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.

Support the 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count

February 5, 2014 by  
Filed under News

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.

RSPB to Research Starling Decline in UK

September 11, 2012 by  
Filed under News

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.

Glass Coating Offers Solution to Window-Related Bird Deaths

August 28, 2012 by  
Filed under News

Flying into glass windows they are unable to see is one of the leading causes of bird deaths in urban areas. So the invention of a glass coating which is visible to birds, while remaining transparent to humans, is welcome news. Developed by German company Arnold Glas the new product, named Ornilux, reflects ultraviolet light which birds can see, but humans cannot. Tests conducted thus far suggest that its use may reduce window-related bird strikes by 66-68%, and with ongoing efforts to improve the product, this percentage may very well be increased.

The glazing concept was inspired by the web of the Orb-weaver spider which is known to reflect ultraviolet light preventing birds from flying into it and destroying it. Upon reading an article about the Orb-weaver spider, a friend of the owner of Arnold Glas suggested using the concept to develop a coating for glass, for the same purpose as the spider has – to prevent birds from flying into it. The product development took a number of years, with a host of glass and coatings being tested and discarded, until developers discovered a coating they named Mikado – the German name for the game of pick-up-sticks, as its pattern resembles the scattered sticks.

The end product was tested at a flight tunnel situated in a US nature reserve, where birds were encouraged to fly to the end of the tunnel which had been partly covered in glass coated with Ornilux and partly with plain glass. A net was used to catch birds that fell and great care was taken to ensure that none were injured. As mentioned earlier, the results of the test revealed that the product could prevent up to 68% of bird strikes.

The coated glass has recently been installed in a lookout tower at Lindisfarne on the north-east coast of England – the first application of the new product in the UK. The lookout tower dates back to the 1940s when it was used by the local coastguard for the benefit of local fishermen. Having stood empty for some years, it has recently been renovated for use by visitors to the island as it offers spectacular views of the surrounding areas and its wildlife. Safety for the thousands of birds that live in the area, or stop-over at certain times of the year, was a major consideration, and Ornilux provided the solution.

While the cost of the product may prevent it from being used on a wide scale at this stage, it is early days yet and future developments may well make it more affordable. Meanwhile Ornilux offers a solution to the problem of birds colliding with glass, and has been installed at a wildlife center in Canada, a mountain railway building in Austria, a zoo in Germany and a school in the United States, as well as the lookout tower at Lindisfarne.

Feathers, Fashion and Conservation

May 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Chosen in 1953 as the symbol of the National Audubon Society in the United States, the Great Egret (Ardea Alba) represents an inspiring conservation success story. Had it not been for the dedicated efforts of bird-lovers, this majestic bird would have been hunted to extinction – all in the name of fashion. In the 19th century, the snowy white plumage of the Great Egret made the bird a target for hunters who were supplying the fashion industry in North America. Records indicate that their populations plummeted by up to 95 percent before action was taken to prevent their extinction. Today, they are protected by legislation in the United States and are among the birds listed under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). The Great Egret’s conservation status is now listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List.

This elegant long-legged, startlingly white bird with its S-shaped neck is found throughout North and South America, as well as in many other parts of the world. They are typically found near both fresh and salt water as they feed in wetlands, tidal flats, streams and ponds. They stand still for long periods of time waiting for their prey to come to them, whereupon they snap it up and swallow it whole. Although they primarily feed on fish, they will also eat amphibians, mice and reptiles. These monogamous birds nest in trees near water, where both parents take responsibility for incubating and raising their young.

Feathers have long been used by humans as a fashion statement, features of traditional dress or in tribal customs. While examining the remains of a Neanderthal dwelling in the Fumane Cave in the region of Verona, Northern Italy, paleontologists discovered more than 600 bones of birds dating back some 44,000 years, neatly laid out in layers. Thorough examination of the bones revealed that they belonged to twenty-two species of birds, with clear evidence that the feathers had been cut off in a manner that would preserve them intact. While it may be easy to conclude that they had killed the birds as a food source, research reveals that the birds from which the remiges (flight feathers) had been cut, were poor food sources, and considering that feathered arrows had not yet been invented, it was concluded that the feathers had been used for decorative purposes. It’s a sobering thought that when killing or maiming birds simply for the purpose of using their feathers, humans today are displaying behavior in keeping with our Neanderthal ancestors.

Bird-lovers who want to make a positive contribution to the conservation of our feathered friends should contact their local Audubon Society.

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