Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 158

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Nonggang Babbler, Stachyris nonggangensis, a newly discovered bird species, is found only in southwestern Guangxi province, part of the south-east Chinese Mountains Endemic Bird Area.

Image: James Eaton; Birdtour Asia.

Birds in Science

For many decades, the white-eyes (Family: Zosteropidae) were known as the “Great Speciators” in honor of their apparent ability to rapidly give rise to new species while other birds in the same areas showed little or no diversification. But the Great Speciator hypothesis could only ever be indirectly inferred — until now, that is. According to a paper that was just published by my postdoctoral colleagues, Rob Moyle and Chris Filardi, this group of diminutive birds apparently does evolve faster than any other avian group on earth.

The Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction 65 million years ago may have wiped out the dinosaurs, but those that survived — the ancestors of today’s birds — may have done so because of their bird brains. Analysis of computer tomography (CT) scans of fossilized bird skulls shows they had a more developed, larger brain than previously thought. “Birds today are the direct descendents of the Cretaceous extinction survivors, and they went on to become one of the most successful and diverse groups on the planet,” says Natural History Museum palaeontologist (fossil expert), Dr Stig Walsh. A larger and more complex brain may have given them a competitive advantage over the other more ancient birds and pterosaurs, helping them to better adapt when the environment changed after the mass extinction event.

A new species of babbler has been discovered in Guangxi province in southeast China close to the border with Vietnam. Named the Nonggang Babbler, Stachyris nonggangensis (image at top), after the reserve at which it was discovered, this new species is closely related to Sooty Babbler, S. herberti, but is larger and has white crescent patches behind the ear coverts and dark spots on the upper breast and throat.

People Hurting Birds

The idiots are getting an early start this year, since this group of testosterone-poisoned humanoids could be considered for BiTN’s Morons of the Year award: Charges were brought in Missouri’s Boone County Circuit Court against seven hunters accused of illegally killing protected migratory birds. The charges come in connection with a Dec. 29 incident in which hunters shot five trumpeter swans at the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area southwest of Columbia. The hunters were charged with taking protected wildlife in violation of state rules and regulations, a Class A misdemeanor. The hunters, whose brains could collectively fill a thimble with room left over for a shot of good bourbon, allegedly believed the swans they shot were snow geese, a much smaller bird.

Five people are in jail and up to 1,000 roosters in custody after San Luis Obispo County (California) authorities raided what is believed to be an international cockfighting operation. Some 500 to 800 birds were believed to be at the compound, but the Humane Society’s Eric Sakach says the final tally could be 1,000 or more. The birds were reportedly being sold internationally.

A new trade in parrot heads and tail feathers is adding to the pressure on the world’s wild population of African Grey Parrots, which is confined to the tropical forest area of West and Central Africa. This is highlighted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) from Cameroon, which reports on a suspect arrested by game rangers who was found to be carrying 353 parrot heads and 2000 tail feathers. The suspect stated that he had collected the material for a witch doctor who was treating his mentally ill brother. The African Grey Parrot, Psittacus erithacus, is a medium-sized parrot, endemic to the rainforests of West and Central Africa. The birds are highly valued for their beauty and ability to mimic humans — they cost a minimum of US$ 500 each.

Clues from the wreckage from US Airways Flight 1549, which crashed in the Hudson River, are going to the best investigators in the world: the black boxes to the National Transportation Safety Board, the engines to the manufacturer’s experts and a bird feather to a Smithsonian museum. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington may not leap to mind when both engines on a high-tech plane quit at 3,200 feet. But around the corner from the stuffed African elephant that greets the visiting hordes of schoolchildren, down a back hall from the employee bike rack, a staff of four in the Feather Identification Lab took in samples from 4,600 bird-plane collisions, or bird strikes, last year. Arriving mostly in sealed plastic bags, these included birds’ feet, whole feathers or tiny bits of down, and pulverized bird guts, known as snarge.

An Airbus A320 jet that aborted takeoff from Orlando, Florida, likely was hit by birds, which disabled an engine, JetBlue Airway officials said. “We did find some damage that is consistent with a bird strike,” said JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. No injuries were reported in the incident, which occurred before the jet left the runway Saturday, Dervin said.

They were supposed to die quietly from heart and kidney failure. Instead, thousands of dead starlings rained down on the Griggstown section of Franklin Township in New Jersey a week ago, startling residents and drawing attention to federal agriculture officials who poisoned the birds after a farmer complained that his fields were under siege by the speckled feathered creatures. “He had a situation in which an increasing number of European starlings were feeding on his farm,” said Carol A. Bannerman, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Ms. Bannerman declined to identify the Somerset County farmer who she said had for months tried nonlethal techniques like noisemakers to repel the 3,000 to 5,000 hungry birds that were landing on his fields to gobble up feed he had put down for his livestock.

Latest predictions based on climate change models show Emperor Penguin numbers dropping 95 per cent by 2100, meaning there would be only about 600 breeding pairs left. Emperors are the largest species of penguin and breed during the Antarctic winter, making long treks across the ice to mate. Their travails have been seen by millions around the world after being immortalized on the big screen in the Oscar-winning French documentary March of the Penguins. As seen in the film the penguins walk many miles inland across the Antarctic wasteland to their ancestral breeding grounds, where the females lay just one egg.

People Helping Birds

John McGowan, who manages the Oak Creek Wildlife Area in Naches, Yakima County, in Washington state, received a call about a dead bald eagle in a pasture. When he rolled it over with his foot to see if he could tell what might have caused its death, he said, “One leg sort of stiffened out. Then I watched it for a minute, and it took a breath. “One breath about every 30 seconds. That’s how close to death it was.” But thanks to some quick human response and some timely veterinary care, that not-so-dead eagle is soaring once again.

With a world population of roughly 140 birds, the Semidi Islands Aleutian cackling goose is one of the rarest birds on earth. But this migratory species has a new wintering ground along the Oregon coast. The Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge has been selected to receive $800,000 from a federal land-conservation fund. The money will add 80 acres of pasture to the refuge.

Many injured and ailing brown pelicans that failed to continue their migration to California this winter are ending up at the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, near Astoria Oregon. Thousands of pelicans stayed in Oregon longer than usual last year, as mild weather and abundant food supplies held steady through the end of November. Experts now suspect the birds got caught in the winter storms along the Pacific Northwest coast during their southward migration and are now suffering from frostbite, hypothermia and exhaustion, among other ailments.

The nonprofit center, Wildlife Images in Oregon’s Josephine County, is home to the only known pair of great black hawks in captivity in the United States, as well as a pair of tawny owls native to Europe and a couple of South American king vultures that so far haven’t been showing much romantic spark, said Nora Silber, avian conservation-center coordinator. Part of that includes reducing human interaction to give the birds some breeding privacy. To that end, a donor came up with a large metal building to provide warm housing for the tropical birds, and the organization also got help designing a treehouse observatory so that people eventually could view birds without disturbing them.

The British Birdwatching Fair has once again delivered a huge boost to the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Program with the presentation of check for £265,000 ($380,000) from the proceeds of the 2008 fair. This is the largest sum raised by the fair in its 20-year history and it represents a £39,000 ($56,000) increase on the sum raised in 2007. “Not only is it incredible that the Birdfair continues to break records, but its ability to persuade and encourage others to become part of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Program as Species Champions, marks a new departure in BirdLife International’s fundraising”, said Dr Mike Rands, the Chief Executive of BirdLife International.

The forest department plans to set up an artificial breeding center for Lesser Flamingos at Nadeshwari in India. This species was classified as near threatened by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 2006. Gujarat has two species of the bird breeding in Rann of Kutch Greater Flamingo and Lesser Flamingo. According to officials, there are only few breeding sites for flamingos in the world.

Birds Helping People

Airports try lots of things in the endless battle to keep birds from the runway, but nothing beats a fast-moving falcon — with its razor-sharp talons, experts say. “It is the best tool that we have available to us,” said Andrew Barnes, a veteran falconer in charge of clearing birds from the runways of McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey. The Port Authority has a five-year, $3 million contract with Barnes to do falconry at Kennedy Airport, where a state-of-the-art bird-detection radar system is set to be deployed under a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration. Barnes said bird mitigation efforts without falconry are a “losing battle.” “I wouldn’t do this job if I couldn’t use falcons,” Barnes said last week after unleashing Nantucket, a 9-year-old Peale’s peregrine falcon, at a McGuire runway.

Endangered Species News

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold two meetings next week on the Big Island of Hawaii to discuss a proposal to remove the Hawaiian hawk, or ‘io, from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife. Thanks to recovery and conservation efforts, the ‘io is now found throughout the Big Island and has maintained a stable population for a least 20 years, according to the federal agency. It is nesting and foraging successfully in both native and altered habitats and has benefited from large areas of protected forest, the service said. Researchers estimate the total population at 3,000 birds.

Space may be the final frontier, but scientists who recently discovered a hidden forest in Mozambique show the uncharted can still be under our noses. An expedition to a remote patch of pristine forest, discovered via Google Earth, discovered new species of butterfly and snake, along with seven Globally Threatened birds. “This is potentially the biggest area of medium-altitude forest I’m aware of in southern Africa, yet it was not on the map”, related Jonathan Timberlake from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), who led the expedition. “Most Mozambicans would not even have recognised the name Mount Mabu.”

Avian Zoonotic News

Avian pathogenic E. coli (APEC) is part of a large, diverse group of microbes called extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli (ExPEC). They cause a number of complex brain, lung and urinary tract diseases in human, animals, and birds. There is also considerable concern in the scientific community that APEC strains are becoming an emergent food pathogen. The poultry products are a suspected source of a suite of ExPEC infections, including those causing human disease. Antibiotics have long been the first line of defense to prevent APEC, but have lost their potency, as the bacteria have grown increasingly resistant to treatment. GrrlScientist asks: Gee, I wonder why? Especially in view of the fact that the poultry industry loves to feed antibiotic-laced food to their hugely overcrowded and over-stressed flocks.

Three of four of the latest avian influenza outbreaks in Canada have been in the Fraser Valley, possibly because of the region’s popularity with migratory waterfowl, experts say. In the latest outbreak, that H5 strain of the virus was detected in some turkeys on a property owned by two brothers in January, and 60,000 turkeys were culled on an Abbotsford farm last week. Tests indicate the virus has not spread to any other poultry producers within a quarantine zone of about two miles, but the Washington Department of Agriculture increased tests for the virus at 13 farms in Whatcom County, a few miles to the south, as a precaution. [Read more].

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic poultry in British Columbia, Canada (yes, you read that correctly), Vietnam and India and in humans in China and Indonesia (of course).

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 1 February 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. They sent a calendar to me and it’s beautiful (especially the January bird, which is a gorgeous cedar waxwing).

The oldest bird on record is a Manx shearwater, who lived to be an estimated 55 years old, says wildlife recordist Asta Bowen (GrrlScientist comment: actually, I thought there was an individual albatross that is older — and still alive). But Manx shearwaters are remarkable for another reason, too, Bowen says: The birds migrate “heroic” distances from their summer homes in the United Kingdom to winter quarters off the coast of Brazil, traveling some 5,000 miles every year. [NPR streaming report 2:56].

In one section of Rockport, Mass., mail delivery has stopped. About 10 wild turkeys have been terrorizing the mailman for the last several months, chasing down the mail truck. The big birds won’t leave because residents have been feeding them. [NPR streaming report 0:26].

Bird Publications News

Would you like an avian anatomy book — free? If so, you can download one, two or all three books as PDFs. 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. [NOTE: There might be a waiting period between downloads]

The Anatomical Atlas of Gallus by Mikio Yasuda is the English edition of the Japanese book published by the University of Tokyo in 2002. This download was scanned from a library book and has been reduced to 80% of its full size so two scanned pages will appear per standard computer screen [228 scanned pages (446 pages total), 46 MB; PDF link through RapidShare].

A Colour Atlas of Avian Anatomy by J. McLelland with a forward by Julian Baumel and published in English by Wolfe Publishing (Aylesbury, England) in 1990 [127 pages, 28 MB; PDF link through RapidShare]. This download consists of PDF sections that can be read in their entirety only if you page through the book page-by-page using the toolbar.

Julian Baumel’s celebrated Handbook of Avian Anatomy: Nomina Anatomica Avium, 2nd Edition, published in 1993 by the Nuttal Ornithological Club. This book is the definitive avian anatomy book that scientific papers cite, compare and contrast their findings to, so even if you don’t use this as your primary anatomy book, you will need this to publish your findings, and to properly understand other scientists’ papers. [409 scanned pages (779 pages total), 49 MB; PDF link through RapidShare].

While you are at RapidShare, you can also pick up a free book about the Endemic Birds of Sri Lanka [PDF link through RapidShare].

Here’s the latest edition of Ian Paulsen’s Birdbooker Report for you to enjoy. While this report does list books for sale from a variety of genres, it got it’s start by listing newly published bird books, as its name implies.

Bird Identification Quizzes

If you are interested to participate in a daily online discussion of bird identification, please go to the Mystery Birds archive. 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, many of which have an accompanying analysis, written by Rick Wright, for identifying that particular species.

Miscellaneous Bird News

In the United States, Snowy owls have been reported as far south as Tennessee, where they are almost unprecedented. They’ve been seen in northern Virginia, too. Closer to home, airport officials in Minneapolis have turned to capturing snowy owls and moving them away from runways — so that they don’t get sucked into jet engines. In much of the country, snowy owl reports began in early winter, and there was widespread consensus that this would be an invasion year. Apparently, available food seems to drive much that snowy owls do (and they are hardly alone in that behavior). Recently, Laura Erickson, a biologist at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in upstate New York, said that “The lemming population was really good. When lemmings are abundant, snowy owls have a very successful breeding season.”

A journalist apologizes for writing a negative column about Northern Mockingbirds — he even ends up comparing “his” mockingbirds to .. journalists!

It’s not the north wind and snow that are killing the UK’s European Robins and Blue Tits nowadays, but cool, wet summers. According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s latest survey, in 2008 robins suffered their worst breeding season for 25 years, ever since the Trust first began collecting records in 1983. Last summer was one of the wettest on record, which caused two problems for Britain’s favorite bird. First, it made it harder for the adult birds to find food for their hungry broods. The chicks were also far more likely to become chilled in the nest in cloudy, wet conditions than warm, dry ones. The net result was that productivity — measured as the number of chicks per pair — was down by 22% compared to the long-term average.

Last weekend more than three million Big Garden Birdwatch hours were clocked up as the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) marked 30 years of the event. With up to half a million people taking part each year, the survey has made a major contribution to tracking garden bird numbers over the winter. “As well as contributing to our understanding of the changes in bird numbers, Big Garden Birdwatch does a fantastic job of inspiring adults and children about nature. It allows hundreds of thousands of people each year to enjoy wildlife in their own gardens and that’s priceless,” said Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation.

Here’s a free birdie wallpaper calendar for the month of February 2009, courtesy of a friend of mine.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Dot, John, Diane, 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!