Learning How to Migrate: Young Whoopers Stay the Course When They Follow a Wise Old Bird

Scientists have studied bird migration for centuries, but it remains one of nature’s great mysteries. How do birds find their way over long distances between breeding and wintering sites? Is their migration route encoded in their genes, or is it learned?

All whooping cranes studied by the University of Maryland team got the same initial flight training as chicks, following an ultralight piloted by the non-profit Operation Migration from Wisconsin to Florida in the fall. The study examined their subsequent migrations, beginning the following spring. (Credit: Heather Ray/copyright Operation Migration USA Inc.)

All whooping cranes studied by the University of Maryland team got the same initial flight training as chicks, following an ultralight piloted by the non-profit Operation Migration from Wisconsin to Florida in the fall. The study examined their subsequent migrations, beginning the following spring. (Credit: Heather Ray/copyright Operation Migration USA Inc.)

Working with records from a long-term effort to reintroduce critically endangered whooping cranes in the Eastern U.S., a University of Maryland-led research team found evidence that these long-lived birds learn their migration route from older cranes, and get better at it with age.

Whooping crane groups that included a seven-year-old adult deviated 38% less from a migratory straight-line path between their Wisconsin breeding grounds and Florida wintering grounds, the researchers found. One-year-old birds that did not follow older birds veered, on average, 60 miles (97 kilometers) from a straight flight path. When the one-year-old cranes traveled with older birds, the average deviation was less than 40 miles (64 kilometers).

Individual whoopers’ ability to stick to the route increased steadily each year up to about age 5, and remained roughly constant from that point on, the researchers found.

Many migration studies are done in short-lived species like songbirds, or by comparing a young bird to an older bird, said UMD biologist Thomas Mueller, an expert on animal migration and the study’s lead scientist. “Here we could look over the course of the individual animals’ lifetimes, and show that learning takes place over many years.”

The researchers’ findings, to be published August 30 in the journal Science, are based on data from an intensive effort to restore the endangered bird to its native range. The whooping crane (Grus americana), is North America’s largest bird, standing five feet tall, and one of its longest-lived, surviving 30 years or more in the wild. The species was near extinction in the 1940s, with fewer than 25 individuals. Today about 250 wild whoopers summer in Canada and migrate to Texas for the winter.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, made up of government and non-profit experts, has been working since 2001 to establish a second population in the Eastern U.S., which now numbers more than 100 birds. At Maryland’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge and other captive breeding sites, adult whooping cranes produce chicks and biologists hand-raise them, using special methods designed to prepare the chicks for life in the wild. Each summer in a Wisconsin marsh, experts train a group of captive-raised chicks to follow an ultralight aircraft, using techniques like those portrayed in the fictional 1996 movie “Fly Away Home” to lead them on a 1,300-mile journey to their Florida wintering grounds.

Only this first migration is human-assisted; from then on the young birds travel on their own, usually in the company of other whooping cranes. Their movements are monitored daily via satellite transmitters, radio telemetry and on-the-ground observers. The result is a record of the movements of individual birds over several years, all with known parentage and the same upbringing.

“This is a globally unique data set in which we can control for genetics and test for the effect of experience,” said UMD Biology Professor William F. Fagan, a co-author of the paper, “and it gives us an indication of just how important this kind of socially learned behavior is.”

Using data on all the ultralight-trained birds’ spring and fall migrations from 2002 to 2009, the researchers found that neither genetic relatedness nor gender had any effect on the whooping cranes’ tendency to stay on the shortest migratory route. They were surprised to find that the migrating groups’ size also made no difference.

“Many biologists would have expected to find a strong effect of group size,” Fagan said, “with input from more birds’ brains leading to improved navigation, but we didn’t see that effect.”

Only one experienced bird per group was enough to keep the migration on track. The researchers hypothesize that older birds are better at recognizing landmarks and coping with bad weather. Stronger autumn winds may explain why the whoopers tended to stray further from their straight course during fall migration, Mueller said.

The study shows the migration training for captive-born whooping cranes is working, Mueller said. However, the reintroduced whoopers are having trouble breeding in the wild. Based on the migration study’s finding, “we need to take into consideration that these birds may also reproduce more successfully as they age,” he said.

Given the whooping cranes’ recent plunge towards extinction, it wouldn’t be surprising if the birds need to re-learn how best to raise their chicks, said Patuxent-based scientist Sarah J. Converse of the U.S. Geological Survey, a co-author of the paper.

“These birds’ behaviors have evolved over millennia,” Converse said. “Managers here are trying to restore a culture, that is, the knowledge that these birds accumulate over time. We need to give these birds the time and the opportunity to get the breeding right. We might need to be a little bit patient.”

source: Sciencedaily.com

Discoveries in the Amazon: 15 new bird species

Birds’ formal description printed in special volume of Handbook of the Birds of the World. Not since 1871 have so many bird species been introduced under a single cover.

An international team of researchers coordinated by ornithologist Bret Whitney of the LSU Museum of Natural Science, or LSUMNS, recently published 15 species of birds previously unknown to science. The formal description of these birds has been printed in a special volume of the “Handbook of the Birds of the World” series. Not since 1871 have so many new species of birds been introduced under a single cover, and all 15 discoveries involve a current or former LSU researcher or student.


Zimmerius chicomendesi. Image credit: Fabio Schunck

“Birds are, far and away, the best-known group of vertebrates, so describing a large number of uncataloged species of birds in this day and age is unexpected, to say the least,” said Whitney. “But what’s so exciting about this presentation of 15 new species from the Amazon all at once is, first, highlighting how little we really know about species diversity in Amazonia, and second, showing how technological advances have given us new toolsets for discovering and comparing naturally occurring, cohesive (‘monophyletic’) populations with other, closely related populations.”


Myrmotherula oreni. Image credit: Lars Petersson

Amazonia is home to far more species of birds – approximately 1,300 – and more species per unit area, than any other biome. Technological advances such as satellite imagery, digital recordings of vocalizations, DNA analysis and high-powered computation power have taken the age of discovery to the next level, and were key ingredients in the discovery of these new species. However, such discoveries still depend on exploration of remote areas of the Amazon rainforest, just as they did a century ago, and this sort of fieldwork has been carried out by the LSUMNS every year since the early 1960s.

“We’re on the threshold of a new age of discovery and documentation that carries on the LSU tradition of leading the way in avian research in the Neotropics,” he said. “To the point, in recent years we have forged a highly productive program of collaboration with ornithologists at the University of São Paulo and LSUMNS, and today LSUMNS and Brazilian graduate students are privileged to be working together, learning from each other as they study some of the most complex speciation dynamics on Earth.”


Herpsilochmus stotzi Image credit: Fabio Schunck

Other ornithologists involved in the project include Mario Cohn-Haft of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia in Manaus and Alexandre Aleixo of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém, both received their Ph.D.s at LSU from the Department of Biological Sciences. Also an author on many of the papers is Luís Fabio Silveira of the Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo, which has a formal agreement for collaborative field and laboratory research with the LSUMNS . More than 30 authors participated in the 15 species descriptions, each peer-reviewed as an independent scientific paper. Authors also include ornithologists from Colombia, Argentina and the United Kingdom. Most of the new species were discovered by Whitney and Cohn-Haft by detecting differences in their songs and calls in the field.

Dubai scientists successfully breed rare birds in chicken eggs

Scientists in Dubai have hatched an endangered desert bird with the help of a common chicken egg, in what they hope will be a major boost for conservation.

 Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum funded the study into the endangered houbara bustard

Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum funded the study into the endangered houbara bustard

The Central Veterinary Research Laboratory team has been successful in breeding houbara bustard chicks, a rare falconry prey that is in decline in the UAE.

They believe the new implant system will “provide a tool to hatch damaged eggs, as well as soft-shelled eggs of endangered wild birds”, according to their research paper released this week. With funding from UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the researchers placed fertilised houbara yolks in the whites of chicken eggs and other surrogate houbara eggs to see if they would develop.

The found that after four days, 76 per cent of

the yolks surrounded by chicken egg whites and 61 per cent surrounded by houbara egg whites were still alive.

The yolks, and the whites surrounding them, were then moved to bigger chicken eggs to give them a better chance to grow. In the end, two houbara chicks hatched from the chicken egg whites and one hatched from the houbara egg white, comprising seven per cent and five per cent of the samples in the experiment.

While the technique needs to be refined further, it shows that rare bird yolks can hatch in other eggs. This could help the chicks survive if the shell of their own egg is damaged. The findings are significant for the houbara, which is a favourite meal for falcons and therefore a major target for falconers.

However, their numbers have plunged throughout the Gulf because of over-hunting and loss of habitat. The team was particularly keen on trying this technique after watching British scientists clone a sheep known as Dolly. International teams of scientists soon discovered that it is extremely difficult to clone birds because of the complications in extracting genetic material. The Dubai research team hopes this new technique will advance science while also conserving rare species of birds around the world.

Source: 7daysindubai.com

Recall of Goldenfeast bird food due to possible salmonella contamination: Food and drug recalls

 Several varieties of exotic birdfood distributed by Goldenfeast have been recalled because of potential salmonella contamination. They were shipped to 23 states, including Ohio, and include parrot, parakeet, canary, cockatiel, and other bird foods. (Gus Chan/The Plain Dealer)

Several varieties of exotic birdfood distributed by Goldenfeast have been recalled because of potential salmonella contamination. They were shipped to 23 states, including Ohio, and include parrot, parakeet, canary, cockatiel, and other bird foods. (Gus Chan/The Plain Dealer)

CLEVELAND, Ohio– Several varieties of Goldenfeast bird food, a specialty brand produced in Pennsylvania, are being recalled because of potential contamination by salmonella, according to a news release from the company and the Food and Drug Adminstration.

The products, listed in the news release, were delivered to Ohio, 22 other states, and to Canada. The other states were: Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, Virginia.

Source: Cleveland.com

Why are the birds not singing? Calvin biology professor and students investigate

Calvin College biology professor Darren Proppe and a team of Calvin students spent the summer investigating the effects of human noise on songbirds

Darren Proppe

Darren Proppe

Earlier this year, Calvin biology professor Darren S. Proppe drew worldwide attention when an article he co-authored, “Anthropogenic Noise Decreases Urban Songbird Diversity and May Contribute to Homogenization,” was published in the prestigious journal Global Change Biology.

The article demonstrates that urban areas with high noise levels in urban areas had fewer species of birds.  It suggests that higher noise levels negatively affected female birds’ ability to hear male birds’ songs, thus negatively affecting their ability to mate.

After the article’s publication, Proppe’s findings were reported by various media outlets, including the BBC online, UPI.com and National Geographic’s online News Watch as well as Radio Canada and Chile’s El Murcurio newspaper.

This summer, Proppe, with the assistance of Calvin junior Emily Finch and seniors Jenna Kennedy and Dean Pettinga, has continued his research on the effect of urban noise on bird behavior.

Proppe and his student assistants have been working on two projects, one focusing on the timing of bird singing, the other on bird foraging behavior.

The first project, based at Pierce Cedar Creek in Hastings, involved Proppe and Finch playing traffic noise at dawn–the peak time when birds sing–in otherwise quiet locations and observing how this noise affects bird singing. Proppe and Finch played noise for one hour, with three one-minute gaps of silence within that hour.

Proppe and Finch have collected their data and continue to analyze it. They hope to discover if birds sing more during the gaps and will use their findings to investigate whether controlling traffic levels can affect the behavior of different bird species.

Proppe, Kennedy and Pettinga researched bird foraging at birdfeeders in back yards throughout Grand Rapids. In this project the trio observed songbirds’ responses to two different kinds of aural stimuli.  They first played traffic noise and then played the sound of the predatory Cooper’s Hawk. They videoed and monitored the songbirds’ behavior response to the different stimuli.

Preliminary results from this research suggest that songbirds are less likely to respond to predator calls when they are embedded in traffic noise.  Proppe postulates that traffic noise may have life-threatening implications for songbirds, and that mitigation of noise may be important to protect them.

Proppe hopes to publish his findings in scholarly journals in the field of conservation behavior in the next year.

Proppe’s research has benefitted from Pierce Cedar Creek Institute’s Undergraduate Research Grants for the Environment (URGE), which sponsored Finch’s efforts; and the Calvin College Science Division, which sponsored Kennedy and Pettinga.

Proppe noted the professional value of the students’ summer research, calling it “the kind of thing that helps to prepare them for a career in biology research.”

Proppe also expressed satisfaction with the students’ efforts.

“I have been impressed by their ingenuity, their attention to detail and their perseverance,” he said.

Pettinga said that his research with Proppe and Kennedy caused him to view Grand Rapids from a new perspective.

“Researching within natural geographical boundaries has helped me see the Grand Rapids area and community in a new light of environmental connectivity,” he said.

Finch reflected on the value of her summer project, commenting on what she’s learned about the scientific research process, the challenges of field work and the importance of collaborative learning.

Finch concluded her thoughts by stating that her new challenge will be to transition from her summer research back into coursework.

“Now it is just a matter of getting my mind quiet again since I can’t seem to stop hearing bird songs!” she said.

Source: Therapidian.org

Bird experts gather at the University of East Anglia

A bird conference is being held at the University of East Anglia

A bird conference is being held at the University of East Anglia

Hundreds of bird experts from around the world will flock to the University of East Anglia today.

They will be attending an international ornithology conference, which will look at how our feathered friends are being affected by issues such as climate change.

Dr Jenny Gill from the UEA’s school of Biological Sciences will also talk about the causes of changes in migratory bird populations.

She said: “We are absolutely delighted to be hosting this international conference. A great deal of research at UEA concerns the ecology and conservation of birds, and we are very pleased to be welcoming ornithologists from around the world to our university.”

The President of the European Ornithologists’ Union said: “This is the first time that the European Ornithologists’ Union will meet in the UK, a country with top-class academic ornithology, very strong citizen involvement in science and enormous public interest in birds.

“This creates an ideal atmosphere for our delegates to discuss the latest achievements in ornithological science, and their application to mounting environmental problems.”

More than 350 bird experts will attend the five-day conference.

Source: itv.com