Irruptive Migration of Bird Species

March 17, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

The main reason birds migrate is to ensure they have access to food all year round. For some bird species this may mean flying half way around the world, and their migration patterns are so predictable that birders arrange special events to welcome the weary travelers to their wintering ground, as well as to see them off when they depart. For centuries, farmers have looked to the departure and arrival of local birds as an indication of what the seasons hold, while mariners judged ocean currents and the nearness of land by the birds they encountered. Some migrating bird species are somewhat less predictable and these are referred to as irruptive migrants, with their migration habits being referred to as irruptive migration.

Some species may have a cycle of irruptive migration where they visit an area every two or four years and are therefore still predictable, while others are completely random. Reasons for irruptive migration are varied, but the most common cause is a lack of food in their normal wintering grounds. Birds that depend on birch, pine, spruce and maple seeds and catkins are known to irrupt when these trees produce poor crops. As their name suggests, crossbills have unique crossed bill-tips designed to pry conifer cones open and extract the seeds. They do not have the luxury of choosing an alternative food source and are obliged to find food they can access. As these seeds are also rodent food, if they fail to appear or produce an insufficient crop for demand, raptors may also leave the area in search of a more readily available food source.

Irrespective of what the motivating factors are for irrupting, it is virtually impossible to predict which species will irrupt in any given year and where they will migrate to, however the following species have been noted for regularly irrupting: pine siskins, bohemian waxwings, boreal chickadees, evening grosbeaks, purple finches, pine grosbeaks, common redpolls, red crossbills, white-winged crossbills, northern shrikes, hoary redpolls, red-breasted nuthatches, snowy owls, great grey owls and rough-legged hawks.

While birders generally welcome seeing unfamiliar birds at their backyard feeders, they should be aware that sometimes the unexpected visitors, particularly if they arrive in great numbers, can intimidate the locals in their quest for food. This can be overcome by setting out extra feeders and spacing them as far apart as possible. Also ensure that plenty of water is provided and water sources are cleaned regularly. Then sit back, relax, and enjoy the sight of feathered friends from far away.

Bird Conservation: Education and Awareness

February 26, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Birds constitute an important aspect of our natural world. They are an important part of the global ecosystem and biodiversity, food source and inspiration for several aspects of human art, sculpture, culture, ethnicity, literature and society. Different bird species inhabit all the continents of the globe representing both the ‘Old World’ as well as the ‘New World’ including the northern polar region, Siberia and Greenland to the Antarctica. They are present in all the cities and towns and rural areas dotted across the planets from the remote islands to the barren deserts; and from the high mountains to the fertile plain lands and dry, arid plateau regions. They have successfully invaded every ecosystem on earth and adapted to them accordingly for their survival and multiplication from the geologic past.

They have invaded the boreal forests and the cactus infested deserts; they have migrated huge distances unimaginable to reach remote islands and distant continents to make their new homes and have established strong feral populations in the urban areas in different corners of the planet. From the lush green tropical forests to the bare vegetation deserts and from the lofty mountains to the open sea; they have occupied every possible and available space with success and great efficiency. Many species have settled close to human habitations and prospered by sharing resources and trash of their human neighbors to carve out a successful niche for them. In exchange, birds have provided humans with sources of food and nutrition from the very early days of hominid evolution to the modern high tech industrial, poultry production systems.

However, this nice balance of sharing and co-inhabiting the same space has been greatly shifted to a negative ends from the dynamics of the human perspective. Several species of birds have been placed increasingly under Near Threatened, Threatened, Endangered and Critically Endangered status by the IUCN from every continent due to significant changes to their population structure. Severe anthropogenic pressures across the world due to indiscriminate poaching (illegal hunting, capture, trade and transportation of endemic, exotic and vulnerable species), loss of habitats (loss of key foraging, hunting, breeding and nesting sites; habitat degradation and habitat fragmentation; destruction of virgin forests) forest fires, environmental pollution (global warming and climate change, nuclear radiation, discharge of untreated industrial effluents into the natural environment, emission of toxic gases from automobiles and industries, indiscriminate and over application of agro-chemicals polluting underground and surface water resources), spread of several deadly pathogenic diseases, over exploitation of natural resources both aquatic (marine and fresh water sources) and terrestrial (rapid infrastructural, industrial and agricultural expansions and developments, aggressive mining activities and rapid and unplanned urbanization drives) without any long term planning and non-judicious management of natural resources for short term financial gains; and deep and unrestricted encroachments inside fragile and susceptible ecosystems and environments for purely commercial ventures are some of the factors that are negatively impacting global avian population.


It is important to think about why is this happening across the world and what we could do to help the conservation of our precious avian members? One of the most important factors that can play an important role in the successful conservation of the avian species across the planet is the education and awareness of the people, particularly the young children who are our future citizens. It is absolute necessary to bring the causes of decline in the global avian populations to our dinner table and make it a household discussion so that people can realize, understand and appreciate the values of avian conservation. The first step in achieving that end as mentioned above is raising the education and awareness level of the global human community by catching them young.

The school systems constitute one of the basic frameworks of early education and that should be the primary focus of the bird conservation education and awareness programs. It should be important to reach the young kids through interactive programs organized and integrated within their school curriculum to expose them slowly to the importance of the diversity of bird life, their life cycles, and how they survive in different ecosystems and in stressing why they should be conserved for the future generations. Movies and videos, small hand on workshops, art works and interactive lecture session geared towards young children needs to be designed. It will be also important to keep in mind the socio-cultural perspective of the target kids when the programs are being designed. What works for the urban students may not be suitable for the students coming from the rural communities and what appears more appropriate from the perspective of a developed nation, may not be practical for students from developing and under developed nations. Hence such programs need to be custom designed based on the specific student populations to reach them more efficiently.

The secondary and tertiary levels of education could include even more engaging and involving projects such as participation in field projects like bird survey, nature photography, and preparation of reports (such as field data report, eco report or environment report), high school or university level research projects on bird life, bird ecosystem and conservation, data generation on several endangered, critically endangered or threatened local species, study on different exotic and endemic species, study on different anthropogenic pressure and activities and how they are shaping and changing local bird life and behaviors, studying and photographing interesting bird behavior and making presentations back to the class. Involving the peers for spreading education and awareness on bird conservation could be an effective strategy in reaching more young people efficiently. Older students could be trained to communicate about their experiences in bird conservation to the younger students for better appreciation of their peer achievements and to learn significantly from their experiences rather than external source of education and awareness.

Class based sharing of stories and presentations made using the black board or smart board options or use of colorful posters or hand made story boards prepared by students could not only engage students but also other members of the society. The interactive student sessions could be extended to the parents, teachers, instructors and lecturers and also to the senior citizen groups for highlighting the causal factors behind the declining aspect of global avian population and their possible recovery through consistent, long term, sustainable and coordinated efforts of the government and non-government organizations; different local, regional and international conservation organizations and local community members. Slowly such education and awareness drives could not only reach the younger generation but broadly to all members of the society. The supportive role of the media could not be ignored at all and they should be made important stakeholders in the process of education and awareness of the public through their investigative reports, periodicals and serials on bird conservation efforts around the globe, talk shows, documentaries and mocumentaries on bird related topics, newspaper reports, columns, editorials, features, letter to editors, magazine articles and different interactive question-answer session could greatly help in engaging public towards avian conservation.

It is important to realize that we have to understand and cater to the anthropogenic issues first to solve the problem of crisis in the avian life. Several biodiversity hotspots are located in the poor developing and under developed nations of the world. The poor economy, unstable political situations and ethnic tensions have pushed several local communities towards the forest and making them dependent on these ecologically fragile resource bases heavily. Unless the social and economic situations of such remote rural settlers, village communities and forest fringe residents are improved, and they are relocated where possible, the ground situation in both avian and other wildlife conservation has little chances for success. The bird conservation education and awareness programs must highlight the plight of such people to all to understand the dynamics of human-animal conflicts better to resolve the problem. Unless the anthropogenic issue is critically addressed the fruits of the conservation efforts will not be able to take its roots successfully.


Article submitted by Saikat Kumar Basu

Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Ratnabali Sengupta, Srimoyi Mazumder, Jayati Naskar, Manorma Sharma, Monikankana Dasgupta, Olga Osdachuk, Peiman Zandi, Xiuhua Wu & Cenny Yau.

Golden Pheasants – Elegant and Exotic

January 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Indigenous to the mountains of central China, Golden Pheasants (Chrysolophus pictus) are spectacularly beautiful birds that are so well adapted to living in captivity they have become popular pets in many countries far from their original habitat. Some researchers are of the opinion that the Golden Pheasant was likely the first species of pheasant brought into North America in the mid-1700s, and they have formed several feral populations in parts of the United Kingdom.

The Golden Pheasant and Lady Amherst Pheasant (Chrysolophus amherstiae) are both Ruffed Pheasants, so named for the ruff the male spreads around his face and neck as part of his courtship ritual. The female Golden Pheasant is brown in color with dark rippled bars running from her head down her body and wings, while her face, throat and rump are buff. The male, on the other hand, is one of the most colorful birds around, with a silky-golden crest, tinged with red at the tips. Its face, chin, throat and sides of its neck are a rusty tan color, while its orbital skin and wattles are yellow. The ruff of the Golden Pheasant is light orange, with a bluish-black border on each feather. The green upper back of the bird contrasts beautifully with its golden-yellow back and rump, while its scarlet breast blends into a light chestnut color on its flanks and underparts. Its tertiary wing feathers are blue, with dark red scapulars, while its central tail feathers are black with buff spots and the tip of its tail being buff.

Although they are brightly colored, they are not always easy to spot in their natural habitat of dense forest, so not much is known about their habits in the wild. What is known is that they forage on the ground, eating grain, leaves and invertebrates, and they can fly short distances, roosting in trees at night.

As they are compatible with other types of birds (but not always with other pheasant species), Golden Pheasants can be kept in an environment with waterfowl, peafowl, doves, pigeons and other birds. They are very hardy, breed easily in captivity and the chicks are easy to raise. As such, Golden Pheasants are a good choice for first-time pheasant owners and a firm favorite among veteran bird keepers.

Drone Technology Provides Instant Benefits

September 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

Unmanned Arial Vehicle technology has already made a splash in the front pages, often for projects that are years away from fruition – think Amazon and their mooted drone delivery service.

However, one way that it can have an immediate and tangible benefit is with the monitoring of nesting bird species, and the promotion of areas that would be of interest to tourists.

Dr. Paul Morrison, the Coquet Island site manager for the RSPB, said: “Helishoot conducted a trial filming on Coquet Island ahead of the season’s influx of nesting terns.

“The immediate impact of using this equipment was the obvious new dimension it offered the RSPB Coquet team to promote the reserve in a new innovative way,” he continued.

“There is huge potential for expanding this approach in the future as well as helping with monitoring of the nesting bird species on Coquet. In particular it would be very useful to help find large gull chicks that hide in the dense vegetation on the island, using an infra red camera. This would be easy to achieve as this work could be carried out towards the end of the season when there is minimal risk to disturbing sensitive or protected species such as roseate terns.”

For those worried about the impact a UAV would have on the nesting population of birds can put their fears to bed. “The interaction with puffins and large gulls, whilst in flight was nil, with gulls flying past the device at close quarters with no visual alarm discernible,” said Dr Morrison.

UAV technology could also be used to protect, as well as to monitor. “It would be interesting to see if a small loudspeaker could be attached to use as a scaring method for playing alarm calls to frighten large gulls from the island in spring and autumn,” Dr. Morrison concluded.

Drones are already being used in other parts of the country to keep track of cranes and corncrakes, which are being reintroduced to the British Isles following their disappearance from the land.

UAV tech is already being used in other areas of business, including in agriculture, where it has been used to monitor crops in much the same way that they have monitored the puffin population on Coquet Island.

Their uses could also include the conservation of old buildings, as well as the production of 3D maps to determine when and where repairs are needed.

Helishoot is a North East based film and survey company that has CAA Permissions to fly commercially and carry out this type of work.

Article contributed by Russell Hughes

Smithsonian Bird Collection

May 13, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Birds features more than 640,000 specimens and is considered to be the world’s third largest bird collection. Identified by the acronym USNM (United States National Museum), the National Collection represents up to eighty percent of the world’s known avifauna species, of which there are around 9,600. The collection is specifically available for scientific research by both resident staff and visiting scientists, with the National Museum of Natural History hosting between 200 and 400 such visitors each year. While the collection is not open to the public, the searchable online database maintained by the USNM contains information on more than 400,000 of the collection’s specimens.

The Bird Division Hall of Fame pays tribute to men who have significantly contributed to the study of birds and the collection since its inception in the mid-1800s. Among the Hall of Famers is Spencer F. Baird (1823-1887) who was the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1850 to 1878. His donation of more than 3,600 birds formed the foundation of the collection, and he was also a founding member of the American Ornithologists Union and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another founding member of the American Ornithologists Union was Elliott Coues (1842-1899). Coues was an army physician, naturalist and field collector, as well as a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His various publications on field ornithology and identifying North American Birds were invaluable to ornithologists in those early days and remain valuable as reference works to this day.

Robert Ridgway (1850-1929) served as the first Curator of Birds at the USNM in 1881. He was an artist, a founding member of the American Ornithologist Union, member of the National Academy of Sciences and publisher of the first eight volumes of The Birds of North and Middle America – a reference work still in use today.

As a field naturalist and taxidermist for the USNM, William Palmer (1856-1921) collected specimens from Pribilof Islands, Funk Island, Cuba and Java, among other destinations. Assistant Curator of Birds between 1881 and 1889 Leonhard Stejneger (1851-1943) carried out pioneering ornithological fieldwork on the Commander Islands, Kamchatka, the Alps, Southwestern UK, Puerto Rico and Japan. Pierre L. Jouy (1856-1894) was a field collector who collected specimens primarily in Korea, Japan and China. He also made extensive contributions to the ethnological and zoological collections at Smithsonian.

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