As regular CFZ-watchers will know, for some time Corinna has been doing a column for Animals & Men and a regular segment on On The Track... particularly about out-of-place birds and rare vagrants. There seem to be more and more bird stories from all over the world hitting the news these days so, to make room for them all - and to give them all equal and worthy coverage - she has set up this new blog to cover all things feathery and Fortean.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Los Angeles Zoo uses new tactic to boost California condor population

CBS NEWS November 23, 2019, 11:08 AM

The California condor breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo helped saved the species after it was on the brink of extinction in the early 1980s. Now, the zoo has discovered a new technique to keep the population of the largest bird in North America growing.

In 1982, there were only 22 condors, which have a wingspan of 9.5 feet, in the wild, according to Steve Kirkland, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By 1984, the breeding population was down to nine, he said.

Scientists captured all the surviving condors and the breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo was formed, CBS Los Angeles reporter Joy Benedict reports. This year, the 1,000th condor reared his head inside a rocky hillside at Zion National Park.

"This is a California native bird. This belongs right in our backyard," said Mike Clark, the condor keeper at the zoo.

In the wild, condors might raise one chick every two years, but at the zoo, when a condor lays an egg, keepers take it, prompting the bird to lay another. Then, Clark tried something never done before. He wanted to know if a parent would foster more than one chick, so he approached a bird who knew him well.

"Here is a sexually mature bird that has been breeding for years and years and years, raised tons of chicks with another bird. She sorta kinda got attached to me because I was the only one she was interacting with," Clark said.

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Rare birds spotted on the Isle of Wight

16th November

Exclusive by Dominic Kureen Reporter
THE Isle of Wight has had the pleasure of some rare visitors this week.
A bevy of black swans were spotted at Newport Harbour and along the River Medina.
Black swans are large, nomadic water birds that breed mainly in Australia.
Notable for their mostly black plumage and red bills, the large birds are not often spotted on the Island.

Mystery surrounds why hundreds of dead birds have washed up on Sydney's beaches - as experts say something is going 'drastically wrong' and declare a crisis

Corpses of short-tailed shearwaters have been spotted at several shorelines 
The birds are migrating back to southern Australia to breed but dying on way 
Krill and other fish they feed on have dwindled due to sea temperatures rising
PUBLISHED: 04:09, 18 November 2019 | UPDATED: 12:08, 18 November 2019
Hundreds of dead birds are washing up on Sydney's iconic beaches.
The corpses of short-tailed shearwaters have been spotted at several shorelines including Bondi, Manly and Cronulla.
The birds are migrating back to southern Australia to breed after spending the summer in Alaska.
Hundreds of dead birds are washing up on Sydney's iconic beaches. Pictured: The corpses of short-tailed shearwaters on an Australian beach in October
But, according to experts, a higher number than usual are dying on the way due to a lack of food.
The birds need to be at full strength to make the 14,000km trip over the Pacific but the krill and other fish they feed on have apparently dwindled due to sea temperatures rising. 
Each year around 30,000 birds land at Griffiths Island at Port Fairy in Victoria but this time only half that number have made it, according to Peter Barrand, the president of BirdLife Warrnambool. 
Explaining why, he told Yahoo News: 'Water temperatures are rising, the fish shearwaters feed on are not coming into the shallows.
'There's certainly something that's going drastically wrong'.
The Short-tailed Shearwater is Australia's most numerous seabird. 
During breeding season, millions converge on many small islands from NSW to Western Australia, with their stronghold in Bass Strait. 
After their chicks are large enough to fend for themselves, the adults leave the breeding islands and migrate north-east, flying on a broad front through the central Pacific Ocean, where immense numbers were seen by Captain Cook. 
They spend the southern winter at sea in the northern Pacific, off Japan, Siberia and Alaska.
Source: BirdLife Australia 
BirdLife Australia has rendered the problem a 'crisis'.
In a statement on its website, the group says: 'For the fifth consecutive year, the sea surface temperatures off Alaska have been unusually warm, which has led to a dire shortage of the shearwaters' marine prey, resulting in thousands of dead shearwaters being washed ashore along Alaska's beaches. 

Friday, 6 December 2019

Bird evolution unique in seeing shrinking testes

DECEMBER 3, 2019 

Birds are the only group of vertebrate animals to have repeatedly evolved smaller testes over time according to a new study. 

A paper published in Ecology Letters by University of Reading researchers and colleagues has found that natural selection has led to smaller testes sizes among socially monogamous birds. The team suggest that the developments of mating behavior in birds may have led to an evolutionary loop that has led to smaller testes. 

Dr. Joanna Baker, a research fellow at the University of Reading, said, "Rapidly shrinking testes may have happened as a result of the fantastic diversity of behaviors and traits we observe in birds today: from beautiful plumage colorations in birds of paradise, elaborate dancing displays in songbirds, through to dedicated parental care through extreme weather conditions in penguins. 

"Bigger testes produce more sperm and so give animals a competitive advantage over their relatives with smaller testes, but are also very expensive to grow and maintain. Around 90% of birds are socially monogamous—where producing more sperm doesn't really matter—and so there has been lots of opportunity to reduce testes size in favor of other adaptations." 

No other vertebrate group, including mammals, frogs, fish, and reptiles showed any similar pattern to birds. Although lots of frogs are socially monogamous, unlike birds, they tend to be external fertilizers, so producing lots of sperm is probably still likely to produce extreme competitive advantages. 

In all vertebrates, testes size is astonishingly diverse, with enormous explosions of testes size change—both reductions and enlargements—during the last 400 million years of vertebrate evolutionary history. 

Village pub reopens dovecote after outrage at health-and-safety decision to seal off the 80-year-old structure with birds stuck inside

Dovecote has been by the Captain's Wife pub in the village of Sully for 80 years 
The pub claims it had taken the action on Health and Safety grounds over doves
After outrage from locals, decision to close the dovecote was reversed by pub 
PUBLISHED: 15:00, 27 November 2019 | UPDATED: 15:04, 27 November 2019
A village pub caused outrage by sealing up an historic dovecote, leaving birds and their babies trapped inside.
Pest controllers were called in to cement up entrance holes to the dovecote which has been near the Captain's Wife pub in the village of Sully, near Penarth, South Wales for 80 years.
Soon after, bird lovers arrived to free the white doves and their young, which could be heard flapping around inside, and police attended the scene.
The pub claims it had taken the action on Health and Safety grounds because the doves annoy customers eating outside in the summer.
The historic dovecote provided shelter for doves and pigeons on the south Wales coast in Sully, near Penarth
But local wildlife groups say it's 'barbaric' and are asking locals to boycott the pub. 
After the outrage, the pub announced a u-turn on its decision. 
Dozens of birds had escaped before the dovecote was initially sealed off and are roosting in a nearby tree.
Campaigners say they will perish in harsh winter weather and add that a rescue operation is under way.

Dubbo's Taronga Western Plains Zoo to start regent honeyeaters breeding program

DECEMBER 1 2019 - 4:30PM

Dubbo's Taronga Western Plains Zoo will play a key role in efforts to save one of Australia's most endangered birds.
Regent honeyeaters have moved into purpose-built habitat this week, raising hopes for the future of the species.
The zoo has started a conservation breeding program for the critically endangered species, to expand on two decades of recovery efforts by Taronga Zoo in Sydney.
In a milestone for the project, four pairs of regent honeyeaters moved into their new digs at Dubbo.
Zoo team members told of the expanded program being crucial to securing a future for the species.

A Lesson for Ravens: Don’t Eat the Tortoises-Can fake tortoise shells teach predators to stop devouring soft-shelled juveniles? – via Herp Digest


OCT 8, 2019, The Atlantic


Tim Shields didn’t see any young tortoises himself. For the most part, the only sign of them was their shells, desiccated and punctured, scattered around the landscape and piled under the occasional Joshua tree. He was working on a long-term monitoring project in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, where over the past few decades juvenile tortoises had all but disappeared from the study areas. This particular year, the scientists and volunteers spotted a single live juvenile tortoise—in the beak of a raven, flailing its legs as it was carried away.

That was eight years ago, and it marked a turning point for Shields, he told me, sitting in his kitchen in Joshua Tree, California. While desert tortoises face a range of threats, for juveniles whose shells are still soft, raven predation is perhaps the biggest concern. Shields knew that past efforts to control the canny birds by shooting or poisoning them had faced legal challenges from animal activists; many scientists think, as well, that killing enough ravens to protect tortoises simply isn’t possible. So Shields went in search of an alternative.

After talking with other biologists, engineers, and even some rocket scientists—with anyone, really—he concluded that he needed to teach ravens a new way of life. Working with a diverse cadre of collaborators, including the noted raven-biologist William Boarman, the design software company Autodesk, and a science teacher from Shields’s hometown, his company, Hardshell Labs, created the “techno-tort”—an educational tool for ravens designed to get across one lesson: They ought not to eat tortoises.

Shields introduced me to the techno-tort in the front yard of his house. Originally inspired by basic styrofoam tortoises that Boarman made in the 1990s, the techno-tort is now uncannily lifelike. Lying in the sand, the 3-D-printed shell had a similar solidity and texture to the real thing but was considerably lighter. This one had been color-printed, but earlier prototypes were hand-painted—and subsequent shells have been too, while the company searches for a printing pigment that will last under the desert sun.

In the field, techno-torts will be fitted with accelerometers and methyl anthranilate, a nontoxic bird deterrent. When a raven disturbs the shell, it will let out an explosive spray with a noxious taste and odor. A more low-tech version will involve packing shells full of meat treated with another nontoxic substance that will briefly nauseate the raven. The aim is to effectively communicate, through the experience of fright or queasiness, a simple message: Stay away.

Until recently, the main approaches available to conservationists for dealing with difficult wildlife have been limited—basically fencing them out or killing them. But now pedagogic alternatives are beginning to emerge, raising the question of whether fractious relationships might be modified by a little interspecies education.

Conservationists have tried to reeducate wildlife in the past. A range of animals, from stout wallabies to the giant lizards of the Canary Islands, has undergone training on avoiding predators, with mixed results. There have been efforts to teach golden lion tamarins to eschew dangerous foods, and whooping cranes to migrate. But these projects had only small, usually captive classes of students. In recent years, behavioral interventions have been significantly scaled up.

In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, for instance, researchers have launched the world’s largest cane-toad-mitigation effort, which depends on teaching wild animals about the dangers of these toxic toads. Introduced in 1935, cane toads have caused severe population declines among many species of larger predators, from freshwater crocodiles and giant monitor lizards to the critically endangered northern quoll, a small but fierce nocturnal marsupial. To these animals, accustomed to eating local amphibians without consequence, cane toads look like a tempting meal.

Many of these predators might survive an encounter with a smaller cane toad, but the toads at the front of this advancing wave are large, highly toxic animals. So Rick Shine of Macquarie University in Sydney and his collaborators have sought to create their own advance guard. In a study led by Samantha J. Price-Rees, they introduced bluetongue lizards to nauseating sausages made of minced cane toad; in another, led by Georgia Ward-Fear, they exposed monitor lizards to juvenile, less toxic “teacher toads.” Both of these animals proved to be quick studies and began to avoid adult toads. Shine, along with a group of research and conservation partners known as the Cane Toad Coalition, is currently rolling out a multiyear project to drop teacher toads and sausages ahead of the main toad wave.

The cane toad project is meant to protect predators from their own appetites, but other new initiatives, such as the techno-torts, are trying to save vulnerable prey by reeducating the animals that eat them. On the South Island of New Zealand, a massive campaign is under way to encourage more recently arrived predators—hedgehogs, rats, cats, and ferrets—to ignore the eggs and chicks of banded dotterels, wrybills, and other birds. In two study areas totaling 1,800 hectares, plus control sites, a team of ecologists has been smearing Vaseline infused with bird scents around the landscape. This system of “chemical camouflage,” developed by Catherine Price and Peter Banks of the University of Sydney (where I work as well), starts with spreading the scent of birds for a month or so prior to the breeding season; predators learn to ignore this olfactory cue as an unrewarding distraction. The trial results are still being analyzed, but previous efforts with other species and on smaller scales produced remarkable results. In an earlier study, the nests in treated areas had a 62 percent greater survival rate than the controls.

What unites all of these projects is a curiosity about how animals learn. But teaching animals means that researchers have to do their own deep learning on the ways different animals think and behave. In Australia, researchers have found that while bluetongue lizards can be effectively trained with cane toad sausages or teacher toads, monitor lizards require the latter to retain their aversion. In New Zealand, researchers need to worry about how different predators generalize: What combination of bird scents will teach a predator to ignore all avian species? This kind of question is part of a growing appreciation of the complexity of animals’ cognitive abilities. As Shine told me, “We can attempt to use those abilities to change the outcomes of encounters between potential predators and prey in a way that probably we weren’t thinking about a decade ago.”

In Joshua Tree, Shields and Boarman showed me footage from cameras they placed out in the desert with prototype techno-torts. In one memorable clip, an adult raven confidently approaches the techno-tort and, without hesitation, flips it over and pounds down on the underside of the shell. Was she curious about a strange object in the environment? Was she wondering where this bad replica of a tortoise shell had come from? Or did she believe that she had come across the familiar form of a tortoise? From the clip, the last possibility seems likely.

Shields and Boarman are passionately interested in understanding how ravens make sense of techno-torts. They need to be. For this approach to have any chance of success, the ravens need to mistake these shells for the real thing. Otherwise they won’t be learning to avoid tortoises, just techno-torts. In other trials, the researchers are changing the shape and color of the shells to see how these tweaks influence raven interactions. Which of these cues really matter?

As I drove away from Shields’s house that afternoon, I saw a group of ravens eating roadkill. This readily available food source is just one of the many transformations to the desert that have increased raven numbers. In recent decades, human settlement has provided a steady supply of food, water, and nesting places. These changes have also destroyed tortoises’ habitat, which is now crisscrossed by roads, overtaken by human uses, and modified by introduced plants and cattle. While ravens are a worrying threat to young tortoises, they are far from the only danger.

The techno-tort project, then, might only sidestep a larger problem. This criticism is leveled at many of these “educational” projects. After all, even if they succeed, abundant numbers of ravens, cane toads, and rats will still be left roaming around. And Shields and Boarman are pretty sure that whatever they develop will work for only a limited time with crafty ravens. Alongside the techno-torts, they are working on a suite of other tools, including modified lasers and drones, to both haze and educate these birds. In the end, Shields explained to me, it’s going to be a bit like a chess match, an ongoing effort to adapt to ravens’ own prodigious capacities for learning and experimentation.

These conservationists don’t see educational approaches as a cure-all. Instead, their projects are often meant to buy time. Boarman was explicit about this: All that mitigating the impact of ravens can do, he told me, is produce a whole lot of tortoise teenagers, which will still need a desert that can support them. Shields agreed: The aim of the techno-tort, he said, is simply to “stop the hemorrhaging.” But, he went on to say, until we can modify human behavior in the desert, “we need to buy time, and we can buy time by altering raven behavior. That’s the hope.”