Monthly Archives: April 2017

Paradise Lost: The Devastation of Białowieża Forest

bialowieza_forest.jpg

This is not directly about birds, but it was so sad to read about this that I couldn´t resist to publish it. To me personally Białowieża Forest has been a very strong symbol for a primeval forest for decades, and it hurts when money goes before everything else. (Editor’s note)

(Jarosław Krogulec & Gui-Xi Young; Photo: Tomasz Wilk; 26 April 2017)

Jarosław Krogulec, Head of Conservation at OTOP (BirdLife Poland) recounts the tragic devastation Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Narewka road took its travellers on a journey to what felt like a whole other world, to a whole other age – for the road leads you deep into the heart of Białowieża Forest. Here, straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, lies a living, breathing relic of antiquity – the largest surviving remnant of the vast primeval forest that once swathed the Great European Plain in a sea of lush greenness from the Atlantic to the Urals.

This is Europe’s ‘Yellowstone’. The forest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area; under its protective canopy is the best preserved forest ecosystem and the last deciduous, old-growth forest in all of Europe. It is a haven for biodiversity – unparalleled on this continent – hosting a rich panoply of fauna and flora, notably including Europe’s largest bison population.

“Białowieża Forest….under its protective canopy is the best preserved forest ecosystem and the last deciduous, old-growth forest in all of Europe.”

But as John Milton wrote in ‘Paradise Lost’, the minds of men can make ‘a hell of heaven’ and today the Narewka trail feels more like a road to perdition. The scale of man-made devastation that has been wreaked here in recent years is spine-chilling. Miles upon miles of forest have been logged, leaving a trail of environmental destruction as far as the eye can see.

In some areas, it seems like nothing has been considered too ecologically important to escape the executioner’s chainsaw. At one spot, a majestic 150 year old giant spruce has been recently reduced to a stump. If it had been left as deadwood, it would have found ‘life after death’ and provided biodiversity for forest wildlife for up to a century to come. A little further on, you can count each ring on the stump of a felled 80 year old oak tree. And what is left is simply on borrowed time – the trunks of the trees that line the forest roads are nearly all branded with ominous red symbols, cruelly marking them out for death.

For centuries, what ensured the richness of Białowieża were natural processes that had seen very little human intervention, particularly in comparison with other European forests. However, only one-third of the Polish area of the forest is officially protected as a national park, while the remaining two-thirds are subject to forest management, and increasingly mismanagement.

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Mating success follows duet dancing in the Java sparrow

(Physorg; Photo: Nao Ota; 17 April 2017)

Java sparrows are more likely to mate after dancing together, according to a study from Hokkaido University, contradictory to the belief that songs are the primary sexual signal.

Songbirds are well-known to sing duets for various purposes such as mutual mate guarding and joint resource defense. For Java Sparrows, songs are performed only by males for courtship, but both males and females dance in a duet-like manner. The male’s song is thought to play an essential role in attracting female mates but the role of dancing has been unclear until now.

In a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE, Associate Professor Masayo Soma and Midori Iwama at Hokkaido University in Japan examined how duet-dancing influences the mating success of pairs during a first encounter.

The researchers found that although both duet-dancing and male-singing are associated to a higher rate of mating success, the former played an essential role in mating. Females often gave a copulation solicitation display (CSD), meaning they are ready to mate, before the males started to sing, or after listening to the introductory notes. These results suggest that dance is more important than the males’ singing.

Masayo Soma says “It is surprising that females select mating partners without hearing the main song. The main song varies greatly among individuals and is thought to be important for selecting a mate in similar species.”

They also found that duet-dancing could be initiated by either sex, confirming the existing knowledge that courtship is a bilateral process in this species. Duet-dancing might also be part of a “matchmaking” process since males and females performed it on their first meeting. Solo-dancing by either the male or female did not result in a higher mating success in their study.

“Our current research didn’t look at how well their dances fit together. Future studies should look into the duration and degree of coordination in duet-dancing to better understand the role of dancing and its relative importance to singing. We are also interested in how dance routines change among pairs over time,” Masayo Soma added.

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Under-Studied Boreal Habitat Key for North America’s Ducks

CONDOR-16-179 M Carriere

(AOS; Photo: M. Carriere; 19 April 2017)

Knowing where migrating birds came from and where they’re headed is essential for their conservation and management. For ducks, most of this information comes from long-term bird-banding programs, but this type of research has limits—despite all the birds harvested by hunters, only a small percentage of banded birds are ever recovered. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes on the challenge of gaining information from unbanded birds by using stable isotope ratios, which reflect where birds were living while growing their feathers. These results reveal that the northern reaches of Canada may have underappreciated importance for North America’s waterfowl.

Canada’s Saskatchewan River Delta is North America’s largest inland delta and is a key stopover site for migrating ducks. To learn more about the origins of ducks using delta habitat, Christian Asante of the University of Saskatchewan, Keith Hobson of the University of Western Ontario, and their colleagues analyzed the isotopes in feather samples from 236 ducks from five species, all harvested by hunters in the region during migration in 2013 and 2014. Hydrogen and sulfur isotope ratios give scientists different information—hydrogen isotope ratios vary predictably with latitude, while sulfur isotope ratios reflect the type of food a bird eats and underlying geology—but together they indicated that as many as half the ducks using the delta during migration originated in the vast and nearly inaccessible areas of boreal forest and wetlands to the north.

The research required close collaboration with the area’s hunters. “Working on this project was a great experience,” says local community member Michela Carriere, who was hired to do the field work for the study. “I spent a few weeks collecting samples from the ducks and getting to know the hunters and the guides. Twice a day a load of ducks would come in and I would collect samples and label and package them, plucking feathers and extracting tissues. The hardest part was the labeling, which has to be done meticulously. I would spend hours each day collecting and organizing the samples.”

The results show that the boreal habitat’s contribution to North America’s waterfowl populations, though poorly documented, may be crucial. This region faces increasing threats from climate change and other factors, and isotopic monitoring offers a new means of tracking the effects on birds. “Our study is important for two reasons,” says Hobson. “First, it demonstrates clearly that the delta is a major fall refueling station for birds breeding in the north. Second, it shows once again how origins and regions of productivity can be determined using the simple isotope approach with feathers from hunter-killed birds. This major potential tool in waterfowl management has been largely overlooked in North America for too long.”

‘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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