Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 137

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula, with insect egg or pupa in its beak.

Image: Dave Rintoul, KSU [larger view].

News of Birds in Science

A fascinating paper was just published by some of my colleagues in the top-tier journal, Science, that analyzes the largest collection of DNA data ever assembled for birds. This analysis effectively redraws avian phylogeny, or family tree, thus shaking up our current understanding of the early, or “deep”, evolutionary relationships of birds. For example, one of the most surprising findings of this analysis is that parrots and songbirds are “sister groups” — each other’s closest relatives!

Songbirds in cities are damaging their health, exposing themselves to predators and weakening their gene pool by trying to be heard above the din of urban life. New research shows that male birds trying to compete with traffic and city sounds are singing louder and at increasingly higher frequencies, which could harm their vocal cords and hearing. As a result their songs are becoming more chaotic and less diverse, which makes them less attractive to female birds and damages their mating opportunities. Some birds, including robins, are choosing to sing at night instead of during the day. This not only makes them more vulnerable to attack but, because the birds need to be awake in daylight hours to feed, creates stress and exhaustion.

Birds may not be as “bird-brained” as we thought. Zebra finches show many features of sleep, which had previously been assumed to be the sole preserve of mammals. The finding raises new questions about the complexity of the bird brain and about the evolution of sleep as we know it. Even though birds lack a neocortex, the researchers found that the birds display all of the characteristics of mammalian sleep. “The neocortex is at best sufficient, but not necessary for the production of these mammalian patterns,” observes Philip Low at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California, US.

The problem of keeping track of thousands of near-identical African penguins may have been solved. Researchers have developed surveillance technology that can identify individual birds and then monitor them over long periods of time. The team says the system will boost our understanding of the animals; it could even help ecologists solve the mystery of how long penguins live. The researchers say it could also track other species, from cheetahs to sharks. The technology is on display at the Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition.

People Hurting Birds

Bugs Bunny was hunted by Elmer Fudd. The birds at Boston’s Logan International Airport are stalked by truck 129. That’s the story line of an avian drama posted on YouTube and set to the famous cartoon music “Kill the Wabbit,” which is a twist on the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Richard Wagner’s opera “The Valkyrie.” “That was shocking,” said the amateur videographer, who picked up a camera after seeing an airport employee take out several birds with lethal force last summer from her porch deck.

International presented the European Parliament with alarming data about the extent of seabird bycatch globally and in Europe. At the same time, BirdLife welcomed the long awaited first steps of the European Commission to tackle the problem by developing a Community Plan of Action on seabirds with the intention of completing it next year. “With 300,000 seabirds, including about 100,000 albatrosses, dying annually as bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries — which include many vessels operating under EU flags — the European Community (EC) has the responsibility to put in place effective measures to tackle this readily solvable problem” said Dr Euan Dunn, Head of the Marine Policy at the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), in a presentation at the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament.

The government of Kenya, through the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), has approved a proposal to turn 20,000 hectares of the pristine Tana Delta into irrigated sugarcane plantations. Conservationists and villagers living in the Delta, which provides refuge for 350 species of bird, lions, elephants, rare sharks and reptiles including the Tana writhing skink, believe the decision is illegal and are determined to block the development. “This decision is a national disaster and will devastate the Delta. The Tana’s ecology will be destroyed yet the economic gains will be pitiful,” said Paul Matiku, Executive Director of Nature Kenya (BirdLife in Kenya). “It will seriously damage our priceless national assets and will put the livelihoods of the people living in the Delta in jeopardy.”

People Helping Birds

Every couple of hundred yards, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist stopped to listen for the short, shrill “sripp, sripp” of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a species of special concern in Florida and an endangered species on the federal list. For an hour, he heard nuthatches, pine warblers and red-winged blackbirds, but no red-cockaded woodpeckers — often referred to as RCWs. “I think I hear one,” Mike Baranski finally said. “I hope.” Then he saw them — two adults and a female fledgling he’d banded recently — and documented the sighting.

Anton Oliver, the New Zealand rugby star and former All Blacks captain, is now tackling problems of a different kind — seabird conservation! Anton is embarking on a new career this July when he starts a Masters course at Oxford University on ‘Biodiversity, Conservation and Management’. In preparation for the course, Anton is now working with BirdLife International in Fiji’s outlying Ringgold Islands where he is studying the link between biodiversity and economic security.

In an unprecedented move against rogue cattle ranchers in the Amazon, the Brazilian government has seized livestock grazing there illegally, the new environment minister announced. Officials carted off 3,100 head of cattle that they said were being raised on an ecological reserve in the state of Para, in an operation intended to serve as a warning to other ranchers grazing an estimated 60,000 head on illegally deforested land in Amazonia, the environment minister, Carlos Minc, said. “No more being soft,” Mr. Minc told reporters in the capital, Brasilia. “Those that don’t respect environmental legislation, your cattle are going to become barbecue for Fome Zero,” he said, referring to the government’s food program for the poor. GrrlScientist comment: Wow! Amazing, and wonderful! I wish we had a few people like this in the United States, especially in the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Munster, France is a village with a dual population: Humans live in charming medieval houses; white storks and their half-ton nests rule the rooftops. Gerard Wey, known in these parts as Papa Stork, is the emissary between man and bird. If an anxious villager reports a stork in danger, Wey and his crews rush to the scene. If the birds stage too large a takeover, he’s there to remove some nests.

Bird Mysteries

Seaford’s cherished black-legged kittiwake colony has dropped by 50 per cent in the last year according to experts. The colony is one of only a few in the south coast and can be found on the cliffs just outside the town. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said in this area the numbers had dropped from 800 pairs in 2007 to around 400 pairs this year. “Last year around 800 pairs and their chicks left Seaford to spend the winter over the Atlantic but only 400 odd have returned. Something has gone wrong somewhere, but exactly what is a mystery. Countless things could have happened out at sea — they could have hit stormy weather, or not found enough food, or it could be something else entirely. There’s still a lot we don’t know about sealife, which is why protecting it is so very important.”

Rare Birds News

A pair of elderly bald eagles at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Canada has hatched and is raising two chicks, astounding staff and wildlife experts. The pair, believed to be into their 40’s is breaking species breeding records. The zoo says it’s rare for an eagle to live to 30 years old, let alone live to 40 and still be breeding. A 40-year-old eagle is the equivalent of a 110 year-old human. “This is probably a world record. That’s a guess, but I would bet on it,” said David Curtis, who takes care of native animals at the zoo.

Conservationists are overjoyed that the corncrake, which has been on the endangered list for more than 80 years, has returned to the Nene Washes, in Coates, near Whittelsey, in England following a re-introduction project. Twelve male corncrakes have so far been recorded this summer at the specially created site — making this probably the greatest single concentration of the bird in the southern half of England.

One of the rarest species of birds in Britain has nested at the RSPB reserve on the Somerset Levels, for the first time in 40 years. A pair of great bitterns, a bird closely related to the heron, have nested at the Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve. Tony Whitehead of the RSPB said: “We’ve got birds coming over from Europe in the wintertime chancing across places like this. They find it to their liking and because it is managed with birds like bitterns in mind, they stick around. I could really see a population building up.”

A workshop to develop an International Single Species Action Plan for Endangered White-winged Flufftail, Sarothrura ayresi, has been held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Although the flufftail has been recorded at nine wetland sites in South Africa between November and March, the only evidence of breeding comes from three wetland sites in the central highlands of Ethiopia between July and September. It is not known whether a single population migrates between Ethiopia and South Africa, or each country hosts its own sub-population. Studies have suggested that the birds which breed in Ethiopia remain well into the dry season, and may wander within the country, rather than migrating.

A once critically endangered species of parrot now under threat from a highly contagious virus may be offered a renewed chance of survival by a conservationist at the University of Kent. Dr Jim Groombridge, Lecturer in Biodiversity Conservation at the University’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), has been awarded GBP215,594 from the Leverhulme Trust to lead a three-year project that aims to determine what factors drive the Mauritius parakeet‘s susceptibility to infection, and in particular the spread of the highly contagious (and often lethal) parrot-specific virus Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) that has recently infected this endangered parrot.

Avian Zoonotics News

A biologist and undergraduate student have discovered that what’s good for an area’s bird population is also good for people living nearby. The research, by John P. Swaddle and Stavros E. Calos, published June 25 in the online peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, indicates that areas which have a more diverse bird population (biodiversity) show much lower incidences of West Nile virus infection in the human population. West Nile develops rapidly in bird populations, and then can be passed to humans or other animals through a vector mechanism, often a mosquito. “We don’t yet know the precise mechanism that drives this pattern, but it’s likely to be due to diverse areas having relatively few of the bird species that are particularly competent hosts and reservoirs for the virus,” Swaddle said.

Some cases of human bird flu in Indonesia have been variously misdiagnosed as dengue fever and typhoid, resulting in the late administration of drugs, a leading doctor in the country said. Indonesia has had the highest number of human H5N1 cases in the world and while mortality rates are around 60 percent in other places, the figure is highest, or at 81 percent, in Indonesia. “It (H5N1) is misdiagnosed initially as dengue, bacterial pneumonia, typhoid and upper respiratory tract infection because of similar clinical features (symptoms),” said Sardikin Giriputro, director of the Sulianti Saroso Infectious Disease Hospital in Indonesia.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Pakistan.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 30 June 2008. BirdNotes is really taking off! As of this week, 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 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.

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.

Miscellaneous Bird News

Each June in the Carolinas, aquatic turtle females lumber onto land to make their nests in dry places. The naturalists at Hilton Pond often encounter egg-bound females along their trails, but “This Week at Hilton Pond” they got a rare up-close look at a male Painted Turtle. For a photo essay of this wandering shelled reptile out of his element, please visit their current installment for 15-21 June 2008. As always they include a tally of all birds banded or recaptured during the period, plus a follow-up note on the effects of last week’s furnace-busting lightning strike.

Ornithologists are ecstatic as some of the winter avian guests from the northern hemisphere have made India’s Bhitarkanika wetland spots their permanent home, a unique phenomenon. Though the migrant birds never prefer prolonging their stay once winter months pass by, for a change some of these species were spotted in the area during the gruelling summer and even two weeks back, park officials say. Stuck by the unusual development, wildlife personnel are now keeping close tab on the birds’ movements.

Linked here is an amazing series of images of a female mallard trying to protect one of her ducklings from being eaten by a heron. These amazing pictures show, frame by frame, how the heron swooped on the duck and her family as they swam near Bray Harbour in County Wicklow.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Caren, Diane, 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 Bob O'H
    June 30, 2008

    “Kill the Wabbit,”

    The cartoon is called What’s Opera, Doc?

    I know all the important stuff.

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