Canary in a coal mine: Survey captures global picture of air pollution’s effects on birds

(University of Wisconsin-Madison, Physorg 11 August 2017; Photo: Jeff Miller)

Famously, the use of caged birds to alert miners to the invisible dangers of gases such as carbon monoxide gave rise to the cautionary metaphor “canary in a coal mine.”

But other than the fact that exposure to toxic gases in a confined space kills caged birds before affecting humans — providing a timely warning to miners — what do we know about the effects of air pollution on birds?

Not as much as you’d think, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We know a lot about air pollution’s effects on human health, and we know a lot about the impacts of air pollution across ecosystems,” explains Tracey Holloway, a professor in UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “We were surprised to discover how little we know about how air pollution affects birds.”

Writing Aug. 11 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Holloway, an expert on air quality, and her former graduate student Olivia Sanderfoot, sort through nearly 70 years of the scientific literature to assess the state of knowledge of how air pollution directly affects the health, well-being, reproductive success and diversity of birds. This work is part of Sanderfoot’s ongoing National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

According to the Wisconsin team’s survey of the literature, only two field studies since 1950 have looked at any aspect of the health and ecological well-being of wild bird populations in the United States. Globally, there are only a handful of studies that assess the impact of direct exposure to air pollutants on bird health. Those encompass studies of just a few dozen bird species of the roughly 10,000 or so species of birds known worldwide.

Part of the problem, says Sanderfoot, are the many variables in play. Not only are studies of wild bird communities difficult to implement, but factors such as types and levels of air pollution, dynamic atmospheric conditions, species-specific responses, and the difficulty of teasing out direct versus indirect effects of air pollution can confound even the most basic efforts to assess how birds fare when exposed to chemicals in the air.

“There is a lot of work to be done in this area,” says Sanderfoot. “Air quality is an ever-changing problem across the globe. There’s a need to look at different types of air pollution and different species all over the world. We have a huge lack of understanding of the levels of pollution birds are exposed to.”

Gaps in our understanding, according to the new study, include air pollution’s effects on the avian respiratory system; toxic effects on birds, including elevated stress levels and immunosuppression; behavioral changes; and effects on reproductive success and demographics, such as changes in population density, species diversity and community composition.

Holloway, who leads the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (a multi-institutional team of researchers that serves as a nexus for analyzing environmental data from a constellation of Earth-observing satellites), notes that studying the effects of air pollution on humans is comparatively easier to assess as hospital records and mortality data are readily available to scientists. Air pollution, in fact, is one of the leading and most direct environmental threats to human health, she says.

Something that makes birds potentially more vulnerable to atmospheric contaminants is the efficiency of the avian respiratory system.

“Birds breathe unidirectionally,” notes Sanderfoot. “They definitely breathe more efficiently than humans, and it has been hypothesized that because their respiratory system is so much more efficient than ours, they are going to more readily pick up air pollutants.”

The study is a springboard for new research, Sanderfoot and Holloway argue, and may be especially important given birds’ role as sentinel species in the environment.

“When you talk to bird ecologists, air pollution is not necessarily perceived as a high-level issue,” Holloway says. “Things like climate and landscape changes are at the top of their list in terms of population densities, species diversity, ecological stress. But we know that air pollution is a major risk to human health, and from our study we see pretty clearly that there is an impact on birds, too.”

Vadare försvunna från vindkraftpark

(SOF 11 augusti 2017)
Det påtalas ofta att effekter sällan kan utläsas av kontrollprogram som upprättas efter etablering av vindkraft. Det kan bl.a. bero på naturliga variationer i de (fågel-)bestånd som undersöks samt att synbara förändringar ibland uppstår med avsevärd fördröjning – eller så klart att vindkraftverken inte utgör någon påverkan.
Nu finns emellertid ett intressant exempel från Stor-Rotlidens vindkraftpark i Åsele kommun, Västerbottens län. Granholmsmyran, en myr som tidigare hyste ett vadarsamhälle, saknar mindre än tio år efter etableringen helt häckande vadarfåglar.
Vid basinventeringen 2009 räknades 11 ljungpipare, 4 grönbenor, 6 gluttsnäppor, 2 skogssnäppor samt enstaka exemplar av rödbena och storspov. Ett halvt decennium senare, 2014, hade vadarsamhället minskat till 4 grönbenor, 2 ljungpipare, 1 skogssnäppa samt 1 småspov. Ytterligare två år senare stod alltså inte en enda vadare att finna vid inventeringen.
Detta är givetvis en dramatisk utveckling och även om det inte är vetenskapligt belagt att vindkraftparken är det som har orsakat vadarnas försvinnande så finns det ingen annan uppenbar förklaring.
Det kan i sammanhanget nämnas att det 2016 publicerades ännu en undersökning som påvisade vadares känslighet för vindkraftsetablering. I den brittiska studien minskade antalet häckande ljungpipare med 79 % i anslutning till en vindkraftpark och undanträngningseffekterna var tydliga upp till 400 meter från verken (Sansom et al. 2016. Negative impact of wind energy development on a breeding shorebird assessed with a BACI study design. IBIS 158: 541–555)

New Government Report Contradicts Trump Administration Climate Claims

Common Loon with chicks. Photo: Richard D. Pick/Audubon Photography Awards(Andy McGlashen 8 August 2017)

The report, which paints a dire picture of the planetary changes caused by warming temperatures, is awaiting official White House approval. But scientists worry its findings will be downplayed or suppressed.

The White House has found itself in yet another tough spot: Will the president and cabinet officials approve a report that contradicts their own public statements about climate change, or face backlash for suppressing the report and its inconvenient conclusions? Either way, they only have until August 18 to make a decision, and a sudden frenzy of news coverage this week has increased pressure as the deadline looms.

As originally reported by The New York Times on Monday, the draft report from scientists at 13 federal agencies shows severe warming in recent years, projects continued, significant temperature increases, and says human activity is chiefly to blame. According to the Times, scientists involved in the study are concerned that the Trump administration will hide or downplay the findings of the report, which was publicly available during its review period in December but received little press coverage until now.

Trump infamously called climate change a Chinese hoax during his campaign for the White House, has since moved to undo domestic climate policies, and has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord signed by nearly 200 countries in 2015. He also made Scott Pruitt the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who is a known climate change denier, would need to approve the report before it went public. Pruitt has spent much of his time in office weakening the EPA’s climate change research, and as the Times notes, in March, he said that carbon dioxide is not a “primary contributor” to global warming.

The draft report thoroughly undermines the Trump administration’s climate change claims and policies. “Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” it says. “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate changes. There are no alternative explanations, and no natural cycles are found in the observational record that can explain the observed changes in climate.” You can read the full report here.

Our planet has warmed by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, and it is “extremely likely” that most of the 1.2 degrees of warming since 1951 is due to human activity, the report concludes. We could expect another half-degree of warming by the end of the century, even if humans stopped pumping greenhouses gases into the atmosphere today. And under more realistic emissions scenarios, “the temperatures of recent record-setting years will become relatively common in the near future,” the authors write.

Along with rising temperatures, the report paints an unsettling picture of other planetary changes already underway. In the northeastern U.S., for example, extreme precipitation events are 17 percent more frequent than they were in the first half of the 20th century. Global sea levels have risen 3 inches since 1990, and the oceans are becoming more acidic faster than at any period in the past 66 million years. Permafrost is thawing and sea ice is melting in the Arctic, which is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. “Residents of Alaska are on the front lines of climate change,” the report says. “Crumbling buildings, roads, bridges, and eroding shoreline are commonplace.” 

While most scientists have long been cautious about blaming climate change for specific weather events, the report notes that new tools and techniques are making it possible to detect its influence on specific extreme weather events.

In addition to being a danger to human life, especially the socioeconomically disadvantaged, the global changes documented in the report threaten birds and other wildlife. As Audubon has reported, warming oceans are changing seabird diets and possibly even causing die-offs, while rising seas threaten bird habitat. And Audubon’s 2014 Birds & Climate Change Report, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, found that climate change is the biggest threat to 314 North American bird species. In South America, where many of these species migrate for the winter, climate change-related droughts also put birds at risk.

The draft Climate Change Special Report is part of the National Climate Assessment charged with reporting the latest climate science to Congress and the president every four years. The National Academy of Sciences has approved the draft, but it won’t be final until the White House signs off. If the administration did have plans to quietly scuttle the report or water down its urgent message, it will now have a much harder time doing so.

Deadly Pesticide May Yet Be Outlawed

Deadly Pesticide May Yet Be Outlawed

American Bird Conservancy 25 July 2017

We applaud the U.S. Senators who today introduced a bill to ban chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide that has been killing birds and poisoning the environment for the past half-century: Tom Udall (D-NM)Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA). We’re also grateful to Representatives Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), who have offered a companion bill in the House.

The “Protect Children, Farmers & Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act” would prohibit all chlorpyrifos use by amending the U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that oversees food safety.

Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate related to sarin nerve gas, is used in production of common crops such as strawberries, apples, citrus, and broccoli. In addition to the pesticide’s well-known threats to human health, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is concerned about the pesticide’s effects on birds, including to declining species like the Mountain Plover (shown). A recent draft biological evaluation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that chlorpyrifos is likely to adversely affect 97 percent of all wildlife, including more than 100 listed bird species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

ABC has been calling for a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos for years. EPA scientists agreed and were on course to ban the pesticide from use on all crops. In March 2017, however, the EPA administrator reversedw the recommendation of the agency’s own scientists and extended chlorpyrifos’ registration for another five years.

“It’s high time to outlaw the use of chlorpyrifos. It’s well known that this pesticide is lethal to birds, other wildlife, and people,” said Cynthia Palmer, ABC’s Pesticide Program Director. “We’re encouraged by the leadership shown today in Congress.”

Scientists Rediscover Venezuelan Bird Not Seen in 60 Years

(American Bird Conservancy 25 July 2017)

Feared Extinct, the Táchira Antpitta Has Been Found in Remote Andean Region

An international team of researchers has solved one of South America’s great bird mysteries. Working deep in the mountainous forests of western Venezuela, they have rediscovered the Táchira Antpitta, a plump brown bird species not seen since it was first recorded in the 1950s.

The 7.5-inch-long Táchira (TAH-chee-rah) Antpitta had not been spotted since 1955-56, when ornithologists first recorded and described it. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as Critically Endangered, and many feared it was lost for good.

Last year, scientists of the Red Siskin Initiative (RSI) — a conservation partnership between the Smithsonian and several scientific organizations in Venezuela — organized a team to go in search of the antpitta. The team was led by Jhonathan Miranda of RSI and Provita, and included colleagues Alejandro Nagy, Peter Bichier of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Miguel Lentino and Miguel Matta of the Colección Ornitólogica Phelps (COP). American Bird Conservancy (ABC) provided financial support through a William Belton Conservation Fund grant as part of its ongoing Search for Lost Birds.

The team set out in June 2016, knowing that several factors were likely to make the antpitta especially challenging to find, if in fact it still existed. The species inhabits dense undergrowth at altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet in a rugged and hard-to-reach region of the Andes. Difficult to identify visually, the bird differs in coloration in subtle ways from related species.

Antpittas are also easier to hear than to see. But without sound recordings, nobody knew what to listen for.

The researchers had an advantage: They knew where to look.  “We followed the route described in the earlier expedition’s field notebooks to locate the original site of the discovery,” Miranda said.

To reach the remote location, part of what is now El Tamá National Park, the team traveled by foot on steep and narrow Andean trails, with a mule train to carry their gear. From their campsite, the team hiked two hours in the dark to reach appropriate habitat at dawn, the best time to hear the birds sing.

The first day there, Miranda and Nagy detected the distinctive song of an antpitta they had not heard before. “We were thrilled to re-find the Táchira Antpitta during our first day in the field,” said Miranda, “and we think they persist in more places we have not yet searched.”

Over the next week, the team was able to confirm the mysterious song as that of the long-lost Táchira Antpitta, obtaining the first photographs and sound recordings ever made of the living bird.

“The rediscovery provides hope and inspiration that we still have a chance to conserve this species,” said Daniel Lebbin, ABC’s Vice President of International Programs. “We hope this rediscovery will lead to improved management of and attention for protected areas like El Tamá National Park.”

“El Tamá National Park is an important part of Venezuela’s natural heritage and recognized by the Alliance for Zero Extinction as a critical site to protect for the Táchira Antpitta and other biodiversity,” said Jon Paul Rodriguez of Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (IVIC, the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research), Provita, and the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

“Jhonathan Miranda and his RSI colleagues have resolved one of South America’s great bird mysteries, and we hope their findings will contribute to a renewed effort to conserve this species,” said Lebbin.

In the coming months, the team plans to publish the full details of their findings in a scientific journal, including how the Táchira Antpitta’s voice and visual characteristics distinguish it from other similar species. Additional field work is necessary to learn more about this mysterious bird. Similar habitat can be found nearby in Colombia, and the species might also occur there. Better knowledge of the species’ vocalizations and the visual identification gathered in this study will help researchers determine the species’ full range, ecology and habitat requirements, and how best to ensure its conservation.

“This species was originally described by William H. Phelps, Jr. of the COP and Alexander Wetmore, former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” said Michael Braun of the RSI and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “It is fitting that the Red Siskin Initiative, in which COP and the Smithsonian are key collaborators, has been instrumental in the rediscovery. We invite those interested in helping us learn more about this species to join us.”

The Venezuela search team owes its success to a number of individuals and institutions. Logistical support came from ABC, RSI, IVIC, COP, Provita, INPARQUES, Ascanio Birding Tours, the Smithsonian Institution, and the following individuals: Carolina Afan, Miguel Angel Arvelo, David Ascanio, Michael Braun, Felix Briceño, Brian Coyle, Dan Lebbin, Cipriano Ochoa, Tomás Odenall, Jorge Perez Eman, Jon Paul Rodriguez, Kathryn Rodriguez-Clark, and Bibiana Sucre.

Prairie-Chicken Nests Appear Unaffected by Wind Energy Facility

CONDOR-17-51 L Powell

(AOS 9 August; Photo: L. Powell)

Wind energy development in the Great Plains is increasing, spurring concern about its potential effects on grassland birds, the most rapidly declining avian group in North America. However, a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications suggests that for one grassland bird species of concern—the Greater Prairie-Chicken—wind energy infrastructure has little to no effect on nesting. Instead, roads and livestock grazing remain the most significant threats to its successful reproduction.

Prairie-chickens are thought to avoid tall structures such as wind turbines because they provide a perch from which raptors can hunt. To learn more, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Jocelyn Olney Harrison and her colleagues gathered data on the effects of an existing small wind energy facility (36 turbines) in Nebraska. They captured 78 female prairie-chickens at breeding sites, or leks, ranging from less than a kilometer from the wind energy facility to more than twenty kilometers away, and fitted the birds with transmitters to track them to their nests. Monitoring their nesting success and collecting data on the habitat characteristics of each nest site, they found little evidence that the wind energy facility affected nest site selection or a nest’s chances of survival. Instead, vegetation characteristics, driven by land use practices such as grazing, had the greatest influence on prairie-chicken nests. Birds also avoided nesting near roads.

“When comparing previousw studies to our own, it appears that the effects of wind energy facilities on prairie grouse are often site- and species-specific,” says Harrison. “Therefore, it’s important to consider the results of our study in the context of the size and location of the wind energy facility, as well as the prairie grouse species investigated. We suggest that livestock grazing and other grassland management practices still have the most important regional effects on Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we caution future planners to account for potential negative effects of roads on nest site placement.”

Private landowners were key to completing the study, Harrison adds. “Our radio- and satellite-tagged Greater Prairie-Chickens made larger than expected movements while we were tracking them, which led us to require permission from new land owners on almost a weekly basis during our field seasons. Landowners throughout our field study area were always extremely welcoming and helpful, and genuinely interested in our work. Our project was a success due to more than 50 landowners who granted us access to their private lands.”

Penguin forensics: Tracking the winter whereabouts of penguins by analyzing tail feathers

Penguin forensics
( Louisiana State University, Physorg 8 >August 2017; Photo M. Polito)

While a postdoctoral researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Polito and his colleagues conducted high-resolution forensic analyses of the chemical composition of the feathers using a technique called compound-specific stable isotope analysis of amino acids.

The scientists were able to identify the unique chemical signatures of penguin’s wintering areas in the ocean based on the coordinates from the tags and the data from the feather analyses. From this understanding, they were able to deduce where the other penguins that had not been tagged went over the winter based solely on the analyses of their tail feathers.

“This novel approach could be applied to different tissues from a wide variety of marine animals that migrate over long distances including seabirds, sea turtles, seals and whales,” Polito said. “Using stable isotope forensics to increase the size and scope of animal tracking studies will help us to better understand these charismatic species and ultimately aid in their conservation.”

Knowing where and how Antarctic penguins, and other seabirds and marine predators, migrate is critical for conservation efforts. Although electronic tracking devices have helped scientists track marine animals’ migration patterns, the devices can be expensive, invasive for the animal and challenging to retrieve. Scientists have discovered a new and potentially better way to track where penguins go over the winter using forensics.

“You can say, penguins ‘are where they eat,’ because a geochemical signature of their wintering area is imprinted into their feathers,” said LSU Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences Assistant Professor Michael Polito, the lead author of this study that will be published Aug. 9 in Biology Letters.

Chinstrap and Adélie penguins are part of the family of “brush-tailed” penguins named after their approximately 15-inch long, stiff tail feathers. These birds shed all of their feathers after each breeding season and before they migrate to their oceanic wintering grounds. However, their long tail feathers continue to grow well into the winter when penguins are at sea.

Polito and his collaborators from NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Oxford University and the Instituto Antártico Argentino attached tags to 52 adult Chinstrap and Adélie penguins at their breeding colonies and retrieved the tags the following breeding season to determine where the birds went over the winter. When they retrieved these tags, the researchers also took a tail feather grown over the winter from each tracked penguin and from 60 other penguins that had not been tagged.