The 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is set to take place from February 14 through to February 17 in multiple locations all over the world. This four day event calls on bird watchers of all ages and levels of experience to count the birds they see in one location over a fifteen-minute period. Participants need only do one fifteen-minute stint, but are welcome to do more than that if they have the time. After tallying the number of individual birds of each species spotted within the fifteen-minute time period, birders enter the data on the GBBC website.
Data gathered from all over the world is valuable to researchers in many ways, particularly when it is compared with data collected in previous years. Information from the GBBC and other projects supported by citizen-scientists help researchers determine the health of various species by monitoring changes in populations; how the weather influences bird populations; changes in the timing of annual migrations; how diseases affect birds in specific regions; and where irruptive species go when they don’t visit the same location as the previous year. It also helps researchers with a comparison of bird diversity within city limits, suburbs, rural areas and reserves.
Through projects like the GBBC, modern technology offers birders the opportunity to be part of a worldwide community, while at the same time gathering information that no team of scientist would ordinarily be able to do. Thousands of people in more than one hundred countries will be participating in the event, which is supported by the National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. It’s also the perfect opportunity for children to learn about the importance of birds within their environment, and how birds are an indicator of the general health of the ecology. So, why not do your bit and register for the 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count.
Technological advances, along with the dedication and patience of researchers, have resulted in the recent discovery of fifteen new bird species in the Amazon rainforest. The formal description of the fifteen birds has been presented in a special edition of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, adding to the sixteen volumes already published by Lynx Edicions in partnership with BirdLife International. Entitled “Special Volume: New Species and Global Index” the book includes descriptions of 84 new species, including the fifteen from the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon rainforest, also referred to as Amazonia, covers most of South America’s Amazon Basin and includes parts of territories of nine different nations, with up to 60% of the region belonging to Brazil. Amazonia is the most species-rich region on the planet, with more than 1,300 species of birds – one in five of all of the world’s bird species – living in this region which also hosts migrating birds at different times of the year. Sadly, at the current rate of deforestation conservationists are of the opinion that the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed in the next 40 years – and birds, along with other animals that depend on this paradisiac part of the world, are paying the price.
Led by ornithologist Bret Whitney of the LSU Museum of Natural Science (LSUMNS) an international team of researchers was involved in the discovery of the new species. Noting that discovering such a large number of un-catalogued species was unexpected, Whitney went on to say that it highlighted how little is known about species diversity in Amazonia, as well as showing how technological advances are benefiting research efforts. Satellite imagery, DNA analysis, digital vocalization recordings and advance computation power have, in a way, opened up a new age of discovery. Current or former LSU students were involved in each of the fifteen discoveries, underscoring the work that Louisiana State University Museum of National Sciences has been consistently carrying out since the 1960s.
Found in most parts of the world, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is the most widely distributed wild bird and has a conservation status of ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, in recent years conservationists in some parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and India, have been drawing attention to the fact that the numbers of these cheerful little birds have been dwindling, with no clear indication as to why this is the case. In order to alert the public to the plight of the Sparrow, as well as to enlist public support and participation in counteracting this trend, conservationists in London and India have joined forces to create World Sparrow Day, taking place on March 30, 2013.
Under the banner of “Rise for the Sparrow: Experience the Power of One”, World Sparrow Day is calling on citizens, educational institutions and corporate companies to do their bit for conservation and raising awareness. Individual citizens, wherever they may be, can assist by providing a regular source of food and water, eliminating poisons from their gardens and gardening organically, planting more bird friendly plants including hedges, and even putting up nest boxes for House Sparrows. Another suggestion from the organizers of World Sparrow Day is to take some grain along on outings and picnics, set it out near a thicket and wait to see if sparrows and other ground-feeding birds appear. This is a great way to teach children about the importance of birds in our environment.
Known for their life-long loyalty to their chosen mate, House Sparrows are gregarious little birds, often roosting communally with nests overlapping one another in clumps. They may regularly be seen dust-bathing or bathing in water together and they frequently join together in song. While some birds may migrate in regions with harsh winters, the majority of House Sparrows seldom fly more than a few kilometers from where they were raised. As their name would suggest, they are comfortable around humans and are often the first birds children become acquainted with. They are also very resourceful in obtaining their preferred food of seeds and grains, and are known to peck open bags of feed in warehouses and supermarkets. For this reason, some may consider them to be pests, but in general they are a welcome sight, particularly in the suburbs as they help clear gardens of aphids, snails and a variety of destructive insects. So you may want to consider getting involved with World Sparrow Day to ensure these cute little birds are still around for our children’s children.
Many bird species have amazing ways of adapting to changes in their environment, and a recent study in Britain has revealed that great tits, blue tits and other native species are tapping into a new food source as a counteractive measure against the effects of climate change. Some bird species have started laying their eggs too early in the year, most likely as a result of climate change, and this has resulted in their chicks hatching out before their food source is available, the food source being caterpillars that feed on newly sprouting oak leaves in spring. The new food source is the protein-rich larvae of invasive oak marble gall wasps which the birds access by pecking away the tips of the galls found on the oak trees. Researchers working on the project, Professor Graham Stone of the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Karsten Schönrogge of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, noted that the evidence shows that the gall wasp larvae are not just an ‘occasional snack’, but rather a ‘really significant food source’.
The oak marble gall wasp (Andricus kollari) lays its eggs within the oak tree leaf buds via its ovipositor. This then develops into a round mass of green plant tissue which later turns brown and becomes hardened. Within this hardened gall there is a single wasp larva, and this is what the bird is after. These galls are found in their thousands on the Turkey oak trees (Quercus cerris) which were introduced into Britain in 1735. The first wasps that emerge are all female and go on to lay their eggs in the same manner, but without mating. The galls grow over winter and in early spring both males and females hatch, go on to mate, and the cycle starts again.
Credit goes to Dr Tracey Begg who had the task of cutting open more than 30,000 Turkey oak buds collected from eight sites in Scotland and England. Of the 3,000 galls she examined, Dr Begg found that on some trees up to half had been pecked open, leaving ragged marks, as opposed to the smooth hole wasps create when they emerge naturally, confirming that the birds are using the wasp larvae as a major food source.
Swooping through the air in flocks of up to a million birds, starlings have long been a feature of rural life in the United Kingdom. A flock of starlings in flight looks like a dark cloud constantly changing shape as they expand and contract randomly with no apparent leader. This bustle of activity usually takes place near their nesting grounds, in both rural and urban settings, and while some see them as pests, primarily because such large flocks of birds produce large amounts of droppings which can become toxic, starlings are considered to be part of the UK’s natural heritage. So, a recent report by the RSPB based on the annual Big Garden Birdwatch showing that the starling population in the UK had dropped by 80 percent since 1979, with almost a third disappearing in the past decade, is viewed as a cause for concern. Research further reveals that, since 1980, up to 40 million starlings have vanished from European Union countries, translating into a rate of 150 birds an hour.
As primarily insectivorous birds, but eating grains, fruit, and seeds if available, starlings keep insect numbers in check. They have an interesting feeding habit that ensures all in the flock are fed. As they forage amongst short-cropped grasses, birds from the back will continually fly to the front so eventually every bird will have had an opportunity to lead the flock and be first in line to probe the ground for insects. They are also very successful at snatching insects in mid-flight. Unpaired males build nest with which to attract a potential mate, and they often decorate the nest with flowers and green foliage. Upon accepting a mate, the female promptly discards the decorations. Males sing as they construct their nests and will launch into their full repertoire if a female approaches the nest. With starlings nesting quite closely together in large numbers, courting season is a lively time.
The RSPB has launched a research project to try and determine the cause of the drastic decline and formulate a conservation plan. RSPB researchers will be working in conjunction with farmers in Gloucestershire and Somerset to examine whether there are sufficient nesting sites and food sources for starlings resident in livestock areas. Conservation director for the RSPB, Martin Harper, noted that they hope the research will yield the information necessary to provide the starlings with a secure future through the development of practical and cost effective solutions for farmers and land managers to implement.