Rice Farmers Support Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative

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

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

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

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

Significance of Egg Coloration to Embryo Development

October 18, 2011 by  
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Researchers continue to debate the purpose of bird egg pigmentation, with the most popular theory being that camouflage is the main reason for the variation in eggshell colors, with the speckles and splotches of color providing protection from predators. This was the theory put forward by renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace in the late 19th century, a position that was challenged by naturalist Alexander M’Aldowie who believed the pigmentation of eggshells served to shield developing embryos from harmful radiation.

Wallace’s theory was the more widely accepted argument, and later research studies on this topic would be based on the fight for survival aspect that supports the necessity for Alexander camouflage. Other accepted theories to arise in subsequent years included the role that pigmentation plays in retaining heat and continuing the incubation process when the eggs are unattended, as well as signaling unpalatability to would-be egg-eaters and serving as identification for host birds that have parasitic eggs laid in their nests.

Although all these theories have merit, in a recently published review of a series of studies in the Journal of Avian Biology of 14 September, biologists Phillip Cassey and Golo Maurer of the University of Adelaide in Australia take the embryo’s view of its protective covering in offering possible explanations for the purpose of eggshell coloration. One of these explanations validates the original theory put forward by Alexander M’Aldowie where the pigmentation of the eggshell helps to filter, but not block, ultraviolet light for the developing embryo. It is interesting to note that even the darkest eggs, using the emu as an example, allow some light to filter through. It was also noted that pigmentation differs at each end of the egg, most likely to provide directional cues to the embryo, as well as to assist cells and structures in their early alignment.

As in the case of gulls, which commonly lay a clutch of three eggs, with the second egg laid being noticeably and consistently darker than the other two, the variations in eggshell pigmentation could be a significant factor in facilitating staggered hatching. Moreover, it has been proposed that the variations in eggshell coloring could assist the embryo in learning to recognize the difference between light and dark, calibrating circadian rhythms, as well as encouraging DNA repair and shaping bacterial communities within the egg. Researchers have also noted that pigmentation is affected by rainfall and weather, possibly compensating for local and seasonal conditions. Certainly, there is much still to learn about the marvelous world of birds, and with advancing science, more of these mysteries will no doubt be solved.

Practice Makes Perfect for Nest-Building Weavers

October 4, 2011 by  
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It has long been assumed that the nest building skills of birds are instinctive, but new research has revealed that building a nest could very well be a learned skill. Following and filming the activities of male Southern Masked Weavers in Botswana over a period of three months, researchers noted that not all nests are created equal. As the name of the bird suggests, Southern Masked Weavers use a weaving technique when constructing their nests from local grasses. However, the method of nest building varied between birds with some weaving from left to right and others weaving from right to left. It was also noted that they appeared to learn from their mistakes, and while a bird may regularly drop blades of grass when it first starts its nest building process, it soon learns to adjust its technique to prevent this.

The brightly colored African bird was chosen as the test subject for the study for a number of reasons. Their complex nests which hang from trees either as single units or multiple intertwined condominiums are seen as evidence of above average intelligence. Also, a single bird will build several nests in a season, allowing the research team to note the differences in nests built by the same bird.

Working with scientists from Botswana, researchers from the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow noted that the fact that the Southern Masked Weaver birds displayed marked variations in their approach to nest building reveals that they may learn from experience. At this point, however, it is not clear whether they have the mental capacity to learn, or their improvement in skills can be attributed to repetition of a task. Researchers also pointed out that observing this behavior in one bird species does not imply that it would apply to all birds. One of the scientists taking part in the study, Dr. Patrick Walsh of Edinburgh University’s School of Biological Sciences, noted that if birds built their nests instinctively according to a genetic template, it would follow that all birds would build all their nests in the same way every time, but this has not been the case. Summing it up nicely, Dr. Walsh was reported as saying: “Even for birds, practice makes perfect.”

Personality is Vital for Male Birds

September 20, 2011 by  
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It seems that it is not only humans who want more than just good looks in a partner, as a recent study revealed that even in the bird kingdom, being handsome does not guarantee the attention of a female companion. Researchers have realized that personality plays a vital role for male birds to catch the attention of a female, so feathers are not the only feature females take into consideration when looking for a mate. The survey was performed by a group of scientists from the Royal Veterinary College, the University of Exeter, Canada and the Carleton University.

Zebra finches were used to conduct the study. Interestingly enough, it was the confident and more adventurous males that drew the attention of the females, regardless of the beak color, size or plumage condition of the males. More than a hundred and fifty birds were used in the program, and the personality of the females was found to play a large role in their selection as well. From the various exercises that were performed, allowing females to show scientists their preferences, it was also obvious that the more out-going females preferred the confident males, while the more shy females were not very particular when it came to choosing a prospective partner. The team leader of the project was Dr Sasha Dall (University of Exeter), who commented that the research proved that personality played a large role in a female’s decision, irrespective of the appearance of the males. It also proved that what would be expected from humans selecting partners, namely the compatibility of personalities, has been overlooked in other species.

To determine the personalities of each bird, the birds were put in a cage to explore. The females were able to view this through a clear window, but unknowingly to them, one male was held back on purpose, and the females therefore viewed him as being less confident as they did not see him exploring the cage. Some birds showed no fear in regard to discovering their new environment, while others were happy remaining in one position watching the others. The more confident birds therefore paired together, while the rest did not show any dominant preferences. Once again it was shown that there is so much about our feathered friends that we don’t know yet, leaving the future open to many possibilities and new discoveries.

Chinquapin Takes on Irene

September 6, 2011 by  
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Whimbrel birds stand a height of 1.5 feet and are known to be migrating birds, referred to as long haul fliers, as they are able to travel distances of up to three thousand five hundred miles without resting in between and can maintain speeds of fifty miles per hour. Before they migrate they ready themselves by packing on weight, and will weigh approximately double their usual weight before migrating. What is truly amazing is a bird named Chinquapin that took on Hurricane Irene.

Chinquapin is a Whimbrel that was tagged with satellite tracking, enabling researchers and biologists, such as Fletcher Smith (College of William and Mary’s Centre for Conservation Biology), to track Chinquapin’s movements. Whimbrels are shorebirds but move to the high Arctic regions for breeding, with most birds remaining in Brazil during the winter months. To learn more about the migratory patterns of the whimbrels, tracking devices were fitted to a few birds.

Panic erupted as Chinquapin’s device transmitted that he was on a one way collision course with Hurricane Irene. As he entered the hurricane, his tracking device lost signal, leaving researchers expecting the worst and nervously watching their monitors to try and find him. Eventually his transmitter confirmed that he had made it through and was safely resting in the Bahamas. Smith said that it was incredible that some birds are able to increase their energy levels to fly through such horrific conditions. Even though Chinquapin survived, researchers are still no closer to finding out how he managed to survive.

Many birds are either thrown off course, or worst case scenario, killed, while trying to fly through these weather conditions, but it is not the first time for Chinquapin, who made the decision to fly around the 2010 Tropical Storm Colin. Another bird tried flying though the storm and was killed, while Chinquapin’s decision saved his life. Chinquapin is most definitely a very brave and special bird, and researchers will continue their efforts to track Whimbrels to learn more about them and their habits.

Bills Regulate Body Temperature

July 26, 2011 by  
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On 20 July 2011 the research done by a team of scientists from the well-known Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center was published in the Ecography journal, and has revealed more insight into the use of bird’s bills. Working at the Conservation Biology Institute of the Smithsonian Center, the team focused their attention on five different sparrow species that prefer the marshes of various regions, and discovered that they use their bills for more than just eating food and foraging. It was shown that not only are their bills adapted to their diets, but they can also assist birds to regulate body heat.

There were ten sparrow species and their subspecies that the team found to enjoy the salt marshes that are located along the North American Gulf Coasts, and they looked at more than one thousand three hundred individual birds. When measuring the individual birds and looking at their bills, along with the temperatures where they reside, it has been recorded that the size of their bills were determined by this feature as well, as their bills assisted them to regulate their body heat during the soaring temperatures of the summer. The higher the average summer temperature of a specific region, the bigger the bills were on the birds. To release their body heat, it was determined that the birds are able to transfer blood into the tissue that is found in their bills and from there the heat is expelled into the air. Therefore the bigger the bill on the bird, the more heat is able to be released into the air.

This was confirmed by comparing the birds in the different areas, as the birds living in the cooler marsh areas have smaller bills than those living in higher temperatures. Leader of the research team and director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Russ Greenberg, commented that is has been known that in animals, such as rabbits and seals, blood is able to be increased to the extremities of animals that are not well insulated, but now it is known that birds are able to cool down their body temperature through their bills, as well as retain their body moisture, which they so desperately need in such high temperatures. The team is now continuing their research with Brock University physiologists, trying to form a more detailed database by using thermal imaging.

Young Penguins Fitted with Monitors

July 19, 2011 by  
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The African Penguin, also referred to as the Jackass Penguin, might be a little awkward on land, but can definitely hold its own in the water as a very efficient hunter. Tourists who visit Cape Town, South Africa, and see the beauty of these birds do not realize that they are actually witnessing a very rare moment, as the population of these birds has decreased from approximately four million in the 1900s. The last census done by the Southern African Foundation of the Conservation of Coastal Birds in 2010 counted only sixty thousand. This alarming decrease has led to the creation of a new project to protect these valuable birds.

Humans, as the story usually goes, had a great influence in the reduction of numbers of African Penguins, as up until the 1960s the penguin eggs were being harvested for human consumption. Another factor was the harvesting of guano that was used as fertilizer, but is crucial for adult penguins, as they use the hardened guano to make nest burrows. To add to the penguins’ problems, oil spills and over harvesting of anchovies and other fish species that are a part of their diet has made their fight for survival even harder.

Scientists want to try and create artificial hatcheries to assist in the breeding of African Penguins for release, but to recreate the hatcheries efficiently, it is vital for them to have the correct information to understand the penguins better. In order to do this they have attached a transmitter, which is approximately the size of a matchbox, to baby penguins that are about ten weeks of age. The penguins are first placed in a pool so they can get used to swimming with the transmitter and then released into the ocean. One penguin has already been released, and a penguin named Richie is due for release. Scientists will be releasing approximately five penguins with transmitters.

Dr Richard Sherley, a key member of the scientific team from the University of Cape Town, commented that he hoped that the data collected would allow them to understand what influences breeding colonies in the choices they make and the early life of a penguin, as these questions have not been answered as yet. Lucy, which was the first penguin to be released, has already transmitted back data, which showed scientists that young penguins are able to swim approximately twenty-eight miles in one day. Sherley commented that because no-one really knows much about the early days and life of young penguins, it is crucial for them to collect this data to assist in their conservation projects. The transmitters will eventually fall off of the penguins, but it is hoped that by then enough information has been gathered to assist scientists in finding the ideal breeding site for a colony that can be protected and will be the site of the hatchery.

Pigeons Can Recognize Human Faces

July 5, 2011 by  
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It seems that years of sharing space with humans and being forced to adapt to changes in city lifestyles, has taught pigeons a few tricks that are quite remarkable to say the least. They might seem to most people just ordinary birds, but on taking a closer look pigeons are actually highly intelligent and are able to differentiate between humans, not by the clothes they wear, as they have learnt that clothing changes, but by facial recognition, which is extremely remarkable.

The perception capabilities of pigeons were tested previously in a laboratory, but researchers of the University of Paris Quest Nanterre La Defense decided to take their next experiment into the “wild” so to speak, to see how undomesticated pigeons would react. To ensure that the test would be performed as accurately as possible, two researchers were selected who shared the same build and skin color, but wore laboratory coats of different color. These two researchers then went out into the park to feed the pigeons. The first researcher threw out the food and then stood back ignoring them, giving them the opportunity to eat the food without being disturbed. The second also threw out food, but then chased them away, being hostile towards the pigeons.

For the second session, both researchers were told not to chase the pigeons, and allow them to eat, but the pigeons had remembered who the hostile researcher was and avoided her. They decided to repeat the session a few times over, even getting the researchers to swop their lab coats, but still the pigeons would avoid the researcher who was hostile on their first encounter. This confirmed the suspicions of the team, that the pigeons relied on facial recognition to detect hostiles.

Facial recognition is not a new skill in the bird world, and other researchers have discovered in previous years that birds such as magpies and jackdaws are also able to recognize humans according to their facial features. So next time you think about chasing away a bird, think twice about your actions, as you might not remember which bird you were hostile to, but they are more than likely going to remember you!

Possible Insights into the Evolution of Flight

June 28, 2011 by  
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A study run by the University of Montana might just be able to bring clarity to the evolution of flight, as Brandon Jackson and his team conducted research into bird flight. Their findings have recently been published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The art of flap-running by birds is the major factor discussed in the study, showing that this method could have been used by once flightless birds, and is still used by birds today to enable them to propel themselves forward. Jackson wanted to know why.

It seems that birds today will often flap their wings while walking up a slope or incline, to enable them to move forward. It is believed that this flap-run movement enables birds to take to flight. It is the same technique that is adopted by chicks, as they are unable to fly when they are born, and need to learn how to conquer this method of movement. The fact that birds are not born with flight abilities, has led researchers to believe that this very method was part of the evolution of flight. This interesting method of movement was noticed by Ken Dial while he was studying chuckars, which are part of the partridge family. After talking to locals and ranchers who have constant contact with these birds, they confirmed that most of the chuckars would rather flap-run up a hill or cliff, as it seems that it takes a lot less energy for them to flap-run instead of flying. This became very intriguing to researchers and they decided to measure how much power is being used while flap-running as opposed to flying.

They managed to record this by implanting electrodes into pigeons’ flight muscles, which could then record the muscle activity. Pigeons are very good flyers, but given inclines and ramps, the difference between flying up the incline and flap-running was analyzed. It was found that much less power was used during flap-running and that this method would therefore be crucial for chicks to learn how to fly, as well as for birds that are still developing their plumage to escape predators. This study has not only given the researchers new insight into birds but a glimpse back into the evolution of flight.

Astounding Research into Great Snipe Migration

May 31, 2011 by  
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There are twenty-five species of wading birds that fall under the Scolopacidae family, and the great snipe is one of them. Generally recognized by their long bills and plumage coloring that allows it to blend in with its surroundings, there is a magnificent talent that the snipe possesses that has been recently been uncovered. This beautiful shore bird is quite small and its stocky body, which they ensure carries enough fat by August, assists them in their migration. But until recently, their migration patterns were a mystery, and the information revealed by a project started in 2009 has uncovered breathtaking details.

Raymond Klaassen, a biologist from the Lund University in Sweden, captured ten great great snipes and managed to tag them to collect information in regard to their migration. Captured and let go on the western coast of Sweden, three birds returned and were recaptured to have their tags removed, revealing the most staggering information. For the first time ever, the migration of great snipes could be put on record, but even for scientists and biologists, the information received from the tags was overwhelming. It seems the great snipe tops all other birds when it comes to migration as it is able to fly an impressive four thousand miles without making any stops to eat, drink or sleep. Not only was the flight astounding, given that the great snipe is able to fly ninety-six hours non-stop, but they also averaged speeds of fifty miles per hour. The flights were compared to wind charts showing that the birds had almost no tail winds during their migrations, meaning that they are able to make the flights and maintain high speeds on their own.

One of the recaptured tagged birds completed a migration of three thousand eight hundred miles, while the other two had migrations of two thousand eight hundred miles and four thousand two hundred miles. The first trip took eighty-four hours, while the others took forty-eight hours and eighty-four hours. Klaassen commented that the reason why the great snipes do not stop on their flights is unknown, but it is suspected that this is the unique migration strategy of the great snipe. Even though there are other birds that are also able to travel vast distances, it is the speed the great snipes are able to travel at that has astonished researchers, as their wings are not the most aerodynamic of the bird kingdom. But it seems the fat they store before a migration gives them enough energy to maintain speed and cover large distances. According to this new information and studies, the great snipe can officially be called the king of bird migrations.

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