Conservation of the Honduran Emerald Hummingbird

January 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

There are more than 338 recorded hummingbird species worldwide, and many birding enthusiasts would agree that they are top of the list as the most interesting little birds of the nearly 10,000 bird species found around the world. With their brilliant iridescent coloring, wings flapping in a blur and ability to dart in all directions, or hover in one spot, hummingbirds are extremely entertaining to watch.

Interestingly, the color of a hummingbird’s gorget (throat feathers) is not a result of feather pigmentation, but of light refraction caused by the structure of the feathers. They are unable to hop or walk, but can move sideways while perching. The smallest species is the bee hummingbird, endemic to the main island of Cuba and weighing only 1.6-2 grams with a length of 5-6 cm. Up to 30 percent of the hummingbird’s weight is in the muscles used in flight – the pectoral muscles. With wings that beat between 50 and 200 flaps per second and an average heart rate of more than 1,200 beats per minute, a hummingbird uses an amazing amount of energy and must consume up to half of its weight in sugar daily. They harvest nectar from flowers with fringed, forked tongues that lick 10-15 times per second.

The rufous hummingbird migrates a distance of more than 3,000 miles from its Alaskan and Canadian nesting grounds to its Mexican winter habitat – the longest migration of all the hummingbird species. Some hummingbird species such as the rufous, calliope, broad-tailed, Anna’s, black-chinned and Costa’s are known to inter-breed and create hybrid species, making the birder’s identification task more challenging.

Following the completion of a species status review in 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the Honduran Emerald hummingbird be listed as endangered. Endemic to five small valleys in the Central American country of Honduras, it’s estimated that the Honduran Emerald hummingbird population has decreased to fewer than 1,500. With loss of habitat being the primary cause of the decline in numbers, it is feared the decline will continue as land is cleared for establishing plantations and pastures for cattle. The good news for the brightly colored little bird is that the Honduran government is aware of the problem and has formed the Honduran Emerald Hummingbird Habitat Management Area which includes dry forest habitat suitable for the Honduran Emerald hummingbird and may very well turn the decline around.

Feathers, Fashion and Conservation

May 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Chosen in 1953 as the symbol of the National Audubon Society in the United States, the Great Egret (Ardea Alba) represents an inspiring conservation success story. Had it not been for the dedicated efforts of bird-lovers, this majestic bird would have been hunted to extinction – all in the name of fashion. In the 19th century, the snowy white plumage of the Great Egret made the bird a target for hunters who were supplying the fashion industry in North America. Records indicate that their populations plummeted by up to 95 percent before action was taken to prevent their extinction. Today, they are protected by legislation in the United States and are among the birds listed under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). The Great Egret’s conservation status is now listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List.

This elegant long-legged, startlingly white bird with its S-shaped neck is found throughout North and South America, as well as in many other parts of the world. They are typically found near both fresh and salt water as they feed in wetlands, tidal flats, streams and ponds. They stand still for long periods of time waiting for their prey to come to them, whereupon they snap it up and swallow it whole. Although they primarily feed on fish, they will also eat amphibians, mice and reptiles. These monogamous birds nest in trees near water, where both parents take responsibility for incubating and raising their young.

Feathers have long been used by humans as a fashion statement, features of traditional dress or in tribal customs. While examining the remains of a Neanderthal dwelling in the Fumane Cave in the region of Verona, Northern Italy, paleontologists discovered more than 600 bones of birds dating back some 44,000 years, neatly laid out in layers. Thorough examination of the bones revealed that they belonged to twenty-two species of birds, with clear evidence that the feathers had been cut off in a manner that would preserve them intact. While it may be easy to conclude that they had killed the birds as a food source, research reveals that the birds from which the remiges (flight feathers) had been cut, were poor food sources, and considering that feathered arrows had not yet been invented, it was concluded that the feathers had been used for decorative purposes. It’s a sobering thought that when killing or maiming birds simply for the purpose of using their feathers, humans today are displaying behavior in keeping with our Neanderthal ancestors.

Bird-lovers who want to make a positive contribution to the conservation of our feathered friends should contact their local Audubon Society.

Game Birds Losing Feathers

September 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Winter is setting in, and you absolutely do not know what to do. Your quail and pheasants have lost feathers and you don’t want them to get chilled. What do you do?

A common problem in blue scale quail is fright. Similar to when a lizard drops its tail, it is a clever defense mechanism. When a predator grabs the bird, a bunch of feathers drop out, leaving a live quail and an annoyed predator. When someone picks up the blue scales the same happens. A good way to prevent this from happening is to only handle these birds for check-ups or emergencies. If you have extremely tame quail and this only happens rarely, it is okay to handle them.

Pheasants do not have large problems with picking. When it does happen, it is usually with ring-neck pheasants. These slightly aggressive birds will pick or attack other birds. This behavior is known for starting when they are still chicks and becoming more full-fledged (no pun intended) in juveniles and adults. They will even pick at pheasants of their own species. A good way to keep them from hurting flock members is keeping them separate from other pheasants (and other birds in general). If you have a flock of them, give them plenty of space, as well as something else to pick at, such as shoestrings or jingle balls made for cats or parrots.

If you keep your quail and pheasants with chickens, hang shoestrings from the wire or put toys or something inside to provide entertainment. On rare occasions chickens will severely maim their own species or other birds and have been known to engage in cannibalism. This is known to happen due to extreme boredom.

Mites are a very common problem. Remember to keep coops or cages clean at all times and put out dust baths occasionally for your birds.

Even if your birds do not pick it is a good idea to take them to the avian vet yearly. Make sure your birds stay healthy no matter what.

Secrets of a Bird of Paradise

January 10, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Any bird watching enthusiast would agree that watching a male bird of paradise Lawes’s parotia trying to gain the interest of a female is a breathtaking experience. Its colorful chest, displayed against his black plumage makes for a spectacular show, and scientists have been studying their plumage to discover the secrets of the male Lawes’ parotia’s mating dance. It seems that the shape and special features of their feathers holds the answers to the questions that have been intriguing bird lovers for years.

To get the full effect of his mating dance, the male Lawes’s parotia spreads his wings around his body, allowing his feathers to look like a ballerina skirt, and puffs his chest out to exhibit the colors. As he moves from side to side during his dance, he repositions the feathers on his chest, allowing them to catch the light and evolve into a color display of yellow, blue and orange. The fact that these birds are able to change the color of their chest plumage at such a staggering speed has always fascinated those who have witnessed it, and now there are some answers to this magnificent natural display. To find the secrets to this bird of paradise’s plumage, scientist began to study each feather on its own and found a feature that is unique to this species. The feathers do have barbules, just like any other bird, but the difference is in the shape of the individual barbules.

Usually in the cylindrical shape of branches, this species’ feather barbules are shaped in the form of a boomerang. This basically serves as a mirror ball, so to speak. As the light reflects off the centre of the barbules, the feathers appear orange and yellowish in color, and as the light catches the sides of the barbules, the colors dance between blue and green. It was also found that the barbules have twenty-five layers of melanin, with small spaces between pigments, and is then covered by a thin keratin layer. As melanin is actually brown in color, the keratin and melanin are used in conjunction to manipulate light and create the stunning colors the species is known for.

Nature most definitely has a way of creating unique and mysterious features for each bird that takes the combined efforts of scientists to unlock their secrets. One secret that is still held by the bird of paradise Lawes’s parotia, is how the female bird perceives this display of color, and it does not seem that she is eager to share all her secrets with the world.

A Bird’s Touch

March 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

Nature not only surrounds us with sheer beauty but also offers an abundance of fascinating new discoveries that continue to amaze us. Just when we think we know everything about an animal or bird, they seem to prove us wrong. More recently, birds have revealed that crests and beards are not merely used for finding a mate, but serve a greater purpose, allowing them to explore their surroundings as well. Research on birds, such as the auklet, has opened up a new door into the world of birds and their feathers.

Professor Ian Jones, St John’s Memorial University, and Dr Sampath Seneviratne, University of British Columbia, shared their insights and suspicions that certain feathers on a bird’s body could serve to heighten the sense of touch. When looking at birds, such as the auklet, which have intricate feathers on their heads, scientists found that by putting them through a simple navigational test, much was revealed in regard to the role that crests and head feathers play. Using a dark maze, as this breed tends to breed in dark crevices, it was found that when the birds navigated the test, they succeeded in completing the maze with less difficulty than when researchers flattened their head feathers. It was also noted that in general, if birds have ornamental feathering, they tend to be birds that are active at night.

Researchers then looked at bird species that do not feature elaborate feathering, including pheasants, kingfishers, parrots, penguins and owls. They suggest that even if some birds do not have crests and rectal bristles, longer wing feathers may also serve as a means of touch. Many birds use their feathers and coloring to show off their abilities and to either startle or camouflage themselves from their predators, but there is good reason to believe that feathers have various other functions that we have not been aware of until now. The new insight into facial feathers and flamboyant feathering could lead to further studies,to confirm these findings and the preliminary research. This use of their feathers for touch and orientation has revealed a more complex side to birds, and will have us gazing a little more intently whenever we look at these colorful creatures of the skies.

Feather Degrading Bacteria Studied

December 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Features

The existence of feather degrading bacteria in wild birds was only discovered for the first time approximately ten years ago. This natural phenomenon has therefore been plaguing ornithologists with more questions than answers and sparked the undertaking of the recent studies done to explore the effects feather degrading bacteria has on birds, and in which birds this occurrence is more common. Even though more information has been collected in regard to the bacteria, studies remain ongoing. A few interesting facts have been discovered so far.

The feather degrading bacteria seems to target brightly colored birds more than those with dull plumage. To investigate this fact, a group of scientists chose a large colony of Eastern Bluebirds living in Virginia as test subjects, studying the population as a whole and noting the differences of the bacteria found in the male and female birds. Not only does this bacteria influence the coloring of the birds, but their general health as well.

It is now known that most wild birds carry feather degrading bacteria and some birds are even host to more than one bacteria species. The exact impact the bacteria has on their feathered hosts is still unclear, but they are not found to be in the majority. Almost all the birds in the study were found to have the bacteria, which hydrolyses the protein beta-keratin. It had been found that melanin pigmented feathers are resistant to feather degrading bacteria and that the oils used by birds to preen can also halt the growth of the bacteria. These traits confirm that defenses against these bacteria can be built and it is therefore suggested that the bacteria could have an influence on the evolution of birds. It was also found that the bacteria had a greater impact on the female birds than on their male counterparts. The bacteria seems to dull the coloring of the feathers, and scientists believe that the difference in bacteria between male and female birds could be influenced by the routines followed by each sex, and the areas they travel in. It is, however, mere speculation as scientists are still trying to confirm if the daily routine of males and females could play a role in the bacteria occurrences. Alex Gunderson, from Duke University in North Carolina commented, “If bacteria detrimentally influence feather coloration, they may place selective pressure on birds to evolve defenses against them.”

New Discovery Sheds Light on Bird Evolution

June 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Birding Tips

Up until a few days ago it was a commonly held belief that modern birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs such as the tyrannosaurus or allosaurus. Now new evidence has been found in favour of the theory that birds evolved separately on a parallel path to dinosaurs.

The discovery may be new, but the evidence has been there all along. Simply put, it is virtually impossible for birds to have evolved from dinosaurs. Researchers at the Oregon State Univserity (OSU) in the US pinpointed the largest significant difference in their skeletal structures – their thigh bones – as proof of this fact. Up until now the relatively fixed position of the bird’s thigh bone and the role that it plays in keeping this creature alive has gone largely unnoticed. While virtually every other land animal has a moveable thigh bone, the bird’s thigh bone, or femur, is largely fixed, making them ‘knee runners’. What is most remarkable about this feature is that it is fundamental to the continued functioning of the animal; it is the fixed position of the femur and other bird bones that keeps their air-sac lung from collapsing when the bird inhales oxygen.

Research has revealed that warm-blooded birds need about 20 times more oxygen than do reptiles which are cold-blooded. As such, they have a unique lung structure which allows for a much higher rate of gaseous exchange and activity. It is this soft and delicate structure which is carefully protected by the fixed skeletal structures that surround the lungs.

According to Devon Quick, an OSU instructor of zoology, their unusual thigh complex and the way it supports the lungs is “fundamental to bird physiology.” Quick noted that “It’s really strange that no one realized this before. The position of the thigh bone and muscles in birds is critical to their lung function, which in turn is what gives them enough lung capacity for flight.” This only adds to other evidence that birds likely did not evolve from dinosaurs – such as the feathers, wings, bones and unique locomotion and lung system that is peculiar to birds – and supports the relatively new theory that they evolved separately on a parallel path to these extinct creatures.

Grooming

February 9, 2009 by  
Filed under

Birds in the wild with take care of their own grooming needs. However, your pet bird will require some assistance from you.

Birds will keep their feathers in good condition by preening. Preening is the process whereby birds keep their feathers smooth by running their feathers through their beaks thus “zipping” the sections on the feather closed.

Bird grooming involves trimming of wings, claws and beaks, as well as bathing.

Trimming of your bird’s wings is an important part of bird grooming as it ensures the safety of your bird. Both wings should have their flight feathers trimmed. This results in a even, controlled descent to the floor. Trimming only one wing may result in “crash landings”. Trimming of the wings is not painful as the feathers do not contain nerves and are made of the same material as your fingernails. The appearance of your bird will not be altered. Before you begin trimming your bird’s wings visit your local veterinarian and he/she will demonstrate exactly how it should be done. It is important to remember that your scissors must always point away from the body of the bird. Also ensure that the person handling the bird does so carefully.

The next aspect to consider in bird grooming is that of beak and claw clipping. In the wild the beak and claws would naturally be worn down. Unfortunately birds in captivity are unable to do this. If clipping is not done the claws and beak will grow too long and the beak may become chipped or damaged. Avoid the use of sandpaper perch covers to shorten nails as these will damage the soles of the bird’s feet. The tools for clipping a small bird’s claws are nail clippers, an emery board and styptic powder (stops bleeding). Larger bird’s require a rotating grind stone. A Veterinarian should trim your bird’s beak. When trimming your bird’s nails have the styptic powder or some corn flour nearby in case of bleeding. Should any bleeding occur it is vital to take your bird to your Veterinarian.

Bathing is also important when grooming birds. This can be done by providing the bird with a suitable container of water in which to bathe. Alternatively you can spray the bird with a light mist of water. Commercial sprays for bathing are unneccessary. Bathing can take place daily or when convenient. Bird’s must be allowed to air dry, preferably in a warm room or sunlight. Whilst a hairdryer may be used, care must be taken not to burn your bird.

Grooming of birds is important to keep them in good health, and also brings you the pleasure of seeing your bird in beautiful condition.

Anatomy

February 9, 2009 by  
Filed under

Feathers are the most unique aspect of a bird’s anatomy. The feathers of a bird are made up of keratin, which is the same substance that hair, hooves and beaks are made of. The shaft, or center spine, of the feather is stiff and the tip is flexible for flight. The barbs of the feather hook together to form an air tight seal to resist the wind and also to provide insulation. The bird’s wing consists of primary feathers forming the point of the wing, and secondary and tertiary feathers further up. Contour feathers give the bird its overall shape. Down feathers provide insulation.

Now let us consider the internal anatomy of a bird. The skeleton of a bird weighs less than its feathers and thus flight is possible. The bones are so light due to their internal honeycomb structure. The inner anatomy of the bird wing, like our arm, is made up of a humerus and two lower limb bones. The digits are highly modified for flight. The breast bone of the bird has a deep keel for the attachment of flight muscles. This keel is absent in flightless birds.

Further to the internal anatomy of a bird is a look at those organs which assist in flight. There are two types of flight muscles, namely, white and red muscle. White muscle is used for bursts of activity, such as taking off quickly. Active flying birds, such as those which migrate (e.g. geese), have red flight muscles supplied with lots of blood vessels. Heat from flight must be regulated, this is done by means of the respiratory system. Birds have at least nine air sacs connecting chambers in their bodies. This supplies the muscles with extra oxygen to use. Birds have a four chambered heart like our own, only it beats at a much faster pace.

Now let us look at the parts of a bird’s anatomy used for finding and consuming food. The bill of a bird is merely an extension of the jaws and is covered in keratin. It has many nerve endings so as to feel and taste its food. Bills vary in shape and size according to the feeding habits of bird species. The bird’s gullet has a small sac called a crop in which undigested food is stored for later use, such as when feeding nestlings.

The feet of a bird function in harmony with it’s bill. In bird anatomy, the feet vary according to function. For example, birds of prey have sharp talons for killing prey; wood peckers have two toes pointing forward and two pointing back to climb effectively; and ducks have webbed feet for paddling. Interestingly, birds will not fall off a branch when sleeping due to a special locking mechanism in their legs.

All the above just briefly demonstrates what fascinating creatures birds are and how perfectly adapted the bird’s anatomy is for survival.

Evolution

February 9, 2009 by  
Filed under

Scientists theorize that birds evolved from dinosaurs. This theory for the evolution of birds was brought about by the discovery of a fossil species possessing feathers. This fossil species called Archaeopteryx lithographica dates back to 150 million years ago and is thought to have evolved from dinosaurs called theropods. Archaeopteryx lithographica had two strong legs and walked as a bird does. Its skeleton was reptilian whilst it had the feathers of a bird. Recently, two other feathered dinosaur species were discovered in China. Scientists believe that this adds further proof to the theory of the evolution of birds from dinosaurs.

Other Scientist argue that birds evolved a long period of time before Archaeopteryx. They theorize that the evolution of birds occurred from 4 legged reptiles that died out with the dinosaurs. Such scientists believe that the actual ancestors of our birds today only appeared some 65 to 53 million years ago. This view is not popular amongst scientists though.

There are two theories as to why feathers would have developed in the evolution of birds. One is that because the ancestors of birds where becoming warm-blooded, they required the insulation of feathers. Another is that they develop due to a need for flight and gliding. Whilst many creatures have been and are able to fly, feather-powered flight is unique. This ability to fly gave birds the competitive edge as they could travel over greater distances and areas whilst seeking food. This also allowed them to live in places inaccessible to other animals.

Bird species have adapted to fit into various niches (a place and purpose in relation to the entire ecological community). They have developed instincts to feed, breed and migrate in a way that is species specific.

Birds today continue to adapt to the changing conditions of the world. Unfortunately, these changing conditions have seen many species become extinct. However, increasing awareness of the need to protect the environment and the animals who live in it may ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy these fascinating creatures.

Next Page »