You are here

All About Birds

Subscribe to All About Birds feed
Your online guide to birds and birdwatching
Updated: 13 hours 14 min ago

Bird Cams: Live American Kestrel Cam

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 15:02

About the Kestrels
In general, the kestrels return to their box in February or March. Egg-laying begins in April or May, and eggs hatch roughly 26 to 32 days after they are laid. The young fledge between 28 and 31 days of age. Like peregrine falcons and bald eagles, American kestrel fledglings remain near the nest before dispersing in late summer. They eat invertebrates, small rodents, and birds including grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, dragonflies, spiders, butterflies and moths, voles, mice, shrews, small songbirds, small snakes, lizards, and frogs. Learn more about American Kestrels in our species guide.

About the Site
The kestrels are nesting on private property near Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin. Their nest box, located on the side of a traditional limestone-footed barn, overlooks a rolling grassland that slopes away into the folded hills and forests of the driftless. A nearby stream cuts through deeply incised limestone to join the Mississippi river roughly four miles west of the nest. This wonderful combination of grassland, forest, and water has supported kestrels for over 25 years, and is an excellent example of the habitat that kestrels need to survive and thrive.

About the Host
Founded in 1988 by the late Bob Anderson, the non-profit Raptor Resource Project specializes in the preservation of falcons, eagles, ospreys, hawks, and owls. They create, improve, and directly maintain over 50 nests and nest sites, provide training in nest site creation and management, and develop innovations in nest site management and viewing that bring people closer to the natural world. Their mission is to preserve and strengthen raptor populations, expand participation in raptor preservation, and help foster the next generation of preservationists.

Living Bird Summer 2018—Table Of Contents

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 10:21
Common Loon by Roberta Olenick. More From Living Bird hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {}); Feature ArticlesLead Fishing Tackle Is Still a Problem for Common LoonsBy Lauren Chambliss Common Loon by Bill Wynneck via Birdshare.A Galaxy of Falcons: Witnessing the Amur Falcon’s Massive Migration FlocksBy Scott Weidensaul Background photo by Ramki Sreenivasan, Amur Falcon by Kevin Loughlin.Who Lives and Who Dies? Endangered Species Funding and Conservation “Triage”By Sarah Gilman Northern Spotted Owl by Kathy Adams Clark.Analysis: Failing To Invest In Endangered Species Is A Tragedy Of The CommonsBy John W. FitzpatrickKeeping Hope Alive For Hawaii’s IiwiBy Kim RogersAmong Ruffs, Some “Fight-Loving Fighters” Don’t Like to FightBy Leonardo Campagna; Photos by Gerrit Vyn Columns & DepartmentsView From Sapsucker Woods: The Inspiring Optimism of Imogene Powers JohnsonBy John W. FitzpatrickRecovering America’s Wildlife Act: Bill Would Boost Bird FundingBy Gustave AxelsonTake a Child Into Nature: 5 Tips for Fun Field TripsBy Hugh PowellThe People Behind the Birds Named for People: Georg Wilhelm StellerBy Alison HaighNew Vogelkop Superb Bird-Of-Paradise Changes Up the Old Song and DanceBy Marc DevokaitisBrainpower Wins Over Brawn When Male “Hermit” Hummingbirds Display for MatesBy Hugh PowellClimate Change Could Reduce Critical Food Supplies for Migratory BirdsBy V.M. CampbellWhat Does A Dawn Chorus of Bird Song “Look” Like?By Gustave Axelson2018 Global Report: 40% Of World’s Birds Are In DeclineBy Marc DevokaitisGallery: Page From An Artist’s SketchbookBy Catherine Hamilton

Learn These Plants and Practices to Create a Successful Pollinator Garden

Mon, 06/18/2018 - 21:49

Pollinator Garden Plants and Practices
Jacob Johnston June 18, 2018
Bees Birds Native Plants Pollinators
00–0
For millions of years, flowering plants have engaged in an intricate ecological dance, evolving to protect themselves from predators and pathogens while, at the same time, developing ways to attract potential pollinators–both important parts of the plant’s life cycle. Pollinators, too, have been tied up in this tango, a back and forth of creating and overcoming attraction and resistance, access and exclusion, which, over time, has pushed each other to be perfect partners in their biological ballet. Here, we explore the intimate connections plants and pollinators depend on for survival and how this understanding can enhance our own efforts when gardening for wildlife.

20256415805_7e61b3d72c_o (1)
A pollinator garden can be more than a name designating a patch of flowers. It’s value can be maximized with attention to colors and patterns and specific shapes and sizes, all orchestrated to play host to a bouquet of chemical cues, impeccably timed to provide the nectar, shelter, and other resources pollinators need as they grow, pupate, and nest throughout the season. By making your pollinator patch a safe and predictable place, pollinators can expect to complete their own life cycles and continue their evolutionary dance with angiosperms.

9163315440_16de37f272_o (1)
The plants and practices we choose to use in pollinator gardens can help to diversify the pollinators visiting our gardensopen_in_new. If we want to plant flowers to attract birds and butterflies, we also have to provide for bees and caterpillars, both different, but intimately related parts of the food webs and life cycles that influence the birds and butterflies we see. Managing for the entirety of the life cycle of a diversity of organisms often requires attending to sometimes unfamiliar plant characteristics, like flower color, morphology, and leaf texture, as well as recognizing the impacts of our management practices. For instance, how susceptible are different organisms, say caterpillars, or ground-nesting bees, to any treatments that may be used on the flowers or plant materials.

8698125418_6016e60f2e_o (1)
Plants
There are hundreds of thousands of plants in nature, many of which depend on animal pollination and act as important resources for pollinating wildlifeopen_in_new. A small but wonderful selection of those, fortunately, are suitable, even desirable, for home gardens and landscaping. The qualities that attract pollinators to plants are similar to those we appreciate in our own botanicals. Vibrant colors, unique shapes, and pleasant odors make blooming gardens standout against the background of greens and browns, in nature and in our neighborhoods. These features are even more important to the pollinators who are looking for food and to the plants attempting to attract them for pollination services.

Practices

In the Great Plains, leaf cutter bees like lavender and legumes, while sweat bees seek out sunflowers, violets, and saxifrages. Curious about the plant-pollinator relationships in your area? Start with your local eco-region Pollinator Guide.
Plan on planting for pollinators in full sun, or as much sun as possible. Bees and butterflies require the heat on sunny days to get their wings up to speed and nectar producing flowers are more productive in the sun.
In typically shady areas, like forested regions, there are going to be native options available for shade gardens–something showy from the surrounding landscape- that will attract hummingbirds and bumble bees, both busy workers in much cooler and darker conditions.
Select the plants that you love too. It is your garden, create something both you and pollinators will enjoy all year.
BeeVision
Color
The colors we see in our gardens may be attractive but they are not necessarily the same colors pollinators perceive. Many bees, butterflies, and other nectivorous insects have eyes sensitive to ultraviolet light and many of the flowers they pollinate reflect and absorb ultraviolet light in patterns on the petals, called nectar guides, that we cannot see. Visible color is initially used as a long distance attractant for pollinators but ultraviolet patterns on the petalsopen_in_new and flower centers act as bullseyes, or targetsopen_in_new, leading hungry bees and butterflies to the copious nectar.

440241617_336205b575_o (1)
Colors acting as attractants can also be associated with attracting different types of pollinators. Hummingbirds are generally drawn to reds and oranges while bees and flies are attracted more to blues and yellows. Moths are nocturnal nectivors and white or pale flowers in the dark are more likely to be seen and visited. Butterflies prefer purples and oranges but will nectar on pastel petals like pinks and periwinkle. A diversity of colors and color patterns is important to attract a diversity of pollinators.

Practices:

Choose a selection of colors to display across the garden and throughout the season that attracts the types of pollinators you want to see more of. Our simple downloadable, printable, planting palette can help get you started. (or, donate to our project and, as a thank you gift, we’ll send you a reusable planting palette along with a few other goodies).
Select straight species, those unmodified from the original native variety, whenever possible. Nativars are cultivars created from native plants with a variety of unique colors or patterns but may not be as attractive to pollinators as they are to the plant breedersopen_in_new.
Stage your plantings according to height with taller plants in the back or middle and shorter plants at the edges to improve color visibility from multiple and further distances.
35935783223_b313a01e0e_o (1)
Shapes
Flower sizes, petal shapes, and even the position or angle the flowers are presented can select for, or limit, access to the stamen and nectaries by certain pollinators. Composite flowers, like black-eyed Susan and sunflower, have a flat, disk-shaped flower which acts as a convenient landing pad and offers hundreds of tiny, shallow florets which are easily accessed by most bees, flies, and butterflies. Umbelliferous flowers, like milkweeds and Joe-pye, shown above with a Tiger Swallowtail, offer similar landing platforms and easy access to long and short-tongued pollinators.

27736585933_f5e2c6181f_o (1)
More complex flower shapes limit some pollinators’ abilities to gain access to pollen or nectar–this reduces competition for the resource and offers greater reward for the few specialists that can put in the effort. Tubular flowers, like lobelia and beardtongue, are inaccessible to short-tongued bees and most flies unless they have a large flat bottom petal to act as a small landing pad for pollinators who then crawl inside to find their sweet treat. Large carpenter bees have powerful mouthparts and will often just poke or chew a hole through the tubular flower from the outside to reach the nectaries. Hummingbirds and clearwing moths (shown above), are excellent at accessing the tubular flowers of monarda with their very long proboscis.

DSC_0183 pollen-covered bee on columbine great shot (1)
Nodding flowers, like harebell and the columbine shown above, hang down and are even more difficult to access. Bumble bees, however, can easily reach these deep nectaries with their long tongue and small bees will often crawl up inside, clinging to the floral structures, and perform buzz pollination to collect the protein-rich pollen.

Practices:

Increase the variety of flower shapes and sizes available to pollinators when adding flowers to your gardens (look for composite, tubular, nodding, and umbelliferous flower shapes). This can improve the diversity of specialists and may reduce competition for daily pollen and nectar resources among visiting pollinatorsopen_in_new.
In dense clusters, position the flat, composite, and umbelliferous flowers in the center, with tubular and nodding flowers towards the outsides and edges. This allows for improved access to flowers that are approached from the side or from underneath.
Again, when acquiring native plants, choose straight species–those unmodified from the original native variety–whenever possible. Cultivar varieties of native plants may have unique sizes and shapes, like double petals, but may not be familiar or even accessible to native pollinatorsopen_in_new.
42355626941_b574d42640_o (1)
Odors
Plants, especially their flowers, produce varying cocktails of volatile organic compounds giving them specific odors or fragrance, that are picked up by sensilla, small hairs located on many insect’s antennae and mouthparts. These olfactory cues guide pollinators to their source and produce the pleasant aroma gardeners and passers by may stop to enjoy. Butterflies are generally drawn to sweet and spicy scents, while bees are more often found chasing a fruity or flowery fragrance. Flies, on the other hand, are often attracted to flowers smelling of dung, or rotting carrion, but can be found pursuing a host of other odoriferous emanations.

2834430585_55c75aec1b_o-1
Biochemistry
Plants also emit chemical signatures which can be picked up by the sensitive sensilla on pollinators searching for, or avoiding, specific plant qualities. Secondary metabolic compounds produced within plants, such as the pictured pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii), can act as either toxins or medicines depending on the pollinator and the plant. Pollinators suffering from parasites or pathogens seek out certain, often native, plants with higher concentrations of important metabolites in hopes of medicating themselves against afflictions.

36431026041_19b99fcbfc_o (1)
The secondary compounds in plants are especially important to reproducing moths and butterflies which can be very selective about the species of host plants they lay their eggs on. Plants produce these compounds to protect themselves from being eaten. Some of the secondary metabolites produced by plants taste bad to common herbivores, while others are outright toxic. In order to eat enough to survive, insects have had to overcome some of these defenses. As there are thousands of plant defenses out there, insects specialize in getting around at least a few of these obstacles, so they can safely eat a few kinds of plants. Moths and butterflies who detect a certain secondary compound, like this Painted lady on her common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) host plant, can lay eggs knowing their offspring will be able to eat when they hatch. Plants that are not native to the same range of the insect do not emit the same familiar signatures and will not attract the insects looking for them.

36669399625_5e38e06d6b_o (1)
While some arthropods are generalists who can access, consume, and nest in a large variety of suitable habitat conditions, most–around 90%–are specialistsopen_in_new and require specific plants to complete their life cycle. Specializations can be morphological, like shapes and lengths of mouthparts or body sizes. They can be physiological, like resistance to toxins, or they can be behavioral, as in the habits, timing, and preferences that are synchronous with the habits and timing of flowering plants. This monarch caterpillar eating very toxic and sticky milkweed (pictured), can do so because it has a digestive system that allows it to–a physiological trait–and because it first chews a hole in the midvein of the leaf–a behavioral adaptation–to stop the milky sap from flowing to the ends where it eats, preventing damage to its mouthparts.

Practices:

Include plants of different species as well as those from different genera and families. A garden with a couple of kinds of milkweed will be greatly enhanced by the addition of a few aster species. Include shrubs and grasses to provide host plants for hundreds of moth species, as well.
Skip the chemicals. Holes in leaves are usually a sign of success as hungry growing caterpillars are consuming their host plant. Pest species may be less likely to take over in diverse native gardens because they are controlled by predators like birds and other insects.
Consider letting a few “weeds” grow in. These may be native varieties of local wildflowers and can attract beneficial insects that may prey on any pest species, keeping them under control. You can remove seed heads as they form to keep from spreading.
9214068197_2345167b94_o (1)
Materials
Pollinators rely on plants for a myriad of materials as they progress through their lifecycleopen_in_new. Beyond pollen and nectar, some bees collect oils and resins from flowers to line their nests with, which offers waterproofing and antimicrobial benefits to developing larvae. Wool carder bees, shown above, collect pubescence, or plant fuzz, from the leaves and stems of plants like mullein and lambs ear. They too use this to line their nests, which they make in the hollow stems of previous year’s flowers.

6805396270_f93af31714_o (1)
Many native bees and other important insects nest in hollow stems and branches; leafcutter bees use little bits of plant leaves to line them and make cocoons, while mason bees use mud to create partitions in the stems and seal up the ends. Numerous moths and butterflies will also depend on the plant leaves and stems to lay eggs, make cocoons, or cozy up for the winter. This, in turn, provides excellent and abundant food sources for nesting birds in the spring and other ravenous wildlife emerginging from their winter slumber.

6522818559_c600fa7399_o (1)
Practices
Since plants provide the necessary materials for foraging, nesting, and overwintering we must take a serious look at the practices we employ when managing that plant material in our yards and gardens. Weeds invade in the spring and herbivores snack all summer. Perennial and annual wildflowers leave behind stems and dried seed heads and shrubs and trees leave leaves in the fall. Winter brings few challenges for gardening but offers opportunities for planning and improving connections.

Include a variety of textures and leaf types in your native plant selections to appeal to a variety of pollinators looking for nesting materials.
Avoid nativars (native cultivars) with altered leaf color, like bronzed or variegated patterns. This is shown to be the plant breeding quality with the biggest effect on native pollinators’ useopen_in_new.
Avoid “cleaning-up” pollinator gardens in the fall and allow the leaf litter and dried stems to persist until late in the spring.
When spring cleaning before temperatures are consistently above 50˚F, place garden debris–the dried leaves and hollow stems, etc–in a sunny place for a couple more weeks to allow pupating bees and other insects time to finish their development and emerge–just in case.
To help annual plants, like black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), to reseed, allow a thin layer of broken down leaf litter to collect around the base of plants, instead of thick bark mulch. This will help prevent a few weeds and retain moisture like mulch but will also allow newly germinated plants to make it through.
Leave some bare ground for bumble bees, collettes, and others ground nesting bees to dig in for their nests.
PLANT SUGGESTIONS
Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 3.13.32 PM
Mutualism between plants and insects is regional. Below are some suggestions for pollinator gardens that will work for almost any location. They are a diverse selection of sun-loving native plants pollinators are known to prefer. Together these picks offer host plants to locally important butterflies or moths, they provide a sequential array of blooms, colors, shapes, and structures both gardeners and pollinators will appreciate, and they supply some of the required resources for nesting bees and overwintering wildlife.

CLICK ON A REGION BUTTON BELOW TO DOWNLOAD YOUR LOCAL GARDEN CARD AND PLANT LIST.
Northeast Southeast Mountain Southwest
Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 4.18.33 PM
It may seem like complicated lists of dos and don’ts but maintaining a pollinator garden simply comes down to one question; in short, what does nature do? From there you can decide how much planning and organizing to do, how much you want to let go and enjoy, and how much should be taken care of to suit your own preferences. Many people find the challenge of assembling a diversity of plants tailored for their region and regional pollinators a delightful and satisfying hobby.

What’s the best way to clean your bird feeders to prevent disease?

Mon, 06/18/2018 - 13:00

Preventing disease: What’s the best way to clean your bird feeders?
June 18, 2018

Yellow-rumped Warblers by Laura Finazzo

Feeding birds can be a great source of joy, but feeders can increase the risk of disease transmission in the birds we love if feeders are not cleaned adequately. What’s the best cleaning method to prevent the spread of disease? According to an article published in the March issue of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, researchers at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania recently conducted a study to determine the most effective way to reduce levels of Salmonella enterica enterica bacteria on wild bird feeders.

The researchers gathered data from two sets of feeders: a set that had gathered debris from normal feeding activity and a set of unused, clean feeders. They applied cultures of Salmonella to the entire perch and seed well areas of each feeder and then measured the concentration of bacteria on the feeder. The researchers tested three cleaning methods: scrubbing feeders with soap and water, soaking them in a diluted bleach solution for ten minutes, and scrubbing them with soap and water followed by a soak in bleach solution. The feeders were tested again to determine how much bacteria remained.

The researchers found that all three cleaning methods reduced the amount of Salmonella on the feeders. However, in both feeder types, the two methods that involved a bleach soak were more effective in reducing Salmonella bacteria than simply scrubbing with soap and water. Additionally, they found that feeders with debris had more bacteria after cleaning than new feeders, regardless of the cleaning method used. Furthermore, the debris-laden feeders that received only the soap and water treatment still had enough Salmonella to risk disease transmission.

So what does this mean for FeederWatchers? We recommend that, at minimum, when you clean your feeders you soak or scrub them with a dilute bleach solution, rinse them thoroughly, and let them dry before adding bird feed. If your feeders have visible debris, be sure to scrub them as long as necessary to remove all visible debris before cleaning them. Remember that prevention is the key to avoiding the spread of disease and that you should regularly clean your feeders even when there are no signs of disease. For more information, visit our Sick Birds and Bird Diseases web page.

Reference:
Feliciano, L.M., Underwood, T.J., and Aruscavage, D.F. (2018). The effectiveness of bird feeder cleaning methods with and without debris. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 130(1):313-320. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1676/16-161.1

Ecoregion Insights: American Semi-desert and Desert Province

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 17:31

Ecoregion Insights | American Semi-desert and Desert Province
Rhiannon Crain June 14, 2018
Healthy Ecosystems Mapping Desert Dry Ecoregions
00–0
ECOREGIONS connect you to other places with similar weather, plants, and geographic conditions. These are important considerations when planning a wildlife garden or trying to understand how a place you live, work, or enjoy fits into the bigger picture.

AMERICAN SEMI-DESERT
Southeastern California, southwestern Arizona, southern Nevada, 87,700 mi2 (227,100 km2)
The American Desert includes the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran Deserts. Its topography is characterized by extensive plains, most gently undulating, from which isolated low mountains and buttes rise abruptly. Vegetation is usually very sparse, with bare ground between individual plants. Cacti and thorny shrubs are conspicuous, but many thornless shrubs and herbs are also present. On the Sonoran Desert plains, the most widely distributed plant is the creosote bush, which covers extensive areas in nearly pure stands. On some parts of the plains the arborescent cacti (cholla) are also common. Mesquite is less widespread and grows only along washes and watercourses.

Adapted from Description of the Ecoregions of the United States

GOOD PLANTS
Some important native plants in your region include:

Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)
Creosote (Larrea tridentata)

White tidytips (Layia glandulosa)

Saharan mustard (Brassica tournefortii)
Each ecoregion seems to have one or more exotic species that end up being invasive in the region. These plants can cause a variety of concerns from choking out waterways, to changing the character of the forest floor.

DO YOU HAVE IT AROUND?
Pictured above is one invasive of concern in this region, Saharan mustard (Brassica tournefortii).

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai)
One threatened animal in your region that you might benefit with your conservation actions is the desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) pictured above.

Getting to know your ecoregion can help you choose plants and understand critical issues in your region that may help you shape your landscaping choices.

A major conservation issue in this region is minimizing water use to ensure fair access to this resource. Read more about how to save water . . .

Gallery: Page From An Artist’s Sketchbook

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:46
Catherine Hamilton sketched scenes from her journey through Nagaland in search of the Amur Falcon gathering. More From Living Bird

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Bird artist Catherine Hamilton joined author Scott Weidensaul’s expedition to northeastern India’s remote Nagaland state to witness the spectacle of the Amur Falcon migration.

After seeing the falcons gather by the tens of thousands, she shared dinner at the Friends of the Amur Falcon house in the village of Pangti with local conservationist Bano Haralu.

Of her experience, Hamilton wrote: 10/29/2017 The morning lift-off, from the platform site, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The falcons are here. Not at their peak numbers quite yet, but still in impressive numbers. 40–50,000 falcons swirling around you at first light is a pretty incredible sight.

2018 Global Report: 40% Of World’s Birds Are In Decline

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:44
Read the 2018 State of the World's Birds report. More From Living Bird

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

The 2018 State of the World’s Birds, released in April, finds that nearly 40 percent of bird species throughout the world are in decline. The comprehensive report, produced every five years by BirdLife International, documents worldwide trends in bird populations.

“Each time we undertake this assessment we see slightly more species at risk of extinction. The situation is deteriorating,” Tris Allinson, senior global science officer for BirdLife International told The Guardian.

There are now 1,469 bird species globally threatened with extinction–One out of every eight bird species worldwide, according to the report. This represents an increase of 40% since the group’s first global assessment of threatened species in 1988.

Many familiar birds from around the world were highlighted because of rapidly decreasing populations, including Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, European Turtle-Dove, and several species of Old World vultures.

Topping the list of the biggest threats to bird populations, based on number of species affected, are agricultural expansion and intensification, followed by deforestation, invasive species, and hunting and trapping.

“The threats driving the extinction crisis are many and varied, but invariably of humanity’s making…and most species are impacted by multiple, interrelated threats,” cautions the report.

“Addressing these underlying causes is challenging and requires radical changes to the way we run our global economies and live our individual lives, yet it is essential if the impending biodiversity crisis is to be averted.”

Read the 2018 State of the World’s Birds report.

Climate Change Could Reduce Critical Food Supplies for Migratory Birds

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:43
A Wood Thrush relies on insects to fatten up before migration. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar via Birdshare.

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

New research indicates that climate change may disrupt a critical fueling-up stage for migratory birds, just as they’re preparing to journey thousands of miles south in the autumn.

A computer modeling study led by Cornell Lab of Ornithology research ecologist Frank La Sorte revealed that during future late summers in North America, the climate could be significantly different from historical norms. This change could affect insect and plant communities that are important food resources for birds when they’re bulking up and layering on fat reserves to fuel fall migration.

hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {});

For the study, La Sorte and his team compared eBird abundance models for 77 migratory bird species with computer models of predicted climate change for every week in the year in the Western Hemisphere. They found that a changing and unpredictable climate creates novel environments—new and different situations that birds haven’t evolved to cope with, such as subtle changes in the food supply in late summer.

Most at-risk species are eastern migratory birds that fly great distances, require large fuel reserves, and sync their migration with weather systems. Also at risk are juvenile birds undertaking their very first migration, a hazardous journey that can be extremely energetically taxing. And for bird species already facing declines, such as Wood Thrush and Golden-winged Warbler that migrate all the way to Central and South America, a change in resource predictability may exacerbate their downward spiral. Audubon Pennsylvania scientist Ron Rohrbaugh is the chair of the International Wood Thrush Conservation Alliance. He says that if climate change decreases the availability of ripe fruit when these birds are fattening up, “Wood Thrush could be undernourished and suffer greater mortality during migration.”

Rohrbaugh also says that La Sorte’s predictions threaten to throw the timing of migration stopovers out of sync with the availability of food. Many long-distance migratory birds hopscotch their way south, stopping at specific points along their journeys to refuel.

“Birds like the already imperiled Golden-winged Warbler will be ill-prepared to continue their journey and could suffer carryover effects that reduce wintertime survival,” Rohrbaugh says. In other words, a poor pit stop during the migration race could mean warblers go into winter in poor body condition—and don’t survive to see spring.

American Robins are generalists, which means they may have more options available to them when faced with novel environments. Photo by Slow Turning via Birdshare.Eastern Phoebes are insect specialists. Changes in the environment that affect their food supply could cause the species to decline. Photo by Brian Kushner via Birdshare.

Certain species will be better at handling these novel environments. Generalists will tend to do better than insectivores. For example, American Robins and Eastern Phoebes are both common, but if insect population dynamics change, phoebes’ reliance on insect prey may cause their numbers to start declining, while robins may have more options left open to them. Birds like Blackpoll Warblers that migrate with fewer stopovers may also do better, as they don’t rely on as many migration stopover sites as other species. Songbirds that have more than one clutch a year might also do better, as early offspring could have a longer period of insect food available than those that hatch later in the summer.

Despite the dire predictions, La Sorte’s findings also suggest ways to combat declines in bird habitat conditions. Rorhbaugh points to the study as a reminder of the importance of keeping habitats in a healthy state, which gives them resiliency in the face of climate change.

Reference

La Sorte, F. A. et al. 2018. Seasonal associations with novel climates for North American migratory bird populations. Ecology Letters 21:845–856.

New Vogelkop Superb Bird-Of-Paradise Changes Up the Old Song and Dance

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:41
Ed Scholes, co-discoverer of the new species, points out the subtle but distinctive differences between the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise and its nearest relative. More From Living Bird

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Introducing the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise (Lophorina niedda), now recognized as a new species, thanks in part to its smooth dance moves.

In 2016, Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher Ed Scholes and photographer Tim Laman were on a multimedia expedition for the Birds-of-Paradise Project in the far western region of New Guinea, called the Bird’s Head (or Vogelkop) peninsula, when they happened to hear a distinctive song. Scholes and Laman knew the population of Superb Bird-of-Paradise found there sang a different song than individuals elsewhere in New Guinea, so they set up their gear to record the bird’s courtship behavior—the first time the behavior of this western population had ever been filmed.

The Superb Bird-of-Paradise (now called the Greater Superb Bird-of-Paradise) is a somewhat well-known bird. The species shot to stardom after the male’s courtship dance appeared on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series. For a mating display, the male fans its feathers out to form a pitch-black oval highlighted by electric-blue feathers—suggesting a smile and a pair of eyes—and hops excitedly around a female.

The Superb Bird-of-Paradise (left) forms an oval shape when displaying; The Vogelkop Bird-of-Paradise (right) forms a crescent. Video still A by Ed Scholes/Macaulay Library. Image B by Tim Laman/Macaulay Library.

But as Scholes and Laman watched this new western bird’s routine, they noticed subtle novelties in the display. This bird slid from side to side instead of hopping, and its feathers fanned out to a crescent instead of an oval.

These and other differences—published in the journal PeerJ by Scholes and Laman—were enough to suggest this was a new species. Their findings were bolstered by another team’s research that confirmed via DNA analysis that the Vogelkop population of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise was genetically distinct.

The Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise is the latest discovery from the Cornell Lab’s Birds-of-Paradise Project, a research and education initiative to document, interpret, and protect the birds-of-paradise, their native environments, and other biodiversity of the New Guinea region—one of the largest remaining tropical wildernesses on the planet. For more information, visit The Birds-of-Paradise Project.

Take a Child Into Nature: 5 Tips for Fun Field Trips

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:39
Photo by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab.

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

Year of the Bird is a yearlong celebration in 2018 in which thousands of people pledge to take one action per month to help birds. July’s action is to take a child into nature. The following ideas are useful year-round, too.

Birds need more human friends—especially young people. Helping a child forge a connection with nature is possibly the most meaningful thing anyone can do to help create a brighter future for birds. Fortunately, our BirdSleuth K-12 project has lots of ideas, practical advice, lesson plans, and kits to get you started. Even if you’ve never led a nature walk before, you can get kids excited about being outside and learning. Here are five quick tips:

Set Expectations—Positively
Expectations are crucial for you and for kids. Take some time to plan your outing so you know how far you want to go and how long you want to spend on activities. Depending on age, a half-hour could be a good target, and make sure it’s an adventure, not a forced march. Set some ground rules—but try to keep them from starting with “no.” For instance, “No yelling” could become “Explore quietly.”

Explore the Senses
Screen time gives kids lots of stimulation, but it’s mostly visual. Once outside, encourage your kids to close their eyes and focus on what they can hear, the smell of the fresh air, or the feel of the sunshine and breeze. Chances are, this will lead to questions and next steps.

Go Minimalist…
The fewer things a kid has to carry into the field, the more they can concentrate on observing. Binoculars can be difficult for young children to use and may fragment their attention. For older kids, stick with lower-magnification binoculars (8x or less); they’ll provide a wider field of view and will be easier to focus and hold steady.

More About 2018: Year of the Bird

Either way, start kids out with careful observation first—what happens when you melt into the background and let the animals go about their everyday lives? Later, you could challenge older kids to follow a single bird for a set time to see what they can learn about it.

…But Know When to Use Technology
Technology and nature aren’t incompatible, especially for kids born into a device-dominated world. A smartphone with our Merlin Bird ID app can help you and your kids identify birds and pull up song recordings to help you find out what you’re hearing. You can also load plant or bug ID apps, and take photos, video, or audio recordings of memorable or puzzling sights and sounds. The rest of the time, it’s tucked inconspicuously in your pocket.

Share Enthusiasm—It’s Contagious
Almost by definition, the first bugs, birds, or plants your kids see when they step outside will be the common ones. Even so, crows, jays, ducks, etc., are still likely to be brand-new to the kids, so look at them with new eyes. Ask the kids to imagine what the birds are doing and why—and get them to tell you what they find exciting, beautiful, or intriguing. You might be amazed at how insightful their ideas are.

Inspired Our BirdSleuth K-12 project is packed with great ideas, from fun activities like outdoor scavenger hunts and bird bingo cards to full curriculum plans.

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act: Bill Would Boost Bird Funding

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:39
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide states and territories with funding to protect over 800 bird species. Note: noncontiguous states and territories are not drawn to scale. Graphic by Jillian Ditner. Source: USGS National Look at Species of Greatest Conservation Need as Reported in State Wildlife Action Plans. Macaulay Library photos, left to right: Jim Hully, David Simpson, Russ Morgan, Steve Kolbe, Peggy Scanlan, Doug Cooper, Bryan Calk, David Gabay, Thomas Berriman, Dale Bonk, Kevin Dailey, Tanner Martin, Anne Ruben, Sherrie Quillen, Jim Easton, David True, Bente Torvund, S S Cheema, Christoph Moning, David McCorquodale, Peter Brannon. View larger image.

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

A bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives offers a new funding stream for state wildlife programs— including efforts to help hundreds of bird species in decline that need urgent conservation action.

Dubbed the “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act” (or HR 4647), the bill proposed by Representatives Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Debbie Dingell of Michigan would dedicate $1.3 billion of federal energy revenues annually toward conservation in all 50 states and five territories.

Game species in the U.S. currently benefit from two revenue streams that come from hunting—the Pittman– Robertson excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition and the federal Duck Stamp program. RAWA would create the first dedicated funding stream for nongame wildlife. Without tapping into taxpayer money, RAWA funds would access a fraction of the revenues the government receives from energy and mineral leases on federal lands and waters.

hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {});

The act aims to help stem population declines for more than 12,000 species of fish and wildlife, including more than 800 birds, in an effort to keep them off the endangered species list. The idea for a new conservation funding stream tied to federal energy revenues came from a national panel of business and conservation leaders chaired by Bass Pro Shops founder John L. Morris and former Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal. (Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick also participated in the panel, along with executives from the National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Audubon, Shell Oil Company, Hess Corporation, and Toyota.)

As of press time, the bill had received strong bipartisan support from House representatives, with 26 Republicans and 31 Democrats signing on to cosponsor HR 4647. Learn more about the bill.

Among Ruffs, Some “Fight-Loving Fighters” Don’t Like to Fight

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:38
Male Ruffs have incredibly showy breeding plumages. In the foreground, the black-ruffed form is a dominant male known as an “independent”; the white-ruffed form is a subordinate male known as a “satellite.” A third type of male known as a “faeder” looks almost exactly like a female Ruff. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

The former scientific name of the Ruff—a striking Eurasian shorebird that stands about a foot tall—was appropriately Philomachus pugnax, which roughly translates as “fight-loving fighter.” It was a good scientific name, because battles frequently break out in the places where the males are looking for mates, on their leks. But as scientists have studied who’s mating with whom, it turns out some male Ruffs don’t like to fight—and avoiding conflict is their key to successful breeding.

Ruffs breed in wetlands across northern Europe and Asia. Males are large and ornamented; females are smaller and less conspicuous. When displaying for mates, the males get even bigger and showier by puffing themselves up, showing off the feather collar that gives the bird its name. Ruffs gather to display in patches of marsh known as leks, which work as shopping windows: the males sell themselves as the best possible mate, and the females stroll by to evaluate them.

While most male Ruffs puff up to look impressive, evolution has given some males a different playbook, one that ditches looks and aggression for traits such as cooperation, and even deceit. Scientists recently discovered that these approaches are written into each bird’s DNA, in a group of genes known as a “supergene” that dictates both how the birds look and how they act.

The "satellite" form of the male Ruff has a white collar and plays a subordinate role at breeding leks.This Ruff looks like a female, but it's a male of the "faeder" form. Its strategy is to forgo fighting entirely, blend in with the females, and occasionally mate with them unnoticed—the so-called "sneaker male" approach. A Trio of Males

Male Ruffs come in three types: most (about 80 to 95 percent) have fancy plumes and an appetite for fighting. Scientists call them “independents.” Another 5 to 20 percent of males, known as “satellites,” take a subsidiary role. They’re not as colorful but display their feathers alongside the independents and help attract females to the lek. In return the independents tolerate them—and occasionally permit satellites the chance to mate with a female.

Then there’s an entirely different approach, used by a very rare third kind of male (less than 1 percent) known as a “faeder” (after the Old English word for “father”). Faeders don’t fight, and they don’t sport any colorful feathers at all. In fact, they look just like a female Ruff, which allows faeders to sneak onto the lek without attracting unwanted attention from the fight-loving independents.

Even though faeders look female, their testes are much larger than an independent’s. The faeder’s strategy involves waiting until a female signals to a displaying independent that she’s ready to mate. At this critical time, the faeder quickly ducks in and mates before the independent has a chance—deceiving both the independent male and the female. If this sounds sneaky, it is. Behavioral ecologists actually refer to it as the “sneaker male” approach. It’s widespread across the animal kingdom, especially in fishes.

References A faeder male stands in front of a satellite male on a lek in Norway.

Lamichhaney, S., et al. (2016). Structural genomic changes underlie alternative reproductive strategies in the Ruff (Philomachus pugnax). Nature Genetics 48: 84–88.

Küpper, C., et al. (2016). A supergene determines highly divergent male reproductive morphs in the Ruff. Nature Genetics 48: 79–83.

In a 2015 breakthrough in the journal Nature Genetics, scientists finally answered a basic question: Can Ruffs choose whether to be an independent, satellite, or faeder?

The answer is no; male Ruffs are born with their strategy. They carry it in their genes, according to research by two teams of scientists—a group led by Terry Burke of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom and another led by Leif Andersson at Uppsala University in Sweden. The male Ruff mating strategies are the product of a “supergene”—a group of more than 100 genes that are inherited in a block, without any of the mixing and matching that normally happens during reproduction. Supergenes first appear in a species because of a reproductive mistake known as a “chromosomal inversion,” when a block of genes gets turned around backward in the DNA.

Many chromosomal inversions are detrimental and never get passed on, because they can kill the offspring. But every so often a chromosomal inversion confers an advantage. When that happens, the supergene’s reversed orientation means those genes stay together from generation to generation, passed along like a complete set of instructions. This method of inheritance allows the genes to evolve as a single package.

That’s how the Ruff’s very complex set of traits came about. It takes many different genes to control plumage, body size, hormones, and behavior, but they have all developed together to create different supergenes and three distinct types of male: showy, feisty independents; subordinate satellites; and drab but sneaky faeders. No single gene can do this, but many genes can when they evolve together and are inherited as a block in a supergene.

But there’s a catch. The faeder and satellite supergenes with the blueprints for appearance and behavior also carry a deadly genetic defect. Males that inherit just one copy of these supergenes survive. But if a Ruff gets two copies, it dies early in development.

"Independent" male Ruffs may have black, russet, or creamy coloration, but all have a spectacular ruffed collar, giving the species its name.This male is an "independent" form. It has a pale creamy ruff, but not the clear white seen in "satellite" males.Ruff males are among the most spectacularly plumaged of all shorebirds. Ruffs breed by gathering on marshy grounds known as leks, like this one in northern Norway. Male "independents" and "satellites" strut for females, hoping to be chosen as mates. Each male's strategy, whether a dominant "independent," a subordinate "satellite," or a sneaky "faeder," is not a matter of choice. It's genetically determined.An independent Ruff in a quiet moment on a lek.A "satellite" male with its white ruff stands out on a lek with three "independent" males. PreviousNext The Winner Takes It All…or Does He?

So which strategy wins? From a quick look at a lek, it would seem that independents have the market cornered. But that’s not necessarily the case. Scientists note that the proportions of independents, satellites, and faeders are fairly constant. For that to be the case over the long term, there must be some advantage to the other strategies. Otherwise the independents would take over completely. One possibility might be that the success of satellites and faeders is based on how common they are in the population. This means that when satellites and faeders are relatively numerous, they tend to do worse than when they are rare. In other words, sneaking past independents and cheating only works when it’s an uncommon practice.

hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {});

Alternative approaches to basic one-to-one mating and reproduction are common among birds: Wood Ducks sneak around to lay eggs in their neighbors’ nests, for example. But it’s rare for these strategies to be controlled genetically, at least to the extent that they are in the Ruff. The details of how the different genes within the supergene work to generate these strategies remain unknown.

Still, what Ruffs illustrate—in spectacular fashion—is that there is more than one way to be successful in life.

Leonardo Campagna is a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Keeping Hope Alive For Hawaii’s Iiwi

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:38
Iiwi by Brenda Dunham/Macaulay Library. More From Living Bird

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Mud caked our boots and made walking slippery, but we were trekking through the Alakai, a high-altitude plateau situated in a rainforest among bogs on Kauai, and mud was to be expected. Thankfully my companion, Lisa “Cali” Crampton, knew to bring hiking poles. Crampton has been stalking the Alakai since 2010 as project leader of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, a conservation science group charged with safeguarding the island’s eight native forest birds. Four of those eight are on the federal endangered spe-cies list, including the Iiwi—listed in late 2017, and our target bird on the survey this morning.

It was mid-February, the weekend of the 2018 Great Backyard Bird Count, and we’d ascended to 4,000 feet where the last native forest birds on the island persist. We’d already sighted the chatty Apapane, currently the most abundant of Hawaii’s famed honeycreepers. An intense crimson, Apapane are easy to spot. The same could be said of the Iiwi. Birding in Hawaii is a lesson in an artist’s color wheel. These birds aren’t “red.” The Apapane is crimson, and the Iiwi is vermilion.

Other native forest birds of Kauai include the Kauai Elepaio. Photo by Jim Denny.The Apapane. Photo by Jim Denny.The Kauai Amakihi. Photo by Jim Denny.PreviousNext

We quickly added eight more Apapane to our list along with Kauai Elepaio, Kauai Amakihi, and Anianiau—four Hawaiian endemics just a few hundred feet down the Pihea Trail from the parking lot. But we needed to head deeper into the Alakai to find Iiwi, a bird that’s experienced a 92 percent decline on Kauai over a 25-year period. At that rate, the species could be extirpated on Kauai by 2050.

Unlike several of Kauai’s native forest birds that are confined to this island, however, Iiwi are strong fliers and over the centuries have proliferated across the Hawaiian archipelago. So Iiwi’s existence does not rely on the “Garden Island” alone. Today less than 1 percent of the population lives on Kauai.

Still, the overall rate of Iiwi population decline across Hawaii could lead to species extinction by 2100. The bird’s fate lies in the hands of Crampton and other conservationists in the state who are racing to deploy habitat restoration efforts, technology breakthroughs in the form of mosquito birth control, and new conservation strategies—all in an effort to keep this iconic honeycreeper alive well into the next century.

From Plentitude to Precipice This Hawaiian feather cloak, called a ʻahu ʻula, belonged to Princess Kekāuluohi Kaʻahumanu III. It is made of feathers from the Hawaiian Oo and the Iiwi. Image courtesy of the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (accession number 1951.10.61), via Wikimedia Commons.

With its striking color and crazy scimitar-like bill, the Iiwi entices even casual birders away from Hawaii’s sunny beaches and into the mountain forests. Though there was likely a time when you wouldn’t have needed to decamp your beach mat to see it. The first historical record of Iiwi comes from Captain Cook. He described landing at Waimea on Kauai’s west side in 1778, where Hawaiians offered him Iiwi skins “tied up in bunches of twenty or more.”

Native Hawaiians made cloaks, capes, and helmets with bird feathers, with red being a treasured color for alii, the ruling class. Back then, Iiwi ranged from one end of the island chain to the other—300 miles from Kauai to Hawaii Island. Eben Paxton, an avian ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, estimates the pre-European-contact population to be many millions. In the 1890s, British naturalist R.C.L. Perkins surveyed the Alakai, just south of where Crampton and I marched through the mud, and wrote in his journal that he observed “thousands of Iiwi on the plateau in a single day.”

Iiwi were once described as “ubiquitous” on all of the major Hawaiian islands. Today, with their range severely retracted, more than 90 percent of the remaining Iiwi population is clustered in mountain forests on the big island of Hawaii. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service final rule for granting Endangered Species Act protection to the Iiwi, five of the nine monitored populations are declining, two may be stable, and two are increasing. Map courtesy of USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. Graphic by Jillian Ditner.

Even 30 years ago, Iiwi were still plentiful on Kauai. When wildlife photographer Jim Denny first started birding in the Alakai in the early 1980s, he recalls walking down the very same Pihea Trail with his camera and enjoying the “frenzy of activity and cacophony of song,” watching three or four Iiwi chase off a Kauai Amakihi attempting to feed on flowers. Then, in the late 1990s, things shifted. The amakihi could alight on those same flowers and feed unmolested. By 2005, the Iiwi failed to appear at all.

“In spite of many hours waiting by these flowers, I have not seen Iiwi on them in the last 13 years,” Denny says. “Truthfully, I find it difficult to go up into the Alakai anymore. If one searches hard enough, a few birds can still be found, but having experienced them in such abundance, it’s depressing.” The list of Hawaiian birds threatened by extinction is long, with Iiwi just the latest member of this grim and growing club. On Kauai alone, there’s the fruit-eating Puaiohi; the Akekee with crossed bill tips used to pry open buds of flowering ohia trees in search of bugs; and the Akikiki, a tiny, gray-and-white honeycreeper— all on the endangered species list, with populations of fewer than 1,000 individuals and falling.

In the last 50 years, Kauai has lost five other native forest bird species to extinction. The Aloha State is less glamorously known among conservationists as the bird extinction capital of the world, and the Hawaiian honeycreepers have been hit hard—losing over half of their 41 species in the last 200 years. Iiwi have already been extirpated on the island of Lanai, with a few individuals seen on rare occasion on Molokai and Oahu, leaving the species’ distribution to just the higher-elevation islands of Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii Island.

Iiwi and all Hawaiian native forest birds are pressured by many threats at once, including loss of habitat and predation by rats, cats, and mongoose. But most scientists agree that one threat looms largest: the mosquito.

The ohia is a native tree of mountain forests on the Hawaiian islands. The nectar of the is a major food source for Iiwi; the bird’s breeding season is timed with peak flowering of ohia. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources. Introduced Insects, and a Fungus, Take Their Toll

Mosquitoes aren’t native to Hawaii. In the late 1820s, as trade with the outside world increased, larval mosquitoes jumped ship from the water casks of a trading vessel from Mexico. By the mid-19th century, the invasive insect was firmly established, and the bane of humans. In 1866, Mark Twain wrote: “There are a good many mosquitoes around tonight and they are rather troublesome; but it is a source of unalloyed satisfaction to me to know that the two million I sat down on a minute ago will never sing again.”

By the turn of the 20th century, fears of mosquitoes, and mosquito-borne diseases, intensified. In 1910, The Hawaiian Gazette newspaper exclaimed: “If we don’t exterminate the mosquitoes, they will exterminate us.” Eventually, six species of biting mosquitoes would become established in Hawaii. Two—the yellow fever mosquito and the Asian tiger mosquito—are chief vectors of diseases affecting humans, including malaria, dengue fever, and Zika.

It was the southern house mosquito that swung through native birds like a wrecking ball when it started spreading avian pox in the late 1800s, then avian malaria in the 1920s or 1930s. Though deadly to birds, neither disease harms humans.

In the 1960s, biologist Richard Warner realized that native forest birds were disappearing at low elevations where mosquitoes were dense, and he implicated the two avian diseases as the culprit. Hawaii’s forest birds had no natural immunities. By the 1950s, most of the remaining disease-free habitat was above 4,000-feet elevation, where temperatures were too cold for mosquitoes to survive.

Until now.

Warming air temperatures are allowing mosquitoes to march higher and invade whatever remnant native forests are left. Crampton’s research shows mosquito larvae are now scattered across the Alakai nearly year-round. Unfortunately, given Kauai’s maximum elevation of 5,243 feet, there’s scant real estate above the upwardly creeping mosquito zone for birds to take refuge. According to a scientific paper authored by Paxton and others, it is entirely plausible that mosquito-borne avian diseases will invade nearly the entirety of Kauai’s native forest birds’ ranges by the end of the century.

A lush mountain forest full of ohia trees, with deforested lowlands in the background. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources.

This is particularly worrisome for Iiwi. When an infected mosquito slides its long proboscis deep into a bird’s skin, the unicellular microorganism Plasmodium relictum moves from the mosquito’s salivary glands into the bird’s bloodstream. One infected mosquito bite is often enough to kill an Iiwi.

At the other end of the Hawaiian Island chain, Iiwi have more room to escape mosquitoes. The big island of Hawaii has an area seven times greater than Kauai, and the tallest mountain tops out at 13,803 feet above sea level. Accordingly, Hawaii Island is now home to an estimated 543,000 Iiwi—90 percent of the species’ global population. But it’s also where a newly identified tree disease is killing off large numbers of mature ohia trees, one of the most important food sources for Iiwi and other Hawaiian forest birds. Birds slurp nectar from ohia blossoms, search its bark for insects, and nest in its canopy. Ohia are dying from a nonnative fungus called Ceratocystis fimbriata, thought to have been accidentally introduced to Hawaii via the tree nursery industry. Within just a few short weeks of the first signs of sickness, the ohia succumb to the disease, giving rise to its name— Rapid Ohia Death, or ROD.

An introduced tree disease—called Rapid Ohia Death—is rapidly spreading across the big island of Hawaii, putting even more pressure on declining Iiwi populations that were already beset by mosquito-borne diseases. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources.

ROD spread around the big island quickly, via automobile tires, hiking boots, landscaping tools, and even windborne sawdust from beetles that drill into the ohia trees. State officials are scrambling to develop statewide biosecurity measures to prevent the disease’s spread to other islands, though the rollout has been slow. (Before our hike on Kauai, Crampton checked the Kokee History Museum’s bulletin board for any mention of ROD and tips on how to decontaminate hiking gear. There were none.)

On Hawaii Island, conservationists at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge have implemented their own decontamination protocols to halt the spread of ROD. As a backup plan, they have started reforesting the refuge with other nectar-producing plants that Iiwi favor.

USGS wildlife biologist Paul Banko is studying Iiwi diet on the refuge to help determine what plants would host more of the food resources that Iiwi eat. Iiwi are known to participate in a kind of seasonal migration as they chase blooming plants up and down the mountain. Those movements put the birds at greater risk of contracting disease, if they dip below the mosquito line. Banko explains his research as a key question he’s trying to answer for Iiwi: “How do you make the habitat suitable for more resident pairs, so they don’t feel like they need to move anywhere?”

An Iiwi shows off its acrobatic foraging kills on an endemic Hawaiian mamane tree. Photo by Forest Jarvis/Macaulay Library. Science Provides Reasons For Optimism

Despite the plague of rod and pestilence of mosquitoes, scientists in Hawaii are curiously optimistic about the Iiwi’s future. Crampton said she thought the Iiwi’s outlook on Kauai was “fair to good.” Maybe optimism is a built-in bias for those willing to work with endangered species; if there’s no hope, why bother? But Crampton and others also foresee scientific breakthroughs coming. “The prospect of getting rid of disease five, six, or seven years ago seemed impossible,” says avian ecologist Eben Paxton. “But I think we now have the tools to really address this pressing existential threat.”

The tools Paxton is referring to affect mosquitoes’ fertility. One option is a naturally occurring bacteria, Wolbachia, which can be introduced in males to make them reproductively incompatible with females. Another, more controversial, technique relies on genetic manipulation, with the goal of creating males who only produce male offspring, eventually eliminating females from the population. Both of these techniques hinge on the release of hordes of reproductively impaired mosquitoes on the landscape to instigate a population crash (this time among mosquitoes). No small feat, and one that would require a sizable chunk of financial help.

An Iiwi on an ohia tree that is a major food source for this bird. Photo by Jim Denny.

While the Iiwi’s listing under the Endangered Species Act does not automatically provide a windfall of cash, the listing does make it eligible for several sources of federal funding. But Crampton has never been one to sit around and wait for the government to give her money. A few years ago she launched a crowdfunding campaign called “Birds Not Rats” that netted $35,000 to help pay for rat traps in nesting areas where rats were raiding eggs and hatchlings. Recently, she’s launched another campaign dubbed “Save a Bird, Swat a Mosquito” to raise funds for localized control of mosquitoes, as well as for blood sampling of birds to help in some innovative scientific studies coming on the horizon.

The new research focuses on a potential solution of the birds’ own evolution. Oahu Amakihi have started nesting successfully in low elevations outside Honolulu, where mosquitoes abound. The same is happening with Hawaii Amakihi on Hawaii Island, and Apapane across the archipelago. It seems that nearly 200 years after the arrival of mosquitoes, some birds may be developing tolerances or immunity to these avian diseases. The idea is tantalizing enough for the National Science Foundation to have awarded a $2.5 million grant to a collective of researchers from Rutgers University, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of Tennessee, along with Paxton of the USGS.

The team is studying the genomics of the birds that appear to be tolerating the diseases and comparing them to the genomics of the vector and the parasite.

“Our hope is to use the information to facilitate evolution,” Paxton says. “You could do translocations. Maybe captive-breed malaria-resistant types of forest birds that we can release back into the wild. You could get super futuristic and think about genetically modifying these wild birds.

“To me, extinction is the worst case of anything so it’s worth entertaining a range of possibilities.”

hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {});

As Crampton and I headed deeper into the Alakai, spotting more blooming native plants, we passed a fellow birder who’d seen an Iiwi not far down the trail. Walking ahead of me, Crampton suddenly stopped when something above squeaked like a rusty door hinge.

“I hear it,” she said, and pointed up.

Through an opening among the foliage, I could see the bird’s vermilion body and black wings as it perched on an uppermost branch. Then, the bird turned its head, and I could see the scimitar bill in perfect profile. Within seconds, the Iiwi launched into the air, flying 50 feet away for an ohia where a second bird joined it.

I pulled out my GPS and noted the coordinates of our location, happy to help fill in a few data points for Crampton’s research. Crampton was smiling. Each time she and other scientists see an Iiwi on the Hawaiian islands, it gives them renewed hope.

“We’ve seen many extinctions over the last 200 years, but there’s still a lot of Iiwi,” says Paxton. “We’re not talking the brink of extinction. We can do this.”

Kim Steutermann Rogers is a freelance journalist based on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian.com and Audubon.org.

Analysis: Failing To Invest In Endangered Species Is A Tragedy Of The Commons

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:37
Marbled Murrelet by Kathy Clark.

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

Exactly 50 years ago, University of California, Santa Barbara, ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized a crucial dilemma about how society manages shared resources. In a philosophical essay entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in the journal Science, Hardin’s now-famous paradigm imagined the example of a pastoral community where individuals graze their privately owned livestock on the public “commons.” Each owner can gain income by adding to the size of his herd, but ultimately this causes the entire commons to degrade and collapse from overgrazing. Everybody loses. This conceptual dilemma applies generally to any resource-based system in which individuals acting selfishly can destroy the common good for everyone, by depleting or ruining the shared resource on which the whole community depends. Hardin’s essay continues to stimulate thoughtful debate at the intersection of economics, philosophy, politics, and environmental policy.

Hardin’s focal tragedy implicitly underlies almost every discussion about biodiversity conservation. While his primary attention centered on managing human population growth, his prescient essay also alluded to resource-management examples that remain even more relevant today. Open-ocean fisheries are being depleted at an accelerating pace. Underfunded national parks are compromised by unruly crowds and anthropogenic noise. Ecosystems are being degraded by pollution and exploitation, at both individual and industrial scales. As Hardin phrased it half a century ago, we are “locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest’ so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers.”

During the five years immediately following Hardin’s essay, the United States established an extraordinary series of new agencies, federal laws, and regulatory procedures designed essentially to thwart the tragedy of the commons. Chief among these actions were the formation of an Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and arguably the most far-reaching of all—Endangered Species Act (ESA).

President Richard Nixon signed several pieces of environmentally friendly legislation, including the Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy Office of History and Preservation.

The ESA was signed in 1973 by a conservative, pro-business, anti-regulation president, Richard M. Nixon. It had been championed by several of Nixon’s senior staff, including his chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman—the Eagle Scout, outdoorsman, and avid bird watcher who would later serve prison time for his role in the Watergate cover-up. The ESA would be the last of the great environmental achievements of the Nixon Administration.

The ESA is at once both elegant and ambitious, committing the federal government to doing everything within its authority to prevent any species within U.S. jurisdiction from going extinct, as well as conforming to international restrictions on wildlife trade. All key sections of the act are grounded in science. Too often overlooked is the explicit opening phrase of Section 2(b): “The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved…” These essential words express an overarching truth about endangered species—they are not arbitrary elements of nature that deserve our investment just because they exist. Rather, they represent alarm bells that signal imbalance, degradation, or impending loss of our nation’s priceless natural ecosystems. Viewed under this light, the ESA represents an essential commitment by our federal government to safeguard—and as necessary, invest in, the commons.

The ESA came under attack almost immediately, especially as the economic implications of protecting biological systems from rampant development became clear. Practical amendments passed in 1978, 1982, and 1988 provided latitude for exceptions and permitting based on habitat conservation planning. Like the original act, these amendments strongly affirmed the role of science in determining listing status and granting permits to “take” endangered species. Courts have repeatedly upheld the ESA as constitutional, and have affirmed the biologically grounded principle that habitat destruction can constitute illegal harm to an endangered species.

More On U.S. Bird Conservation Policy

Until recently, complaints and legal battles surrounding endangered species management have centered on contentions that the ESA constrains business and infrastructure development, adds unbearable costs for real estate developers and farmers, shrinks venerable industries such as old-growth timber-harvesting, and violates personal freedoms. ESA advocates respond by observing that safeguarding the earth’s natural heritage for future generations to use and experience is a societal responsibility. In this context, no price is too high. Regulations that constrain free-enterprise behavior in order to prevent species extinctions are essential for battling the otherwise inevitable—here it comes again—tragedy of the commons.

Can The Endangered Species Act Succeed At Current Funding Levels?

Now a new, controversial twist has emerged in the endangered species debate, and ironically its proponents, including many ecologists, are pro-conservation and staunchly in favor of a strong ESA. At issue is how federal agencies are deciding to direct their limited resources toward recovering endangered species. Backers of the new approach argue that because public funding for endangered species is so tight, and only getting tighter, explicit decision rules and “conservation triage” are essential in order to improve results. They propose that resource allocations would result in more successes if they followed objectively derived algorithms incorporating variables such as projected cost of recovery, likelihood of success, degree of threat, and value of the conservation target.

At least three crucial assumptions underlying the algorithm-and-triage approach to endangered species management stand out as especially dubious. First, available resources are constrained to remain tiny with respect to the overall need. Second, accurate data are available for all the variables feeding the algorithm. Third, relative values of the full list of endangered species can be assigned by consensus or can be objectively derived.

Florida Scrub-Jay by Christoph Moning/Macaulay Library.

The second and third of these assumptions are demonstrably false. For example, almost all of the recovery plans on which to base these classifications are decades out of date (more than 70 percent of ESA recovery plans are more than 20 years old), and their listed recovery budgets are meaningless. Regarding relative values of the targets, as the ESA declares, every one of the listed species represents an indicator of an ecosystem gone awry. Given our commitment to the commons, on what objective criteria does one ecosystem warrant more investment than another? Those who love mossy old-growth forests and Marbled Murrelets will argue for disproportionate investment there, while others favoring the diminutive plants of Florida scrub ecosystems will rate those habitats higher.

The first of the algorithm-and-triage assumptions—constrained resources—is the most important, least defendable, and in the long run, most dangerous. The requested $11.7 billion 2019 budget of the U.S. Department of the Interior allocates a paltry $81 million for endangered species recovery, while devoting billions of dollars to agencies and operations that facilitate resource extraction from federal lands. Where are our priorities as a nation to protecting our commons?

Year in and year out, we allocate vastly more resources to outer space than we do to the well-being of our country’s embattled living systems. (The requested 2019 budget for NASA alone is $19.9 billion, fully 70 percent higher than Interior’s entire budget.) Both the Obama and Trump administrations have advocated investing in sending humans to Mars, the cost of which is highly uncertain but sure to exceed $100 billion, and by some estimates could reach $1 trillion over 25 years!

Comparisons such as this can be made over and over again across the entire federal budget. That these comparative expenditures purport to express our national priorities cannot be overstated, and when it comes to the all-important question here—how much should we invest in our commons?—the numbers are nothing short of disgraceful. Our precious ecosystems demand much more from us if we as a nation are to have any hope of remaining proud of our landscapes from sea to shining sea.

When it comes to priority-setting regarding recovery of these ecosystems and their flagship endangered species, deriving algorithms and promoting conservation triage miss the point entirely. Worse, wrapped under the guise of rational decision making, they provide defense and cover for the status quo.

Meanwhile, our precious commons succumb bit by bit to the tragedy.

A Galaxy of Falcons: Witnessing the Amur Falcon’s Massive Migration Flocks

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 12:36
More From Living Bird

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

For hours, we fishtailed and jolted along a rutted, muddy, single-track road through the low mountains, nervously watching the sun slide lower and lower. The forested, gently crumpled Naga Hills looked lovely in the late, buttery light, but we’d been repeatedly warned to be off the road before dark given the risk of bandits and armed insurgents in this remote and troubled corner of northeast India, not far from the northern border of Myanmar (Burma).

We had no idea how much farther ahead lay our destination, a village known as Pangti, or whether we’d actually reach it before nightfall. Worse, the skies around us were largely empty of birds—which was more than a typical birding-trip disappointment. My colleagues and I had come here, to the state of Nagaland, in search of what’s reputed to be the single greatest gathering of birds of prey on the planet. And I wanted to learn more about how a shocking conservation tragedy had, in a very short time, become a stunning conservation success.

Amur Falcons migrate from breeding grounds in eastern Asia to wintering grounds in southern Africa. Along the way, they fly 2,400 miles across the Indian Ocean. To fuel up for their big open-water crossing, Amur Falcons stop over in Nagaland to feast on a seasonal eruption of trillions of termites from their underground colonies. Map by Jillian Ditner; source: BirdLife International Data Zone. See larger image.

By all accounts, the skies should have been alive with lithe, sickle-winged Amur Falcons, pausing here on their epic migration from eastern Asia to southern Africa. Instead, hour after hour we’d seen little in the air except a few swallows.

“I don’t know. This should be just a highway of falcons,” said Abidur Rahman, a young ornithologist from the neighboring state of Assam and our guide for this trip. We were by now skirting the Doyang Reservoir, a hydroelectric impoundment along which the birds normally roost by the tens of thousands. We saw four.

We pulled into Pangti just as the sun dropped below the horizon. The village sat at the peak of a broad, defensible ridge—typical of the Naga, a Tibeto-Burmese culture whose tribes were traditionally head-hunters, each village warring constantly with its neighbors. Today, they are overwhelmingly Baptists, inhabiting a defiantly un-Indian part of India and trying for decades to break away on their own. Nzam Tsopoe, our host and the village’s assistant schoolteacher, greeted each of us in turn with a slight bow as he clasped our hands; he and his wife would be sharing their small, three-room house with us for the next week. Mrs. Tsopoe brought the evening meal from their dirt-floored kitchen—delicious pork that had seasoned for weeks in the smoke above the open cooking hearth, pots of sticky rice and dhal, long beans, and steaming boiled squash. As we ate, we tried to ease the kinks from our long-suffering bones.

There was a more immediate issue, though. Mr. Tsopoe introduced us to two young men, whom he said would be our guides in the morning. We asked them, are the falcons here? How many? “Um, one, two thousand,” one of the young men replied. Surely we’d misunderstood him, but no. Far from the sky-darkening multitudes we’d expected, he said, there were hardly any birds on the roosts at all. The monsoons, which usually end in September, had continued for week after rainy, flooding week through October, their southwesterly winds holding back the migrant falcons coming from the northeast. After two years of planning, and days of wearying travel, it seemed our journey had all been in vain.

The village of Pangti overlooks the remote hills and mountains of Nagaland in northeastern India. The people of Nagaland are a Tibeto-Burmese culture who lead a subsistence lifestyle—one that until recently included the mass-trapping of Amur Falcons. Photo by Kevin Loughlin. A Conservation Sensation: Killing Grounds Become a Sanctuary

I slept poorly—partly because the Naga don’t use mattresses, and my wooden-plank bed had just a thin cotton blanket for a cushion, but mostly because the whole effort to come to Pangti now seemed to have been an enormous waste.

I had been lured here by news stories over the previous couple of years about Amur Falcons in Nagaland that seemed almost too good to be true anyway: Conservationists stumble upon a previously unknown concentration of raptors that is arguably the largest in the world, only to find that local hunters are slaughtering the birds at a wildly unsustainable rate. The news, and gruesome videos of the killing, catch fire online and ricochet around the globe. Yet within a year or so, the community decides to embrace protection and preservation; the killing grounds become a sanctuary, the trappers become guards and wardens, and residents of the village prepare to welcome birders.

Conservationist Bano Haralu helped convince Naga people that Amur Falcons were more valuable as a draw for tourists than as meat for the kitchen. Photo by by Ramki Sreenivasan.

As we would learn in the days to come, the bare bones of that story are basically correct. In 2012, a Naga conservationist named Bano Haralu, along with several colleagues from Conservation India, confirmed rumors that Amur Falcons had begun to gather each night by the hundreds of thousands in densely packed roosts along the Doyang Reservoir, with many more in neighboring areas—very likely the bulk of the entire global population. They also found that local fishermen, stringing their nets among the roost trees, were killing an estimated 140,000 falcons in just one 10-day period during the peak of the migration—-plucking the carcasses, smoking them over open fires to preserve them, then selling the birds in larger towns for badly needed cash.

The disturbing videos Haralu and her colleagues took, showing trappers ripping tangled falcons from the nets, and small boys bent beneath the weight of hundreds of dead and dying birds, went viral among outraged conservationists worldwide. Quickly, leading bird-protection groups within India and abroad, such as the Bombay Natural History Society and BirdLife International, decried the killing, as online petitions battered the government for action, and viewers around the world reacted with horror to the images.

“I witnessed a massive swarm of these little falcons flying into the South African town of Cradock to roost for the night,” one commenter wrote on YouTube. “There were tens of thousands and I stood in awe. I cannot believe that they are slaughtered like this in India. There must be a special hell reserved for these bastards.”

Of course, the reality was a bit more complicated—and less morally simplistic. In fact, Pangti and its neighboring villages agreed to abandon the hunt in surprisingly short order. In barely more than a year, the villages made a hard transition with serious economic consequences, giving up the income that falcon meat represented—partly because it was the right thing to do, and also because they’d been told by conservationists that tourism could make up the loss.

But as we’d found out, just getting to Pangti was not for the faint of heart, and not surprisingly, tourists have been thin on the land. Lying on my wooden bed, I wondered in the dark what happens when poor people make a wrenching decision, expecting an outcome that may take years to materialize, if ever.

The completion of the Doyang Reservoir also created the site for what may be the greatest concentration of raptors in the world. No one knows, however, what draws tens of thousands of Amur Falcons to the reservoir in autumn. Photo by Kevin Loughlin. “Oh, my God. Look. Look!”

Hot water, instant coffee, and tea were waiting for us at 3:00 a.m. when we climbed stiffly from bed. Along with Abidur and our drivers, with me for the trek was my friend Kevin Loughlin, owner of Wildside Nature Tours, who was exploring the feasibility of bringing American tourists to Pangti to see the falcons. For that, Kevin needed willing guinea pigs—me; Catherine Hamilton, a California bird artist whose participation was underwritten by Zeiss Sports Optics; and birders Peter Trueblood of California and his cousin-in-law Bruce Evans of Maryland, who thanks to a visa snafu would be joining us the following day.

A watchtower near Pangti provides the perfect elevated loft for watching the spectacle of the Amur Falcon gathering. Photo by Kevin Loughlin.

The ride to the main roost site down by the reservoir took 45 minutes, and given the hour and the mood, no one had much energy or inclination to talk. Once or twice we were startled by the explosive warning “bark” of the small forest deer known as muntjacs off in the blackness. We covered the last half-kilometer on foot, still walking in silence, passing beneath tall elephant grass and arching bamboo. It was cool, with a light breeze and no stars, but soon I could see the silhouette of a 40-feet-tall wooden watchtower, newly built for visiting birders, which rose against the slightly lighter sky as we emerged along the edge of the lake. We climbed to a roofed platform just barely large enough for us, and waited.

Except for the chirping of frogs and the hushed voices of our guides below, there was no sound save for a dry rustle that I took to be the breeze in bamboo. But when Catherine raised her binoculars to peer through the murky twilight, she gasped.

“Oh, my God. Look. Look!

Binoculars revealed what our eyes alone could not yet see—that the dimly lit air was filled with tens of thousands of falcons, rising in the gloom like a dense insect swarm from their roost a few hundred meters away and spreading out overhead. As the light grew, so did the number of birds, the whisper of their wings rising now to an omnipresent swish, like fast-flowing water. No one spoke; this time not from disappointment, but from awe.

“So…way more than a thousand,” I said at last. “Maybe…what? Fifty thousand? And that’s only what’s in the air.”

“Maybe twice that,” Catherine said in a hoarse whisper. Kevin was glued to the viewfinder of his camera, making the most of the growing light; Peter just stared, wide-eyed. For the next hour, the falcons would rise from the roost in a great tide, enveloping us in a chaos of wings and movement, then settle back down again until the air was empty. Then something—on one occasion, a jungle crow dive-bombing the trees—would set them off once more, and they would erupt in fresh waves tens of thousands strong, layer upon layer of slender birds on long, narrow wings, swirling in counterclockwise gyres.

Across the landscape, like smoke pushed by a light breeze, gauzy columns of thousands of falcons rose from other roosts and bent with the wind as they caught the morning’s first thermals. This went on for hours, each new, departing rush of birds seeming as though they must be the last in the roost—yet when we’d peer through our scope, the trees would appear as heavily laden with perching falcons as before.

A female and male Amur Falcon share a perch. Photo by Kevin Loughlin.A male (top) and female Amur Falcon. These slim little raptors feeds largely on insects and are slightly bigger than an American Kestrel. Photos of male and female by Abhilash Arjunan/Macaulay Library.

The Amur Falcon, a slim little raptor that feeds largely on insects, is slightly bigger than an American Kestrel. The males are dark gray above, paler below, with elegantly contrasting white wing linings and a splash of bright rufous on the thighs and undertail coverts. The females and juveniles are very different, their white undersides barred with black and lightly washed with buff on the chest, the face distinctly “mustached” after the fashion of most falcons. All ages and sexes have bright carmine legs and feet. The Amur was long lumped with the very similar Red-footed Falcon of western and central Eurasia. Amurs, however, breed in wooded margins and the edges of savannas from eastern China and North Korea to parts of Siberia and Mongolia (an area roughly a third the size of the Lower 48 in the U.S.), from which they make one of the longest migrations of any raptor in the world, some 8,000 miles one way to southern Africa.

In the process, they also undertake the greatest over-water crossing of any bird of prey, traversing as much as 2,400 miles of the Indian Ocean. Over water, the hot-air thermals and deflection currents that assist raptors migrating over land, allowing them to soar for hours and save energy, are largely absent. This means the falcons must beat their wings continuously on their transoceanic trip, which may take them four or five days. If they’re to survive, they must top off their tanks before they leave land.

And so in late October and early November, the migrant falcons pause for some weeks in Nagaland. At this same time of year, just after the monsoon, there is a great stirring underground as countless subterranean termite colonies prepare for the mating season. Worker termites chew tunnels to the surface, out of which emerge trillions of winged, inch-long fertile adults known as alates—fat-rich and the perfect food for an insectivorous falcon about to risk an ocean crossing.

Amur Falcons at the Doyang Reservoir. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.  A Bounty of Falcons Brings Manna From Heaven

It seems Amur Falcons have always stopped off in northeastern India during migration to feed on termites, but the completion of the Doyang Reservoir in 2000 dramatically altered the situation, for both the falcons and the local villagers. Although the Naga live in hilltop communities, their terraced fields, orchards, and rice paddies lie primarily in the valleys—in the case of Pangti, along the narrow flood plain of the Doyang River. While the 6,500-acre impoundment brought welcome electricity to the village, it also flooded many of those farms, including more than 2,000 acres of land cultivated by Pangti.

Amur Falcons are highly social most of the year, but when they come together during migration it becomes one of the greatest bird migrations on the planet. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.

New fields on the mountain slopes were less productive, and wild elephants often trampled the crops. Some of the men shifted to fishing in the new reservoir, despite forests of sunken trees that tore up their nets. But the fishermen also noticed something they’d never seen before—that the falcons were now gathering in incredible numbers each autumn night in small groves of trees along the lake, then fanning out to hunt termites and other insects during the day.

Unlike most raptors, Amur Falcons are highly social most of the year. They travel in tremendous flocks, often with large numbers of Lesser Kestrels, and on their wintering grounds in southern Africa they gather by the hundreds or thousands each night in traditional, communal roosts. For reasons that remain unknown, the birds began to do the same on the Doyang, forming what may be the single greatest gathering of raptors in the world—pegged at about a million near Pangti alone, though no one has made a systematic count. Although some migration count sites such as Veracruz in Mexico tally up to 4.5 million passing raptors each season, only in Nagaland do raptors remain for long periods in such extraordinary numbers. Researchers are only now exploring how long the falcons stay and how much weight they gain while there.

The Naga, with their torn nets and flooded fields (and being the good Baptists that most of them are), couldn’t help but see all of this, simply and literally, as manna from heaven. By 2003, fishermen were shinnying up the roost trees in late afternoon, tying their monofilament nets among the branches and returning in the morning to retrieve hundreds of falcons.

Trading Slaughter For Safeguarding

“It was 2010 that I first came to this area with some birder friends, in the month of April. That’s when I first heard about the massacre,” Bano Haralu recalled as she poured us some illicit wine, Nagaland being an officially dry state. A Naga herself, Bano left the region as a young woman, earned a graduate degree in New Delhi, and became a respected television journalist specializing in India’s northeast. In 2010 she was helping the state produce a book on Nagaland’s birds, hence the trip to Doyang. She was initially skeptical of the accounts she heard—after all, in April there were no falcons to be seen. But the story stuck with her, and two years later, in autumn, she and her colleagues from Bangalore-based Conservation India returned to investigate.

We’d met Bano for dinner in a small wooden house in Pangti that serves as the headquarters for the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, a nonprofit that she founded. She told us how in October 2012, she and her friends were staring in wonder at thousands of falcons perching on electrical wires by the reservoir when two Naga women happened by, carrying what Bano thought were 60 or so dressed chickens. They turned out to be plucked falcons. Later, in Pangti itself, “We saw birds in almost every home,” she said. Hundreds of plucked falcons, skewered through the head, hung smoking over fires; hundreds more, alive, were jammed into zippered mosquito nets that functioned as holding cages until they, too, could be killed. Trapping and selling falcons had become a universal cottage industry.

A typical Pangti kitchen, where the author enjoyed hearty meals of dhal, sticky rice, long beans, squash, and seasoned pork. Photo by Kevin Loughlin.In years past, people collected and sold thousands of Amur Falcons as food for cookpots—but recognition of the birds' value as a natural spectacle has led to efforts to conserve them. Photo by Kevin Loughlin.

“It was overwhelming, you know. You don’t know where to start, what to do, what to say, how not to offend people, not create a scene,” Bano told us. But as the daughter of a decorated government official and a noted social activist, she knew how to get results. She called the district commissioner, prompting an official order reinforcing formal protection for the birds; the forest department deployed guards to enforce it, and a few arrests were made. It was clear that government authorities would no longer turn a blind eye to the killing, which was officially illegal.

That was the stick, but in the months that followed, conservationists presented the carrot to village leaders as they described the global migration of the falcons—and the worldwide revulsion expressed at the slaughter in Nagaland. Then Conservation India and the local wildlife trust launched a massive, multipronged community educational campaign with funds, materials, and support from BirdLife International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the venerable Bombay Natural History Society, and other conservation groups. Conservationists started eco-clubs for children in Pangti and surrounding communities and gave “Amur Ambassador Passports” to those who pledged to protect the birds.

An Amur Falcon local-pride effort followed the same model that has worked elsewhere for other threatened birds in need of a PR campaign. Publicity events such as falcon-celebration festivals brought in governmental dignitaries to issue “Falcon Capital of the World” proclamations while choruses of schoolkids sang pro-falcon songs they had written themselves. Amur Falcon posters were plastered throughout the region. Baptist ministers were persuaded to preach pro-falcon sermons and conduct special church services, and villagers were given “Friends of the Amur Falcon” buttons. The former trappers and hunters formed the Amur Falcon Roost Area Union, which posted guards, certified guides, and worked with the landowners of the roosts to build viewing towers like the one we’d visited.

Traveling to see the greatest birding spectacle on earth is not for the faint of heart, as roads into the region traverse treacherous mountain passes prone to landslides. Photo by Kevin Loughlin. Betting on Birders

None of this obscured the fact that the community had taken a financial hit when it suspended the hunt. Villagers were able to sell four of the falcons for 100 rupees, Bano said, a little more than $1.50—a sizable amount, since just eight falcons would equal roughly a day’s wages in the region, and trappers were selling thousands a day at the peak of the season. For Pangti as a whole, the end of falcon-trapping meant foregoing about 3.5 million rupees annually, a huge sum in such a remote, cash-strapped area, especially because many people used that money to pay their children’s school fees.

The Naga are hunters and anglers by tradition, and the former hunt of Amur Falcons benefited many households in Pangti. Photo by Kevin Loughlin.

One of them was Nchumo Odyuo, a slender, soft-spoken man who is a neighbor of the Tsopoes, a former trapper now active in the protective union. Losing the money from selling falcons was hard, he told me one morning as we watched hundreds of Amurs flying in to perch around the edges of a small teak plantation, some miles from the main roost; the birds preened in the sun, and occasionally dropped to the ground to snag large mantises or grasshoppers. Nchumo and his wife have several children at home, and two older kids at boarding school, the only choice for more than a grade-school education.

The villagers suffered a double blow, he told me—first they had lost much of their best farmland for the dam, then the trapping was taken away.

“At first [the residents] were angry, because the government has not compensated us. But slowly, we have understood. I am glad the falcons are protected. But I do wish I could eat one!” He laughed nervously. “They taste very good.”

“It was a huge loss of money,” Bano admitted, but some in the village saw the potential for tourism. Several families in Pangti invested in improvements so they could take in visitors; the Tsopoes, with whom we were staying, built a two-stall, Western-style bathroom in their side yard, and a dirt-floored washroom with a sink. (The Wildlife Trust of India built a small guest house in Pangti in 2017, but it wasn’t yet furnished or ready by the time of our visit.)

While the falcon trapping benefited most of the community, the new tourism-based paradigm helps a narrower segment, said Devin Mehta, a junior research fellow at the Wildlife Institute of India who is studying the diet of the Amur Falcons near Pangti. The primary beneficiaries now are guides like Nchumo; landowners like Nchumo’s uncle, on whose land the watchtower sits; and families like the Tsopoes who had enough extra cash to invest into creating homestay operations.

The tourism money that is now coming into Pangti from birders, on the other hand, benefits a slimmer section of Pangti society—such as guides and landowners. Conservationists are working on ways to spread the gains from tourists out across the community. Photo by Kevin Loughlin.

A lack of community-wide equity is a major problem, Mehta believes. And even with incentives, there is no guarantee that people will make the best long-term decisions. Since the last falcon season, Mehta said, trees on the edge of the main roost grove had been cut down to plant teak seedlings—a common agroforestry practice here, but one that obviously could threaten the whole local operation were the falcons to abandon the Pangti roost for a less disturbed site.

Although Pangti is far from the tourist track, we were pleasantly surprised to find we weren’t the only visitors. During our stay a few small groups from elsewhere in India—in twos and threes, and most (to judge from their lack of equipment) not birders—showed up at the watchtowers. An Indian documentary filmmaker and his friends spent several days, as did a large, enthusiastic birding group from Bangalore in southern India. I struck up a conversation with one of them, Ulhas Anand, and discovered we had several mutual birding friends from his time living in Philadelphia.

“The birding in Bangalore is incredible. We have some very bird-rich areas. But nothing like this,” he said, gesturing to the multitudes of falcons emerging from their roosts. Then he was gone—someone had spied a Philippine Brown Shrike along the edge of the lake.

In most wild parts of the world, conservationists abhor new roads. But Bano Haralu and others are glad there’s a road to Pangti, and they wish it was nicer. They see the awful condition of Nagaland’s roads–often cited as the worst in India—as a major hurdle to conservation, and the tourism that could support it. The peak of the falcon migration neatly coincides with the seasonal, post-monsoon opening of Kaziranga National Park in neighboring Assam state, a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts visitors from around the world. (And for good reason: A week later, looking out on Kaziranga’s grassy floodplain, I counted 59 Indian rhinoceroses in a single, wide sweep of my binoculars, as wild elephants, buffalo, wild hogs, and swamp deer grazed and Pallas’s Fish-Eagles soared overhead.) Combining the two sites would be an ecotourism no-brainer, if the travel time between them was a couple of easy hours on a well-paved road instead of the bone-grinding, eight- or nine-hour marathon that travelers face now.

A tree of Amur Falcons in Nagaland. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan. A Safe Place to Roost

Although the greatest spectacle in pangti was the morning liftoff, one evening we returned to the roost area at dusk, hoping to see the falcons come in for the night. Hiking down to the reservoir, we passed trails pushed through the dense vegetation—the paths of wild elephants, perhaps the same ones we’d heard trumpeting across the lake that morning. Songbirds flitted about in the failing light—White-browed Scimitar-Babblers, all lanky and brown; pairs of Red-vented Bulbuls; flocks of hyperactive Yellow-bellied Fairy-Fantails.

About 45 minutes after sunset, falcons began streaming in—first hundreds of birds a minute, then thousands, a sheet of movement against the band of orange and purple light on the west ern horizon. We were near the convergence of a great inrushing of wings and movement, coming from all points on the compass, like a black hole drawing everything toward itself. The falcons flew with smooth, languid wingbeats, mostly gliding toward the roost trees, the morning’s shivering noise of tens of thousands of rising wings replaced now with an almost eerie silence.

hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {});

For now, the falcons are safe—not only in Pangti, but across Nagaland. The combination of more rigorous law enforcement and pervasive education campaigns has proven so effective that conservationists were unaware of even a single bird being trapped during the past several migration seasons. As interest in the Amur Falcon spreads throughout northeast India, reports have emerged of other major roost sites in neighboring states such as Assam and Manipur—and local movements in those places, as well, to end hunting and to protect and celebrate the raptors. Tourism is building slowly, as we saw. But Kevin plans to be back this autumn with a full group of Americans (and mattresses for their beds) to buttress the nascent industry.

The intensity of the flight only increased with darkness, as a nearly full moon rose overhead. The white disk flickered and trembled with black silhouettes as falcons beyond count came home to roost, their bellies full and their instincts already pulling them toward the next stop on a global journey that—at least here, at least now—is not as dangerous as it was just a few years before.

Scott Weidensaul is a naturalist and Pulitzer-nominated author of more than two dozen books about natural history.

Dark Ecology: Studying Night-time Bird Migration with Radar [video]

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 15:21
hbspt.cta.load(95627, 'a8fe3c9a-217b-40fd-b1ff-2bb76ebe2cf3', {}); --> hbspt.cta.load(95627, '394b2cc2-4447-4677-b18b-d2f2de5b57cd', {}); -->

Join three of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Edward W. Rose Postdoctoral Fellows, for an evening that will open your eyes to the unseen and mysterious activities and patterns during migration. Cecilia Nilsson explains why we use radar to study migration, and uses her research as an example of how radar can be used to study how birds migrate and how their migration is shaped by winds. Kyle Horton discusses his use of radar to quantify and forecast migratory flights, from small to large scales, highlighting the impact of anthropogenic light at night on nocturnally migrating birds. Finally, Adriaan Dokter talks about how he uses the radar network to count the number of migratory birds leaving and entering the United States. The team explores where birds migrate, when and where they die, how successfully they reproduce, and how North America’s avifauna has changed over the last two decades.

The talk took place on June 4, 2018. It is part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this page for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person!

See our index of archived livestreamed seminars to enjoy more talks from the Cornell Lab.

eBird Quiz: Test Your Bird Knowledge with Photos and Sounds

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 12:54

Photo + Sound Quiz
Practice your skills. Help science.
Start Quiz
To take a quiz, sign in to your Cornell Lab account so that your media ratings and tags will be saved. Sign in

Each custom quiz presents you with 20 birds that occur at a date and location of your choosing, pulled from millions of photos and sounds added to the Macaulay Library by eBirders around the world. Guess the species—and don’t worry if you’re wrong—this challenging quiz is for your own fun and learning. After each guess, you’ll rate the photo or sound for its quality, helping us curate the Macaulay Library so it is more useful for you and for science. Thank you, and enjoy!

How to rate photos
How to rate sounds
How to tag photos
quiz example
© Tony Moline
Macaulay Library
eBird
Study with the free Merlin Bird ID app
Free, instant bird ID help for 2,000+ North, Central, and South American, and European birds

Flickers: The Closer You Look, The Less Different They Are

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 07:58
Two kinds of Northern Flicker: “Red-shafted” of western North America by Todd Steckel; “Yellow-shafted” of eastern North America by Bill McMullen, via Birdshare.

For birders, one of the many small delights of traveling cross-country is that moment when the flickers change. These pretty and common woodpeckers flash bright colors in their wings and tail—salmon-red in western North America and lemon-yellow in the East.

hbspt.cta.load(95627, 'a8fe3c9a-217b-40fd-b1ff-2bb76ebe2cf3', {}); --> hbspt.cta.load(95627, '394b2cc2-4447-4677-b18b-d2f2de5b57cd', {}); -->

It’s such a noticeable difference that for decades the two were regarded as separate species, Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted Flickers. But in 1982, the two forms were officially lumped and considered a single species, the Northern Flicker.

In the years since, scientists have wondered whether a closer look at the two birds’ genomes might reveal differences too small to have been detected with earlier technology. Now, a new study published this week in Auk: Ornithological Advances, by Stepfanie Aguillon and colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, presents an answer.

Physically Different, Genetically the Same

The original studies of the 1980s compared the flickers’ DNA using protein molecules as a proxy, and they were unable to discover any differences between the two forms at all. In the new study, Aguillon and her collaborators directly compared more than 16,000 DNA locations, and for the first time found clear evidence of genetic differences between Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted forms. At the same time, those differences were very small, indicating that the two lineages diverged only recently. 

As with Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers, the flickers are an example of two forms that physically look very different but genetically are nearly identical. 

“I find Northern Flickers to be really interesting because up until this point, we couldn’t find any differences at all, even though the two forms look so different.” Aguillon says. “Now that we have these results, it seems likely that only a few small parts of their genomes differ—the ones that are related to their plumage differences.”

But by the same token, Aguillon says, those small differences shouldn’t be interpreted as confirmation that the two forms are a single species. That decision would be better answered through studies of ecology, mating behavior, and hybridization than by a simple tabulation of genetic differences, she says. 

Nevertheless, the study showcases today’s exquisitely sensitive genetic sequencing tools—enabling Aguillon to see the slightest of differences between two close relatives, and to begin to reconstruct the evolutionary pathways that brought them into being. 

Reference

Aguillon, S. M., L. Campagna, R. G. Harrison, and I. J. Lovette. 2018. A flicker of hope: genomic data distinguish Northern Flicker taxa despite low levels of divergence. Auk 135:738–756 doi: 10.1642/AUK-18-7.1.

Landscaping to Protect Our Grass-Loving Wildlife

Tue, 05/29/2018 - 13:53

Protecting Our Grass-Loving Wildlife
Megan Whatton May 29, 2018
Bees Birds Cover Healthy Ecosystems Other Wildlife Mow
00–0
As you explore wildlife landscaping recommendations, you will find a common theme around mowing. Conservationists are always encouraging people to mow their lawns less often or not to mow their fields from May to August. What is that all about?

747093215_067a2dfa64_o
To sum it up: RESOURCES FOR WILDLIFE. Our lawns provide important nectar and pollen for pollinators which is lost or minimized when we mow. Fields (grasslands and meadows) also act as important food and breeding locations for numerous wildlife. Keep reading to learn more about the species you can protect by modifying your mowing practices.

19183264445_a16ec33a58_o
Delayed mowing allows for grasses and forbs to mature and flower, providing much needed pollen, nectar, and seed resources to native bees, butterflies, and birds. Additionally, the mature plants provide the habitat needed for nesting, egg laying, and shelter.

35023674335_3e022b73f7_o
In the early spring, “weeds” like the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and white clover (Trifolium repens) start to grow and bloom. This is a valuable nectar source for early active pollinators. Mowing your lawn less often, allows these so called weeds to bloom and provide important resources to bees and butterflies that need them early and throughout the season. In fact, research has shown that these two weed species can provide resources for over 50 species of pollinators including bumble bees (Bombus spp.), butterflies (Lepidoptera spp.), hoverflies (Syrphidae spp.), and honey bees (Apis mellifera) to name a fewopen_in_new.

ENPO080624_D041
The monarch (Danaus plexippus), a specialist, is an example of a species that benefits from conservation mowing practices. Milkweed (Asclepias) populations have decreased over the years due to agricultural management and development. Milkweed, as hinted at by its name, is considered a weed, in part, because it can be poisonous to livestock. Mowing and removal are traditional in agricultural practice, which in turn, reduces the ability for monarchs to reproduce and complete their life cycle. Allowing milkweed plants to mature, produces food for both the monarch larva and adult butterfly.

IMAG4522_1
North America has over 450 breeding bird species.open_in_new Of those, grassland birds have experienced the largest declines in populations over the last 40 years.open_in_new Their population declines are linked with habitat disturbance‒including mowing regimes. Pictured above is a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) nest found in a working farm field in Virginia. Field Sparrows have lost nearly half their population since 1970 and are expected to lose up to half of their current population in less than 40 years. Modifying harvest, mowing, or grazing schedules can increase nest success and can help Field Sparrows, and many other species, recover.

Momma Red-winged blackbird feeding her giant baby
Mowing earlier in the spring (before May) or later in the summer (August), not only increases nesting success, but also gives fledgling birds one less obstacle to face as they navigate life outside the nest. Think of fledglings like teenagers, they are able to leave the home on their own but are still under the close watch of their parents–not yet having all the skills (or flight feathers) needed to make it on their own. The fledgling stage is different in every bird species, but typically fledglings hang around after leaving the nest.open_in_new Delaying mowing practices will help these birds make it to adulthood.

14583826460_2e0f6965e7_o
Consider searching for nests before starting any management practices during the breeding season. Most grassland birds build their nests on the ground or within a couple inches of the ground.open_in_new Breeding birds are more likely to flush from a nest in the morning and early in the breeding season‒while still on eggs‒therefore making nests easier to find.

DSC_0106
The top conservation action to help these species is to maintain grasslands with mowing techniques that support nesting and fledging survival.

Once the eggs have hatched, most adult birds‒like the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) pictured above‒fool predators.open_in_new To hide their nest location, some birds walk into and out of the nest with food, so that where they disappear or reappear from the vegetation is not the location of the nest. Most nests will look like grass clumps and/or large accumulation of dead plant material. Below are some examples of bird species that nest in grasslands and need our help.

DSC_0211
Eastern (, pictured above) and Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) populations have declined 89%open_in_new and 48%open_in_new respectively since 1966. With over 73% of these two species habitat in private ownership, habitat loss and poor land management, like mowing or harvesting during breeding season, contribute to population declines.

DSC_0258
The backward wearing tuxedo bird, also known as the Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) has seen a 67% decline in populations over the past 50 years and they are listed on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List‒which lists birds that are in the greatest risk of extinction.open_in_new The top conservation action to help this species is to maintain grasslands with mowing techniques that support nesting and fledging survival.

DSC_0053
Once a common game species, the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) has experienced a steep decline in populations (85%) in the past 50 years. Much of this decline is due to habitat degradation and conversion. While mowing and grazing help to maintain the grasslands Bobwhites rely on, when conducted during nesting season they often destroy their ground nests. The population decline of the Northern Bobwhite also incurs an economic cost. Once a highly-prized game species, now populations are so low, hunting, and the money associated with licenses and equipment, are no longer available to communities that depended on that influx of cash.

14583842768_08ed9ab5ae_o
White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are common throughout most of North America because of their ability to inhabitat many different types of habitats.open_in_new Grasslands and working fields provide important nutritional resources and cover for fawns and mothers at this vulnerable time in their life. Fawns are able to walk within hours of birth; but, for the first couple weeks after birth, the mother will hide the baby while she forages alone.open_in_new The fawn is programmed to lay still and freeze while waiting for its mother to return. If danger arises, including danger from a mower/ tractor, the fawn will often not move, making it vulnerable to injury.

Rabbit nest
The Cottontail Rabbit Genus (Sylvilagus) is made up of around 20 species of cottontail rabbits, with the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanis) being the most widely distributed species in the Americas. Pictured above, is an example of the shallow ground nest of the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit that looks like a brown patch of grass/lawn. These nests can be extremely hard to identify because, let’s face it, most of our lawns can look this way at times. The nest pictured above was observed that “the ground was moving” therefore professional were called. But as the saying goes, breeding like rabbits, cottontails are known to breed three to four times a year and babies mature to reproductive age after two to three months. Their nests can easily be disturbed or destroyed if you do not know what to look for.

7989764427_a040755c5f_o
Frogs and toads have great camouflage and are known to sit and wait, or flee at the last moment. They are great yard guests to have, as they help manage pests such as mosquitos, slugs, flies, etc.. However, these animals are often caught in the crosshairs of mowers along their journey of resource acquisition. Their survival techniques, which are designed to evade predators, make them susceptible to injury when we mow.

6965122589_f26b2c7335_o
Another example of a common species in our yards and fields is the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina). Much like the frogs and toads, the defensive mechanism for box turtles is to retreat into their carapass, or shell, until the danger has subsided. It is important to keep a watchful eye when mowing for this species, as they will not flee, but rather remain in the mower’s path, which can result in serious injury or death. This species is not nationally recognized as a species of concern, but many states do list it, so please keep an eye out–a yellow-orange patterned-looking rock or root‒for turtles while you mow.

ENPO070913_D003
One last species that is a great yard species to have is a garter snake (Thamnophis)‒also known as the gardener snake or ribbon snake. I know many of you just shuddered at the fact of a snake in your yard, but garter snakes, and really all snakes, are another pest-controlling animal. They feed on many animals we don’t want in our gardens and yards including mice, ants, crickets, and slugs. Like frogs and toads, they retreat, but can be trapped in our mowing patterns and left with no escape.

4598411904_ef10956830_o
Whether it’s your lawn or your back 40, mowing practices are simple, dare we say, lazy management action that can benefit many important species in our landscape. Who knew by eliminating or minimizing mowing from May to August you could benefit so many species of wildlife. Be a part of the solution for protecting our valuable grassland wildlife‒mow less and enjoy your habitat visitors more!

Asteroid Impact Grounded Bird Ancestors

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 10:03
An artist’s conception of a tinamou-like ground-dwelling species at the time of the asteroid impact. Painting by Cornell Lab Bartels Science Illustrator Phillip Krzeminski.

A bird watcher straining to see a tiny tuft of feathers hopping in the treetops may find it hard to believe its ancient ancestors lived on the ground. An international team of scientists has concluded the asteroid that smashed into Earth 66 million years ago not only wiped out the dinosaurs, but erased the world’s forests and the species that lived in trees. The researchers say only small ground-dwelling birds survived the mass extinction, profoundly changing the course of bird evolution. Their findings were just published in the journal Current Biology.

hbspt.cta.load(95627, 'a8fe3c9a-217b-40fd-b1ff-2bb76ebe2cf3', {}); --> hbspt.cta.load(95627, '394b2cc2-4447-4677-b18b-d2f2de5b57cd', {}); -->

“What this means is that all modern tree-dwelling bird lineages can trace their ancestry to non-tree-dwelling species in the wake of the asteroid impact,” says lead author Daniel Field of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. “It took about 1,000 years for the forests to regenerate. It took a lot longer for some bird species to evolve the shorter legs and grasping feet needed to perch and nest in trees.”

It’s estimated that the initial meteor impact at the end of the Cretaceous period (also known as the K-Pg event), blew down trees in a 1,500 km (932 miles) radius, leaving the 110-mile wide Chicxulub Crater on the lip of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The  effects were felt long after. Intense heat set off wildfires that turned forests into ash fields. Acid rain killed off even more vegetation. Soot in the atmosphere blocked the sun and prevented photosynthesis. A treeless world would not have been a pleasant place.

But the cataclysm left useful clues for scientists delving into ancient history. One line of inquiry for this study focused on a comparison of plant fossils, pollen, and spores from geological layers before, during, and after the asteroid hit. Some of the evidence comes from a place called John’s Nose in North Dakota.

“The John’s Nose site is one of several where you can clearly see differences in plant life before and after the mass extinction,” explains co-author and Smithsonian paleobotanist Antoine Bercovici. “We examined the geological layers at John’s Nose as well as at sites in New Zealand, Japan, and Europe. At all these locations we found a huge spike in fern growth immediately after the asteroid impact, which indicates the deforestation was global.”

The Chicxulub Crater. In the top inset image you can see a faint semi-circular edge marked by the dotted line in the lower image. This marks a portion of the Chicxulub Crater left by the asteroid impact. Image courtesy of GoogleMaps and NASA/JPL.

Ferns are sometimes called “disaster plants” because they typically spread rapidly in areas that have been denuded of vegetation—a pattern that continues today in places devastated by human activities or natural disaster.

The K–Pg boundary at the John's Nose site in Southwestern North Dakota. The pale line in the outcrop represents material ejected by the Chicxulub asteroid impact and marks the onset of forest community collapse. Photo courtesy of Antoine Bercovici, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Study co-author and Cornell Lab of Ornithology doctoral candidate Jacob Berv used avian family trees (phylogenies) to infer the characteristics of birds in the distant past. This line of inquiry also led to the conclusion that, after the K-Pg event, the ancestors of modern birds had their feet on the ground.

“The avian family tree tells you about the hierarchical relationships among bird species,” Berv explains. “The group that’s the sister group to every other bird lineage today is known as the palaeognaths—including ostriches, cassowaries, kiwis, and so on—all ground-dwelling. From that and other related evidence we can infer that the bird ancestors that survived the asteroid impact were also likely to be ground birds.”

The fact that the paleobotanical (fossil plant) data agree with the bird data is one of the reasons the study authors are confident in their conclusions. Their research shows that every tree-dwelling bird today is the result of an eons-long tale of survival, and the product of uncounted evolutionary tweaks that allowed them to—at last—return to the trees.

Reference

Field D.J., Bercovici, A., Berv, J.S., Dunn, R., Fastovsky, D.E., Lyson, T.R., Vajda, V., Gauthier, J.A. (2018). Early Evolution of Modern Birds Structured by Global Forest Collapse at the End-Cretaceous Mass Extinction. Current Biology 28: 1-7.

Pages

Welcome to the American Ornithological Society (AOS)
Advancing Scientific Knowledge and Conservation of Birds

© 2018 American Ornithological Society