‘Happy wife, happy life’ meaningful for birds, too

‘Happy wife, happy life’ meaningful for birds, too (Victoria University; 19 April 2017)

Research from Victoria University of Wellington has shown for the first time that wild male birds read their partner’s behaviour to appropriately cater to her food desires.

Dr Rachael Shaw, a postdoctoral research fellow in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, conducted a study on a group of North Island robins based at Zealandia.

The research investigated whether male robins could give their mate the type of food that she was most likely to want during reproduction.

“Robins are a monogamous, food-sharing species, so were ideal for this experiment. The experimental procedure has only previously been used in the laboratory on Eurasian jays,” she says.

“We found male robins appropriately catered to their mates’ desire, even when the female’s behaviour was the only cue available to guide their choices.

“This suggests that females can signal their current desires to their mates, enabling males to respond to that.”

Dr Shaw says the finding raises the possibility that other species might be capable of doing the same.

“In many species food sharing by the male is vital to help the female offset the energetic costs of reproduction, such as egg laying and incubation. The male’s ability to give his mate what she wants could in fact be an important factor in determining the success of a pair, as well as influencing whether they stay together. These are really exciting avenues for future research.”

The experiment first involved establishing female robins’ eating habits. “I fed the females either meal worms or wax worms, and then gave them the choice between these two types of insect larvae. I found that after the females had eaten one type of insect, they would prefer to eat the other type when given the choice. This means that the female’s desire for a particular food is affected by what she has previously eaten.”

Based on this, Dr Shaw then tested if the male would also be able to choose the type of insect his mate was most likely to want (the one she had not just eaten).

“Regardless of whether or not he had seen what his mate ate first, the male still made the appropriate choices. This suggests that the female is likely to be displaying her current desire in her behaviour, and that the male is using these cues to identify the food that she wants.”

The research, co-authored by Victoria’s Associate Professor Kevin Burns and Professor Nicola Clayton from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The field work and data collection was carried out by Dr Shaw with help from Victoria student Regan MacKinlay. Dr Shaw’s research is supported by a Rutherford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship and a Marsden Fast Start grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Bird brains not so stupid: pigeons show human-like ability to build knowledge through generations

Homing pigeons return from Pennsylvania to their home in New York City

(; Photo: Jim Cooper; 18 April)

Having, literally, bird brains, pigeons are not generally considered to be the most intelligent of creatures.

But new research reveals that in a crucial respect they are more like humans than any other.

Scientists at Oxford University found that homing pigeons are the only known species in the world other than humans able to build and pass on wisdom across the generations.

While many animals teach basic skills to their young, such as learning to hunt, until now none had shown it was possible to improve the collective ability of their species in the way mankind becomes ever more advanced.

But the scientists found that in the case of homing pigeons, families of the bird were able to improve their efficiency navigating across large distances over time.

They sent pairs of the homing pigeons off on a specific route, and then continuously replaced one experienced bird from a couple with an inexperienced one who had never flown the course before.

The experiment was designed to establish whether individual birds could pass their experience of the route down to the next pairing, and to see if the collective intelligence of the group improved so that their efficiency over the route improved.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study showed that the group’s homing performance got consistently better, and that each new pair of pigeons flew a more streamlined route over the course.

The homing pigeon navigates by means of magnetoreception, which allows it to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude and location.

In the study, later generation groups were found to outperform those who flew solo or as part of pairing which never changed.

Dr Takao Sasaki, who co-led the research, said: “At one stage scientists thought that only humans had the cognitive capacity to accumulate knowledge as a society.

“Our study shows that pigeons share these abilities with humans, at least to the extent that they are capable of improving on a behavioural solution progressively over time.”

The Oxford team pointed out, however…..

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Can barnacle geese predict the climate?

(Netherlands Institute of Ecology; Photo: Thomas Lameris; 18 April 2017)

The breeding grounds of Arctic migratory birds such as the barnacle goose are changing rapidly due to accelerated warming in the polar regions. They won’t be able to keep up with this climate change unless they can somehow anticipate it. A research team from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) employed computer models to assess the future of the geese and their young.

It’s the time of year when barnacle geese and many other migratory birds prepare to depart for their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle. From their wintering grounds in the Netherlands, the geese fly all the way up to the Barentsz Sea in northern Russia, where they should arrive just as the snow has melted. But in the polar regions, the climate is warming much more rapidly than in more temperate areas like the Netherlands — a phenomenon known as ‘Arctic amplification’.

It’s hard enough for humans to get to grips with the accelerated warming, let alone for barnacle geese, as an earlier NIOO-led study showed. After all, how can they tell from their wintering grounds if the snow has begun to melt thousands of kilometres away? So is it possible for the barnacle geese to advance their spring migration nonetheless, to predict climate change?

First study, fewer young

Ecologist Thomas Lameris and his fellow researchers from NIOO, and also the Swiss Ornithological Institute among other institutions, have tried to find the answer. “This is the first study that tests if migratory birds are in any way able to adjust their timing to the accelerated warming in the polar regions. We used a model to show that the availability of enough edible grass to build up reserves for their journey is not a problem for the barnacle geese. It’s the unpredictability of the climatic changes in their breeding grounds that spells trouble for them.”

If the geese continue to mistime their arrival, their reproductive success will be reduced. Lameris: “They miss their optimal breeding window and the peak in local food abundance, so fewer goslings will survive.” Some compensation for this comes from the fact that as well as starting earlier, the breeding season is becoming longer. This gives the goslings more time to grow. But that’s not enough.

To establish the barnacle geese’s potential for anticipating climate change, the researchers built a model that…….

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Walk with penguins in ground-breaking virtual reality video

(Shaun Hurrell; 19 April 2017)

Walk with Southern Rockhopper, King, Magellanic, and Gentoo Penguins on a remote island, in a new short film produced with Visualise for BirdLife International’s “Protect a Penguin” global campaign, to raise awareness that over half of the world’s penguins are threatened with extinction.

Amidst the sound of trumpeting parental calls, with wind buffeting against its fluffy feathers, a King Penguin chick walks right up to you and stares you in the eye. You duck your head as an albatross soars overhead, whilst another nests on a rock ledge just above you. As penguins squabble for a shower you feel almost splashed by water, and you sense the exposure as you peer over a cliff and watch a line of Southern Rockhoppers Eudyptes chrysocome jump up the steep slope to their colony. When you take off the virtual reality headset, with a bit of a dizzy wobble, you feel like you have seen the world from the perspective of a penguin—and it’s a tough realisation.

BirdLife has worked with virtual reality producer, Visualise, to create Walk with Penguins, an engaging 3D 360 short nature film—the first of its kind—to bring the daily challenges and lives of remote penguin colonies to you, and to raise awareness about threats to penguins, the second-most threatened group of seabirds (after albatrosses).

You can watch online in high-quality 360 video on YouTube (embedded below—click to view full-screen), or for the full experience, watch via the YouTube app or Google Cardboard app, using a cheap cardboard frame that allows you to use your phone as a virtual reality headset. The only thing that is missing is the smell of a real colony…

Despite being loved the world over, over half of the world’s penguins are threatened with extinction (ten out of 18 species) due to competition with fisheries, bycatch, marine pollution, disease, habitat disturbance and climate change. Urgent action is needed to better protect them, but public awareness of their situation is low, so on 10 April, we launched our campaign Protect a Penguin.

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Odd Things Birds Eat

american robin.JPG

(Laura Erickson; 14 April 2017)

In the past few weeks, I’ve received a couple of letters from listeners about their backyard birds eating unusual items.

Craig Magnuson of Forks, Washington, wrote that he’s seen Evening Grosbeaks, during several different summers, eating cold campfire charcoal shortly after dawn at the Lake Kachess campground in the Wenatchee National Forest. He noted that someone else posted photos of Evening Grosbeaks eating campfire charcoal at a different location about 20 miles east of where he’s seen it.

True finches, such as Evening and Pine Grosbeak, crossbills, siskins, goldfinches, and Purple Finch, eat mostly seeds. This diet has two problems: birds don’t have teeth, so can’t chew seeds to mash them up, and seeds are missing many minerals and other nutrients that birds need. By eating various forms of grit, birds solve both problems. The grit remains in the first chamber of their stomach—the gizzard—for a while, helping the muscular walls to pulverize the food. And little by little, the grit itself gets pulverized, and the minerals within are picked up by the body, too.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America, Evening Grosbeaks are known to eat snow, salt, and mineral-rich soil, and are drawn to areas where salt or calcium carbonate are artificially added to soil. A few studies have shown that they eat coal and coke ashes, and a scientist named Orr, in a 1951 paper titled “Observations on the birds of northeastern Idaho” in The Proceedings of the California Academy of Science, wrote that they regularly take charcoal from campfires.

Back in the 1980s and early 90s, when Evening Grosbeaks were abundant in my own neighborhood…..

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Latest figures reveal current state of UK’s birds

Profile of golden eagle(RSPB; Photo: Bill Paton; 11 April 2017)

More than one quarter of UK birds are in need of urgent conservation effort with curlew, puffin and nightingale joining the growing list of threatened species – but there is good news for some, a new report has highlighted.
The state of the UK’s birds 2016 (SUKB) report – the one-stop shop for all the latest results from bird surveys and monitoring studies – highlights how more than a quarter of the UK’s regularly-occurring bird species are now what conservationists refer to as ‘Red-listed’4.
Many of these are due to severe recent declines in numbers and/or range in the UK.  And eight2 are considered at risk of global extinction.
Downward trends for upland species continue, with five added to the Red List; giving cause for concern. Europe’s largest and most distinctive wader – the curlew – has been added to the Red List and is joined by dotterel, whinchat, grey wagtail and merlin. This highlights the fact many of the UK’s upland species are in increasing trouble with the total number of upland birds red-listed now 12.
Hosting up to a quarter of the global breeding population of curlew, the UK could be considered one of the most important countries in the world for breeding curlews. But in recent decades, numbers have almost halved due to habitat loss. With a much smaller population, predators are now having an effect on what was a resilient population.
The curlew is considered ‘near threatened’ globally and with urgent action required to halt their decline, an International Single Species Action Plan has been created.

Animal Sex: How Hummingbirds Do It

hummingbirds.jpg( Joseph Castro; 5 Marh 2017)

Endemic to the Americas, hummingbirds are defined by their small stature and dart-like movements. But when it comes to mating, do these aerial experts keep things equally quick or do they instead take the slow and steady approach?

Given hummingbirds’ propensity to congregate around flowers and artificial feeders, one might expect that they’re gregarious creatures, but this is far from the truth. In fact, hummingbirds are generally solitary, territorial birds, and most of the time they can be quite aggressive to one another, regardless of sex. “Hummingbirds are mean to everybody,” said Kristiina Hurme, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Connecticut.

Hummingbirds typically limit their social interactions to feeding and mating. The breeding season varies between species, but it often coincides with the rain, which causes a spike in the abundance of insects, said Alejandro Rico-Guevara, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist with the University of Connecticut and University of California-Berkeley. This rich source of protein is needed for plumage molting and egg production, as well as feeding chicks.

How hummingbirds go about mating also varies. “Every single species has a special ritual or mating display,” Rico-Guevara told Live Science. “And they are super complicated.”

Forest-dwelling hermit hummingbirds (those of the subfamily Phaethornithinae) often adhere to a so-called lek mating system, in which males gather in an open area to try to woo females, which visit the males one-by-one. The males, which maintain small territories, start by chirping. This sound is seemingly simple to human ears, but it actually contains layers of complexity when slowed down with computers. “[Hummingbirds] may not only be able to see in high speed but also listen in high speed,” Rico-Guevara said.

An impressed female will perch near a singing male, prompting him to perform tricks to further entice her. These alluring moves may include making sounds with his bill, flying around the female, flying side-to-side in front of her, and displaying his tail and his feathers.

Fights among competing males aren’t uncommon………

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