Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in The News 156

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Rainbow Lory, Trichoglossus haematodus moluccanus. This subspecies of rainbow lory is also found in Australia, along the east coast.

Image: John Del Rio. [larger view].

Birds in Science

One of the most contentious issues among scientists who study the evolution of birds is identifying precisely when the modern birds (Neornithes) first appeared. This is due to conflicts between the fossil record and molecular dating methodologies. For example, fossils support a Tertiary radiation whereas molecular dating methodologies suggest that the birds radiated in the early Cretaceous. But there is another way to address this discrepancy. Because the evolution of parrots and cockatoos reflects the evolution of Aves themselves, studying the psittaciformes offers compelling insights into this mystery. Further, because psittaciformes generally are not migratory and because they tend to occupy discrete ranges, their ancient patterns of diversification are easier to discern than for many other taxonomic orders of birds that have dispersed widely.

People Hurting Birds

Fireworks used to ring in the New Year instead led to a horrific scene at a local wildlife conservation center, officials said. Workers at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation doing a routine morning check-up today discovered a dead red-browed Amazon parrot with severe head and face injuries. It was obvious from the bird’s injuries that it had thrashed itself to death against its enclosure, said Paul Reillo, director of the conservation center. “We’re doing everything we can to save these species and the lack of enforcement on fireworks regulations is basically undoing our best efforts,” he said. “In the middle of the night, they’re not expecting blasts and fireworks and gunshots. It’s getting worse every year.” All but two of the entire North American population of the bird in captivity live at the conservation center. The male parrot that died was healthy and “essential to the breeding program,” Reillo said.

An endangered parrot depicted on a country shire’s emblem is dwindling in numbers because of grain spilt by the roadside in Australia. Superb parrots eat so much grain they are unable to take off in time to avoid being hit by speeding vehicles. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is concerned because only a few thousand of the distinctive bright grass-green birds — found only in parts of eastern inland New South Wales — remain. “The wild population of superb parrots is still very small and losing any birds can be a major setback for the species,” said Steve Horsley, the service’s South West Slopes regional manager.

The death of Freddy the parrot could be debated in federal courts, and it is an issue that I faced with my own parrots when I was hospitalized two years ago. It also could raise questions about the right of the accused to get “one phone call” after being arrested (or hospitalized). Thomas Goodrich charges in a lawsuit he filed this month that he never got that call, causing his expensive and beloved blue and gold macaw to starve to death. Criminal defense attorney Joe Hurley said no one, not family or friends, will hear from you or about you while the staff processes the paperwork. “That is the way it is,” Hurley said, adding that Goodrich was lucky his situation involved a parrot “and not his child.”

People Helping Birds

Indochina has an impressive geographic diversity, which supports a wide variety of habitats and high overall biodiversity. But only 5% of the original habitat remains, and these tiny fragments are threatened by human pressure and large-scale development. Immediate action is required to save these habitats and their unique species. Now a major $9.5 million, five-year investment in Indochina has been launched, aiming to conserve biodiversity by engaging and building the capacity of civil society organizations. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) for the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot is a collaboration between CEPF and BirdLife International. “We have worked closely with CEPF over a number of years to realize this exciting new project, and we are delighted to have now reached the point of implementation”, said Jonathan Eames, Program Manager of BirdLife International in Indochina. “The mobilization of CEPF for this region will at last provide an important source of funding for civil society to address the daunting array of challenges biodiversity faces.”

Avian Zoonotics News

With the arrival of winter, H5N1 avian flu is on the rise again in Asia and Egypt. The outbreaks are part of an annual trend: cases peak between December and March each year in birds as well as humans. Children have died from it recently in Indonesia and Egypt, and a Cambodian teenager tested positive but survived. Only 30 human deaths have been confirmed by the World Health Organization this year. That is well below the 59 recorded last year and the peak of 79 recorded in 2006. All 30 deaths this year occurred in only four countries: Vietnam, China, Indonesia and Egypt. No large family clusters, like those found from 2005 to 2007, have been confirmed.

H5N1 Avian influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in Vietnam and India.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 5 January 2009. 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]. If you would like to $upport BirdNote, I encourage you to purchase one of their wonderful “birdy” items from their online BirdNote Store (the calendar and t-shirt look especially fine, and no doubt, they will be adding more items in the future).

Since as long as anyone can remember — some say 1934 — locals and tourists have tossed bread to a suckling, quacking stew of carp and ducks at the Linesville Spillway in northwest Pennsylvania. The small dam is the site of one of America’s oldest roadside attractions, roughly halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The carp gather just outside Linesville, Pa., in writhing thickets at the spillway’s edges. The fish are so thick that mallard ducks, also in search of a free meal, literally hop, skip and jump on the fish’s backs to compete for a slice of bread [you’ve gotta see this video — streaming: 0:41]

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. Ian also recently published an article in the magazine, Winging It, about the 50 bird books that every birder should own in their library [free PDF].

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. While you are there, you can also pick up a free book about the Endemic birds of Sri Lanka.

A friend of mine has published a gorgeous desktop bird calendar for this month that you can download — free.

Bird Identification Quizzes

If you are interested to participate in a daily online discussion of bird identification, please go to the Mystery Birds archive. This is a collaborative project featuring with a number of talented bird photographers and written analyses by Rick Wright. It is updated daily, and you are given 48 hours to identify each bird before its identification and an analysis is published. You are also invited to check out the previous Mystery Birds to improve your birding skills.

Miscellaneous Bird News

The 1-14 December 2008 installment of Hilton Pond is late, but it’s worth reading nonetheless. It deals with a holiday-appropriate topic: Red berries that contrast with evergreen foliage in winter and that often attract birds and other animals. Click here for a photo essay about this phenomenon. As always, the Hilton Pond naturalists include a list of all birds banded or recaptured during the period, as well as a miscellaneous note about the near absence of winter resident birds this year.

The fall and first few weeks of winter have brought more than snowy weather to the NY regionFrom Fort Edward to Troy to the state Capitol building in Albany, snowy owls have been sighted in greater numbers than usual in the Capital Region in November and December. “The snowy owl was there again today,” said Richard Hynes, an engineer with the state Office of General Services, whose office is in the Capitol building. “He seems to like some of the chimneys,” said Hynes, who is in charge of the ongoing Capitol renovation work.

Scientists monitoring at Mount Moreland — South Africa’s largest Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica, roost — have captured their first overseas ringed bird from a festively snowy location. The young Barn Swallow had flown all the way from Finland — a total of 11,000 km! “This is an amazing Christmas gift”, said Hilary Vickers of the Lake Victoria Conservancy, sponsors of the Mount Moreland ringing program. “We were carefully fitting the swallows with rings so we can monitor their movements when we spotted a bird already carrying one”, said Mount Moreland bird-ringer Andrew Pickles. “A magnifying glass provided the words Helsinki, Finland!”

This is an interesting story about a bald eagle carrying tag A-46 and a radio. Apparently, A-46 is a bird named Stephen Jr. — after Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central television’s “The Colbert Report.” And Colbert has been keeping track of the bird. The bird was tagged with a blue tag and a GPS unit and released on Santa Cruz Island on June 8, 2006. Since then, Colbert has regularly reported on Stephen Jr. during his mock newscasts. “I watch the Stephen Colbert show regularly,” Kisling said.

The Fine Print: Thanks to Angela, Bill, TravelGirl, 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
    January 5, 2009

    The young Barn Swallow had flown all the way from Finland — a total of 11,000 km!

    I must admit I was surprised that this was the first time, as I was under the impression they already knew that Finnish swallows flew to South Africa. There’s a group in Turku looking at them, and they discovered that the birds are more stressed in SA than they are in Finland. I know a couple of humans who had the same experience.

  2. #2 Thomas Goodrich
    January 5, 2009

    I am Thomas Goodrich, the Plaintiff in the Delaware federal case of “Freddy the Parrot”. The media reported the crux of the issue as the lack of a phone call while in detention awaiting bail. ($200 in this case) The Complaint in actuality condemns the Delaware state correctional system for failure to provide contact to the outside world through ANY means! As Plaintiff I will be providing proof beyond reasonable doubt that officials had knowledgeaforethought animal cruelty was taking place, yet a systemwide failure to communicate occurred. Had the warden of the facility simply fulfilled two emergency written requests to notify SPCA or make emergency contact otherwise, this pet would not have been lost and a lawsuit would never have been brought. The state of Delaware in 1997 paid a $3 million dollar fine to the federal government for deficient health care policies and the deaths of people in custody that resulted. I have always been a believer of taking personal responsibility for actions and as a result, loss of this wonderful and irreplaceable pet has been, and contines to be painful. This case however is inexcuseable as it is evident systemwide failure has occurred.


  3. #3 Mike S
    January 6, 2009

    Thanks for the carp video. I remember feeding the carp in the lake near my boyhood home, and the ducks were always in competition as the carp practically crawled on shore to get at bits of bread. Carp will probably be the first fish to evolve legs again.

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    January 6, 2009

    thanks thomas for writing. i agree with your position, that a person should not be detained by anyone (not even the government) without the ability to communicate with the outside world. when a person is arrested or hospitalized, they can be detained without ANY way to communicate with the outside world and their pets pay the price. this practice is wrong and needs to stop NOW.

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