Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 140

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Female black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri, Cave Creek Canyon, AZ.

Image: Dave Rintoul, June 2008 [larger view].
More images from Dave’s recent Arizona vacation.


Birds in Science News

The fossil record suggests that much of the biodiversity we see arose quickly in response to ecological opportunities: abundant resources combined with few, or no, potential competitors. As the niche became more crowded, the rate of speciation decreased. This process is known as density-dependent diversification. But can we learn about the tempo of adaptive radiation for the vast majority of species groups for which there is no fossil record? Cornell University evolutionary biology graduate student, Daniel Rabosky, and his advisor, ornithologist Irby Lovette, wondered the same thing. Evidence from previous DNA analyses suggested that speciation events followed the fossil record model of rapid diversification followed by a general slowing of diversification, tested this hypothesis at the species level in Dendroica wood warblers.

A group of scientists have discovered the ‘world’s first bird‘ that lived 235 million years ago. In the landmark study, published by the Paleontological Association, experts unveiled an extraordinary prehistoric lizard-like ‘flying’ reptile which lived 235 million years ago. “Surprisingly, we found that kuehneosuchus was aerodynamically very stable. Jumping from a tree, it could easily have crossed 9 meters (29 feet) before landing on the ground,” said German palaeobiologist Koen Stein, who led the study. Stein, who now works in the German Institute of Palaeontology at Bonn, conducted the research with Colin Palmer, Pamela Gill and Michael Benton from Bristol University’s Department of Earth Sciences.

They’re known for their excellent vision and hearing abilities. Now, a group of researchers have established that birds are good smellers too. By studying bird DNA, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, along with a colleague at the Cawthron Institute in New Zealand, have now provided genetic evidence that many bird species have a well-developed sense of smell. The sense of smell might indeed be as important to birds as it is to fish or even mammals. This is the main conclusion of a study by Silke Steiger (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology) and her colleagues. GrrlScientist comment: I would really like to read this paper before I passjudgment on this conclusion, although it does sound rather .. unusual .. based on what the news media are saying.

People Hurting Birds

A pigeon aficionado — one of a pack of 12 prosecuted so far — pleaded guilty last Tuesday in a Tacoma Washington court to killing a peregrine falcon, a result of an undercover sting targeting bird club members accused of killing thousands of hawks and falcons. Darrel Norris, 69, was the first Washington state resident indicted on evidence gathered during a yearlong undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into the Northwest Roller Jockeys pigeon club. He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a single count of killing a migratory bird, a misdemeanor. GrrlScientist comment: These people are sick and cruel bastards. Their punishment is not nearly severe enough, either, especially since tax-payers’ monies go to saving and protecting these birds — who do they think they are, to kill endangered species to protect domestic pigeons? I think these good ol’ boyz should read this article.

Birds are in big trouble in North America. A recent study found 127 species of neotropical migratory birds are in decline. How badly? The Black-chinned Sparrow population has fallen 89 per cent over the past 40 years, the Cerulean Warbler is down 83 per cent, and Sprague’s Pipit population has declined by 81 per cent. So drastically have overall migratory bird populations fallen that one scientist who compared weather satellite images over time, found that migrating bird flocks were 50 per cent smaller than they were several years ago.

America is not the only country whose migratory birds are fading away rapidly. Birds of Britain’s woodlands are declining so rapidly that some appear to be on the road to extinction, a study revealed recently. A suite of woodland species, from the nightingale to the spotted flycatcher, fell by more than 50 per cent between 1994 and last year, according to the report of the annual Breeding Bird Survey, run by the British Trust for Ornithology, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The willow tit has declined by 77 per cent over the period and is extinct over much of Britain. But other declines are nearly as bad: since 1994, wood warbler has declined by 67 per cent, nightingale by 60 per cent, spotted flycatcher by 59 per cent and pied flycatcher by 54 per cent. Lesser spotted woodpecker has declined so much that it is too rare to monitor accurately on a national basis.

Hundreds of baby penguins swept from the icy shores of Antarctica and Patagonia are washing up dead on Rio de Janeiro’s tropical beaches, rescuers and penguin experts said recently. More than 400 penguins, mostly young, have been found dead on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro state over the past two months, according to Eduardo Pimenta, superintendent for the state coastal protection and environment agency in the resort city of Cabo Frio. While it is common here to find penguins — both dead and alive — swept by strong ocean currents from the Strait of Magellan, Pimenta said there have been more this year than at any time in recent memory.

People Helping Birds

Bird Helper Hero of the Week: I almost never link from BITN to blogs, but this is an exceptional situation: Joel, a loan officer at Sterling Bank in Downtown Spokane, Washington, watched a mother mallard choose the cement awning outside his second-floor window as the home for her nest. This was fine until the chicks hatched and their mother tried to lead them to water — two blocks away. Joel caught nine of the ten newly-hatched ducklings barehanded as they lept from the ledge onto the cement sidewalk ten feet below, loaded them into an open-topped box so the mother could see them and follow him, and walked to the Spokane River, where he released the brood. [Photoessay of the event as it happened].

According to the spring 2008 newsletter of the California Bluebird Recovery Program, an all-volunteer project, Orange County led the state in 2007 with 5,612 fledglings produced from 1,293 nest boxes. Second was Merced County, with 3,436 bluebirds produced from 688 boxes. Santa Clara, Los Angeles and San Mateo counties rounded out the top five. Bluebird club members hang nest boxes 12 to 20 feet high, clear of predators, vandals and sprinklers. They check the boxes weekly, counting eggs and chicks and removing dead birds. Of the 200 club members, about 40 are dedicated nest monitors, says 80-year-old Dick Purvis, founder of the program.

Salt Lake City’s Tracy Aviary has received a $250,000 grant from the Toyota USA Foundation for its Avian Ecology in Schools project. The funds will help the aviary expand its education program, which serves around 2,000 students per year. The aviary picks a few local schools annually for the program, and their students get a series of lessons from experts in the classroom, field trips and a student workbook. The program is more effective than providing one-day field trips, said Tim Brown, aviary executive director. The “depth-over-breadth” approach gives students a real introduction to birds and a memorable experience, he said.

This is a press release from Wildlife Preservation Canada in Guelph, Ontario, regarding the release of a group of captive-bred eastern loggerhead shrikes — “butcher birds” — to bolster the endangered wild population of birds. I wish them lots of luck, and hope the birds enjoy a high survival rate.

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service (DSFRS — in the UK) has defended its decision to rescue a seagull trapped in netting at an estimated cost of £800. Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said the brigade should not be saving every seagull in trouble. “We’re told anyone dialling 999 for a non-emergency risks lives. It beggars belief they decided to save the gull.” DSFRS said: “We regard ourselves as a humane organisation. But a human life at risk would have taken priority.” Spokesman Paul Slaven added: “The bird was in distress and it was distressing for the onlookers.”

The Tana River Delta in Kenya has received temporary reprieve after the High Court stopped a controversial $370 million sugar and biofuels project. Mumias Sugar Company intends to convert 20,000 hectares of the Tana Rive Delta to plant sugarcane. BirdLife International, NatureKenya (BirdLife in Kenya), the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and local conservationists within Kenya have vehemently opposed the proposal as it threatens biodiversity and the livelihoods of local communities. Tana delta is home to over 350 species of bird, and a large assemblage of globally threatened wildlife including nine plants, five fish, two amphibians, two primates and two reptiles.

Birds in Trouble

There are fears that the high water levels on the River Thames are stopping swans from breeding successfully. These concerns were raised by David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker, as the ancient ritual of swan counting on the river was set to start recently. Mr Barber said: “Last year saw significantly lower cygnet numbers than usual and it would appear that the situation has not improved in 2008. “High water levels and strong currents in early June have washed away many nests and young cygnets struggle to survive once separated from their parents.”

Rare Birds News

As wildfire whipped toward a remote sanctuary of the endangered California condor last month, the rare birds got their biggest test in survival after years of pampering by biologists: They had to live completely on their own. Forced away by flames, their scientist handlers could only hope the birds’ animal instincts would kick in. To their delight, they did. The birds found fresh air, and food: a beached whale and decaying California sea lion at the edge of Big Sur’s cliffs. After the blaze swept through the area, many even returned home.

Elvis is alive. He doesn’t walk through the gates of Graceland or croon to adoring fans, but he’s making history all the same. Elvis’ place in history, however, comes from the groundbreaking medical treatment he’s receiving near his home at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. That’s because he’s not a singer, but a thick-billed parrot, Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha, being treated for a malignant melanoma on his beak. “Initially, the bird keepers brought him to us because they noticed he had a bloody mass on his beak,” said Amanda Guthrie, DVM, the zoo’s associate veterinarian, “and they initially thought it was an infection or an abscess.”

Avian Disease and Zoonotics News

There’s a deadly virus spreading through the Florida Keys but it’s only affecting birds, not people. Wildlife experts say a deadly avian paraxyxovirus is being spread among pigeons and doves through backyard bird feeders in the Florida Keys. Officials are urging residents to temporarily take down their feeders to halt the spread of the virus. Before they die, infected birds become lethargic, have a wobbly gait and can’t fly straight.

US researchers have taken a big step closer to a cure for the most common strain of avian influenza, or “bird flu,” the potential pandemic that has claimed more than 200 lives and infected nearly 400 people in 14 countries since it was identified in 2003. Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have crystallized and characterised the structure of one of the most important protein complexes of the H5N1 virus, the most common strain of bird flu. All viruses, including H5N1, contain only a small number of proteins that govern all of the viruses’ functions. The Argonne study focused on H5N1’s RNA polymerase protein, which contains three subunits: PA, PB1 and PB2. “When we mapped out the PA subunit, it looked very much like the head of a dragon,” said Argonne biophysicist Andrzej Joachimiak. “One domain looked like the dragon’s brains, and the other looked like its mouth.”

H5N1 Avian influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Vietnam and in humans in Indonesia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 21 July 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].

Here’s a streaming video [0:50] that shows hundreds of thousands of Indian ringnecked parrots flocking to a temple in northern India to feed. The parrots gather at the temple in Indore for three months a year to eat sorgam grains left out by devotees.

Bird Book News

This week’s issue of the Birdbooker Report lists ecology, evolution, environment, 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.

Avian Mysteries

Like a canary in a coal mine, an unusual bird found at the top of Stratton Mountain might be an indicator of climate change. Since 1997, members of the Vermont Center for Eco Studies, based in Norwich, have come to Stratton to study the Bicknell’s thrush that prefer to nest in the limbs of the balsam fir, which are found above 3,000 feet.But Chris Rimmer, VCE’s director, said they have found a bird that appears to be a hybrid between the Bicknell’s thrush and a veery, a bird usually found in marshlands at much lower elevations. Rimmer said they were able to capture the bird, which appears to have the physical characteristics of both a Bicknell’s thrush and a veery, and drew blood to determine by DNA if it is a hybrid of the two.

Miscellaneous Bird News

During their 25 years of hummer study, the naturalists at Hilton Pond had their share of “hummingbird jubilations,” including several of their banded birds being recaptured at other locales. None of these, however, matches the excitement they experienced This Week at Hilton Pond when they got word of the unprecedented long-distance recovery of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird that they banded earlier this year. See their photoessay and read their interesting story online. As always, they provide a tally of all birds banded or recaptured during the period, including miscellaneous notes about their unusually low numbers of ruby-throats.

This is a cute little story about hanging around in NYC’s Central Park at night, looking at moths and other nocturnal flying insects, and listening to owls and other birds in the darkness.

Miles from the nearest sizable body of water, a family of yellow-crowned night-herons has made a home for themselves high above a busy street in the heart of Mount Vernon, NY. It’s the first sighting of a nest and brood in Westchester in nearly 20 years, birding experts say. Tom Burke, a birding expert who lives in Rye, said yesterday that he was not surprised at the location of the nest. “They’re known for nesting in very odd places,” he observed.

Okay, this is really weird: this is the first documentation of a pair of siamese twin birds that I’ve ever heard of. Includes a picture.

Here’s a Le Monde story about the increasing numbers of birders in France for you to read — in French. Do you still remember your high school French? [English translation].

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Diane, Gene, Suzanne, Caren, Ian, Marcia, 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 Bob O'H
    July 21, 2008

    The story about avian olefaction is free online. I agree it, um, smells funny. But the number of sequences they look at is not to be sniffed at.

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