Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 134

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Male prothonotary warbler, Protonotaria citrea in breeding plumage.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU [OMG view].


Birds in Science

New research led by Dr Melanie Massaro and Dr Jim Briskie at the University of Canterbury, which found that the New Zealand bellbird is capable of changing its nesting behaviour to protect itself from predators, could be good news for island birds around the world at risk of extinction. The introduction of predatory mammals such as rats, cats and stoats to oceanic islands has led to the extinction of many endemic island birds, and exotic predators continue to threaten the survival of 25 percent of all endangered bird species worldwide. “It shows that such species are not necessarily trapped by their evolutionary history as is generally considered to be the case but they, in fact, have the ability to change their behaviours in ways that appear adaptive,” said Dr Massaro. “More importantly, this study demonstrates that such a change can occur over an ecologically relevant time-scale of years and not centuries.”

For male songbirds, the ticket to love is a great voice. But those with lousy singing abilities need love, too, and the trick they use to get it is similar to one experienced by many humans. Scientists compare the mating competition of songbirds to the situation experienced by people choosing a cellphone. If all cellphone providers offered exactly the same packages, consumers would easily be able to pick the cheapest and be on their way. Instead, providers muddy the waters with a variety of options, making it near-impossible to effectively compare. In the animal kingdom, when two male songbirds are competing for the affection of a female, she will have them sing the same song. “The easiest way, the most accurate way for her to determine which one is better, is to have them do the same thing and be able to compare their performance in that task,” says David Logue, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Lethbridge.

People Hurting Birds

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are in “crisis mode” because at least five endangered California condors (out of 34 total) have been found with lead poisoning in the weeks leading up to a statewide ban on lead bullets. The birds started turning up sick about a month ago during random trappings at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County’s southwestern San Joaquin Valley foothills. One bird died during treatment at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Fewer puffins are going to breed at the UK’s largest colony of the species, on the Isle of May, scientists report. Numbers are down to about 41,000 breeding pairs this year from almost 70,000 pairs in 2003. Researchers believe the decline is linked to changes in the North Sea food web, perhaps related to climate change. Birds are also arriving underweight, which the RSPB describes as “worrying”, because puffins are generally able to feed on a range of creatures in winter.

A recent study of Australia’s wetlands has revealed that 81% of resident wading birds have disappeared in just quarter of a century throughout the mostly inland habitats of eastern Australia. The paper reported that agricultural extraction and inadequate water allocation may have caused the steep declines. Because resident wading birds don’t leave the country, the researchers concluded that the declines were causes by changes within Australia.

Owls are becoming the latest target of illegal bird traders in India as they try ingenious ways to hoodwink the law with the demand for these nocturnal birds soaring in global markets. Bird experts say that three species of owls — the Barn Owl, Rock Eagle Owl and the Eurasian Eagle Owl — are currently in demand. These owls are mostly kept as pets, but some unconfirmed reports say they are also being used for research. “After the green munias and rose-ringed parakeets, it is now the owls that are being targeted,” said Jose Louis, who works with the enforcement department of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

People Helping Birds

More than three years after a poacher shot off her upper beak, a bald eagle named Beauty can finally live up to her name — with the help of volunteers. A team attached an artificial beak to the 15-pound eagle in mid-May, improving her appearance and, more importantly, helping her grasp food. A final beak made of tougher material will be created and attached later, though her saviors don’t plan to release her back into the wild. They say that she has spent too much time with humans that the final beak will still not be strong enough to tear flesh from prey.

The sick eaglet removed from its nest at Norfolk Botanical Garden last month is still awaiting surgery to remove a growth from the side of its beak. The Wildlife Center of Virginia is trying to get a commitment from one of four veterinarians contacted who specialize in avian surgery. Meanwhile, the center reported that the growth — caused by avian pox, a viral disease — has shrunk. The left nostril, which had been pressed firmly shut by the mass, is now open and functioning, veterinarian Dave McRuer said.

The British island of Canna was recently declared rat-free after a campaign to exterminate every last one of the 10,000 rodents which were playing havoc with nesting birds. With the rat problem gone, one species of bird, the Manx shearwater, has already shown signs of recovering by breeding on Canna this year for the first time in ten years. Conservationists now hope that the other important breeding species on the island, including puffins, razorbills, European shags and northern fulmars, will start recovering.

Australian officials say they are having success with a captive breeding program aimed at saving an endangered native bird, the regent honeyeater. Twenty-seven of the yellow and black birds were fitted with radio transmitters and recently released into Chiltern Mount Pilot National Park in Victoria state, Australia. The site, about 300 miles (500 kilometers) southwest of Sydney, was picked because it is home to the box and ironbark forests the birds prefer. “There were critical timelines for the survival of the captive-bred birds when they were released,” said Dave Tyson, a park ranger. “They are passing all those quite successfully. It appears that one bird so far may have been taken by a hawk. But all the others may still be OK even though they are dispersing.”

Rare Birds News

A family of black-winged stilt chicks have successfully hatched in Cheshire — a first in Britain for more than 20 years, the RSPB said. A pair of the birds, which are rarely seen in the UK and normally breed in mainland Europe, set up home near Marbury Country Park a month ago. It’s the first successful hatching of black-winged stilts since 1987 when two chicks were raised in Norfolk, and only the seventh attempt ever recorded. “It’s been such a long time since they were successful and we’ve all been hopeful with the mild weather, but when we heard there were three chicks we were overjoyed,” said Richard Bashford, the RSPB’s ABB project manager.

Parrot News

Parakeets originally from India have multiplied in such large numbers that they are threatening native British birds like robins and woodpeckers. The rose-ringed parakeets, which are native to the Himalayas, have grown over 30,000 in Britain and have colonised parks and gardens in London, Surrey and Kent. John Tayleur, an expert at the British Trust for Ornithology, warned that since parakeets nest early, they take the best sites, putting native species like nuthatches, kestrels, starlings and tawny and little owls at risk.

Avian Zoonotics and Parasitic Infection News

Bird mites look like tiny black specks and their bites feel like pinpricks as Nina Bradica will tell you. The bird mites that have infested her chest and pelvis feel like they are everywhere, she said. Bradica, 47, was in quarantine Friday at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow New Jersey because of the bird mites — common, parasitic arachnids spread by wild birds. Just like in a sci-fi movie, she was evacuated from her Levittown home swathed in a hazardous materials suit after she called 911. GrrlScientist comment: Hrm, I’ve lived with birds for much of my life and had no idea that bird mites could infect a person. You learn something new every day!

West Nile virus once again has reared its ugly head, and this time it’s six weeks early. A dead hermit thrush found in Alamo tested positive for West Nile, making it the first case this year in Contra Costa County, California. Deborah Bass, public affairs manager for Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector District, said the find is a significant one. “It tells us that West Nile virus is here,” Bass said. “It’s a strong reminder that mosquitoes can transmit the disease to animals and people, and that should be taken seriously.”

The complete genetic coding sequences of 150 different avian influenza viruses were recently released by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists and government, industry and university collaborators. The information improves scientific understanding of avian influenza, a virus that mainly infects birds but that can also infect humans. “This sequence information, deciphered by our large team, will help researchers better understand virus biology and improve diagnostic tests for avian influenza viruses,” said David Suarez, research leader of the Exotic and Emerging Avian Viral Diseases Research Unit at the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory (SEPRL) operated at Athens, Ga., by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

A flock of 16,000 chickens at an Arkansas poultry producer tested positive for a mild H7N3 strain of avian influenza, U.S. Department of Agriculture Spokeswoman Angela Harless said Tuesday. Harless said the strain was “very low risk” and posed little threat to either humans or other animals. The birds showed no signs of illness at the time of test, but will be destroyed as a precaution, she said.

The avian influenza virus that struck chickens on a farm in England this past week has been identified as highly pathogenic H7N7 and is probably related to viruses that have sometimes surfaced in other European countries, British officials said. “Preliminary analysis . . . indicates that this H7N7 strain is likely to be related to viruses which have occasionally been detected in domestic poultry and wild birds elsewhere in Europe,” the United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said in a statement.

Indonesia’s health minister said she would no longer announce human deaths from H5N1 avian influenza immediately, but promised to make the information available on a regular basis eventually, probably several cases at a time. Siti Fadilah Supari revealed the policy shift Thursday after acknowledging a 15-year-old girl from the capital, Jakarta, died quietly of bird flu on May 14, becoming the 109th victim in the nation hardest hit by the disease.

H5N1 avian influenza news has been identified in domestic birds in Hong Kong and in humans in Indonesia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 8 June 2008. BirdNotes can be heard seven mornings per week at 8:58-9:00am throughout 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 Publications 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.

Would you like an avian anatomy book — free? If so, you can download one, two or all three books as PDFs by going to this entry, where you can read about the books that are available and choose your free copies. Note that each book must be uploaded to someone’s computer at least once every 90 days, or the file will be automatically deleted by RapidShare, so please share this link with your friends.

The latest issue of Ornitologia Colombia is online now and waiting for you! (Yes, it’s in Spanish, but this is a great way to help you prevent your espanol from fading forever from your memory banks!)

Miscellaneous Bird News

A blooming bush, a tree-climbing snake, a crawly critter that kills trees, a sap-drinking butterfly, an out-of-place treefrog, and a late Neotropical migrant bird. In late May it seems natural happenings are everywhere you look. In the most recent This Week at Hilton Pond photo essay, you’ll find a snapshot of all these things and more, including a tally of all birds banded and a list of recaptures — not the least of which was their first returning Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Biosparite, Diego, Linda, Caren, Phil, 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!

Comments

  1. #1 Robert
    June 9, 2008

    In the songbirds artical David Logue writes:
    “The easiest way, the most accurate way for her to determine which one is better, is to have them do the same thing and be able to compare their performance in that task,”.

    The article suggests that the discrimination of females must be complex, perhaps subject to change and maybe even elusive to the male. Should the male care or just move on? How do the males discriminate?

  2. #2 Sheri
    June 11, 2008

    Maybe the question should be “Do the males discriminate?”

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    June 11, 2008

    actually, the evidence suggests that males often do NOT discriminate, that they will mate with anything that will have them. however, this is not universally true, especially when there is a large disparity between the numbers of males and females in a given breeding population, or when males make significant investments into parental care, or when there is a gender role reversal. but generally, the females are the choosier sex because they produce fewer offspring in a lifetime than a male does, so they are more careful about the genes their offspring end up with.

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