Our three-part series this summer looks at animals essential to the web of life. In Part One, we look at owls, falcons, condors at risk, bird species decline, and the role of drones in counting birdlife.
Birds are essential to life. They promote the diversity of plants and trees in cities and forests by dispersing seeds from fruit and berries in their poop. Many are voracious insect eaters – including for instance the nectar-loving hummingbird. Predators among them (raptors and owls) are friends of the farmer – culling the populations of mice, rats, and rabbits. Vultures perform an essential sanitation service by eating all sorts of dead animals (carrion). We adore the beauty and variety of feathers (although fashion fads resulted in extinctions) and cannot imagine life without birdsong– the “silent spring,” environmentalist Rachel Carson warned us about, that could be caused by pesticides.
In short, birds are a wondrous thing, and our closest living link to the distant past as evolutionary descendants of the dinosaurs.
Online articles and videos that follow our news briefs offer a wealth of resources and information.
Owls: On the planet for 60 million years (yes, that’s right), there are nearly 230 known species worldwide and more are still being discovered. They are sensory marvels: fly noiselessly (the ultimate stealth predator), have three times the number of cilia packed in their ears, swivel their heads 270 degrees and possess great night vision. A family of barn owls will “tidy up” the place in a short time! And they play a major role in literature and lore (remember Harry Potter’s snowy owl Hedwig?) The Global Owl Project is underway in 65 countries to monitor the world’s owls, assemble and analyze ntDNA and ncDNA, record their vocalizations, and compile photographs and full descriptions.
Read the owl story with video/audio soundings and 8 min story on owls
Check out the Global Owl Project web site which includes a complete list of owls sighted from 1789 to today.
California condors are threatened: Writer Ted Williams has outlined the endless threats to wildlife, waterfowl and raptors from lead bullets (and lead in buckshot). It turns out that a lot of game hunters refuse to abandon the old ways by giving up lead shot. Some birds mistakenly eat lead pellets on the ground as food; others not mortally wounded by hunters endure the gruesome, slow death of lead poisoning from bullets or shotgun pellets that have injured them. Keep in mind, the California condor – the largest bird in North America – almost went extinct. In 1982 the US Fish & Wildlife Administration took the paltry 22 remaining and turned them over for captive breeding. The Peregrine Fund got the job done, and condors were returned to the wild in a stunning success story. Read the Yale 360 story.
Falcons are beloved in the Middle East: These beautiful, superb hunters enjoy the world’s largest hospital for the “sporting set” in Abu Dhabi, with medically staffed operating rooms, ophthalmology department and even an intensive care facility. The photo essay is proof positive that Emirati falconers treat their birds like royalty. Check out this great slide show.
Pinkeye is killing pink birds and others too! An article in the Washington Post Science section caught my attention. House finches (the male has a pink head and chest, the female does not) are victims of an affliction around since 1996 and now spreading into the American west – conjunctivitis caused by caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma gallisepticum. “House finch eye disease” infects the conjunctiva (membrane covering the eye and lining the eylids) resulting in swollen, reddened eyes and a sticky discharge. Those that survive – and most do not – can spread it through contact with other birds and at bird feeders. Have you noticed – as our household has – many fewer pink house finches in recent years ? If you provide food and water for birds, you need to regularly clean feeders and birdbaths to avoid MG, as well as salmonellosis, aspergillosis, and avian pox! And be sure to clean up seed hulls and spilled seed under feeders. Here are cleaning tips from Cornell University. More on the MC/MG invasion
The first-ever global Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) in February set all sorts of records – starting with participation by people from all 7 continents, 111 countries and independent territories. Some 4,004 species were reported – 39% of the world’s 10,240 species.
Species found on the largest number of “checklists” submitted by participants: the Northern Cardinal appeared on 46,991 participants’ checklists; Dark- eyed Junco 42,819; Mourning Dove 41, 384; Downy Woodpecker 34,980; and surprise, the house finch (see story above on pinkeye) 32,476.
Mexico tops the list with 645 species seen and recorded; followed by the US ( 638 thanks to high level of participation), India 544 species, and Costa Rica with 508. Panama, Australia, and Peru all recorded over 300 species. Check out your country’s participation and other details.
Drones can fly – but they ain’t birds: The Raven has a 55-inch wingspan and weighs only four and one-half pounds. It’s an AeroVironment drone that was created for use in combat to monitor enemy positions. When the government decided it was time to ditch the $250,000 drone (for each one!),the unmanned aerial system got a new home: the US Geological Survey took the donation, added cameras and computer controls for studying natural systems. The US Fish & Wildlife Service, for instance, is responsible for the wellbeing of more than 1000 migratory species. The first mission ? Counting sandhill cranes. It turns out this approach is safer than using helicopters to make the counts. Drones are also being used to check out rare plants, pygmy rabbits and other special needs. But – can you believe it ? Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) wants to halt the wildlife drone missions to save money under the federal budget sequestration! Read the whole story.
Common birds in decline: Citizen-science and population studies have revealed some shocking news, according to the National Audubon Society: “Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 %; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80%. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.” Among those on the Top 20 list: the Eastern Meadowlark, Field Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Common Grackle. You will be shocked. Read the story. Look at the list, full description and audio of birdsong
PS: Did you see our posting to Audubon Magazine’s special issue Why Birds Matter ? Lots of great reading material.