Birds in the News 145

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ABSTRACT: Rainbow Lory, Trichoglossus haematodus.
Image: John Del Rio. [larger view].


Birds in Science
UK Scientists have found bird fossils dating back around 55 million years that could help shed light on a period of time before humans and most mammals had evolved. The fossils, including two complete bird skulls, a pelvis and several bones, appear to be the remains of parrot-like birds and were found by a local archaeologist on marshland Seasalter Levels near Whitstable, Kent. “Birds’ skeletons are so fragile, the chances of them being preserved are almost inconceivable,” said archaeologist Mark Harrison, who made the discovery. He added that it was a “rare and surprising find”.
Dinosaurs are often seen as unlucky, having been wiped out by an asteroid. But they dominated Earth for more than 160 million years, evolving into a wild array of body types and sizes suited for many different ecological niches. Scientists previously thought that it was this evolutionary diversity that enabled the dinosaurs’ reign, allowing them to out-compete similar groups of reptiles, but a new study, detailed in the issue of the journal Science, shows that it was really just a matter of luck. “For a long time it was thought that there was something special about the dinosaurs that helped them become more successful during the Triassic, the first 30 million years of their history, but this isn’t true,” said lead author of the study, Steve Brusatte, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University and affiliate of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Ostriches, emus, kiwis and other winged non-flyers might seem to be birds of a feather, sharing similar evolutionary origins, but the story could turn out to be much weirder with perhaps numerous flying ancestors. This group of birds, called ratites, has been viewed by biologists as part of a larger group (paleognaths) of mostly extinct birds that are key to understanding the early evolution of birds. This group of birds, called ratites, has been viewed by biologists as part of a larger group (paleognaths) of mostly extinct birds that are key to understanding the early evolution of birds.
The intertwining songs of tropical wrens are their weapons of choice in turf wars, says a new study that could also shed light on other duetting species. The duets may also help the birds locate one another in dense foliage. The new discoveries were made using a new multi-microphone technology, which triangulates the positions of singing birds in trees even when they aren’t visible. “With this technique, we can find exactly where breeding pairs are while they perform duets, and where males and females move between subsequent duets,” said study leader Daniel Mennill, a biologist at the University of Winsdor in Canada whose work is partially funded by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.
French birds are moving northwards in response to climate change, but not fast enough, scientists have found. Their data came from a large survey in which volunteer ornithologists counted more than 105 species of bird. Researchers say that the birds are lagging some 182km behind the increases in temperature. This lag may be of particular concern to rare birds or species that have very specific food requirements.
People Hurting Birds
The deaths of 300 birds that flew into oil puddles from a leaking well at Canadian Forces Base Suffield show the need for more well inspections, said an environmentalist. Meanwhile, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board, which has begun an investigation, called the leak a rare occurrence. Cliff Wallis, vice-president of the Alberta Wilderness Association, said he’d like to see more inspections occur throughout the life of a well until it has been certified as reclaimed. “We don’t know how many inspections are done. Some wells are inspected once a year by a government inspector. Obviously, the companies are monitoring the wells, but they’re not looking for the same things an environmental inspector would be,” he said.
The Western Australian government is beginning a month-long bird cull to protect Perth’s commercial fruit growing areas from parrots. Thousands of corellas and rainbow lorikeets in Guildford are to be trapped and gassed or shot by the Department of Environment and Conservation. The birds were introduced to Perth’s metropolitan area about 30 years ago. While the two species are native to regions of WA they were only introduced to Perth in the late 1960s after escaping from aviaries or being deliberately released. Since then their numbers have rapidly increased. Last year rainbow lorikeets finally reached the hills, putting Perth’s fruit growing area in peril. “Every other state in Australia that has rainbow lorikeets has damage to commercial fruit crops from the birds and we don’t have them aside from a recent foray into the hills last year,” a zoologist from the DEC, Dr Peter Dawson said. [GrrlScientist comment: It is astonishing to me that people are so shockingly stupid as to introduce lories into an area where fruit is a major crop. Oh, according to my sources and contrary to what the story says, these species were intentionally released in the area to add color to an otherwise very dull landscape. So the birds are only doing what people do: exploiting the available resources! Nevermind that greedy and stupid people also want those very same resources for themselves .. ]
People Helping Birds
Scientists experimenting with ways to restore the coastal habitat of a beleaguered bird hope so. In recent weeks they’ve planted 15 of these homemade, green-painted contraptions on fire-scarred hills throughout Orange County’s Irvine Ranch Conservancy to try to entice a declining population of cactus wrens to nest. There’s no textbook on this. We’re starting at zero and using our intuition as to what the birds might like,” said Jutta Burger, a senior field ecologist for the conservancy, which manages thousands of acres of open space. “You need to think like a cactus wren.” [includes video report]
British birdwatchers are fanning out across Malta this weekend armed only with binoculars and video cameras to try to stop the annual slaughter of thousands of migratory birds by shotgun-wielding hunters. Volunteers were ready before dawn on Saturday for the start of a two-week operation to disrupt the illegal slaughter of birds of prey, flamingos and songbirds which pause for rest on the tiny island during their long journeys to Africa, including garden birds which have bred in Britain. One group of birdwatchers who started on Friday were surrounded by armed hunters who threatened them until the police were called, underlining the risk they are taking. [GrrlScientist comment: If these Maltese bird killers think that what they are doing is so right and proper, why are they threatening unarmed people with death for documenting their proud achievement?]
Rare Bird News
Captive breeding colonies of a critically endangered vulture, whose numbers in the wild have dwindled from tens of millions to a few thousand, are too small to protect the species from extinction, a University of Michigan analysis shows. Adding wild birds to the captive colonies, located in Pakistan and India, is crucial, but political and logistical barriers are hampering efforts, says lead author Jeff A. Johnson. With a seven-foot wingspan, the oriental white-backed vulture, Gyps bengalensis, was an awesome presence in south Asia until the mid-1990s, when populations began to collapse. At first the cause was unclear, but researchers eventually zeroed in on an anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, that is used to alleviate arthritis-like symptoms in livestock but is toxic to vultures. Vultures that feed on carcasses of animals treated with the drug die of kidney failure within a day or two after eating the tainted meat. And although India, Nepal and Pakistan outlawed its manufacture in 2006, diclofenac is still available, and birds are still dying. [GrrlScientist comment: I am sickened and outraged at this blatant disregard for life and for biodiversity — the Indian subcontinent will pay, and pay dearly, for their greed and selfish short-sightedness!]
The native Kaka parrots — juvenile birds that have not reached sexual maturity — have torn off nesting box doors and vandalised bird homes. Twenty-four of 44 new Kaka nest boxes built over the winter have been ripped apart and the birds then gouged out chunks of wood with their strong beaks at the Karori Sanctuary in Wellington. Sanctuary conservation officer Matt Robertson said: “It may be that the challenge of taking doors off nest boxes is the Kaka equivalent to the Rubik’s Cube. As far as I’m aware, this extent of destruction has never been observed.”
Avian Influenza News
H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Laos and in the West African nation of Togo and in humans in Indonesia.
Streaming Birds
On BirdNote, for the week of 14 September 2008. BirdNotes is really taking off! As of this week, BirdNotes can be heard seven mornings per week at 8:58-9:00am throughout Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia, Canada, on KPLU radio in Seattle, KOHO radio in Wenatchee, WA, WNPR radio in Connecticut, KWMR radio in West Marin, California, KTOO radio in Juneau, Alaska, and KMBH radio in Harlingen, Texas. 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].
Bird Book News
This week’s issue of the Birdbooker Report lists ecology, evolution, natural history and bird books — and even a book about dirt! — that are (or will soon be) available for purchase.
Would you like an avian anatomy book — free? If so, you can download one, two or all three books as PDFs by going to this entry, where you can read about the books that are available and choose your free copies. 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.
The winners of the photo competition for Rare Birds Yearbook 2009 have been announced and include some stunning images of the world’s rarest birds. Hundreds of images were entered and the panel of judges had an extremely hard time deciding on the result. After much deliberation it was decided that the winners of the photo competition were Andy and Gill Swash for their beautiful image of a pair of Lear’s Macaws in flight, taken in north-east Brazil. “The sight of these two macaws flying together is a beautiful portrait of a very rare species and is a very deserving winner”, said Erik Hirschfeld, Editor of Rare Birds Yearbook.
Miscellaneous Bird News
The first seven days of September aren’t typically big migration days around York SC, but “This Week at Hilton Pond” was a real WWW–“Wood Warbler Week.” We were surprised to net and band nine different species of parulids, a few of which are quite uncommon locally. For a photo essay about these colorful little Neotropical migrants, please visit the 1-7 September 2008 installment of this online newsletter. As always, the naturalists there provide a lists of all birds banded and recaptured — plus a few notes about the lingering effects of Hurricane Fay and a hummingbird update.
Cries for help inside a house in New Jersey turned out to be nothing but a talkative cockatoo. Neighbors called police after hearing what they believed was a woman’s persistent cry of “Help me! Help me!” coming from a house. Officers arrived and when no one answered the door, they kicked it in to make a rescue, but instead of a damsel in distress, officers found a caged bird with a convincing call.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Lynell, Caren, Jeanette, Jules, Linda, 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!

About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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