Rice Farmers Support Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative

October 25, 2011 by  
Filed under News

Beginning this fall, and continuing through to 2014, rice farmers participating in the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI) will work with the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) of the US Department of Agriculture on a pilot project aimed at benefiting waterfowl and shorebirds by adapting certain rice production practices. Seventy farmers in Colusa and Glenn County, California, have signed contracts to support the MBHI in a project which is the culmination of many years of research and cooperation between rice farmers and conservationists, represented by Audubon California, PRBO Conservation Science, the NRCS and the California Rice Commission.

Speaking on behalf of the California Rice Commission, Paul Buttner noted that they have worked together in testing practices that appear to make a difference to the birds, while at the same time being acceptable to rice farmers. Under the new agreement, rice farmers will extend the time period that their fields are flooded, either starting earlier or draining the fields later, thereby accommodating the birds’ breeding and migratory needs. Also the depth of the water will be adjusted, specifically at agreed upon times in the season. NRCS Assist State Conservationist, Alan Forkey, explained that generally shorebirds and waterfowl prefer a habitat of between 2 and 6 inches deep, but rice fields are usually flooded deeper than that. This will be adjusted, and instead of draining the fields in January, farmers have agreed to keep them flooded for longer and drop the water levels more gradually.

To accommodate the nesting requirements of the birds, levees between fields will be modified, with sloped levees being flattened to provide a better nesting surface and allow easier access to the water for chicks. Some farmers have also agreed to provide artificial nesting structures. A number of the proposed changes will not only benefit the birds, but will be to the farmers’ benefit as well. For the farmers who have agreed to use portions of their fields as wetlands, incoming water will have the opportunity to warm up a bit before running on to the young rice plants which will be beneficial for them, plus longer periods of flooding the fields will help to degrade the rice plants after harvesting, making it easier to clear the fields.

The cooperation of farmers in implementing the pilot project has been very encouraging, and the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership will be measuring the results of the MBHI with a view to extending the project to other areas of importance to migratory birds.

Portland Christmas Bird Count

October 18, 2011 by  
Filed under Events

Join in the cheer of the season with a Christmas Bird Count. Not only is it good fun, but it also provides valuable scientific data on bird populations. Last year 267 bird watchers joined in, spotting 124 species. Why not help break the record? Along with fantastic bird watching, birders will meet like-minded people with whom to share experiences and knowledge. The data collected is sent to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. So wrap up warmly and grab your binoculars for this fantastic event. For more info, check out the Audubon of Portland website.

Dates: 31 December 2011
Times: 06h00 to 18h00
City: Portland
State: Oregon
Country: United States of America

Significance of Egg Coloration to Embryo Development

October 18, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Researchers continue to debate the purpose of bird egg pigmentation, with the most popular theory being that camouflage is the main reason for the variation in eggshell colors, with the speckles and splotches of color providing protection from predators. This was the theory put forward by renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace in the late 19th century, a position that was challenged by naturalist Alexander M’Aldowie who believed the pigmentation of eggshells served to shield developing embryos from harmful radiation.

Wallace’s theory was the more widely accepted argument, and later research studies on this topic would be based on the fight for survival aspect that supports the necessity for Alexander camouflage. Other accepted theories to arise in subsequent years included the role that pigmentation plays in retaining heat and continuing the incubation process when the eggs are unattended, as well as signaling unpalatability to would-be egg-eaters and serving as identification for host birds that have parasitic eggs laid in their nests.

Although all these theories have merit, in a recently published review of a series of studies in the Journal of Avian Biology of 14 September, biologists Phillip Cassey and Golo Maurer of the University of Adelaide in Australia take the embryo’s view of its protective covering in offering possible explanations for the purpose of eggshell coloration. One of these explanations validates the original theory put forward by Alexander M’Aldowie where the pigmentation of the eggshell helps to filter, but not block, ultraviolet light for the developing embryo. It is interesting to note that even the darkest eggs, using the emu as an example, allow some light to filter through. It was also noted that pigmentation differs at each end of the egg, most likely to provide directional cues to the embryo, as well as to assist cells and structures in their early alignment.

As in the case of gulls, which commonly lay a clutch of three eggs, with the second egg laid being noticeably and consistently darker than the other two, the variations in eggshell pigmentation could be a significant factor in facilitating staggered hatching. Moreover, it has been proposed that the variations in eggshell coloring could assist the embryo in learning to recognize the difference between light and dark, calibrating circadian rhythms, as well as encouraging DNA repair and shaping bacterial communities within the egg. Researchers have also noted that pigmentation is affected by rainfall and weather, possibly compensating for local and seasonal conditions. Certainly, there is much still to learn about the marvelous world of birds, and with advancing science, more of these mysteries will no doubt be solved.

Sigurgeirs Bird Museum in Iceland

October 11, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Surrounded by volcanic landforms and wetlands, Lake Mývatn, located near the Krafla volcano in the north of Iceland, is home to a wide range of birdlife, particularly waterfowl. Its rich biodiversity and intriguing geology continues to attract biologists, naturalists, geologists and bird watchers from around the world. It was in these beautiful surroundings that Sigurgeir Stefánsson was raised, and his love for birds became evident. The results of his life-long interest in birds can be viewed in the fascinating Sigurgeirs Bird Museum where his collection of more than 300 birds, representing around 180 species, is displayed.

Sigurgeir Stefánsson was born and raised on the Ytri-Neslönd farm, and spent his youth exploring his surroundings and collecting birds’ eggs. Soon he had specimens of all the indigenous Icelandic birds’ eggs, which he used to create a small natural history museum. At the age of 14 years, Stefánsson was given a bird that had been preserved by the process of taxidermy. This was the beginning of his bird collection, and any dead birds he, or his friends and neighbors found, were taken to the taxidermist for preservation.

Stefánsson’s collection grew until it had taken over his family’s house. It was later moved to a nearby shack and continued to grow, with other bird-lovers showing an interest in his work. While focusing on creating a complete collection of the birds of Iceland, Stefánsson also communicated and traded with ornithologists in other parts of the world, and his collection includes some exotic birds. He was often consulted by visiting researchers, as he had an intimate knowledge of the area and its feathered residents. He had expressed the desire to build a museum to properly display his collection for others to enjoy, but had no funds to make his dream a reality.

Tragically, in 1999 during a storm Stefánsson and his two companions drowned in Lake Mývatn as they attempted to repair an underwater cable – he was only 37 years old. To honor his memory and his accomplishments in the field of ornithology, the Aurora Charity Fund, together with members of his family, established the Sigurgeirs Bird Museum, which opened on 17 August 2008. In addition to viewing the extensive collection of birds on display in the museum, visitors can make use of the binoculars provided to spot local birds in the surroundings and on the lake, which is known for having the most species of duck to be found in one location.

Practice Makes Perfect for Nest-Building Weavers

October 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

It has long been assumed that the nest building skills of birds are instinctive, but new research has revealed that building a nest could very well be a learned skill. Following and filming the activities of male Southern Masked Weavers in Botswana over a period of three months, researchers noted that not all nests are created equal. As the name of the bird suggests, Southern Masked Weavers use a weaving technique when constructing their nests from local grasses. However, the method of nest building varied between birds with some weaving from left to right and others weaving from right to left. It was also noted that they appeared to learn from their mistakes, and while a bird may regularly drop blades of grass when it first starts its nest building process, it soon learns to adjust its technique to prevent this.

The brightly colored African bird was chosen as the test subject for the study for a number of reasons. Their complex nests which hang from trees either as single units or multiple intertwined condominiums are seen as evidence of above average intelligence. Also, a single bird will build several nests in a season, allowing the research team to note the differences in nests built by the same bird.

Working with scientists from Botswana, researchers from the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow noted that the fact that the Southern Masked Weaver birds displayed marked variations in their approach to nest building reveals that they may learn from experience. At this point, however, it is not clear whether they have the mental capacity to learn, or their improvement in skills can be attributed to repetition of a task. Researchers also pointed out that observing this behavior in one bird species does not imply that it would apply to all birds. One of the scientists taking part in the study, Dr. Patrick Walsh of Edinburgh University’s School of Biological Sciences, noted that if birds built their nests instinctively according to a genetic template, it would follow that all birds would build all their nests in the same way every time, but this has not been the case. Summing it up nicely, Dr. Walsh was reported as saying: “Even for birds, practice makes perfect.”