Saturday, June 20, 2015

This week in birds - #162

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:


Bad hair day?

Heron and bittern chicks are not the most lovely of creatures, but they are ugly-cute. In their early weeks, they appear gangly and awkward, at first covered by fuzzy down and then transitioning to feathers. This young American Bittern is part-way through his transition and still sporting the fuzzy down on his head.
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This has been National Pollinator Week and I have been very negligent in not mentioning and celebrating it here on the blog. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has some useful suggestions about how you can help pollinators. The Xerces Society, an organization specifically dedicated to the protection of invertebrates, has even more information. Perhaps the most important thing you can do to help pollinators is to pledge never to use neonicotinoid pesticides in your garden - or indeed pesticides of any kind.  

To partially make up for my negligence, here is a picture of one of my favorite pollinators, a native bee called the large carpenter bee.


Large carpenter bees are pretty common in my yard and they are most welcome.
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Not specifically news of birds or the environment but a very interesting science story from the world of anthropology this week.

Have you every heard of Kennewick Man? This is a skeleton that was discovered near Kennewick, Washington in 1996. It caused quite a stir at the time. At first, it was thought to be a murder victim, but it soon became apparent that these bones were very, very old. In fact tests showed them to be 8,500 years old. But oddly, there was some question about their origin because the shape of the skull did not appear to be consistent with what was known of the later Native Americans of the area. Some scientists postulated that the skeleton might be European. Meanwhile, Native Americans claimed the skeleton as an ancestor and sought to bury it in accordance with their customs. The tug of war over the skeleton played itself out through the courts and it was left to DNA to determine the truth about its origins. Well, finally this week, we got a definitive answer from geneticists at the University of Copenhagen who stated unequivocally that the bones were most closely related to contemporary Native Americans. The lead author of the study stated that, in fact, the evidence was "bone solid!"

Will that put an end to the controversy? Probably not.

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The oldest known Bald Eagle in the nation is dead. The dead bird, who was banded and so his age was known, was found this week on a road in Rochester, New York. It was found near the remains of a dead rabbit. Apparently the bird was hit by a car, possibly while feeding on the rabbit. Such car crashes are a major cause of known eagle deaths. 

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A plant known as the beach rose was introduced to the continent from East Asia in the 1800s and has become naturalized in many areas. It thrives among sand and gravel and sea spray. It is a tough survivor that grows along New York City's shorelines.

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Many sparrows are difficult to identify, but this is certainly compounded where they occur together and sometimes hybridize. A study finds that Saltmarsh Sparrows and Nelson's Sparrows that occur together along the coastal marshes of New England may actually be impossible to distinguish in the field. 

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"Bug Eric" explains why there are no "bad bugs." Except maybe mosquitoes. Or ticks. Or fleas. Or...

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Male birds that do not hold and defend breeding territories can actually promote diversity in that they occasionally mate, as vagrants, with the female birds within territories. 

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The beautiful Bella Moth is helping to control an invasive plant in Florida, the Crotalaria retusa or rattleweed. 

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Just in time for Father's Day comes news that male Nightingales are able to tell females what kind of father they would be by the song they sing. Those with a more orderly song that repeats song sequences in a regular pattern make better fathers. They feed their chicks more often. Why is that? Well, I guess that's the subject for the next study.

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"Laura's Birding Blog" reports on her long-term work (since 1987) in doing a Mourning Dove survey.

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A new simplified method that can be coordinated across eight agencies offers potential for providing more accurate population estimates of vulnerable shorebirds, including the American Oystercatcher.

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We've heard and read many sad stories in recent years about the effects of the deadly chytrid fungus on frogs and toads. It has wiped out some species and decimated others. But there may yet be hope. It seems that the way to help our amphibian friends is to save and strengthen the habitats in which they exist. If they have a healthy habitat, they seem more able to survive the fungus. 

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The Northern Bobwhite population has been in serious decline for years, but it is now getting a boost in some areas from the species responsible for its decline. Humans are reintroducing the birds to some appropriate and prepared habitats and it seems to be going well. Perhaps there is hope for a brighter future for this wonderful little bird, so well-remembered from my childhood.

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