitat. “Yellow wagtail is currently amber listed as a bird of conservation concern,” Gilroy said. “Given that there has been a marked decline since the 1980s, potato crops could be crucial to the future breeding.”

The trend for smaller backyards is threatening many of Australia’s best loved winged residents, says the Gould Group, an environmental education lobby. Worse, a decade of drought has forced birds to migrate to the city in search of water and food. “With the increase in higher density housing, smaller lots of land and larger homes, the traditional Australian backyard is disappearing, with fewer trees and shrubs being available for birds and other small animals,” said said Gould Group CEO Ann-Maree Colborne.

Captive Bird News

A blue-and-gold macaw can solve chain puzzles faster than visitors at a Tokyo botanical garden. The New World parrot remains undefeated, leaving her human competitors baffled by her speed. The parrot, named ‘Ten’, uses her beak and foot to free two entangled chains in less than 30 seconds, while humans take an hour on average. Story includes images and video.

Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) City Hall security officer Phil Saunders stands six-foot-five, but prides himself on his compassion. He said he just couldn’t say no a couple of months back when he discovered that a budgerigar chick, born to one of his sister’s pet parakeets, was being ostracized because of his deformed, splayed legs. Since his job consists mainly of “observe and report,” Saunders said that bringing the bird with him doesn’t interfere. Indeed, he said the bird has already proven his usefulness. “Absolutely, I can walk up to a group of youths — who may not be particularly criminally ‘straight’ — and they just calm down when they see him,” he said.

Avian Diseases and Zoonotics News

An outbreak of avian salmonella has been confirmed in Camden, Arkansas. The outbreak was confirmed by the National Wildlife Health Center through bird specimens submitted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. There are other suspected outbreaks in the Little Rock area, as well. The disease outbreaks are not unusual, given the fluctuating weather conditions in Arkansas this late winter and early spring. “If people are seeing sick or even dead birds around their feeders, they need to stop feeding for a week or two. They should also clean their feeders and bird baths using a mixture made of 1 part chlorine bleach and 9 parts water and bury or dispose of dead birds,” said AGFC nongame migratory bird program leader Karen Rowe.

Europe’s top semiconductor maker, STMicroelectronics, said it has developed a portable chip to detect influenza viruses including bird flu in humans. The device, which functions as a mini laboratory on a chip, can screen and identify multiple classes of pathogens and genes in a single test within two hours, unlike other tests available on the market that can detect only one strain at a time and require days or weeks to obtain results. GrrlScientist comment; I think this is incredibly fascinating and would love to learn more about this chip and the technology that underlies it.

Manipulating a previously identified protein may be the key to developing an effective H5N1 influenza A virus vaccine say researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo. Since its emergence in 1997, the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (H5N1) has affected wild birds and poultry in more than 10 Asian countries as well as Europe and Africa. A total of 321 confirmed human cases have occurred since late 2003 resulting in 194 deaths and a fatality rate of approximately 60%. Although there are currently some antiviral drugs available for treatment of influenza virus infection, H5N1 has proven resistant to most, therefore emphasizing the need for an effective vaccine.

Ducks, people and rice paddies — rather than chickens — are the major factors behind outbreaks of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza in Thailand and Viet Nam, and are probably behind outbreak persistence in other countries of the region such as Cambodia and Lao PDR. GrrlScientist notes; They forgot to include wild birds in their analysis, even though wild birds were, for years, villanized as the primary vectors for H5N1 and slaughtered in huge numbers. When will scientists ever refute this popular and convenient lie that WHO/FAO have been so proudly announcing to the world with regards to the spread of H5N1?

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic birds in India and in humans in Indonesia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 31 March 2008: Monday, Tree Swallow migration; Tuesday, the Delirian; Wednesday, the mystery of flight coordination — with a link to an amazing video of a huge flock of European Starlings; Thursday, Marbled Godwits; and Friday, hummmingbird migration myths. 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].

The Anna’s Hummingbird may be diminutive, but it’s got a big presence. It wards off intruders and shows off for females by dive bombing them and making an alarming little chirp at the bottom of its decent. Strangely, researchers haven’t been quite sure exactly how the Anna’s Hummingbird makes this chirp. Some have argued that it’s a vocal cry, while other argue that they make the sound with their tail feathers. Christopher Clark, a graduate student in biology at the University of California at Berkeley, has put the debate to rest. He’s recently completed a series of field studies and lab experiments that pins the chirp on the hummingbird’s tail [mp3 or Ogg].

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 have hatched, so be sure to check in often and maybe you will see her chicks — be sure to let us know how many she has.

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?

Yesterday, I visited the migrating sandhill cranes (and even saw the crane cam!) at Nebraska’s Platte River. Thanks to the National Audubon Society (BirdLife in US) and the National Geographic Society, people around the globe can witness the largest concentration of Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis, in the world from a unique ‘cranes-eye view’. The Crane Cam provides outstanding views of the birds in the shallow waters of the Platte River within Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary. The last day to view the Cranes using this online camera is 16 April 2008.

Here’s another webcam to enjoy. This one is referred to as the ‘Puro’ webcam, which shows streaming wildlife footage from the breathtaking and remote tropical forest of Fundación Jocotoco’s Buenaventura Reserve, Ecuador. I am seeing a lot of hummingbirds and tanagers when I visit. What are you seeing?

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.

Miscellaneous Bird News

Last fall, the naturalists at Hilton Pond collected a caterpillar that in turn formed a pupa that opened up unexpectedly, producing a moth whose external structures bordered on the abstract. You can see a macrophotographic view of the adult insect that emerged along with a tally of all birds banded and recaptured during the period — and there were a lot of both — plus a few miscellaneous nature notes.

The majestic great blue heron is at the center of a court case in New Brunswick that could change how Canada protects migratory birds and affect the operations of almost every forest products, energy and mining company in the country. In November of 2006 Environment Canada officials filed charges against forestry giant J.D. Irving Ltd. under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. The act stems from a 92-year-old treaty between Canada and the United States designed to save migratory birds ‘from indiscriminate slaughter and ensure their preservation.’ “This is a case that will have implications in every corner of the country,” said Stewart Elgie, a professor of environmental law at the University of Ottawa. “It’s one of the most significant environmental law cases to come down in years.”

Sightings of finches in UK gardens hit their highest level for five years this winter, an annual RSPB survey shows. It said milder winters meant the European goldfinch in particular was spending winters here in larger numbers. However, the overall number of birds counted in the survey — held in January — has dropped by 20% since 2004. Milder winters mean food is not as scarce and birds do not have to search in gardens, while some species are in long-term decline, the RSPB says.

You’re sitting in the park, enjoying a sandwich during lunch when a long, probing beak comes slyly into view and deftly confiscates your pastrami on rye. You’ve just been robbed by the Australian ibis, Threskiornis molucca, and you wouldn’t be the first victim. Australian white ibis — or ‘tip turkeys’ as many call them — are a nuisance in cities, especially in the spring breeding season. But scientists fear they may become extinct as more pressure is put on their native and adopted environments.

The University of Pittsburgh is fortunate to own one of the rare, complete sets of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. It is considered to be the single most valuable set of volumes in the collections of the University Library System (ULS). Indeed, only 120 complete sets are known to exist. The library presents their complete double elephant folio set of Audubon’s Birds of America, accompanied by his Ornithological Biography, on a special website in an unprecedented, and searchable, online combination.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Scott, Jeanette, Phil, Jennifer, Dave, Caren, Biosparite, Diane, 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 31, 2008

    Great BITN, although it did have an overabundance of bad news. I guess that’s how it goes these days.

    I did want to comment that anyone who thinks that only primates and now Rooks are the only species with teamwork, have never watched a wolf hunting party. Whether coordinated or purely instinctual each member of the hunting party takes on a specific role, which I would have a hard time designing a superior strategic approach. The skill in choosing the appropriate role and executing it appears to improve with age.

  2. #2 biosparite
    March 31, 2008

    Not only an excellent BITN, but one prepared on the fly in Kansas.

  3. #3 Horwood Beer-Master
    April 1, 2008

    I wonder if this same “Long-billed syndrome” explains this story from the BBC last year?

  4. #4 Chardyspal
    April 5, 2008

    Regarding the Long-billed syndrome…

    Do you know any of the researchers looking into this problem? Maybe they might like to try to organize a round-table at the upcoming AOU conference in Portland, OR? If they organize a round-table, they would have a chance to discuss the problem and ideas with many experts and might get some insights or ideas for experiments or make connections with possible collaborators that could prove helpful.



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