Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 144

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Orange phase Dusky Lory, Pseudeos fuscata.

Image: John Del Rio. [larger view].


Birds in Science News

Ever since Darwin, evolutionary biologists have wondered why some lineages have diversified more than others. Over 20 years ago, Jeff Wyles, Allan Wilson, and Joseph Kunkel proposed that big brains might favor adaptive evolutionary diversification in animals by facilitating the behavioral changes needed to use new resources or environments, a theory known as the behavioral drive hypothesis. When these authors formulated their hypothesis, evidence that the size of the brain limits the cognitive capacity of animals were scanty.

A new species of bird has been identified by ornithologists from the Smithsonian Institution. The bird, which was named the olive-backed forest robin, Stiphrornis pyrrholaemus, which was first discovered in Gabon, a small country in Africa, was unknown to the scientific community until now. Interestingly, this species is part of a larger group of closely-related birds in southwest Gabon known as the Gamba Complex. This story includes photographs, maps and data figures along with a link to the free PDF.

People Hurting Birds

A number of UK bird species are laying eggs significantly earlier than they were 40 years ago, a report reveals. A conservation coalition’s report says some finches, robins and tits are all laying earlier and puts this down to warming caused by climate change. “This year’s report shows that climate change is with us already; and from our gardens to our seas, birds are having to respond rapidly to climate change simply to survive,” said Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s conservation director. “As often before, birds are acting like the canaries in a mine shaft and giving us early warning of dangerous change.”

Birds Hurting People

Nobody knows why the birds have staked their claim on Willows, a farm town 90 miles north of Sacramento. But it’s the third consecutive year and, by all accounts, the worst. “The community has had enough,” said Steve Holsinger, Willows’ city manager. Memorial Park near the center of town is encircled with yellow police tape and is off-limits to normal use. More than 1,000 birds, mainly snowy egrets and some black-crowned night-herons, are nesting there, turning patches of lawn a lunar gray and showering the grass with broken shells and feathers. Officials said the guano is slowly killing 60-foot-tall redwoods and pines.

People Helping Birds

For decades, the National Park Service ignored the law and refused to place required regulations on motorized beach driving at Cape Hatteras, N.C. Because of this, off-road vehicles disturbed, ran over, and crushed threatened shorebirds and their nests, and killed endangered sea turtles. The habitat damage that vehicles left behind just got worse. Finally, limited protections were agreed to for the birds and turtles. But the new off-road vehicle rules that are helping populations recover are in danger of being tossed out by Congress. Protections for species that depend on the shoreline may be lost if your elected officials don’t hear from you now — contact them today! Lawmakers recently proposed legislation that would do away with protections to the Seashore’s most sensitive habitats — areas where loggerhead turtles and threatened shorebird species, such as Least Terns and Piping Plovers, nest and feed. Please tell your elected officials immediately that you strongly oppose this irresponsible and short-sighted legislation.

The latest batch of white-tailed sea eagles will be released in Scotland this week. The 15 young hand-reared birds form the next phase of a plan to reintroduce the spectacular bird to Scotland where it was once widespread. Whitetailed eagles are known as flying barn doors because of their enormous eight-foot wingspan making it the UK’s largest bird of prey. This is the second year that chicks have been collected from nests in Norway, where there are still healthy populations, and reared in specially constructed aviaries in Fife. ‘The sea eagle is one of the cornerstones of Scotland’s species re-establishment program and it will be an incredible experience for more people to see these huge birds in their natural environment,’ said Environment Minister Michael Russell.

Endangered Species News

The northern spotted owl — an endangered icon that spurred a rescue effort so sweeping it brought old-growth logging to a virtual standstill in the Northwest — is now closer than ever to extinction. Fourteen years after old-growth logging was banned on most federal lands to protect the owls, their numbers are falling year after year. The situation is particularly bad in Washington, where the rate at which owls are found at nesting sites has fallen by nearly half since 1994. Scientists blame the decline largely on the invasion of a tougher owl and the loss of much habitat to decades of logging. “It’s not looking very good,” said Eric Forsman, of the U.S. Forest Service, a pre-eminent spotted-owl scientist. “The populations seem to be gradually going downhill, and it’s not clear if or when that’s going to stop.”

Wildlife officials are investigating the deaths of more than 100 endangered Laysan ducks at Midway Atoll in the Papahanaumokuakea National Wildlife Monument. The first dead duck was discovered on Aug. 10 and as of yesterday 106 adult and adolescent bird carcasses were found, according to a news release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No definitive cause has been identified, but officials suspect avian botulism. “Although we suspect avian botulism, we will not have a confirmed diagnosis” until this week, Matt Brown, acting refuge manager at Midway, said in a news release.

Avian Diseases and Zoonotics News

Diseased birds have died of Type E botulism in Michigan’s Mason County, marking the first time the disease has been seen that far south on Lake Michigan’s shore. The infected birds included ring-billed gulls and double-crested cormorants found dead in Ludington State Park in July.

Provincial environment officials in Manitoba, Canada, say avian botulism is behind a spate of duck deaths in rivers in Winnipeg. For several weeks, residents and workers around the area known as “The Forks,” where the Assinboine and Red Rivers meet, have reported seeing dead ducks and unusual behavior among the birds. “On shore, the ducks seem like they’re drunk, because they stumble around and don’t seem to know where they are or what’s happening,” said 60-year-old area resident Wayne Williams.

During a week last month, the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), the Nevada Department of Agriculture and the Washoe County Health Department Vector-borne Diseases Program had received reports of at least 20 dead and dying doves and pigeons in the Reno area. According to NDOW’s Wildlife Health Specialist, Mark Atkinson, a collaborative field investigation has shown the cause of this disease outbreak to be avian trichomoniasis, which does not pose a health threat to humans. “This parasitic infection is probably the most significant cause of death in doves,” said Atkinson. “It has caused large scale die-offs over the years, so the potential for a major die-off must always be a consideration. Trichomoniasis has also been reported as a cause of death in birds of prey, caged birds and domestic turkeys and chickens.”

Antibodies from survivors of the most devastating 1918 influenza pandemic still protect against the virus, providing a new approach to battle future epidemics that could be triggered by bird flu. American scientists studied 32 people who lived through the 1918 flu, and found all had antibodies in their blood to kill the virus with surprising efficiency, reported the journal Nature. The antibodies from the survivors, now aged 91 to 101, also protected mice from the killer virus, showing that 90 years on, the survivors of the epidemic are still protected. “It was very surprising that these subjects would still have cells floating in their blood so long afterward,” said Dr. James Crowe of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who helped lead the study.

Countries around the world may be preparing for a possible H5N1 bird flu pandemic, but another strain called H9N2 also poses a threat to humanity, researchers reported recently. Tests on the H9N2 strain of the avian influenza virus show it is capable of infecting and spreading with very few changes, a team from the University of Maryland, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and elsewhere reported. “Our results suggest that the establishment and prevalence of H9N2 viruses in poultry pose a significant threat for humans,” the researchers wrote.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Nigeria for the first time.

West Nile Virus has been identified in wild birds in Essex County, Canada.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 17 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].

Bird Book News

This week’s issue of the Birdbooker Report lists ecology, evolution, natural history and bird and snake 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.

Laura Erickson has been producing a radio program about birds for 22 years. It’s called For the Birds, and you can subscribe to it for free at the iTunes store or directly through its webpage. This week’s programs are all related in one way or another to Roger Tory Peterson, in honor of the centennial of his birth later this month. Laura produces this program as an unpaid volunteer, and National Public Radio picks it up for free. Laura says she would appreciate it if you to donate any discretionary income to buy a Duck Stamp instead of sending it to her to support the program.

Miscellaneous Bird News

An ancient species of tree is helping Britain’s birds survive the effects of climate change, scientists have found. Frequent early spring weather means the UK’s blue tits and great tits have been laying eggs ahead of schedule, making it difficult for them to find food. However ecologists say birds have been feeding on gall wasps, which make their homes in Turkey oak trees, rather than the usual young caterpillars. The discovery was made during a study by the University of Edinburgh. “As the Turkey oak re-asserts itself in its ancient home, it is helping to alleviate some of the effects of the very modern problem of climate change.”

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, Carole, Douglas, Caren, Laura, 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 James Lea
    August 19, 2008

    Dear Birdgirl:

    I look forward to your report on how the good people of Willows, CA, deal with the threat posed to their use of public lands by the arrival of the birds, with the resulting effects on quality of life and perhaps even the local economy. Maybe they’ll say, “Well, egrets are people, too, and they were probably here first a couple of hundred years ago,” and declare their park a bird sanctuary off limits to recreational use by humans. Or maybe they’ll resolve to strive for a balance of uses of the park, acknowledging that reasonable measures to protect the birds involve providing and enforcing set-aside areas for the birds and allowing human use of the remainder of the park.

    In any case, I assume that somewhere in your coverage of the Willows dilemma you’ll throw in some of the language you used to describe the birds-vs-beach goers dilemma on the North Carolina Outer Banks. (Remember to comment on crushed birds and mauled turtles in Willows.) The juxtaposition of those two articles in this issue was quite enlightening. I’ll watch for an equally enlightening follow-up.

    My point is that too many people with extremely narrow agendas are one of the primcipal reasons why the Park Service, the wildlife conservation organizations and the recreational beach users are having such a terribly hard time reaching agreement on balanced uses of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

    James Lea

  2. #2 design
    August 19, 2008

    Another issue of the online publication that is devoted to bringing you international stories about birds in the news. This issue features a stunning portrait of a dusky lory, Pseudeos fuscata, native to the south Pacific island of New Guinea.

  3. #3 Ian
    August 20, 2008

    This pic needs a caption! How about “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted….”