Friday, July 15, 2005

Birds in the News #18

Birds in Science:

A recent news story reveals that migrating birds may carry "bird flu" out of Asia. "The occurrence of highly-pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus infection in migrant waterfowl indicates that this virus has the potential to be a global threat," Jinhua Liu of China Agricultural University, George Gao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues wrote in their report that was published in the top-tier research journal, Science. GrrlScientist Comment: While I have no doubt that this can and probably is occurring, I do not believe that wild bird migration is the primary reason for the movement of avian influenza throughout the region, certainly not when domestic poultry breeding and handling practices are so poor in this region, and absolutely not when cockfighting is so prevalent in this region. I sincerely hope that this paper does not trigger yet another massive extermination of wild birds in Asia when there are so many reasonable avenues that can be pursued to control the spread of this virus.

Birds Teaching People:

Recent research has revealed that spectacled parrotlets, Forpus conspicillatus, creates its own names for friends and family members. Since vocal labeling indicates that the namer must first be able to imagine the individual or object in its mind, the discovery likely means that bird thoughts and communication are far more complex and closer to human levels than previously realized. "We have shown that they use specific calls that only refer to the individual in question," said Ralf Wanker, a Hamburg University ornithologist and lead author of the study. "To my knowledge it is the first time that labeling or naming is described for animals in this way." The findings are published in this month's issue of the scientific journal, Animal Behavior.

People Helping Birds:

According to a recent report, New Zealand's Takahe, Porphyrio hochstetteri, the world's largest flightless rail, has experienced a dramatic increase in numbers. The annual census, carried out by New Zealand's Department of Conservation, covers a core part of the 50,000 hectare Takahe Special Area within Fiordland National Park. The 2005 census showed that Takahe experienced a 13.6% increase in the number of adult birds, with the number of breeding pairs up 7.9%.

Biologists confirm that a California condor chick, Gymnogyps californianus, hatched recently in Arizona, near the state border with Utah. Eddie Feltes, a field biologist with The Peregrine Fund, said he saw the chick with its mother through a scope. "The female condor was looking down toward her feet at a commotion of feathers and debris," he said in a press release. "Soon after, a chick stood out, contrasted against its mother's dark plumage." The birds' population dipped to 22 in the 1980s but thanks to captive breeding programs, there are now 54 condors in the wild in Arizona and 274 in all, including captive and free-flying birds in California, Oregon, Idaho and Mexico.

Hurt Birds:

Coastal wildlife officials recently revealed that Tropical Storm Cindy severely damaged nesting sites for least terns, Sterna antillarum, and black skimmers, Rynchops nigra, along U.S. 90. "This has been a pretty tough year for the birds," said Jan Dubuisson, chairwoman of the least tern committee for the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society. "We've had so much rain during this nesting season, and we've already had one storm that washed out some of the birds. I'm sure with the combination of the two storms, we've probably lost half the birds we would normally have during a good season."

Bird Mysteries:

As I noted in an earlier edition of Birds in the News, hundreds of dead and dying shearwaters and other pelagic seabirds are washing ashore from Florida to Virginia along the East Coast of the United States. Alarmingly, these reports are increasing; as many as 150 dead and dying birds can wash up on a single beach in one day, yet no one knows why. Necropsies are being carried out at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine by the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in cooperation with National Wildlife Health Center, and results are still pending. For those who live nearby or who plan to visit East Coast beaches this summer and who would like to help, please contact Becky Harris at Tufts University with any reports of dead or dying shearwaters even if you are not regularly walking a beach. Additionally, Tufts has a program called SEANET that offers training to those who wish to volunteer to monitor beaches. GrrlScientist wonders; has anyone been monitoring seawater temperatures during the past decades? Since greater shearwaters, Puffinus gravis, which form the majority of these avian mortalities, are known to prefer cooler waters, is it possible that the cause of their deaths might be related to increasing ocean temperatures? This scenario might not be as far fetched as you might think because we know that heat combined with unusually high numbers of mosquitoes caused high mortality in another seabird, Brünnich's Guillemot, Uria lomvia [Gaston AJ, Hipfner MJ, Campbell D (2002) Heat and mosquitoes cause breeding failures and adult mortality in an Arctic-nesting seabird. 144 (2) Ibis, 185-191.].

Birds in the Media:

A pair of one of Britain's rarest birds of prey, the peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus, has hatched three eggs on a tower in central London. Watch the action with their live webcast every day from 9.30am until 10pm (London time)!

Donald Kroodsma was recently interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR) about his new book, The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong. This wonderful book and CD (included) not only describes Dr. Kroodsma's life and how he became interested in birdsong, but it also describes the latest research data and what they reveal about birdsong and the most recent technologies used to study birdsong itself. Says Kroodsma of his lifetime passion, “There's this wonderful Zen parable: If you listen to the thrush and hear a thrush, you've not really heard the thrush. But if you listen to a thrush and hear a miracle, then you've heard the thrush.”

As you recall from previous editions of Birds in the News, the movie, March of the Penguins is getting rave reviews. Apparently, these reviews are increasing this film's momentum because it recently expanded to 150 theatres and will open in 500 more theatres next week! Will this summer's sleeper be about penguins?

Avoiding Spam While Enjoying These Linked News Stories:

Many of the stories that I link to are published online by newspapers, and many newspapers demand a "free registration" before you can access their stories. If you are uncomfortable providing personal information about yourself (I always register as a 22 year old male Martha Stewart), you can use Bug Me Not to protect your privacy and your email box from copious spam.

Thanks to my bird pals Caren, Fred, Pat and Robin for these links.

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Non-academic Job Applications: 1 ("anything" at Barnes & Noble. We'll see how long it takes them to stop laughing at my application and offer me a paying position)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

6 Peer Reviews:

Blogger BotanicalGirl said...

Fascinating article about the parrotlets and their naming system. I've been considering getting a parrot or similar avian friend at some point, but I'd need to do a lot of research first.

I also really want to see March of the Penguins. My labmate showed me the trailer this morning and it really sparked my interest further.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also planning to see "March of the Penguins" some time very soon. It looks terrific.

Great news about the takahe. I have a soft spot for takahe, ever since I met one on Tiritiri-Matangi, the bird sanctuary island near Auckland where a few of them live. Tons of personality. They are very curious, and just about climb right into your lap or backpack if you stay still long enough.

They're big, slow, friendly, and give the impression of being dumb as a brick. I'm very glad they didn't go the way of other big slow flightless birds, when predators were first introduced by our idiot ancestors.

It's funny to think I'm sitting here in the USA, getting news about birds in my home country, via a blog written by someone in New York. The internet is great.


9:32 PM  
Anonymous ThomH said...

Great thoughts on the other causes for the spread of avian flu. Picking up on your concerns that there might be "another massive extermination of wild birds in Asia," I wonder more cynically if some coastal marshlands are being targeted for further development.

If I may, good luck / the Barnes & Noble opp. (Bills do have to get paid).

Wrong and shameful that people like yourself--so many science post-docs--are having troubles finding fulltime academic employment.

How about more basic science courses for all undergrads, as a start? Gawd knows, our nation needs this.

9:58 AM  
Blogger John said...

There has been some discussion of the dead and dying shearwaters on the local va-bird listserver. There is a suggestion that the shearwaters are suffering from a lack of food and are starving. Of course a change in ocean temperature could explain the food shortage.

10:26 AM  
Blogger jamie said...

Those parrotlets are just adorable!!! Thanks for another informative installment. Look on the bright side, if I may - despite your sisyphusian (sp?) job search, apparently you seem to have access to the science journals? As a comm. college student, I don't. As a prol, I can't afford the subscriptions. So, thanks for providing the info from them - some of us wouldn't have this info if you didn't provide it!

11:52 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Botanicalgirl: parrots make fascinating pets, you certainly will not regret having one! But don't forget that they like to chew on things .. one of my parrots made my calendar into confetti a couple days ago .. so your plants will be forever afraid if a parrot begins living with you.

WW32: I hope you manage to see The March of the Penguins, I wish to see it, too. I recently checked my voicemail and found a message from a CL pal of mine who had invited me to see the movie with her .. a few days ago. I could have screamed when I realized this!

John; according to the article, starvation is not the culprit for shearwater deaths. I quote;

Will Post, an ornithologist and curator at The Charleston Museum, said he had dissected six greater shearwaters that had washed up alive, unable to fly, and later died.

The birds’ stomachs were empty, but they had varying levels of fat reserves, suggesting that they did not die of starvation, Post said.

“They were below normal weight, but that’s normal when they’re in migration,” he said.

Jamie: yes, I do have access to journals, thanks to my former postdoc employer. Unfortunately, my timing for publishing these news round-ups is bad; these journals come out on Fridays, also (Ideally, I should publish on Saturday, instead). This means my "Birds in Science" news is one week old, unless I rewrite Birds in the News on Friday afternoons to reflect the newest information. Of course, I would do this if I could, but currently, I sneak away to a nearby library to post "the latest (hotest) news items" only.


12:45 PM  

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