Archive for the ‘conservation’ Category

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Berlepsch’s Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

February 7, 2006
Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

I wanted to be the first person in the history of humanity to have a blog post with this title. This is the name of a recently rediscovered bird, found in a very remote and amazingly undisturbed rainforest in Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia. The bird was known previously from specimens collected well over a century ago, and unseen since, entirely because no one knew where the bird could be found.

Birds of Paradise are part of the aptly named family Paradisaeidae, which has between 38 and 45 extant members, depending on whichever taxonomy you prefer. Berlepsch’s, once evaluated by ornithologists, will surely be added to this. Birds of Paradise are truly breathtaking creatures, in many cases ornamented in spectacular otherworldly fashion. And if that weren’t enough, the courtship displays of some species are just as outrageous as their outfits.

Listers can be happy to know there is yet another bird to be seen in the world, without requiring some committee-decided species split. Conservationists can be happy to know that this bird, as well as a number of other newly discovered or rediscovered creatures, appear to be thriving in this untouched wilderness. And those of us who are both definitely enjoy the double-whammy.

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Lark Buntings

January 13, 2006

Tonight’s guest speaker at the monthly Fort Collins Audubon meeting was Amy Yackel Adams who spoke about her CSU dissertation work on Lark Buntings and their population status at the Pawnee National Grasslands. It was a very nice talk in front of an attentive and good-sized crowd. Some take-away points:

  • The Pawnee Grasslands (PNG) are home to the highest breeding concentrations of Lark Buntings (LABU). She says the birds are generally very prompt in arriving on May 1 in spring migration. The males show up about 2 weeks before the females.
  • It’s been estimated that LABU populations overall are declining at about 2.1%/year in recent years, which is quite high.
  • LABU juvenile survival rates are about 20-30%, which is pretty low by passerine standards.
  • These low rates are attributable in part to their being ground nesters, and are subject to significant predation, ranging from 13-Lined Ground Squirrels to weasels to raptors. Someone did ask during the Q&A whether chemical contamination may play a part, but Amy couldn’t point to any studies that have been done on this. Her anecdotal evidence did suggest some possibility of that, based on failed nests with fragile eggshells, but nothing conclusive.
  • LABU practices “brood division” during the raising of the young. That is, say, in a nest with 4 fledglings, the male and female with each take two “under their wing” and sequester them separately in different locations, for feeding, etc. Apparently only a couple dozen North American species are known to do this, although this may be because other species haven’t been followed and studied to the extent that LABUs were in her work.
  • Neighbor Nick asked her what she would recommend as the one single thing that could be done from a conservation standpoint in order to improve the chances of reproductive success for LABU at PNG. She suggested something along the lines of reducing habitat fragmentation, which is a very big problem at PNG. In the case of PNG, this fragmentation reduces the ability of coyotes (which get hunted off) to control their usual prey, the ground squirrels – and thus the LABU end up with more predators of their own.

Of course, there was more, but it’s getting late and I want to get this off before heading to bed. Bravo FCAS for yet another great presentation!

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Bird Morality

December 2, 2005

From bootstrap analysis:

Cowbirds have an undeserved poor reputation as being lazy or immoral. Of course, the attitude that birds, or any other animal, can or should follow human expectations of ethical or moral behavior is illogical and unreasonable.

Certainly true, although I hasten to add that a fair number of those concerned with the actions of nest parasites base that concern more on conservation issues. Nevertheless, it is not always easy for us to separate out that visceral response to witnessing what would be an atrocity in its human representation.

I don’t intend this to be a lengthy exploration of bird morality, but the topic is interesting. Curiously, though, this isn’t the case only with those who react negatively to cowbirds and other nest parasites, but also to certain groups in reaction to March of the Penguins. Roger Ebert:

The stupendous success of “March of the Penguins” this summer has led some political and religious agenda-promoting scalawags to paint weird and disturbing parallels between penguin behavior and human behavior, and to draw insupportable conclusions that do not exactly square with zoological reality.

He’s referring to media critics like Michael Medved and Maggie Gallagher. And let’s not even mention penguin homosexuality. OK, I change my mind, let’s:

Every day at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo the two males entwine necks, vocalise to each other and have, er, sex. When offered female companionship, they decline.

Roy and Silo have even displayed urges to procreate, and once tried to hatch a rock. Finally their keeper, Rob Gramzay, gave them a fertile egg from another brood. Tango, their chick, was born later. The pair raised it lovingly. ‘They did a great job,’ admits Gramzay.

I believe there’s nothing wrong with finding character traits in birds that help us appreciate them more. As long as it remains clear that bird morality is not something we humans are privy to understand – in this we can only gaze from afar.

Back to cowbirds though. If it cannot definitely be shown that cowbird range expansion is causing population drops in host songbird species in these newly penetrated areas, then from a conservation perspective the cowbirds are cleared of their “responsibility”, and we can resume concern for decreasing populations of host species due to more direct human causes like habitat destruction and collisions with transmission towers, etc.