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.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

February 9, 2009 by  
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For many, the turkey is simply a large bird that you eat traditionally at Thanksgiving dinner. Few realize that there are two different species of turkey and that the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is the heaviest of the two. The Wild Turkey is found naturally in North America and the other species – known as Ocellated Turkey – can be found in Central and South America. While the Ocellated Turkey is easily domesticated and has even been successfully introduced to Europe, it has been found that the best way to introduce Wild Turkeys to other regions is to capture wild groups and then release them at the desired location.

The Wild Turkey is a large, darkly coloured, ground-dwelling bird. The head and neck are bare and the head is bluish in colour while the throat is a strong red. These birds have a short, slightly down-curved bill and long, powerful reddish-orange legs. On the head there are a number of fleshy growths known as caruncles. There is also a fleshy flap on the turkey’s bill which expands and becomes engorged with blood when the turkey is excited. The average bird is between 110-115 cm long with a wingspan of 125-144 cm. The male is generally larger than the female and has red wattles on the throat and neck as well as spurs on their lower legs. Male turkeys may also have red, green copper, bronze and shiny gold on their feathers while females are quite dull. Turkeys have a long, fan-shaped tail with glossy bronze wings. The Wild Turkey of North America has a chestnut-brown tail while the Ocellated Turkey of Central and South America has a white tail. This makes it easy to distinguish between the resident wild birds and those re-introduced as a farm animal by European settlers who had bred with original Mexican stock in Europe.

While the most commonly recognised turkey sound is a ‘gobble’ noise, the bird is capable of making many other sounds. During breeding season, Wild Turkeys move out of heavily wooded areas to places with greater visibility. This may include pastures, fields, open woods and sometimes even quiet roads. These open areas give the birds a quick means of escape. The hens usually nest near the base of a tree or shrub, though they may also make use of tall grass. When they are not nesting, Wild Turkeys generally roost in trees. The males are polygamous and they may have as many as five hens in their territory. After performing several courtship rituals, the male mates with the females who then go off to search for nesting sites. Once they have found a suitable depression, the hen lays between 10-12 eggs which are incubated for 28 days. Being nidifugous, these young chicks quickly learn how to feed themselves and leave the nest between 12-24 hours later. Wild Turkeys are omnivourous and they feed on shrubs and small trees as well as acorns, nuts, berries, roots and insects. They may also eat snakes, frogs and salamanders.

Little Stint (Calidris minuta)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Little Stint (Calidris minuta) is located throughout Europe and Africa, and is generally found in areas that have water sources. It prefers mudflats, beaches, estuaries, island tundra and coastal tundra. This 13 to 18 centimeter little wader bird is part of the Sandpiper family and is a rusty brown color over its breast, face and neck, with spots of black. Its back and wings are scale-brown and it has a white belly. The back also has an extremely distinctive white “V” when the bird is in flight. Both sexes look similar and in winter the adult Stint changes in color to gray-brown streaks and dull brown wings and upper body parts. The Stint has black eyes and a dagger-like bill. This little bird only weighs a mere 23 grams and has a wingspan of about 28 to 30 centimeters. Flight is very swift, with extremely rapid wing beats.

There is sometimes a little confusion when identifying the Little Stints amongst the other wader birds. It is therefore important to take extra care in noticing the plumage pattern on the wings, coloring and being aware of the little hind toe that is visible on the Little Stints’ feet. Birds such as Sanderlings are generally paler in color and larger in size, while Timmincks’ Stints have yellow-green coloring on their legs. This wader bird feeds mostly on insects but will also feed on mollusks and crustaceans. Being a migratory bird, the Little Stint will migrate to Asia and Africa during the cold, winter months.

During the bird breeding season, nests will be constructed from a ground scraping, and is lined with dwarf birch leaves and willow. The female Stint will lay between three to five eggs, which are either olive green or yellow in color and have red-brown spots on the shell. Both the male and female will be active in the 21 to 23 day incubation period. It is not unusual for the Little Stint to incubate two nests at the same time. After the chicks have hatched, it takes approximately fifteen to eighteen days for the young chicks to learn to fly, and fledge the nest.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is a dabbling duck that is between 15 to 16 inches in length and has a wingspan of approximately 36 inches. The male Mallard has a green head, a very distinctive white ring around his neck that separates the green plumage from the chestnut colored breast and gray back. The flanks and upper wing coverts are gray in color, black under their tail and the tail is white. Wing linings are generally silver-white, but the Mallard does alternate in plumage during the fall and early summer months. Females have orange bills and the males have yellow bills. She also has a brown face, dark cap and tan and mottled brown plumage coloring.

This dabbling duck is the most commonly found duck across Europe and North America. Unfortunately, they are also the most hunted ducks, and therefore, the conservation authorities keep monitoring the population numbers and the species. The Mallard can also be sighted in other areas and countries, as many of these areas have introduced the Mallard into their regions, wherever they are not naturally located. They are commonly seen in parks, wetlands and other watery areas.

The Mallard is an omnivore, which means that it will eat basically anything, including wheat, barley, seeds, berries, insects, tadpoles, small fish and even freshwater snails. Being a dabbling duck, they do not dive under water to feed, but will dip their heads. During the mating season, the Mallard males will give elaborate displays on the water before copulation. Usually, the male will only mate with one partner, but it is also common to see the male chase a single female and force copulation. Displays and partner finding can be seen throughout the winter months, while breeding season is only in spring. The partnership is short lived, as the males will leave the female as soon as they start laying eggs and form a group with the other males. The female lays her eggs at intervals, and can lay between 9 to 13 eggs. She will only start incubation after she has laid her last eggs. The incubation period is 27 to 28 days, and the ducklings all hatch within a day. They are then led to water, where the female will take care of them.

Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) is a wading bird that is found in Africa and in parts of Asia and Europe. They frequent rivers, lakes, marshy areas and savannahs. They can often be found near cattle that disturb insects, areas where humans might leave offal and often scavenge from vultures and other animals. The Marabou Stork is somewhat scruffy looking, with a long pointed beak, almost no feathers on his head and neck, and a pouch of skin that hangs from its beak. It is a bird that is impressive in size, at approximately 115 to 152 centimeters in length, and can weigh up to 9 kilograms. From under its throat and across its belly, the Stork is white, with its upper body parts, such as back and wings, covered in black plumage.

Marabou Storks are scavengers, and will not only feed on animal carcasses, but will also settle for frogs, termites, snakes, fish, grasshoppers, rodents, and even young flamingos or nestlings. In general, the stork is not fussy when it comes to his meals. It has also been known that these scavengers will walk in front of a moving fire to collect the fleeing animals.

Due to the having a big body and carrying a lot of weight, the Marabou Stork’s long legs have hollow bones. This assists the bird to be able to take off from the ground, and enable flight. When the storks take to flight, they are extremely elegant and fly with their legs outstretched and necks resting in a “S” position.

Nesting can either be a solitary event or the stork will find a colony of a mixture of birds. Nests are constructed from twigs and are built in trees. The nests are very large constructions, and many smaller birds will nest amongst the twigs. The female Marabou Stork will usually lay between two to three eggs at a time, and the incubation period for the eggs is 29 to 31 days. At times, the incubation period can last 50 days. Both parents will scavenge for food to feed the chicks, and after about four weeks the chicks are able to stand. It takes a few months for the chicks to grow flight feathers, and even after they are able to fly they still remain dependant on their parents for several more weeks.

Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) is a small wader and looks similar to the elegant Greenshank, which has very long yellow legs and a long fine bill. The coloring of the two birds is also similar, both have a greyish brown plumage that is pale in winter and has a white line running up its back, which can easily be seen in flight. The Sandpiper breeds between the months April through to August and only in temperate zones. They will go from South-eastern Europe all the way through Russia to Western Siberia and Ussuriland. The courtship song of the sandpiper is a repeated tu-ee-u, tu-ee-u, but when they are on the breeding grounds and something alarms them, then they will make a sharp chip sound.

The Marsh Sandpipers will nest in grassy areas and by muddy shores of freshwater pools, thick grassy vegetation and boreal wetlands and if worse comes to worse they may tolerate brackish water. Their nests are never in large groups, mostly solitary or in loose colonies where the nests are far a part from each other. Both the male and female will take turns in incubating eggs and raising the juveniles.

Sandpipers will either spend their winter in sub-Saharan Africa and in India or they will head to Europe and a few will go to Southeast Asia and Australia. These birds are not scared by distance and will fly for long times with no stops at passage sites on their migration route. The birds that are not breeding may prefer to stay at their winter grounds throughout the year or spend summer at different sites.

The Marsh Sandpipers are threatened specifically by the overuse of herbicides and insecticides because of their tendency to forage in cultivated wetlands like rice fields. The Sandpiper is closely related to the Wood sandpiper and the Common Redshank. These birds find their food by probing in wet mud or shallow water and eat a large amount of insects and other similar type prey. The Marsh Sandpiper is one of the many species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Water Birds applies.

Merlin (Falco colombarius)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Merlin or as it is scientifically know as, Falco colombarius, is a falcon that breeds in many different continents like North America, Asia and Europe. In North America it is known as a pigeon hawk, and the Latin part of its scientific name, “columba”, means dove also indicating the falcon’s popular food choice. But the name is incorrect in that it is not a hawk but a falcon and so the name is not often used.

The Merlin is a small bird of prey that breeds in open areas like moor lands, birch scrub and taiga or willow scrub, coasts and desert areas. When temperatures become too cold the Merlin, like its larger counterpart the Peregrine Falcon, will migrate to more temperate regions. These northern European birds will go over to North Africa or to southern Europe, whereas the North American birds will head to southern USA and to northern South America. If the bird is found in Great Britain, one of its milder breeding ranges, it will leave high grounds and move to lowlands and the coast.

In Europe the Merlin is a social bird and will roost communally in winter, many times with Hen Harriers. However, in North America, communal roosting is rare because the Merlin is known for its aggression and it will go so far as to attack any bird of prey, even eagles. Throughout the Merlin’s territory range they will nest on the ground, for instance in the United Kingdom they will usually look for a shallow scrape on the heather moor land. They also enjoy long heather but because of the regular burning in that area they tend to be over managed.

The male Merlin’s coloring is specifically blue-gray with orange-tinted under parts. The female and the juvenile differ and have a dark brown back and a white belly with brown spots below. The American subspecies go from pale in the Great Plains to dark brown, black in the Pacific Northwest. This particular species is small in size and has dark under parts, and is distinguished from the Peregrine Falcon by its facial features, which are not as strongly marked.

These falcons prey on small birds like pipits, larks and large insects and because of this they rely heavily on their speed and agility to hunt prey. Merlin Falcons hunt by flying low, about one meter off the ground, and very fast catching their prey by surprise.

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The beautiful Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is the bird that people most commonly picture when discussing a swan. This striking, white bird with its slender neck, black eyes and dark orange bill has become a bird of legend, with many European and Asian fairytales and bedtime stories featuring this magnificent creature. The Mute Swan is found naturally in the more temperate parts of Europe and western Asia and, while it is not migratory as such, certain inland populations are forced to move to the coast in winter when their waterways and lakes may freeze over. Because these birds are considered to be so beautiful, some have been taken to other countries where attempts have been made to keep them at parks and ponds. However, the birds inevitably escape and as a result there are currently a number of feral bird populations in the US which have become naturalised over time. In some places, however, they compete with local bird species for food and space resulting in them being labelled as ‘pests’. Nevertheless, they fall under the AEWA conservation agreement.

The Mute Swan is an impressively large bird with an average body length of between 145-160 cm. Their wingspan may measure 208-238 cm in length and the males are normally quite a bit larger than the females. These proportions and the resulting weight make the Mute Swan one of the heaviest flying birds in the world and the heaviest water bird ever recorded. Both the cobs (males) and pens (females) are similar in appearance with pure white bodies, necks and heads. There is a small black area around their eye which joins up with the knob on their bills. The males have a larger knob than the females. Their bills are orange-red in color and their necks have an unmistakable S-like curve which adds greatly to their allure. Young Mute Swans are called ‘cygnets’ and they are normally a dull white or grey with a dull-colored bill.

Mute Swans usually build their nests on large mounds which they create in shallow water. These mounds may be either in the middle or near the edge of a lake. The birds typically use the same nest each year and they may have to restore or rebuild it at the beginning of breeding season. The Mute Swan is monogamous and both sexes share in building and caring for the nest and for incubating and raising their young. Mute Swans normally feed on water plants, insects and snails and an adult may eat as much as 4 kg of vegetation in one day. These birds are generally found in large colonies and can become quite tame though they will always act defensively if you approach their nest and it is not recommendable for anyone to do so.

Purple Gallinule (Porphyrula martinica)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Purple Gallinule (Porphyrula martinica) is a truly beautiful wader bird. Their brightly colored feathers makes it hard to take your eyes off them. They are 10.5 inches in length with a wingspan of 21 inches, and do not fly very well. This water bird is quite big with a very short tail and a short bill. The Purple Gallinule has purple-blue plumage over its neck, breast, head and its belly. They have red eyes, yellow legs and their bills are red with a yellow tip. The frontal shield, that is located just above the bill, is pale blue and the back and upper wings are covered in green and blue plumage. Both the males and females are similar in appearance.

They are generally located in the areas of the southeastern and northern United States, Argentina, Northern Mexico and the Gulf Coast. However, they have been sighted across Europe and in South Africa. During the breeding season they will migrate to the southeastern parts of the United States.

The Purple Gallinule is a marsh bird that feeds on spiders, water plants, frogs, grasshoppers, dragonflies, fruits, seeds and other insects. It therefore prefers to live in freshwater marshes that have lily pads and pickerelweed as vegetation. Being a wader, the Gallinule is able to distribute its weight evenly to enable them walk on lily pads.

Nests are constructed from leaves and tree stems, and are built in a thicket, sawgrass or on a tussock that floats on the water. The purple Gallinules female will lay approximately 6 to 9 eggs that are cream in color with brownish spots. Both parents will assist in the 18 days incubation period, and have a strange ritual regarding this. When it is time to change over the incubating duties, the one Gallinule will bring the bird presently incubating the eggs a leaf. The leaf will then be placed within the nest, before the shift is changed over. Both the male and female will assist in feeding the chicks once they have hatched. The young are able to walk on the lily pads almost immediately and can enjoy a lifespan of approximately 22 years.

Rock Pigeon (Columba livia)

February 9, 2009 by  
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Also known as the Rock Dove or Domestic Pigeon, the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) is a fairly common sight in urban areas around the world. Some places – such as Trafalgar Square in London or Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester – are famous for their large pigeon populations. The Rock Pigeon has a restricted natural range in western and southern Europe, southwest Asia and North Africa. However, it has been successfully introduced in virtually every other country in the world and it is quite common to see Rock Pigeons resting on window ledges in cities across the globe.

The Rock Pigeon is a fairly large pigeon measuring 29-36 cm in length with a wingspan of 50-67 cm. Their coloration is quite varied but most wild birds are grey with a white rump and rounded tail. The tail usually has a dark tip and the wings are pale grey with two black bars. The Rock Pigeon has fairly broad wings and is a competent flier. They may have green and lilac patches on the sides of their necks. The male and female are similar in appearance but the males are larger and have more iridescent necks. The eyes and eyelids are usually orange though some have white-grey eyes. The eyes are usually surrounded by a dull white eye ring and the feet can be red or pink in color. Immature Rock Pigeons are duller in color and have less lustre.

Rock Pigeons tend to nest on ledges or in a cave – depending on their immediate environment. The nest is made of grass, heather or seaweed and is a fairly flimsy structure. A female will use the same nest repeatedly, building on top of old nests each time she wants to roost. She generally lays two white eggs in it. Both parents incubate the eggs for 18 days afterwhich they hatch to reveal pale yellow chicks with flesh-coloured bills that have a dark band. The parents feed the hatchlings on ‘crop milk’ for about a month until the fledging period has ended. Rock Pigeons have been domesticated for thousands of years and have been used both as a source of food and as racing and homing pigeons. Despite their ability to find their way home over long distances, they are generally quite sedate and do not leave their local areas. Because of their association with humans, feral Rock Pigeons often display a wide variety of plumages.

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