Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 128

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Male Wood Duck, Aix sponsa.

Image: John Del Rio. [larger view].

Birds in Science

It wasn’t too long ago that paleontologists thought that fossilization was a process where all biological material was replaced with inert stone. However, in 2005, Mary Higby Schweitzer of North Carolina State University rocked the paleontological world when she recovered a still-elastic blood vessel from inside a fractured thigh bone fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex that lived 68 million years ago. Recent phylogenetic analyses of this isolated tissue by a team of scientists reveals that the closest living relative of T. rex is none other than .. the humble chicken.

People Hurting Birds

Once billed the “Prairie Chicken Capital of the World,” the Flint Hillsof Kansas now hold dwindling numbers of the birds. In three decades, the population has dropped almost 90 percent on the area’s eastern edge and 50 percent in the rest of the Flint Hills, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks studies show. “Prairie chickens are right at the top of our list for species we’re concerned about,” said Ron Manes of Nature Conservancy of Kansas. “They are an excellent indicator of the health of the prairie.” If the prairie chickens are in trouble, other prairie birds also are in trouble, wildlife biologists say. The chickens’ decline can start a dominolike fall, cascading toward the eastern meadowlark, Henslow’s sparrows, grasshopper sparrows and others.

Threatening and charging one another, they dash forward and back, leaping high into the air, fluttering furiously. All the while, out of sight in a nearby copse, the grey hens observe the mating ritual, deciding who they will mate with. These poetic images offer a rare view of the “lekking” of the black grouse, one of the most beautiful, albeit brazen, sights known to ornithology. “The black grouse may not have the most beautiful voice in the British bird world, but it makes up for it with one of the most spectacular courtship displays,” says Paul Stancliffe, spokesman for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the independent scientific research trust which investigates the populations, movements and ecology of wild birds. The lekking has long been a staple of rural Scotland. Only a few generations ago, the birds were a relatively common sight on the nation’s northern uplands and moors, where they performed their wondrous dance. Now, however, their courtship is rarely seen, their numbers having fallen drastically due to factors including intensive farming and large-scale forestry plantations.

The very name Malta is enough to make any birdwatcher’s blood bubble like a vat of hot chicken soup, the British media report. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has called the Maltese “the villains of Europe as far as bird protection is concerned”. Britons have previously had a soft spot for Malta, thanks to its heroic war record. But it has become bird black spot number one. Ornithologists recognize it as murder capital for their feathered friends. Birds of every description are indiscriminately blasted out of the sky, whether game birds or rare and cherished species like ospreys — creatures that British conservationists have labored long and hard down the decades to preserve from extinction. “It is a complete tragedy,” says Ornithologist Fiona Hazelton. “For anyone concerned about conservation of species, it is a very big issue. Hunters have got away with carnage for too long and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

People Helping Birds

What’s black and white and warm all over? A penguin in a wetsuit, naturally. Sounds like a joke, but it’s quite serious for biologists at the California Academy of Sciences, who had a wetsuit created for an African penguin to help him get back in the swim of things. Unlike marine mammals, which have a layer of blubber to keep them warm, penguins rely on their waterproof feathers. Without them, Pierre was unwilling to plunge into the academy’s penguin tank and ended up shivering on the sidelines while his 19 peers played in the water. “He was cold; he would shake,” said Pam Schaller, a senior aquatic biologist at the academy.

BirdLife International and BirdLife Malta welcomed a recent decision by the European Court of Justice to issue interim measures ordering Malta not to open the 2008 spring hunting season for European Turtle-dove, Streptopelia turtur, and Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix. This Order implies that the Court sees urgent need to prevent irreversible damage to these migratory bird species, while a final ruling on this case is pending and not expected before 2009.

Rare Bird News

A panel of experts found the Bush administration’s plan for assuring the survival of the northern spotted owl was “deeply flawed” in its approach to protecting old growth forest habitat from logging and was not entirely based on the best available science. According to the 150-page review, a panel of nine experts assembled by the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute in Portland found the draft spotted owl recovery plan underestimates the importance of protecting old growth forest habitat compared to the threat from a competing species, the barred owl. “We view the continued conservation of [old-growth] forests to be paramount for Northern Spotted Owl recovery,” the reviewers wrote.

A study into one of the world’s rarest seabirds provides knowledge that could help avoid extinction. Molecular analysis of the Critically Endangered Magenta Petrel, Pterodroma magentae (also known as the Chatham Island Taiko), discovered that 95% of non-breeding adults were male. This suggests that critically low population levels may be causing male birds difficulty in attracting a mate. Their calls are too spread out to attract the infrequent females which pass by. Conservationists are planning to increase the male Magenta Petrel’s pulling power by creating a new breeding colony within a predator-proof fence.

Captive Bird News

Pickle the parrot, an African Grey parrot valued at more than £700, was abducted when Sue Parsons left her for a moment on the doorstep in January after a trip to the pet shop. For months after this parrot-napping, there was no clue of Pickle’s whereabouts. Then came some intelligence. A friend thought that she had seen the bird in the King Edward VII, a large pub on the edge of a neighbouring council estate. Ms Parsons carried out her own investigations. She ventured into the pub twice and approached the cage, on a table in the corner of a bar. “I kissed her beak and she sucked my finger. I caressed her lots of times. I made one noise to her that I used to make and she repeated it immediately.” Ms Parsons is demanding a DNA test in the hope of settling the argument once and for all.

An idiot who lives in Sweden shot and killed his neighbor’s parrot after it tried to bite him. This just goes to show you that a person doesn’t have to be an American to be a mindless idiot with a loaded gun.

Avian ZoonoticsNews

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources says it looks like a disease outbreak that killed a couple hundred ducks and geese on a northwest Iowa lake is under control. D.N.R. wildlife biologist, Bryan Hellyer, says the outbreak of avian cholera was found on Rush Lake in southwest Palo Alto County. Hellyer says in his opinion this is a relatively small case with some 215 birds found dead. He says outbreaks in other states have led to the death of thousands of birds.

The first USDA-licensed ELISA test kit that identifies antibodies against any avian influenza virus subtype in five avian species –chicken, turkey, duck, goose, ostrich — with a single test. This depth and breadth in AI screening allows laboratories to reduce test time and test kit inventory. Results are identified at 13 days post-infection.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic birds in South Korea, England, India and Bangladesh.

Streaming Birds

I’d like to congratulate BirdNote for the recent coverage they received in the Seattle Times! If you read this article, you will discover that BirdNote‘s fans can be found all over North America! I sure would be thrilled if WNYC added BirdNote to their morning line-up.

On BirdNote, for the week of 21 April 2008. 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 on KOHO radio and now on WNPR in Connecticut and KWMR in Pt. Reyes, CA. 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. [Podcast and rss].

Birds Cams and GPS Tracking News

Albany, NY state’s capital, is fortunate to have a pair of endangered Peregrine Falcons nesting on the Dunn Memorial Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between the Cities of Albany and Rensselaer. Department of Transportation workers first noticed Peregrine Falcons in the vicinity of the Dunn Memorial Bridge in 1998. [NYState’s Peregrine falcon cam].

Peregrine falcons are a circumpolar species. Currently, there is a pair nesting on the Derby Cathedral in the English town of Derby — just as they enjoy nesting on building ledges in the United States. This site includes a story and a link to a peregrine cam so you can watch these birds.

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, she has three chicks wandering around the nest, and the oldest is already starting to show some feathers mixed into its baby down. This site also shows the 2008 season — up until the day before you look through the camera.

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

Okay, this is a really amazing site that tracks an adult GPS-tagged female osprey, Logie, as she migrates from her winter roost on the tropical island of Roxa in the Guinea Bissau archipelago near the African country of Senegal, north across the Sahara desert, the Strait of Gibralter, the English Channel and over Heathrow Airport (yikes!) to her breeding territory in Northern England.

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!

Bird Book News

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

Miscellaneous Bird News

The National Audubon Society and Toyota have launched TogetherGreen, a five-year program to fund conservation projects, train environmental leaders, and encourage volunteers to take part in work at Audubon conservation and educational centers and sanctuaries. The $20 million Toyota grant is the largest Audubon has received in its 103-year history, and the largest so far received by any BirdLife Partner. “TogetherGreen is about giving people the knowledge, the support and the opportunities they need to truly make a difference,” said Audubon President John Flicker. “We will engage people of all ages, from every community and all walks of life to help shape a healthier future.”

Hundreds of bird watchers gathered on sand dunes in Norfolk, UK, to catch a glimpse of a rare black lark. It is only the third time that a black lark, which was spotted in Winterton-on-Sea, has been seen in Britain. Sean Offord, 46, who lives in the village, was the first person to report seeing the male bird. “I’ve been bird watching my whole life and this is by far the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I was in a state of ecstasy and panic because I was really excited at seeing it but also wanted to make sure someone else saw it.”

Are you fascinated by the phenomenon of bird migration? Are you worried about the threats migratory birds are facing? Do you want to help raise awareness for migratory birds or are you already planning a bird-related activity, such as a bird watching excursion, a presentation or similar? Then join hundreds of others around the world in the upcoming World Migratory Bird Day taking place on 10-11 May.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Dave, Caren, Bill, Ellen, Jeremy and Ron for sending story links. Thanks in advance to Ian Paulsen 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!