What Do the Birders Know?

This is a good read about the value of citizen science:


By BRIAN KIMBERLING, published in the New York Times, April 19 2013.

A BIRD-WATCHER is a kind of pious predator. To see a new bird is to capture it, metaphorically, and a rare bird or an F.O.Y. (First of the Year, for the uninitiated) is a kind of trophy. A list of birds seen on a given day is also a form of prayer, a thanksgiving for being alive at a certain time and place. Posting that list online is a 21st-century form of a votive offering. It’s unclear what deity presides.

There was prestige in knowing birds in ancient Rome, and there is prestige today. There are also competitive insect enthusiasts and tree connoisseurs and fungus aficionados, but they lack the cultural stature and sheer numbers of bird-watchers. There are 5.8 million bird-watchers in the United States, slightly more than the number of Americans in book clubs or residents of Wisconsin. That’s a huge army of primitive hunter-mystics decked out in sturdy hiking boots and nylon rain gear, consulting their smartphones to identify or imitate a particular quarry.

Read more here.

Research: Hungry chicks have unique calls to their parents

It can be hard to get noticed when you’re a little chick in a big colony, but new research published in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Ecology reveals that baby birds in need of a feed have individual ways of letting their parents know. [Science Daily]

Corvids able to recognize human faces

House Crow by J.M. Garg

Crows are known to be intelligent birds, but research has indicated that they may be more intelligent than we think; they can apparently identify individual people by their faces. There are anecdotal stories of Indian House Crows (Corvus splendens) recognising individual people in India. Conservation officials who set poisoned bait for these birds were purportedly instantly recognised and harassed by the crows when they returned to the area. The story goes so far as to suggest that crows in other areas also recognised and harassed these officials, but this cannot be verified. This from npr.org:

Global bird news: 14 August 2009

tring-specimens1Natural history museum at Tring robbed

The Bucks Herald

The Natural History Museum at Tring has been targeted by thieves who have stolen a number of bird ‘skins’ from the ornithological collections. They were found to be missing following a break-in on Wednesday June 24. The specimens stolen comprise a number of brightly-coloured tropical birds, some of which are uncommon in collections and, therefore, of special scientific concern. The Museum is working with the police and the Wildlife Crime Unit on the matter. Professor Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, commented ‘The birds that were stolen formed part of the nation’s natural history collection, painstakingly assembled over the last 350 years. [more here]

masked-boobyExtinct booby rediscovered in laboratory

The Hindu News

London (IANS): A seabird thought to have been driven to extinction by hungry European sailors in the late 18th century has been rediscovered, in the laboratory. It turns out the ‘extinct’ species is actually a sub-species of a bird very much alive. Tammy Steeves, Marie Hale and Richard Holdaway are part of a team of scientists from across New Zealand and Australia who have used an innovative approach to resolve the taxonomic status of the “extinct” Tasman booby (Sula tasmani). It is the first study of its kind to report the rediscovery of an extinct bird using classical paleontological data combined with ancient and modern DNA data. [more here]

superb-fairy-wrenClimate change might be shrinking Australia’s birds


MELBOURNE – Australian birds have shrunk over the past century because of global warming, scientists have found. Using museum specimens, researchers measured the size of eight bird species and discovered they were getting smaller in an apparent response to climate change. Australian National University (ANU) biologist Janet Gardner said modern birds were up to four percent smaller than their forebears, a discrepancy she said was statistically significant. “Birds, like other animals, tend to be smaller in warmer climates, because smaller bodies lose heat more quickly than larger bodies,” she said. “As a result, individuals of the same species tend to be larger near the poles and smaller near the equator.” She said the study showed that modern birds in Sydney had shrunk to the same size as those previously found in sub-tropical Brisbane, some 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) north and seven degrees of latitude closer to the equator. [more here]

Scientists attempt to explain winter seabird losses

Little Auks by Michael Haferkamp One tends to forget how precariously balanced life can be, especially for birds. It was reported here, just recently, how competition for Horseshoe Crab eggs in Delaware Bay was impacting Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) numbers. Knots were not able to build up sufficient energy reserves and were perishing en route to their breeding grounds as a result. In this example, scientists believe that high seabird mortality rates in the North Atlantic could be a result of birds not being able to feed due to harsh weather conditions. Science Daily reports:

ScienceDaily (2009-07-17) — Every winter, thousands of seabirds are washed up on shore having perished in unexplained “winter wrecks.” To find out why so many seabirds die, researchers calculated the energy requirements of Little Auks and Brunnich’s Guillemots and found that the birds may not be able to eat enough to survive the North Atlantic’s harsh winter conditions. [more here]

Birders Contributed $36 Billion to the US Economy in 2006

A US Fish & Wildlife report based on 2006 economic data has revealed that one in five Americans is a birder (the report defines a birder as someone who either travels to watch birds or makes an active effort to watch and identify birds at home). That’s a whopping 48 million people! These figures sound a bit high; the bulk of these people are probably “backyard” birders. Here are some interesting stats from the report, which can be downloaded here:

total-birdersThis makes more sense. Not to dilute the value of “backyard” birders, but in terms of people you’re likely to bump into stalking a warbler at your local patch, the value is closer to 20 million.

age-distributionAgreed. One doesn’t see a lot of young people birding. It would be interesting to know at what age people start birding and how they started.

male-femaleThis is very interesting. In the United Kingdom (another birding stronghold) this ratio is completely the opposite. Birding has always been a male-dominated activity in the UK; why are there more female than male birders in the US? Anyone fathom a guess?

Scientists Are Learning More About Big Birds From Feathers

Golden Eagle by Richard BartzScienceDaily (2009-07-06) — Catching adult eagles for research purposes is no easy task, but a researcher has found a way around the problem, and, in the process, gathered even more information about the birds without ever laying a hand on one. [more here]

Fresh doubts over bird-dinosaur evolutionary links

Dinosaur evolution

Researchers at Oregon State University believe that their findings about the role of the femur (thigh bone) in a bird’s ability to process 20 times more oxygen than cold-blooded reptiles indicates that birds may have in fact evolved alongside, rather than from, dinosaurs.

Here’s an excerpt from Science Daily:

Researchers at Oregon State University have made a fundamental new discovery about how birds breathe and have a lung capacity that allows for flight – and the finding means it’s unlikely that birds descended from any known theropod dinosaurs.The conclusions add to other evolving evidence that may finally force many paleontologists to reconsider their long-held belief that modern birds are the direct descendants of ancient, meat-eating dinosaurs, OSU researchers say.”It’s really kind of amazing that after centuries of studying birds and flight we still didn’t understand a basic aspect of bird biology,” said John Ruben, an OSU professor of zoology. “This discovery probably means that birds evolved on a parallel path alongside dinosaurs, starting that process before most dinosaur species even existed.” [more here]

Emperor Penguin poop gives them away

Emperor Penguin by National Science FoundationWho would have guessed, British scientists have mapped out the distribution of Emperor Penguin colonies by analysing their guano stains via satellite. According to a British Antarctic Survey press release, scientists noticed reddish-brown stains on satellite images that corresponded with the location of Emperor colonies. Further analysis revealed 37 colonies in total.

© British Antarctic Survey

© British Antarctic Survey

The researchers plan to monitor these colonies within the context of climate change. Because Emperors only breed on sea ice a change in their breeding patterns could reflect a reduction in habitat loss through ice melt.

Here’s a portion of the press release from the British Antarctic Survey:

BAS Mapping expert Peter Fretwell explains: “We can’t see actual penguins on the satellite maps because the resolution isn’t good enough. But during the breeding season the birds stay at a colony for eight months. The ice gets pretty dirty and it’s the guano stains that we can see.” Emperor penguins spend a large part of their lives at sea. During the Antarctic winter when temperatures drop to -50°C they return to their colonies to breed on sea-ice, but this is a time when it is most difficult for scientists to monitor them. BAS Penguin ecologist Dr Phil Trathan says: “This is a very exciting development. Now we know exactly where the penguins are, the next step will be to count each colony so we can get a much better picture of population size. Using satellite images combined with counts of penguin numbers puts us in a much better position to monitor future population changes over time.” [more here]

Here’s an interesting fact from the British Antarctic Survey website:

Emperor penguins may be the only bird never to set foot on land. They even breed on frozen sea.

Read more about Emperor Penguin here.

Do flashy birds taste worse than the skulkers?

Pied Kingfisher by Nidhin PoothullyThis is an interesting question that Hugh B Cott of Cambridge University tried to answer. By feeding various bird species to cats or wasps and observing their preferences he was able to get an idea about which species were preferred. He also included some taste preferences from people. His results indicated that more conspicuous species were second choice in terms of palatability to more cryptic species. This is all rather interesting. Is it possible that more obvious species taste bad? 

Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian

Surveying the results of all those taste tests of all those birds by hornets, cats and people, Cott saw both rhyme and reason. He concluded that, in most cases, humans and cats “agreed with the hornets in rating more conspicuous species as relatively distasteful when compared with more cryptic species … Birds which are relatively vulnerable and conspicuous … appear in general to be more or less highly distasteful – to a degree likely to serve as a deterrent to most predators”.

At the other extreme, birds that have especially inconspicuous or camouflaged appearance, Cott almost cackles, “are also those which are especially prized for the excellence of their flesh”. The list of these includes the Eurasian woodcock, skylark and the mallard duck.

Among the widely disliked were kingfishers, puffins and bullfinches. Cott cautioned his readers that “palatability may change with growth and age of the bird; and it differs markedly in different parts of the same individual”. [more here]

Is this finding perhaps related to aposematism, where dangerous animals are vividly coloured? Are there any biologists who can comment on this? This is what wiki has to say about aposematism: 

Aposematism (from apo- away, and sematic sign/meaning), perhaps most commonly known in the context of warning colouration, describes a family of antipredator adaptations where a warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators.[1] It is one form of “advertising” signal, with many others existing such as the bright colours of flowers which lure pollinators. The warning signal may take the form of conspicuous colours, sounds, odours[2] or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, who both avoid potential harm. [more here]