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Bird nest decor may have hidden messages

An article in Wired Science reported a recent discovery that raptors use nest decorations as signals; biologists suspect that many other bird species may do the same.

According to researchers, black kite raptors were found to use white plastic to show territorial dominance.  Other combinations of trash and plastic may signify that a bird is preparing to lay eggs.

“It’s probably very common that other bird species decorate their nests in ways compatible with what we found,” said Fabrizio Sergio, a biologist at the Doñana Biological Station in Spain. “And not only birds, but fish and mammals.”

Serigo’s study, which contained observations of 127 black kite nests in Spain’s Donana National Park, was published on Jan 21 in Science magazine.

He is currently conducting a long-term study of black kite nest decoration in order to understand how it will change during the bird’s lifetime.

Five Billion Birds Die in U.S. Every Year

“Conspiracies don’t kill birds, people, however, do.”

That’s the headline of an article in today’s N.Y. Times about the rash of recent bird deaths in the U.S. and the numerous conspiracy theories that have surfaced in their aftermath.

The uproar began after 5,000 winged blackbirds were found dead one morning in Arkansas last month. Conspiracy theorists suggested that everything from pesticides to covert military activities could have caused the deaths, all arguments that were rejected by biologists and bird experts.

In this piece, reporter Leslie Kaufman thoroughly dissects what does cause most bird deaths:  people.

According to Melanie Driscoll, a biologist and director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway for the National Audubon Society, approximately five billion birds die in the U.S. every year.

The number one culprit of bird deaths is likely flying in to objects.  Deaths from birds crashing into windows alone are estimated to cause between 90 and 900 million deaths according to government estimates.

Cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, while pesticides are estimated to kill approximately 72 million birds annually.

Cars contribute 60 million bird deaths, while power lines slay approximately 174 million birds each year.

Italian bird die-off blamed on indigestion

The death of over 1,000 turtle doves last week in Italy was the result of indigestion, according to Italian officials.

The birds were scattered across the small Italian city of Faenza and were found with blue stains on their beaks, which is often a sign of oxygen deprivation.

However, according to Nadia Caselli of the Italian bird association, the birds likely suffered massive liver and kidney damage from consuming sunflower seeds from a nearby factory

Last week over 5,000 birds were found dead in a small down in Arkansas.  However, wildlife experts chalked up the deaths to natural circumstances.

Bird Die-Off, Not a Die-Off After All, Expert Says

Five thousand blackbirds lay dead in the city of Bebee, Arkansas on New Year’s Day.  The macabre scene horrified residents and caused many to wonder if a great bird die off was to come.

That’s not very likely according to Gary Graves, a Smithsonian curator of birds who has spent the last 25 years researching birds.

Graves said that the deaths could be the result of a number of factors, especially since the blackbirds are nuisance animals, and it’s not illegal for their roosts to be disrupted by loud noises and other methods.

“There are hundreds of thousands to millions of birds in one roost,” said Graves,  “So, percentage wise, a few thousand out of a few million is not much.”

He also was critical of the number of speculative theories floating around the Internet.

“People’s imaginations are running wild,” Graves said. Theories range from “the really sublimely ridiculous,” like flying saucers and top-secret government weapons, to slightly more feasible explanations, like: weather, fireworks, or “fracking, a strange thing where they pump high pressure air into the ground to crack rocks to release gas from natural gas formation.”

Tips for feeding birds in the winter

Now that the brunt of winter is upon us, many bird species have migrated south to warmer climates. However, there are still many birds remaining that could benefit from food or shelter during the winter.

Wade Kammin of Wild Birds Unlimited in Springfield, Illinois, recently gave a series of tips on feeding birds in the cold, for an article in the Springfield State-Journal Register.  Here are a few of his suggestions.

Food

During winter, it’s a good idea to put out as many different food types at as many different heights as possible.  This strategy will help maximize the number of birds you can feed.  Safflower seed, sunflower seed, peanuts, whilte millet and suet are a few good choices for winter bird food.

Water

Regadless of the temperature, birds always need a steady supply of water to stay alive.  If you’re in an area where the temperatures are dropping below freezing, you should store any stone or concrete bird baths under cover to prevent them for cracking.  If possible, replace them with a plastic or metal bath, or, even better, use a heated bird bath.

Cover and shelter

Birds need shelter during the winter, but it is often more challenging to find it once most of the trees lose their leaves.  For this reason, Kammin suggests “leaving yard work until spring and letting the garden stand in the winter, so the dried plant stalks and fallen leaves provide natural camouflage.”

Also, if you have birdhouses, fill them with roven grass rooting pockets, which will help cavity-dewlling birds find shelter for the wind, and add wood chips to better insulate the houses.

Want more tips about birdfeeding?  Check out the bird feeding learning section at The Backyard Chirper.

Researchers build robotic hummingbird wing

Researchers at the Extreme Fluids Lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory are trying a new approach to understanding the flight patterns of hummingbirds: robots.

According to an article at Live Science, researcher B.J. Ballakumar has built a robotic wing designed to mimic the hummingbird, which doesn’t flap its wings like other birds, but instead oscillates them in a “figure-eight pattern.”

Balkumar and his colleagues believe such a design could be excellent for hovering machines used for surveillance and other applications.

One of the things that he and his team are looking for is how hummingbirds, which are some of the tiniest birds on the planet, are able to not be blown off balance by gusts of wing.

If they can find the mathematical algorithms that allow hummingbirds to steady themselves in blustery conditions, the researchers can then transfer such technology to robotic devices.

Interested in learning more about hummingbirds? Check out our comprehensive bird learning section for more articles on the hummingbird and other bird species.

Alaskan birds developing deformed beaks

A beak is one of the most important body parts on any bird.  It’s instrumental in excavating nests, hunting and feeding young ones.  However, recently, a disproportionately high number of birds in Alaska have developed deformed beaks.

An article from Wired.com states that “1 in 16 Alaskan crows and black-capped chickadees now suffer from avian keratin disorder, causing their beaks to become morbidly elongated and crossed.”  This is ten times the normal rate of disfigurement.

Such a high rate of sudden disfigurement usually signals a disturbance in the ecosystem and scientists speculate that environmental factors, such as toxins and heavy metals could be responsible.  Other possible causes are bacteria, viruses, fungi or nutritional deficiencies.

Scientists are currently running a battery of tests to try to figure out the cause for the disfigurement.

The mystical Ivory-billed Woodpecker

We recently updated the Backyard Chirper Learning Center with additional content to give our customers more knowledge about bird species. While researching woodpeckers, our staff encountered a species that has incited significant controversy over the last decade on the question of whether or not it actually exists.

The Ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America, is kind of like the Elvis of the avian world. The bird, which is 20 inches long and has a 30-inch wingspan, resided in the swampland of Southeast America for thousands of years.

Also referred to as the “Ghost Bird,” it was revered by Native Americans, who would transport medicine in pouches they constructed from its bill. It was also a favorite of famous naturalist James Audubon, who was said to be enchanted by its beauty.

Decline of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker flourished until the mid-1800s, when forest clear-cutting reduced its population. By 1938, there were approximately 20 left, six to eight of which were living in the Singer Tract in Louisiana, a forest owned by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company.  Conservationists, along with a number of Southern Governors, lobbied the company to sell the land to the public, but instead they clear-cut the forest and wiped out the woodpecker.

Sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The species was thought to be officially extinct by the 1950s, though, every few years, a few rogue sightings of the bird would be reported, kicking off a new search. The largest of such searches occurred in 2004, after a bird enthusiast sighted a possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.

Following up on this information, a joint search between Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, The U.S. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas spent 20,000 hours over ten months scouring the White River National Wildlife Refuge. They reported 15 total sightings in the area, seven of high reliability. They also reported that drumming consistent with that of the Ivory-billed woodpecker was heard in the area.

Additionally, the team videotaped a large woodpecker who they believed was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This tape generated massive controversy in the ornithology community, as experts rushed to line up on both sides of the argument.

Today, there is still no conclusive evidence about whether or not the Ivory-billed Woodpecker exists, but if you see a freakishly large woodpecker with a red-crested head show up at your woodpecker house, at least you’ll know what it is.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife service posts updated oil spill bird statistics

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has been posting statistics on birds affected by the BP oil spill for months, but in its most recent report it broke down bird victims by species for the first time.

According to the document, wildlife officials have encountered over 7,600 birds distressed because of oil; 4,600 of the birds were deceased.

The report broke down the birds into 85 different species.  At the top of the list of affected birds was the Laughing Gull, of which over 3,000 birds were found dead, and the Brown Pelican, which suffered over 820 documented deaths.

The blog Round Robin, which is run by the Cornel Department of Ornithology, applauded the new data, but also expressed concern at the number of species, writing:

Among the definitely oiled species are some saddening surprises, such as an Eastern Kingbird, a Barn Swallow, three Mourning Doves, and two Ospreys. Even though the great majority of waterfowl have yet to arrive on the Gulf

Four Purple Martins and 3 Northern Cardinals were also included in the tally, a sobering reminder that the oil spill affects bird lovers everywhere.

Five bat species you might want to know

They may not be the prettiest of creatures, but bats are some of the most amazing mammals on Earth. There are approximately 1,100 bat species: some exotic, some mundane.  Since many bird lovers also own bat houses, we thought we’d give you the lowdown on a few cool bat species.

The Vampire Bat


No bat species gets more attention than the Vampire Bat.  Although many people think that all bats feast on blood (they don’t), these guys do.  There are three species of vampire bats, the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat and the white-winged vampire bat.  They live across Central and South America in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and other countries and they’re not opposed to feeding on human blood, so watch out!

The Spear-Nosed Bat


The spear-nosed bat has, you guessed it, a freakishly-shaped spear-nose.  The spear-nosed bat is one of the largest members of the bat species and resides in Central and South America.  It does eat vertebrates, but the primary components of its diet are fruit and nectar.

The Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox


The golden-crowed flying fox is famous for being the largest bat species in the world, with a wing span that can stretch up to five feet.  Currently facing extinction, the golden-crowned flying fox lives only in the rainforests of the Philippines and is rarely sighted in inhabited areas.

The Tube-Nosed Fruit Bat


These bats are found primarily in New Guinea and Australia.  Their tube nose functions almost like a snorkel, allowing the bats to breathe through their nose while they have their faces buried in fruit.  The tube-nose fruit bat is known to travel up to 50 kilometers in one night to search for food.

The Common Brown Bat

The brown bat is the most commonly found bat in North America.  These tiny creatures have wing spans between 22 and 27 centimeters.  They eat insects and use echolocation, a form of navigation that utilizes high pitch echoes, to locate their prey.

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