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.
Based on the oldest recorded pelican fossil found at Luberon in southeastern France belonging to the Early Oligocene era, it has been deduced that pelicans have existed virtually unchanged for at least thirty million years. Fossils of several birds from the Pelecanus species have been identified elsewhere in the world – South Australia; Siwalik Hills, India; Bavaria, Germany; Idaho, United States; Odessa, Ukraine; and North Carolina, United States – backing up this claim. Today there are eight living pelican species distributed around the world and some of which are considered ‘vulnerable’ or ‘threatened’ by the IUCN, and all of which use their amazingly elastic pouches to catch fish.
With the exception of the brown pelican, which dives for fish and snatches it up in its bill, pelicans usually form cooperative groups for their fishing expeditions. They either swim along in a line or U-shape formation, beating their wings on the surface of the water to drive the fish into a group in the shallows where the pelicans scoop them up in their pouches. Contrary to popular belief, pelicans do not store fish in their pouches, but swallow them almost immediately upon catching them. Baby pelicans feed by retrieving fish from the throats of their parents.
Pelicans are very social birds, traveling in flocks and breeding in colonies, either along the coastline or inland alongside rivers and lakes. The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) was at one time considered to be ‘vulnerable’ in North America – primarily due to poisoning by chemical pesticides such as the notorious DDT which devastated the populations of many seabirds – but recent reports indicate that significant recovery has taken place and the birds’ conservation status is now that of ‘least concern’.
The Dalmation pelican (Pelecanus crispus), found in South-eastern Europe through to India and China, has the IUCN conservation status of ‘vulnerable’, while the Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus) found on the Pacific Coast of South America, and the spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) found in Southern Asia, are both considered to be ‘near threatened’. The other pelican species – pink-backed pelican (Pelecanus rufescens) found in Africa, Seychelles and southwestern Arabia; the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) found in North America; the great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) found in the eastern Mediterranean, Malay Peninsula and South Africa; and the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) found in Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bismarck Archipelago, Fiji and Walacea are all listed as being of ‘least concern’ from a conservation standpoint.
Situated in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg, South Africa, Montecasino Bird Gardens is home to more than sixty species of birds, along with a variety of small mammals, amphibians and reptiles from around the world. With pathways winding through lush gardens and a huge walk-through aviary, visitors can enjoy a tropical paradise and get back to nature without leaving the city.
One of the highlights of a visit to this award winning attraction is the Flight of Fantasy show which take place weekdays at 11h00 and 15h00, with an extra show at 13h00 on weekends and public holidays. Staged at the beautifully crafted Tuscan amphitheater, trainers guide talented and colorful birds through a forty minute performance that is both educational and entertaining, with (quite literally) the biggest star of the show being Oliver, the Southern White Pelican.
Features of Montecasino Bird Gardens include the largest collection of South African Cycads in the world, with 37 different species and over 750 plants, the oldest of which is estimated to be older than 2,500 years. The Lorikeet aviary offers visitors the opportunity to feed these colorful birds their favorite treat of nectar, while Macaws and Cockatoos roam freely in the park’s Parrot Gallery. In addition to a variety of frogs, the Frog Room features scorpions and spiders. Reptiles at Montecasino include a six-meter Reticulated Python as well as all of Southern Africa’s most venomous snakes, including the Black Mamba and Puff Adder. Resident mammals include Lemurs, Meerkats, Sloths and Blue Duikers.
Among the latest arrivals at Montecasino Bird Gardens are Laughing Kookaburras and Blue-Wing Kookaburras, Caribbean Flamingoes, Green-Naped Pheasant Pigeons and Keel-Billed Toucans. One of Montecasino’s ambassadors for conservation is Moholoholo the Cape Vulture. Named for the rehabilitation center in Hoedspruit which nursed him back to health after being poisoned by farmers who were attempting to eradicate predatory jackals. Moholoholo was the only survivor of his eighteen member family. Through the dedication of the staff at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, the bird was taught to walk and fly again and now helps to educate the public on the necessity of conservation.
Established in 2006, the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary in South Africa cares for more than 180 birds representing 50 different raptor species. The sanctuary’s permanent residents have either been bred in captivity, or have sustained injuries which significantly limit their chances of survival in the wild. Located close enough to both Durban and Pietermaritzburg to allow easy access for a day trip, the sanctuary offers unique insight into South Africa’s amazing predatory birds which is both educational and entertaining.
The sanctuary’s permanent residents include vultures, eagles, falcons, kestrels, goshawks, sparrowhawks, buzzards, hawks, kites and owls. Many of the birds have been named, with a record of their rescue story available to visitors. Eagles are rightly viewed as the mightiest of the birds of prey and the sanctuary’s Eagle Alley allows visitors a close up look at some of these majestic birds. Other sections of the sanctuary are Hoot Hollow for the owls; Honeycomb Habitats housing diurnal raptors; and the Vulture Hide with its eight indigenous vulture species, all of which are considered to be threatened.
In addition to being a popular tourism attraction, the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary is dedicated to ongoing research, including breeding and rehabilitation projects, with a view to conserving the birds in their natural South African environment. The Raptor Rescue operation run by the sanctuary is kept separate from the public area and is not open to visitors. If rescued birds are to be rehabilitated and released into the wild again, it is in their best interests not to be exposed to too many people. In addition to being stressful for them, too much interaction with humans could make the birds tame, thereby hampering their chances of survival in the wild. For research purposes birds are ringed before being released into a suitable habitat, if possible where they were found.
One of the most exciting features of the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary is the flying display, and visitors should be sure to plan their day to include one of these demonstrations, bearing in mind that they are weather dependent. Flying display times are Monday to Friday at 10:30am, and at 10:30am and 3pm on weekends and public holidays. As a privately funded conservation initiative, the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary relies on entrance fees to continue their work. So, why not support this worthy cause, and enjoy an outing you are not likely to forget.
The African Penguin, also referred to as the Jackass Penguin, might be a little awkward on land, but can definitely hold its own in the water as a very efficient hunter. Tourists who visit Cape Town, South Africa, and see the beauty of these birds do not realize that they are actually witnessing a very rare moment, as the population of these birds has decreased from approximately four million in the 1900s. The last census done by the Southern African Foundation of the Conservation of Coastal Birds in 2010 counted only sixty thousand. This alarming decrease has led to the creation of a new project to protect these valuable birds.
Humans, as the story usually goes, had a great influence in the reduction of numbers of African Penguins, as up until the 1960s the penguin eggs were being harvested for human consumption. Another factor was the harvesting of guano that was used as fertilizer, but is crucial for adult penguins, as they use the hardened guano to make nest burrows. To add to the penguins’ problems, oil spills and over harvesting of anchovies and other fish species that are a part of their diet has made their fight for survival even harder.
Scientists want to try and create artificial hatcheries to assist in the breeding of African Penguins for release, but to recreate the hatcheries efficiently, it is vital for them to have the correct information to understand the penguins better. In order to do this they have attached a transmitter, which is approximately the size of a matchbox, to baby penguins that are about ten weeks of age. The penguins are first placed in a pool so they can get used to swimming with the transmitter and then released into the ocean. One penguin has already been released, and a penguin named Richie is due for release. Scientists will be releasing approximately five penguins with transmitters.
Dr Richard Sherley, a key member of the scientific team from the University of Cape Town, commented that he hoped that the data collected would allow them to understand what influences breeding colonies in the choices they make and the early life of a penguin, as these questions have not been answered as yet. Lucy, which was the first penguin to be released, has already transmitted back data, which showed scientists that young penguins are able to swim approximately twenty-eight miles in one day. Sherley commented that because no-one really knows much about the early days and life of young penguins, it is crucial for them to collect this data to assist in their conservation projects. The transmitters will eventually fall off of the penguins, but it is hoped that by then enough information has been gathered to assist scientists in finding the ideal breeding site for a colony that can be protected and will be the site of the hatchery.