The Spectacular Himalayan Monal

March 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

As one of the more colorful members of the pheasant family, the Himalayan monal features iridescent plumage in shades of blue, green and red. Its back is purple-black, with a dark brown breast, light brown tail feathers and white throat. Its white rump patch is only visible in flight. The male of the species boasts a metallic green head crest with spoon-shaped feathers, while the female has a shorter, brown colored crest. The Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus) is the national bird of Nepal and is referred to as the Danphe, and it is the official bird of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, where it is referred to as the Monal.

The Himalayan monal uses a number of different call types to communicate with other birds in its flock, and to warn off intruding birds. In addition to using courting calls, males bob their head crests and fan their tail feathers to attract the attention of a mate. Also, during breeding season, males become far more vocal, calling throughout the day instead of only in the early mornings. After mating, the female scrapes a hollow in the ground to lay her three to five eggs in. Only the female incubates the eggs, but the male will remain close by to protect the female and their offspring until they fledge. By the age of six months, young Himalayan monals are independent of their parents and will search for food and find mates to continue the cycle.

Himalayan monals have powerful legs and strong curved beaks to allow them to dig into hard mountain soil in their search for tubers, shoots, seeds, insects and berries. Birders can be on the lookout for these stunning birds when they come across areas of turned over soil on hillsides, as this the telltale evidence of their foraging activities.

As a high-altitude species, Himalayan monals remain between 2,100 and 4,500 meters above sea level, and during the summer months generally move above the tree-line of their mountainous terrain, but in winter will find shelter in the rhododendron, coniferous and mixed forests of Nepal and the other countries in which it is found, which includes Bhutan, northeast India and southern Tibet.

White-crowned Sparrow Males Unruffled by Younger Rivals

March 13, 2012 by  
Filed under News

In the territorial world of nature, it’s not uncommon for older males to give way to the younger generation, albeit with a fight. Researchers have recently discovered that this is not necessarily the case with mature white-crowned sparrow males. In fact older males don’t even bother to get involved in any altercation, verbal or physical, and this is seen as evidence that they don’t view younger males as a threat.

In the study, which was carried out by Angelika Poesel and Douglas Nelson of the Ohio State University and funded by the National Science Foundation, it was noted that the older male would, however, become agitated and aggressive upon hearing a rival bird of the same age in his territory. It appears that the males of this species assess the fighting ability of their opponents based on age, and younger males simply don’t scare them.

The study observed a migratory population of white-crowned sparrows nesting in Bandon, Oregon, from 2008 to 2011. While plumage is an important indicator of maturity, the results of the study reveal that some birds use each other’s songs to determine age and threat level. As is the case with many bird species, male white-crowned sparrows use their songs to establish nesting territory and court a potential mate. Should a male sing in another’s territory, he can expect to be attacked and driven off if perceived to be a threat. With this particular bird species, second-year males do have plumage differences, but they also sing two or more versions of their species unique song before they choose one, and abandon the rest. This multiple version singing indicates to more mature males that the bird singing in his territory is a second-year male, and not a threat worth getting ruffled feathers about.

The research was carried out by playing various songs through loudspeakers within the established territories of mature males, and careful observation of the birds’ behavior. It was noted that second-year males that have established territory, did not tolerate other second-year males invading their space. It is thought that female birds are naturally more attracted to mature birds than to younger ones, and the older birds know this. Also, younger birds are disinclined to push their luck with a mature male which is likely to be stronger and more experienced.

Lead author of the study, Angelika Poesel, is curator of the Borrer Laboratory of Bioacoustics. Douglas Nelson is associate professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology, and director of the University’s Borrer Laboratory.

Ravens Show Emotions

July 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

Ravens have had a stigma attached to them for centuries, symbolizing darkness in poems, songs and movies. With their black plumage and black eyes, they would seem to be the ideal bird to symbolize death and depression, but these fascinating birds also have a compassionate and social side to them that few have been aware of until recently. Researchers specifically chose ravens for their studies, due to the fact that ravens stay in a social flock for approximately ten years of their lives before finding a mate and pairing off. This characteristic of the raven has allowed researchers to study how they interact, and even how they console each other.

More than 150 fights were documented and recorded by the researchers over a two year study period to learn more about the socialization of the ravens. A special group of hand-reared ravens were chosen for the study, allowing them to live in a flock as they would in the wild. The young ravens showed all the natural signs of birds that are not in captivity, such as fighting for dominance and various other reasons. From these conflicts it could easily be assessed which of the birds were the victims, which were the aggressors and those who can be classified as bystanders.

The study showed that once a fight had occurred between the birds, bystanders that had a relationship with the victim would console each other. At times, victims would be consoled by random bystanders through preening or even just by touch. It was also observed that bystanders did not fear approaching a victim, as victims rarely initiated aggressive behavior, and that victims could also approach other birds in the flock after an altercation without leading to another unprovoked fight. Victims could, however, not approach their aggressor. The act of consoling a victim also seems to bring peace to the flock. Relationships between birds can also blossom through the act of consoling, bringing the flock together again. Emotional acts that were once only attributed to humans can now also be seen in birds, and the study of the ravens has confirmed this fact. Nature never ceases to amaze us and teaches us something new each day. In this case, the ravens have revealed a softer and lighter side to their personalities.

Anting Behavior in Birds

January 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

Anting is a form of bird behavior that has yet to be explained by researchers and scientists. Even though hundreds of bird species engage in anting all over the world, no-one has been able to confirm the reason why birds choose to do so.

Anting can take on different forms. Some birds will pick up ants in their beaks and rub the ant over their feathers, after which they eat the ant; while others will open their wings and lie down over an active anthill and allow ants to climb up onto them. But it does seem that one part of anting remains consistent: birds prefer using ants that produce formic acid. Ants use the formic acid their bodies produce as a defense mechanism, which they spray at their attackers, but at the same time provides birds with a certain something that scientists would love to discover.

One theory on anting is that the formic acid could be used as a fungicide, bactericide and as an insect repellent, while others choose to believe that it is the vitamin D content in the acid that birds are after. This leads to another unanswered question: why do birds sometimes use alternative anting tools, such as millipedes and fruit? Some scientists believe that anting is used to preen feathers and helps prevent the drying out of their plumage, but then one again has to ask, that if only some birds include anting in their behavior, could preening really be the answer? Another suggestion that has been made is that anting has an intoxicating effect, as some birds have been known to shake and lose control over their ability to walk. Anting has been documented in a variety of species including crows, babblers, weavers, owls, turkeys, waxbills and pheasants to name but a few. And for all the research done and no lack of theories, it seems the human race will have to be satisfied with the fact that the mystery behind anting might elude us forever, and remain a small secret that nature is not willing to share.

Feather Degrading Bacteria Studied

December 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Features

The existence of feather degrading bacteria in wild birds was only discovered for the first time approximately ten years ago. This natural phenomenon has therefore been plaguing ornithologists with more questions than answers and sparked the undertaking of the recent studies done to explore the effects feather degrading bacteria has on birds, and in which birds this occurrence is more common. Even though more information has been collected in regard to the bacteria, studies remain ongoing. A few interesting facts have been discovered so far.

The feather degrading bacteria seems to target brightly colored birds more than those with dull plumage. To investigate this fact, a group of scientists chose a large colony of Eastern Bluebirds living in Virginia as test subjects, studying the population as a whole and noting the differences of the bacteria found in the male and female birds. Not only does this bacteria influence the coloring of the birds, but their general health as well.

It is now known that most wild birds carry feather degrading bacteria and some birds are even host to more than one bacteria species. The exact impact the bacteria has on their feathered hosts is still unclear, but they are not found to be in the majority. Almost all the birds in the study were found to have the bacteria, which hydrolyses the protein beta-keratin. It had been found that melanin pigmented feathers are resistant to feather degrading bacteria and that the oils used by birds to preen can also halt the growth of the bacteria. These traits confirm that defenses against these bacteria can be built and it is therefore suggested that the bacteria could have an influence on the evolution of birds. It was also found that the bacteria had a greater impact on the female birds than on their male counterparts. The bacteria seems to dull the coloring of the feathers, and scientists believe that the difference in bacteria between male and female birds could be influenced by the routines followed by each sex, and the areas they travel in. It is, however, mere speculation as scientists are still trying to confirm if the daily routine of males and females could play a role in the bacteria occurrences. Alex Gunderson, from Duke University in North Carolina commented, “If bacteria detrimentally influence feather coloration, they may place selective pressure on birds to evolve defenses against them.”

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