Birds in the News 170

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BirdLife's newest flyways project will help to make one of
the world's most important bird migration flyways safer for soaring birds.

Image: Desert Vu.

Birds in Science and Technology

Zebra finches, which normally learn their complex courtship songs from their fathers, spontaneously developed the same songs all on their own after only a few generations. "We found that in this case, the culture was pretty much encoded in the genome," said Partha Mitra of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, co-author of the study. Birds transmit their songs through social interactions, as humans do for languages, dances, cuisine and other cultural elements. Though birds and humans have clearly followed different evolutionary paths, birdsong culture can still inform theories of human culture. [story includes mp3 files of birdsongs].

Two U.S. studies suggest parrots and other species of bird can keep rhythm with musical beats. Dr. Aniruddh Patel, a researcher at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego and lead author of one of the studies, said he and his team performed experiments with a cockatoo that moves to music. "We've discovered a cockatoo named Snowball that dances to the beat of human music," he said. "Using a controlled experiment, we've shown that if the music speeds up or slows down across a wide range, he adjusts the tempo of his dancing to stay synchronized to the beat." [streaming NPR story 5:54]

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.

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 developed and operates for the USAF].

People Hurting Birds

Wildlife officials say hundreds of dead sea birds are washing up on California beaches from Marin to Monterey, and suspect a problem with their food supply may be to blame. Hundreds of Brandt's cormorants began washing up on beaches in mid-April, surprising sea bird experts who had seen the bird's population grow in recent years. A few dozen of the emaciated birds collected have survived, and are being fed at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Cordelia. Sea bird experts say a decline in anchovy numbers measured in 2008 could be a factor. GrrlScientist comment: Gee, I wonder who is overfishing the anchovies?

An international crime syndicate based in northern Victoria, Australia, is making millions of dollars smuggling endangered and exotic bird eggs in and out of the country. The Sunday Age believes that an investigation, code-named Operation Janitor, involving federal and state wildlife authorities has disrupted the gang's operations. Homes have been raided and more than a dozen syndicate members interviewed, with charges expected to be laid within weeks.The syndicate, whose members include well-known licensed bird keepers, uses couriers wearing specially-modified vests and underwear to carry up to 500 exotic bird eggs into Australia every month, with a courier able to carry 30 to 50 eggs at a time. Investigators say the couriers, some in wheelchairs in a bid to avoid suspicion, travel mainly to South Africa, the Philippines and Singapore, where they exchange native eggs for exotic eggs prized by Australian collectors.

People Helping Birds

Conservation organizations and concerned citizens are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to address the killing of millions of migratory birds from collisions with the more than 100,000 communications towers throughout the United States [free report (PDF)]. American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society, and Defenders of Wildlife filed a petition with the FCC asking the agency to adopt new rules to comply with federal environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, in order to ensure that the impact of towers on migratory birds is properly considered and addressed in agency decisions. The groups are also delivering over 15,000 petitions to the regulatory agency signed by citizens concerned for threatened wildlife. "We urge the FCC to respond to the scientific evidence that millions of migratory birds are being killed every year by communications towers, and act swiftly to release rules that can halt this needless carnage," said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy.

Soaring birds migrate by spiraling upwards within areas of rising hot air and then gliding downwards to their next thermal. This method cannot be used over large water bodies or high mountains, and therefore concentrates birds into migratory corridors known as flyways; making soaring migrants highly vulnerable to localized threats. However, many parts of the flyway are undergoing a period of rapid development. At the migration bottlenecks, expanding urban, industrial, agricultural and tourism development are creating hazards to birds in areas where previously no threats existed. "The government of Jordan will work with other regional governments, ministries and BirdLife International partners in the implementation process", said H.E Eng. Khaled Irani. "We are looking forward to cooperate regionally and internationally to ensure that the Migratory Soaring Birds Project proceeds as successfully as possible ... with the aim to make the flyway system 'soaring bird friendly'". Includes video.

Senate bill, S. 690, reauthorizes the existing Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA), but at significantly higher levels, to meet the growing needs of our migrants, many of which are in rapid decline. Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) plans to introduce similar legislation in the House of Representatives. The legislation was introduced following the release of U.S. State of the Birds, the most comprehensive assessment to date on the status of bird populations. The report found that over 250 American bird species are in decline or facing severe threats. "This legislation is urgently needed to prevent America's native birds from disappearing," said Darin Schroeder, American Bird Conservancy's Vice President of Conservation Advocacy. "Nearly half of our songbird population is now in decline or facing serious threats; effective conservation projects can help us to start turning that around."

Rare and Endangered Bird News

The winter food supply for whooping cranes in South Texas appears to be more than adequate, according to a seven-year study on the effects of freshwater inflows on habitat. The whooping crane, the tallest bird in North America at 5 1/2 feet, was nearly extinct in the 1940s and has been returning to the skies with heavy intervention in Canada and the United States. The flock that migrates between Canada and the Texas Gulf Coast is the only naturally occurring population of whooping cranes in the world. Researchers and water managers were concerned that little was known about the whooping crane's diet and how freshwater inflows might adversely affect blue crabs, a key food source for the cranes. In drought years, blue crabs tend to be scarce.

On March 25th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a finding that the Yellow-billed Loon warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The finding was a response to a 2004 petition brought by the Center for Biological Diversity. As with many other recent FWS ESA findings, the agency states that the listing of the loon is currently precluded due to other higher priority listing actions, so it is not likely to be added to the list of species protected under the Act any time soon. Instead, it will remain on the Candidate List along with the Greater Sage-Grouse, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Red Knot, and several other species for which funds are not currently available to complete the listing process.

Despite more than 40 years of conservation efforts, the Puerto Rican parrot, Amazona vittata, remains one of the world's most critically endangered birds, with only an estimated 30 to 40 parrots left in the wild. They exist in just a single location, Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest. Why has the population languished? A new study blames a number of factors, including inbreeding, low hatch rates, the inability find mates... and hurricanes. According to the study, hurricanes are the primary recent factor keeping the parrot's population from growing. In just one example, 1989's Hurricane Hugo killed more than half of the wild parrots, reducing their population from 47 to 22.

Very few people have ever seen Australia's extremely rare Eastern Ground Parrot, noted for its beauty. They are found only in dense thickets of bush on a few patches of heath country along the eastern seaboard. Shy and secretive, making their tunnels and nests in the undergrowth, Ground Parrots are almost impossible to find. Until now. Traditionally the only way to find a ground parrot or to monitor their density has been to listen at dusk for their calls or have a line of a dozen or more people beating through the scrub to flush them out. Even then, they only fly briefly before scurrying back into their hiding places. They would much rather walk than fly. But Australian scientists are forging the use of new technology which will allow them to map the numbers and whereabouts of some of Australia's most threatened wildlife (story includes video of this lovely bird).

(Avian) Influenza News

Pigs are getting slaughtered to prevent the spread of a new strain of flu. Ducks and humans may be more to blame. While the new H1N1 influenza strain -- a deadly cocktail of three strains of influenza (pig, human and avian) -- that threatens to spark a pandemic evolved in swine, its ancestors came from waterfowl, says Richard Webby, who has analyzed the virus's genetic code. "There is some quite good evidence that avian viruses get into swine barns through the practice of using pond water to wash down the barns," said Webby, who is also a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. GrrlScientist comment: Since Influenza is a virus that evolved in BIRDS, this so-called discovery is really silly, in my opinion. The fact that this influenza infected pigs after people used pond water to clean pig barns is just .. another astonishing example of human stupidity in action. It is no mystery as to where influenza has evolved, nor was it mysterious that pigs are great "singles bars" for influenzas to get together and mix their genetic material since pigs can become infected with avian and human influenza strains in addition to their own strains. This was an event waiting to happen.

China has developed an effective method for instant diagnosis of H1N1 influenza, known as "swine flu", Minister of Health Chen Zhu said recently. The new method, which features a testing chemical reagent, will be used at the center for disease control and prevention (CDC) offices at all levels, he told a news conference. News of the breakthrough came as the World Health Organization raised the official alert level to phase 5, one notch below a full-fledged global pandemic. "All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans. Countries should remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.

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

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 3 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.

Before I left Seattle, I birded the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area, or UBNA) almost every morning, rain, sleet, sun and even on those rare occasions when it snowed, for close to 15 years. So it pleases me greatly to know that my good friend, Connie Sidles is still there, nearly daily, and was interviewed recently by KUOW, one of the local NPR affiliates, while she was at "The Fill." [link to streaming story in one of several formats].

Here are the latest podcasts from BirdWatch radio: interviews with Pete Dunne, photographer Arthur Morris, world class bird carver Floyd Scholz and artist and Georgia birder/blogger Lydia Thompson.

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

This is a very interesting story about Rufous Hummingbirds in the Pacific Northwest, my home. Includes pictures.

Here is a desktop calendar wallpaper for May featuring a black swan that you can upload for free, courtesy of a photographer friend.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Steve, 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!


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When there is the threat of a pandemic all international travel/flights should be handled differently. Allowing international travel is how this stuff is spread from one country to the next. The fact that Mexico did not halt all incoming and outgoing flights is irresponsible. For the CDC and the WHO to think it is okay for international flights and border crossings to continue as usual during a pandemic regardless if it is "just the flu" or something else is irresponsible and not very bright. It is obvious that the WHO does not have anyone on staff with common sense. Of course there is going to be several more pandemics as long as they continue to handle it this way by allowing international travel to continue during the outbreaks. We can always come up with yet another vaccine with side effects.

By Lynn, Los Ange… (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink