Testing Animal Intelligence

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A test of four different species shows they can accurately assign value to food and tokens, swapping lower value items for higher value food. Credit Image by Comparative Cognition Research Group (CCRG)

Thanks to James Gorman for the latest examination of animal intelligence:

Chalk up another achievement for parrots, with an odd twist that raises questions about whether the experimenters or the birds know best.

Anastasia Krasheninnikova and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany tested four species of parrots in an experiment that required trading tokens for food and recently reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Would the birds resist an immediate reward to trade for something better? Many species have shown the ability to hold off on an immediate treat — like a dry corn kernel — for something tastier later on, like a bit of walnut. Continue reading

Ornithology, Methods & Mystery

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Ping Zhu

Some contributors to our pages here would likely have much more clear views on this story than I do. I am certain that I favor scientific method, and this scientist followed protocol. And yet, the fallout from his scientific methods was intense. And it was not as simple as trolls gonna troll. I understand the fallout but instead of outrage I am full of questions about this story about The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer by Kirk Wallace Johnson:

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The mustached kingfisher. Robert Moyle

For some time, I’d been searching for Christopher Filardi, a biologist with decades of field experience in the Solomon Islands. I wanted to interview him for a book I was writing, but the email system at the American Museum of Natural History, which once listed him as the director of Pacific programs at its Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, bounced back my message.

The auto-reply said that he’d moved to another organization, Conservation International. When I wrote him there, another auto-reply informed me that he had moved on. I couldn’t find him on Facebook or Twitter. The man seemed to have vanished.

When I finally found a working number for him, he was reluctant to talk. Three years ago, his life was overturned by an online mob that accused him of murder. The fact that the mob’s outrage was driven by ignorance didn’t make it any less frightening. Continue reading

Birds + Artists + Spraypaint = Audubon Murals

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A swallow-tailed kite and 12 other birds painted by Lunar New Year.

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Tricolored Heron by Federico Massa a.k.a. iena cruz. Photo: Mila Tenaglia

Murals with birds always capture our attention; we cannot resist linking to such initiatives when they are cleverly conceived, elegantly executed, and perfectly placed. Enjoy this epic series, a fitting tribute to the National Audubon Society:

Where Birds Meet Art . . . After Dark

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Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The Audubon Mural Project is a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and Gitler & Gallery to create murals of climate-threatened birds throughout John James Audubon’s old Harlem‐based neighborhood in New York City. The project is inspired by the legacy of the great American bird artist and pioneering ornithologist and is energized by Audubon’s groundbreaking Birds and Climate Change Report, which reveals at least half of all North American birds are threatened by a warming climate. The project commissions artists to paint murals of each of the report’s 314 species, and has been widely covered in the media, including most recently by The New York Times.

Thanks to the Editorial Board of the New York Times for reminding us of this:

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Louise Jones, with her husband, Gabe, working on a mural of an evening grosbeak. Credit Photographs by Karsten Moran for The New York Times

In his final years, John James Audubon, the celebrated 19th-century painter of bird life, lived in rustic uptown Manhattan in a house by the Hudson where some of his final paintings were of urban rats that caught his eye. Continue reading

Richard O. Prum’s Beauty Challenge

EvolutionBeautyFor evolutionary biology, on this platform we have favored E.O. Wilson because of his biophilia ideas (about which, plenty). For ornithology, we have leaned heavily on the Lab at Cornell and its many wonderful folks. Now, a scientist at Yale combines both of those fields and takes on the topic of beauty in a challenging manner–I am looking forward to this.

Click the book image at the left to go Indie Bound, a community of independent local bookstores, or if you need more convincing, read the beautifully illustrated Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution by James Gorman in the Science section of the New York Times. It is as much profile as review and asks:

Are aesthetic judgments about mates invariably tied to traits we see as adaptive and worth passing on Or, does beauty just ‘happen’?

Not long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise.

“Why is there so much beauty?” he asked.

Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all? Continue reading

Massive Scale of Discovery In Remaining Forests Inspires, Raising The Stakes For Conservation

Galapagos, Bird Behavior & More Great Science Writing

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A booby doing its mating dance. Credit Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket, via Getty Images

We had missed one of our favorite science writers for a while and we are so happy she is back! In her latest outing, covering ground we thought was already familiar, we get some new clues to the meaning of their coloration and rituals:

On Galápagos, Revealing theBlue-Footed Booby’s True Colors

With no real predators, the birds live proud, public lives. That accessibility has proved a bonanza for scientists, casting light on their mating habits and even why the shade of their feet matters.

By Natalie AngierContinue reading

Caribbean Naturalist Paper Published!

Caribbean Naturalist Tyto alba Hellshire HillsAfter a year of waiting, the paper that I wrote with Justin and John is finally published! This is a journal article that arose from an accidental encounter with a juvenile Barn Owl in a small cave that I noticed on the side of a trail we were on while exploring the Hellshire Hills. This southern region of Jamaica is not one in which we expected to see the Golden Swallow, but we wanted to check anyway, as well as look out for some of the rare tropical dry scrub species we might find in the area, like the Jamaican Iguana, previously thought extinct.

I briefly hinted at this paper in an old post after our return from Jamaica, but didn’t mention it after that since I knew a published article would tell the story more fully, albeit more technically and with science instead of storytelling as a priority. In the cover photo above I’ve included a link to the PDF version of Caribbean Naturalist journal issue 37, which contains our article, but I also want to summarize our findings in lay terms for those less familiar with the biological jargon.

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Birdsong, Beauty & Beholder

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Thanks as always to Barbara King, who we link to from time to time on topics of simple, natural beauty:

What Do Birds Hear When They Sing Beautiful Songs?

Birdsong is music to human ears.

It has inspired famous composers. For the rest of us, it may uplift the spirit and improve attention or simply be a source of delight, fun and learning.

But have you ever wondered what birds themselves hear when they sing? Continue reading

Finding A Mate In The Camargue

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Flamingos strutting their stuff at a park in the Camargue region of southern France. Credit Jean E. Roche/Minden Pictures

Thanks to Tuesday’s Science section in the New York Times:

Flamingo Mating Rules: 1. Learn the Funky Chicken

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Flamingos are very good dancers. They twist and preen, they scratch their heads, they march in unison. They poke a wing in one direction and a leg in another. Continue reading

Honeyguide Relationship can Include Talking

Greater Honeyguide specimen used in Cornell’s Ornithology course (photo and handling by a teaching assistant)

When I took Cornell’s course in ornithology, we learned about all the bird families in the world to varying extent, often based on the number of species within each family or how interesting they were to our professor. One family that we did not cover with great depth, but which was considered a “cool” example of evolution that could either make for a fascinating science experiment or just good cocktail-party chatting––we were gently reminded that the latter shouldn’t always revolve around weird bird things––was Indicatoridae, or the honeyguides.

While not all members of this family are literally guides to honey, one species in particular, the Greater Honeyguide, is well known for actually showing (or indicating) the way to beehives, where humans can harvest honey and the birds can eat larvae and wax. In this week’s edition of Science, researchers from Cambridge University and University of Cape Town published a paper revealing that the wild birds can actually be better guides when they receive a certain signal from the human honey-hunters. Nicola Davis reports:  Continue reading

What Can Be Done with eBird Data?

Brighter colors indicate higher relative abundance. © Cornell University

The Western Tanager is a species I have yet to see, but which will be unmistakeable once I do, with the male’s red-and-orange head and bright yellow body contrasting with black wings striped with white bars. Based on the animated map above, I expect to spot some of them down in Baja California Sur by September or October, and I look forward to it. As I’ve written here before in the case of another moving map, citizen science makes this sort of illustrative prediction of a species’ moving presence possible, and it’s one of the reasons why I contribute to eBird as often as I can.

A paper titled “Using open access observational data for conservation action: A case study for birds” was published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation by a team of researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, several of whom I was just down the hallway from when I worked there. Although I haven’t gotten through their findings yet myself, Victoria Campbell chose nine interesting examples of how eBird data created tangible conservation in several countries.  Continue reading

Discovering Gold in the Greater Antilles (Part 3)

Our (un)faithful jeep breaks down again. This time the rear axle snaps in half. Not good. Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2012.

This is the final installment of the series; you can read Part 1 and Part 2.

As my vision begins to clear, I know all-too-well what I’ll hear next…
Whoa, sounds like an adventure! So, tell me, what are your plans for a PhD?
[My vision goes dark again…]

In 2014, I conducted my last full field season in the Dominican Republic (in other words, I had burnt up all of my NSF funding and the winds of change were blowing my wife and me from Ithaca down to Raleigh). That being said, I was (and still am) extremely passionate about Golden Swallows, and more and more so about aerial insectivores throughout the Caribbean (swifts and swallows of course; those flycatchers and nightjars will have to find other sponsors). I did, however, have the pleasure of sneaking in one more (big) Golden Swallow adventure before my master’s defense came around. I was asked by Gary Graves, the Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, to finish the long-running census work he had been carrying out in Jamaica in search of the critically endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow (T. e. euchrysea) – the only other known race of Golden Swallow and one that hadn’t been reliably seen since the 1980’s. Gary had scoured the island except for two places the Cockpit Country in the northwest and the Blue Mountains in the southeast.

Adult female Golden Swallow incubating her clutch; Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2013.

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Discovering Gold in the Greater Antilles (Part 2)

View of Parque Valle Nuevo from the top of the Pajon Blanco Fire Tower; Dominican Republic.

This post follows a previous piece, which you can read here.

And so we set out on an adventure of a lifetime with the underlying goal of studying a bird and using what we learned to help save that bird, while simultaneously nourishing an already burgeoning sense of local stewardship over Hispaniola’s feathered friends and the habitats they so deeply depend upon. We set the bar high from the beginning, and I can be honest in saying that I feel good about what we accomplished and where the project stands today.

Two Golden Swallow chicks have just hatched. One begs for food, one contemplates life, and one refuses to come out; Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic, 2014.

However, as opposed to trying to tackle an impossible play-by-play of what transpired over those next three years (thankfully all of that information is in my master’s thesis and can be yours for just three easy payments of $29.99), I’m going to take a slightly different approach. I’m going to share with descriptions of images (and feelings) that go through my head when somebody kindly asks me, “So how’d that Golden Swallow Project go?” Little does that person know how much weight a question like that can have, or how it causes me to temporary black-out as my mind boards a high-speed emotional (and perhaps somewhat spiritual) roller-coaster from which there is little hope for return for at least the ensuing two minutes. So let’s go for a ride.

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Discovering Gold in the Greater Antilles (Part 1)

Male Hispaniolan Golden Swallow perched over-top an artificial nest-box in Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic; July 2014.

With a title like that, I’m hoping that many of you instinctively hucked your laptops across the room, sprinted out to the barn and started hitching your pride-and-joy appaloosa to the covered wagon your grandpappy gave to you as a belated wedding gift back in the summer of ‘69. Just don’t forget the “caulk the wagon and float” option if you’re coming from the mainland.

If you decide to make the journey, I suggest making landfall on the beautiful island of Hispaniola (gold deposits have all but dried up in Jamaica – but more on that later). Trade in your bikini and flip-flops for some long pants and hiking boots, because what you came for can only be reliably found high up in the mountains. Not that I like to give away too much insider advice, but if I were you, I’d keep heading up until you’ve reached the Hispaniolan pine forests – the highest altitude forest type you’ll find on the island. Find a grassy clearing, sit down, and wait, because at this point, the gold is going to come to you! With mighty wings (~11cm long each), fearsome talons (actually you’d have to strain to even notice the legs on this bird), and a relentless hunger for meat (prey doesn’t get much bigger than an 8mm march fly), watch out as the infamous Golden Swallow comes tearing over the nearest hillside radiating its majestic golden sheen across the lands…wait…wait…I can’t do this anymore. It’s a tiny bird that can’t peck to save its life, and unless the light of a passing-by solar flare manages to reflect off the swallow’s dorsal plumage at a perfect 47.86o angle, the bird is green!

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Another Addition to the Annals of Dung

We’ve written about dung before, when it came to beetles rolling it for the poop’s role (ha) in their life cycle, and when it’s been used for recycled paper, and even household cooking gas derived from biodigested manure. Now, we’re learning via Audubon Magazine about another use for the dried doo, and we figured that would be a good time to share about another interesting excremental story from the natural world, which happens to be the fastest moving organism, in a sense.

Both the Black Lark, a bird species found in Europe and western Asia, and the genus of fungi called Pilobolus, more widely distributed around the world, have to deal with something called the Zone of Repugnance when it comes to dung. Although the ornithologists in the Audubon article aren’t quoted using this phrase, it is accepted in mycologist parlance for those who study livestock excrement or something related to it: animals will avoid eating grass or greens in an area where fecal matter is present. Around every pile of poop is a perimeter that the grazers try to not chew on. Black Larks take advantage of that fact to build their nests in no-step zones, and Pilobolus need to shoot their spores behind enemy lines. Matt Soniak, for Audubon:

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The Nechisar Nightjar

Cover Art © Pegasus Books

Although I haven’t read this book yet, I do know what it’s like to be on an expedition to find a bird that hasn’t been seen in several decades, which is the subject of Vernon Head’s book, freshly published in the US this month. “The Rarest Bird in the World” tells the story of the search for a bird related to potoos called the Nechisar Nightjar, which had been identified as a new species in the 1990s by Cambridge scientists who found a single wing of the bird in a remote area of Ethiopia.

The publisher blurb makes it sound pretty engaging:

Part detective story, part love affair, and pure adventure storytelling at its best, a celebration of the thrill of exploration and the lure of wild places during the search for the elusive Nechisar Nightjar. In 1990 an expedition of Cambridge scientists arrived at the Plains of Nechisar, tucked between the hills of the Great Rift Valley in the Gamo Gofa province in the country of Ethiopia. On that expedition they found three hundred and fifteen species of birds; sixty one species of mammal and sixty nine species of butterfly were identified; twenty species of dragonflies and damselflies; seventeen reptile species were recorded; three frog species were filed; plants were listed. And the wing of a road-killed bird was packed into a brown paper bag. It was to become the most famous wing in the world.

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Ornithological Epicenter

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

– Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, 1859

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has long been a leading presence in the study, appreciation and conservation of birds. From citizen science programs, to eBird, to research collaboration with the the National Geographic Society, the Lab has helped to educate the public about the environmental importance of birds. The Wall of Birds, titled “From So Simple a Beginning,” from the Darwin quote above, celebrates the world of birds, showcasing biodiversity and evolutionary change, by featuring species from all surviving bird families alongside several extinct ancestors.

The scale of the mural is mind-blowing! The world map covers the largest wall of the Lab’s visitor center, with life-sized birds from each of the 243 taxonomic families of the world, placed in their geographical endemic locations. Check out the scale of the flying albatross in the lower left of the mural! The pale, gray scale depictions of the extinctions and ancestors adds to the complexity of the mural.

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We All Like a Good Lek

There’s a couple places where we’ve mentioned leks on this blog before–primarily where grouse have been involved–but the first happens to be from 2012, when I was sharing about another bird from the same family as the species shown in the video below. That was the Club-winged Manakin, which I caught on video with a small point-and-shoot camera looking through a guide’s spotting scope. As I explained back then, lek is a Swedish word that has come to mean competitive displays between males of a species to become the breeding choice of one or more females of the same species, most often in the avian world. This time, I got some video from my hand-held (and a tad shaky) Canon Powershot SX50:

In the video above, you can watch one, and then two, male Long-tailed Manakins call and flutter together in the woods just off-trail at Xandari Resort, perhaps as a display Continue reading

Meet the Godwit in North Korea

A godwit made international headlines in 2007 when she was confirmed to have flown for seven days and nights without stopping to a feeding ground in China. That was the longest nonstop flight by a land bird ever recorded. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

A godwit made international headlines in 2007 when she was confirmed to have flown for seven days and nights without stopping to a feeding ground in China. That was the longest nonstop flight by a land bird ever recorded. 

To the untrained eye, it’s just a lot of birds on an otherwise deserted stretch of muddy, flat coastline. But for ornithologists, North Korea’s west coast is a little piece of paradise each spring — and both the birds and a dedicated group of birdwatchers travel a long way to get there. The birds being watched aren’t exactly household names — bar-tailed godwits (Limosa Iapponica), great knots (Calidris Tenuirostris) and dunlins (Calidris Alpina).

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Bamboo Wind Chimes for Birds

One of the finished chimes

The picture above shows one of a couple bamboo wind chimes that Seth and I built to put up around Xandari. The sound is, err, rather wooden–but definitely mild and pleasant! You may be asking why we took it upon ourselves to demonstrate our mighty artistic prowess. Well, we really had the birds of Xandari in mind with this project. Specifically, a poor Buff-throated Saltator who had thrown himself against the spa window so many times that he had Continue reading