Male Birds Like Nice Nests

Blue tit on a feeder

Blue tit on a feeder

When female blue tits make nests fancy, their mates are more active parents.

One bird species may have advice on how to get its dads to take a more active role in parenting: mothers should build a snazzy crib.

Female blue tits that construct bigger nests and decorate them with fragrant plants have male partners that are more willing to invest in raising chicks, Spanish researchers report in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

A big, well-decorated home may send a signal to males about the health of their partners, said Gustavo Tomás of the Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas in Madrid, and co-author on the study.

Females in many animal species are often believed to be the picky sex when it comes to choosing a mate. That’s because females usually devote more time and energy than males to raising their offspring.

A female blue tit – which is about the size of an adult hand, from beak to tail – picks her partner based on his colorful blue and yellow plumage and the sweetness of his song. The better looking and sounding a mate, the better the chances he won’t be teeming with parasites and that the couple will have healthy chicks.

But the research team found that males might also judge their mates.

“It was traditionally thought that only males need to show of their quality,” said Tomás. “Now we’re revealing it’s not that simple. It’s an interaction between sexes.“

Different bird species divide the work of building nests in different ways. Female blue tits work alone to build nests, although males may add feathers later on. That means the nest may provide a window to the female’s health.

After spring mating, female blue tits collect moss and grass to construct the base of their nests inside the hollows of trees or artificial nesting boxes. Females then line those nests with soft hair, wool, or feathers. Fit females can also search for hard-to-find plants – like mint, lavender, and rosemary – to spruce up the homes for their future nestlings. But all of this construction takes energy and puts a female in danger of attack from predators.

“The female can’t cheat, it’s an honest signal of what the female’s ability is,” said Bob Montgomerie, biologist at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, who was not involved in the research. A haggard female would probably produce a pretty pitiful nest, said Montgomerie.

After the female finishes the nest, both sexes feed and defend the young. “The effort devoted by males is very important in the success of the females and in how many chicks will survive,” said Tomás.

Tomás and his colleagues at Madrid’s Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales made some nests smaller and added grass and moss to others to make some larger. The team also added or removed odorous plants from different nests.

The researchers found that these features influence the care a male will put into the nestlings and how many babies survive.

“This is the first [study] I know of that looks at nest traits themselves and how the male responds,” said Montgomerie.

At larger nests and those with strongly scented plants, males were more likely to be bolder and take more risks in caring for their young — such as entering nesting boxes when there was danger — than males at smaller nests or those lacking the plants, the study reported.

As part of the study the team installed bird traps in blue tit nesting boxes, a process that sometimes scared the birds away from home or made them more skittish. The males who put themselves out on a limb were more likely to be trapped, but also had a greater fraction of their offspring survive, said Tomás.

The team is not certain how this difference in risk-taking actually helps the nestlings. Tomás believes, in part, that males who take more risks may be more willing to defend a nest against predators.

The researchers combined their observations of eight different risk-taking behaviors into one measurement of a male’s boldness. For example, they tallied whether a male entered the nest first, waited for the female to enter as signal that the coast was clear, or didn’t enter the nest at all. Tomás and his colleagues used the risk-taking figure to estimate how much the males imperiled themselves in caring for their young.

“Taking the average of a bunch of subjective measures is never a good way to estimate something,“ said Montgomerie, who hopes that the team will follow up with a more detailed look at each risk-taking behavior. But “there’s an interesting pattern there and it opens up lots of possibilities [for future work],” he adds.

Tomás is interested in exploring more features of nests built by female birds and the signals they may send to males. “People thought that its only function was to form a receptacle for the eggs,” he said. But he believes the nests may reveal a lot of information about the bird that built it.

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Success: Dead vulture scaring off invasion of birds in Bridgewater

BRIDGEWATER — It’s only been a week, but it seems as though a vulture carcass hanging from a tree cleared the birds that have plagued a Martinsville neighborhood.

Photo by Walter O'Brien/

Photo by Walter O’Brien/

“I’m pretty sure they’re gone,” Jessica Guarino, resident of the Perrine Road neighborhood affected by the vulture invasion of the last few months, said. “I hope they’re gone.”

Residents had been getting desperate after more than 100 vultures began living in backyard trees, gathering on roofs, and circling overhead. But some, including Guarino’s mother, Penny Beitz, collected money from neighbors to pay the $500 cost of getting wildlife specialists to hang a vulture carcass, in hopes of scaring off the rest of the birds.

Nicole Rein, one of the United States Department of Agriculture wildlife specialists who hung the vulture carcass last week, was optimistic.

“I spoke with two of the residents who originally reached out to USDA Wildlife Services about the problem,” Rein said. “Neither resident has seen vultures perching on the rooftops since the effigy was hung.”

Rein said she asked the locals to call her if the birds came back, and she hasn’t heard of any problems since the carcas was installed high up on a tree branch, upside-down with its wings spread. There was a discussion that a second effigy might be hung if the first didn’t do the job.

“From these reports, the one effigy dispersed the group, so no additional carcass is necessary,” Rein said.

Tom Friar of Davis Court, around the corner from Perrine Road, had dozens of black vultures perched on his home rooftop and on a neighbor’s tree just two weeks ago. At one point, Friar counted more than 130 vultures making themselves at home and making neighbors uncomfortable.

“It looks as though it has worked, I have only seen one vulture on a roof over the past couple of weeks,” Friar said.

Rein has said that while the birds were likely to leave for at least one season after the carcass was hung, no promises could be made about them to returning for the next nesting season.

“But we won’t really know, in my opinion, until next fall,” Friar said.


Combination of bird, human flu can be dangerous, warns study

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have confirmed that genes from bird flu and human flu combined together can create dangerous new flu strains, mainly in the bird flu prevalent countries including Bangladesh.

The flu season this year is expected to be lengthier and the disease could be pandemic if bird flu becomes highly contagious among humans, researchers predicted in a study, published on Friday.

In Bangladesh, so far eight people had died of bird flue until 2010. However, some 800 people were infected and later cured until 2012, according to the Ministry of Health.

The respiratory virus, which infects pigs and humans only sporadically, spreads mainly through coughs and sneezes.

Flu season occurs during the end of winter and rages for several months among birds, humans and animals. Often the viruses become deadly.

In 2009, H1N1 swine flu outbreak killed 280,000 people worldwide when viruses from humans and animals exchanged genes to create a new virus in a process called ‘reassortment’, the study revealed.

Earlier, the flu killed more than a million people each time when it broke out in 1957 and 1968, the study said.

The researchers have advised the relevant authorities in the bird flue prevalent countries to vaccinate people, poultry and livestock and monitor animals for evolution of new viruses, which could help predict and prevent a probable pandemic disease.

According to the World Health organisation (WHO), China, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh have been the hosts to ongoing, widespread of bird flu infections in poultry since 2011.

A research study of the UCLA revealed that the researchers had to work with limited data as they had lacked adequate data for bird and human flu outbreaks in all these six bird flu host countries.

The research study was published by Texas-based Red Orbit Science, Space, Technology, Health News and Information on Friday.

The study said the scientists had to identify indicators of flu outbreaks, such as dense poultry populations, or rain and temperatures that encourage flu transmission.

“For each type of flu, we identified variables that were predictive of the various virus strains,” the study report quoted UCLA postdoctoral research fellow Trevon Fuller as saying.

“We wanted a map of predictions continuously across the whole country, including locations where we didn’t have data on flu outbreaks,” Fuller said.

Using surveillance of influenza cases in humans and birds, the researchers have come up with a technique to predict sites where these viruses could mix and generate a future pandemic, the study said.

The researchers’ models revealed that coastal and central China and Egypt’s Nile Delta are danger zones where bird flu could combine with human flu to create a virulent kind of ‘super-flu’.

Governments can prioritise these zones – and use the researchers’ models to identify other hotspots – for increased monitoring of flu in humans, livestock, poultry and wild birds.

“That could help detect a novel flu virus before it spreads worldwide,” the study said.

Researchers using mice confirms that genes from bird flu and human flu can combine to create dangerous new flu strains.

Swine, which is susceptible to both bird and human flu, could serve as a mixing vessel for ‘reassortment’ between the two viruses.

“The mixing of genetic material between the seasonal human flu virus and bird flu can create novel virus strains that are more lethal than either of the original viruses,” the study quoted another UCLA researcher Thomas Smith.

The research focused on two flu strains that, as studies in mice have shown, can combine with lethal results, that is the seasonal H3N2 human flu, and the H5N1 strain of bird flu that has occasionally crossed over into humans.

Currently, H5N1 has a 60 per cent mortality rate in humans but is not known to spread between humans frequently.

Bird flu has taken a big toll in Bangladesh since its fresh outbreak in 2007. The number of farms has come down to 70,000 from 150,000 over the last five years, according to the Bangladesh Poultry Industries’ Association.


Bird watcher’s camera captures rare young Philippine Eagle in wild

eagTACLOBAN CITY, Philippines—A “juvenile” Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) was recently sighted and photographed at the 3,720-hectare Taft Forest Wildlife Sanctuary in Taft, Eastern Samar, which is in the Samar Island Natural Park.

Ruth Francisco, a Manila-based member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, said she saw and took a picture of a Philippine Eagle on March 10 in the forest of Barangay San Gabriel, about 120 kilometers from Tacloban City.

Francisco, who has been been bird-watching for two years, said she had seen other wild birds in flight and Philippine eagles in captivity, but this was the first time she saw a live Philippine Eagle in the wild.

It was perched on a tree branch about 100 meters from where she was standing, Francisco said.
Her brief encounter with the elusive bird lasted about five minutes.

“It stayed there until three rufous hornbills flew by and perched in a nearby tree. The noise of the hornbills (seemed to have) disturbed the Philippine Eagle and it flew away,” she said.

According to Francisco, she went to the Samar natural park to look for the Mindanao bleeding heart pigeon that is known to inhabit the area.

With park guide Joselito Sierra, she went into the forest in the morning of March 10. At 7:55 a.m. she heard sounds from a rufous hornbill.

Expecting the Mindanao bleeding heart pigeon to follow, she got her camera ready. But what came next was a raptor that suddenly perched on a leafless tree. She then realized that it was a Philippine eagle.

“The presence of the Philippine eagle is an indicator that we still have an ecologically balanced forest in Samar,” said Manolito D. Ragu, director of the Eastern Visayas office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

He said there had also been reported sightings of the Philippine eagle in Leyte.
The Philippine eagle is endemic to the Philippines and can be found in eastern Luzon, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao.

Following the various sightings of the national bird in Samar, then President Joseph Estrada issued Proclamation No. 155 on July 31, 1999, establishing the 3,720-hectare Taft Forest Wildlife (Philippine Eagle) Sanctuary in the Samar Island Natural Park. The park includes Mt. Nahulopan in the municipality of Taft.

The Philippine eagle was spotted and scientifically recorded for the first time in Samar 117 years ago by John Whitehead, an English explorer and naturalist. On June 13, 1896.
Whitehead’s servant, Juan, brought him the first specimen of what was then called the “monkey-eating eagle.”

But it was later discovered that the raptor did not just eat monkeys but also civets, large snakes, monitor lizards and flying lemur, among others. In 1978, the monkey-eating eagle was renamed the Philippine eagle.

In 1995, the Philippine eagle was designated the national bird by President Fidel V. Ramos in Proclamation No. 615.

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New Jersey bird watchers treated to rare species this winter

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Birds normally found in other parts of the world visited New Jersey this winter.

Some are occasional visitors while others are rarely if ever seen in the Garden State.

The Voice of New Jersey Audubon is a weekly report of what birders have seen.

During the first weekend of March there were reports of rarities such as Barnacle Goose, Pacific Loon, Western Grebe, Northern Lapwing, Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbird, Crested Caracara, Eurasian Wigeon, Snowy Owl, Yellow-Headed Blackbird. White-winged crossbills have been seen in several locations.

A Barnacle Goose was seen at Lincoln Park West in Jersey City through March 2. Hunterdon County’s Spruce Run Reservoir also had one of this species of geese, which is more commonly found in places like the Netherlands.

As the name implies, the Pacific Loon normally lives on the West Coast but one has been seen in Deal.

A Western Grebe was spotted near Monmouth Beach Cultural Center.

Three Northern Lapwings visiting from Europe were found in a farm pasture in New Egypt, Ocean County.

Not all of the rarities are waterfowl. A Rufous Hummingbird has been at Palmyra Cove Nature Park.

In Salem County, a Crested Caracara was seen in Mannington. A Crested Caracara is tropical version of a vulture. It is normally only found in the United States in Arizona, Texas and Florida.

Common in Europe but not so much in the United States, a Eurasian Wigeon showed up in Atlantic County.

Visiting from the north, a snowy owl was found along the jetty at Barnegat Light State Park. Snowy owls occasionally show up along the Jersey Coast in winter but last year one spent the season at Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County.

Another visitor from the north, a Razorbill was seen at Barnegat. This large auk normally lives in the northern Atlantic Ocean, but occasionally goes as far south as Virginia.

Two greater white fronted geese have been seen in several locales including continue at Assiscong Marsh near Flemington. Local birders would normally have to travel west of the Mississippi or to Russia or Greenland to see some.

As many as four different Pink-footed geese have been seen in various parts of the state including Hunterdon, Monmouth, Mercer and Middlesex counties. This goose breeds in eastern Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. It normally winters in northwest Europe, especially Great Britain, the Netherlands and western Denmark.

Perseverance pays off when looking for unusual gulls. A Mew Gull was found at Spruce Run Reservoir. It is common along Pacific Coast beaches in winter. Since the difference between different species of gulls can be very subtle, finding the one odd-ball bird in a flock of thousands is quite the challenge. The Mew is smaller than the very common ring-billed gulls and lacks the black ring around the bill but otherwise looks the same.

For those interested in learning more about birding, Scott’s Mountain Hawk Watch is having an Open House on Saturday, April 13, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the inlet/outlet tower parking lot at Merrill Creek Reservoir. The rain date is April 14. []

Some Primitive Birds Flew With 4 Wings, Study Says

First, paleontologists spread the word that modern birds are actually living dinosaurs. Then came the news from China that some dinosaurs and related reptiles long ago seemed to be marvelous four-winged creatures, seemingly on standby at some runway for takeoff in flight as early birds.

This handout photo shows a Sapeornis, a type of bird that until now was not believed to have hind feathers. But scientists in China say that some primitive birds used four wings more than 120 million years ago, before evolution led them to ditch their hind feathers in favor of scaly feet. (AFP / Getty Images)

This handout photo shows a Sapeornis, a type of bird that until now was not believed to have hind feathers. But scientists in China say that some primitive birds used four wings more than 120 million years ago, before evolution led them to ditch their hind feathers in favor of scaly feet. (AFP / Getty Images)

Now, Chinese scientists have made a detailed analysis of 11 four-winged fossil specimens that lived about 130 million years ago. They reported Thursday in the journal Science that the study provided the first “solid evidence” that some recently excavated primitive bird species had also adopted the four-wing body plan before they ditched the hind-limb feathers and continued alone with the presumably more efficient feathered forelimb wings.

This evolutionary transition in early birds, the Chinese paleontologists said, “may have played an important role in the evolution of flight.”

At the time, these “basal bird” species appeared to be replacing their hind-limb feathers with scales and developing more birdlike feet. The researchers suggested that the four-winged creatures were already getting ready to use their hind limbs for terrestrial locomotion, like the robin pursuing worms on a lawn or the disputatious crow strutting around an overturned trash can.

The first Chinese discoveries of these feathered limbs were made at the turn of this century in dinosaur species named Microraptor and Sinornithosaurus. It is widely accepted that the large leg feathers in Microraptor were used in aerial locomotion, either in powered flight or merely gliding between trees or parachuting to the ground.

Although the new findings confirmed the presence of four-feathered wings early in the bird lineage as well, the Chinese scientists conceded that the aerodynamic function of this configuration remains debatable. Yet the research team, led by Zheng Xiaoting, of the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature, wrote that the stiff vanes and curving feathers in certain dinosaurs and the basal birds were “aerodynamic in function, providing lift, creating drag and/or enhancing maneuverability, and thus played a role in flight.”

The research team, which also included Xu Xing, a prominent dinosaur investigator at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, examined fossils found in Liaoning Province in northeastern China, a mother lode of remains from the early Cretaceous period. The work on the 11 basal bird specimens, which included several Sapeornis, Yanornis and Confuciusornis species, was conducted mainly at the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature.

Dr. Zheng’s group acknowledged that the way many of the specimens were preserved, revealed only in two dimensions, made it difficult to reconstruct the precise location and orientation of the leg feathers. Each skeleton, for example, is preserved either with the legs splayed outward or with the legs in a crouched position under the body. Nevertheless, the researchers wrote, “there is circumstantial data that might be useful in inferring the distribution and orientation of leg feathers.”

Generally, the leg feathers of modern birds, if they exist at all, are less developed than the arm feathers. They are usually small and fluffy, as in some chickens and pouter pigeons. They presumably serve to protect and insulate the legs, not to help in flight.

Mark A. Norell, a dinosaur paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, did not participate in the investigation but was shown the fossils on recent trips to China. “The work is most interesting,” he said, “but I would like to see a denser sampling” before reaching firm conclusions about the specific importance of the four-wing transition in the origin of bird flight.

He added, “We’ve known for a while, from Microraptor, about specimens with feathers down to their toes, and with feet already resembling those of modern birds.”

Dr. Norell and other paleontologists said the rich Cretaceous fossil beds of China had opened wide a window on the rise of feathered dinosaurs and the early evolution of birds. No one can tell yet how long the transition from four to two wings took.

The 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx from Germany, sometimes called the first bird, probably had feathers on its forelimbs. But recent fossil finds question whether it was a birdlike dinosaur rather than a dinosaurlike member of the true bird lineage. So the Chinese team wrote that, only until now, no examples of the unusual four-wing structure “have so far been reported in basal birds.”