Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 171

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Australia’s Superb Parrot, Polytelis swainsonii, is listed as a vulnerable species.

Image: Julian Robinson (Canberra ornithologists group) [larger view].


Birds in Science and Technology

“In the past, people thought birds were stupid,” laments the aptly named scientist Christopher Bird. But in fact, some of our feathered friends are far cleverer than we might think. And one group in particular — the corvids — has astonished scientists with extraordinary feats of memory, an ability to employ complex social reasoning and, perhaps most strikingly, a remarkable aptitude for crafting and using tools. Mr Bird, who is based at the department of zoology at Cambridge University, says: “I would rate corvids as being as intelligent as primates in many ways.” The corvids — a group that includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies — contain some of the most social species of birds.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will made its entire bird strike database available last week. Portions of the database have been publicly available since the information was first collected in 1990, but the public will now be able to access all of the database’s fields.

People Hurting Birds

Elvis has left the ferry terminal. Terminally. Pretty much everyone agreed that the troublesome Canada goose that had adopted the Anacortes (Washington) state ferry terminal as a home had to go. But when U.S. Department of Agriculture agents shot the bird to death, then packed it in a plastic bag, ferry workers cried foul. “I really feel those two men owe us an apology,” Lori Cabel, who works for the ferry system. “They were really cruel in the way they just shoved him in a bag and walked away.” When Elvis got to be too much of a handful, Washington State Ferries officials called the USDA for help in dealing with him and another goose. Ferry workers say they were told Elvis would be relocated. Instead, they killed him.

Trespassing charges have been dropped against four U.S. Navy officers accused of wantonly shooting and killing 21 protected birds in southwest Florida. Court records indicate the State Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges against seven people because the location where the shootings occurred in February was not properly marked as a no trespassing area. Also, law enforcement officers who made the arrests did not witness anyone shoot the wading birds near Goodland. GrrlScientist comment: As usual, the law is not being enforced. Now, if these four officers had murdered a human, law enforcement officials would be using ballistic reports to identify the guns that shot those bullets, but since we are talking about federally protected birds, the law is doing what it always does: turns away and lets the perpretrators go. Disgusting.

The “bird feathers and droppings on his socks” and “birds’ tail feathers visible under his pants” gave him away, federal prosecutors said in accusing two men of smuggling birds to the United States from Vietnam. Inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport found that Sonny Dong had 14 live birds wrapped in cloth around his legs, and found more Asian songbirds at his cohort’s home, prosecutors say. Some officials say that more money is made smuggling birds and animals into the United States than any other product except drugs. Thousands of animals die in the trade. Eighteen more birds were found in Dong’s luggage, and five of them were dead, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Dong allegedly had strapped to his legs three red whiskered bul-buls — which is listed as an injurious species — four magpie robins and six shama thrush.

Encounters between birds and power lines can be fatal for the birds and result in power outages for British Columbia (Canada) Hydro customers. They’re also a source of growing frustration for an avian rescue group. Mary Jane Birch, manager of Mountain Air Avian Rescue of Merville, north of Courtenay, said she picked up an eagle last week that was electrocuted on power lines. “It definitely is a big problem,” said Birch, noting the birds aren’t always killed outright. “What usually happens is there’s a very severe burn that burns from the inside out.”

Protected bird species are in danger thanks to egg thieves operating around some of Northern Ireland’s most scenic areas. A new police initiative is now set to tackle the theft of seabird eggs from Big Copeland Island. Two years ago a large number of eggs — around 3,000 — were reported as stolen. This theft, mainly of Black Headed Gull and Mew (or Common) Gull eggs, has led to a complete failure of a major seabird colony. “I would ask the local community, particularly those involved in maritime activity, to be vigilant over the next six to eight weeks when the gulls are laying,” said PSNI Inspector Stephen Macauley of Ards Area. “The penalty for anyone found guilty of the theft of protected eggs is a maximum of £5,000 per egg,” he warned.

Birds Hurting People

In the war against invading alien species, even caped vigilantes have been rendered powerless. To combat chronic problems caused by tropical Quaker parrots nesting in utility poles in Whitestone, Queens, NYC, Con Edison is seeking a new strategy after its orange-caped model owl proved no match for the prolific builders. The Quaker parrots — also known as monk parakeets – have been bedeviling transformers and other electrical equipment over the years, causing short-circuits, localized blackouts and even fires. “The birds don’t bother me at all,” said Silvio Jelovcic, a longtime Whitestone resident. But if equipment explodes, “that’s a problem,” he said.

People Helping Birds

It’s not every day you have a Harris’ Hawk swoop so close you feel a breeze from its wings. And it’s not every day you see a vulture strike a pose or watch a crow unzip a fanny pack to snatch a granola bar. Visitors to this year’s urban bird festival at Salt Lake City’s Tracy Aviary are enjoying about $1 million in improvements to aviary exhibits since Labor Day. The Kennecott Wetlands Immersion Experience opens to the public later this month, as does the updated Amazon Adventure. Tim Brown, executive director of the aviary, noted there are more additions on the way, thanks to a $19.6 million bond voters approved last fall. The aviary has raised more than half of a required $1.5 million private match needed, in part, for an indoor rainforest exhibit. “Humans have always been captivated by birds, by flight, in particular,” he said. “So, what we try to capitalize on is teachable moments.”

The Superb parrot is about to cost 1000 workers their jobs because the Australian Federal Government has ordered a timber industry to be shut down to protect the bird. The unprecedented government intervention will see the jobs cut within days. Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett’s department issued a stop-work order to the New South Wales Government 10 days ago, a move the industry claims could wipe out the entire town of Deniliquin in the state’s south. The Opposition says the move is overkill and has branded Mr Garrett a “warbling twit”. “There are a lot of them out there,” Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt said of the parrots.

Rare Bird News

Six years after they were released at Pinnacles National Monument, a pair of endangered California condors has hatched an egg and is caring for the youngster. Biologist Joe Burnett of the nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society says the couple is a 6-year-old male released at the Pinnacles in 2004 and a 6-year-old female who flew inland from the Big Sur flock. Burnett and National Park Service biologist Scott Scherbinski had swapped the condors’ natural egg for one laid by captive condors to ensure a viable offspring. The shells of eggs produced by free-flying condors often are weakened by pollutants.

The first Bermuda Petrel, Pterodroma cahow, chick to be born on Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, for almost 400 years, has recently hatched, the result of a successful translocation program. “The birth of this chick is an extraordinary achievement for those who have dedicated their lives to saving this rare bird from the brink of extinction”, said Glenn Blakeney, the Bermuda Minister of the Environment and Sports. Bermuda Petrel (also known as the Cahow) once numbered in the tens of thousands before the island’s discovery by the Spanish in the early 1500s. The Cahow changed Bermuda’s history, as the ghostly sounds made at night by the island’s huge Cahow population so frightened the superstitious Spanish sailors that they thought Bermuda was inhabited by devils and never settled there. However, although they didn’t settle, they left pigs on the island as food for shipwrecked sailors.

The future of a rare species of bird that was once thought to be extinct got a huge lift this month when a chick was born at a zoo in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. Without feathers and barely able to walk, the 30-gram pink bird, a white-eared night-heron, is eating four small fish every one and a half hours and making great progress since it broke out of its shell on May 3 at Nanning Zoo, Nanning Evening News reported. The bird was hatched in an incubator and is being fed artificially but is 100 per cent real — one of only a handful of the species on the planet.

Influenza and other Avian Zoonotics News

H1N1 (Swine) flu is no mystery to scientists in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, who have been keeping a wary eye on the virus in pigs for decades and researching better vaccines to prevent it, methods to limit its spread and ways to predict and gauge the risks it poses to human health. The disease in pigs is relatively mild and rarely kills the animals, but when the swine virus combines with genes from human and avian influenzas — as it seems to have done in the current outbreak causing so much fear around the world — all bets are off. “When the virus jumps to humans, it becomes a different organism altogether — unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Several times in the last 100 years, influenza has proved deadly, and so we must always remain vigilant.”

H5N1 Avian Influenza has once again been identified in humans in Egypt.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 10 May 2009. BirdNotes can be heard live seven mornings per week at 8:58-9:00am on NPR affiliated radio stations throughout Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia, Canada. 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.

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.

Miscellaneous Bird News

The Hilton Pond naturalists were away from home the second half of April due to presentations, field trips, and/or bird banding workshops that they led at nature festivals in Florida and West Virginia. They’ve described their adventures — complete with images of birds, wildflowers, and other natural stuff — in our This Week at Hilton Pond photo essay for 22-30 April 2009. As always, they include a list of birds banded and recaptured at Hilton Pond during the period, few as they were.

Bird enthusiasts making their way through New Jersey on Saturday catalogued a total of 269 different species as part of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s annual “World Series of Birding.” The competitive fundraising event asks birders to identify as many species as they can by sight or sound in a 24-hour period. The “Lagerhead Shrikes” team, sponsored by Nikon, repeated as winners, coming in first overall by counting 229 species in the state. The state Audubon Society started the event in 1984 as a way to raise money for conservation causes, and it has raised over $8 million. Birders can take part as individuals or as part of teams, and can count birds in the whole state or a specific county or area. There are divisions for teens and seniors, as well as categories for digital photography.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to TravelGirl, Bill, 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!