Birds in Science News
Climate change threatens many animals — but with any luck, some will handle weather shifts with as much aplomb as Parus major, a colorful songbird also known as the great tit. In a study published today in Science, ornithologists from the University of Oxford tracked the egg-laying times of great tits in Wytham, England. Since the mid-1970s, temperatures in Wytham have risen steadily, hastening the start of spring by two weeks. The birds have followed suit, timing their breeding to coincide with earlier hatches of their favorite food source, a species of moth caterpillar. [Includes a really cute close-up picture of a stub-tailed youngster!].
Songbirds have long been studied for insight into how the brain learns motor tasks — in a bird’s case, singing its characteristic song. Juvenile birds babble in screechy random bursts before they eventually develop a tonally and rhythmically precise song. Researchers have long known that a pathway called the high vocal center, or H.V.C., controls adult song, but whether that same pathway is responsible for babbling and changes as the bird ages has been an open question. “The general view that I had and others in the field had is that vocalization at any age is a function of the H.V.C.,” said Michale S. Fee, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied bird song for about a decade. But Dr. Fee and two graduate students, Dmitriy Aronov and Aaron S. Andalman, have reached a different conclusion.
Professor Zhang FuCheng and his colleagues discovered and named a new confuciusornithid bird, Eoconfuciusornis zhengi, gen. et sp. nov. that lived 131 million years ago. It is the most primitive member of Family Confuciusornithidae and thus extends the lifespan of this family to 11Ma. In addition, Eoconfuciusornis and its relatives have many osteological transformations and represent an early adaptation toward improved flight in the evolution of Confuciusornithidae.
People Hurting Birds
About 90 wedge-tailed shearwaters, an indigenous Hawaiian bird protected by federal law, have been found dead in Kahuku. Wildlife experts believe they were killed by a dog or several dogs. The Wedge Tailed Shearwater spends part of its life at sea, the rest in nests along the coast. Man has already destroyed much of the Shearwater’s habitat by developing along the waterfront. And now the Shearwater is under attack from man’s best friend. “It was just awful, and the more I saw the sicker I felt,” said Noyita Saravia, a Kahuku resident who found some of the dead birds. [Link includes streaming video].
Bird lovers are in a flap over plans to control the growing colony of double-crested cormorants at the Leslie St. Spit near Toronto, Canada. Hikers and cyclists heading out onto the spit yesterday were met by members of the Peaceful Parks Coalition, who marked International Migratory Bird Day by handing out leaflets warning about a proposal to harass the cormorants, oil their eggs and destroy their nests. “By seeing so many birds nesting, you might think there are too many of them, but they don’t deplete their food supply, so we think it’s a natural process that should be allowed,” said Coalition member Susan Krajnc.
The small numbers of birds such as swallows and warblers in the UK have set alarm bells ringing. Some species are 20 per cent down from normal amid fears of a disaster in their wintering areas. Among the birds that are causing concern are house martins, cuckoos, nightingales, redstarts, pied flycatchers, garden warblers and whitethroats. “The early indications suggest that numbers of swallow, house martin, cuckoo and some warblers such as willow warblers, are noticeably lower than we would expect at this stage of spring,” said Paul Stancliffe, spokesman for the British Trust for Ornithology.
It has emerged that, last year a large number of eggs — up to 3,000 — were reported as stolen by a volunteer of the Copeland Bird Observatory in northern Ireland. This theft, mainly of black-headed gull and mew (or common) gull eggs, has led to a complete failure of a major seabird colony. Unfortunately this is not the first time the Copelands, made up of three islands, have been targeted, with eggs also stolen in both 2003 and 2004. “Volunteer Staff at Copeland Bird Observatory have worked tirelessly to provide a safe habitat for many different species of birds and it is devastating to see their dedicated work ruined by callous thieves who seem to have no comprehension of the damage they are inflicting,” said Sgt David Gowdy of Donaghadee station.
Scientists have warned that the Indian vulture species are on the brink of extinction due to diclofenac poisoning. The avian scavengers could be wiped out of the country in less than 10 years if the livestock painkiller in not banned immediately. The Indian White-rumped vultures, the long-billed vultures and the slender-billed vultures are the three species, whose population have declined by nearly 99 per cent. According to scientists, from 40 million vultures counted in 1992, the numbers have come down to a few hundred birds in the whole country in 2007.
Birds Hurting People
A swimmer is recovering after a brown pelican apparently diving for fish slammed into her face off Florida. The chief of the St. Petersburg Fire Department says he never heard of a diving pelican colliding with anyone.
People Helping Birds
The bicycling boy wonder continues his birding travels in Texas after breaking records for a fossil fuel-free Big Year. As of Tuesday, 16-year-old Malkolm Boothroyd had identified more than 509 birds since June 21, when he started his one-year bicycling journey in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in Canada, down the West Coast and cutting east across the United States. “Fossil fuels contribute to climate change and pollute the air,” he said. “Every small step counts.”
Seattle firefighters saved an osprey that became tangled on a utility pole at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal Five. The bird flapped upside down for nearly four hours Monday before firefighters climbed 80 feet up a ladder to make the rescue. [I’m glad the Fire Department rescued the bird, but geez, couldn’t they have gotten there three and a half hours sooner?]
She has been named Beauty, though this Idaho state bald eagle is anything but. Part of Beauty’s beak was shot off several years ago, leaving her with a stump that is useless for hunting food. A team of volunteers is working to attach an artificial beak to the disfigured bird, in an effort to keep her alive. “For Beauty it’s like using only one chopstick to eat. It can’t be done” said biologist Jane Fink Cantwell, who operates a raptor recovery center in this Idaho Panhandle town. “She has trouble drinking. She can’t preen her feathers. That’s all about to change.”
Bird watchers can now view one of New Zealand’s least-known rare birds after a release onto a privately owned reserve in the Chatham Islands. Twenty Chatham Island snipe were released onto a reserve on Pitt Island, the second largest of the Chatham Islands, on April 28. The birds used to live on the island, but died out in the 1890s following the introduction of cats.
The Division of Fish and Wildlife and collaborating biologist from world-renowned zoos have completed the historic translocation of 50 Saipan bridled white-eyes, or Nosa, Zosterops conspicillata saypani, to the island of Sarigan. The purpose of the translocations is to protect from extinction unique, endemic Mariana bird species that only occur on a few of the Mariana Islands. The Nosa is found on Saipan, Tinian and Aguiguan but is extinct on Guam due to the invasive and introduced brown tree snake. Current research has shown that the population of the Nosa on Saipan has remained stable for the past 10 years. Therefore, it was as good candidate for the first experimental trial prior to pursuing translocations of birds that are declining more rapidly.
Audubon California has announced that it has reached an agreement with a farmer to safeguard a single colony of about 80,000 Tricolored Blackbirds, Agelaius tricolor — nearly one third of the world’s population of this Endangered species. The estimated global population of Tricolored Blackbirds is 250,000 to 300,000 birds, with at least 95% of these occurring in California. Tricolored Blackbirds have declined dramatically in the past century as native wetland habitat has been lost and the species has consequently been classified as Endangered. “This is really a great victory for conservation, and an example of how conservation and agricultural interests can work together to find real solutions”, said Graham Chisholm, director of conservation for Audubon California. “The Tricolored Blackbird is an important part of California’s natural beauty, and this agreement, combined with other conservation measures, will help to ensure that it has a healthy future.”
Nature lovers in the UK are preparing a safe home for a very rare species of bird.
Conservationists have fenced off an area of Crimdon Sands to provide a haven for a colony of little terns who annually breed on the site. Last year, the colony proved the most successful in the country with more than double the previous year’s amount of chicks hatching. The small seabirds are migrating to the beach from the sweltering climate of West Africa to rear their chicks before heading south before the winter begins. “Last year the colony was the most successful in Britain and Ireland when it produced 110 healthy fledglings compared to 47 the year before,” said Mark Frain, a coast and countryside ranger.
Qatar is hosting the 31st meeting of Global Council of Bird Life International, from May 12 to 16. Birdlife International aims at saving bird species, protecting bird sites, conserving bird habitats and empowering people to take care of bird conservation and bio-diversity. With a relatively small number of bird species which is estimated at 255, almost half (104) of which are migratory birds, Qatar has every reason to protect them. Birdlife International has already suggested that Qatar could become the Global Patron of the largest bird organization in the world in recognition of its tremendous efforts towards the environment in general, and bird studies in particular, both at the government and NGO levels.
The spotted eagle owl is South Africa’s Bird of 2008 — to enjoy a deserving limelight and to focus on conservation of the species. Perhaps all owls will benefit from the publicity. Those with the interests of our shrinking flora and fauna populations will hope so.
Birds and Biofuels News
The EU’s biofuel policy is likely to cause large-scale environmental harm across the world, according to a new report published recently by BirdLife International. The report is coming out ahead of revised proposals for sustainability standards in European legislation which remain disappointingly weak. The report presents real life cases, from across the world, where the production of biofuel feed stocks is leading to the clearing of natural habitats. It examines the potential for future damage by analysing these case studies against the “sustainability standards” proposed by the European Commission, which are supposed only to allow “sustainable biofuels” to be allowed into the EU market.
Plans to grow biofuel crops on an idyllic river plain in Kenya, Africa, underestimate the cost, overestimate the profit and could be illegal if implemented as currently proposed, consultants say in a new report. The project, to turn 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of the mostly pristine Tana River Delta over to sugarcane, ignores fees for water use, compensation for lost livelihoods, chemical pollution and loss of tourism and wildlife. Consultants, commissioned by Nature Kenya (BirdLife in Kenya) and the RSPB (BirdLife in UK), highlight the “irreversible loss of ecosystem services” the scheme will cause, and states that some costs “defy valuation”.
Rare Bird News
Despite more than 40 years of conservation efforts, the Puerto Rican parrot, Amazona vittata, remains one of the world’s most critically endangered birds, with only an estimated 30 to 40 parrots left in the wild. They exist in just a single location, Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest. Why has the population languished? A new study, published in this month’s issue of the journal Ecological Monographs, blames a number of factors, including inbreeding, low hatch rates, the inability find mates… and hurricanes.
Avian Influenza News
On BirdNote, for the week of 12 May 2008. There was a special edition just for Mother’s Day, too. 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].
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
They may not have as swanky an address as their East Side counterparts, Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks who got evicted from, then invited back, to the Manhattan building where Mary Tyler Moore lives on Fifth Avenue at 74th Street. But two unnamed red-tailed hawks at the south end of Riverside Park, on the West Side, have more to celebrate. Three chicks hatched at their nest within the past two weeks, drawing quite a crowd.
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The Fine Print: Thanks to Caren, 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!