Birds in the News 184 -- Nobel Prize Edition

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"Magpie Menace"

Pete Marshall, 2009, Oil [larger view].

Birds in Science

By genetically modifying the brains of songbirds for the first time, scientists may have a devised useful new tool for studying neurological growth and healing in humans. "Songbirds have become a classic tool for studying vocal learning and neuron replacement. This will bring those two topics into the molecular age," said neuroscientist Fernando Nottebohm of Rockefeller University, author of a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Nottebohm's team successfully added fluorescent protein-producing genes to 23 zebra finches, a feat that -- in the age of pet dogs clones and Alba the glow bunny -- may not seem extraordinarily noteworthy at first glance. But unlike many other animals, including chickens and quail, songbirds have been remarkably hard to genetically modify. That's frustrating to scientists, who study the birds' ability to change their songs according to setting and experience.

Climate change models, with increasing regularity, are projecting increases in the duration, frequency and intensity of heat waves over the next 70 years. How this information is going to affect plant and animal species across the globe has scientists like Blair Wolf from the University of New Mexico and Andrew McKechnie from the University of Pretoria in South Africa searching for answers. Together, they are utilizing physiological models to understand what might happen to bird communities during the extreme heat-related events that are projected to occur. The duo, in a paper released by Biology Letters this week, say that by the 2080s, desert birds will experience reduced survival rates more frequently during mid-summer heat waves leading to an increase in the number of catastrophic mortality events. Birds with body weights of less than 100 grams, smaller than a Mourning Dove, will be most affected.

A fossil of a bird-like dinosaur with four wings has been discovered in northeastern China. The specimen bridges a critical gap in the transition from dinosaurs to birds, and reveals new insights into the origin evolution of feathers. The transition from dinosaurs to birds is poorly understood because of the lack of well-preserved fossils, and many scientists argue that bird-like dinosaurs appear too late in the fossil record to be the true ancestors of birds. In the journal Nature this week, Xing Xu and colleagues describe an exceptionally well-preserved fossil of Anchiornis huxleyi from the province of Liaoning, China. Long feathers cover the arms and tail, but also the feet, suggesting that a four-winged stage may have existed in the transition to birds.

After seven years of investigation, an international team of researchers released an article recently confirming the world famous Tyrannosaurus rex, commonly known as Sue, on display at the Field Museum of Chicago died due to a parasite infection instead of a violent encounter, as was previously believed. In "Common Avian Infection Plagued the Tyrant Dinosaurs," published by Public Library of Science One, lead author Ewan Wolff, a third-year graduate student at UW's veterinary school, took the next step in developing the connection between modern birds and dinosaurs by comparing the trichomoniasis infection of Sue to modern birds. The study helps paleontologists better understand the T. rex immune system to show a modern form of avian disease is present in prehistoric T. rexes, according to Wolff.

A recent experiment by Shigeru Watanabe showed that the utterly un-artistic pigeon could be taught to identify "good" and "bad" children's artwork. How was the pigeon able to perform this feat and why should we care that it did? Categorizing these patterns of visual stimulation allows you to make sense of an often complex and chaotic world. Remarkably, when pigeons are suitably trained, they too can learn a variety of visual categories. Understanding how animals categorize and process these visual stimuli has important implications for our view of both animals and people. These kinds of discriminations attest to the ability of animals to learn both categories and concepts, once thought to be uniquely human abilities.

People Hurting Birds

In the view of many wildlife researchers, a pet cat on a lap may be a piece of self-cleaning perfection, but a pet cat on the loose is like a snakefish or English ivy: an invasive species. Although domestic cats have been in this country since the colonial era, they are thought to be the descendants of a Middle Eastern species of wild cat, and there is nothing quite like them native to North America. As a result, many local bird species are poorly equipped to parry a domestic cat's stealth approach. "People fool themselves into believing that by simply putting a bell on a cat they could prevent mortality to birds," Mr. Schroeder said. "But a bell ringing means nothing to a bird."

A Garden Grove man pleaded guilty last week to smuggling songbirds into Los Angeles from Vietnam. Authorities said he did so by strapping more than a dozen of the tiny Asian warblers to his calves in hopes of avoiding detection. Sony Dong, 46, entered his plea in U.S. District Court to one count of illegally importing wildlife, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Williams said. Dong and co-defendant Duc Le, 34, were named in an eight-count federal indictment in May charging them with illegally importing wildlife, including one injurious species, and lying to investigators.

People will be able to shoot Ring-necked Parakeets from next year without a licence, a wildlife watchdog has ruled. Around 44,000 parakeets are in the UK, with 90% living in London -- but they can threaten smaller birds, crops and public safety, the watchdog says. The move gives parakeets the same legal status as pigeons, crows and magpies. A Natural England spokesman said: "They are still a protected species but there will be some circumstances where people can take measures to control them." Originally from the Himalayas, the UK's population of the introduced red-beaked emerald green parakeets is growing at an estimated rate of 30% per year.

People Helping Birds

Private landowners in the United States are stepping up to help a number of cavity-nesting bird species of conservation concern. In many areas of the West, there is a shortage of large snags (dead trees) needed by many species of cavity-nesters, including the Flammulated Owl, and Lewis's and White-headed Woodpeckers as a result of forest management practices of post-fire logging and removing dead and dying trees. To help spread the news and get more landowners involved, American Bird Conservancy has produced a new booklet [free PDF] highlighting with the efforts of private landowners in implementing bird conservation measures in Ponderosa Pine forests to help cavity-nesting birds.

Legislation that reauthorizes the existing Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) at significantly higher levels is the subject of a House hearing recently. Sponsored by Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Jim Gerlach (R-PA), H.R. 2213, is required to meet the growing needs of migratory bird species. "This legislation is urgently needed because hundreds of songbird species are now in decline or facing serious threats; effective conservation projects supported by the NMBCA can help us to start turning that around," said Darin Schroeder, ABC's Vice President of Conservation Advocacy, who is testifying in support of the legislation at a recent hearing. "NMBCA has a proven track record of bringing partners together and leveraging additional support; for each dollar the government spends, over four dollars have been contributed to the bird conservation projects by the partner groups."

Rare and Endangered Birds News

PRX's Radio Experiences in the North presents their 28:56 streaming story, The honking of the Trumpeter Swan is a sign of fall. They have a free 30-second preview and if you wish to hear the rest of the story, you have to sign up and log in (free).

The Operation Migration team is again preparing for their 9th migration leading young Whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida. Target departure date is October 10th. But recent losses and the possibility of one bird not making the trip loom over those who have worked so hard in training and caring for these rare birds. Includes 11:46 minute podcast. You can also watch the birds via the CraneCam here.

When Stephen Fry goes in search of the rare kakapo -- "the old night parrot of New Zealand" - he finds himself privy to an unusual mating ritual which is "one of the funniest things he has ever seen". Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine have been tracking down some of the most endangered animals on the planet in a six-part series. Includes video (yes, it's hilarious).

Conservationists who are trying to prevent the extinction of Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus eremita, are distraught to learn that one of the last remaining wild birds in the Middle East has been shot by knuckle-dragging mouth-breather posing as a hunter in Saudi Arabia, bringing the known wild Middle Eastern population of this Critically Endangered species to just four individuals.

About 200 Bearded Vultures have been spotted in a remote part of India's Himachal Pradesh state, reports say. State chief conservator of forests Vinay Tandon said the reported sighting was being checked by wildlife officials and would be "hugely significant". Lammergeiers have been seen on India's border with China, but not in such a large group or at so high an altitude. There has been growing concern in India over the fast dwindling population of vultures in recent years. Experts estimate there are only a few hundred vultures left in India.

Some of Scotland's rarest birds are being displaced by wind turbine developments, a study has suggested. Hen harriers and golden plovers were among the birds found to be breeding in fewer numbers close to wind farm sites. RSPB Scotland, which part-funded the study, said the findings showed turbines should not be sited near vulnerable bird populations.

Domestic Birds News

If her wings carry her away from home again, Eunice may be able to tell helpful humans where she belongs. A double-yellow headed Amazon parrot, Eunice flew through an open back door and soared out of sight in 2004. Dr. Barry Scanlan scoured the sky for his beloved pet, but Eunice was nowhere to be found. But she had been found and had been fostered for five years by a man who recently died. Last week, Scanlan's brother showed him an ad for a found Amazon parrot in The Gaston Gazette's classifieds. On a lark, he called the number and described his missing bird, and she turned out to be his missing pet.

Avian Zoonotics and Diseases News

Preliminary results of an annual survey of New Zealand garden birds -- which show the sparrow is the most common -- suggest disease may be taking a toll on silvereyes. Silvereyes were recorded in the greatest numbers in 2007, with an average of 10.2 per surveyed garden, ahead of the house sparrow. But Landcare Research scientist Dr Eric Spurr last year began recording a decline in the silvereyes, with a slump to just 8.9 per garden last year. He said today early analysis of the 2009 survey showed a continuing plunge in silvereye numbers, to 6.4 per garden. "Several survey participants commented on this decrease, and some suggested disease was the cause," he said. This followed reports last year of silvereyes with growths around the bill and eyes, he said. "The growths could be avian pox, a virus that can be transmitted by contact with infected birds, when they congregate around bird feeders, for example, or by ingestion of contaminated food or water," Dr Spurr said.

The premier flu-fighting drug is contaminating rivers downstream of sewage-treatment facilities, researchers in Japan confirm. The source: urinary excretion by people taking oseltamivir phosphate, best known as Tamiflu. Concerns are now building that birds, which are natural influenza carriers, are being exposed to waterborne residues of Tamiflu's active form and might develop and spread drug-resistant strains of seasonal and avian flu.

Birds in Art News

'Birds in Art," the unpretentious title given to the annual avian extravaganza at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. For one, it's hard to think of another fine-arts institution, big or small, that would spring for three days of wining and dining for 60 artists, from a candle-lit catered dinner downtown to an afternoon at a posh woodsy retreat on Lake Katherine, one hour north of this city of 40,000 in the heart of Wisconsin's dairy country. For another, the show is as advertised: strictly for the birds. More than 100 feathered friends in all, realized in mediums ranging from oil to graphite to watercolor, from bronze to mahogany to honeycomb calcite marble. [see image of one "Birds in Art" pieces at top]

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 4 October 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.

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 (often) 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 and extensive comments for identifying that particular species.

Miscellaneous Bird News

Gerrit Vyn is a wildlife biologist who photographed and recorded the sounds of five species of prairie chickens and grouse: the greater and lesser prairie chicken, greater sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and Gunnison sage grouse. "All of these species have undergone drastic population declines since we settled the West," Vyn says. Recording them requires getting up before dawn and crawling into a blind -- essentially a box with peepholes. Vyn says it's a great front-row seat, though: "You really do get that feeling when you're out there that you're experiencing our country as it once was." [story includes beautiful photographs, sounds made by all five species as well as a 2:40 streaming podcast]

At 60 acres, Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn would seem to be big enough for two pairs of Mute Swans. And for a while, it was. One pair kept happily to the south end, and the other struck around the northern half, their white feathers contrasting with the greens and browns of the park, to the delight of picnickers and wedding parties. But this year, both pairs had families, and that neighborly dynamic came to a fast -- and surprisingly violent -- halt. Shocked to see the serene, gliding, elegant creatures suddenly turned into apparent would-be killers, Brooklyn residents, from neighboring Park Slope to Sunset Park, have stepped in, trying to stop the swan-on-swan violence and even calling city and state agencies for help. But officials and animal experts say the residents' concern is misplaced. After all, this is how nature sometimes plays out. They are refusing to take action.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to 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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Brooklyn residents can't know Mute Swans very well if they're 'shocked' to see them turn to murderous violence.

That's a little like being shocked by ursines defecating in forested areas, or by Joseph Ratzinger endorsing catholicism.