Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 129

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Male mountain bluebird, Sialia currucoides.

This bird surprised birders in Washington state by visiting Bainbridge Island this past April.

Image: Eva Gerdts, April 2008 [larger view].

Birds in Science

A team of scientists believe they can provide the key to an enduring wildlife mystery: how do birds navigate? Two main theories joust to explain the seemingly miraculous avian compass. One, supported by research among homing pigeons four years ago, is that birds have tiny particles, called magnetite, in their upper beaks that respond to shifts in Earth’s magnetic field. Another is that they get a navigational fix from a photochemical compass — a protein that is triggered by light through the bird’s eye and responds to magnetism. But Oxford University researchers have for the first time created a compound that confirms a “chemical compass” of this kind can at least exist. “It’s a proof of concept,” said one of the scientists. The study was published yesterday in Nature, the weekly British science journal.

Divorce is widespread, not only in humans, but also in socially monogamous birds like the blue tit. Behavioural ecologists Mihai Valcu and Bart Kempenaers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen found divorce rates of up to 50% in a long-term study of this species. But why do partners split up? To answer this question, it helps to know who suffers and who benefits from the separation.

People Hurting Birds

Talk about truly disgusting human behavior, this past two weeks, several people in the Seattle area have called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to report seeing pigeons with needle-like darts piercing their heads. PETA is offering a $2,000 reward for information about these shootings that have left some Seattle pigeons impaled with darts from a blow-gun — but still alive.

Approximately 500 migratory ducks are dead or dying in Alberta Canada because an oilsands company did not prevent them from landing on a manmade lake filled with toxic sludge. The offending company, Syncrude Canada Ltd., neglected to use propane-fueled noise-making cannons to scare the ducks away from the toxic ponds, as required by law. Further, they claim that ice surrounding the lake is preventing rescue efforts.

The 500 ducks that died this week in a toxic wastewater pond represent only a fraction of the number of birds that die every year in Alberta’s oilsands region, experts say. And they warn the number of bird deaths will jump dramatically as more heavy oil plants are built unless governments bring in tougher environmental rules, including how to deal with billions of litres of poisonous sludge the plants produce. “The tailings ponds are old technology. They have to come up with a better tailings system,” said Ruth Kleinbub, a director of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists who lives in Fort McMurray.

This story should go into its own special section entitled “Pretenders” because this guy, Matthew Borg, pretends to care about animals by educating children on the importance of protecting wildlife while he is actually engaged in smuggling rare and endangered wild animals. Borg’s double life was revealed when he was caught trying to smuggle a dozen exotic snakes from Melbourne to Sydney. The snakes — 10 juvenile corn snakes and two Burmese pythons — were intercepted at Melbourne Airport by Department of Sustainability and Environment officers who were suspicious about the contents of a large polystyrene box. Borg’s Melbourne-based company, Totally Native Educational Adventures, claims to take “an active role in protecting our native habitat and raising awareness”. Borg charges schools $200 a session for children to interact with animals such as bearded dragons, shingleback lizards, turtles, snakes, fruit bats (flying foxes), frogs, crocodiles, kangaroos, wombats and red-tailed black cockatoos. He also organises parties for $250.

Tragically, this story should be placed in its own special section entitled “Stupid People STILL Hurting Birds” because India’s vulture crisis is not a surprise at this point. Despite this, a new study shows that the population of White-rumped Vultures, Gyps bengalensis, is dropping by more than 40 per cent each year in India where it has plunged by 99.9 per cent since 1992. Numbers of Indian, G. indicus, and Slender-billed Vultures, G. tenuirostris, together, have fallen by almost 97 per cent in the same period. These birds are being killed by the anti-inflammatory veterinary drug, diclofenac. Manufacture of this drug was outlawed in India in 2006 but it still remains widely available. Apparently, India has a decade or less to stop the population crash of their vultures. On the other hand, it appears they prefer to live under an increasingly huge pile of animal and human carcasses.

People Helping Birds

Springtime means ducklings .. everywhere, right? Well, if you live in western Washington state, then you certainly see plenty of ducklings. But this past Monday, 28-year-old Lakewood police officer, Dustin Carrell, stopped morning rush hour traffic in western Washington state near Seattle just so a female mallard and her ten ducklings could jaywalk the busy interstate.

Conditions are to be improved in parks, cemeteries and green spaces in central London to help boost the dwindling house sparrow population. A range of experts have been consulted to help reverse the decline, which has resulted in a drop of at least 65% in London between 1994 and 2005. Westminster council came up with the biodiversity action plan in conjunction with 30 organizations. Tawny owls, hedgehogs, butterflies and bats will also benefit from the scheme.

Delegates from nine African countries recently came together in Nairobi, Kenya, to develop a Species Action Plan to reverse the alarming population decline of the Endangered Madagascar Pond-heron, Ardeola idae. The species was considered to be common half a century ago. It is now listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of threatened species. “The number of breeding herons at one site declined from 232 birds in 2007, to none in 2008”, said Julien Ramanampamonjy, a founder member of ASITY Madagascar — an NGO dedicated to protecting Madagascar’s bird.

Bird Diseases and Zoonotics News

This is yet another disease that threatens wild birds, thanks to the domestic poultry industry: House finch eye disease was first identified on the East Coast in 1993, in Maryland and Virginia. By 2004, it had spread across the country to the Pacific Coast. This contagious disease is caused by a pathogen common in turkeys and chickens. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., has determined that between 180-300 million house finches died from this infection known as mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. The bacterial disease is primarily a respiratory illness but its most noticeable symptom is red, swollen eyes that may be runny or crusted over. Cornell has been conducting a House Finch Disease Survey that details the diagnosis of the disease and provides answers for the most frequently asked questions participants may have. One of these being, “Do feeders encourage the spread of conjunctivitis?”

DNR Wildlife officials report that avian cholera has been detected at Rush Lake in southwest Palo Alto County in Northwestern Iowa. Avian cholera is a contagious disease that can be harmful to domestic poultry and migratory waterfowl, but is not considered a high risk for humans. Standard disease protection procedures should be used when working with diseased animals, including wearing rubber gloves and washing skin thoroughly.

The assumption is that pandemic influenza is an exceptionally deadly form of seasonal flu, however Peter Doshi from MIT says this is hard to support. He has conducted a study that challenges common beliefs about the flu – in particular that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claim that “the hallmark of pandemic influenza is excess mortality.” Doshi suggests one of the reasons that pandemic flu might be so misunderstood is that commercial interests may be playing a role in inflating the perceived impact of pandemics.

Human monoclonal antibodies against the flu and, potentially, other infectious diseases, can be quickly made in large quantities in the lab, researchers revealed. The process takes advantage of a burst of immune activity that peaks about seven days after a vaccination, according to Patrick Wilson, Ph.D., of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, and colleagues. In a study reported online in Nature, the researchers said the process is not limited to the flu and “will generate substantial advances for the treatment of infectious diseases.”

H5N1 Avian influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in Denmark and South Korea, in wild swans in Japan and in humans in Indonesia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 5 May 2008. BirdNotes is really taking off! BirdNotes can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00am in Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia, Canada, on KPLU radio in Seattle, KOHO radio in Wenatchee, WA, WNPR radio in Connecticut, KWMR radio in West Marin, California, KTOO radio in Juneau, Alaska, and KMBH radio in Harlingen, Texas. 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].

Now here’s a great radio station! After you are done listening to BirdNote for the day, you can tune in to BirdSong Radio for a relaxing day at work or anywhere else for that matter. The Birdsong Station is a unique British radio station that broadcasts nothing but the songs of birds. Half a million listeners have tuned in to the station with directors now satisfying public demand by updating the recording. The station plays a 20 minute-long recording of birds singing in chorus on a continuous loop. This includes a link that works for those of you who are stuck behind a firewall.

This is an odd story; an adult Cooper’s hawk was discovered dying alongside a roadway near San Francisco with a burst crop that had a dead songbird protruding from it. [Lots of images].

Can coots (a black and white bird the size of a football) co-exist with the homeowners of a wealthy California subdivision? The homeowners say the birds have to go, but the plan to shoot them or poison them seems problematic with children around. And the coot is protected by the Migratory Bird Act. [NPR: 3:53].

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 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

Sometimes nature shows up where we least expect it, which was the case “This Week at Hilton Pond” when the naturalists encountered a new snail species for the Center’s checklist — in a five-gallon bucket. The following week, they show you some of the neotropical migrant songbirds they captured and banded. And of course, they include list of all birds banded or recaptured — and there were lots in both categories — along with miscellaneous nature notes.

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.

This just in from Shishmaref science teacher Ken Stenek: On this late April day, two house sparrows are singing their little hearts out while perched on the metal roof of the Shishmaref School in Alaska. This is unusual, because the closest brethren of the tiny birds are at least several hundred miles away, with most of the population many thousands of miles away. “What are they doing to sustain themselves during the winter, where are they roosting, where are they feeding?” asked Dan Gibson, an ornithology research associate at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. “I would have expected a bird like that to perish during the winter.”

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Scott, Steve, 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!


  1. #1 Kerry Burciaga
    May 5, 2008

    I can think of a great way for London to increase its House Sparrow population – come take ours!

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