Environmental Monitoring With the Help of Birds

January 1, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

While climate change and global warming are an ongoing cause for concern, monitoring the environment is a costly and time consuming activity for conservationists to carry out without help from local experts – of the feathered variety. Birds are tremendously valuable in assisting conservationists and researchers to pick up changes in the environment and species diversity, enabling them to take action where possible to prevent a bad situation from becoming a catastrophe.

Science has come a long way since canaries were used to detect toxic gases in coalmines, but birds continue to be the most effective sentinel species on the planet. The reasons for this are many and include the fact that birds are found all over the world, in all types of habitats, both in the wild and in urban settings. They are sensitive and adaptive to environmental changes and are relatively easy to monitor as they are highly visible. Birds are among the most researched animals on the planet and with bird watching being a popular activity around the world, birders are often keen to participate as citizen scientists in research projects and organized bird counts. Birding clubs and Audubon societies all over the world get involved in the gathering of data, which can then be coordinated by scientists. Moreover, there exists a wealth of historical data on the activities of birds, providing a baseline against which to compare current data. As birds include species that feed on a wide variety of food sources, they are vulnerable to the accumulation of toxins in both plants and animals they eat, thereby providing an indicator on soil, air and water pollution levels.

As birds are acutely in tune with seasonal cycles, even subtle changes in behavior, feeding and breeding patterns can alert scientists to broader environmental changes. Changes in arrival and departure times of migratory bird species have been linked to changes in temperature, ocean currents and wind patterns. Feeding and breeding patterns of marine predators and seabirds offer scientists the opportunity to monitor the health of the world’s oceans and seas and with many species the timing and success of breeding is dependent on food availability.

When birds seemingly inexplicably fall out of the sky, as was reported in Arkansas and New Jersey earlier this year, scientists will try to solve the mystery, because when birds are in distress, it is very likely an indicator that something is very wrong in the environment.

Waterbird Conservation in the African-Eurasian Flyway

October 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

As a joint effort between BirdLife International and Wetlands International, and supported by UNEP-GEF (the United Nations Environment Program -Global Environment Facility) and a number of donors and partners, Wings Over Wetlands was the first international wetland and waterbird conservation project to take place in the African-Eurasian flyway region. The project initially ran over four years (2006-2010) and enlisted the aid of international conservation organizations and national governments to support migratory waterbirds in the African-Eurasian region.

Wings Over Wetlands (WOW) also supported field projects in eleven wetland areas in twelve countries within the region – Haapsalu-Noarootsi Bays in Estonia; Biharugra Fishponds in Hungary; Nemunas River Delta in Lithuania; Banc D’Arguin National Park in Mauritania; Namga-Kokorou Complex in Niger; Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands in Nigeria; Saloum-Niumi Complex in Senegal and Gambia; Wakkerstroom Wetlands in South Africa; Dar Es Salaam Wetlands in Tanzania; Burdur Gölü in Turkey and Aden Wetlands in Yemen.

While the original WOW project has run its course, leading international conservation organizations dedicated to protecting of waterbirds and their habitats developed the Critical Site Network (CSN) Tool giving easy access to information on the sites deemed critical for waterbird species. As one of the major achievements of the WOW project the CSN tool provides information for more than 300 migratory waterbird species, highlighting what can be achieved when like-minded conservation organizations work together. This wealth of information assists authorities at local, national and international level to identify the network of sites essential to specific waterbird species, thereby enhancing conservation efforts.

The WOW project also strengthened the implementation of AEWA – the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement – which lists 255 species of birds that are dependent on wetlands for their annual migration and breeding cycle. These include many species of pelicans, grebes, cormorants, divers, herons, rails, storks, ibises, flamingos, spoonbills, ducks, geese, swans, waders, cranes and gulls. Parties to the agreement are required to implement conservation measures set out in the AEWA Action Plan, including habitat conservation, research and education projects and management of human activities. The 5th session of AEWA representatives was held in La Rochelle, France on 14-18 May 2012, under the theme of “Migratory Waterbirds and People – Sharing Wetlands”.

Physical Traits and Genetics in Pigeons

February 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Believed to have been domesticated in the Mediterranean region up to 5,000 years ago, pigeons are providing new insight into the role of genetics in the development of physical traits. A study being carried out by the University of Utah, in the United States, has revealed that there is an enormous amount of diversity among these birds, with more than 350 breeds of pigeons differing in body size, color, patterning, beak size and shape, posture, skeletal structure, vocalizations, flight behavior and feather placement. Enlisting the help of pigeon breeders around the world, the study focused on the visible traits and genetic relationships of 361 pigeons representing 70 domestic breeds, as well as populations on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Michael Shapiro, assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah, and the senior author of the study which was published in the journal Current Biology earlier this year, noted that it was observed during the study that similar traits can be found in birds that are distantly related, and conversely, closely related birds can at times look quite different. Among the examples cited to support the study is the fact that both the English trumpeter pigeon and the German owl pigeon have crested head feathers despite not being closely related. Furthermore, English trumpeters have feathers on their feet similar to that of English pouters, and yet the two species are not closely related, as is the case of the short beaks shared by the African owl pigeon and the Budapest short-faced tumbler. On the other hand, the closely related African owl and German owl pigeon have short beaks in common, but the African owl has plain head feathers, with the German owl sporting a head crest.

Other interesting findings of the study include the fact that free-living pigeons, such as those commonly found in cities, particularly around statues, carry the DNA of racing pigeons. Some of the traits found in pigeons are likely as a result of selective breeding, as is the case with other domesticated animals, such as dogs, but many of the traits found in pigeons are as a result of adapting to their environment. Shapiro pointed out that many different animals use the same genes in order to build similar body structures, and if scientists can understand which genes are behind normal diversity in the wild through the study of pigeons, this knowledge could ultimately provide insight into diversity in humans, including human disease.

Birds Say No Thank You to Organic Wheat

June 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

Organic farming has become vital to the conservation of the environment and has been shown to have more health benefits than conventional farming that makes use of fertilizers and other aids to improve their crops. Scientists, therefore, were not testing the health benefits of organic farming when they decided to test which type of grain birds would prefer. Previous testing was done over very short periods of time, but the latest studies have proven that, when given a choice, birds prefer conventionally grown seeds to organic foods.

Dr Ailsa McKenzie from the Newcastle University, together with Dr Mark Whittingham, decided to run a study of their own, in the lab and in the wild, to see how birds would react to the choices given to them. They decided to give the birds enough time to be able to differentiate between the two seeds. As expected, the birds ate from both bowls only for a short period of time. Once the birds began to notice the difference in the organic and conventionally grown seeds, they ate from the conventionally grown bowl of seeds more than sixty percent of the time. After running their studies in the laboratory, they moved their research to forty-seven gardens in the surrounding area. Bird feeders were placed in the gardens and the studies were conducted over two winter periods, for six weeks and then eight weeks. This experiment also proved to show that birds chose the conventionally farmed seeds over the organic feed.

Scientists do not believe that their choice has anything to do with the taste or health benefits, but rather the protein content of the seeds. Once back in the laboratory, seeds were again taken from over-fertilized crops and given to canaries, with a selection of low-protein organic seeds. Again, the birds showed more interest in the high-protein seeds. Inorganic nitrogen, which is used by farmers, eventually becomes protein, and it has been discovered that birds will rather eat protein rich feed than organic seeds. Dr McKenzie also stressed that these findings have no bearing on human diets, as seeds and wheat are not sources of protein for humans. The study has, however, shed light on the dietary habits and preferences of birds and their nutritional needs.

ScrubJay Festival 2010

January 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Events

The Scrub Jay Festival 2010, will take place on 20 February, and is an initiative that is hosted by the Lyonia Environmental Center to raise awareness for the plight of the Scrub Jay. It is a bird that is only found in Florida, and nests in habitats where scrub is in abundance. They are currently a threatened species, with encroachment on their habitat being a major threat, and the festival hopes to educate the public on this unique bird. Guided walks, talks to promote conservation, live music performances and activities for children will keep festival goers entertained and amazed throughout the day.

To find out more about the festival and its activities, contact the Lyonia Environmental Center direct, of visit their website at http://lyoniapreserve.com/LEC1-6-10.htm.

Date: 20 February 2010
Venue: Lyonia Environmental Center
City: Deltona, Florida
Country: United States of America

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