Understanding the Endangered Species Act

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

We here at Talkin' Birds seek to keep our listeners informed about developments in the world of birds and birding, so we've written this simple explanation of the Endangered Species Act and what makes it controversial. Why now? Because lawmakers in Washington, DC are going over it very carefully these days in order to decide what, if anything, should be changed about it. We ought to warn you: If you Google "Endangered Species Act of 1973," the top two results are strongly opinionated–in opposite ways. There's a lot of argument right now. Here, we hope, is a balanced picture. 

The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, was signed into law in December 1973 by President Richard Nixon. Scientists had recognized for about a century that human activity was causing the extinction of fish, animals, and birds. While a few laws had been enacted to prevent over-hunting individual species (for instance, the American Bison), this law was the most comprehensive in that it intended to prevent and reverse extinction of all domestic endangered species, including maintaining and restoring their habitat. The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 set the stage for the ESA by establishing a list of species in need of help. In 1969, the Act was emended to include species in danger of worldwide extinction. The ESA was and is more comprehensive in scope than both previous Acts. 

We bird-lovers have probably heard how the Bald Eagle, the Whooping Crane, and the Peregrine Falcon, among others, have returned from the brink of extinction because of programs supported by the ESA. Millions of acres of habitat have been preserved; eggs have been incubated; chicks have grown up to reproduce successfully. Aside from birds, species from wolves to whales have been rescued so that each may continue to benefit its own ecosystem, not to mention the other species with which it interacts. (Every species that's saved is important to several others.) We have heard much about the good the ESA does.

But as successful as the ESA sounds, it is not without controversy. Some critics argue that, of the over 2000 species listed since 1973, fewer than 2% have recovered enough to come off the list. These critics feel that these numbers are proof that the ESA isn't helpful. Further, the ESA does not address the exotic pet trade within states. This means that, even though endangered species can't be sold internationally or even across state lines, they can be "donated" between states and even sold in the same state—which they feel means that those species really aren't being protected. But the most vocal critics of the ESA say that protecting habitat from human activity is, well, restrictive to humans. When it comes down to it, they argue, is the survival of a rare animal really more important than the use of its habitat to benefit human beings? Is, say, preserving a rare fish more valuable than providing drinking water for a community's children? This is a tough ethical question, and lawmakers have wrestled with it for decades. The mining and timber industries are hit particularly hard by ESA-based restrictions. In 1978, the ESA was emended to allow for species exemptions; these keep lawmakers arguing for months in states where a rare species risks being wiped out by industry. 

This simplified explanation of the Endangered Species Act is only a start. If you'd like to learn more, we hope you'll check out these resources. We've tried to choose impartial ones, but, as we warned above, that's difficult. If you find any others you like, please let us know. As stewards of this planet and its inhabitants, let's keep one another in the loop. 

-The EPA's (Environmental Protection Agency's) summary

-The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's

-Wikipedia's entry on the Endangered Species Act of 1973








What Does the EPA Do, Anyway?

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

We here at Talkin' Birds like to keep our listeners in the know about anything affecting birds. We've been hearing a lot in the news lately about Scott Pruitt, President Trump's nominee to head the EPA. However, we're not hearing much about the EPA itself, so we thought we'd explain what the EPA does. 

EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency. (By the way, they don't use "the," so we'll stop too.) Their mission is to protect our health and environment, which they do in more areas of life than we had imagined. No fooling: If you check the A-Z index on their website, you'll see documents on everything from acid rain to the pesticide Worker Protection Standard. EPA researches, regulates, funds grants for, and provides information about pretty much anything having to do with the environment and human health in this country.

Environmental research: EPA has research stations throughout the United States. The scientists who work at them share findings with academic institutions, private sector agencies, and research agencies here and in other countries. 

Regulation: When the United States Congress writes environmental laws, EPA writes regulations to enforce them. EPA then helps businesses and other organizations understand and comply with these regulations so they can obey the law.

Grants: EPA uses about half their funding to make grants to nonprofits, state programs, and educational institutions. These grants go to research and environmental cleanups, among other uses. 

In case you're wondering EPA has done for birds, the answer is, "A lot." We bird-lovers are probably all familiar with such bird conservation initiatives as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, established by EPA in 1986 and the Partners in Flight initiative to increase bird habitats in North and South America. EPA regulates use of pesticides; it was they who banned DDT in 1972 because of the harm it does to humans, wildlife, and especially birds. (In fact, EPA maintains a handy pesticide chemical database ) Then there's their data on birds and climate change: for starters, have a look at this page to see how bird wintering ranges have changed over the last fifty years. This short list above just scratches the surface how EPA benefits birds. If you'd like to see more, go to their website and search on "birds." You'll get 3,860 results. Again, no fooling. 

So why is it important to think carefully about who is in charge of EPA? Because that person controls research, regulation, and information about so much that affects the life of all Americans--not just the human ones. 

Birds Provide "Biodiversity Services" that Sustain Ecosystems

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

"Biodiversity" means "the variety of life in a particular habitat." Each life form, from bacterium to towering tree, plays a role in sustaining its ecosystem. Therefore, each life form matters.

There are few ecosystems on Earth with more biodiversity than a rainforest. A recent study shows that the loss of even a few species from that rainforest adversely affects its longevity. Although a forest may look healthy, if the creatures required for maintenance are missing, the forest can't regenerate if it's disturbed, and its trees will eventually die out.

Research from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bshows that intensive land use, such as for agriculture and ranching, often leads to the extinction of local forest birds. These birds perform "biodiversity services" that are necessary for maintaining the rainforest's health, such as keeping down the population of plant-eating insects and dispersing the seeds of tree species. But it isn't just the individual birds species that guarantee the future health of the forest, nor is it the number of species left alive; it's the way these species interact with other kinds of life.

The research team studied the composition of bird communities from 330 study sites in the Brazilian Amazon, sampling more than 450 bird species. They also kept track of what special traits these species possessed, such as their beak size and tail and wing shape. (These traits indicate what kind of job a species has evolved to do.) Then they looked at how landscape change affected these bird populations, specifically those birds who eat insects and those who disperse seeds. 

The results were sobering. When insect-eating birds go locally extinct, leaf-eating insects can prevent young saplings from growing up into mature trees. When birds that eat certain seeds are missing, then the trees that grow from those seeds eventually go missing, too. 

Dr Joseph Tobias, senior author of the study, says that land-use management policy can positively affect forest recovery. He suggests that a forest's ability to regenerate can be preserved, even if it's largely cleared, as long as patches of primary forest survive. “Our findings are a warning flag that we can’t just look at a snapshot of forest health as it appears now—we need to think about preserving the ecosystem processes that will allow forests to survive in the future.”

Next, the team plans to examine the impact of human activity on global ecosystems by using bird traits as a window onto the effects of environmental change.  


New Zealand Yellowhammers "Speak" with Obsolete Dialects

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

Our Talkin' Birds Senior Producer, Debbie Blicher, learned to speak Portuguese in the Amazon rainforest outside the city of Manaus, Brazil. The people in that region speak with an accent reminiscent of the 1500's, when Portuguese was first introduced. In other areas of Brazil, the accent has evolved because of influences from other languages, local fads, and the usual linguistic wear and tear, but the people around Manaus use a Portuguese that isn't heard anywhere else. Brazilians outside the Amazon region correct Debbie's accent—once they stop laughing.

Now, research is showing that Yellowhammers in New Zealand  also "speak" with an obsolete accent. A new study published in Ecography indicates that New Zealand Yellowhammers possess some dialects that their cousins in Great Britain no longer use.  

The Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) is a farmland bird native to the United Kingdom, recognizable by means of its bright yellow head. It was introduced to New Zealand in the 1860's and 1870's. The research on their song involved a citizen science project in New Zealand and Great Britain (http://yellowhammers.net) coordinated by Pavel Pipek of Charles University in Prague (the first author). Volunteers collected and submitted recordings of singing Yellowhammers with smartphones and cameras. The Prague researchers then compared the patterns of Yellowhammer dialects in Great Britain to those in New Zealand. They discovered that the birds in New Zealand use song structures no longer used in the UK. In fact, the New Zealand birds had almost twice as many dialects as their British relatives.


Pipek's team supposes this shift of dialects has something to do with the processes of the bird's population growth and decline. Over 600 Yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand in the 1800's, where they reproduced so rapidly that they became pests, taking their songs wherever they went. Meanwhile, the Yellowhammer population in the UK dwindled, and some dialects died out with them. The result? Dialects are thriving in New Zealand that haven't been heard in the UK for up to 150 years—"a living archive," as co-author Dr. Mark Eaton says.

So next time you hear a Yellowhammer with an obsolete accent, don't laugh, and don't correct it. It's just saving a song from extinction, okay? Sheesh.

The Ancient Polar Climate—and a Giant Bird

If Santa Claus were old enough, a giant bird might have delivered his toys from the Arctic. That's right: researchers at the University of Rochester have discovered fossil evidence of a bird living in the Canadian Arctic about 90 million years ago. They published their findings in Scientific Reports, the online arm of the venerable journal Nature. 

Professor of earth sciences John Tarduno, lead author of the paper, states that his team named the fossil Tingmiatornis arctica after an Inuktikut word for "one who flies." He suggests that the bird would have resembled "a cross between a large seagull and a diving bird like a cormorant"—except that it probably had teeth. No teeth have been found yet, but this bird would have needed them to eat the large, carnivorous fish that lived in the warm waters at that time. 

Wait—warm waters? In the Arctic? You read that right. Dr. Tarduno and his colleagues speculate that the region's climate was rather like that of northern Florida today. So there would have been turtles, fish, and even proto-crocodiles in the food chain.

The T. arctica fossils were found in layers of rock above basalt lava fields. The presence of these lava fields indicates that there was volcanic activity around the time the bird existed. Those Arctic volcanoes would have released plenty of carbon dioxide which, together with methane emissions from large grazing dinosaurs, could have caused a greenhouse effect. So, yes, the weather could have been quite warm.

But what about seasonal ice? Wouldn't there have been ice in winter? Dr. Tarduno says no, because it would have prevented T. arctica from living there. 


We here at Talkin' Birds are excited about the find, but we don't plan to take our warm-weather vacations in the Arctic. We hope that 2017 will be a year of action to prevent climate change so that our planet's cold areas stay cold.





The World's Longest Fences

On our latest show, Ray spoke with Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute about the harm that cats can do to bird populations. Yes, it's sad to say, but those sweet, furry critters kill billions of birds a year in the United States alone. With this sobering statistic on our minds, we were glad to read a recent news item: a five-mile cat fence has been built on Hawaii's Big Island around the Mauna Loa volcano. Whereas individual homeowners can choose to erect fencing to contain their felines, the National Park Service decided to build a single huge one to help protect the endangered Hawaiian Petrel. 

Only about 75 breeding pairs of the Hawaiian Petrel live in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, and cats are a serious threat to them. (Many more petrels live outside the park, but the species is still considered endangered.) Cats are not native to the Hawaiian islands, but they have taken nicely to the environment--including learning to scrabble up the sides of volcanoes to hunt vulnerable native species. The Hawaiian Islands are home to several conservation fences, of which the one on Mauna Loa is the longest. The new fence, which took four years to construct, encircles upper Moana Loa, enabling the petrels to rear their young in relative peace. It's six feet tall, with a curved top designed to be impossible for cats to climb. You can read all about the fence's construction here

Pest-proof fencing was pioneered in New Zealand and Australia, where invasive species are a recent enough phenomenon that it is often possible to tell which invader wiped out what native species. While the Mauna Loa cat fence is the longest in the United States, the longest fence of any kind in the world is the Dingo Fence in Australia, which is 3,488 miles long and protects sheep from dingo attacks.

Happy 45th Birthday, International Bird Rescue!

Here's how to clean up birds after an oil spill: First, treat the birds for shock and dehydration. Next, feed them, 'cause they might not have eaten while covered in oil, and give them any medicine they need. Then place them in warm water. Finally, when they're stable enough, wash them ever so gently with Dawn dish soap and rinse them thoroughly. 

This protocol comes from the long experience of International Bird Rescue, which got its start in 1971 when two oil tankers collided near the Golden Gate in San Francisco. The collision dumped 800,000 gallons of crude oil into the Bay and coated thousands of birds in oil. Through trial and error, volunteers figured out how to clean them up so that they stood the best chance of surviving. These volunteers eventually formed International Bird Rescue (IBR), a nonprofit that pioneers the treatment of aquatic birds that been harmed by human hands. Their method for cleaning oiled birds is now the gold standard. (And yes, the Dawn dish soap is donated.)

IBR's funding comes largely from contracts with oil companies. Their headquarters are in Fairfield, California, but they stand by for emergencies anywhere in the world. They helped clean up wildlife after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In a typical year, they treat about 5,000 birds, some from oil spills and some from other kinds of injuries inflicted by humans.  

We at Talkin' Birds admire IBR's hard work. e recommend you have a look at the International Bird Rescue website. You'll find inspiring stories, ways to donate, and even cool birdcams. Enjoy--and celebrate. 

Birds vs. Hurricanes

You’ve probably heard about the radio-tagged Whimbrel that flew through tropical storm Irene 2011. Even if you didn't, you're probably wondering how the heck she did that. (By the way, don't try this at home: if you hang glide or do other air sports, stay somewhere safe indoors during high winds!)

It may seem obvious to say so, but birds have a lot of experience with flight. For long journeys, they tend to take off when the wind is favorable, just after the passage of a low-pressure system, when it's unlikely they'll fly into a hurricane. Sometimes, however, they're caught in the end of a hurricane’s spiral and are then blown toward the eye of the hurricane, where the winds are much lower. Once they get there, they may make an effort to stay there, because flying in that relative calm takes less energy than fighting to get out. In fact, they may remain in the eye until the hurricane dissipates. 

After a hurricane, most seabirds find their way back to shore quickly if they're not too weakened from flying so long without food. Other birds, however, can require more time to recover and then take several days to return to their usual territory. It is these birds that birders are excited to see as they pass though areas where they aren't usually found. 

As hard as hurricanes are on individual birds, their habitat feels the effect more. High winds can knock nests out of trees, knock down the trees themselves, and uproot plants that birds use for food sources. For example, hurricane Hugo wiped out 60 percent of 500 groups of birds in North Carolina in 1989, and 87 percent of trees where they lived were destroyed, according to the National Wildlife Federation. If this sounds like bad news, remember that a change in habitat means a change in composition of life there, not the end of life. Yes, birds that prefer tall trees can no longer thrive when those trees are blown down, but birds that like low growth will increase their breeding population. Unlike human destruction of habitat, natural events can cause productive transformation. 

The next time we here at Talkin' Birds hear about birds being blown around by a hurricane, we'll be concerned for the birds, of course, and we might even rush to see them if it's safe to do so. However, maybe we'll plan to visit that location in a few years and see how the entire picture has changed. How about you?




Eggs Might Link Birds with Dinosaurs

Paleontologists at Montana State University think that the nesting habits of some Mesozoic-era dinosaurs bear resemblance to the nesting habits of today's birds, providing further evidence that dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds. 

In case it's not at your fingertips, the Mesozoic era was a period of evolution between 230 and 65 million years ago. This period of earth's history was characterized by the appearance of dinosaurs and flowering plants. Birds of a sort existed during the Mesozoic, the most abundant being the Enantiornithines. Like today's birds, they had feathers. They partially buried their elongated eggs. (What we think of as "egg-shaped" eggs didn't appear until much later, with modern birds, and it was modern birds that began incubating them in nests off the ground.) There were also birdlike dinosaurs, among them Troodontids, or Troodon formosus. These weighed about 100 pounds and had serrated teeth. They laid hard-shelled eggs like modern birds, and they didn't bury them completely for incubation like reptiles did (and still do).

MSU paleontology colleagues David Varricchio and Frankie Jackson published a paper in August in The Auk: Ornithological Advances in which they examined the evolution of bird reproduction. The point to note: "Reproduction in modern birds is distinct among living vertebrates and many aspects of this (modern bird) reproduction mode trace their origin to (Mesozoic-era) theropod dinosaurs...but not really beyond them to more distantly related dinosaurs." In other words, reproduction links modern birds only to the most birdlike dinosaur species, which means that the latter might well have been the precursor to today's birds.  

Varricchio and Jackson published their work in The Auk, an international journal pertaining to birds, and not in a paleontological publication, in order to work toward a consensus that has divided scientists for almost two centuries. "People have argued about the bird-dinosaur connection since the 1800s," says Varricchio. "But, since then, there has been overwhelming skeletal evidence [to support the connection]. Then in 1996, we learned that some dinosaurs had feathers. Well, their reproduction follows that pattern, as well."

Why did some dinosaurs have feathers? Why did some of them incubate their eggs without burying them fully? No-one is sure yet. But what is known is that modern birds are all we have have left of a world once populated by dinosaurs. 


Food: Conservation We Don't Think About

Almost exactly a year ago, President Obama called for Americans to reduce their food waste. Yes, this IS a problem for the higher reaches of government: experts estimate that, in one way or another, about a third of the food we produce every year ends up wasted. Sadly, in a country where 14 percent of households are food insecure, we are throwing out perfectly good food. In addition to contributing to the hunger of our neighbors, wasting food also puts a burden on the environment: methane gas from food decomposing in landfills contributes to climate change. So what's a responsible country to do?

Enter the innovators and entrepreneurs. In recent years, there have been some thrilling, creative solutions. For example, supermarkets all over the country are starting to follow the French trend of buying produce that doesn't look picture-perfect. Read about Europe here and about America here. Then there's "trash cooking," which means learning to prepare delectable meals from ingredients that would otherwise be thrown out. There are even organizations that harvest food from people's yards that would otherwise not be eaten at all. 

Hungry for more ideas? Read this great Sierra Club article

And what can we do as individuals? Here are some ideas:

-Eat locally grown food, so none is wasted during transport. 

-Compost leftovers to keep them out of landfills.

-Support growers, markets, and restaurants that give their excess food to those who need it. 

Bon appétit!


Miss Your Sweet Corn? Here's Why: Birds and Drought

We're all aware that this summer's drought conditions in several areas of North America are affecting agriculture. It is difficult for farmers to grow water-intensive crops such as walnuts and avocados without extensive irrigation, often by importing water from less drought-stricken areas. Some crops, however, are affected less directly: thirsty birds that can't find water to drink are eating up moist crops. 

Here's an example: Fenton Farms, a small farm in Batavia, New York, has lost almost all its eight acres of sweet corn to birds, specifically grackles, starlings, and Red-winged Blackbirds. Owners Paul and Gail Fenton are accustomed to giving up "a couple hundred dozen" stalks to bird damage, but this year, all of their fields are devastated. Usually, the birds eat the field corn before turning to the sweet corn that's so highly prized by farm stand shoppers. However, this year the field corn suffered so badly from the lack of water that the birds had to turn to the sweet corn instead.

These troubles aren't occurring only on Fenton's farm. There's been significant bird damage to crops all over North America.

A shortage of sweet corn for human consumption is a small effect of drought. But the drought has a much larger effect on birds. For example, birds that are forced to find water on farms can face dangers there—such as mowing—that they wouldn't face in their normal habitat. Birds crowd one another at watering holes that are smaller or fewer than usual, increasing the spread of illness. Birds that eat insects will find less food when water levels are low because fewer insects will hatch.

What can we do to help? Well, aside from getting involved in local water policy and taking measures to conserve water, we can make more water sources available to birds. Bird baths and water features in our yards help, as does putting out moist food such as fruits and vegetables. Cleaning up local waterways, no matter how small, can make the difference between a good habitat where birds will congregate and a bad one that they'll pass on the way to the cornfield. 

So next time you wish you saw sweet corn at a farm stand, maybe you won't mind as much if you think about the thirsty bird it nourished. Then support the farmer: buy the tomatoes and peppers instead.


Oxpeckers Might Really Be a Pain, Not a Boon

We've all seen those photos of large animals on the African savannah with birds on their backs, right? And we've heard that those birds, aptly called Oxpeckers (family Buphagidae), have a symbiotic relationship with those animals, eating the ticks that would otherwise bedevil them?

Well, the truth is not so simple. Oxpeckers do eat ticks, but they eat only one species (the Blue Tick) and they prefer to eat them only after they've already laid their eggs. Oxpeckers eat earwax, which might help the host animals hear better, but decreased earwax could lead to increased ear infections. Worst, Oxpeckers pick at the open wounds in the hides of the host animals and have even been known to make the wounds themselves. (Ick!)

Dr. Paul Weeks has researched the Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagidae erythrorhynchus) in Zimbabwe, publishing two studies in 1999 and 2000. Neither one indicates that animals benefit much from Oxpeckers.

Weeks separated cattle into two matched groups, then prevented Oxpeckers from coming into contact with one of the groups. At the end of two weeks, he compared the health of the animals. 

The cattle in the control group (the ones with the Oxpeckers) did not have significantly fewer ticks than the experimental group (the protected ones). What the control group DID have was less earwax and more wounds. Net benefit to the animals? Zilch, or at least close to it. 

So the next time you see one of those Oxpecker-and-rhino photos touted as showing "the beauty of symbiosis," go ahead and snort like a rhino. 

A Lesson in Careful Tree-Cutting

When Canadian biologist Chris Fisher drove through Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks in May, he noticed that many trees were being cut down along the highways for various park projects. May is prime nesting season, so he wondered how the park service was managing not to disturb birds. After all, the Migratory Birds Convention Act prohibits killing, capturing, taking and disturbing of migratory birds or their nests from late April until mid-August. Wouldn't you be curious too?

Michael den Otter, an environmental assessment specialist with Banff, Yoho and Kootenay, confirms that safety upgrades, fence maintenance, and other infrastructure improvements are indeed requiring the cutting of trees along the highways, but he says that all the national parks are following the standards. “Most of the trees you see beside the highway were actually cut before the end of April. We try whenever possible to schedule our work so we’re not going into that bird breeding season.”

Sometimes it isn’t possible to schedule work so it doesn't interfere with nesting season, for instance in places where snow doesn't melt until quite late. In those places, there's a set of rules to follow that includes extensive nest sweeps. Biologists search for nests for three days during the week before cutting is scheduled. den Otter says, “If we find any sign of nesting birds, then that project will have to either mitigate that or it will have to be put on hold until whatever happens to be nesting there moves on.”

For example, a recent sweep found a dark-eyed junco along the Trans-Canada Highway during some tree removal in Yoho National Park. den Otter says, “We put a 100-meter buffer around that nest area and we’ll have to wait to complete that work in the fall when the bird fledges." A 100-meter buffer is higher than the standard, so it sounds like these folks are serious.

den Otter says the crews haven’t encountered many nesting birds in the areas along the highways where the work is being done. After all, it's a pretty noisy and disturbed area, not the deep, dense, old-growth forest that many birds really like. Still, dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows do prefer these edge habitats, and they are plentiful—and being allowed to do their thing while the projects wait. 

Fisher, the biologist, states that Environment Canada suggests not performing any nest sweeps in forested environments. “It’s their position that the likelihood of finding every single nest or the complexity of the habitat really makes it difficult to find all of the nests." He'd prefer that the national parks not even try to remove trees until after nesting season. 

Birds Plan Their Flight Path on the Wing

You round a corner onto a city street, and you realize you need to drive between a bunch of trucks parked on the right and the busy traffic lane on the left. So what do you do? You slow down and drive carefully, adjusting your speed as you go. 

Research at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) has shown that birds will interrupt their wing beats to raise their wings or tuck them against their bodies when flying through a narrow gap, reducing their width very precisely. (Don't you wish you car could do that?) But it also shows that they don't slow down while making these adjustments. So how do they manage to make them at the right time? 

Researchers QBI's Visual and Sensory Neuroscience Laboratory analyzed the flight of budgerigars—parakeets (Melopsittacus undulatus)—as they flew through narrow gaps of varying width. Dr. Ingo Schiffner and Hong Vo filmed the birds, then did 3D reconstruction of their flight, which revealed that the birds seemed to plan ahead—1.4 meters ahead, in fact. (That's about 4.6 feet). And they even knew to fly a little higher because they'd drop later when interrupting their wingbeats. In other words, the parakeets made flight decisions well in advance of the obstacles. 

Even though the birds did some fancy flying, they didn't slow down. In another study, when parakeets flew through gradually tapering tunnels, they switched between what looked like two pre-set speeds, which Dr. Schiffner refers to as "low maneuvering" and "high cruising," bearing out the finding that they seemed to plan ahead, seeing and estimating the width of the tunnel.

This research might be especially helpful as we (humans, that is) design and build aircraft capable of unmanned flight. Current guidance systems are based on research in insects, but birds seem to have a different set of capabilities. 

The research is published in Biology Letters and  Scientific Reports.

Citizen Science with House Sparrow Eggs

House Sparrows (passer domesticus). Some of us enjoy their resilience, cheerful presence, and ubiquitous "Cheep!" Some of us can't stand seeing them everywhere, including in the nesting boxes we've set out for bluebirds. Love them or hate them, the fact is that they are an invasive species, brought here from England in the mid-19th century and thriving ever since in populated areas—often at the expense of other songbirds. 

A new citizen science project is now making use of House Sparrow eggs in ways that should satisfy both friend and foe.  The Sparrow Swap, out of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, asks volunteers for House Sparrow eggs to test for pollutants. The aim is to discover whether these birds, often regarded as pests, can help us monitor our environment. Meanwhile, taking eggs from nests provides another research opportunity, namely population control. Participants are given fake eggs to swap for real ones in hopes that the nesting sparrows will try to hatch them rather than build a new nest when they discover their original clutch has vanished. If this protocol works, it will provide the basis for an environmentally safe way to reduce the number of House Sparrows. 

Want to know more or participate? Look for "The Sparrow Swap" on Facebook or check out this website. 


Mother Fairywrens Teach Chicks in Their Shells

We posted last week about adult male Zebra Finches teaching their young with "baby talk." Now here's another post about bird learning, this one about how the mothers of two species of fairywren call to their chicks even before they hatch—and yes, the unborn chicks seem to learn the call. 

Before you get too skeptical, remember that recent research has demonstrated that human babies can learn speech sounds at 30 weeks of gestation—that is, before they're even born. 

Now, to birds. Nine species of fairywrens live on the Australian continent, where they frequently show up in suburbia. They're small songbirds, and the males are often deep blue or red. Diane Colombelli-Négrel and Sonia Kleindorfer, of Australia’s Flinders University, performed a series of experiments on the Superb Fairywren (Malurus cyaneus). 

First, they discovered that Superb Fairywren embryos seem to pay attention when their mothers call to them: their heart rate lowers, just like it does in humans and other animals when they're paying attention. The researchers then investigated the heart rate in a different fairywren species, the Red-backed Fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus). They were joined by Jenélle Dowling and Mike Webster from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Female fairywrens start calling to their unhatched chicks soon after they finish laying, and they stop calling several days after the eggs hatch. Later, when the hatched chicks beg for food, they make some of the same sounds they heard in the egg. The obvious question is, do the chicks really learn their mother’s calls, or do they make these sounds by instinct? 

To answer this question, the researchers switched Red-Backed Fairywren eggs among a group of nests to see whether the chicks would call like their genetic mothers (by instinct) or like their foster mothers (by learning). It turned out that the chicks' calls were more similar to those of their foster mother. 

Why have a similar call? Well, the next study determined that Red-backed Fairywren parents give more food to chicks whose calls are similar to their own. Since cuckoos often lay eggs in fairywren nests, having a "password" can help parent fairywrens know which chicks are theirs. 

Next, the researchers investigated whether adult fairywrens retain any of the call information they learned in the egg. It is commonly believed that chicks don't start learning their adult songs until they're at least 10 days old. With the aid of computer acoustic analysis, the researchers found that the songs of young adult fairywrens more closely resembled the songs of their mothers than they did any other females in the same population. This "family resemblance" might help fairywrens recognize one another so they can share information about resources and dangers. It could even help prevent inbreeding. 

These startling discoveries about in-egg learning are just the beginning of what could be further study in embryonic learning in other birds and mammals. 

Check out this article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more details on the fairywren research and some awesome sound. 

Adult Birds Use "Baby Talk"--and Babies Pay Attention

New research shows not only that baby birds learn songs best if they're tutored, but that adult birds seem to modify their songs the way we humans use baby talk. Further, activity in the babies' brains may have implications for research in attention issues in people. 

Birds do not hatch knowing how to sing. Like humans, they need to learn how to vocalize in socially meaningful ways. While it is known that baby birds learn from adults, Jon Sakata and his team of biologists at McGill University wanted to find out whether an adult needs to be present for the best learning or whether simply hearing the song is enough for baby birds. In other words, they wanted to find out whether the social connection matter when it comes to teaching.

For this study, male Zebra Finch chicks were observed learning songs from adult males either in person or by recording. (Why Zebra Finches? Because they breed well in the lab. And why just males? Because the males are the primary singers of the species.) The chicks, who had been cared for only by females prior to the study, were exposed for varying amounts of time to males singing in two different conditions. One group of chicks were tutored by a male in person; the other heard him singing to chicks in another room. The results? The chicks tutored in person learned their song more accurately no matter how long they were exposed to it. Further, the chicks who paid the most attention learned the best.

But the chicks weren't the only ones paying more attention. The males doing the tutoring took extra care when singing to their pupils. They repeated the beginning of the song, slowed down their phrases, and cleaned up some stray sounds. If you've ever spoken to a young child, you know exactly what these adults did. Further research is needed before anyone knows whether the adult males made these changes deliberately.

One last item of interest: the brains of the chicks who learned in person showed activity in two regions that showed no activity in the chicks who learned by recording. That is, the social activity of being taught in person seemed to activate mechanisms for attention. The research continues in order to identify just what those mechanisms might be.

What to know more? Read the abstract of the original study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Washington Post has a nice article, too, complete with sound samples.

Urban Birds Aren't Scaredy-Cats

If a city crow and a country crow were presented with almost any object they'd never seen before, both of them would be scared of it. The exception? Trash. The city crow would have learned what trash is, perhaps even that it can sometimes harbor tasty snacks. A recent study in Animal Behavior gives the details. 

Researchers at Exeter University offered food to a variety of urban and rural birds, sometimes placing it near unfamiliar objects to see how they would respond. All the birds were more afraid to approach the food when an unfamiliar object was nearby than when the food was alone. However, all the birds were less afraid if the object was familiar to them. That's the first finding of this study: birds seem to remember things they've seen.

The second finding of this study: Of all the birds tested, corvids (crows, ravens, and magpies) were the most cautious—that is, unless they came from an urban environment. In other words, corvids who had lived with trash weren't too scared of it. Apparently, they had learned about it.

Why does this study matter? Because we humans are increasingly altering the earth. It is likely that the birds and animals that can adapt will stand the best chance of surviving as their environment continues to change. Study co-author Dr Alex Thornton puts it this way: “Animals’ responses to novelty can dictate whether they perish or thrive."

We here at Talkin' Birds frankly would prefer not to lose any species. So, while we truly appreciate animal learning, we sincerely hope that humans learn better means of coexisting with wildlife.