Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 165

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American Avocet chick, Recurvirostra americana.

Image: Richard Ditch, 2007 [larger view].

Birds in Science and Technology

Researchers have discovered the first direct evidence that exposure to stress in young birds affects the way they react to stress when adult. Exposure to stressful events soon after birth has significant effects on a range of physiological and behavioral responses later in life. Previous work in mammals has been unable to work out whether this is due to raised stress hormone levels produced by the young or raised stress hormone levels in the mother, transmitted to her offspring through lactation. To overcome this problem, a team led by Dr Karen Spencer at the University of Glasgow used a bird species, the zebra finch, as a model to study the effects of stress in early life. In birds, there is no possibility of hormone transfer between the mother and offspring after egg laying. “Our results show an individual’s stress response can be re-programmed as a result of post-natal exposure to elevated corticosterone levels,” said researcher Dr Karen Spence. “This indicates that if a bird is exposed to stress early in life, for example through bad weather conditions or lack of food, this has implications for the way it will react to situations throughout its life.”

American crows that are the product of incest are more susceptible to diseases. The findings have important implications for endangered species, which may find mating with relatives unavoidable if they have a small pool of potential mates, say the researchers from Cornell and Binghamton University. Using a powerful technique of genetic analysis to disentangle the family histories of hundreds of wild crows, the researchers were surprised to find that nearly a quarter of newly hatched crows result from matings between mothers and sons or other such close family members as cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces.

Here’s a link to the US Air Force Avian Hazard Advisory System, a system that processes NOAA weather data in real time and uses it to provide bird-aircraft strike risk advisories. The website also shows the processed image loop of bird density data (with most of the weather removed). There also is an image gallery for you to look at. In these images, the yellows indicate lower activity, yellow-orange is moderate and dark orange is high activity. The system uses only the first 64 nm miles of radar data for bird detection, hence the “gaps”. Any blue in the image is heavy weather that gets through the weather suppression algorithms. This map is a great reference tool for those planning the next day’s birding activities. [Many thanks to Gary W. Andrews, General Manager of DeTect Inc., who emailed information about this system which his company developed and operates for the USAF].

People Hurting Birds

State police say a turkey vulture correction: wild turkey flew into the windshield as 35-year-old Jorge Hurtado’s minivan traveled eastbound in Parsippany, NY. State Police Sgt. Stephen Jones says the bird struck Hurtado’s 32-year-old wife, Vanessa, in the face, causing minor cuts and sending glass in her eyes. The Hopatcong man told troopers the bird ended up on the middle seat behind him and was alive for a brief time. Trooper Brian Miller declared the vulture turkey dead at the scene. GrrlScientist comment: it’s amazing to me to learn that the people on the scene cannot tell the difference between a wild turkey and a turkey vulture.

A decline in Hampshire’s population of brent geese may be caused by climate change, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has warned. The UK bird conservation charity said the wintering flock in Langstone Harbor nature reserve, near Portsmouth, was producing too few chicks. It said last year’s chicks made up only only 1% of the flock but the figure should be 15% for it to stay healthy. “It’s been yet another poor breeding year for brent geese. When I was out the other day, I counted only seven youngsters in 800 birds. To keep population levels stable, around 15% of a wintering flock should be young. This year, it’s less than 1%,” said Chris Cockburn, RSPB Langstone Harbour warden. “What we are dealing with is an aging population, and that’s bad news.”

BirdLife Cyprus denounced that in 2008 more than 1.1 million birds were illegally slaughtered in Cyprus by trappers eager to feed a lucrative demand for banned Warbler ‘delicacies’. Cyprus lies on a key migratory route and bird trapping has been a very common activity for years, with trappers using either fine mist nets or sticks dipped in sticky lime. Worryingly, the trend showed that last winter mist netting activities considerably increased, while the trapping reached the highest level for five years. About 90% of the migratory birds which fly over Cyprus each year are protected. “It is an unacceptable toll and a depressing trend, which ever way you look at it”, said Martin Hellicar, Executive Manager at Birdlife Cyprus. BirdLife Cyprus have been systematically monitoring illegal trapping with mist nets and limesticks since 2002, with the support of the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK).

People Helping Birds

A citizen science project got under way Saturday with a bang — actually several of them — as a chorus of hammers, drills and cordless screwdrivers went to work. Kids, parents, grandparents, science buffs and outdoors enthusiasts all came together last Saturday in the industrial arts classroom of Century Middle School with one goal in mind — providing shelter for groups of unknown wood ducks. Kids can even take digital or video pictures of the nests and eggs. “We’re putting up 50 houses in the area,” said retired Park Rapids science teacher Steve Maanum. “Look at all these,” he marveled at the kids’ work. “My ducks may just leave.”

At a celebration in March honoring the 160th anniversary of the creation of the Department of the Interior, President Obama announced his intention to reverse two rules passed in the last days of the previous administration, and to restore the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to its original full strength. Congressional language added to the recently passed FY 09 omnibus spending bill would give the Administration the ability to withdraw the rules within 60 days without having to go through the normal lengthy regulatory process requiring a public comment period. An effort mounted by Senator Murkowski and Senator Begich of Alaska to remove this provision from the bill failed by a vote of 42-52.

The state office of the National Audubon Society has welcomed the decision of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) to prevent the expansion of industrial fishing into all US waters north of the Bering Strait for the foreseeable future. The NPFMC has acted to limit pressure on ocean ecosystems, already under stress from global warming. The groups were concerned about the impact of commercial fishing on seabirds and other Arctic wildlife due to incidental take, reduced prey availability, and habitat disturbance. Of particular concern are activities such as bottom trawling, and its potential disruption of prey species of bottom-feeding seabirds such as Spectacled Eider, Somateria fischeri. “Much of the Arctic food web is linked to a handful of fish species, such as the Arctic Cod”, said Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska. “We don’t want to add the effects of commercial fisheries while the entire ecosystem is changing due to global warming.”

The State of Maryland announced recently that effective April 1 it will require a 2:1 male to female harvest ratio to provide additional horseshoe crab eggs to migratory shorebirds. “This is a strong step in the right direction in ensuring more critically important horseshoe crab eggs will be on the beach when Red Knots stop to refuel on their long migration northward,” said Darin Schroeder, Vice President of Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy. “Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded that without greater conservation of horseshoe crabs, the eastern Red Knot (rufa) subspecies could be extinct within a decade. Gov. O’Malley and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources are to be commended for taking this action, which we hope will ensure future generations of Americans will be able to see this magnificent bird like past generations have.” Due to a 15% decline in Red Knot numbers at the species’ wintering grounds in the past year, and a 75% decline from 1985 to 2007, FWS has increased the listing priority for the species from a six to a three. Only 14,800 Red Knots were counted in 2007 at the species’ primary wintering areas.

Efforts to protect birds in the United States from the harmful effects of lead took an important step forward recently with the announcement by the National Park Service that it will begin to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing sinkers on its lands. The decision to make all parks lead free by the end of 2010 was announced by Acting Park Service Director Dan Wenk, who said, “We want to take a leadership role in removing lead from the environment.” Lead poisoning from shot left in hunted deer and elk carcasses is also a serious threat to the restoration efforts for the endangered California Condor. Several reintroduced condors have died in recent years, prompting California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to ban all lead shot in the species’ California range.

One of the prettiest and daintiest birds, the long-tailed tit, is storming Oxfordshire gardens according to this year’s record-breaking RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Numbers of this highly sociable bird almost doubled compared to last year. The increase is linked to mild winters leading up to this January’s survey. Small, insect-eating birds like long-tailed tits soon die when food gets hard to come by in frosts and snow. Milder winters and bird feeding have led to fewer tits dying. “Creamy, dreamy and dainty — long-tailed tits are a joy to see around,” said Andy Waters at the RSPB. “It’s amazing how a little food and fresh water in your garden will bring stunning nature bursting into your life.” GrrlScientist comment: I remember the first time I ever saw this species and yes, they are both stunning and cute — I never before knew these two qualities could be found at the same time or in the same creatures.

Rare Birds News

Wildlife managers are worried that some of the whooping cranes wintering at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge may be too weak and malnourished to successfully make their return to Canada this season. The drought has affected the flock that spends each winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. The birds have had trouble finding food because low water levels have decreased the number of blue crabs, which make up 85 percent of the endangered species’ diet. “These are the worst conditions I have ever observed for the cranes at Aransas, with some birds looking thin and with disheveled plumage,” Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, wrote in a March 15 report.

A government study conducted recently has suggested that Blewitt’s Owl, a little-known critically endangered and endemic bird species besides other 11 owl species will lose their home if bauxite mining is undertaken in the ning in the belt of Araku valley in Andhra Pradesh of India. The study spanning over one year was done by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) in the three sites in Aarku valley — Rakthakonda, Galikonda and Chittamgondi where the government plans to mine bauxite.

Avian Zoonotics and Diseases

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been detected in humans in Egypt and Vietnam.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 29 March 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.

It wouldn’t be a proper visit to a Beijing park without checking out the “birdmen.” Every morning, the parks are atwitter with retirees and their avian companions. Up above, birds chirp in their cages, hanging from trees. Down below, their owners chatter and play cards. They sit on tiny stools and slap their cards down on the table. Retired mechanic Wu Dazhao explains that people here tend to hang out with their own kind. And that depends on what kind of birds they raise. “Those guys over there with the white cloths covering their cages, they’re the titmouse guys,” says Wu, pointing north. “We song thrush people are over here. And the guys with the larks are over there. The different groups leave each other alone. You could say that within this little group, we’re all ‘bird buddies.’ ” [4:35]

Birds seem like models of monogamy — building their nests, hatching their eggs and raising their young together. But it turns out, in the avian world, adultery is not uncommon. And both males and females may have a wandering eye. Ornithologists Nathalie Seddon and Joe Tobias of the University of Oxford have been studying the songs of the Peruvian warbling antbird. In their latest research, published in Current Biology, they report that an antbird couple will sing a harmonious duet when confronted by an intruding rival pair. But if an unattached female enters the scene, the antbird “wife” starts jamming her mate’s song. She interrupts her spouse with her own music, to his great frustration. [3:29].


A live, streaming camera is pointed at a nesting pair of Bald Eagles, provided by the Hancock Wildlife Foundation in Canada. This site also includes links to other wildlife cams featuring other nesting Bald Eagles as well as Great Blue Herons, and migrating salmon. There are a variety of other things to find on this site, including discussion forums where you can learn about and report on any of the animal cams you are viewing.

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 its 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 master birder 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.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Bob, Sam, Kerri, 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!