Friday, February 11, 2011 10:46 AM
There’s an outbreak of bird beak deformities in Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington, and scientists are trying to figure out what’s behind it. Birder’s World reports that black-capped chickadees, Northwestern crows, red-breasted nuthatches, and other birds are turning up with deformed beaks at unprecedented rates:
According to biologists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center, more than 6 percent of adult black-capped chickadees and almost 17 percent of adult Northwestern crows in Alaska are developing grossly overgrown and often crossed beaks every year. …
“Together, the prevalence of beak abnormalities in adult Northwestern crows and that in black-capped chickadees in Alaska represent the highest rate of gross deformities ever recorded in wild bird populations,” write Caroline Van Hemert and Colleen M. Handel in the October 2010 issue of The Auk, the quarterly journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
The scientists haven’t yet put their fingers on the cause of the deformities, which can arise from environmental contaminants, nutritional deficiencies, or infections. Their appearance “can be an early sign of a much larger underlying ecological problem,” Hemert and Handel wrote.
Dan Joling at Huffington Post spoke to the researchers and reports that previous outbreaks of beak deformities have been associated with environmental pollutants such as organochlorines in the Great Lakes region and selenium from agricultural runoff in California.
The affected birds, the scientists told him, live altered and sometimes shorter lives:
The deformities affect birds’ ability to feed, Van Hemert said, though many birds appear to cope by relying on food provided by humans at feeders rather than foraging.
Deformed beaks also can prevent adequate preening, she said, leaving feathers matted, dirty and without insulating value needed to survive the cold.
Read more about the deformities—and report them if you’re a birdwatcher who lives in the affected areas—at the website of the Alaska Science Center.
Sources: Birder’s World, Huffington Post, Alaska Science Center
Image by Wayne Hall.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011 11:28 AM
As the bird carcasses pile up worldwide, falling from the sky like so many feathered omens of doom, it seems fair to ask if the many reported mass die-offs in recent weeks are a sign of the environmental apocalypse. The cool-headed bird geeks at the Audubon Society are here to reassure us: No, they’re not.
Audubon Society experts tell Alisa Opar at The Perch, Audubon magazine’s blog, that we shouldn’t read too much into the flurry of reported bird deaths.
“Mass bird die-offs can be caused by starvation, storms, disease, pesticides, collisions with man-made structures or human disturbance,” says Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation.
Opar fixes part of the blame for the bird hysteria “on technology allowing us to learn about isolated events and our impulse to look for patterns.” After the initial reports of coincidental die-offs, Google maps of bird deaths around the world quickly made the rounds, and flocks of amateur ornithologists collectively decided that it looked bad. Real bad. Before long, the birds seemed destined to join chemtrails and black helicopters as airborne signs of conspiracy and doom.
Now that the bird experts have calmed us down, we are left to focus our worries on other future apocalyptic scenarios. Reports Opar:
Isolated die-offs don’t pose a significant threat to our native bird populations, says Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s director of bird conservation for the Mississippi River Flyway. “Far more concerning in the long term are the myriad other threats birds face, from widespread habitat destruction and global climate change to inappropriate energy development and invasive species.”
Tweet that, bird lovers.
Source: The Perch
Image by xpda, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010 11:49 AM
Andrew Zuckerman’s coffee table book Bird is an incredible collection of bird photographs, capturing them in various poses, but most stunningly in mid-flight. His website features a sampling of the work.
Source: Andrew Zuckerman
Image by law_keven. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 4:31 PM
How does your bird seed grow? With noxious weeds from invasive seeds, scattered wherever birds go? You bet. A few years ago, researchers identified the seeds of more than 50 weed species in commercial wild bird feeds, according to Organic Gardening. “It’s easy enough to snuff out noxious weeds that sprout under the feeder,” the magazine reports. “But when birds eat the seeds and the fly off and distribute weeds in their droppings, wild areas can be affected.”
Over half the weed seeds researchers found were viable; 10 of them were noxious—aggressive spreaders that can be harmful to other plants, animals, and humans. “When we informally questioned landowners and farmers to investigate the spread of a relatively new weed in the Pacific Northwest—velvetleaf—we found it growing in the soil beneath backyard birdfeeders,” horticulturist Jed Colquhoun, one of the researchers, recently told SeedWorld, an agriculture and seed industry publication.
What to do? Organic Gardening suggests choosing feeds that won’t sprout, including peanuts, sunflower hearts, and suet cakes, or growing a “bird buffet”—a garden of native perennials and grasses upon which birds can feast. Or make your own bird feed blends or homemade suet cakes with recipes from Mother Earth News. If you do buy commercial feed, Christian Science Monitor recommends making sure that it is baked so weed seeds are not viable.
Sources: Organic Gardening, SeedWorld, Mother Earth News, Christian Science Monitor
, licensed under
Friday, September 25, 2009 2:28 PM
Volunteers across the country are transcribing 6 million birdwatching observations—handwritten notes catalogued on small index cards, and dating back to 1880—to help researchers figure out how climate change affects bird migration patterns. Audubon interviews Jessica Zelt, coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Bird Phenology Program, which is tapping more than 1,200 volunteers to compile “the most comprehensive data set of its kind.”
“This program is looking at how climate change is affecting migrating bird arrival and departure dates,” Zelt tells Audubon. “Once this information goes into our database, we can analyze it, along with weather and climate data, to see if there are long-term patterns and shifts. It’s possible that climate change affects certain species more than others. Being able to highlight those species and change our own lives to lessen those effects, that’s always a goal.”
Image by Noël Zia Lee, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 17, 2009 5:03 PM
The proverbial bird sitting on a utility wire. It’s the image that, as the story goes, inspired Leonard Cohen to begin composing the legendary song “Bird on a Wire” in the 1960s. Fast forward 40 years to our present, technology-enabled day, and the iconic avian image is still inspiring musical art. Check out this charming music video on Vimeo by film director/musician Jarbas Agnelli, who interpreted birds sitting on utility wires as “notes” on a “musical staff”—just to discover what song the resting avians were silently singing.
Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.
Source: Jarbas Agnelli’s Vimeo
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 11:24 AM
Ever feel like you’re trapped in the city, exiled from your natural home in the wilds, longing for some deeper connection with nature? Yeah, me too. That’s why I’ve been enjoying Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s new book, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (Little, Brown), which encourages us to attune ourselves to the wildlife that exists even in our paved and mowed urban landscapes. Haupt uses crows as a spirit-guide into the natural world, which goes against her instincts because a) she has a clear aversion to too much “woo-woo” talk and a hesitance to anthropomorphize, b) she sees the abundance of crows as an indicator of ecological imbalance, and c) as she states flat-out in the opening line, “Crows are not my favorite bird.”
Nonetheless, Haupt is irresistibly drawn to crows as she shakes off something that sounds like not just urban ennui but clinical depression. Getting herself out of her funk, she begins to explore her nearby Seattle environs with the expertise of an experienced birder, the sharp eye of an all-around naturalist, and the literary mind of a probing essayist:
When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter. Jennifer Price writes in Flight Maps, her eloquent critique of romanticized nature, that modern Americans use an idea of Nature Out There to ignore our ravenous uses of natural resources. “If I don’t think of a Volvo as nature, then can’t I buy and drive it to Nature without thinking very hard about how I use, alter, destroy, and consume nature?” In my urban ecosystem, I drive around a corner and a crow leaps into flight from the grassy parking strip. We startle each other. If nature is Out There, she asks, then what am I?
Source: Little, Brown
Monday, July 13, 2009 5:21 PM
Great art is subjective. Bad art, on the other hand, can be identified by a pigeon. According to the New Scientist, psychologist Shigeru Watanabe taught art appreciation to several birds by rewarding them with food when they correctly discerned good art from bad. To identify the quality of the art work, Watanabe used children’s paintings that had been graded in a class and by a panel of adults. According to Watanabe, “The experiments demonstrated the ability of discrimination.” He added, however, that it did not show “the ability to enjoy painting.”
The pigeons may be smart, but the research “conflates so many different aspects of the human response to art,” Jessica Palmer writes for Biophemera. Palmer questions, “What is the relation between beauty in art and the quality of the art? Specifically, can ‘good’ art be ugly? Can beautiful art be ‘bad’? Can ugly art, paradoxically enough, be beautiful?” The pigeons haven’t been able to account for these subjective art questions. So, at least for now, art critics won’t be closing up shop just yet.
Sources: New Scientist, Biophemera
Image by Ricardo Martins, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 23, 2008 9:36 AM
Israel has finally chosen a national bird, 60 years after its founding. (Americans should respect the delay; if we had too hastily selected our own national emblem, we might now have turkeys tattooed on every patriotic bicep.) Israel’s selection process was a feathered frenzy, the New Republic reports, unavoidable in a country that attracts 540 avian species (that’s 500 million specimens) during semi-annual migrations. “We are at the junction of three continents,” says Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem. “From a political point of view, this is disastrous, but for birds it is magnificent.”
The bird that ascended to state symbolism is the hoopoe, which served as the messenger between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, according to the New York Times. (The hoopoe is not kosher, Reuters reports, so the national bird won’t face the disgrace of becoming any Jewish citizen’s dinner.) “It’s a good choice, all in all, a gorgeous bird with a crown-like crest,” writes the New Republic. “Any country would be proud to have it on its telephone cards.”
Tuesday, May 06, 2008 3:36 PM
The great spring bird migration is under way, and here in Minnesota, right in the fast lane of the Mississippi flyway, we’re seeing all kinds of winged travelers. Loons and mergansers are clustering on lakes, awaiting a late ice-out on more northern waters. Hawks are circling and screeching out territorial threats. The juncos are already here and gone, having high-tailed it to their summer places in the boreal forest.
The modern birdwatcher can track this spectacular avian parade not just with binoculars and spotting scopes, but also with Nexrad radar. The Minnesota Birdnerd blog tipped me to this radar image from just after midnight last night, showing patterns of circles around Nexrad stations that indicate migrating birds aloft. To learn more about tracking migrating birds by radar, check out these tips from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.
Friday, April 04, 2008 9:39 AM
Visiting my mom’s office building as a child, I often found small birds with freshly broken necks in the hedges outside, lying compacted and still, like sleeping babies. One hundred million birds are killed each year in the United States by collisions with buildings, the New York City Audubon Society writes in its free, 55-page, downloadable booklet, Bird-Safe Building Guidelines. This spectacle of my childhood could perhaps have been avoided, reports BuildingGreen.com, by building modifications as simple as “placing patterns on the glass or adding shading screens in front of the windows” or simply by turning the lights off at night, when large numbers of birds migrate.
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