A recent study by evolutionary biologist Tom Flower of the University of Cape Town in South Africa has revealed that the African fork-tailed drongo mimics alarm calls of other species as part of its food gathering strategy. Wildlife observers in Africa have noted that the drongo is an accomplished thief, but it was thought that it was using its own alarm call to falsely alert other birds and meerkats that a predator was nearby, thereby causing them to drop their meal, which the drongo would swoop in and claim. It is estimated that the drongo steals more than twenty percent of its daily food. But the lengthy study carried out by Flower in the Kuruman River Reserve, located in the Kalahari Desert, yielded some astounding insight into the drongo’s ability to perfectly mimic a variety of bird and mammal species for its own advantage.
In the wild, birds and mammals often pay attention to other species in their environment when it comes to sounding the alarm. An extra pair of eyes and ears can be handy when it comes to safety. But as researchers have discovered, the drongo can’t be trusted. Perched high up in a tree a drongo watches with keen interest as meerkats forage, and when one of them catches something, an insect or lizard, the drongo sounds its own alarm call, anticipating that the meerkat will drop its prey and head for cover. However, the foraging meerkats are likely to ignore the drongo after it has used its own alarm call a few times. Undaunted, the drongo will switch to the alarm call of another bird species, often with successful results.
During the study, Flower and his colleagues tracked and recorded the calls of 42 drongos as they attempted to steal food from the same target. It was noted that of the 151 recorded incidents, the drongos switched to a different alarm call a total of 74 times. After giving its own alarm call without success, a drongo may give the alarm call of its target, which general proved successful.
Flower notes that he doubts the birds have ‘theory of mind’ – the ability to understand that another being has different beliefs and intentions – which is currently only attributable to humans. It’s more likely that they are responding to feedback, or have an ability to grasp cause and effect, and use this to their advantage. Nonetheless, this is another example of the keen intelligence of the feathered creatures that share our planet.
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Starting in central Canada and stretching to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Flyway is the name given to the route followed by birds migrating from their breeding grounds in North America to their wintering grounds in the south. The flyway includes Canada’s Mackenzie River which flows north through uninhabited forest and tundra into the Arctic Ocean, with tributaries reaching southwards, feeding into and out of a number of lakes, including the Great Slave Lake, Great Bear Lake and Lake Athabasca. As the name suggests, the Mississippi Flyway follows the route of the Mississippi River in the United States – North America’s largest river system. Originating in northern Minnesota, the slow-flowing river travels southwards for a distance of 2,530 miles, cutting through, or forming a border for, the states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee to before emptying into the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico.
According to Audubon, nearly half of the bird species and up to forty percent of the waterfowl of North America spend part of their lives in the Mississippi Flyway. With spectacular forests, grasslands and wetlands, the route provides good sources of food and water, with no mountainous areas to navigate along the entire route. The greatest elevation above sea level along the route is below 2,000 feet. The route is used by large numbers of geese, ducks, shorebirds, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes and warblers, the majority of which cut across the Gulf of Mexico, providing excellent birding opportunities along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas.
Unfortunately, years of exploitation of natural resources by man has taken its toll on the environment, with waterways being diverted for irrigation having an impact on the habitat that birds and other wildlife rely on. A combination of dams, locks and levees have reduced the Mississippi to less than ten percent of its original floodplain with an estimated nineteen square miles of delta wetlands disappearing annually. Thanks to the efforts of Audubon, which has offices in Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, efforts to preserve habitats along the Mississippi Flyway are making a difference to the birds that make use of the route each year. Audubon is currently focusing intensive conservation efforts on twenty-seven bird species along the Mississippi Flyway, namely: Mottled Duck; Greater Prairie-Chicken; Brown Pelican; Little Blue Heron; Reddish Egret; Swallow-tailed Kite; Clapper Rail; Snowy Plover; Wilson’s Plover; Piping Plover; American Oystercatcher; Upland Sandpiper; Ruddy Turnstone; Red Knot; Sanderling; Western Sandpiper; Short-billed Dowitcher; Least Tern; Black Skimmer; Prothonotary Warbler; Swainson’s Warbler; Cerulean Warbler; Grasshopper Sparrow; Henslow’s Sparrow; Seaside Sparrow; Bobolink; and Eastern Meadowlark.
Known as the “city that never sleeps” and “The Big Apple”, New York City is a vibrant bustling metropolis that has more than a few surprises for visitors – and for native New Yorkers – who choose to explore its natural resources. The New York Water Taxi service offers visitors the opportunity to see the city from the harbor and its waterways. Working with the New York City Audubon Society, in the summer months the water taxi service offers a NYC Audubon Summer EcoCruise to highlight the amazing diversity and abundance of birdlife resident on the small islands in New York Harbor.
Lasting around 90 minutes, the cruise makes its way past world-renowned monuments, under iconic city bridges and along the shoreline of islands where visitors can view some of the more than 3,000 herons that have migrated from the south, along with hundreds of cormorants, egrets, ibis and other birds. Ever mindful of the impact humans have on the habitats of birds, the fleet of vessels used by the water taxi service are fitted with low-emission engines and mufflers, while the hulls are designed to cut through the water with as little disturbance as possible. While on the tour, visitors will learn about the ecology of the harbor and the important role its islands play in the conservation of various bird species.
With more than 10,000 members, New York City Audubon has been protecting wildlife habitats and its residents in all five boroughs for more than thirty years, with the goal of improving and conserving the environment for future generations. Wild birds from more than 350 species either live or pass through the city each year – that is almost a third of all species recorded in North America. They depend on the lush, vegetated areas in Jamaica Bay, the islands of New York Harbor and Central Park for their survival. The society collects data relating to birds across New York City, using the information to monitor bird and wildlife populations, and acts as an advocate for wildlife at government policy-making level.
Education programs formulated by the New York City Audubon inform the public, both young and old, about being responsible environmental stewards. The society welcomes new volunteers to work towards the goal of protecting wild birds and natural habitats in New York City, thereby improving the quality of life for all.
Best known for the spectacular courtship display put on by the males of the species, peafowl originate in Asia and belong to the genus Pavo of the Phasianidae (pheasant) family. While the term “peacock” is often used to describe the entire species, irrespective of sex, “peacock” is the correct term for the male in the species, with the female being referred to as a “peahen” and their offspring are known as “pea chicks”. The name for a group of peafowl – pride or ostentation – is very descriptive and this colorful bird has long been associated with high social standing and royalty, particularly in Asian cultures. It also features in Hindu mythology as the mount of the god of war, Karthikeya.
The species of peafowl are the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), the Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus) and Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis). The Indian Peafowl is found in South Asia and is the national bird of India. The male of the species has a brilliantly blue colored body and head, which is topped by a fan-like crest of feathers. Its most prominent feature is its long train of upper-tail covert feathers covered in colorful, iridescent spots resembling eyes. During courtship, this breathtakingly beautiful tail is spread out into a fan and quivered by the male in an attempt to attract a mate. The female of the species has a duller brown plumage with its neck being a greenish color. Although they can fly and often roost in tall trees, Indian Peafowl are usually found on the ground, where they forage for berries, grains and other plant material, with lizards, snakes and small rodents also being on the menu.
While Indian Peafowl are considered to be of “Least Concern” by the IUCN, the Green Peafowl is listed as “Endangered”. Found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia, the Green Peafowl is a target of predators such as Leopards, Tigers, Jungle Cats and humans. Hunting and a loss of habitat has resulted in numbers of these beautiful birds dwindling to the extent that they are now considered to be endangered. The males and females of Green Peacocks are relatively similar in appearance, with the male’s upper tail coverts being longer than the female during breeding season. After breeding season the male molts, resulting in the appearance of the two sexes being even more similar.
Found in the Congo Basin, the Congo Peacock looks like a cross between a peafowl and a guineafowl, with the male’s feathers being a deep blue, tinged with green and violet, while the female is brown with shiny green feathers over its back. Due to habitat loss and hunting, the Congo Peacock has the IUCN status of “Vulnerable”.