Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 142

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Brown Lory, also known as the Duyvenbode’s Lory, Chalcopsitta duivenbodei. This species is endemic to the island of New Guinea.

Image: John Del Rio [larger view].

Birds in Science News

One of the challenges facing those who believe that evolution cannot create new species is explaining the problem of “ring species.” Ring species are a group of geographically connected populations that can interbreed with nearby populations, but cannot breed with those populations that exist at each end of the cline. These populations are known as “ring species” because their populations often form a ring where each end of the cline is located near the other, or the ends of their ranges actually overlap, thereby curling inwards upon each other and forming a ring. Research from the 1950s suggested that the Crimson Rosella species complex of Australia are an example of ring species, but are they? A paper was just published that investigates this very thing.

Birds of a feather don’t just flock together–they also work together to obtain food. Recent research makes rooks the first nonprimates observed to successfully cooperate to retrieve a food-laden platform, according to scientists at the University of Cambridge. They tested rooks, Eurasian members of the crow family, by placing dishes of food on a platform out of reach of a bird enclosure. A single string looped from the enclosure to the platform and back again. Moving the platform closer required pulling on both ends of the string simultaneously, a feat that is only possible if two birds work together, each tugging on one end. The researchers found that rook pairs spontaneously learned how to solve the problem. “We were amazed that the rooks performed so well,” says lead author Amanda Seed, now at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “It’s really hard to coordinate your actions. If you wait an extra second, you miss your chance.”

Computer scientists from the University of Bonn, in conjunction with the birdsong archives of Berlin’s Humboldt University, have developed a kind of ‘Big Brother’ for birds. This has nothing to do with entertainment, but a lot to do with the protection of nature. The new type of voice detector involved can reliably recognise the characteristic birdsong of different species of birds, thereby facilitating surveys of the bird population.

People Hurting Birds

Tony Diamond sits at a picnic bench on Machias Seal Island in Canada and watches puffins flying madcap circles overhead. He studies a cowbird perched on a wire, admires a tree swallow, cocks his head to seek out the gull he has just heard cry out, takes a deep breath and revels in the fowl air. “At this time of year, there should be hundreds and hundreds of adults and fledglings on the rocks,” Diamond says. “There should be birds flying over the bay, fishing and calling. “This should be a noisy place. We should be deafened by the din.” The quiet is unsettling because the Arctic terns that Diamond is studying have taken a turn for the worse. For 80 years, they have nested on Machias Seal Island, a rookery 10 miles off the southwest tip of Grand Manan. For the last three years, however, the terns have abandoned their nests.

The number of crimes reported against birds of prey rose by 40% last year to a record level, the RSPB has said. The bird welfare charity recorded 262 attacks in 2007, up from 185, including 34 shootings and 49 poisonings. Crimes against all wild birds also hit a record high with 1,208 incidents reported to the RSPB, up from 1,109. “It’s hard to say whether the problem is increasing or whether we are just getting to hear about more of the offences that are taking place,” said RSPB head of investigations Ian West. Story includes video.

What had been for the last six months a vibrant stream teeming with migrating waterfowls and shorebirds early last week became a dry San Gabriel River channel where vultures gorged themselves on ducklings that died when the flows dried up. The discovery prompted calls for an investigation into the deaths of at least 20 cinnamon teal ducklings, 10 mallard ducklings and 20 adult mallards that had sought refuge in a shrinking pool of water in a concrete basin just south of Valley Boulevard in the city of Industry, California. “The system does not include ducklings as part of the equation,” said D.J. Waldie, spokesman for the city of Lakewood, which borders the river downstream from Industry.

Wellington’s south coast marine reserve came a step closer recently with its formal announcement. The ‘Taputeranga Marine Reserve‘ will be opened officially next month; 17 years after Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand) first started campaigning for it. “Having Taputeranga Marine Reserve on Wellington’s doorstep will be a huge bonus,” said Forest & Bird General Manager Mike Britton. “With other marine reserves, as people have seen the growth of fish numbers and other marine life inside and outside the reserve, even opponents have become supporters.” The 840 hectare reserve is home to Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor, and the Australasian Gannet, Morus serrator, along with more than 180 species of fish.

People Helping Birds

For the past 5 years, SPEA (Birdlife in Portugal) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), together with other partners, including the Azores Regional Government, have been implementing a LIFE project to save the Critically Endangered Azores Bullfinch, Pyrrhula murina — or Priolo as it is known locally — from extinction. This species is Europe’s rarest songbird, and the second most globally threatened bird species in the whole continent. It occurs only in small pockets scattered in a 6,000 hectare mountain range on São Miguel island in the Azores. The species’s natural habitat, which was already patchily distributed and degraded, is currently severely threatened through invasion by aggressive exotic plant species. The Azores Bullfinch habitat has been improved since 2003 by clearing exotic plants and planting native trees that provide the food that the birds depend on. The population seems to be responding well to this habitat management.

The UK government has announced its first steps to address the crises faced by farmland birds, following the abolition of the EU set-aside obligation. The set-aside obligation, which required farmers to leave part of their land fallow, has now been abolished. Set-aside has, incidentally, been providing key habitat for numerous species of wildlife. Many farmland birds have now lost their safe breeding areas or their key sources of winter food. Ariel Brunner, BirdLife’s EU Agriculture Policy Officer, commented: “The scientific case is now clear that the abolition of set-aside is severely harming the environment. We applaud the UK government for admitting this and finding the courage to start addressing the problem. Other EU Member States governments should follow the example and the EU Council must adopt similar measures across the EU when it discusses the CAP Health check in the autumn”.

Rare Bird Species News

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday proposed trimming the amount of coastal forest lands designated critical habitat for the marbled murrelet, a threatened species of sea bird that nests in old-growth timber. Fish and Wildlife said the 254,000 acres that would be removed from the 1996 critical-habitat designation of 3.9 million acres represents a new focus on trying to protect forests most likely to be used by the birds for nesting. Conservation groups complained that the agency was making it easier to log old-growth timber in the central Coast Range of Oregon, where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been working on plans to greatly increase timber harvests, and ignoring opportunities to add more critical habitat to improve the bird’s chances.

An executive order issued by Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal endorsing the conservation of the Greater Sage-grouse amounts to “a courageous and commonsense act to protect the unique resources of the region,” said Brian Rutledge, Executive Director of Audubon Wyoming. Based on months of work by community leaders, conservationists, the energy industry and the agricultural community, the newly released order puts the Department of the Interior on notice that it must fulfill its obligations to protect the grouse and the landscapes that support it. “The Governor has embraced the recommendations of countless Wyoming citizens thoughtfully and respectfully in prescribing a management approach that simply makes sense,” Rutledge said.

Avian Diseases and Zoonotics News

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have identified a virus behind the mysterious infectious disease, Proventricular Dilatation Disease, or PDD, that has been killing parrots and exotic birds for more than 30 years. The new virus, which the team named Avian Bornavirus (ABV), is a member of the bornavirus family, whose other members cause encephalitis in horses and livestock. This discovery has potentially solved a mystery that has been plaguing the avian veterinary community since the 1970s,” said DeRisi, a molecular biologist whose laboratory aided in the 2003 discovery of the virus causing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in humans. “These results clearly reveal the existence of an avian reservoir of remarkably diverse bornaviruses that are dramatically different from anything seen in other animals.”

West Nile Virus has been identified in wild birds in Plainview, NY, Dedham, Massachusetts, Chicago and in Sacramento, California.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Nigeria and in humans in Indonesia and possibly in India.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 3 August 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].

Standing in a forest in Alaska, biologist Michael Andersen finds himself surrounded by half a million storm petrels flying through the air. “There’s so many of these birds that they can’t help flying into the microphone or the tripod,” he says. “Or even one time, a bird flew right into my head.” Includes written story and 2:35 mp3 interview.

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

Researchers at Durham, the RSPB and Cambridge University in the UK have found that birds such as the Cirl Bunting and Dartford Warbler are becoming more common across a wide range of habitats in Britain as temperatures rise. Unfortunately, some northern species, such as the Fieldfare and Redwing, are not faring quite so well and their numbers are falling. Researchers looked at twenty-five year population trends of 42 bird species in relation to changes in climatic suitability simulated using climatic envelope models. Professor Brian Huntley from The Institute of Ecosystem Science at Durham University says: “The results are what we expected to find given the changes in climate over the last 20 years. Because the UK is in the middle Latitudes of Europe, we expected that recent climatic warming would favour species with ranges located in the south of Europe and adversely affect northern species.”

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Kathy, 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!