Friday, January 13, 2006

Birds in the News #43

Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis
copyright by Ted Steinke.

Birds in Science;

Researchers at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, believe they have located a place in the brain where songbirds store the memories of their parents' songs. The discovery has implications for humans, because humans and songbirds are among the few animals that learn to vocalize by imitating their caregivers. In a paper published this week in the top scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, David Vicario and Mimi Phan of Rutgers, and Carolyn Pytte of Wesleyan University, report that songbirds store the memory of caregivers' songs in a part of the brain involved in hearing. This suggests the auditory version of the caregiver's song is stored first, and that it may serve to guide the vocal learning process. "There is independent evidence, notably from work done by Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington in Seattle, that something similar may underlie the acquisition of human speech by infants and, thus, be part of the mechanism that allows kids to learn any human language if they start early enough," Vicario says. "If the processes of learning in young birds and human babies have formal similarities, which it now seems they do, then studying the songbird brain can tell us how this imitation trick is actually performed by cells in the brain," Vicario says. "The bird's brain provides a laboratory for studying how memories that underlie vocal learning are stored in the brain and how the stored memories are used to guide the development of vocalization."

It has long been my opinion that feather picking in birds is a compulsive habit with an underlying genetic component that is triggered by stress, but I've had little evidence to support this assertion. But recently, Purdue researchers found that abnormal repetitive behaviors, such as feather picking, are influenced by a combination of stress and genetics. Abnormal repetitive behaviors in both humans and animals settle into two basic categories: stereotypies (the mechanical repetition of the same posture, movement or speech), and compulsive behaviors (such as plucking out feathers). According to the study, feather picking was affected by a number of factors, including genetics, gender (it was more severe in females), and location. The behavior was progressively worse in birds housed closer to the door when they had a direct line of sight to the door. Parrots with cages that didn't have a view of the door were less likely to feather pick. There was no evidence that the birds learned this behavior by observing plucking birds. "It reinforces this general message of how important physical and social enrichment for these birds really is. Well thought-out physical and social environments should be first thing we think of," said study author Joseph Garner, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Purdue University School of Agriculture. The findings, which appear in the January issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, may provide new ways to study compulsive behavior in humans.

Birds Hurting People:

new imageAn 80 year old debate about who killed the single most important human ancestor has finally been laid to rest. The announcement that the Taung child (Australopithecus africanus, 2.5 million BP) was killed by an eagle was made on Thursday by Professor Lee Berger at an international conference held at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg. Since the Taung child's discovery in 1924, leopards or sabre-toothed cats have always been blamed for the child's death. But ten years ago, Berger and Dr Ron Clarke of Wits challenged the world's scientific community with the idea that the little Taung child had probably been killed by a large bird of prey. "While some colleagues accepted that the damage to the Taung fossil monkeys was probably made by a bird of prey, the majority felt that apemen, even baby apemen like the Taung child, were way too large, sophisticated and organised to be taken by an eagle," says Berger, who is now a reader in palaeoanthropology at Wits. "The one big problem was the lack of multiple areas of damage on the Taung child itself that could be linked to a bird of prey," says Berger. "We had one little flap of bone on the top of the skull that looked like some of the damage we see made by eagles, and nothing else. Most of my colleagues felt we had reached the end of the road in solving this problem. It was the ultimate two-million-year-old cold case!" But the McGraw paper went further than any previous research. "They also found one suite of characters I had never before seen described, characters that were unique to eagle-damaged skulls and were sure clues to raptor involvement," Berger explains. Both journal papers detailing the discoveries will appear shortly in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Physical Anthropology. [another story with a linked slideshow]

People Helping Birds:

Western Grebes, Aechmophorus occidentalis (pictured at top), elegant seabirds that were battered by high winds, pounding rain and rough surf from recent storms were recently found waterlogged and emaciated along the coast of Washington state, and a local animal support group is helping them recuperate. The weak birds were rescued and taken to PAWs where they were cleaned, dried and are currently being fed with feeding tubes. After they get stronger, they will be introduced to water and allowed to preen and condition their feathers properly. It is estimated that the birds will be healthy and their feathers in good enough condition so that they can be released back into the wild in a couple of weeks.

A rare bird of prey has been spotted in a garden in east London, England. Experts hope the sighting of a red kite, Milvus milvus, in Hackney is proof the species is making a comeback to an area it thrived in during medieval times. Living on discarded food, red kites were once considered pests and almost hunted to extinction in 1880. The species was reintroduced to the Chilterns in the mid-20th Century - experts think this bird was a juvenile from a successful breeding pair. An RSPB spokesman said: "We always hoped the Chiltern birds would spread and there is now strong evidence that they are venturing into London."

The Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Platalea minor (pictured), native to the Tainan area of Taiwan, has reached a historical high of 939 birds on 21 November 2005. In the winter of 1989-1990, the known global population of Black-faced Spoonbill was just 294 birds.

Two rice paddies with neighboring coastal areas are unusual candidates among the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) proposed for Cuba. IBAs are normally located in natural areas, and single-crop cultivation is not what typically comes to mind when one thinks of bird conservation. However, in Cuba, rice cultivation goes through a wet and dry cycle, and since rice is grown constantly over large expanses, there are always fields in varying stages of flooding and draining, leading to high levels of vertebrate and invertebrate biodiversity. The first of these proposed IBAs is the Costa Sur de Sancti Spiritus while the second IBA consists of a similar environment and is located in the south of Pinar del Río province. Financed by the Whitley Fund for Nature and implemented by the group Ecología de Aves from the Universidad de la Habana's Biology Department, a conservation project titled Rice Paddies and Natural Wetlands as Conservation Sites for Aquatic Birds is being developed for both areas.

In November 2005, BirdLife International Cambodia project staff counted up to 70 White-shouldered Ibis, Pseudibis davisoni, at wetlands in Western Siem Pang Important Bird Area (IBA). The White-shouldered Ibis is a large ibis that inhabits lakes, pools, marshes and slow-flowing watercourses in open lowland dipterocarp forests that are often subject to seasonal flooding. This bird also occurs in sparsely wooded, dry or wet grasslands and wide rivers with sand and gravel bars. Populations have declined as a result of anthropogenic disturbances (habitat loss, logging and drainage of wetlands, hunting, harassment, livestock grazing, grass harvesting, and so-called "development"). Previously, the highest counts of this species were 23 in January 2003 and 33 in November 2004. These new counts are highly significant as upper estimates of this Critically Endangered species' population are of just 250 mature individuals. 40 individuals were still present in December 2005.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker News

Nova's Science Now has a website devoted to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker that includes a 7 minute streaming broadcast, interviews with amateur birders, and an Ask the Experts segment.

Streaming Birds

This week on BirdNote, they talk about birds mobbing a Northern Pygmy-Owl, Glaucidium gnoma; next, a topic that is near and dear to my heart, urban parakeets and parrots; also, how feathers insulate; the "early bird" ... why it may not be the lucky bird; and today's show asks, What's your jinx bird? BirdNote programs are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM in Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia on KPLU radio and now also in North Central Washington state on KOHO radio. All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. Listener ideas and comments are welcomed. [mp3/podcast].

Miscellaneous Birds

The northwestern coast of the United States is experiencing an irruption of snowy owls, Bubo scandiacus. The birds visit Oregon every few years from their home range above the Arctic Circle, says Dan Gleason, who teaches ornithology each summer at the University of Oregon. "They go in cycles," Gleason said. "Every few years, big numbers of them start moving farther south. Some of the old literature says that as the lemming population increases up north, so do the snowy owls. Then as the lemming population crashes, they move south." Though they often travel here in winter, apparently looking for open areas that resemble their native tundra, the big white birds have never set up breeding territories in Oregon. "It used to be thought that the birds who got down here were starving," Gleason said. "That is probably not true. The birds down here are quite healthy and may, in fact, return to the Arctic for the breeding season."

Strictly speaking, this is not solely about birds, but it is an important announcement nonetheless: the entire retinue of AMNH publications is now available free and online, including American Museum Novitates (complete back to 2004, work is ongoing to digitize all of this publication), Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (back to 1907), Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History (back to 1881!), and the Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History (back to 1893).

The Fine Print: Thanks to my bird pals, Dawn, Caren, Mike, Mary, Sara, Ian, Ellen B. and Ron for some of the news story links that you are enjoying here, and special thanks to Tom for sending the best ribs in the whole USA to me. I am sharing them with PZ and family this coming week (ssshh! It's a secret: they don't know this yet!). Special thanks to long-time readers, Jamie, Tony and anonymous blog reader, for surprising me by nominating Birds in the News for a 2005 Koufax Award for Best Series! There will be an announcement here, along with more details, when voting begins.

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Survival Job Applications: four applications sent out for adjunct appointments. I later learned that one application was added to a tenure-track job search for a job that I might actually be qualified for.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

5 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous Carl Buell (OGeorge) said...

Look carefully at the head and bill shape of the two Western Grebes in the top photograph. And people think I'm nuts when I say I can tell the difference between some of the blue jays at my feeders. I've named six individuals.

As far as the Taung child goes, today's Crowned and Martial Eagles are certainly big enough to kill an animal that size, but 2 million years ago, while I'v seen no mention of it, there may well have been a bird substantially larger. North of Mexico, we now have two commonly occuring species of eagles, but just a few thousand years ago we had at least 5 more, one the size of a Harpy.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Carl Buell (OGeorge) said...

Sorry to double post, but I just wanted to thank you for putting all this wonderful avian information up in one convenient location!

3:55 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Carl; actually, i had noticed those differences in bill shape; they are really obvious to me, too. if i recall correctly, there were a few raptorial avians a million or so years ago that were larger than our current survivors.

oh, and no need for apologies; you can triple-post if you wish!


8:41 PM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

The thirty-pound Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) survived in New Zealand until a few centuries ago. Fingering an eagle for the Taung death makes sense to me. Unlike falcons, that inflict lots of bone damage when they eat their prey, eagles mostly pull tissue away from the bone, and very little evidence is usually left on the bones of a large eagle kill. Thanks for these ornithological updates!!

11:05 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

cpbvk; i am happy to know that these collections of bird news are useful to people (sometimes, i wonder about this).


10:38 AM  

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