Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Red-crested Turaco, Tauraco erythrolophus.

Image: John Del Rio [larger view].


Birds in Science

Surface tension can be a wonderful thing. It helps some insects walk on water. It allows the dappling of raindrops on the hood of a car. And, a new study in Science shows, it enables certain birds to eat. Like many birds, phalaropes, small shorebirds with long, thin beaks, feed by pecking, but phalaropes peck at water, capturing droplets, on the order of a tenth of an inch in diameter, which can contain tiny crustaceans or other bits of prey. Since the beak is facing straight down, the question is how these droplets defy gravity to get into the mouth. After studying video of the birds and building a mechanical model of a beak, the researchers figured it out.

Male songbirds woo females much like the way cell phone companies lure customers, a new study finds. If all cell phone companies offered the same packages, it would be easy to compare rates and choose the best, quickly driving those with costlier plans out of business. Instead, the more expensive providers pitch offerings that are difficult to compare — some promise free calls to friends, others present unlimited evening minutes or free long distance. Likewise, male songbirds that cannot compete at singing one song will switch to another to try and trick females. The females comparison-shop for mates just as cell phone customers compare plans, researchers found. “If a male is a better singer than his opponent, he should match the opponent’s song type so that it’s easy for the female to figure out who’s best,” said researcher David Logue, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Lethbridge in Canada.

Remote-controlled sensor networks developed by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are helping scientists track rare bird populations living at Brisbane Airport. Acoustic signals captured by a network of smart phones track the location and population of different bird species, including the elusive Lewin’s Rail, said Richard Mason, from the Microsoft QUT Research Centre in the Faculty of IT (Information Technology). “Sound provides the heartbeat of the environment,” Mr Mason said. “Like listening to someone’s heartbeat, it reveals a lot of information about health.”

People Hurting Birds

The season’s first American oystercatchers hatched on a fenced-off stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore just before Memorial Day weekend, when thousands of sportsmen flock to the Outer Banks to fish. The most popular fishing spots, such as Cape Point and the Bodie Island spit, are largely off limits because threatened piping plovers and other declining shorebirds prefer to nest on sand flats overwashed by waves. Of course, dumbass humans are upset about being unable to indulge their gawd-given rights to drive their SUVs and other tank-like vehicles all over hell and gone, claiming that they are more important than a few measley birds — nevermind that there are many billions of humans on Planet Earth while the piping plovers and other birds are declining sharply and are headed into extinction. By the way, this story includes a picture of newly hatched American oystercatchers that you must see because they redefine cuteness.

Whalers who visited remote Gough Island in the South Atlantic 150 years ago described a prelapsarian world where millions of birds lived without predators and where a man could barely walk because he would trip over their nests. Today the British-owned island, described as the most important seabird colony in the world, still hosts 22 breeding bird species and is a world heritage site. But Gough is the stage for one of nature’s greatest horror shows. One of those whaling boats, probably from Britain, carried a few house mice stowaways who jumped ship on Gough. Now there are 700,000 or more of them on the island. What is horrifying ornithgologists is that the humble house mouse which landed on Gough has evolved to two or even three times the size of an ordinary British house mice, and instead of being a vegetarian, eating insects and seeds, has adapted itself to become a carnivore, eating albatross, petrel and shearwater chicks alive in their nests. They are now believed to be the largest mice found anywhere in the world.

Climate change has become firmly established as an accelerant to many of the factors which have put one in eight of the world’s birds at risk of extinction, the recent publication of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species of birds has determined. Long-term drought and sudden extreme weather are putting additional stress on the pockets of habitat that many threatened species depend on. This coupled with extensive and expanding habitat destruction has lead to an increase in the rate of extinction on continents and away from islands, where most historical extinction has occurred.

People Helping Birds

Oregon Zoo officials in Portland say after a week of antibiotics and a blood transfusion from an adult condor, an endangered California condor chick has turned the corner and is getting stronger. Zoo staff have worked feverishly this month to hatch the underweight and shell-bound bird. Monitoring the egg at the zoo’s Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, keepers determined it would not be able to hatch alone. GrrlScientist comment: even though I am fascinated by the technology used to assist this chick, I am uncertain about the ethics of saving this bird since it may experience health problems throughout its entire life due to whatever problem made it too weak to hatch on its own.

When Japan’s last oriental white stork died in 1971 it was thought that the birds had disappeared forever from the wild. The wetlands where the stork nested had been irrigated, and development damaged its habitat. But in a remarkable success story, the storks are thriving again after a reintroduction program. After more than three decades of extinction in the wild, the first captive storks were released into the wild in 2005. By 2007 the first chick had hatched, and this year a further nine chicks arrived. Yoshito Ohsako, who heads the breeding program at Toyooka, said: “We were so happy when we found the nests. It’s not so long since we started, and this is real progress; a lot of people didn’t even think we’d succeed at all.”

The release of Regent Honeyeaters, Xanthomyza phrygia, back into the wild provides new hope for the Endangered species. In total, twenty-seven birds, all fitted with radio transmitters, have been released into the Chiltern National Park (Australia). Community involvement is now playing a vital part in monitoring activities. A bird has already been re-sighted next to a wild bird — the first wild Regent Honeyeater in the park for 18 months!

Birds and Wind Power News

More than 60 years after it was pushed to the edge of extinction, one of North America’s rarest birds, the whooping crane, faces new danger from environmentally-friendly wind farms, conservationists warned. “Companies want to put their farms where the best wind is, and that overlaps with the migration corridor of the whooping crane,” said Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whooping cranes migrate annually between wetlands on the coast of Texas and the Northwest Territories in Canada, flying a route that corresponds to the corridor wind companies are eying for their huge turbines as their industry expands.

Parrot News

The already dwindling population of Indonesian parrots due to deforestation is further threatened by poaching. About 10,000 parrots (Lories and Cockatoos) are caught from the wild in North Halmahera, Indonesia, each year to supply the domestic and the international illegal wildlife trade. The investigation, which was supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and conducted in 2007, uncovered the parrot smuggling network from Indonesia to the Philippines. The parrots poached in North Halmahera are: white Cockatoos, Cacatua alba; Eclectus parrots, Eclectus roratus; the critically endangered red-and-blue lories, Eos histrio; threatened chattering lories, Lorius garrulus, and violet-necked lories, Eos squamata.

The population of wild Puerto Rican parrots, among the most endangered birds in the world, has languished for decades, with several dozen remaining birds unable to break through the bottleneck that prevents their numbers from growing. A new study by an international team led by a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, sheds light on the factors influencing the stalled growth of this parrot’s population and, in turn, provides an analytical tool that could help pinpoint the biggest factors hindering the recovery of other endangered species. “This is the first time a framework has been developed to integrate simultaneously the multiple factors impacting the decline of a species,” said Steven Beissinger, professor of conservation biology at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management and lead author of the paper. “The Puerto Rican parrot’s wild population has only increased, on average, by about one bird a year, and it can’t seem to get out of that funk.”

“I’m Mr. Yosuke Nakamura.” That’s how a parrot identified himself after police found him … lost on a rooftop. The African gray parrot spilled the information to a vet, after keeping mum with the police. His owners had taught the bird what every child should knows: How to recite his name and address. While waiting for his owners, Mr. Nakamura acted like a bird and sang a few songs.

The exotic 6-month-old blue Quaker parrot stolen from the Petland in Tinley Park, Chicago, nearly a week ago was recently returned by a mysterious man, Petland manager Marion Oddo said. “It ate very well last night and snuggled up to its hatchmate and slept well,” Oddo said. The man was wearing a hat, and he hunched over to hide his face from the store’s surveillance cameras. Cameras caught images of the two men who took the parrot May 16 from the store at 16195 S. Harlem Ave. The bird doesn’t appear to be harmed, Oddo said. But it seemed “stressed” and “puffed up,” she said. Store workers are hoping some food and rest will help it recover from the ordeal, she said.

Rare Bird News

The ashy storm-petrel‘s population rates have been dipping rapidly in recent years, Shaye Wolf, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. She also added that in some locales, its numbers have literally been halved in the past 20 years. If reclassified as “endangered,” the small, gray, nocturnal bird would be granted additional federal protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. “There are really multiple threats — the area [the bird] relies on for survival is really hard hit by coastal development, and now it’s being hit by coastal climate change,” Wolf said.

The Eurasian curlew is the symbol of Northumberland National Park in the United Kingdom and its evocative “bubbling” call is familiar to walkers and countryside people. But recently, the curlew was placed on the Red List by BirdLife International because of the steep decline in its numbers. Along with the newly-included Dartford warbler, the curlew is now rated as Near Threatened — one step below species facing global extinction. “The RSPB is already working with other organisations and land managers to provide advice that will benefit curlews, but there is still more that we can all do to help keep a place in the hills for these special birds,” said David Hirst, regional spokesman for the RSPB.

Avian Disease and Zoonotics News

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York says house and purple finches in particular, have fallen victim to an avian disease known as mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, caused by a parasitic bacteria previously known to only infect poultry, especially turkeys. It appears the eye disease has hit the eastern house finch population first. Birds with avian conjunctivitis often have red, swollen, watery, or crusty eyes; in extreme cases, the eyes are so swollen or crusted over that the birds are virtually blind. Ornithologists at the Cornell Lab believe house finches are the first species to fall victim to avian conjunctivitis because “today’s eastern house finch populations originated entirely from a small number of released birds, they are highly inbred, exhibit low genetic diversity and, may therefore be more susceptible to disease than other bird species native to the East.”

A three-week-old eaglet at Norfolk Botanical Garden was removed from its nest recently so a veterinarian can examine a growth on its beak that may be avian pox. The bird, whose hatching was celebrated recently after a mating season filled with drama and frustration, was removed to be examined by a veterinarian from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Includes link to the webcam.

An H5N1 influenza vaccine made by the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has become the first prepandemic vaccine to be licensed by the European Union (EU), the company announced. The European Medicines Agency has approved the adjuvanted vaccine, called Prepandrix, for marketing in all 27 EU countries, GSK said in a news release. The vaccine offers European governments the opportunity to protect their populations “in advance or at the outset of a declared influenza pandemic,” the company said. The product is licensed for adults aged 18 to 60.

H5N1 Avian influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Great Britain and South Korea, in wild swans in Japan, and in humans in Bangladesh.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 26 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].

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.

I have been informed that some of the previous links for the three avian anatomy books has been deactivated. I am not surprised by this since my source warned me that this would likely happen. But there is still demand for these books, so I have downloaded them all to RapidShare, where you can get your free copies. Each book must be uploaded once every 90 days, or the file will be automatically deleted by RapidShare, so share this link with your friends.

Miscellaneous Bird News

The naturalists at Hilton Pond Center are pleased to announce the posting of their 400th installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond” — even though this milestone photoessay is about an invasive plant that has both good and bad attributes. Indeed, Multiflora Rose looks good and helps wildlife, but it’s the bane of the farmer and those who treasure native flora. Don’t forget to scroll down after the photo essay to read about this week’s banded birds — plus some interesting recapture data on a couple of Neotropical migrants and some rather old local avifauna.

A “Big Year” is a treasured tradition within the eccentric North American bird-watching community, but the Boothroyd clan — Malkolm and parents Wendy Boothroyd and Ken Madsen, who make their permanent home in Canada’s Yukon Territory — has put several spins on the race to see as many species as possible. First of all, the bikes: The family is fossil-fuel-free on its adventure. While other birders might use a calendar year to fly around the country, Malkolm is taking a school year off to pedal around it. “It may be I’m normal and the other 30 million teenagers are weird, but it’s probably the other way around,” he says with a shrug.

Thanks to local researchers, bird-lovers can once again spy on the daily drama of peregrine falcons nesting atop the Washington Mutual Tower at Third Avenue and Seneca Street in downtown Seattle. And for the first time, the curious also can track the progress of peregrines embarked on one of the world’s great migrations — 9,000 miles from the southern tip of Chile to the Arctic. “You can turn on your computer and see exactly where these birds are,” said Bud Anderson, director of the Skagit County-based Falcon Research Group. “This is cutting-edge stuff.”

America’s wildlife refuges are so short of money that one-third have no staff, boardwalks and buildings are in disrepair, and drug dealers are using them to grow marijuana and make methamphetamine, a group pushing for more funding says. “Without adequate funding, we are jeopardizing some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife and wild lands,” said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and chairman of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement. The cooperative said in a report released Thursday to Congress that the nation’s 548 refuges and the 100 million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System — about the size of California — is underfunded by 43 percent. The refuge system needs at least $765 million a year but is receiving only $434 million. GrrlScientist comment: gee, thanks george bush! I am so happy to know that my taxes are going to murder innocent Iraqis instead of protecting our wild spaces and wildlife! /sarcasm alert/

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The Fine Print: Thanks to John, Diane, Abel, Bill, Scott, 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!

Comments

  1. #1 Tabor
    May 26, 2008

    For a while there I thought you were disappearing. I was only seeing a ghost image of the former ScienceGirl. But at least the post above is letting me know you still have your passion thing going on.

  2. #2 Laurella Desborough
    May 26, 2008

    Gough Island monster mice…I thought the conservation community was going to DO SOMETHING about those mice!

    I have an idea…thought about this problem for a year now.
    This is it.
    During the off breeding season for the seabirds, scientists select TEN MALE cats, put devices on them to be able to locate them in future and turn them loose on the island. White cats preferably. A month prior to the next breeding season for the birds, go back to the island and remove the ten cats…dead or alive. This would be a very inexpensive solution…without chemicals.

    Repeat this scenario for a few years, maybe five, until the mice are totally GONE. As long as male cats are used, there should be no problem with the cats proliferating.

    Frankly, I cannot understand why this hasn’t aleady been done. I find it unbelievable that no attempts to remove those mice have been made! SHAME ON OFFICIALDOM! Get going and get rid of those monster mice.

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