Category Archives: Birds

Migratory Songbirds In Trouble in Asia

From Birdwatch:

A new study has suggested that migratory songbirds in East Asia are in trouble, and has called for national action and international co-operation to deal with the threats posed.

The study reveals that several migratory songbirds are declining in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, owing to a range of threats across many countries. …

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway, running from Siberia and Alaska down to South-East Asia and Australia, supports the greatest diversity of migratory birds on the planet, with 170 long-distance migrant songbirds and more than 80 short-distance migrants…..

Currently available evidence suggests that habitat loss and hunting are the two most significant threats on the East Asia flyway. Other problems such as invasive species, climate change and collision with man-made structures can also have a big impact.

Some species, like the Vulnerable Izu Leaf-warbler and Pleske’s Grasshopper Warbler, are particularly at risk due to their small breeding ranges and because their entire wintering ranges remain unknown to scientists – thus hampering effective conservation. The Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting used to be abundant, but has drastically declined as large numbers are trapped annually for food in South-East Asia and southern China.

You can see the original study here.

A Second Helping of Turkey

Are you done with your Thanksgiving leftovers yet? You might think so, but not quite. We have one more helping of Turkey for you.

This is “Another Helping of Turkey,” the second of two installments of Eat This Podcast with Jeremy Cherfas:

The domestication of the turkey probably first took place around 2000 years ago in south central Mexico, possibly for their feathers and ritual value rather than their meat. Their rise to the top of the American festive table came much later, not with the Pilgrims but with Charles Wampler, whose efforts to promote turkey raising started Rockingham County, Virginia, on its path to Turkey Capital of the World. That much we heard in the previous episode of Eat This Podcast. In between domestication and proto-industrialisation, however, the wild turkey almost vanished from America, hunted to the edge of extinction. Nature types – and hunters – really thought the turkey was a goner, and it was the hunters who brought it back, to the point where there are now turkeys in 10 states, including Hawaii, that originally had none….

Read the rest here, and listen to the podcast (in which I, as well as various turkey experts, am interviewed) HERE.

The previous podcast, “A partial history of the turkey,” is here.

A partial history of the turkey (Podcast)

“As Thanksgiving ebbs into memory and Christmas looms on the horizon, Eat This Podcast concerns itself with the turkey. For a nomenclature nerd, the turkey is a wonderful bird. Why would a bird from America be named after a country on the edge of Asia? The Latin name offers a clue; the American turkey is Meleagris gallopavo, while the African guineafowl is Numida meleagris. But why did the first settlers adopt a name they were already familiar with, rather than adopt a local indigenous name such as nalaaohki pileewa for the native fowl. Simple answer: nobody knows…”

Listen to the podcast (with extensive notes) here…

Ten Thousand Birds

There are over 10,000 species of bird on the Earth today. There is one blog called “10,000 Birds” for which I write a monthly article, in case you did not know. But this post is about Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, a book by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Monegomerie.

Birds and various studies of birds are central to evolutionary theory and the development of all of the surrounding biology and science. Here’s a short list of key roles birds have played in evolutionary biology:

<li>Darwin's study of pigeon breeding was central to <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780674637528'>On the Origin of Species</a> and later works. </li>

<li>The Galapagos <a href="">finches</a> and other birds, observed by Darwin during <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781626365605'>The Voyage of the Beagle</a> were also key in the development of his work.</li>

<li>Darwin's work involved a great deal of other birds, such as <a href="">the Rhea</a> and helped shape his thinking about species.</li>

<li>Skipping past many examples, and far ahead in time, The Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy was the first major application of DNA to develop phylogeny. </li>

<li>As described in <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780679733379'>The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time</a>, the Grants' study of finches in the Galapagos advanced evolutionary theory with detailed tests of Darwin's models, and influenced <a href="">one of the most important works on the origin of humans</a>. </li>

<li>Birds have often been used as examples in teaching evolution.  Have a look at this example: <a href="">It May Be Hard To Swallow, But Bumpus Could Get Bumped To The Back Burner</a> </li>

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin is an absolutely spectacular book. It is big and heavy and over 500 pages long. It is dark green like all great scholarly books. Despite it’s great lenght it has only 11 chapters, so you know the material is treated in depth. It has dozens and dozens of pages of notes and references. It has an appendix with a list of 500 ornithologists. It has a separate appendix with a list of ornithologies.

That’s all nice but the meat of the book is in those long intense chapters. These chapters provide a very thorough, detailed, and fascinating history of ornithology, often focusing on the ornithologists, their quirks, their visions, the contexts in which they worked, and their findings. So, yes, this is a history of the science. The story starts when birds first flew into the field of evolutionary biology, or perhaps, were captured by it, and traces the history of biology from a birds eye’s point of view, including the development of the modern synthesis, and on to the behavioral revolution of Lack, the conceptual revolution of Tinbergen, and the ecological reframing of MacArthur.

This could serve as a very readable core of a college elective in the history of science, though it is certainly not a textbook. Richly illustrated, well written, engaging.

Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at Sheffield, and has done major bird research. He wrote The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird. Jo Wimpenny is a bird researcher at Sheffield. Bob Montgomerie is professor of biology at Queen’s University in Ontario, and studies the evolution of plumage and bird sex.

Rare Birds of North America

Rare Birds of North America is the only extensive treatment I’ve see of the so called “vagrant birds” in the US and Canada. Most, or at least many, traditional bird books have a section in the back for rare birds, occasionals or accidentals, which one might see now and then. But when you think about it, how can five or even a dozen species in a bird book really do justice to the problem of spotting birds that are normally not supposed to be spotted?

I’m reminded of one South African bird guide that has a half dozen penguin species listed in it. There is only one species of penguin in South Africa but a handful of others have shown up, almost always as a corpse floating around with other junk on the beach somewhere. I suppose when we’re talking penguins, that counts.

Anyway, Rare Birds of North America by Steve Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell includes 262 species illustrated across 275 plates, from the Old World, the New World Tropics, and the planet’s oceans. The first 44 pages or so are about rare birds, and the rest of the book is a morphologically-grouped compendium of the species. The species discussion run from page to page (unlike a typical modern guide). They include common name, binomial, basic size stats, then info on taxonomy, rarity, normal distribution, and as appropriate, subspecies Most of the plates have multiple illustrations showing various angles and flight vs. non-flight, sex-specirc, and other views. The illustrations are drawings and as far as I can tell are good quality. But since you never see these birds who the heck knows!?!?

An appendix includes brand new rare species not covered in the book. A second appendix includes species that may or may not have occurred. A third appendix lists the “birds new to North America” by year. This appendix and various data presented at the beginning of the book are analyzed in the work, but seem ripe for further Science by Spreadsheet!

This is a Hefty, thick-leaved, well made book (I reviewed the hardcover). Not a field guide but not a big coffee table book either. More like the bird-book-shelf and truck of the car style book.

Steve N. G. Howell is research associate at PRBO Conservation Science and is affiliated with WINGS, an international bird tour company. Hew wrote Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America. Ian Lewington a bird illustrator famous for the high quality of his work. Will Russell is cofounder and managing director of WINGS.

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide

There is a new book out on Penguins: Penguins: The Ultimate Guide written and edited by Tui De Roy, Mark Jones, and Julie Cornthwaite.

It is a beautiful coffee table style book full of information. All of the world’s species are covered (amazingly there are only 18 of them) and there are more than 400 excellent photos. The book covers penguin science (science about them, not by them). There is also quite a bit about their conservation.

The layout of the book is interesting. The last section of the book, by Julie Cornthwaite includes portraits of each species, and a compendium of interesting facts such as which is the fastest penguin, strange things about their bills, their odd moulting behavior, interesting color variants, how they “fly”, interesting mating facts, and what threatens them. Then there is a table organized taxonomically giving their status, population estimates, ranges, and main threats. Following this is a two page bird-guide type spread on each species, with a range map, photos, descriptions, information about their voice, breeding behavior, feeding behavior, etc. That is what you would expect in a book about penguins.

But the first, and largest, part(s) of the book provides its uniqueness. The first section, by Dui De Roy, covers penguins generally, or specific exemplar species or groups of species, to provide an overview of what penguin-ness is all about. The second section, edited by Mark Jones, consists of 17 essays by various experts on specific topics, such as how penguins store food, how they are tracked at sea, and penguin-human interaction. I would like to have seen more about penguin evolution (which is interesting) but the sparsity of coverage of that topic does not detract from the book’s overall quality.

If you are into birds, you probably don’t have a penguin book, so this will fill the bill. As it were. This is also one of those books that totally qualifies as a great present to give someone you know who has an interest in birds generally, or penguins in particular. I should also mention that there are a couple of pages in the back on where to see penguins. Warning: They don’t smell very good.

I recommend the book. The following video has nothing to do with the book, but there are penguins in it:

Flying Dinosaurs: A New Book on the Dinosaur Bird Link

Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds by science writer John Pickrell is coming out in December. As you know I’ve written a lot about the bird-dinosaur thing (most recently, this: “Honey I Shrunk the Dinosaurs“) so of course this sounded very interesting to me. In a way, Pickrell’s book is a missing link, in that he writes a lot about the history of paleontology associated with the discovery, undiscovery, and rediscovery of the early bird record and the dinosaur link.

Birds have rewritten dinosaurs. Not all dinosaurs are directly related to birds, but a large number of them are, and the features we reconstruct for them were once based on lizards, because it was thought dinosaurs were big scary lizards. Now we know many dinosaurs were big scary birds. Feathers are today a bird thing, but back in olden times — very olden times — they were probably just the normal covering for this entire category of dinosaurs (though they may have been very different). Dinosaurs were once thought of as greyish lumbering terrifying beasts. We now see them as highly active, aerobically efficient, socially dynamic, sexy (as in they had a lot of secondary sexual characteristics such as bright colors) terrifying beasts.

Pickrell covers the history of changing thought on dinosaurs and the bird-dinosaur link. In a way , this book is about dinosaurs, focusing primarily on the bird kind. Or, it is a book about birds, focusing on their dinosaur-osity. Pickrell also goes into detail on the behavioral biology of dinosaurs reinterpreted in the context of birds.

Pickrell’s book is well written and accessible, and thus is an excellent companion to the more scholarly literature that I know you all follow.

John Pickrell is an award-winning science writer and the editor of Australian Geographic magazine. He has written for New Scientist, Science, Science News, and Cosmos, and won man awards.

Feral Cats as Invasive Species

The ranger stood on the dirt road, facing south, and the rest of us, scattered about the parked safari truck, facing north and paying close attention to what she was saying. The sun was slipping quickly below the red sand dunes to our west, and the day’s warm breeze was rapidly changing to a chill wind. She talked about what we might see after we remounted the safari truck, which we had just driven out of the campground at the southern end of Kgalgadi Transfrontier Park, where we were staying in the South African camp, just across from the Botswana camp. This would be a night drive, cold, dark, uncomfortable seats, loud engine in the giant 26-seater truck, scanning the brush and the roadside with three or four strong spotlights wrangled by volunteers among the nature-loving tourists, and of course, the headlights of the truck. But for now the sun was still up and if anything interesting came along we’d see it just fine in the dusk.

And, of course, something interesting came along. Just as the ranger was telling us that we might see wild cats – well, not wild cats, but rather, Wildcats, the wild version of the domestic cat, Felis silvestris lybica, one of those cats popped its head out of the brush about 50 feet beyond her. As she continued her monologue about these cats, the Wildcat cautiously walked in our direction, never taking its eyes off of us, stiff-legged, ears motionless, striped like a standard “tiger” domestic cat but entirely in grays. The most interesting thing about this cat was lack of kitty-cat-ness. It was not a kitty cat, even though all of its relatives in the Americas were. It was deadly serious, intense looking, nothing like a kitty cat at all. And just as the ranger finished her monologue with “… so if we’re lucky, we’ll see one of those cats” the person standing next to me intoned, in a mimicking fake british-sounding accent to match the ranger’s South African dialect, “You mean like that one, there?” and all of us pointed simultaneously to the wildcat now about 10 feet behind her.

She turned, looked, and by the expression on her face I guessed she was thinking “Goodness, I’m glad that was not a lion.”


How do birds survive the winter?

How do birds survive the cold weather, especially during really cold winters like the one we are having now in much of the United States?

One part of this answer has to be, sadly perhaps, that the sometimes don’t. But I’ll get to that later.

You need to know two things as context. First, there are a lot of different kinds of birds, and the adaptations I’ll mention below are not found in all of them, and probably all of these adaptations are not found in very many species. Second, many birds are actually at great risk during cold periods because birds generally live on the edge when it comes to energetics. It takes energy (from food) to keep warm. Birds are endothermic, meaning that they produce their own heat (mostly) via blood flow in their bodies, but unlike mammals, birds change their body temperature a fair amount, so the amount of heat they need to produce to fly is a little bit flexible. The thing is, temperate and sub-Arctic birds have to survive not only the cold of winter, but even the chill of a non-winter night. Since they don’t store a lot of energy in fat (that is hard to do for a flying animal) it is quite possible for a bird to run out of heat-producing energy overnight even when it isn’t winter. That would amount to, essentially, starving to death. So, some of the adaptations for surviving the cold apply year round, depending on conditions and the species.

There are several things birds do (or avoid doing) to help them survive the winter.

First, they can leave. Migration is a great strategy to avoid winter. I highly recommend it. Migration is costly, though. One has to spend a lot of time flying instead of feeding, and a bird is probably more susceptible to predation while flying through the territories of various predators and spending time in areas it is not familiar with. Most migratory birds that die during migration probably do it on their first migration, and thereafter have the advantage of knowing the territory a bit better. So, migration is one way to handle winter. Note, however, that there are birds that live in the Arctic or sub-Arctic that migrate south to regions where it is still winter. (Some of these are referred to as snowbirds because they show up during the snowy season).

See Also: Feeding Wild Birds

Birds wear down coats. All their feathers help them to keep warm, but especially the downy under feathers (called, of course, “down”) act like tiny little North Face down coats. Some birds probably grow extra down during the cold season.

When you are trying to stay warm, water is your enemy. Air makes a good insulator but water transmits heat, so wet feathers are bad. So, birds have oil producing glands that allow them to preen a coating of waterproof onto their feathers to avoid the down coats getting wet.

Birds have legs and parts of their faces that are exposed. But they can sit in a position that covers, or partly covers, their legs and feet with their down coat. They can also hunker down in a protected area, with less wind-chill causing wind, in the canopy of an evergreen or some other place. Gregarious over-wintering birds like Chickadees will roost together in little bird-lumps to give each other protection and warmth.

Birds shiver. That helps get added heat from circulation and muscle movement.

Bird feet are covered with scales and have very little cold-damagable tissue in them. They are mostly bone and sinew.

Some birds have a special adaptation in the circulatory system of their feet (and maybe elsewhere) whereby blood is circulated between colder outer areas and warmer inner areas more efficiently than might otherwise be the case, to avoid frostbite.

Check out: Books on birds and nature.

Birds can not only tuck their feet in under their down, but they may also switch which foot is holding them on a branch. Also, as you probably know, bird feet are generally grabbing at rest, so it takes very little energy to stay attached to a branch. The default is “hang on.” Sort of like the safety feature of an Otis elevator, where the default position for the machinery is “don’t drop” so when the power goes off the elevator gets stuck instead of plummeting to the bottom.

Birds may find a place in the sun and use a bit of solar energy. This, of course, depends on the wind. It also puts them out there for predators to find them, but it can work.

Birds may eat more, or selectively eat higher energy food during the winter. For small birds this may include storing up food during the warmer season. They are adapted to find, store, and remember where the food is so they can find it quickly. This makes winter foraging super efficient.

Some birds store some fat, but really, that is not a great strategy for birds that fly.

One of the most effective strategies for having enough energy from food to stay warm is to not do highly energetic things during the cold season. I already mentioned the increase in foraging efficiency for birds that store food. Another obvious strategy is to not do energetically costly things during this season such as defend territories, spend a lot of time singing (singing is very costly in terms of energy), don’t build or maintain nests, don’t produce eggs or have hungry chicks around. This may seem self evident but it is actually very important. Indeed, the reproductive success of a pair of birds in a given year may be significantly hampered by late cold weather or forage-covering snow storms in the spring.

Finally, birds use another strategy that also works against the cost of predation and other forms of death: Reproduce more. Most pairs of birds produce one or a few offspring that become adults a year for five or more years. If all of those adult or subadult birds survive and reproduce, we’d be covered in birds in a few decades. But lots of things kill birds, including predators, disease, starvation, and cold.

Here is a pretty good video that covers some of these things:

The photo of a Dark Eyed Junco is from HERE, where you will also find a bit more discussion on birds in winter.


I also write about birds here.