Lundy bird populations soar after rats eradicated

The island of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel. Photograph: Robert Harding Picture Library/Alamy

The island of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel. Photograph: Robert Harding Picture Library/Alamy

A project to eradicate rats from a rocky island off Devon has resulted in a tenfold increase in the population of an endangered burrowing seabird that nests there, conservationists have revealed.

Wildlife charities are delighted that the removal of rats from Lundy, in the Bristol Channel, has apparently led to a dramatic boost to the number of Manx shearwaters and other birds on the island.

A similar project costing £750,000 is due to get under way this autumn on two of the isles of Scilly, St Agnes and Gugh, to wipe out the descendants of brown rats that swam to shore from shipwrecks.

But while residents and bird lovers are celebrating the success on Lundy and the plans for Scilly, some animal rights activists are angry that rats are being killed. They accuse those behind the cull of targeting the rodents to boost the tourist industries on the islands, which depend to a large extent on birdspotters.

Survey teams from the RSPB who returned to Lundy 10 years after the launch of the seabird recovery project found that the number of breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters had leapt from 300 to 3,000. Puffin numbers had increased from just five birds to 80, while razorbills and shags had also made substantial gains.

Helen Booker, RSPB senior conservation officer in the south-west of England, said: “This is such an exciting result, better than we expected, and the rate of increase is an indication of just how important rat-free islands like Lundy are as breeding site for seabirds.”

David Bullock, head of nature conservation for the National Trust, which owns Lundy, said “Once the rats had gone from Lundy, the number of pairs of shearwaters went from hundreds to thousands in matter of a few years.”

He said such a rapid recovery must have been aided by birds from other colonies, probably including those on islands off the Pembrokeshire coast, settling to breed on Lundy.

The results will provide encouragement for a similar project on St Agnes and Gugh, 28 miles off the south-west tip of mainland Britain. Here an estimated 3,100 brown rats are blamed for preying on Scilly shearwaters as well as storm petrels, terns and the Scilly shrew, a rodent found only on the archipelago.

From this autumn, poison bait will be laid for the rats as part of a 25-year Isles of Scilly seabird recovery project, which is being run with cash from the National Lottery, the EU’s Life fund and other sources.

It follows a 25% fall in bird numbers in recent years. The project is deemed feasible because the islands are surrounded by deep water, and so it is thought unlikely once the rats there are removed that others will be able to repopulate it.

It is deemed particularly important because St Agnes and Gugh are close to the uninhabited island of Annet, which has significant colonies of seabirds.

Jaclyn Pearson, project manager for the Isles of Scilly recovery project, said it had the backing of the 75 residents of St Agnes, though some of the children had taken some convincing.

She said the bait stations were designed to be accessible only to rats, and a stock of the antidote had been ferried across in case a cat or dog got to the poison. The islanders will cull the extra rabbits likely to be hopping around once the rat population decreases.

The Animal Aid campaign group accused the Lundy and Scilly projects of condemning rats to an “awful death” for commercial reasons. It suggested that other factors – including too many tourists – could be causing the falls in seabird numbers.

Its director, Andrew Tyler, said: “Rats don’t sell tourist tickets but birds do. They are making a judgment that the birds are important and rats are disposable. We do not accept that premise.”

• This article was amended on 30 July 2013 because the original called Animal Aid a charity. This has been corrected.


Bird hunters ’emptying Afghan skies’

Untold numbers of migratory birds are being caught and killed every year in Afghanistan, helping drive species like the Siberian Crane to the verge of extinction. Hunters say other bird populations are also declining rapidly, raising fears among environmentalists.

The captured birds are often sold as pets - or for their meat

The captured birds are often sold as pets – or for their meat

Noar Agha loads small stones into the leather pouch attached to his homemade sling shot. “This is like a big transit airport for birds,” he says, pointing to a lush valley ringed by snowy Hindu Kush peaks in Parwan province, about 160km (100 miles) from Kabul.

Syed Khel district’s wheat fields and orchards offer a perfect resting point for migratory birds.

“Thousands of White-naped Cranes, flamingos, ducks, falcons and sparrows migrate from India and Pakistan when summer temperatures begin to rise there. They make a stopover here before taking off for Russia. That’s when we make a move,” Mr Agha says.

About a dozen of his grandchildren nod in appreciation. Then a boy perched on a tree top waves a piece of cloth and Mr Agha orders everyone to scatter. Soon a huge flock of sparrows descends on the valley.

He and his grandchildren fire a volley of stones from their sling shots. As dozens of sparrows crash to the ground, three hunting dogs are let loose. They quickly retrieve the injured birds, including those that dropped far from sight.

Houbara Bustards are caught and smuggled to the Gulf

Houbara Bustards are caught and smuggled to the Gulf

Like Noar Agha, many Afghans hunt birds for meat. There is also a thriving trade in canaries and finches which are trapped, sold and smuggled to Iran, Pakistan and Gulf countries, where they are popular as house pets.

The head of Afghanistan’s Environment Protection Agency, Mustafa Zahir, recently told a local TV news channel that nearly 5,000 birds are smuggled out of the country every year. That may be a conservative estimate. Many of these are falcons and Houbara Bustards – the latter widely prized as quarry by hunters in the Gulf.

With the Afghan economy in tatters, hunting and trading in birds offers a welcome source of income for many struggling Afghans. Markets selling birds of all shapes and sizes – dead or alive – are fairly common in remote areas like Syed Khel and Kohistan.

“This is how I make a living,” says one hunter in a bird bazaar in Kohistan, pointing to a sack full of dead sparrows. “There is no work here. What else can I do?”

The sparrows in question are probably Spanish Sparrows, whose numbers are not thought to be at risk, Taej Mundkur of Wetlands International tells the BBC. But he adds: “The harvest could well extend to other species as well.”

In truth, no one really knows.

In a country which has seen decades of war, the welfare of birds is low on the list of priorities. The Siberian Crane, once a regular visitor en route to India, has not been sighted in Afghanistan since 1999. It is now listed as globally critically endangered.

Siberian Cranes have not been seen in Afghanistan this century

Siberian Cranes have not been seen in Afghanistan this century

Other birds are also now less common, say Afghan hunters.

“My elders used to talk about cranes, flamingos, wild ducks and quails. These birds were very common in this part of the country. But now it is no longer so,” says 27-year-old Mohammad Wahid.

That view is shared by Mohammad Agha, 70: “There are just too many hunters… so the birds have fled.”

A few kilometres along the Panjshir river in Kohistan district, Haji Dost Mohammad has hunted ducks for half of his life and says every house in his village has a shotgun. Mr Mohammad, 40, starts his days early during the migrating season.

“Every day before sunrise, we put stuffed ducks in our village pond. When a flock of birds arrive, drakes are attracted to the pond. We wait as the drakes try to pair up with the stuffed ducks. Just when they are about to settle on the pond, we fire,” he says.

People used to use [guns] to fight the Soviets – now they are used for hunting ”

Haji Dost Mohammad
Villager, Kohistan district

Huge nets are used, too, to trap entire flocks of birds.

“They spread themselves across the gaps in the mountains carrying the ends of these nets. When a flock passes through the gap the ends are pulled, forcing hundreds of birds to fly straight into the nets,” one village elder said.

In some places, large wooden bird boxes with paraffin lamps are hung on trees. The warmth draws the birds, which fall into the concealed trap.

Such methods can result in huge catches. I saw one hunter bagging up birds by the hundred for a local party. Two local shopkeepers caught at least 500 birds each in a single day to sell at market.

Afghan hunters say numbers of all kinds of birds are in decline

Afghan hunters say numbers of all kinds of birds are in decline

It is impossible to know how many birds are being killed in Afghanistan every year, but the kind of hunting I saw is going on right across the country – so the figure would appear to be in the hundreds of thousands every year, at least.

The authorities say they are aware of the situation, with one senior official in Parwan even calling it a “genocide of birds”.

“But you have to understand that this is the way of life here. Hunting of birds has been going on for hundreds of years. Besides, many government officials are themselves hunters. Who will speak against them?”

The government banned the hunting of migratory birds five years ago in a presidential decree but the law is still to go through parliament – and the ban is barely enforced.

“We are also working with religious scholars and other influential members of society to start an awareness campaign on the ill effects of excessive hunting,” Ghulam Mohammad Malikyar, deputy director-general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agen

Many birds are caged to be sold as pets

Many birds are caged to be sold as pets

Educating Afghans is one challenge. Another is the lack of reliable information – because of decades of instability, no comprehensive survey on bird numbers has ever been conducted.

Qais Agah of Save the Environment-Afghanistan said there had been “significant conservation efforts”, but told the BBC a recent study had identified almost 150 endangered species of birds in Afghanistan, which is not a party to the Convention on Migratory Species.

Some birds may have changed their migration routes, which would explain the apparent drop in their numbers in Afghanistan. Or Afghans may be wiping them out.

Without proper scientific data, it is impossible to know. What is clear is that hunters say some birds are now seen more rarely, or not at all.

“Thirty years ago, I used to shoot 500-700 sparrows a day with my sling shot,” says Haji Shakoor, 57, from Salang valley. “The sky used to be full of birds. But now it seems so empty.”

Conservationists hope that doesn’t mean more birds go the way of the Siberian Crane

Source: BBC News

Scientist discovers new bird species in Peru’s ‘cloud forests’

youngscienti (1)A graduate student at the University of Kansas is the lead author on a recently published description of a new bird species, the Junin Tapaculo, found in the remote Andes Mountains of central Peru.

Following sightings by birders and leads fellow ornithologists, Peter Hosner, a doctoral student of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU, focused his fieldwork in Junin, a department in central Peru scarcely surveyed by ornithologists.

“We found the Junin Tapaculo in the field by its distinctive voice,” Hosner said. “I’d spent a lot of time traveling and working with birds in the Andes before I enrolled at KU, and I had never heard anything like it before. We made voice recordings and collected specimens that are needed in all scientific species descriptions. Tapaculos are extremely difficult to identify, so at this point we weren’t sure if it was a new species, or if we just happened to record a rarely given vocalization by an already described species.”

Because discoveries of new birds are rare, Hosner thought the vocalization might be a new sound from a bird already known to science. However, upon returning to Kansas, his quest for more information on the bird yielded nothing. Museum searches, consultations with experts and searches for archival sound recordings all pointed to the idea that Hosner may have uncovered a new species.

“In one archive, I found that birders had recorded the same unusual vocalizations, but on a different road about five kilometers away from our study site,” he said. “They had tentatively identified the recordings as a different species of tapaculo—a species which occurs in the same area. I also sequenced DNA and compared the sequences to known species. None matched. The appearance of the specimens, their unusual song and unique DNA convinced us it was new species—and I started writing up the description.”

Hosner’s paper on the new tapaculo appeared in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology last month. His co-authors are Town Peterson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator at the Biodiversity Institute at KU, Mark Robbins of KU’s Biodiversity Institute, and Thomas Valqui of the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science and the Centro de Ornitologia y Biodiversidad in Lima, Peru.

Hosner said the Junin Tapaculo is small and uniform blackish in color. It is notable for its habit of sticking its tail straight up in the air. In appearance and behavior, the birds are similar to wrens, even though they are not closely related. They have been described as mouselike and photophobic.

“Tapaculos are recognized by ornithologists and birders as one of the most difficult bird families to observe in the field,” said Hosner. “They tend to be found near the ground in areas of thick, tangled vegetation. They’re active and almost never stop moving. Even if you can’t see the birds themselves, you can usually locate them by the movement of vegetation in their wake. They’re most easily seen by playing recordings of their songs to coax them out into the open. Because of this behavior, frustrated observers have suggested that tapaculos behave more like mice than they do birds.”

The scientists report the bird’s range is limited to a specific band of elevation within the Andes Mountains—between about 8,000 and 10,500 feet.

“The eastern slope of the Andes is steep and densely forested,” said Hosner. “With increasing elevation, it gradually becomes colder and wetter, and the trees become shorter. These forests are commonly called ‘cloud forests’ because it’s frequently foggy. They are constantly damp, and moss and epiphytes, like orchids and bromeliads, cover everything. They are some of the most beautiful forests in the world. Along with the vegetation, bird communities in the Andes change with elevation. Moving a few thousand feet up or down results in an almost completely different list of bird species. In Junin, we found six different species of tapaculos at different elevations, ranging from tall forest down low to grasslands above tree line.”

However, asked what was the most difficult part of describing a new species—the first of his career—the young KU scientist didn’t cite the bird’s remote habitat or hard-to-find lifestyle.

“It’s the associated paperwork,” he said. “It’s endless.”


Cockatoos Know What’s Going On Behind Barriers

Cockatoo lifting a container. (Credit: Copyright Alice Auersperg)

Cockatoo lifting a container. (Credit: Copyright Alice Auersperg)

How do you know that the cookies are still there even though they have been placed out of your sight into the drawer? How do you know when and where a car that has driven into a tunnel will reappear? The ability to represent and to track the trajectory of objects, which are temporally out of sight, is highly important in many aspects but is also cognitively demanding. Alice Auersperg and her team from the University of Vienna and Oxford show that “object permanence” abilities in a cockatoo rivals that of apes and four-year-old humans.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Journal of Comparative Psychology.
For investigating spatial memory and tracking in animals and human infants a number of setups have been habitually used. These can roughly be subdivided depending on what is being moved: a desired object (food reward), the hiding places for this object or the test animal itself: In the original invisible displacement tasks, designed by French psychologist Jean Piaget in the 50s, the reward is moved underneath a small cup behind one or more bigger screens and its contents is shown in between visits: if the cup is empty we know that the reward must be behind the last screen visited. Humans solve this task after about two years of age, whereas in primates only the great apes show convincing results.

Likely to be even more challenging in terms of attention, are “Transposition” tasks: the reward is hidden underneath one of several equal cups, which are interchanged one or more times. Human children struggle with this task type more than with the previous and do not solve it reliably before the age of three to four years whereas adult apes solve it but have more trouble with double than single swaps.

In “Rotation” tasks several equal cups, one bearing a reward are aligned in parallel on a rotatable platform, which is rotated at different angles. “Translocation” tasks are similar except that the cups are not rotated but the test animal is carried around the arrangement and released at different angles to the cup alignment. Children find Translocation tasks easier than Rotation tasks and solve them at two to three years of age.

A team of international Scientists tested eight Goffin cockatoos (Cacatua goffini), a conspicuously inquisitive and playful species on visible as well as invisible Piagetian object displacements and derivations of spatial transposition, rotation and translocation tasks. Birgit Szabo, one of the experimenters from the University of Vienna, says: “The majority of our eight birds readily and spontaneously solved Transposition, Rotation and Translocation tasks whereas only two out of eight choose immediately and reliably the correct location in the original Piagetian invisible displacement task in which a smaller cup is visiting two of three bigger screens.” Alice Auersperg, the manager of the Goffin Lab who was also one of the experimenters, explains: “Interestingly and just opposite to human toddlers our cockatoos had more problems solving the Piagetian invisible displacements than the transposition task with which children struggle until the age of four. Transpositions are highly demanding in terms of attention since two occluding objects are moved simultaneously. Nevertheless, in contrast to apes, which find single swaps easier than double the cockatoos perform equally in both conditions.”

Similarly, Goffins had little complications with Rotations and Translocation tasks and some of them solved them at four different angles. Again, in contrast to children, which find Translocations easier than Rotations, the cockatoos showed no significant differences between the two tasks. Auguste von Bayern from the University of Oxford adds: ” We assume that the ability to fly and prey upon or being preyed upon from the air is likely to require pronounced spatial rotation abilities and may be a candidate trait influencing the animals’ performance in rotation and translocation tasks.”

Thomas Bugnayer from the University of Vienna concludes: “Finding that Goffins solve transposition, rotation and translocation tasks, which are likely to pose a large cognitive load on working memory, was surprising and calls for more comparative data in order to better understand the relevance of such accurate tracking abilities in terms of ecology and sociality.”


Bird banding part of international study

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ALBANY — Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission scientists captured and banded song birds Monday morning in the pitch pine scrub oak barrens.

The commission is participating in an international bird conservation effort called Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship, or MAPS, coordinated by the Institute for Bird Populations, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The information from two breeding-season bird banding stations will be contributed to a global investigation by the Biodiversity Research Institute and The Nature Conservancy on environmental contamination.

Birds were banded with a unique number tag, and measurements such as weight, wing size, feather wear and how much fat on the bird along with other data was recorded before the birds were released.

The Pine Bush will hold two more bird banding sessions in early August. For information, go to


Wrexham egg factory with 17,000 birds refused permission

The plant had been recommended for approval, subject to conditions

The plant had been recommended for approval, subject to conditions

Controversial plans for an egg factory, housing more than 17,000 chickens, have been turned down by Wrexham council.

The development at Talwrn Farm had been recommended for approval, despite a petition signed by 112 objectors.

But councillors decided the application was contrary to the local plan and roads were unsuitable for more heavy vehicles.

Concerns raised included noise created by the 16,000 hens and 1,200 cockerels, as well as the smell.

The planning report had noted it would be a barn egg-laying not battery process and be fully cleaned out every two months.

If approved, about 400 tonnes of manure would have been removed every 60 weeks and used on local land.

The report discussed by planners said the building would be 80m (about 260ft) long and 26m (about 85ft) wide.

An estimated 15 to 20 lorries would remove the manure at the end of each 60-week cycle.

The report added a petition against the development had been signed by 112 people.

It also said the council was contacted by 82 people. Their concerns included: “Odours from farm will drift into homes,” as well as “increased flies and vermin”.

Another concern was: “Noise will potentially affect those attending the crematorium, and the memorial gardens.”

Councillor Mike Morris, the chair of the planning committee, said: “Councillors refused the application because they felt it was contrary to two clauses within the local plan.

“It was also decided it would be detrimental to the highway infrastructure in the area as they did not want to see more lorries travel along the roads near the site.”

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