Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 160

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Rock Wren, Salpinctes obsoletus, in Chaco Canyon.

Image: Dave Rintoul, June 2008 [larger view].


Birds in Science

Scientists fitted tags to wood thrushes and purple martins in the north-east of the US before the birds began their journey to central and South America. Data recovered from the devices showed that the birds took much longer to complete the autumnal migration than the return journey north in the spring. “Never before has anyone been able to track songbirds for their entire migratory trip,” explained co-author Bridget Stutchbury, a biologist from York University, Canada. Using data collected by the tags, the researchers calculated that the birds’ spring migration was up to six times faster than the autumnal trip. GrrlScientist comment: This is not news to me, since the lab I studied in as a graduate student also researched the hormonal correlates of seasonal migration in birds, so this feature of migration was commonly known to all of us. Further, this makes evolutionary and intuitive sense: the earliest arriving birds in the spring obtain the best breeding territories and can often produce more than once clutch of chicks, while those late arrivals do much worse in both territory acquisition and in overall production. Thus, the early arrivals — the hastiest birds — out-reproduce the later arrivals so that, over time, the late-arriving strategy disappears. On the other hand, there is no evolutionary pressure on migratory birds to return to their wintering grounds quickly, so they don’t.

Here’s an interesting research project: Scientists in Berkshire are tagging 200 cats to find out if the UK’s pet felines are responsible for killing an estimated 92 million animals a year. Preliminary research at the University of Reading suggests that domestic cats could be killing up to 10,000 prey animals per sq km in urban areas. “In Britain, we have an estimated nine million pet cats, most of which live in urban areas. Given their extremely high densities it could be the case that cats are significantly affecting bird populations in these areas,” said Rebecca Dulieu, a PhD student in environmental biology at the university. “For example, house sparrow numbers in urban areas have declined by 60% since the 1980s, most likely due to changes in urban habitats, but this is also one of the species most commonly killed by cats.”

People Hurting Birds

It’s outrageous when our tax dollars are paying military men who use publicly-funded weapons to kill federally-protected bird species, as four Navy men who were arrested this past week after authorities say they wantonly shot at and killed 21 protected wading birds near Goodland, Florida. The four public employees were these morons; Joseph William Gursky, 22, of New York; Mark Lewis McClure, 23, of Osprey, near Sarasota; Cullen Mark Shaughnessy, 22, of Marco Island; and Alexander Bruce Wilhelm, 24, of Maryland. “The Navy absolutely takes seriously and does not condone any type of activity such as this,” said Lt. Doug Johnson, the public affairs officer in Pensacola. Yeah, we’ll see if they really mean what they say.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that up to 50 million birds are killed each year because of lighted communications towers. Scientists have shown that — especially during bad weather conditions — migrating birds become disoriented and trapped by the halo of light surrounding towers that use steady-burning illumination. The birds circle endlessly until they either collide with the structure, each other, or simply fall dead from sheer exhaustion. In just one instance, more than 10,000 dead birds were found under a single communication tower in one night. With the annual spring bird migration nearly underway, and a new White House administration that has voiced its commitment to science-based decision-making, along with new leadership at the FCC, now is the time to urge the Commission to safeguard our neotropical migratory songbirds for future generations of Americans.

The Scotts Company LLC announced today that it is voluntarily recalling specific lots of five varieties of suet wild bird food products after learning those products may contain peanut meal purchased from the Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA) plant in Blakely, Georgia, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. Scotts has not received any reports of illness involving its products that may contain the PCA peanut meal, and it is no longer using any products from the Blakely facility. Nonetheless, as a precautionary measure, Scotts is recalling five products with specific manufacturing date codes that were manufactured between December 27, 2008 and January 17, 2009.

Long regarded as a random collection of bird songs and animal cries, the natural soundscape might actually be a coordinated symphony, with animal calls spread carefully across the acoustic spectrum. Now, researchers are getting the first glimpses of what happens when humanity’s choir drowns out whole sections of that spectrum. Animals ranging from blackbirds to beluga whales are changing their calls or switching them to new frequencies. Others are adapting in ways so powerful that they may be triggering the first steps in an evolutionary shakeup. And some animals are disappearing altogether.

People Helping Birds

For the last eight years, Operation Migration has been one of several organizations collectively trying to bring whooping cranes back to the eastern part of the continent. The endangered whooping crane is reclusive and headstrong — it demands a square mile around its nest to itself — and consequently was one of the first birds to suffer as humans crowded into North America. In a 1946 article in The New York Times, a spokesman for the U.S. Wildlife Service, which was then going through considerable trouble on the species’s behalf — much of it for naught — called the whooping crane “intolerant of civilization.”

Under the coordination of SEO/BirdLife (BirdLife in Spain) experts and volunteers have worked together for more than two years to create the first online encyclopedia of Spanish birds, aimed at introducing people to the wonders of the birds’ world. This massive work covers 563 species, of which 363 regularly occurring birds have detailed factsheets. In addition, there are more than 4,000 webpages with 1,600 photos, 1,200 paintings, 370 bird songs, 200 videos and 400 maps. SEO/BirdLife has allowed 60,000 copies to be distributed freely throughout Spain, including education centers and schools. “By using the digital world to bring the joys of birds to people of all ages this Encyclopedia represents a major milestone for Spain and for SEO/BirdLife”, said Josefina Maestre, Editor of the Encyclopedia.

Birds Helping People

North American scientists studying West Nile virus have shown that more diverse bird populations can help to buffer people against infection. Since the virus first spread to North America it has reached epidemic proportions and claimed over 1,100 human lives. “This is an important example of the links between biodiversity and human health,” commented Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Global Research and Indicators Coordinator.

Endangered Birds News

A rare Philippines quail that was feared to have become extinct has been photographed alive for the first time — as it was headed for the cooking pot, according to ornithologists. Hunters snared the Worcester’s buttonquail, Turnix worcesteri, in the Caraballo mountain range last month and a TV crew took pictures and video footage of the live bird at a poultry market, the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines said. The quail was being sold at a Manila wet market in Manila in 1902 and since then, just a few single specimens have been documented in Nueva Vizcaya and Benguet provinces, which form part of the two mountain ranges, the club said.

Avian Diseases and Zoonotics News

In November 2007, hundreds of bedraggled, emaciated birds washed ashore around Monterey Bay. Now, researchers say the birds were the first known victims of a non-toxic algae bloom. Animal rescuers found 207 dead and 550 stranded birds coated in a slimy substance that November. Some feared the stranding was a result of the Nov. 7 Cosco Busan oil spill, or a side effect of the controversial aerial spray for the light brown apple moth. But according to David Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian with the Department of Fish and Game at Long Marine Laboratory, the substance was the byproduct of a dying red tide. Algae-related bird deaths often result from poisoning by a toxin like domoic acid. But in this case, the non-toxic substance acted like soap, stripping the birds of their waterproof coating and leaving them hypothermic. “It’s a unique situation that’s not been previously recorded,” said Jessup, whose study linking the sick birds to the red tide will be published today.

Researchers have identified a group of antibodies that neutralize a wide range of influenza viruses, including the H5N1 avian influenza, the 1918 Spanish flu and some seasonal strains. These molecules may one day be used therapeutically to protect patients against a broad array of strains. “You might be asking too much if you’re looking for one vaccine for every conceivable influenza”, says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland. “If you have one or two that cover the vast majority of isolates, I wouldn’t be ashamed to call that a universal vaccine.”

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been reported in domestic poultry in Nepal, wild birds in Hong Kong, and in humans in Vietnam.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 22 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).

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.

Volunteer Bird Projects

The North American Bird Phenology Program is working to understand the scale of global climate change and how it is affecting birds across North America. This is the oldest and longest running bird monitoring program in the United States, currently housing six million records dating back to the early 1880′s. The program, started in 1880 by Wells W. Cooke, collected bird observations by over 3,000 citizen scientists and came to an end in 1970, until the program was revived last year. The records document bird migration arrival and departure dates from around North America; an unparalleled and untapped resource, but one which BPP needs your help to modernize. The BPP online data entry system is seeking volunteers from around the world to begin transcribing historical bird arrival records into the BPP online database. If you want to help, please register here.

Miscellaneous Bird News

The Oregon birding community was set abuzz recently with the discovery of a Slaty-backed Gull along the Willamette River in downtown Portland. The species is native to Asia, with small numbers occurring in western Alaska. Every year, a few individuals take a wrong turn and wander across North America. Identifying gulls is a challenge for many, as the birds take up to four years to reach maturity. But sorting through the raucous array of birds sometimes results in a rare find. The Slaty-backed Gull will probably remain into March before heading back north to its normal home range in the Bering Sea.

It might not have the punch of capturing Bigfoot on film, but a bird observation outing by Larry Scott on 2 February resulted in images being captured of another creature that’s been stirring up a lot of interest in Niagara in recent months: an elusive white crow. So is it a true albino? That depends on your definition of what an albino is, said Kevin McGowan, a research associate at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. “The term ‘albino’ is slippery,” said McGowan. That’s because even within the scientific community, there is debate over what constitutes a true albino bird. The white crow of Niagara, for instance, has a dark beak and dark eyes, rather than a white beak and pink eyes — something that would suggest a complete lack of melanin — the pigment that allows humans to tan and gives crows their black colour. But the fact the crow’s feet are lighter than they should be and has white feathers prove it is indeed lacking in the pigment, McGowan said.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Bob, Sam, 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!

Comments

  1. #1 Roxanne
    February 24, 2009

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