RSPB to Research Starling Decline in UK

September 11, 2012 by  
Filed under News

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  
Filed under News

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.

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.

Searching for Magnetoreceptors in Birds

April 24, 2012 by  
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The theory that navigational skills in some birds may be influenced by iron particles in their beaks reacting to the magnetic field of the earth, has recently been refuted by scientists at Vienna’s Institute of Molecular Pathology. Acknowledging that the new discovery was somewhat disappointing, molecular biologist David Keays noted that the mystery of how animals detect magnetic fields had become even more mysterious.

Using 3D scanners on slivers of pigeon beak, researchers found that the particles which had previously been thought to react with the earth’s magnetic field were in fact macrophages with normal amounts of organic iron to protect the birds from infection. These cells have no ability to produce electric signals to communicate with brain cells and are therefore unable to influence the pigeon’s behavior. These same cells were also found in other parts of the bird’s body and are found in other animals, particularly in the spleen, lungs, and skin, where they play an essential role in recycling iron from red blood cells and fight against infection. The findings were confirmed by scientists from the University of Western Australia – Jeremy Shaw and Martin Saunders – who were also working on the study.

Keays was reported as saying that the new discovery should not be seen as a set-back as it puts scientists on the right path to finding magnetic cells. The general consensus remains that birds, and a significant number of other animals, detect the magnetic field of the earth and use it for navigation. So it stands to reason that they must have cells facilitating this, although in the case of birds, it has been suggested they may make use of landmarks or sunlight for navigation as well.

Scientists will continue in their quest to understand how migratory birds interact with the earth’s magnetic fields, with the hope of linking their findings to other species with homing habits, including sea turtles, rainbow trout and bees. Although the project has its challenges, Keays believes that learning how nature detects magnetic fields could lead to the creation of artificial magnetoreceptors with the potential of treating human medical conditions, particularly relating to the brain.

Amazing Memories of Hummingbirds

March 27, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Flitting from one flower to the next, their long, narrow beaks perfectly adapted to reach seemingly inaccessible nectar, hummingbirds hover with their wings a blur, their iridescent feathers shining in the sun. New research has revealed that these fascinating little creatures are even more amazing than previously thought. While they may be tiny, it has been discovered that the area of the hummingbird’s brain related to learning and memory – the hippocampus – is the largest in comparison to body size of any other bird, and up to five times larger than that found in seabirds, songbirds and woodpeckers. With the frantic activity of hummingbirds requiring relatively large quantities of nectar to fuel it, it makes sense that this huge memory is likely to be used in pinpointing where the prime locations of this sweet substance are.

It has been noted by researchers that hummingbirds retain this memory of where each feeder is located, both when it is at home and as it travels along its migration path. This ability to remember locations of food sources, and therefore plan their route with precision, referred to as episodic memory, was previously thought to have been restricted to humans. Not only do they remember where all the prime sources of nectar are, field studies reveal that they appear to be able to judge how long the flowers will take to produce more nectar after they have emptied them, and do not revisit those particular flowers until they have something worthwhile to offer.

In addition to field observation, the study included dissecting the brains of several species of wild hummingbirds, as well as related common swifts, using the data to compare with stored data relating to hippocampus development of 77 other species of birds. The conclusion of the dissection study was that the hippocampus of the humming bird is substantially larger than that of any other bird on record, relative to size. Scientists are of the opinion that, given the long distances hummingbirds travel, they cannot afford to waste time or energy searching for food sources, and the brain has compensated for this by developing the hippocampus and facilitating a large memory.

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.

Physical Traits and Genetics in Pigeons

February 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Believed to have been domesticated in the Mediterranean region up to 5,000 years ago, pigeons are providing new insight into the role of genetics in the development of physical traits. A study being carried out by the University of Utah, in the United States, has revealed that there is an enormous amount of diversity among these birds, with more than 350 breeds of pigeons differing in body size, color, patterning, beak size and shape, posture, skeletal structure, vocalizations, flight behavior and feather placement. Enlisting the help of pigeon breeders around the world, the study focused on the visible traits and genetic relationships of 361 pigeons representing 70 domestic breeds, as well as populations on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Michael Shapiro, assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah, and the senior author of the study which was published in the journal Current Biology earlier this year, noted that it was observed during the study that similar traits can be found in birds that are distantly related, and conversely, closely related birds can at times look quite different. Among the examples cited to support the study is the fact that both the English trumpeter pigeon and the German owl pigeon have crested head feathers despite not being closely related. Furthermore, English trumpeters have feathers on their feet similar to that of English pouters, and yet the two species are not closely related, as is the case of the short beaks shared by the African owl pigeon and the Budapest short-faced tumbler. On the other hand, the closely related African owl and German owl pigeon have short beaks in common, but the African owl has plain head feathers, with the German owl sporting a head crest.

Other interesting findings of the study include the fact that free-living pigeons, such as those commonly found in cities, particularly around statues, carry the DNA of racing pigeons. Some of the traits found in pigeons are likely as a result of selective breeding, as is the case with other domesticated animals, such as dogs, but many of the traits found in pigeons are as a result of adapting to their environment. Shapiro pointed out that many different animals use the same genes in order to build similar body structures, and if scientists can understand which genes are behind normal diversity in the wild through the study of pigeons, this knowledge could ultimately provide insight into diversity in humans, including human disease.

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.

Black-throated Robin Rediscovered in China

December 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Birding Tips

The Black-throated Robin (Luscinia obscura ), also referred to as the Black-throated Blue Robin, or simply the Blackthroat, is a species in the Muscicapidae family of small passerine birds found mainly in the Old World – Europe, Asia and Africa. Primarily due to decimation of its preferred habitat of bamboo thickets and high altitude coniferous forest, this elusive little bird has become quite a rare sight in recent decades. So when a team of Swedish and Chinese researchers discovered a community of breeding Blackthroats in the Qinling Mountains of north-central China’s Shaanxi province, it was a newsworthy event.

With their distinctive song consisting of short, sharp, varied strophes including harsh notes and whistles, seven singing males were counted in Foping Nature Reserve, with another seven observed in the Changqing National Nature Reserve. Being the more vocal of the sexes, males are easier to find, and it is considered to be almost certain that each male has a mate. The majority of the birds were seen in bamboo thickets and coniferous-broadleaf forests at an altitude of around 2400 to 2500 meters above sea level. Recordings have been made of the Blackthroat’s song, which will made identification easier in the future.

Resembling a European Robin Erithacus rubecula in size and general shape, the Blackthroat male has a jet-black throat and breast, and while it is believed that the female has a light-brown throat and breast, this has not been confirmed. They were first recorded in the late 19th century, and between the time of first being observed and into the early 20th century, ten of these birds were collected during their breeding season of May to August, in two different localities in China’s Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Subsequent Blackthoat sightings include unconfirmed records from China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, as well as a few birds spotted in captivity at markets. The most recent reported sighting of a Blackthroat was at the Sichuan University campus in May 2011, with reports of a Blackthroat being captured in Thailand during the winter months, which is a possible migration destination or stop-over point.

From Poland to UK – A Kingfisher’s Record Flight

November 1, 2011 by  
Filed under News

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.

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