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.

Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is one of two groups of owls. It belongs to the barn owl family Tytonidae and is a fairly common sight in rural areas across the globe. The Barn Owl may be found in any country except Antartica, although it may vary in appearance in certain instances such as the Tyto alba alba of western Europe which has a pure white underbelly or the Tyto alba guttata of central Europe which has an orange underbelly. These two variations are classified as subspecies and most Barn Owls have a mixture of grey and ochre on their underparts.

Barn Owls are generally pale in appearance and have long wings and fairly long legs. Their bodies measure between 33-39 cm in length and they have an average wingspan of 80-95 cm. They prefer open country, such as farmland or the edges of woods where they can easily spot their prey from the air. They generally hunt in the early twilight or at night and are fairly sedentary for the rest of the time. They often feed on voles, frogs, rats, shrews, moles, mice and insects. As they feed on so many pests, they are considered to be economically valuable birds and their presence is generally welcomed by farmers who may set up nesting sites for the birds to entice them to nest on the property. The Barn Owl is also known by several other names such as the ‘church owl’, ‘golden owl’, ‘stone owl’ and ‘rat owl’.

This beautiful, heart-faced bird has few natural predators, although they have been known to be preyed upon by bigger owls on occasion. Barn Owls themselves will prey on smaller birds if other food is scarce. They can emit a notable shrill scream which can be piercing at close range. They also hiss if nervous but do not make the ‘tu-whit to-whoo’ sound commonly associated with owls. If a Barn Owl is captured or cornered, it will flip itself on its back and use it’s sharply-taloned feet in defence. These incredible birds are also known for their soundless flight and excellent vision – especially at night.

Corn Crake (Crex crex)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Corn Crake (Crex crex) is quite a pretty little bird that is commonly found across Europe and western Asia. They are quite different from other crakes since they do not share the same habitat. While most crakes tend to prefer marshy areas, the Corn Crake seems to favour meadows and arable farmland as a breeding ground. Unfortunately, this tendency has resulted in the Corn Crake becoming a ‘Near Threatened’ species since modern farming methods often result in the destruction of nests and birds that may be hidden in pastures and amongst crops. What’s more, it is difficult to flush these birds out, since they prefer to run from danger in amongst the surrounding growth and out of sight instead of taking flight. Since harvesting and mowing often takes place before the end of breeding season, youngsters and nesting birds are often killed in the process.

When in flight the Corn Crake is quite easily identified due to its chestnut wings and long, dangling legs. The adults have brown, spotted under parts, a blue-grey head and neck area and a reddish streak on their flanks. Immature birds are similar in colour but their heads are a buff colour instead of the usual blue-grey. The Corn Crake also has a short bill and its slender legs are a yellowish-orange. As is typical of birds belonging to the rail family, the chicks are black and later develop their distinctive colouring when they lose their down feathers. The average bird is between 27-30 cm in length with a wingspan of 46-53 cm. In general, the Corn Crake is quite a secretive bird which is more often heard than seen. At night they make a rasping ‘crek crek’ sound which is quite distinctive.

The best time to see the Corn Crake is between April and September when they arrive at their Scottish breeding grounds to nest, mate and produce offspring. These days the Outer Hebrides of Scotland is generally considered to be the best place to find the Corn Crake, though they can be found in other parts of the country too. Their diet consists mainly of insects and seeds and you are most likely to find them by listening for their call instead of looking for them amongst the growth.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubber)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubber) can be found in North and South America, Asia, across Europe and in Africa. Standing at approximately five feet, the Flamingo, ranks amongs the tallest birds on the planet. Their distinctive pink plumage, large bodies and long pale pink legs make them unique. The beak of the Greater Flamingo is shaped at 45 degrees, is light of color with a black tip and assists them in filtration and pumping while they feed. Interestingly enough, the Greater Flamingo’s coloring is a result of the crustaceans that they eat. Flamingos that are housed in zoos are given dyes such as flamen oil or a beta-keratin coloring additive to ensure that they do not lose their coloring. Male and female Flamingo’s are similar, with the males being taller.

The Flamingo has webbed feet and an extremely long neck. Having webbed feet allows them to swim, but most importantly it helps them stir up organisms such as algae, diatoms, protozoa and insect larvae on which they feed. Flamingos also eat worms, crustaceans  and mollusks. The feeding process of the Greater Flamingo is very specialized. Flamingos will spend most of their day with their heads bent down, filtering water through their beaks. Their beaks contain a lamellae, which is a sieve-like structure, that is thin and can be described as a comb. Their fleshy tongues are used to suck water in the beak and then force it back out again. The bolus of food that is nearly dry after the water is forced from their beaks, goes to the back of their mouths and is swallowed simultaneously with the next water intake. The Greater Flamingos feed in large groups as this ensures safety by numbers when they have their heads down. Big flocks can also create a lot of noise, and when they are not feeding they flap their wings, preen themselves or stand in beautiful postures. Flight and migration takes place at night, and during flight Flamingos have both their legs and necks outstretched.

Flamingos are filter feeders, and are therefore found by lakes and lagoons, or watery areas that have the right water depth and mud to sustain the flamingos’ feeding process. They will only breed when they are in large numbers, and even though some build new nests, it is known that many use the same nest each year. Breeding takes place during March and July and the birds generally form a pair bond that is long term. Flamingos will built their nests on the waters edge from mud, and it is approximately 35 to 40 centimeters in diameter and 25 centimeters high. The female will lay only one egg that is white in color with a red yolk. Both parents take care of the egg that has a 28 to 32 day incubation period. Chicks are gray in color with a pink bill. The chicks are able to leave the nest after a few days, and parents will only feed their own chick. For 4 to 6 weeks, the chicks will be fed by their parents, and fledge the nest at three months. Fledglings will group together and only reach full size between the ages of 1 to 2 years. Adult plumage is only acquired during the ages of 2 to 4 years, and the long maturing process is suggested to relate to the long life span of the Flamingo. The Greater Flamingo can live to between 25 to 60 years of age.

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.

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.

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