Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 181

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Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, photographed at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 7 August 2009 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope with TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/180s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.


Birds in Science

Brainy male birds are more sexually attractive to female birds, scientists have discovered. Researchers gave male bowerbirds a set of cognitive tests to evaluate their problem solving ability. Bowerbirds that performed well in the tests also mated with the most females, when compared with their more stupid rivals. This is the first study to show that males who are better problem solvers also mate with more females. Scientists studied satin bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) living in the forest just south of Brisbane in Australia. Story includes video of the birds.

One of nature’s best kept secrets could be about to be revealed thanks to one of Peterborough’s feathered friends. While it is common knowledge that some birds fly south for the winter, ornithologists are still unsure where in Africa nightingales spend the winter months. The small songbirds make their nests in Britain during the summer, and Peterborough has one of the largest populations across the country. In an attempt to discover more about the birds’ behavior, ornithologists have been placing rings on the birds’ legs for decades — but have faced problems once the birds have begun their journey south to Africa. In more than a century of tagging nightingales, only nine from Britain had been discovered abroad. However now a 10th British bird has been caught in the south of France — having traveled more than 460 miles from Peterborough.

For a roomful of birds, the museum at Muhlenberg College’s Acopian Center for Ornithology is eerily reminiscent of a morgue, hushed and still, perhaps proper for the final resting place of hundreds of bodies no loved ones will claim and for which no justice will be served. These are the victims of an indiscriminate killer, says Daniel Klem, a soft-spoken professor of ornithology perhaps better described as a bird crusader. After 35 years of research, Klem remains determined to expose a transparent killer most fail to see as dangerous: the window. “Wherever birds and glass occur, you can have a victim,” said Klem, sitting in his office as a bird wall clock chirped 2 p.m. ”Some places are far more dramatically harmful than others.” Klem’s latest research, published in the June edition of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, has excited birders in the Lehigh Valley and across the country for its finding that a new ultraviolet film for windows deters birds but appears clear to people.

Pterosaurs may have been furry rather than feathery, but they may not have been so very different from birds in other respects. A set of footprints unearthed in France is the first to show one of the winged reptiles coming into land — and suggests they did so in much the same way as most modern birds. While dinosaurs wandered the lands of the Mesozoic era, their relatives the pterosaurs occupied the skies. The flying reptiles remain something of a palaeontological puzzle — some even question whether the largest pterosaurs could fly at all.

Birds and Aircraft

Most people know them as European starlings, stout little birds that weigh no more than 4 ounces. But around the nation’s airports, they are called “bullets with wings.” Flocks of them brought down a Lockheed Electra during takeoff in Boston in 1960 and a Belgian Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo plane in the Netherlands in 1996. Combined, the crashes killed more than 100 people. Starlings also fly in the crowded skies above Los Angeles International Airport, a major concern of biologist Todd Pitlik, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His job is to control the wildlife populations at LAX, where more than 940 animal strikes involving commercial aircraft were reported between 1990 and 2008.

Worried that geese and jets don’t mix, the California state Senate passed a measure today that would give airports greater authority to kill birds that might interfere with airplanes — without being cited by state wildlife wardens. The legislation, previously approved by the Assembly, now goes to the governor’s desk. It was introduced by Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair-Oaks), months after a US Airways jetliner ditched in New York’s Hudson River after striking some Canada geese. State wildlife officials have threatened to cite California airport operators for shooting birds near flight paths. GrrlScientist comment: If airports weren’t built on or near major migratory stop-over and refueling sites or wildlife refuges for migratory birds (like JFK is, for example), this problem would be significantly reduced. But that’s too easy, isn’t it?

A bird strike forced a plan at the Wilmington International Airport (ILM) to scrap its takeoff Sunday morning, airport officials said. Three birds hit Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 4939, which was bound for Atlanta, as it reached take-off speed on the runway. The pilot returned the jet to the terminal, and the 26 passengers onboard were not injured.

Birds and Wind Power Farms

The Queen Charlottes in British Columbia are a bird sanctuary drawing many to the west coast to view [over 200 different] bird species. The area is so unique it is referred to as The Canadian Galapagos. But this could all end soon because a prop-style wind farm is proposed to be built there in the midst of the migratory flyways and breeding areas for birds. The plan for the proposed Queen Charlotte wind farm is, inexplicably, to use the old-style three-bladed prop-style designs that are not only inefficient but infamous bird and bat killers. Despite industry propaganda, bird mortality from such farms is alarmingly high, and worse, due to the placement of the wind farms, many of the casualties are endangered or protected species like Golden eagles. Birds can’t see the spinning blades and are slaughtered by the thousands, decapitated and dismembered. Bats feeding on insects around the turbines get knocked out by the change in air pressure near the spokes before being struck. Claims made by the industry that “more birds are killed by cars and buildings than by wind farms” are nonsense, especially when it comes to soaring birds; but even if it were true, the ‘logic’ of such an argument is ludicrous. It’s like saying, “Since so many people die of heart disease, it’s not worth preventing cancer.”

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 23 August 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.

Rare Birds News

It’s gone completely quackers at Drusillas Park, UK, as one tiny duckling hatched out of the Laysan teals’ nest in the Parrot Falls aviary. However, rather than being a Laysan teal duckling as you would expect, the tiny little hatchling actually belongs to the Madagascan teals. It would appear that the hen laid her egg in the Laysan teals’ nest. Mistaking it for their own, the Laysan teal pair have now adopted the duckling and are raising it together. These two species of duck are the most endangered animals looked after at the zoo and staff are delighted with the new arrival. Zoo manager Sue Woodgate said, “It is always lovely to have babies at Drusillas but I am particularly delighted with the new arrival, as this is the first time that we have ever bred Madagascan teals at the zoo.”

This is a story about one of my favorite hawk species, the Ferruginous Hawk, which is declining throughout the state of Washington and elsewhere due to destruction of the open grasslands they love.

British organizations that seek to protect birds say they have begun a $414,000 effort to save endangered species. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Bird Life International will pay for scientific expeditions to wherever endangered species are seen, whether in jungles or on remote islands, The London Telegraph reported. The money will also go toward conservation of birds’ habitats. The groups asked British birdwatchers to be on the lookout for endangered species at home and abroad.

The Natural History Museum was targeted by thieves who have stolen a number of tropical bird ‘skins’. They were taken from the ornithological collections held at the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire and were found to be missing following a break-in on Wednesday 24 June 2009. The specimens stolen include a number of cotingas and birds of paradise, many of which are uncommon in collections and, therefore, of special scientific concern.

It may not be dead (like the birds in the previous story), have shuffled off this mortal coil or joined the bleedin’ choir invisible, but anyone purchasing these parrots should know that they have had a paint job. Illegal wildlife traffickers in Argentina are bleaching the plumage of common parrots and passing them off as their rarer and more valuable cousins. Wildlife groups say the burrowing parrot, a species that inhabits most of the country’s territory, is being captured in large numbers and dyed in order to give it the appearance of a much rarer Amazonian species that can fetch at least double the price on the thriving black market.

Birding News

Once upon a trash heap dreary, while he wandered, weak and weary, University of Illinois English professor and birding enthusiast Spencer Schaffner raised his binoculars, focused and had a eureka moment. The U. of I. professor, who also watches and studies bird-watchers, suggests that the popular pastime known as competitive birding — that is, participation in various types of activities based around the goal of identifying and/or listing the greatest number of avian species — may not be as eco-friendly as it purports to be. Schaffner makes his case in an essay titled “Environmental Sporting: Birding at Superfund Sites, Landfills and Sewage Ponds” [PDF]. The essay appears in the August issue of the Journal of Sport & Social Issues.

In the United States, 48 million people actively watch birds, according to a report published in June by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s a fifth of the U.S. population! Twenty million of those birders take trips to see birds. Interestingly, birders have made a substantial impact on our beleaguered economy, spending an estimated $12 billion on trips and $24 billion on equipment in 2006, according to the report, “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis” [free PDF].

A brown pelican, denizen of warm southern seashores, is delighting birders in northern New York with a visit to a chilly Adirondack Mountain lake. The bird has been a topic of discussion on several birding Web sites since Barb Putnam of Albany’s Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club reported seeing it Wednesday on Fourth Lake, one of a chain of lakes 90 miles northwest of Albany. Carolyn Belknap, who lives near Fourth Lake, went out to look for the pelican Thursday and took pictures that she posted online. “When I heard someone had spotted a pelican, I thought maybe they’d been out cocktail sailing,” Belknap said. “But when I went out in my kayak, there it was, standing on a dock. At first I thought it was a statue; it looked pretty fake.”

Captive Birds News

This is an amusing story about a NYCer who’s girlfriend’s boss’s bird escaped while he was on vacation, leaving her to care for it. After no one would help, she encouraged her boyfriend to capture the macaw .. and thus, this chase through the skyscrapers, billboards and rooftops of Manhattan.

Avian Influenza News

U.S. researchers say one strain of the H5N1 avian influenza virus has been linked to neurological changes that increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. “This avian flu strain does not directly cause Parkinson’s disease, but it does make you more susceptible,” study senior author Richard Smeyne, of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital based in Memphis, Tennesse, said in a statement.

Chile said Friday that tests show swine flu has jumped to birds, opening a new chapter in the global epidemic. Top flu and animal-health experts with the United Nations in Rome and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were monitoring the situation, but said the infected turkeys have suffered only mild effects, easing concern about a potentially dangerous development. “What the turkeys have is the human virus — there is no mutation at all,” Deputy Health Minister Jeannette Vega told Chile’s Radio Cooperativa on Friday.

Here’s an educational and useful FAQ about influenza that you should read before the school year starts.

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 (often) 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 and extensive comments for identifying that particular species.

Miscellaneous Bird News

It’s not often that you read an article in the newspaper where the author is knowledgeable about gulls and openly admits that he admires gulls, but here is an exception that you will enjoy reading.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, 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!