Birds in the News 150

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European Bee-eater pair, Merops apiaster.
She’s still hungry, but not yet willing to mate. So the male bee-eater takes wing
to find more food. When he returns, “the female nearly always accepts the
offering, quickly eating,” reports British ornithologist C. Hilary Fry. If his
courtship is successful, he’ll continue to bring her prey through the
egg-laying period. Both parents deliver meals to their chicks.
Image: Jözsef L. Szentpéteri/National Geographic online [larger view].


Birds in Science
Raising young can be pretty stressful, particularly if you’re a European Starling. It’s not always easy to raise a brood — there are predators to contend with, nasty weather and the never-ending quest for food. Scientists have recognized that this kind of long-term stress can cause a rise in the levels of a stress hormone called corticosterone. High levels of this hormone get passed on to baby birds through the egg, and can result in smaller chicks with weaker immune systems. But this may not be entirely bad.
In an unusual research collaboration, a University of Massachusetts Amherst geoscientist, Douglas Hardy, and his son Spencer, 14, recently reported what is believed to be the first well documented evidence of a bird other than a penguin nesting directly on ice, in the Andes Mountains. They published an article in the peer-reviewed journal, The Wilson Bulletin of Ornithology, dicumenting the nest of a Diuca Finch on the Quelccaya Ice Cap of Peru. It is among the highest-elevation nesting birds in the Western Hemisphere, if not the highest, at about 5,300 meters or more than 17,000 feet. Douglas Hardy says, “I never would have tackled this without his interest. But it’s been stimulating and enjoyable working on this puzzle with Spencer.” The researcher attributes their discovery to his son’s scientific curiosity. “I’m really delighted that Spencer followed his passion and his desire for knowledge about this, which motivated me as well. I was lucky enough to be on the glacier in Peru doing the fieldwork, but he was a full partner in putting the paper together.
Although we know quite a bit about the lifestyle of dinosaur; where they lived, what they ate, how they walked, not much was known about their sense of smell, until now. Scientists at the University of Calgary and the Royal Tyrrell Museum are providing new insight into the sense of smell of carnivorous dinosaurs and primitive birds in a research paper published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The study, by U of C paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky and Royal Tyrrell Museum curator of dinosaur palaeoecology François Therrien, is the first time that the sense of smell has been evaluated in prehistoric meat-eating dinosaurs. They found that Tyrannosaurus rex had the best nose of all meat-eating dinosaurs, and their results tone down the reputation of T. rex as a scavenger.
The most recent issue of Ornitologia Colombiana is filled with neotropical bird papers that you might find interesting. You are invited to go to their site and download these papers for free.
People Hurting Birds
A new report published by Birdwatch Ireland (BirdLife in Ireland) and RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) has identified alarming declines in a number of bird populations across the island of Ireland. Information on Ireland’s bird populations has been collected by both professional and amateur birdwatchers and 199 species were assessed. Bird species have been placed on either Red, Amber or Green Lists with the Red List containing those bird populations that have declined by over 50% or those that are globally threatened. The Irish Red List identifies 25 species which require urgent action to secure their future, this is seven more than in 1999, and the Amber list contains 85 species, the remaining 89 being on the Green list.
Worthless Asshole Teenagers of the Year Award: I have chosen to give the worthless asshole teenagers award of the year to the four worthless brats in Australia who attacked and nearly killed a blind 80 year old flamingo that was a resident at the Adelaide Zoo. I think the judge should force these kids to have to take work with the zoo veterinarian and to care for the flamingos at the zoo for the next six months — at least (under careful supervision to protect the birds, of course).
Three Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus eremita, have been found poisoned in a remote Jordanian desert, hundreds of miles from their breeding grounds in Turkey. The three birds were being tracked by satellite after leaving Birecik, south-eastern Turkey, where one of only four colonies of Bald Ibis remains. “The deaths are heartbreaking but they may not have died in vain. They came from a semi-captive population and the fact that they left the colony proves they haven’t lost their migratory instincts”, said Jose Tavares, the RSPB’s (BirdLife in the UK) Country Program Officer for Turkey. “The birds flew via Palmyra in Syria, where a tiny colony hangs on, which means birds we release from Turkey next year could join the group in Syria.”
A huge land reclamation project in South Korea is pushing endangered species towards extinction, Reuters has reported. A report by Birds Korea and Australasian Wader studies group has claimed that the Saemangeum land reclamation project has removed one of the largest feeding grounds on the Yellow Sea for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Specifically, the study identified that numbers of the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper and the spotted greenshank are being reduced further by the destruction of wetlands. “The evidence very strongly indicates that most shorebird populations are declining in the Republic of [South] Korea,” the study said.
People Helping Birds
The Bird Island tern restoration program seems finally to be on the horizon, even as the tiny circle of land, home to two types of protected sea birds, is slowly eroding. Nearly $4 million in federal and state funding has been almost 10 years in coming, and the start of the work is still some years away. But with the state sending a letter of support to the Army Corps of Engineers requesting the restoration move ahead, the project is finally on track, said Carolyn Mostello, tern project leader at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “It was slow rolling for many years,” Mostello said, adding that the project will take the next two years to plan. “When I started here in 2001, it was already in progress, and had been in discussion for a couple of years before that.” The island is home to approximately 750 nesting pairs of roseate terns, birds on the endangered species list, and 1,900 nesting pairs of common terns, birds on the state’s list of special concern, Mostello said.
Parrot News
A new permanent ban on parrot sales in Mexico may protect the country’s exotic birds from a thriving illegal wildlife trade, conservationists say. Mexico considers half of its 22 parrot species endangered, and all but two are protected by federal law. But between 65,000 and 78,000 parrots and guacamayas — a bigger type of parrot — are captured illegally every year, and most of these birds die each year before reaching their intended buyers. The government has been unable to control the clandestine capture and sale of the protected birds, environmentalists say.
Costa Rica’s high court has prohibited the cutting of a certain species of tree, in part because a highly endangered type of parrot, the great green (military) macaw, uses the tree almost exclusively for nesting. With one decision, the Sala IV constitutional court protected the mountain almond tree and the great green macaw, specifically in a sprawling area in northern Costa Rica. However, the court also ordered the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía to spread the word to all its regional officials, thus protecting the tree throughout the country. The Sala IV also ordered the environmental courts to monitor compliance with the decision.
The release of six kaka at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in New Zealand is a step towards recapturing days when huge flocks of native birds winged their way across Otago skies, staff say. Ecosanctuary volunteer and former Dunedin Botanic Garden aviary curator Tony Pullar said the release of the “beautiful birds” on Saturday was a poignant moment. About 30 minutes after their cages were opened, the three male and three female birds, some aged 2 and some 3, were fossicking for seeds and insects.
BirdWatching News
When Chicago birders flocked to Montrose Beach this week for a glimpse of two strange birds not often seen in these parts, they got something far more: a bloody death scene and a queasy feeling they might be partly to blame. The species — a burrowing owl and a Brant goose — were spotted about 9 a.m. Wednesday within 100 feet of each other in the wooded natural area. Within hours, however, the burrowing owl had been torn apart by a hungry Cooper’s hawk in front of chagrined bird-watchers. “The sad truth is that we birders may very well have been responsible for the demise of the burrowing owl,” wrote Robert Hughes, the man who first spotted it and sent out an alert to other bird watchers.
This time of year, there’s bound to be someone sitting on top of Putney Mountain in Vermont. Not for the foliage. For the hawks. Volunteers park their camp chairs on the peak and point their binoculars at the sky, counting and identifying the migrating kestrels, sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks and eagles soaring south over or past the mountain. The information is included in data from about 200 sites in the U.S., Canada and Mexico kept by the Hawk Migration Association of North America to monitor populations. “It’s just to see how the hawks are doing, like are we down on a certain one, are we OK with another one,” said Alma Beals, 74, of Westminster, who helped start the Putney Mountain count in 1987. “And then it is an awful lot of fun up here.”
It is a winter habitation option that few would hesitate over: the Siberian tundra or the glorious Gloucestershire wetlands. But flocks of Bewick’s swans appear to have plumped for the former, prompting fears that their great migration might never be seen again. Concerns have been raised by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust centre at Slimbridge where hundreds of the swans would normally have arrived and be settling for the winter months after a summer in Siberia. None has been sighted, leading conservationists to suggest that climate change has made the Arctic so warm that they are happy to stay put.
How good are you at identifying birds? Whether you are a pro or new at the birding game, you will find plenty to look at if you check out the daily mystery birds ID quiz.
Rare Bird News
Students from two Kaua’i schools gave 11 Newell’s shearwater birds a second chance at life as they were released one-by-one on a windy south side shoreline. The endangered birds released last Tuesday in the second annual “Blessing of the Shearwater Birds” (E Ho’opomaika’i ia na Manu ‘A’o) wobbled a bit on adolescent legs, as students carefully placed them atop a wooden release box, facing an incoming sea breeze. Fourth-graders from Island School whispered encouragements such as, “Come on, come on,” or “I know he’s ready.” High school students from Ke Kula Ni’ihau o Kekaha took video and still photos and in their more restrained, teenage style watched for the liftoff.
Avian Influenza News
Wild migratory birds may be more important carriers of avian influenza viruses from continent to continent than previously thought, according to new scientific research that has important implications for highly pathogenic avian influenza virus surveillance in North America. “Although some previous research has led to speculation that intercontinental transfer of avian influenza viruses from Asia to North America via wild birds is rare, this study challenges that,” said Chris Franson, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and co-author of the study. Franson added that most of the previous studies examined bird species that are not transcontinental migrants or were from mid-latitude locales in North America, regions far removed from sources of Asian strains of avian influenza. GrrlScientist comment: I would like to read the report before I believe this assertion, especially since it is SO CONVENIENT AND EASY for NGOs and other agencies to make wild birds the ‘scape goat for a human-caused and human-transported problem.
Streaming Birds
On BirdNote, for the week of 2 November 2008. 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 Publications News
This week’s issue of the Birdbooker Report lists ecology, evolution, natural history and bird books that are (or will soon be) available for purchase. This report mentions a book about Snowy Owls that will appeal to Harry Potter fans of all ages!
Irene Pepperberg and an African Grey parrot named Alex worked together for more than 30 years. The pair became pioneers that gave the world insight to animals’ minds and intellect. In her new book, Alex and Me, Pepperberg describes their relationship, including their massive success, popularity and emotional connection. You can read an excerpt of the book in this news story. You can also stay tuned to this blog because I met Irene last night and will be meeting her again at her hotel for coffee today, so updates of our conversations will be published here soon.
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 latest issue of Psittascene, published by the World Parrot Trust, has just been published. In this issue: travel with WPT Business Director Steve Milpacher for his first event-filled visit to view wild parrots in the field; take a look at the brand-new Pollyvision: Parrots of the Americas; find out from expert EB Cravens how to “catch” (not catch) and transport your pet parrot; take a glimpse into the conservation of the endangered Kuhl’s Lorikeet; and discover Canada’s own Bluebird Learning — an innovative educational organization devoted to bringing wildlife (especially parrots) to Toronto’s schoolkids.
Miscellaneous Bird News
Although the naturalists at Hilton Pond doubt the incidence of white hummingbirds has gone up over time, they get more and more reports each year of albinistic and leucistic birds — probably because folks are becoming more Internet- and camera-savvy. The 15-21 October 2008 installment of This Week at Hilton Pond is a gallery of 15 hummingbird albinos, leucistos, and pieds — plus discussion and conjecture about these plumage aberrations. As always, they include a tally of all birds banded and recaptured, plus miscellaneous notes about migration and a Hilton Pond visit by a valued friend.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Caren, 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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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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