Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Plump and hoping to get plumper, a red knot takes a break from eating horseshoe crab eggs at Mispillion Harbor.

Image: Louisa Jonas/WYPR [larger view].


Birds in Science

Catching adult eagles for research purposes is no easy task, but a Purdue University researcher has found a way around the problem, and, in the process, gathered even more information about the birds without ever laying a hand on one. “Many birds are small, easy to catch and abundant,” said Andrew DeWoody, associate professor of forestry and natural resources. “With eagles, the effort can be 100 to 1,000 times greater than catching chickadees.” Eagles can be hard to find, they often require live bait to attract and, with sharp talons and beaks capable of snapping off human fingers, they pose a risk to their would-be captors. Instead of catching eagles, DeWoody collects their feathers and uses the small amount of DNA in them to create a tag that corresponds to a particular bird. Those tags can be used to determine population, parentage, roosting patterns and sex ratio.

The earliest known fossil of a toothless bird that flew across the skies 120 million years ago has been dug up by scientists. The creature, named Zhongjianornis yangi, was about the size of a pigeon and was preserved in almost pristine condition in an ancient lake at Liaoning in north eastern China — suggesting it was an acquatic bird like ducks. Its nearly complete adult skeleton — which had a long, pointed snout and toothless upper and lower jaws — sheds new light on the evolution of the beak.

Birds and Airplanes

A Frontier Airlines jet from Denver collided with a bird Sunday as the plane was landing at Kansas City, according to a news report late Tuesday. No injuries were reported. Frontier flight 825 from Denver was beginning its approach to Kansas City International when it struck a bird with its right wing. The plane — an Airbus A319 — landed safely but the plane sustained a “very large dent,” the Star said.

People Helping Birds

In the predawn hours recently, a group of avian researchers scrambled up a rocky Pennsylvania hillside near one of the oldest human settlements in North America to pluck a pair of stinky baby turkey vultures from their cave-sheltered nest. It was for the good of science. The fussy bundles of white fluff were returned to their home near Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Avella in time for breakfast, sporting numbered blue tags. “We’re interested in understanding the movement of these birds,” said Keith Bildstein, director of conservation science at Hawk Mountain, a raptor sanctuary north of Reading. “We want to learn more about their migration.”

Blakeney Point, a remote outcrop linked to the Norfolk coast of the UK by a narrow three-mile shingle promontory, has only three human inhabitants but they are not alone. They share the pebble beaches with about 5,000 seabirds, which live in tightly packed colonies stretching from the sand dunes to the tideline. This outcrop is where, 100 years ago this month, the first birds were tagged with numbered metal leg bands in the British bird-ringing scheme, which is still running today. The job of Blakeney’s three coastal wardens, who spend their time monitoring the colony’s blackheaded gulls and four varieties of tern, has changed little since 1909. GrrlScientist comment: This story includes a very very cute picture of a seabird chick — a tern species, I think.

African penguins prefer to be in deep poo, but humans have scraped away the meters-thick layers of guano — in which the birds once burrowed their nests — to sell as fertilizer. Now, conservationists hoping to protect the endangered creatures have devised a novel solution to the avian housing problem: fiberglass igloos. The penguins on Dyer Island, off South Africa, have been forced to nest directly on island rock, where their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predatory gulls. That exposure, combined with oil spills, overfishing, and a decrease in food sources, has devastated the penguin population, which is down to about 2,000 pairs today from 22,655 pairs in 1979.

A Washington state tree farm has agreed to create and enhance habitat for northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets on thousands of acres of forest land it owns in Lewis and Skamania counties. In a deal to be signed Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Natural Resources, and state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Tumwater-based Port Blakely Tree Farms agreed to increase acreage of trees 80 years and older from the current 500 acres to 4,800 acres in 2067.

People Hurting Birds

Authorities in Washington state say a young motorist repeatedly drove through flocks of shore birds on a beach, killing dozens of them. State Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Dan L. Chadwick says he has the bodies of 34 birds killed near the coastal town of Ocean Park. One bird was taken to a wildlife rescue center with a broken wing. Chadwick said the young man could face a $5,000 fine and a year in jail for each dead and injured bird. GrrlScientist comment: I’ll bet this jackass only turned himself in because someone saw him do this and said they’d call the police if he didn’t turn himself in. And of course, I’ll bet he isn’t fined the maximal amount, as he should be, because he is “cooperating with authorities.”

Rare Birds News

Birdwatchers in south-east New South Wales are getting a rare glimpse of a species thought to be near extinct. The Swift Parrot usually migrates between Tasmania and the west of the Great Dividing Range in Australia but the drought has brought them to the far south coast and Monaro in search of food. National Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger Robyn Kesby says there are only about a thousand breeding pairs left in Australia. She says this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the birds. “We’ve seen flocks of hundreds of them on the coast so it’s been really exciting for bird watchers,” she said.

“Ghost Bird,” a film premiering in the United States at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, details the controversy about the recent claims that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still lives. The film was produced and directed by Scott Crocker, a Bowdoin College graduate. You can see a trailer of the film here.

Studies of the population and conservation requirements of the Critically Endangered Jerdon’s Courser, Rhinoptilus bitorquatus, have been stepped up again, after three years in which resources had to be diverted to a successful campaign against the construction of the Teluga Ganga Canal through the bird’s last known stronghold, in eastern India. Construction of the canal went ahead in spite of a legal requirement that work should not continue until a large area of the courser’s scrub jungle home had been transferred to Andra Pradesh’s Forestry Department for protection.

Bird Watching News

Backyard bird watching is a fairly simple exercise. Provide enough food, water and cover, and birds will come flocking. Playing favorites, though, calls for using the right kinds of incentives. This is an interesting article for those of you who wish to have your yard filled with birds.

Avian Zoonotics News

West Nile Virus has been identified Contra Costa County and in the Central Valley of California.

Guam will get about $200,000 from the federal government to gear up for the influenza season, which has been complicated by the outbreak of A/H1N1 (swine) flu. The Department of Public Health and Social Services will use $146,297 for efforts to prepare for and prevent seasonal and swine flu, also known as H1N1. The Guam Memorial Hospital and other health facilities will share $47,382 to ensure they are ready for an influx of patients.

People who are obese but otherwise healthy may be at special risk of severe complications and death from the new H1N1 swine flu virus, U.S. researchers reported on recently. They described the cases of 10 patients at a Michigan hospital who were so ill they had to be put on ventilators. Three died. Nine of the 10 were obese, seven were severely obese, including two of the three who died. “What this suggests is that there can be severe complications associated with this virus infection, especially in severely obese patients,” said CDC virus expert Dr. Tim Uyeki.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 12 July 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.

The Delaware Bay in New Jersey state is the site of the largest horseshoe crab orgy in the world. Mating season brings millions of crabs onto the beaches, and tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds, including endengered red knots, who gorge themselves on crab eggs on their way to the Arctic. [streaming 7:40]

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, some of which have an accompanying analysis, written by master birder Rick Wright, for identifying that particular species.

Miscellaneous Bird News

Harry and Pepper, the San Francisco Zoo’s long-term same-sex penguin couple, have split up. And you might say there’s a disreputable dame to blame. The couple’s relationship began in 2003 and the breakup came as a shock to the couple’s zookeepers because Harry and Pepper, both Magellanic penguins, had long seemed one of the zoo’s happiest avian partnerships, according to zookeeper Anthony Brown. Last year, the pair was allowed to incubate and hatch an egg another penguin had laid. “Of all of the parents that year, they were the best,” Brown said. “They took very good care of their chick. He ended up being the largest chick on the island.”

Prince Andrew accepted an unusual gift recently: a rare white female gyrfalcon from Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, in recognition of the special bond between the UK and the UAE. The bird, highly prized by Arab falconers, will be named by the prince, who is said to have a keen interest in falcons.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, 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!