Amazing Memories of Hummingbirds

March 27, 2012 by  
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Flitting from one flower to the next, their long, narrow beaks perfectly adapted to reach seemingly inaccessible nectar, hummingbirds hover with their wings a blur, their iridescent feathers shining in the sun. New research has revealed that these fascinating little creatures are even more amazing than previously thought. While they may be tiny, it has been discovered that the area of the hummingbird’s brain related to learning and memory – the hippocampus – is the largest in comparison to body size of any other bird, and up to five times larger than that found in seabirds, songbirds and woodpeckers. With the frantic activity of hummingbirds requiring relatively large quantities of nectar to fuel it, it makes sense that this huge memory is likely to be used in pinpointing where the prime locations of this sweet substance are.

It has been noted by researchers that hummingbirds retain this memory of where each feeder is located, both when it is at home and as it travels along its migration path. This ability to remember locations of food sources, and therefore plan their route with precision, referred to as episodic memory, was previously thought to have been restricted to humans. Not only do they remember where all the prime sources of nectar are, field studies reveal that they appear to be able to judge how long the flowers will take to produce more nectar after they have emptied them, and do not revisit those particular flowers until they have something worthwhile to offer.

In addition to field observation, the study included dissecting the brains of several species of wild hummingbirds, as well as related common swifts, using the data to compare with stored data relating to hippocampus development of 77 other species of birds. The conclusion of the dissection study was that the hippocampus of the humming bird is substantially larger than that of any other bird on record, relative to size. Scientists are of the opinion that, given the long distances hummingbirds travel, they cannot afford to waste time or energy searching for food sources, and the brain has compensated for this by developing the hippocampus and facilitating a large memory.

Bird Watching in Oman – A Rewarding Experience

November 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Bird watching enthusiasts who make it a goal to visit a veriety of destinations where they can enjoy their hobby, may want to consider a visit to Oman during the northern hemisphere winter season. Located on the edge of the western Palearctic, between Africa, Europe and Asia, Oman is the wintering destination of avifauna from three distinctive zoo-geographical areas. The country has a wealth of varied habitats to cater for the specific needs of hundreds of bird species, and birding enthusiasts can be assured that each bird watching excursion will be a rewarding experience.

Officially called the Sultanate of Oman, the country is an Arab state located on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman form the coastline of the country, providing plenty of opportunities for seabirds and waders to enjoy the sea’s bounty. Husband and wife Janne and Jens Eriksen are experienced birdwatchers based in Oman, and they are making a concerted effort to bring the country’s rich birdlife to the attention of birders around the world. While the winter months, between October and March, are particularly interesting because of the foreign feathered visitors that join the locals, Oman has a thriving all-year-round population of around 500 species of birds spread throughout the more than 300,000 square kilometers of land.

The Oman Ministry of Environment, together with the Ministry of Tourism, is actively involved in both protecting the natural heritage of the country, and promoting eco-tourism. Authorities have allocated fifteen protected conservation areas and have sponsored the publication of books on birding in Oman to encourage both locals and international tourists to enjoy the birdlife of the country. The Eriksens note that while people flock to shopping malls for recreation, they are missing out on spending their leisure time in nature. This is a situation they would like to change and believe that nature clubs in schools are the answer, as these could encourage the younger generation to get involved in bird watching and hiking.

November is one of the most popular times for bird watching in Oman, as this is when large flocks of migrating birds arrive, providing plenty of action on the coastline as they establish territory for the winter by strutting about, swooping and diving in an endless flurry of activity. By December the birds are more settled and bird watchers can observe them going about their daily routines. In January, the water level of the lagoons and wetlands rises, attracting wintering waterfowl in large numbers. Certainly, birders who have spent time observing the birds of Oman agree that the diversity and number of birds is astounding, and well worth experiencing.

The Albatross Task Force Project

February 25, 2009 by  
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South Africans are fast gaining recognition for taking initiative and trying new things. Most recently they have enjoyed a lot of success in efforts aimed at minimizing the number of endangered albatrosses killed in fishing nets annually. Conservationists are now looking at how the project can be expanded.

Albatrosses do not generally receive a lot of public attention, but they are certainly no less important than other birds. This large sea bird is currently facing a huge dilemma – as many as three quarters of albatross species are at the brink of extinction. The main cause for their demise is the fact that they are easily entangled in long fishing lines which are dropped into the water to catch fish such as tuna. The bird then swoops down on the baited lines to which it is attracted, quickly becomes entangled in the lines and it is then eventually pulled underwater where it drowns. It would seem to be such a simple problem to solve, but up until now conservationists have not have much success in helping to stem the number of fishing industry-related deaths.

Fortunately a South African initiative called the Albatross Task Force (ATF) project has now found a way to make the lines safer and so reduce the probability of the birds being drawn to them and becoming entangled. The project’s main preservation technique involves attaching brightly colored streamers to the back of the vessels. These streamers, known as tori lines, flap in the wind and scare the birds away, so helping them to avoid becoming entangled. The initiative also looks at educating fishermen so as to help them avoid catching albatrosses. They share specialist knowledge with the fishermen and also encourage them to fish at night when activity is low. Finding more effective ways to keep the lines down under the water is also encouraged. While changing entrenched attitudes takes time, new laws stipulating that no more than 25 birds may be caught during fishing trips is a very powerful motivator.

So far the Albatross Task Force project has been incredibly successful in helping these endangered birds to avoid premature deaths. The project was launched in 2006 and in 2008 the number of birds killed by fisheries in South Africa dropped by an incredible 85%. Expanding the project to encompass other countries is simply the next logical step, and the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is very supportive of the move. Hopefully this creative and forward-thinking initiative will save yet another bird species from extinction.

Herald Petrel (Pterodroma arminjoniana)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Herald Petrel (Pterodroma arminjoniana) is a medium-sized bird belonging to the Procellariidae family. It is a sea bird and spends much of its life on or above the ocean, only really visiting nesting grounds during breeding season. It is generally found below the Equator but you may find these birds as far north as North Carolina on occasion. One of their more notable breeding grounds is that of Raine Island and other small cays in the Coral Sea where it can forage comfortably in the surrounding ocean. When looking for breeding grounds, the Herald Petrel favors warm islands with soils that are well suited for nesting burrows. It feeds on squid and crustaceans which it skims from just below the surface of the water with its bill only to be ingested later whilst the bird is in flight.

When you look at the Herald Petrel, you will find that its body measures roughly 36-41 cm in length with a wingspan of 97-102 cm. Generally speaking, the whole bird is gray with some green showing on the nape and upper tail. The body has no patterning whatsoever. The Herald Petrel also has a hooked, seabird-shaped bill and a pointed tail. The wings are also quite pointed in shape while the legs are pink in color. Birdwatchers should note that there are three different color morphs of the Herald Petrel: light, intermediate and dark. The light morph has a white chest and belly, while its upper parts are a dark gray. The dark morph has a dark grey body overall with a silver-grey or white base on its under-wing flight feathers. The intermediate morph is mixture of the light and dark morph.

When the time comes for the Herald Petrel to breed, both sexes will work together to excavate or clean out a burrow. Once this is done, the female lays only one egg in a sparse, un-lined burrow and both the male and female share incubation duties. After 49-54 days, the eggs hatch and a new Herald Petrel is born. Herald Petrels have only one brood a year.

Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The impressive Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest of all falcons. Its body measures roughly 60 cm in length and its wingspan may be as wide as 130 cm. The male is usually about one third smaller than the female and the bird may weigh between 2 to 4.5 pounds. The plumage of the Gyrfalcon varies quite considerably from white to almost black. Throughout history, this impressive bird has been highly sought after for falconry. Because of its size and rarity, it was often reserved only for those of noble birth and during the middle ages only the king had the right to possess one. The Gyrfalcon continues to be a popular bird for falconry today though modern falconers may keep their ownership of such a bird secret to avoid theft. Falconers generally refer to the male Gyrfalcon as a ‘jerkin’.

All variations of the Gyrfalcon are similar in size and have long, broad-based, pointed wings and a short, dark, hooked beak. The adult-grey morph has grey upperparts and white underparts with dark streaks. The flight feathers are pale and there is a thin moustache mark. The tail is grey with thin white bands. The adult-white morph has white plumage and a white tail with black barring on the back and wings. The adult-dark morph has dark brown upperparts and a dark tail. The underparts are heavily streaked and the flight feathers are noticeably paler than the lining on the wings.

The Gyrfalcon is circumpolar in nature and tends to nest in the arctic regions of North America, Europe, Asia, Iceland and Greenland, though they may be found elsewhere in the world when not breeding. They can live in either open, treeless plains or in swampy, forested areas and can be found near cliffs along shorelines, rivers or even in mountains. They usually nest in depressions on a protected ledge or cliff face and may even make use of an abandoned nest or a suitable man-made structure from time to time. When they nest, they generally lay 2 to 6 eggs that may take 34 to 36 days to hatch. Interestingly, they nest in arctic regions and often begin to lay their eggs in below-zero temperatures. Gyrfalcon‘s take about 2 to 3 years to become sexually mature. They generally feed on ptarmigan, grouse, seabirds, waterfowl, lemmings and ground squirrels, catching their prey either in the air or on the ground.

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