Fork-tailed Drongos: Marvelous Mimics

April 25, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

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.

Taxidermy as an important tool in bird education, awareness and conservation

The word taxidermy is derived from the ancient Greek roots τάξις (táksis, arrangement) and δέρμα (dérma, “skin”), referring to the “art of stuffing, and mounting the skins of dead animals for exhibition in a lifelike state” (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/taxidermy). According to dictionary.com, it is “the art of preparing and preserving the skins of animals and of stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form”. The word is a noun and the plural form is referred to as taxidermies. This is an advanced form of art in preserving and restoring dead specimens back to life for long term storage and display. Taxidermy is usually conducted on almost all the vertebrate members like fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The last two groups being the most commonly exploited. An individual performing the task of taxidermy or specializing in the art of taxidermy is called taxidermist (plural; taxidermists). A taxidermist could be a professional working for museums or in a personal business designing trophies for personal collectors, hunters, fishermen, anglers, foresters and for education and research purposes.

A taxidermist needs to be both an artist as well as have good knowledge on the morphology and anatomy of species they specialize on. The profession demands great dedication, sincerity, hard work, experience and knowledge to be successful. Quality taxidermy products are as close as possible to the original live specimen and the attention to detail. A taxidermist can replicate, preserve and capture the natural grace and beauty of the specimen on the dynamic mount to reflect a realistic exposure to life and natural wilderness at its best. To replicate the original specimen it is necessary that the mount specimen must be correct to the original in every possible way and meeting the specifications to capture the majestic beauty of nature. The ability to accurately replicate anatomical and morphological details defines the success of a highly trained, experienced and professional taxidermist from amateur ventures. It is important that each specimen should be custom designed to reflect its natural beauty and elegance. If utilized properly avian taxidermy mounts could be effectively used for popularizing and educating general public on birds, bird life and bird conservation.

Quality avian taxidermy specimens with the highest craftsmanship and accuracy attract people to the specimens and inspires them to learn more about them at leisure. Specimens viewed in the fields and surveys by bird amateurs and enthusiasts could be better inspected and appreciated by reviewing nicely preserved avian taxidermy specimens in the museums and laboratories. It could be an integral part in helping and training new bird enthusiast, ecologists, field guides, field inspectors, foresters, biologists, ornithologists, students, researchers and general public alike in knowing about bird morphology and anatomy, bird shapes and forms, color and plumage, distinguishable identification marks and characteristics for closely related species. He well preserved specimens could add value to exhaustive bird research and field identifications for rare, vulnerable, endangered species or species with disputed identification parameters.

The bird models could greatly help in identification of closely related genera and species, sub species, tribes and sub tribes comprehensively with opportunity for detailed inspection for clues and characters, appreciate bird biodiversity, habits (breeding, nesting and foraging behaviors, life cycles, migration and residential preferences) and habitats, distribution, ecology, evolution, adaptive radiation, general ornithology and train people for better identification of challenging species under natural field conditions. Watching a nice collection of preserved natural bird eggs across different genera and species could be a rewarding educative process in itself and should be included in all bird education and awareness programs.

Bird taxidermy models and bird videos could add up comprehensively to bird awareness campaigns more than bird posters and pamphlets, as they give a vivid life like image to the specimens in the field and are particularly successful in grabbing the attention of the young kids and children, our future citizens. Live display of birds in aviaries and avian parks and zoos are a regular feature for popularizing bird conservation and bird awareness. It is not always possible to get the bird enthusiasts and students to always attend live bird displays and bird centers, particularly if they are located out of towns or cities. The natural bird models produced through taxidermy can fill up this vacuum in better reaching and educating people. The models could be looked upon as an attractive package for both kids and general public alike for presentations on specific avian species, making such scientific communications more engaging, rewarding and revealing for the target audience, viewers and visitors. Such taxidermy models will enable public to know the migratory species in closer details as they are seen only during a particular season and in difficult terrain and habitats for all to reach them or appreciate watching them closely under field conditions. It can certainly help in building deeper insight, association, connectedness and interests about birds, bird life and avian conservation with the public in a comprehensive manner.

Life size bird specimens help people to better appreciate the diverse and dynamic world of birds. Several birds meeting natural deaths and their undecomposed bodies discovered in the field or forests or retrieved from licensed and registered zoological gardens, aviaries, nursery and hatcheries, bird breeding and reintroduction centers could be procured following stringent protocols and exploited for their long term preservation for education and awareness purposes through professional and registered taxidermists. Care must be taken that such dead birds do not reach taxidermy black markets for commercial exploitation; and utilized extensively for the purpose of educating and in generating awareness among professionals, young students and public at large regarding birds and for the conservation of endangered species. It could certainly help in developing a positive partnership and co-operation in global avian conservation.

Article submitted by Saikat Kumar Basu and Peiman Zandi

Turkey Vultures and Perpetual Flight

March 2, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

In their quest for perpetual flight, researchers at Lehigh University have taken note of the turkey vulture’s amazing ability to stay aloft indefinitely with very little effort, as it scans the terrain beneath it for carrion to feed on. In addition to gauging thermals and wind direction with their own sensors, it appears that turkey vultures closely monitor other birds of prey in the area and use the information gleaned from them to determine which areas would best support their effortless soaring. It is thought that they may even keep an eye on the movement of clouds and the swaying of trees to gather information about wind currents and thermals.

Also of interest to aviation researchers, is the turkey vulture’s unique ability to hold its wings in a shallow V-shaped angle for extended periods of time which allows it to stay aloft with little effort, as well as giving it the ability to use sidewinds to its advantage, converting them into speed and altitude at a moment’s notice.

The concept of ‘dynamic soaring’ was first described in the British journal Nature in 1883 by Lord Rayleigh in an article entitled The Soaring of Birds. There he states that a bird cannot maintain its level indefinitely, either in still air or in a uniform horizontal wind, without working his wings. He concluded that if a bird maintained his course for some time, without working his wings, the conclusion can be drawn that either: The course is not horizontal; the wind is not horizontal; or the wind is not uniform – the latter being the principle relating to dynamic soaring.

Turkey vultures, also known as turkey buzzards, or simply buzzards, have a wide range of habitat, being found from southern Canada right down to the southernmost point of South America. These large scavengers favor open and semi-open terrain where they can spot their next meal with ease, feeding almost exclusively on carrion. They roost in large groups, nesting in caves, thickets, or hollow trees. As they do not have a syrinx, they can only make grunting and hissing noises. Legally protected in the United States, and with very few natural predators, turkey vultures have an IUCN conservation status of ‘least concern’.

The Chupi Wetland: A Biodiversity Hotspot from West Bengal, Eastern India

February 3, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Biodiversity constitutes an important aspect of global wildlife resources. It is important to note that major global biodiversity hotspots are located in developing and under developed nations scattered across different continents. Unfortunately, the socio-economic conditions in these poor but natural resource-rich nations along with their nascent human population, lack of employment opportunities, political unrest and related anthropogenic pressures have serious impacts on local biodiversity. Rapid habitat loss and habitat fragmentation of various species, poaching, illegal wildlife and pet trade on exotic species, illegal harvesting of wildlife and rare plants for non-judicious pharmaceutical and allied industries, extensive grazing in restricted forest areas by local livestock and ranch animals, forest fires, illegal human encroachments into forested areas, extension of industrial and agricultural hubs into virgin forests are gradually destroying the extremely fragile local ecosystem and highly endangered biodiversity. It is, therefore, extremely essential to call for the attention of the academics, researchers, wildlife and nature enthusiasts as well as the commonalty towards global challenges of biodiversity conservation. India being a country rich in biodiversity has a major stake in the global biodiversity conservation. We all need to work passionately in raising awareness and establishing a common platform to work for global biodiversity conservation to the best of our ability.


Since 1974, every year United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) declares a message about specific environmental issues to the people on 5th June observed as ‘World Environment Day`. The prime concern behind such messages is to make aware people about various environmental crises of earth and to act accordingly to save this only living planet. UNEP, in 2010, gives us the message –‘Many Species, One Planet, One Future’ to save the endangered and threatened species of wildlife and plants. Extinction of species is a natural process. Now, scientific evidences reveal that the current rate of extinction is not only alarming but much higher than natural and even any past rate throughout geological time scale. In every twenty minutes one species is now lost forever from this planet. Ecologists strongly indicate higher rate of habitat loss is the predominant force driving this alarming rate of species extinction.

In such bleak and dismal arrays of information there is an incandescent spurt of hopeful effort to conserve biodiversity, especially avifauna, by some local people in Chupi wetland; located in the Burdwan district of the eastern India state of West Bengal. The district is located around south central part of the state. The area of the Chupi wetland is approximately 3.15 square kilometres. This wetland is a stagnant U-shaped ox-bow lake formed by the changing course of River Ganga (Ganges) extending east to west. The length of the ox-bow lake is about 10 kilometres.

The Chupi wetland is rich in biodiversity. One can easily discern underneath a huge variety of zooplanktons and phytoplanktons through the crystal clear water of this wetland. Besides this, multiple species of fishes, toads, crabs, molluscs and insects are also found here. Every winter many species of migratory birds arrive here for these palatable foods. These birds come here crossing some thousands miles mainly from distant Siberia (Russia), Middle-Asia, Europe, Mongolia, China, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh (northern India) and from other areas of the Himalayas. They normally remain in the Chupi wetland for the entire winter season from December to February and go back to their abode at the end of the winter. Interestingly, a few migratory species are seen to stay here permanently, like the Lesser Whistling Teal.

The species mainly found here include Gadwall, Mallard, Ruddy Shelduck, Northern Pintail, Ferruginous Pochard, Red Crested Pochard, Lesser Whistling Teal, Open-bill Stork, Common Coot, Osprey, Small Pratincole, Terek Sandpiper, River Tern, Black-winged Stilt, River Lapwing, Spoonbill, Hoopoe, Cotton Pigmy Goose, Red vented Bulbul, Drongo, Pheasant Tailed Jacana, Greater Painted Snipe, Pond Heron or Paddy Bird, Egret, White Wagtail, Purple Moor Hen, Bronzed Winged Jacana, Field Sparrow, Grey Headed Lapwing, Cormorant, Darter, Crow Pheasant, Red Wattled Lapwing, Purple Heron, Jacana, Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Green Bee Eater, Oriole, Woodpecker and so on.

As thousands of migratory birds make this wetland their favourite winter destination; this part of West Bengal quickly became one of the most talked about regions for poaching and illegal capture of several migratory bird species. Poaching became a major menace here. Poachers used nets and poisoned paddy to mercilessly kill the birds. Some poachers put sharp iron hooks hiding in favourite foraging spots of these birds with food baits. The unsuspecting birds very often became nailed in throats to death while swallowing the foods. Some poachers with illegal guns floated upon tubes completely covering themselves with water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes (Mart.) Solms; Pontederiace) to indiscriminately shoot the helpless birds or capture them after being severely injured.

Nowadays illegal markets of these rare migratory birds involve hefty amount of money. While some birds are enmeshed for illegal trade, others are killed to quench the thirst for exotic bird meat. There is also a demand for eggs of these birds for making specialized food items. But, uncommonly, some native local people vehemently protested this illegal trade and capture of the rare species. They even did not step back from the gunpoint of the poachers. These people formed an organization named ‘Banobeethi’ (A Forest Thoroughfare) to protect the migratory birds and to educate other people about the value of these rare species. By their passionate effort Chupi wetland has slowly transformed into a safe haven for these birds. This, certainly, is a dazzling and infrequent example of environmental movement to save biodiversity even at the risk of their own lives.

Eminent Indian environmental lawyer, Mr. Biswajit Mukherjee, a path breaking green crusader and recipient of the prestigious ‘Indira Gandhi National Environment Award’ has joined these local inhabitants and has been engaged with the West Bengal State Forest Department to ensure protection of these birds to save local biodiversity. The Directorate of Forest Department has assured that they are seriously thinking over the matter for a broader and meaningful cooperation. We, the commonalty, also want more tightened security to protect these rare migratory birds because conservation of species is doubtlessly a key issue in the pretext of ecological democracy.

It is important that local residents and villagers should be made important stakeholders in the process of biodiversity conservation and this can effectively help in generating some alternative employment. Hiring permanent/temporary/contractual local labours, guards and wildlife staff trained for monitoring and surveillance, afforestation and participatory forest management programs, reconstruction of damaged vegetated areas and habitats and in conserving biodiversity and wildlife will be cheaper and much safer than bringing external labour force to an ecologically vulnerable region. Further, the involvement of local residents through employment and voluntary activities in biodiversity conservation will considerably make it easy to combat with poachers and illegal capture and trade of the helpless bird species. If local people are to be made actively involved in the conservation projects, the long term success of such vulnerable ecological habitats will definitely increase several folds.

Often it is necessary to extend the areas under conservation and it will be necessary to withdraw human residences for bringing a bigger section of vulnerable ecosystem under the umbrella of effective conservation management. The rehabilitation of the displaced people needs to be considered sympathetically so that they do not lose their natural livelihood and socio-cultural practices completely as a result of the conservation initiatives. If both processes are tied together empathetically and judiciously, smooth functioning of environmental protection together with modern industrial and agricultural developments in the line of socio-ecological progress will never be an impossible task. With the forces of development encroaching protected habitats, the existing habitats will never be as same as it was in its pristine state, but we can make it close to what it may be through sincere and dedicated efforts. Although extremely challenging, however, the task is not quite impossible.

Photo credits: Rahul Ray

Article contributed by: Rahul Ray and Saikat Kumar Basu

Solving Human-Avian Conflicts & Encouraging Coexistence (Part 2)

September 15, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

Continued from Part 1

Common Human-Avian Conflict Mitigation Methods

Regardless of the individual circumstances that exist for each human-avian conflict event, many mitigation methods are available to address these situations. A successful mitigation program will most likely involve a combination of several different techniques that take into consideration the environmental conditions of the area, the funding that is available, the severity and nature of the conflict, and the level of community support that exists for the program. The goal of the program should be to use the most cost effective, least intrusive mitigation methods, leading to peaceful human/avian coexistence.

When developing a wildlife conflict resolution program, all stakeholders should have the opportunity to voice their concerns and to participate in the design of a mitigation program. A comprehensive education program should also be initiated to diffuse highly volatile situations, eliminate misconceptions, increase community support, and improve attitudes and tolerance levels (Baruch-Mordo et al, 2011). Educational programs may include public forums, school programs, solicitation of support from industry and governmental entities, distribution of educational materials and other methods (Baruch-Mordo et al, 2011).

Next, the habitat should be modified as much as possible to make it less attractive to the species causing the conflict. The habitat should be examined to see if there are things present that are attracting the birds such as food, water, nesting materials, and ground cover for rodents. Removal of these items, if possible, and cleaning around the area by mowing tall grasses and cutting down dead trees that harbor insects and provide nesting sites should decrease the attractiveness of the habitat (Mengak, 2013). If the problem persists, attractants can be separated from the birds with barriers. Bringing cows that are preparing to give birth into shelters, storing grain and hay inside barns and silos, and placing chickens in a secure coop can prevent access to attractants (Lowney, 1999). Another option is to move attractants to a safe location. The Kea Conservation Trust is utilizing diversionary areas filled with desirable enrichment items to lure birds away from dangerous car parks.

Thoughtful urban planning can also reduce wildlife conflict situations. Power companies can install rounded protection devices on utility poles to prevent monk parakeets from building nests on them, and can design electricity pylons that prevent the electrocution of raptors (Newman et al, 2008). Wind energy farms can implement bird-friendly technology and operation methods and be placed away from important bird migration routes (American Bird Conservancy, 2013). Wildlife crossings can be installed to allow animals to migrate across roadways (Metro, 2014).

Another approach to reducing human-avian wildlife conflict situations is to reduce the incentive for people to harm the birds. These methods are most effective when the avian species population involved is endangered or threatened. First, laws should be instituted to protect the species. Next, these laws must be strictly enforced (Cross et al, 2013). Then, if possible, incentive programs should be implemented to improve attitudes. These incentives should provide benefits to the people who are suffering losses but are not harming the birds. Types of incentives include reimbursing farmers for crop and livestock losses, replacing property that was damaged by the birds or providing people with the materials necessary to deter the birds at no cost (Decker et al, 2002).

If the above methods are ineffective, more intrusive deterrents may be necessary to harass the birds from congregating in the area. These can include audio deterrents, visual deterrents, tactile deterrents and chemical repellents (Mengak, 2013). Audio deterrents harass the birds by emitting scary or unappealing sounds. These can include loud booms, pyrotechnics or recordings of predator calls. Visual deterrents may include flashing lights, scarecrows, balloons, waving ribbons, a mounted owl figure or silhouette cutouts of predators attached to windows. Tactile deterrents may include motion-activated water sprinklers or spikes mounted on perching sites. Lastly, there are several chemical repellents available from commercial retailers that are safe and effective, but these preparations can be expensive and may require multiple applications (Stevens & Clark, 1998). Most harassment methods are only useful for a short time period because the birds become habituated to them. These methods are most effective for conflict situations that only last for a short duration, such as during migration season (Mengak, 2013).

If all other mitigation methods have failed, it may be necessary to relocate or cull offending animals. Relocations are usually reserved for protected species and must be well-planned, otherwise they may result in moving the same problem to another location or in the death of the animal. Most avian species have the ability to travel great distances and may have homing capabilities, so the relocation must be sufficiently far away and provide attractive habitat so the bird doesn’t return to the original area (Decker et al, 2002). Culling of offending individuals is a last resort and can result in unanticipated fallout. In protected species, the loss of the individual’s genetic variability may affect the overall health of the population. Behavior associated with human conflict may also be associated with subgroups of the population so culling may result in population skewing. Examples include culling females of a species who are more likely to aggressively defend nesting sites, removing the dominant bird in a family group, or removing individuals who possess greater exploratory behavior, a trait that has supported the species’ survival in the past (Orr-Walker et al, 2012).

Conclusions

Human-wildlife conflict situations can have a significant impact on the welfare of the people affected and on the wildlife species involved. These conflicts can significantly impair conservation initiatives as well. The types of conflict vary greatly. Each case must be evaluated individually and mitigation plans must be designed based on each situation’s specific needs. The goal should be to create a cost-efficient plan that uses the least intrusive methods necessary to effectively address the situation.

Local participation in policy-making and a comprehensive educational program are necessary first steps if mitigation programs are to succeed long-term. Attention to the complex social issues involved in the conflict is also important. Familiarity with the ecology of the avian species of concern and the mitigation strategies available will also assist in the creation of a successful mitigation program. Peaceful coexistence between the humans and the wildlife should be the primary goal.

References for this article can be found on the author’s bio page.

Article submitted by Jackie R. Bray, Graduate Student MA Biology – Project Dragonfly at Miami University Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden – Cincinnati, Ohio

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