Archive for: September, 2005

Circus of the Spineless is Available!

Sep 30 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

The first issue of the brand-new blog carnival, Circus of the Spineless, is online!

There are over 50 contributions and blog essay nominations, observations and great pictures of invertebrate animals, including squid, butterflies, bee flies, dragonflies, snails, spiders, worms and even bacteria. Surely you’ll find something of interest in this collection. I contributed this story about bumblebees that perhaps you'll like.

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Birds in the News #29

Sep 30 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica.

Birds in Science:

Men who put on a little pot belly after marriage can give thanks that they are not barn swallows, Hirundo rustica (pictured above). A study published on Thursday shows females of that species keep shopping around even after mating. Male barn swallows have red breasts. A females likes them to be dark red. If she mates with one male and finds another with a darker breast, she'll dump her first mate. "For male swallows the mating game is never over," says Rebecca Safran, a Cornell University researcher who led this study. "It is dynamic and continual. This is something that most humans can relate to -- think of how much time and money we spend on our looks and status long after we have established stable relationships." The consequences in the avian world for this indiscreet behavior might sound familiar, too. Half of all male barn swallows care for at least one little one that was fathered by a competitor. Some males raise an entire nest of illegitimate young. In this research, some males were given a "make over" with a red marker to make their breasts darker. Those who'd gotten make overs fathered a "substantially larger percentage of offspring" the second time around, according to DNA analysis. The unaltered males fared the same as before or worse. This elegant research is published today in the top-tier peer-reviewed journal, Science.

Who would have guessed that when a chickadee opens its tiny beak, it has a lot to say? Biologists studying the alarm calls of black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapilla (pictured), found the bird’s songs signal not only the presence but also the size of nearby predators. “This level of complexity is certainly new, in terms of alarm responses especially,” says Chris Templeton of the University of Washington in Seattle. His study shows chickadees have one of the most sophisticated means of communication discovered in animals. “Most of the variations are really subtle and are too fine to pick up with our ears,” Templeton says. “But one of them we can hear is the dee.” The more dangerous the predator, he says, the more dee notes in their eponymous chick-a-dee-dee-dee call. The biologists also found that the more dees in an alarm cry, the larger the mob of other chickadees that formed to attack the intruder and the closer they approached in their attacks. “The more closely we look at animal calls, the more information we find,” Templeton says. “It’s surprising and really exciting to know that there is such sophisticated information being passed along in the calls you can hear almost every day.” GrrlScientist says: How can you not love birds after reading a story like this?

Scientists say they have found the smallest dinosaur eggs ever (pictured) — not counting bird eggs, which could be called dinosaur eggs since scientists believe birds are living dinosaurs. The four eggs, two of which contain remains of embryos, come from a dinosaur that may also turn out to be the smallest known, the researchers said. The eggs are about 18 millimeters (0.7 inch) long, roughly the width of a thumbnail. This makes them about as big as goldfinch eggs, said Eric Buffetaut of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, one of the discoverers. The eggs come from a theropod, he said, a type of dinosaur that included the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex and is also believed to be the group from which birds descend. Indeed, the newfound eggs seem to come from a sort of tiny dinosaur-bird who lived at the cusp of the transition between the two forms, Buffetaut said. The eggs were dated to the early Cretaceous, a period spanning from about 145 million to 100 million years ago. The non-avian dinosaurs died out much later, about 65 million years ago. They described the eggs in the September 13 issue of the peer-reviewed German scientific journal Naturwissenschaften (Natural Sciences).

People Helping Birds:

Fundacion ProAves and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) announced the purchase of land in the South American country, Colombia, to protect a migratory songbird, the Cerulean Warbler, Dendroica cerulea (pictured), that winters there but breeds in Canada. The purchased land includes 500 acres of subtropical forest in the Rio Chucuri Basin of Santander, within the Serrania de los Yariguies IBA (Important Bird Area) and will also protect Colombian endemics such as the globally threatened Gorgeted Wood-quail, Odontophorus strophium and Mountain Grackle, Macroagelaius subalaris. ProAves estimates that the population of Gorgeted Wood-Quails in Serrania de los Yariguies may be in excess of 250 birds, which would make the area the global stronghold for the species.

At the same time that our own domestic laws that protect wildlife from the ravages of humans are being weakened, the United States announces a global coalition against wildlife trafficking. Wildlife trafficking -- the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts -- is a soaring black market worth $10 billion a year. Unchecked demand for exotic pets, rare foods, trophies and traditional medicines is driving tigers, elephants, rhinos, unusual birds and many other species to the brink of extinction, and threatening global biodiversity. Added to this is the alarming rise in virulent zoonotic diseases, such as SARS and avian influenza, crossing species lines to infect humans and endanger public health. GrrlScientist note: While I applaud this move, I am still mystified by why our leaders think we can "police the world" in this matter when we ourselves need a little policing?

Five white storks flew into open skies from a park in Hyogo Province in western Japan on Saturday as part of an effort to return the endangered species to the wild. Prince Akishino and his wife, Kiko, cut a red-and-white ribbon to open a box and release the first of the five storks. Thousands of spectators cheered as the white birds with black-edged wings flew away. It was the first time that artificially bred Oriental white storks, Ciconia boyciana (pictured), had been released, a park official said. Japan's last wild stork died in protective captivity in 1971.

In an effort to combine forest conservation with long-term poverty reduction, BirdLife is covering Brazil's Atlantic forest with chocolate. The project aims to restore the traditional cabruca method, which uses the shade of native forest trees to protect the cacao crop. "As farmers convert to slash-and-burn agriculture, or environmentally destructive and economically unproven alternatives such as coffee and pasture, the remaining forest is being lost without any lasting benefits to the rural poor," Jaqueline Goerck of SaveBrasil (BirdLife in Brazil) explained. "With an upturn in the cacao market, the rejuvenation of cabruca lands using organic agroforestry offers an alternative source of sustainable income for the forest/farming communities."

Finally (!), a legal judgement will be handed down for the seven armed and dangerous idiots who shot and killed two endangered Whooping Cranes, Grus americana (pictured), in Kansas last year. When arrested and charged with crimes against nature, these seven armed and dangerous idiots whined to wildlife officials that they all mistook the endangered cranes for legally hunted sandhill cranes on a November 6 Stafford County goose and sandhill crane hunting trip. Sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts are justifiably upset by the shooting. Jim Kellenberger, a longtime hunter education instructor, said misidentification is not an excuse. "We teach kids you never, ever, pull the trigger if you can't make 100 percent positive identification," Kellenberger said. "This was a horrendous thing." Initially officials said penalties could reach $100,000 and up to one year in jail under the Endangered Species Act but they later wimped out by reducing the maximum penalties to no more than six months in jail and a mere $15,000 fine. Officials think there are fewer than 300 whooping cranes currently in the wild. GrrlScientist says; It would have been so "Darwinian" if they had shot each other instead, thereby removing seven armed and and dangerous idiots with severe vision problems from the world.

Birds and Hurricanes:

How did hurricane Rita affect migrating songbirds? For millennia, the Gulf of Mexico's autumn hurricanes have butted gale-force winds against the southbound journeys of migrating birds. Somehow, the birds sense storm paths and survive. ''This is not new to birds,'' Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said Friday as Hurricane Rita began lashing the central Gulf Coast. ''Birds can detect things like barometric pressure, changes in wind. ... With a storm like Rita, [that is] so big it's covering the whole ... Gulf, they're not going to take that first step.'' The Texas coast acts as a funnel for birds migrating from North American summer grounds to wintering havens in Central and South America. Scientists debate whether hurricanes are worsening due to global warming or due to a repeating cycle. Either way, the biggest problem if the trend continues may be destruction of the already dwindling habitat of birds living year-round on the Gulf, such as the long-legged herons and egrets that wade in salty marshes. ''I'm more worried about the resident birds,'' Simon said. ''They're not used to going anywhere.''

Avian Zoonotic News:

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said its appeal in May for $100 million to fight avian flu in animals for the next three years had received a lukewarm response so far. "The circulation of so much influenza virus in animals in many countries in close proximity to humans remains a major risk factor that could trigger a pandemic," the FAO said in a statement. Bird flu has killed 65 people in four Asian countries since late 2003 and has been found in birds in Russia and Europe. Experts fear that the most deadly strain, the H5N1 virus which has the power to kill one out of every two people in infects, could set off a pandemic if it gains the ability to be transmitted easily between humans. The FAO said there was a "small window of opportunity" to reduce levels of infection through vaccination before winter.

Singapore scientists have developed a quick Bird Flu test that can detect bird flu infections in poultry within four hours. This is a tool that could help health officials control the spread of the deadly virus because in the absence of a vaccine, early identification of the virus is especially important, and current tests used by laboratories take two to three days and sometimes up to a week to produce results. The faster you are able to detect the H5N1, the earlier you can impose some kind of isolation procedure and the faster poultry can be culled to prevent the spread of the virus," Ren Ee Chee, a professor at the Genome Institute of Singapore who led the research team, told Reuters. "We have tested on over a hundred avian samples in Vietnam and Malaysia. So far, the accuracy rate is 100 percent," Ren said, adding the kits were designed to identify the gene specific to the H5N1 strain, so they would be able to detect bird flu infections in both animals and humans. The team is currently testing the kits on human samples.

A species of mosquito common in the eastern U.S. and capable of carrying the West Nile virus has made its way to the Midwest for the first time, a finding made by a college undergraduate, Washington University officials said Monday. Stephanie Gallitano, a Washington University junior chemistry major from Chicago, was studying the egg-laying habits of mosquitoes native to Missouri this summer at the Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Mo. She took eggs to a lab and some developed into a type of insect she didn't recognize. "Under the microscope, they looked completely different than anything I'd ever seen before," Gallitano said. "It had different proportions for its body. I looked through all of the books and could find nothing like it." It turned out to be an invasive Asian mosquito known as Ochlerotatus japonicus, and marked the farthest west the species has been seen in the central United States, according to the Chevy Chase, Md.-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Gallitano's field work was part of an HHMI summer research project.

Streaming Birds:

I love BirdNote and I want you to enjoy it, too, dear readers. Featured this week are answers to your burning bird questions that keep you awake at night; the crows' night roost; migration: innate or learned?; a two-part series about how high birds fly (with a photo of a Ruppell's Griffon); and last but not least, how the migration of the Black Brant, Branta bernicla nigricans, has changed along the West Coast. Click here to access this week's schedule and photographs of the avian "stars". BirdNote shows are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds with stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. BirdNote can be heard Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM, throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia and is also available as RSS/Podcast feeds.

Miscellaneous Birds:

All you budding pirates probably wonder what is it like to live with an African Grey Parrot on a boat? This story gives you an idea o
f what life is like on the high seas with a companion parrot.

What do we learn by banding wild birds? This story discusses how wild ducks are trapped and banded, and what we learn about them as a result of giving each bird its own individually numbered and registered legband.

Thanks to bird pals, Ian, Ellen, Kathy, Scott, Ron and anonymous for some of the links that you are reading here. Thanks to Ian for corrections to this document. Please accept my apologies for being so late publishing this edition of Birds in the News.

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Let's Give Three Bronx Cheers for Bumblebees!

Sep 29 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

The bumblebees, Bombus species, are among the most popular of all insects. Their black-and-yellow fuzz, large round bodies, and bumbling, buzzing flight make them appear almost cuddly, almost like the “teddy bears” of insects. Many of us have childhood memories of watching these gentle giants move from one bright flower to another, carefully gathering pollen grains and sipping nectar along the way, gently rebuffing occasional pokes from inquisitive fingers.

Bumblebees occur throughout the Americas and Europe. They are primarily found in northern temperate, sub arctic and sub alpine regions, although a few species are endemic to South America as well. Similar to many other bees and wasps (the Hymenoptera), bumblebees are social insects although, unlike the domesticated honeybee, Apis mellifera, where a certain percentage of the entire hive successfully over winters, only new queen bumblebees survive the winter. Early each spring, the young queens forage and build their colonies after they awaken from hibernation. New colonies quickly attain sizes of at least 50 individuals and certain species’ nests may grow to as many as 300 to 500 individuals. In areas with long warm seasons, some colonies may surpass populations of 1000.

Despite my general attentiveness to bumblebees, I consider myself lucky when I discover one of their nests. Bumblebee nests are typically located in abandoned mouse holes, but I have found them in all types of objects, including attic insulation, compost piles, abandoned teapots and even in birdhouses. Early one spring several years ago, I discovered an active bumblebee nest after I bumped into a precariously dangling chickadee nest box. Within seconds, approximately one dozen small black bumblebees with yellow and orange stripes greeted me with a soft hum. Fortunately for me, most bumblebee species sting only rarely, even when provoked, unlike the more aggressive domesticated honeybees. The bees buzzed inquisitively around my face for a minute or so before wandering off to pursue their pollen- and nectar-gathering activities for the day.

Bumblebees are important pollinators for native food plants, such as potatoes, blueberries, cranberries, eggplants, kiwi fruits (Chinese gooseberries) and raspberries, and for important crop plants such as red clover, alfalfa, and cotton. Further, bumblebees are the only insect capable of pollinating the Solanaceae, a plant family that includes economically important crops such as tomatoes, peppers and tobacco. Approximately 8% of the world’s described 250,000 species of flowering plants, the angiosperms, rely exclusively on bumblebees for pollination.

Bumblebees have several special attributes that uniquely adapt them for pollinating “their” flowers. First, bumblebees have longer tongues than domesticated honeybees. Their tongues allow bumblebees to pollinate flowers with long, narrow corolla tubes – which are found in many endemic flower species such as foxglove and fuchsia. Additionally, the large size of bumblebees enables them to push their way into flowers that protect their nectar reservoirs with “trap doors” or other barriers, such as snapdragons. Further, bumblebees are cold tolerant so they visit flowers much earlier in the year than domesticated honeybees, which are native to Africa. In fact, bumblebees can be found flying when the cloud cover is more than 70% or when ambient temperatures are cooler than 15 degrees Celsius – either condition is sufficient to keep honeybees snuggled together in their hives. Amazingly, bumblebees have been reported to actively forage during the winter!

The most remarkable bumblebee characteristic is their special ability to release tightly held pollen from many important crop plants using sonic vibrations. This ability – unique to bumblebees – is commonly known as “buzz pollination” or “sonication.” Using sonication, a buzzing bumblebee extracts pollen from tomato blossoms hundreds of times faster than a honeybee can. Their energetic high-pitched buzzes are produced by rapid contractions of their flight muscles. These muscular contractions produce physical vibrations of approximately 400 Hz that are transmitted throughout the hollow pollen-containing anthers of the flower, releasing clouds of golden pollen. The bumblebee’s body fuzz captures this airborne pollen Some of this pollen is distributed to nearby flowers by the bee, thereby guaranteeing a new crop of tomatoes for humans to enjoy. But most of this pollen is gathered into so-called “pollen baskets” on the bubmblebee's hind legs and they deliver this collected pollen to the hive where the bees later consume it. Because bumblebees consume pollen in addition to nectar, they visit so-called “buzz blossoms” that are typically ignored by honeybees, who actively seek out flowers that provide a nectar reward for their pollinators.

The bumblebee’s intense buzzes also create a strange noise, somewhat reminiscent of the sound produced when one person gives another a “raspberry” or a “Bronx cheer” (which also suggested the peculiar title for this essay).

Considering their environmental and economic importance as pollinators, one might expect that many bumblebee species have been domesticated, as were their cousins, the honeybees. Unfortunately, this is not the case: with the exception of several tropical species, bumblebee hives do not over winter so their colonies are much smaller than honeybee hives. As a result, they do not amass large stores of honey necessary to support their large populations through the winter -- these honey stockpiles are seasonally raided by beekeepers with a sweet tooth. Despite the fact that bumblebee honey is delicious, the small amount that they produce each season ensures that bumblebees are not very attractive to commercial beekeepers. However, several species of bumblebees have been domesticated for use as pollinators, especially for “hothouse tomatoes”, including Bombus impatiens, which is the main species currently used in North America, and the large Earth Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, which is native to Europe.

Unfortunately, most bumblebee species are declining or are endangered in the wild due to indiscriminate use of broad-spectrum pesticides, habitat destruction and the inadvertent introduction of foreign pests and diseases. This has resulted in a similar reduction in native plant species that depend upon the unique pollination abilities of bumblebees.

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Thanks to my pal, Liz, for fact-checking this document.

Included in the Circus of the Spineless, Issue the First,
the Best of Invertebrate-related Blog Writing.

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Most Challenged Library Books Meme

Sep 28 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I take pride in the fact that I am well-read (or at least I thought I was), and I was ready to brag to you, dear readers, that the NYC public library system finally sent me email yesterday telling me that two books on my subversive reading list are on reserve for me (I've been waiting for more than three months!). The two reserved books are Beyond Good and Evil and Democracy and Education. Unfortunately, my moment of excitement was brief, especially since I just read the American Library Association's Most Challenged Books list and found that my literary breadth is sorely lacking. I copied their list below, and I've denoted the books that I've already read with black font while those I've heard of but haven't read -- yet -- are denoted with an * (asterisk). [this from Majikthise via Pharyngula].

001. Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz

002. Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite

003. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

004. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier *

005. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

006. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

007. Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling

008. Forever by Judy Blume

009. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson *

010. Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

011. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman *

012. My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

013. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

014. The Giver by Lois Lowry

015. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris *

016. Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine *

017. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck *

018. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

019. Sex by Madonna *

020. Earth’s Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel

021. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

022. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

023. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous *

024. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

025. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

026. The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard

027. The Witches by Roald Dahl

028. The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein

029. Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry

030. The Goats by Brock Cole

031. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

032. Blubber by Judy Blume

033. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan

034. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam

035. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier *

036. Final Exit by Derek Humphry

037. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

038. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

039. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

040. What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras

041. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

042. Beloved by Toni Morrison

043. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

044. The Pigman by Paul Zindel

045. Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard

046. Deenie by Judy Blume

047. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

048. Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden

049. The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar

050. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz

051. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein *

052. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

053. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)

054. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole

055. Cujo by Stephen King

056. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

057. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell *

058. Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy

059. Ordinary People by Judith Guest *

060. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis *

061. What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras *

062. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

063. Cra
zy Lady
by Jane Conly

064. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher

065. Fade by Robert Cormier

066. Guess What? by Mem Fox

067. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende *

068. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney

069. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

070. Lord of the Flies by William Golding *

071. Native Son by Richard Wright

072. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies by Nancy Friday

073. Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen

074. Jack by A.M. Homes

075. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya

076. Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle *

077. Carrie by Stephen King *

078. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume

079. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer

080. Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge

081. Family Secrets by Norma Klein

082. Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole

083. The Dead Zone by Stephen King

084. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

085. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

086. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez

087. Private Parts by Howard Stern

088. Where’s Waldo? by Martin Hanford

089. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

090. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

091. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

092. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher

093. Sex Education by Jenny Davis

094. The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene

095. Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy

096. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell

097. View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts

098. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

099. The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney

100. Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

I am ashamed to admit that my score was a mere 27 books read and 44 titles that I've ever heard of from this list. What are your scores?

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I and the Bird Blog Carnival is Available!

Sep 28 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Click on the name, I and the Bird, if you would like to read a blog carnival that celebrates wild birds. You might also be interested to know that I have an essay, Hummingbirds and Torpor, included in that blog carnival. (I know it's a boring title, but it's a really interesting topic!). The link to my essay is broken on the carnival, so I include it here in the hopes that one or two people might notice and read it (sigh). (Several very clever people have managed to find it despite this little challenge, and this pleases me to no end. Thanks!)

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Tangled Bank Appeal for Submissions

Sep 28 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

There are only seven days remaining before the next issue of Tangled Bank will be posted -- MY issue of Tangled Bank! I have only five submissions so far (thanks, everyone) and even though these essays are all wonderfully clever (you'll love them, in fact), I want more! More, more, more!

If this issue of Tangled Bank crashes and burns, everyone will remember that it happened when I was hosting it. Since this is the second time I have hosted Tangled Bank (click here to see my first hosting attempt), there will be no mercy shown to me if I fail in this mission! So please, dear readers, save me from eternal embarassment by writing an essay, poem, interactive quiz or some other really cool and science-y piece and then submit the URL to me so I can share your wit and wisdom with the entire known world! Additionally, if you notice an especially fine piece of science/nature/medical writing in your blog wanderings, please send me the URL so I can include it, too. Don't be shy! You know you can do it, so let the rest of us know what you are capable of, too!

Please send your essay links to PZ Myers or to the Tangled Bank host by 4 October 2005 for inclusion in the 5 October issue of your favorite blog carnival, Tangled Bank! Be sure to write "Tangled Bank" in your email subject line to guarantee top-priority treatment!

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Hummingbirds and Torpor

Sep 27 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

A flash of scarlet and emerald zooms past me as I poke my sleepy head out of the kitchen door, a vibrant splash of summer color against the sullen winter sky. Suddenly, an indignant Anna's Hummingbird, Calypte anna, confronts me, beak-to-nose, demanding his breakfast. Shivering, I retreat quickly into the kitchen to prepare warm sugar water for my feathery guest.

Hummingbirds are classified into the avian family, Trochilidae, which is from the Greek word, trochilos, or "small bird." In fact, the smallest avian species alive today is the thumb-sized Bee Hummingbird, Mellisuga helenae, found exclusively on the island of Cuba. With a total length of 2.25 inches (5 centimeters) and a weight of 0.07 ounces (2 grams), this tiny bird can comfortably perch on the eraser at the end of a pencil.

There are more than 330 described species of hummingbirds, and occasionally a new species is discovered by ornithologists and added to the list. Even though most people think of them exclusively as tropical birds, hummingbirds are found in diverse habitats, ranging from the wettest to the driest, from sea level to over 14,000 feet (4400 meters).

The greatest diversity of hummingbird species is the neotropics (New World tropics) but many species live in or migrate to temperate zones in the United States and Canada to breed. Sometimes, for reasons that are not entirely clear, individual birds remain behind for the winter, and sometimes, they survive. Thus, as average seasonal temperatures increase, hummingbirds are increasingly becoming established as year-round residents outside of their traditional ranges. Anna's Hummingbird is one species whose range has expanded steadily northward as seasonal temperatures have become milder. Thus, this bird is now a common year-round resident along the northwestern coast of the United States and even into some parts of Canada.

As most people know, hummingbirds feed on flower nectar, which is a tempting "gift" of high-energy sugars provided by flowers in exchange for pollination. In addition to nectar, hummingbirds also consume large quantities of small insects, which are full of higher-energy fats as well as essential proteins. Because of their tremendous metabolic requirements, hummingbirds have voracious appetites. Equivalent to the average human consuming an entire refrigerator full of food, hummingbirds eat roughly twice to thrice their own body weight in flower nectar and tiny insects each day.

Besides being among the smallest of all warm-blooded animals, hummingbirds also lack the insulating downy feathers that are typical for many other bird species. Due to their combined characteristics of small body size and lack of insulation, hummingbirds rapidly lose body heat to their surroundings. Even sleeping hummingbirds have huge metabolic demands that must be met simply to survive the night when they cannot forage. To meet this energetic challenge, hummingbirds save enough energy to survive cold nights by lowering their internal thermostat at night, becoming hypothermic. This reduced physiological state is an evolutionary adaptation that is referred to as torpor.

Torpor is a type of deep sleep where an animal lowers its metabolic rate by as much as 95%. By doing so, a torpid hummingbird consumes up to 50 times less energy when torpid than when awake. This lowered metabolic rate also causes a cooled body temperature. A hummingbird's night time body temperature is maintained at a hypothermic threshold that is barely sufficient to maintain life. This threshold is known as their set point and it is far below the normal daytime body temperature of 104°F or 40°C recorded for other similarly-sized birds.

Research shows that this set point is actively maintained by the bird's internal thermostat. "If you try to cool an animal down below this new set point, it will generate enough body heat to maintain that set point," says Sara Hiebert, hummingbird expert and associate professor of biology at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

There are several types of torpor, classified mostly by duration and season. For example, when torpor takes place for long periods of time during the winter, it is known as hibernation. However, unlike hibernation, hummingbird torpor can occur on any night of the year so it is referred to as daily torpor or noctivation. Because tropical hummingbird species also have rigid metabolic budgets, even they rely on daily torpor to conserve energy.

Torpid hummingbirds exhibit a slumber that is as deep as death. In 1832, Alexander Wilson first described hummingbird torpor in his book, American Ornithology; "No motion of the lungs could be perceived ... the eyes were shut, and, when touched by the finger, [the bird] gave no signs of life or motion."

Awakening from torpor takes a hummingbird approximately 20 minutes. During arousal, heart and breathing rates increase and hummingbirds vibrate their wing muscles. Heat generated by vibrating muscles, or shivering, warms the blood supply. Shivering is sufficient to warm the hummingbird's body by several degrees each minute and the bird awakens with enough energy reserves to see him through to his first feeding bouts of the morning. Interestingly, hummingbirds reliably awaken from torpor one or two hours before dawn without any discernible cues from the environment. Thus, it appears that the bird's internal circadian clock triggers arousal.

What are hummingbirds doing during those pre-dawn hours when they are warm but not yet active? "One suggestion is that they might be using this time to sleep," explains Hiebert. "Although there is some evidence that torpor is an extension of slow-wave sleep, there is also evidence that the body is too cold during torpor for the normal functions of sleep to occur."

Torpor is not limited to hummingbirds; it has also been observed in swallows, swifts and poorwills. Additionally, scientists think that most small birds living in cold regions, such as chickadees, rely on torpor to survive long cold nights. Interestingly, even though rodents, bats and other small mammals typically show some form of regulated hypothermia during cold weather, these animals can only rely upon daily torpor during the winter months when they are not breeding. In contrast, noctivation is possible on any night of the year for hummingbirds. Because daily energy balance is progressively more difficult to maintain as body size decreases, hummingbird torpor is a finely tuned evolutionary strategy that preserves these birds' daily metabolic budgets.

"Hummingbirds are the 'champions' of this kind of energy regulation because they have to be," concludes Hiebert.

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Many thanks to Sara Hiebert for allowing me to interview her for this story.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing" by The Tangled Bank,
Issue #38.

Included in the Blog Carnival, I and the Bird, Issue #7,
the Best of Bird-related Blog Writing.

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Blog Carnival: BestofMeSymphony

Sep 26 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

This week is the 96th issue of the Best of Me Symphony blog carnival. The Best of Me Symphony is a blog carnival that links to the best essays in your blog archives. Basically, anything linked from this blog carnival must be at least 2 months old and (of course) the submitter must think it is a very good essay. This week's issue of this blog carnival is er, guest-conducted by Salvador Dali. My contribution is listed somewhere in the middle of the pack. My favorite story in this collection is the very funny Egg Salad.

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Thoughts about the Job Search

Sep 24 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Readers who know that I am seeking a job often email me to ask; "Would you leave NYC if you were offered a job elsewhere?"

The answer, of course, is yes. The fact is that I am no stranger to long-distance relocations. Almost exactly three years ago, I made my biggest relocation so far when I moved from Seattle to NYC to pursue my postdoctoral research. This adventure took me 3,000 miles away from the West Coast of the United States to a part of the country where I'd never been before. Unfortunately, it also required me to sell my entire breeding flock of lories (many of whom I had raised myself from chicks) because I could not find a place to keep them all, despite seven months of persistent long-distance searching. Interestingly, even though I'd never mentioned it, all of my dissertation committee members were well aware of my love for my birds and, knowing that I was leaving for NYC ten days after my defense, they were quite concerned about what I was going to do with them and how I might cope with this loss.

To be honest, when they asked, I pretended that it didn't affect me emotionally because I was eager to prove to everyone (including myself) that I was willing to do whatever was necessary to pursue my career. It's not like my birds are real people, I reminded myself in those days, thinking that was what everyone else wanted to tell me if they could only do so without offending me. Besides, properly keeping my flock represented a lot of work and it would be nice to be free of the responsibility and commitment. Or so I thought.

But because I am a scientist, I underestimated my capacity to love birds: in fact, birds are my number one occupational hazard. Somehow, they manage to transform themselves into family and friends, so the loss of my flock of birds was the most enduringly painful sacrifice I ever made for my career, a sacrifice that I was not sure I could make and one that I wish to never make again. Even today, I miss them all terribly and every day, I wonder if I made a mistake by giving them all up.

Fortunately, I did manage to keep a few pet parrots, most of whom are a rare lory species that I raised myself. Living with these (comparatively few) birds generally helps me cope with this bigger loss, although .. although .. .

Despite the fact that I wish to keep my few birds with me, I do apply for faculty positions overseas. In fact, driven by my deep sense of disillusionment and disenfranchisement that developed during my past year of un(der)employment, I am more inclined to relocate overseas than I am to move to many places in the United States -- provided of course, that I can bring my birds with me.

That said, I once was willing to live anywhere simply for the pleasure of studying my birds. However, I am tired of relocating and because my next move might be my last, I find that I am no longer willing to relocate to "just anywhere". I know from experience that I would be emotionally and socially lost if I could not live with birds. I would be miserable without access to a nearby natural area where I could go bird (and bug) watching. I would be depressed if I was unable to participate as an essential and respected member in my new community. I would end up isolated if I could not find a local watering hole where I could hang out with my neighbors and talk about politics, science, nature, college football and life in general. And of course, I'd need to live near a college or university campus because I want to be close to the academic life since that is the only life I ever excelled at, the only life that I feel comfortable living. Because I don't own a car and don't wish to, I want to live in a community with good public transit, and where I can commute on my bicycle without fearing for life and limb. The community to where I relocate would also have to respect my agnosticism, my socially liberal politics combined with fiscal conservativism, my obvious environmentalism. The combination of all of these qualities seem impossible expectations to meet, don't you think dear readers? Am I too picky? Is there a place for me out there somewhere, or should I plan to only consider living in expensive (but socially familiar) metropoli such as New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Tokyo or London for the remainder of my life?

These musings make me wonder about the bigger picture: how much sacrifice should one make for his or her career? Which sacrifices are simply "too much"? How does one know when a sacrifice is too much to make? Have any of you, dear readers, figured out a formula or method that helps you make these difficult choices? How did you figure this formula out? Could you share your secrets with me?

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Birds in the News #28

Sep 23 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Found: rare albino turkey vulture, Cathartes aura.
This individual was photographed in the Florida keys. (story below)

Enemies of All Birds Award, 2005:

    Although there are many contenders worldwide for this award, this is the first of two stories that will share my 2005 "Enemy of All Birds" award for the most loathsome display of cruelty, ruthlessness and detestable disdain for the life of birds. It is my sincerest desire that all of the winners of this award receive a mandatory bout of influenza, complete with explosive diarrhea, in the hopes that this would cure these trappers, smugglers and so-called "gourmands."

Even though almost nine out of ten (88 per cent) of Cypriots say they disapprove of illegal trapping of migrating songbirds to be served as expensive delicacies in local restaurants, half those polled had tried “ambelopoulia”, as the dish is called, and 14 percent said it was their favourite bird dish. In 2000, BirdLife Cyprus estimated more than 12.6 migratory million birds were trapped each year. The blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, and the European robin, Erithacus rubecula (pictured), are the most common targets, but research shows over 100 species are regularly killed, including 42 which have unfavourable conservation status in Europe. Two are Cypriot endemics, the Cyprus Warbler, Sylvia melanothorax, and the Cyprus wheatear, Oenanthe cypriaca. Even worse, the indiscriminate use of mist-nets and lime twigs results in so-called “by-catch” of unsaleable birds, such as Long-eared Owls, Asio otus, and globally threatened lesser kestrels, Falco naumanni. Trapping songbirds has been illegal in Cyprus for more than 30 years, but fines are low compared to money that is made by supplying restaurants, where birds can sell for two pounds (US $3.58) or more each. Once a way of supplementing a family’s subsistence diet by setting out a few limed twigs, trapping now uses mist nets, recordings of songs and calls, and groves of trees deliberately planted to attract migrating birds looking for water and shelter. A campaigner with the RSPB, investigating one such grove in 2004, found poles for mist nets permanently embedded in concrete bases.

Speaking of eating everything in sight, this story tells of a recent crackdown on the Indo-Nepal border that has exposed a parrot smuggling racket, with the Bahraich police seizing about 2,000 birds that were trapped from the Kartaniya Ghat Sanctuary. The parrots, belonging to the Rodrigue(z?) parakeet family, were reportedly being taken to Nepal, where they are said to be a favoured delicacy especially among foreign tourists. Some of the birds are even sent to China from there. ‘‘[Y]es, parrot meat is liked by the Chinese and many other countries,’’ said State Chief Wildlife Warden Mohammad Ehsan. Parrot smuggling is said to be a lucrative business, with the local Indian catcher getting Rs 100-300 per bird. In Nepal, the cost goes up to an unbelievable US $500 for 10 parrots.

MORE People Hurting Birds:

Competing with the twin evils listed above for the 2005 "Enemy of All Birds" award is the island of Malta, which is doing its part to decimate the last remnants of wild European migratory birds, too. BirdLife Malta says that they hear regular reports of illegal hunting of marsh harriers, Circus aerunginosus, falcons, grey and night-herons, little egrets, Egretta garzetta, hoopoes, Upupa epops, bee-eaters and other species as bird migration goes into full swing. In a letter sent to Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg, BirdLife Malta complained of the poor state of law enforcement of the bird protection laws. In the letter, BirdLife Malta points to continuous illegal hunting reports during both the closed and the open hunting season. "With this level of law enforcement a massacre is inevitable if a major influx of birds of prey occurs."

Not only is the widespread destruction of mangrove forests causing trouble for people (remember the Indonesian tsunami that occurred the day after Christmas, 2004? Its effects were greatly magnified because of mangrove destruction so people can farm shrimps to feed rich Westerners), but this loss of mangrove habitat is also causing the extinction of birds and animals. In this case, the milky storks, Mycteria cinerea (pictured), are facing extinction, according to the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS). There are only 10 wild storks in all of Malaysia, all of which are located at the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve in Perak. "It would be no surprise if the milky stork is extinct in Malaysia in the next five years," said MNS scientific officer of Ornithology, Yeap Chin Aik, at a birdwatching seminar at Kolej Ugama Sultan Zainal Abidin. Human disturbance of nesting colonies, mangrove habitat destruction and poaching decimated these storks.

People Helping Birds:

Whew, after those previous two sections, I am taking a breather by telling you about some people's capacity for humanity and decency. An ambitious project to persuade the highly endangered Bermuda Petrel, Pterodroma cahow, to move to safer alternative sites is showing early signs of success. More remarkable than even the ivory-billed woodpecker because they were believed to be extinct for almost 300 years, numbers of Bermuda Petrels, known locally as "Cahows", have been slowly recovering since the species was rediscovered in 1951, when just 18 pairs were known. In 2003, these birds managed to survive the wrath of Hurricane Fabian because they were out at sea when it struck, but the birds later returned to their breeding burrows to discover they had been destroyed by the storm. In 2004, Bermuda’s Department of Conservation, with the help of the New South Wales Department of Parks and Wildlife, began a translocation program, moving 14 chicks to a complex of artificial burrows on nearby Nonsuch Island. This island is larger and higher, and offers much greater potential for growth for the Cahow population. Officials also managed to exclude rats and other predators and to restore the endemic forest cover on this island so it now closely resembles the original nesting habitat as described by early settlers. "We have also been successful in attracting Cahows to nest in an entirely new complex of nest burrows built on the most elevated section of the largest present nesting islet," said Jeremy Madeiros of Bermuda’s Department of Conservation Services. "We were rewarded with three pairs occupying and building nests in the new burrows. One pair were identified from their band numbers as birds which had been physically moved to the new burrows, so the combination of techniques seem to have worked."

Who says that New Yorkers don't care about nature and birds? T
he city that never sleeps will darken the lights of the famed Manhattan skyline after midnight to help save migrating birds. This past Tuesday, New York civic leaders said the lights of buildings above the 40th floor will be turned off after midnight in the fall and spring migration seasons to save bird lives. "New York City is this nexus of ancient migratory flyways, and the parks have become these havens for these birds, but ... the buildings with their light draw birds to them, sort of like moths to a flame," NYC Audubon Director E.J. McAdams said at a news conference. Since 1997, more than 4,000 migratory birds have been killed or injured from colliding into skyscrapers, bird experts say.

The tawny owl, Strix aluco (pictured), is the most common of the five owl species in Britain and is the one most likely to be heard in woodland or suburban areas. However, fears are growing for the plight of this bird whose eerie call was once a familiar sound across East Anglia. The Norfolk-based British Trust for Ornithology estimates that tawny owl numbers have dropped nationally by more than 30% in the past 10 years. It is asking for volunteers to donate 20 minutes per week to help estimate numbers of birds and where they live and has set up a special "owlaphone" with recordings of calls to help people recognise a tawny owl cry. You can also listen to a streaming news story about this project (story contains a clickable link to a ram file, 0.2 Kb).

Two members of the National Trust Parrot Monitoring Programme in the Cayman Islands, Jenny Nickolov and Marnie Laing, had the bright idea of helping the national bird population, especially the endangered Grand Cayman parrot, Amazona leucocephala caymanensis, recover after Hurricane Ivan, by selling T-shirts featuring the island's endangered birds. Money from the T-shirts will be used to provide bird houses and bird feeders. The houses and feeders will be placed around Grand Cayman, and are intended to help the parrots, who have lost so much of their natural habitat and feeding territory. In addition to the parrots, it is hoped that the program will provide help for other indigenous birds such as thick-billed vireos, Vireo crassirostris, Cuban bullfinches, Melopyrrha nigra, Caribbean doves, Leptotila jamaicensis, and West Indian woodpeckers, Melanerpes superciliaris.

Birds Flu News:

After two children were hospitalized with suspected "bird flu", Indonesia went on high alert over the Avian Influenza threat. Adding to fears among the general population in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city, authorities closed the city's main zoo after tests showed some exotic birds had been infected with avian flu. "It's a high alert. Every region is on alert so if at any time it occurs in remote areas, we are ready," Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari told reporters, adding the government had not declared a state of emergency. The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the Avian Influenza virus has killed four Indonesians, including one woman who died in Jakarta a week ago. The virus has killed 64 people in four Asian countries since late 2003 and has also spread to Russia and Europe. Officials noted that the cash-strapped government had little money to carry out a mass culling of infected poultry or birds.

High-Tech Birds:

Have you heard BirdNote yet? No?? Well, what are you waiting for? Featured this week on the popular radio show, BirdNote; a discussion of collective nouns, A Murder, a Party, a Stare, or a Siege; diving and dabbling ducks; stories about HawkWatch in Washington State and in Veracruz, Mexico; and on Friday, something completely different, "Twitiavis Superciliosis," written by KPLU radio blues guru, John Kessler. Click here to access this week's schedule and photographs. BirdNote shows are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds with stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. BirdNote can be heard Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM, throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia and is also available as RSS/Podcast feeds.

Bird-watching hadn't changed much in the last century, until recently. A flock of new technologies is swooping into hobbyists' quiet preserve. This story discusses many of the recent innovations that are available to birders.

Miscellaneous Birds:

Is it possible to be both male and female at the same time? Well, yes it is, although this is often easier to diagnose in birds that show sexually-dichromatic plumage than it is in monomorphic birds and animals. Animals where part of the body is genetically male and part of the body is genetically female are known as "gynandromorphs". In this linked essay, you will see amazing photographs of a nearly perfect bilateral gynandromorph Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Pheucticus ludovicianus, that was recently banded by Powdermill Bird Banding Lab (scroll down on linked page).

Speaking of banding wild birds (or "ringing" as it is referred to in Europe), banding teaches us many things about birds and how they live, as discussed in this article.

Would you like to take an online Birds of Prey Quiz? GrrlScientist note: I guess it goes without saying that I got 100%.

Recently, an albino turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, was spotted by birders in Heron Lake State Park in New Mexico. [The bird pictured at top may or may not be the same individual. It is unclear if the bird in the photo is the NM bird because turkey vultures move around a lot]. GrrlScientist note: I hope someone gets a picture of the bird before it moves on (or before some bonehead shoots it).

Not really a bird, but this is the nearest thing to feathers that evolved among mammals! Firefly Forest Blog, located in Arizona state, shares some fascinating pictures of noctural mammals feeding at a hummingbird feeder.

Thanks to bird pals, Ellen, Dawn, Jim, and Ron for some of the links that you are reading here.

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