New Bird Species Discovered in Amazonia

September 24, 2013 by  
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Technological advances, along with the dedication and patience of researchers, have resulted in the recent discovery of fifteen new bird species in the Amazon rainforest. The formal description of the fifteen birds has been presented in a special edition of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, adding to the sixteen volumes already published by Lynx Edicions in partnership with BirdLife International. Entitled “Special Volume: New Species and Global Index” the book includes descriptions of 84 new species, including the fifteen from the Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon rainforest, also referred to as Amazonia, covers most of South America’s Amazon Basin and includes parts of territories of nine different nations, with up to 60% of the region belonging to Brazil. Amazonia is the most species-rich region on the planet, with more than 1,300 species of birds – one in five of all of the world’s bird species – living in this region which also hosts migrating birds at different times of the year. Sadly, at the current rate of deforestation conservationists are of the opinion that the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed in the next 40 years – and birds, along with other animals that depend on this paradisiac part of the world, are paying the price.

Led by ornithologist Bret Whitney of the LSU Museum of Natural Science (LSUMNS) an international team of researchers was involved in the discovery of the new species. Noting that discovering such a large number of un-catalogued species was unexpected, Whitney went on to say that it highlighted how little is known about species diversity in Amazonia, as well as showing how technological advances are benefiting research efforts. Satellite imagery, DNA analysis, digital vocalization recordings and advance computation power have, in a way, opened up a new age of discovery. Current or former LSU students were involved in each of the fifteen discoveries, underscoring the work that Louisiana State University Museum of National Sciences has been consistently carrying out since the 1960s.

World Sparrow Day: Highlighting the Plight of Sparrows

March 26, 2013 by  
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Found in most parts of the world, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is the most widely distributed wild bird and has a conservation status of ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, in recent years conservationists in some parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and India, have been drawing attention to the fact that the numbers of these cheerful little birds have been dwindling, with no clear indication as to why this is the case. In order to alert the public to the plight of the Sparrow, as well as to enlist public support and participation in counteracting this trend, conservationists in London and India have joined forces to create World Sparrow Day, taking place on March 30, 2013.

Under the banner of “Rise for the Sparrow: Experience the Power of One”, World Sparrow Day is calling on citizens, educational institutions and corporate companies to do their bit for conservation and raising awareness. Individual citizens, wherever they may be, can assist by providing a regular source of food and water, eliminating poisons from their gardens and gardening organically, planting more bird friendly plants including hedges, and even putting up nest boxes for House Sparrows. Another suggestion from the organizers of World Sparrow Day is to take some grain along on outings and picnics, set it out near a thicket and wait to see if sparrows and other ground-feeding birds appear. This is a great way to teach children about the importance of birds in our environment.

Known for their life-long loyalty to their chosen mate, House Sparrows are gregarious little birds, often roosting communally with nests overlapping one another in clumps. They may regularly be seen dust-bathing or bathing in water together and they frequently join together in song. While some birds may migrate in regions with harsh winters, the majority of House Sparrows seldom fly more than a few kilometers from where they were raised. As their name would suggest, they are comfortable around humans and are often the first birds children become acquainted with. They are also very resourceful in obtaining their preferred food of seeds and grains, and are known to peck open bags of feed in warehouses and supermarkets. For this reason, some may consider them to be pests, but in general they are a welcome sight, particularly in the suburbs as they help clear gardens of aphids, snails and a variety of destructive insects. So you may want to consider getting involved with World Sparrow Day to ensure these cute little birds are still around for our children’s children.

British Birds Tap Into New Food Source

February 26, 2013 by  
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Many bird species have amazing ways of adapting to changes in their environment, and a recent study in Britain has revealed that great tits, blue tits and other native species are tapping into a new food source as a counteractive measure against the effects of climate change. Some bird species have started laying their eggs too early in the year, most likely as a result of climate change, and this has resulted in their chicks hatching out before their food source is available, the food source being caterpillars that feed on newly sprouting oak leaves in spring. The new food source is the protein-rich larvae of invasive oak marble gall wasps which the birds access by pecking away the tips of the galls found on the oak trees. Researchers working on the project, Professor Graham Stone of the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Karsten Schönrogge of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, noted that the evidence shows that the gall wasp larvae are not just an ‘occasional snack’, but rather a ‘really significant food source’.

The oak marble gall wasp (Andricus kollari) lays its eggs within the oak tree leaf buds via its ovipositor. This then develops into a round mass of green plant tissue which later turns brown and becomes hardened. Within this hardened gall there is a single wasp larva, and this is what the bird is after. These galls are found in their thousands on the Turkey oak trees (Quercus cerris) which were introduced into Britain in 1735. The first wasps that emerge are all female and go on to lay their eggs in the same manner, but without mating. The galls grow over winter and in early spring both males and females hatch, go on to mate, and the cycle starts again.

Credit goes to Dr Tracey Begg who had the task of cutting open more than 30,000 Turkey oak buds collected from eight sites in Scotland and England. Of the 3,000 galls she examined, Dr Begg found that on some trees up to half had been pecked open, leaving ragged marks, as opposed to the smooth hole wasps create when they emerge naturally, confirming that the birds are using the wasp larvae as a major food source.

RSPB to Research Starling Decline in UK

September 11, 2012 by  
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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  
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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.

Birds of New York City Get New Rehab Center

June 19, 2012 by  
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New York City has opened its first wildlife rehabilitation and education center, a much-needed facility in a city that hosts more than 355 bird species on their annual migration along the East Coast flyway, in addition to the multitude of birds that are permanent city residents. The non-profit Wild Bird Fund and its team of dedicated volunteers has been providing emergency care for more than a thousand birds and animals each year in New York City. Working along with Animal General and the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine, licensed rehabilitation volunteers take the injured birds, squirrels, and other small creatures into their own homes to care for them. The new 1300-square-foot rehabilitation center on Columbus Avenue between 87th and 88th street will provide a temporary sanctuary, with the emphasis on rehabilitation for reintroduction into the wild wherever possible.

Rita McMahon and Karen Heidgerd started the non-profit Wild Bird Fund more than a decade ago, and the need continues to grow. Birds crash into windows, become disoriented, dehydrated or fall out of their nests. Others are victims of humans who simply don’t want the birds around. Some people coat their windowsills with sticky glue to discourage the birds, but the glue coats the birds’ feathers and causes them injury.

With the new facilities, the Wild Bird Fund hopes to expand its capacity for assisting injured birds by up to fifty percent. To meet this goal the organization is looking for additional volunteers to feed baby birds and carry out the many duties required to rehabilitate rescued birds. They also need donations to help toward obtaining the equipment and consumable supplies necessary to provide adequate care.

The center already has more than 60 birds and other animals to care for, and now that the first rehabilitation center has been established, McMahon hopes to fulfill her five-year plan of having intake centers in all five boroughs of the city. At the recent Wild Bird Fund gala, author Jonathan Franzen noted that “There are roughly 100 billion birds in the world, but the 7 billion strong human population is making it harder and harder for those birds to survive. Like it or not, we are the stewards of the birds now. We claimed the planet.” Food for thought indeed!

White-crowned Sparrow Males Unruffled by Younger Rivals

March 13, 2012 by  
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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.

DNA Research Reveals Lifespan Link

January 17, 2012 by  
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Researchers from the Universities of Exeter and Glasgow have determined in a study of the DNA of a captive population of zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), that just one specific piece of genetic material in a bird’s cells can reveal how long it is likely to live. Called telomeres, these portions of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) which mark the ends of chromosomes are found in almost all higher animals and plants. Telomeres help to protect the ends of chromosomes as they divide, preventing them from fusing with one another, or unraveling. After time, telomere ends become shorter and no longer protect chromosomes, resulting in cell damage and deterioration.

It has long been suspected that telomeres decline and the ageing process are closely linked, but this has not been proven in humans, and studies thus far have relied on limited monitoring during a lifespan. This recent study started measuring telomere length when the zebra finches were twenty-five days old and continued periodically over the course of the birds’ lives. The results, which were published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed a close association between telomere length and longevity. Although the results in this study are very convincing, ecologist Pat Monaghan of the University of Glasgow notes that this does not necessarily hold true for humans, and telomere researcher Duncan Baird of Cardiff University agrees.

Zebra finches were chosen for the study as they breed well in captivity and have an average lifespan of nine years, allowing researchers to draw conclusions in a relatively short space of time when compared to humans, while at the same time not being as short-lived as mice. A total of ninety-nine finches were used in the study and it was noted that the association between lifespan and telomere length was strongest at twenty-five days of age. This is a time in the bird’s life when it is almost fully grown, but still sexually immature and reliant of its parents for sustenance. This age would be roughly equivalent to a prepubescent human.

More research needs to be done to determine the significance of the results, as it is known that telomere length is not exclusively genetically determined and can be shortened by stressful events. Baird also noted that the data doesn’t reveal whether telomeres are driving the ageing process. Moreover, the results were for the entire population of birds being monitored, individual results may present a different picture.

From Poland to UK – A Kingfisher’s Record Flight

November 1, 2011 by  
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A kingfisher from Poland has reportedly set a new record for the longest migration distance between the Continent and the United Kingdom, by flying a distance of more than 620 miles from its Polish habitat to the Orford Ness National Nature Reserve in Woodbridge, Suffolk. The ringed bird was captured, and later released, by members of the Felixstowe-based Landguard Bird Observatory who were carrying out routine studies on bird ringing at Orford Ness.

The previous record set by a bird of this species was 603 miles, traveling from Marloes, Pembrokeshire to Irun in Spain. The last ringed kingfisher found to have traveled from Europe to the UK, traveled 509 miles from Aken, Germany, in October 2008. While it still needs to be confirmed where exactly the kingfisher was ringed in order to establish the correct distance, Poland is further east than any of the other destinations recorded, making it a record-breaking flight irrespective of where in Poland the bird originated. While kingfishers routinely breed in Poland, a small number are known to migrate to the United Kingdom in autumn, presumably to escape areas that face long periods of freezing conditions.

While acknowledging that bird ringing is not a perfect science, the National Trust warden for Orford Ness, Duncan Kent, pointed out that over a period of time huge amounts of information are collected, providing insight into how long birds live, how far they travel and other valuable data for research purposes. Orford Ness site manager for the National Trust, Grant Lohoar, noted that the capture of the ringed kingfisher highlights the importance of this practice as a tool for conservation, as it allows researchers to identify individual birds.

Research carried out at Orford Ness is considered to be of utmost importance as, with its reed beds, marshes and lagoons, the area serves as a critical stopover site for migrating birds. Landguard Bird Observatory volunteer, Mike Marsh noted that if the kingfisher is indeed confirmed to be from Poland it will be one of the longest migrations for this species recorded in the database for bird ringing. The British Trust for Ornithology will follow up with Polish authorities to determine the point of origin of the record-breaking kingfisher.

Rice Farmers Support Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative

October 25, 2011 by  
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Beginning this fall, and continuing through to 2014, rice farmers participating in the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI) will work with the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) of the US Department of Agriculture on a pilot project aimed at benefiting waterfowl and shorebirds by adapting certain rice production practices. Seventy farmers in Colusa and Glenn County, California, have signed contracts to support the MBHI in a project which is the culmination of many years of research and cooperation between rice farmers and conservationists, represented by Audubon California, PRBO Conservation Science, the NRCS and the California Rice Commission.

Speaking on behalf of the California Rice Commission, Paul Buttner noted that they have worked together in testing practices that appear to make a difference to the birds, while at the same time being acceptable to rice farmers. Under the new agreement, rice farmers will extend the time period that their fields are flooded, either starting earlier or draining the fields later, thereby accommodating the birds’ breeding and migratory needs. Also the depth of the water will be adjusted, specifically at agreed upon times in the season. NRCS Assist State Conservationist, Alan Forkey, explained that generally shorebirds and waterfowl prefer a habitat of between 2 and 6 inches deep, but rice fields are usually flooded deeper than that. This will be adjusted, and instead of draining the fields in January, farmers have agreed to keep them flooded for longer and drop the water levels more gradually.

To accommodate the nesting requirements of the birds, levees between fields will be modified, with sloped levees being flattened to provide a better nesting surface and allow easier access to the water for chicks. Some farmers have also agreed to provide artificial nesting structures. A number of the proposed changes will not only benefit the birds, but will be to the farmers’ benefit as well. For the farmers who have agreed to use portions of their fields as wetlands, incoming water will have the opportunity to warm up a bit before running on to the young rice plants which will be beneficial for them, plus longer periods of flooding the fields will help to degrade the rice plants after harvesting, making it easier to clear the fields.

The cooperation of farmers in implementing the pilot project has been very encouraging, and the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership will be measuring the results of the MBHI with a view to extending the project to other areas of importance to migratory birds.

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