Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 174

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Common Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis.

Image: Gisela Delpho [larger view].


Birds in Science

Unpredictable weather seems to stimulate chatter among birds — as well as humans — according to researchers. A team of US scientists has found that Northern Mockingbirds living in variable climates sing more elaborate songs. Complex tunes, sung by males to impress females, are likely to signal the birds’ intelligence. Carlos Botero, a researcher from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina, led the study. Dr Botero said that it was “very exciting” to see a strong correlation between song complexity and climate.

Many songbirds learn their songs early in life from a role model. In the absence of an appropriate tutor, they develop an improvised song that often lacks the species-typical song structure. However, male canaries learn to sing normal songs even when they were exposed as juveniles to tutors that lacked the features of normal canary song, as researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology have now found out. The learning of birdsong resembles the learning of speech in humans. Crucial for the process are acoustic perception and the ability to produce sound. Social isolation leads to a disturbed vocal development both in humans and in birds. When children grow up without contact to other humans they either develop no or a rudimentary form of human language.

Researchers have found that rooks, a member of the crow family, are capable of using and making tools despite not doing so in the wild. Scientists from the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University who conducted the study believe the rooks’ ability to use tools are the by-product of a sophisticated form of physical intelligence. “This finding is remarkable because rooks do not appear to use tools in the wild, yet they rival habitual tools users such as chimpanzees and New Caledonian crows when tested in captivity,” said the appropriately named Chris Bird, lead author of the study.

Birds and Aircraft

Wildlife officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have relocated two young red-tailed hawks from their nests as part of a program to prevent bird aircraft strikes. The fluffy, off-white raptors, both less than a month old, were removed Wednesday from nests high in cottonwood trees located in and around the airport. They’re tagged and taken to northern Washington where they’ll be raised by the nonprofit Falcon Research Group until they fly off on their own. Since the airport program began in 2001, more than 200 raptors have been removed from nests to improve airport safety. Only two tagged hawks have returned to the airport in that time.

Steve Osmek is a wildlife biologist testing a new avian radar system at SeaTac Airport in Seattle, Washington, in the hopes that it will someday warn air-traffic controllers of birds flying toward the approach and departure paths of airliners, signaling possible danger, much as low-level wind-shear detection systems alert pilots. Such a system might have triggered an alert for US Airways Flight 1549 to delay its takeoff until a flock of geese passed. Last January, after hitting birds soon after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the plane’s engines began to fail, and the crew landed the plane in the Hudson River and evacuated passengers without any fatalities. Already the U.S. Air Force has a “bird radar” system in place at four bases, and NASA uses bird radar to protect space-shuttle launches. The Federal Aviation Administration says its test in Seattle has gone well, and it will begin similar tests this summer at Chicago’s O’Hare and New York’s Kennedy airports. “We’re very excited about the technologies out there and the ones to come,” said Michael O’Donnell, FAA director of airport safety and standards. “It’s very promising.”

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

Bird migrations are likely to get longer according to the first ever study of the potential impacts of climate change on the breeding and winter ranges of migrant birds. The length of some migrations could increase by as much as 400 km. “The predicted future temperature changes and the associated changes in habitat could have serious consequences for many species”, said lead-author Nathalie Doswald of Durham University (UK). Some 500 million birds are estimated to migrate to Europe and Asia from Africa. Birds weighing as little as nine grams undertake the annual migration of thousands of miles between the two continents to find food and suitable climate.

Across Britain, and with little fanfare, the face of the countryside has subtly changed in recent years. Farm fields that stood idle for years under EU schemes to prevent overproduction have been conscripted back into active service. The uncultivated land, previously a haven for wildlife, has been plowed, and farmers have planted crops such as wheat and barley, with occasional hemp for use in paper and textiles. As a result, the amount of land available for birds such as the woodlark has been halved in the last two years. Without efforts to stem this loss of habitat, conservation experts warn that the countryside of the future could look and sound very different.

Invasive alien species are affecting native wildlife in almost every corner of the Earth. “An unwanted by-product of globalization, non-native species are harming ecosystem services, livelihoods and economies throughout the world”, said Ban Ki-moon — United Nations Secretary-General. Invasive alien species are plants, animals and other organisms that are not native to an ecosystem. Introduced species — such as rats and cats — are one of the greatest drivers of biodiversity loss, and have been implicated in almost half of all bird extinctions in the past five centuries.

Birds are again dropping dead from the sky in a new toxic drama in Western Australia. Nearly 200 ibises, ravens, gulls, ducks and a pelican were found dead or frothing and convulsing in Perth at the weekend. The discovery comes a year after the mysterious mass death of 200 birds only a few kilometers away and two years after the Esperance lead contamination scandal which emptied the skies over the holiday town of Esperance for months when thousands of birds were poisoned. The Department of Environment and Conservation yesterday blamed the latest deaths on the pesticide Fenthion, but said it was unclear whether it was a deliberate bird poisoning or had been caused by someone illegally dumping pesticide.

People Helping Birds

One of the world’s rarest birds sits on a perch in an enclosure at Philadelphia Zoo’s new McNeil Avian Center. The Micronesian kingfisher, now extinct in its native Guam, is one of just 103 known to exist worldwide. All are in zoos, which are trying to rebuild the population to the point where some birds can be reintroduced to the wild. The tiny blue and gold kingfisher is one of about 120 birds to occupy the new center in a permanent exhibition that encourages visitors to protect common birds by showing them the wonders of about 60 exotic species from around the world. “We hope that we get people engaged enough that they will look at the most common birds in a different way,” said Andrew Baker, the zoo’s chief operating officer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced its final decision to revoke all food tolerances for the highly toxic pesticide carbofuran, which is sold under the name “Furadan” by FMC Corporation. The agency’s announcement confirms a proposed action first announced in July 2008. FMC Corp. will have the opportunity to challenge the decision within 90 days with a petition to stay the rule. When the rule becomes final, EPA will proceed with the cancellation of registration for all uses of the pesticide. “Carbofuran causes neurological damage in humans, and one of the most deadly pesticides to birds left on the market. It is responsible for the deaths of millions of wild birds since its introduction in 1967, including Bald and Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, and migratory songbirds,” said Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy. “This EPA decision marks a huge victory for wildlife and the environment.”

In response to a court case brought by American Bird Conservancy and other conservation organizations, the Obama Administration told Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan that it would not defend the Bush Administration’s Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan or its decision to reduce Critical Habitat for the owl, and would instead pursue a settlement with the plaintiffs to have the plan revoked. Settlement negotiations continue, but the administration has asked for a 60-day delay to permit it more time to consider the issues until more Interior Department staff are confirmed by the Senate.

After a successful campaign led by BirdLife International and BirdLife Cyprus, the Cypriot Government has decided to stop the shooting of birds during the month of May on the island. “Banning hunting during May will greatly help to save migratory birds that pass through Cyprus”, said Martin Hellicar, Executive Manager from BirdLife Cyprus. Prior to the new law, hunting was allowed in 2008 for eight days in May to control crows — particularly Carrion Crow, Corvus corone and Black-billed Magpie, Pica pica. This initiative was then seen as an excuse to allow hunters to also shoot migratory species like European Turtle-doves, Streptopelia turtur. However, this year the ‘corvid control decree’ has been reduced to just three days in June when the risk to migratory species is deemed to low.

Rare and Endangered Birds News

As climate change causes temperatures to increase in Hawaii’s mountains, deadly non-native bird diseases will likely also creep up the mountains, invading most of the last disease-free refuges for Hawai’ian honeycreepers — a group of endangered and remarkable birds. A just-published U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) review discusses the likelihood of a forthcoming “disease invasion” by examining the present altitudinal range of avian malaria and pox, honeycreeper distribution, and the future projected range of diseases and honeycreeper habitat with climate change.

Red kite chicks have hatched in the wild in Aberdeenshire for the first time in almost 150 years. The chicks are being raised by birds released two years ago as part of a project to reintroduce the birds to the skies over the county. At least three have hatched, and the public are being offered the chance to watch two in a nest via CCTV viewing points. Red kites were once common all over the British Isles, but were persecuted almost to the point of extinction in the 19th century. In the UK, the population had almost died out until birds began being reintroduced from overseas via breeding programs in the 1990s.

The latest assessment of the status of all of the UK’s 246 regularly occurring birds — Birds of Conservation Concern 3 [online report and free PDF] — shows 52 species are now of the highest conservation concern and have been placed on the ‘red list’. The revised red list now includes even more familiar countryside birds, including the cuckoo, lapwing and yellow wagtail, joining other widespread species such as the turtle dove, grey partridge, house sparrow and starling. Alarmingly, red listed species now account for more than one-in-five (21 per cent) of all the UK’s bird species. This is a far higher proportion than compared to the last assessment in 2002, when 40 species (16 per cent) were red listed. Most species on the red list have suffered a recent halving of range or population in the UK, or have undergone a historical decline since 1800.

The battle to protect Australia’s largest river red gum forest, home to the threatened superb parrot, will escalate when the State Government’s forestry department outlines logging plans that environmentalists claim are illegal. Forests NSW will release a long-awaited environmental impact statement on its plans to continue logging in the red gum forests of south-west NSW that spread out along the Murray River. Forests NSW is being investigated by the federal environment department for the breaches. Environmentalists are targeting the NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Ian Macdonald, who they say is putting pressure on the federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, by warning that hundreds of jobs are at stake around Deniliquin. “We have been shocked and appalled by the attitude of minister Macdonald and his department that have been logging illegally under state and federal environment laws,” said a spokeswoman for the National Parks Association, Carmel Flint. “Instead of doing their utmost to change that situation they have gone and, it would seem, tried to force their way to continue the illegal operations”

Avian Influenza News

The World Health Organization said it’s considering adjusting its pandemic alert system to account for the severity of an influenza outbreak. The agency is responding to a request from Asian health ministers, who met May 8, and from Western countries at the WHO’s World Health Assembly last week, Keiji Fukuda, the agency’s assistant director-general of health security and environment, said on a conference call with reporters. Within the next few weeks, the WHO will convene a meeting of scientists to get advice on changing the alert system, Fukuda said. Declaring a pandemic for a virus that mostly has mild effects could cause panic and cynicism without providing any public health benefit, which is the goal of the alert system, Fukuda said. “That is more important than any definition; that is more important than any discussions,” Fukuda said. “We are comfortable that the countries are doing the kind of public health actions that they need to be taking right now

Scientists have used bird flu virus samples from Egypt to develop a new basis for a vaccine against the toxic H5N1 Influenza strain that continues to circulate, the World Health Organization said recently. Avian influenza kills about half the people it infects, but unlike the quickly circulating H1N1 flu virus has not been shown to pass easily between humans to date. The WHO said the candidate virus was developed at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta “thanks to the ministry of health and population of Egypt, for providing virus specimens. This recombinant vaccine virus is available for distribution,” it said in a statement on its website. “Institutions, companies and others interested in pandemic vaccine development who wish to receive these candidate vaccine viruses should contact either the WHO Global Influenza Program … or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

A viral strain which can be used to make a vaccine against A/H1N1 “swine” influenza has been produced by UK scientists. It is a “crucial step” for manufacturers to start large-scale production of a virus against the H1N1 strain, they said. The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control is one of a handful of laboratories globally working towards a vaccine.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 31 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.

It was a classic medical scare story: Parrots died. A few people got sick. Newspapers went wild. Then, well after the outbreak of “parrot fever” was declared dormant, researchers who dealt with the birds began to mysteriously die themselves. Historian Jill Lepore talks to host Jacki Lyden about the great parrot fever outbreak of 1929. Lepore chronicles the episode in the June 1 issue of The New Yorker magazine [streaming story 8:15].

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.

Miscellaneous Bird News

A Mistle Thrush had built her nest on top of a downpipe, blocking the water’s passage and causing the gutter to flood. But desperate to protect her young, she puffed herself up to twice her size and sat in the drainpipe to stop the tide of rain water swamping the nest. She was so occupied with her task that her mate was left to feed her and their young. “The nest was tucked away from the weather in the shade of the roof but it was so close to the downpipe the gutter flooded when it rained,” said amateur wildlife photographer Dennis Bright. “It was only a matter of seconds before the pipe flooded, and water cascaded over the sides.”

Te Anau [New Zealand] police have identified a thief who brazenly stole a British man’s passport, but will not pursue an arrest or attempt to recover the document. A police spokeswoman said a Scottish man reported the theft of his passport from a bus heading into Milford Sound earlier last week. The passport had been in a colored courier bag that attracted the attention of a cheeky kea when the bus stopped at the Chasm on the Milford road. “Being Scottish, I’ve got a sense of humor so I did take it with humor but obviously there is one side of me still raging,” the unidentified man said. “My passport is somewhere out there in Fiordland. The kea’s probably using it for fraudulent claims or something. I’ll never look at a kea in the same way.”

Japanese researcher Yasuhiro Tsukamoto’s flock of 500 ostriches are being enlisted into the global fight against swine flu by exploiting Japan’s practice of wearing masks in public to ward off allergies and colds. Tsukamoto, 40, a veterinary professor at Kyoto Prefectural University, was part of a team that investigated the deaths of birds in 2004, when avian influenza hit farms in western Japan. The probe into the virus that killed three-fifths of infected people worldwide spurred him to produce flu-fighting antibodies from ostriches, which are resistant to infectious diseases. GrrlScientist comment: Hrm. This sounds like so much voodoo and faith-based medicine to me.

A huge bird of prey capable of hunting animals as large as roe deer could be roaming the Cheshire, UK, countryside. Sue, a one-year-old European Eagle Owl (the same species as Draco Malfoy’s owl in the Harry Potter films), escaped from an aviary at Stockley Farm, near Northwich, in April and has not been seen since. In the wild, eagle owls mainly hunt mammals such as rabbits and hares, but keeper Gary Buckles said people with small pets do not need to worry.

Here’s a free desktop bird calendar for June, courtesy of a friend. It is a picture of a Ring-billed Gull doing its evening toilet in the enclosed swimming area at Juanita Beach Park, Seattle, Washington.

Last Week : : Birds in the News : : Archives

The Fine Print: Thanks to Bob, 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 Mike Licht
    June 8, 2009

    Bird strikes are even downing the most sophisticated aircraft.

    See:

    http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/ufo-hits-geese-lands-in-hudson/

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