Good Journalism, Excellent Environmental Coverage

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff. A white ibis flies over the Everglades, where many bird species nest each year. Restoration efforts in Florida’s “river of grass” have begun to show signs of progress.

The CS Monitor was the newspaper delivered to our home when I was growing up. Lucky me. These days it still offers good journalism, but is no longer a paper. They made the switch to digital-only in 2008. In earlier years of my monitoring dozens of news sources for this platform it was the source of numerous stories of environmental interest in our pages. But in the last few years, for no particular reason, I failed to monitor their website for stories. And then today, this:

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff. Birds look like white flecks from the air.

‘River of Grass’: Inside the quest to restore the Everglades

Richard Mertens Special contributor

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff. Three eggs sit in a nest in the Everglades.

Eight hundred feet up, the helicopter banks hard to the left. The horizon disappears. Mark Cook, an avian biologist, peers out his side window at a small irregular patch of water below. It’s hardly distinguishable from innumerable other patches that lie in every direction, dark and shining amid a ragged expanse of brown marsh grass and green tree islands. Continue reading

Understanding That Recent Bird Crash

When news reports about this unusual event reached us, time was short. We did not have time to read any details, and now it is clear that waiting for science to comment was a useful delay.

Thanks to Juan Siliezar for the explanation:

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Those birds that crashed and died? It wasn’t fumes

After internet theorists react to viral video, Harvard researchers answer with science

You’ve probably seen the video — or at least heard some chirpings about it.

Footage from a security camera in Cuauhtémoc, a city in Chihuahua, Mexico, shows a massive flock of migratory birds swooping down like a cloud of black smoke and crashing onto pavement and the roof of a house. Continue reading

Richard Prum In Conversation With Tyler Cowen

We linked to one of Richard Prum’s books more than four years ago, then he was mentioned in a couple posts, each with small quotes based on his expertise. Here he is in conversation with someone who clearly appreciates his work and who knows how to ask good questions:

Richard Prum really cares about birds. Growing up in rural Vermont, he didn’t know anyone else interested in birding his own age. The experience taught him to rely on his own sense of curiosity and importance when deciding what questions and interests are worth studying. As a result, he has pursued many different paths of research in avian biology — such as behavioral evolution, where feathers come from, sexual selection and mate choice — many of which have led to deep implications in the field. In 2017, Tyler agreed with several prominent outlets that Prum’s book The Evolution of Beauty was one of the best books of the year, writing that it “offers an excellent and clearly written treatment of the particulars of avian evolution, signaling theory, and aesthetics, bringing together some disparate areas very effectively.” Continue reading

How To Define Species

During the most recent ice age, glaciers divided an ancestral population of crows; one group became all-black carrion crows, the other hooded crows with gray breasts and bodies. Illustrations by François-Nicolas Martinet / Alamy

Protecting species from extinction has been a running theme in our pages over the years. Underlying these many stories was an assumption, at least on our part, that defining boundaries between species is settled science. We will no longer take that for granted:

Where Do Species Come From?

By studying crows, a German biologist has helped to solve a centuries-old mystery.

The evolutionary biologist Jochen Wolf was working from home when we first spoke, in April, 2020. Germany was under lockdown, and his lab, at Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich, had been closed for weeks. Still, a reminder of his research had followed him from the office. “I have a crow nest right in front of me,” Wolf said, from his rooftop terrace. The nest was well hidden at the top of a tall spruce tree. Through the branches, Wolf could see a female crow sitting on her eggs. Continue reading

One Of The Most Mind-blowing Discoveries In The History Of 20th- And 21st-Century Ornithology

Whimbrel returning to Deveaux Bank for their night roost. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

We have not featured Deborah Cramer in our pages previously, but this seems like a fine time to start. She is a visiting scholar at M.I.T.’s Environmental Solutions Initiative and the author of the book to the right.  Accompanied by excellent photographs from Damon Winter as well as exceptionally lucid infographics, her interactive essay in the New York Times is a forceful plea for conservation of a sensitive bird habitat:

An Oystercatcher on the bank. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Leave This Wondrous Island to the Birds

An ever-changing spit of sand on the Carolina coast is a haven for multitudes of shorebirds. But nature and humans threaten it.

ABOUT 20 MILES south of Charleston, S.C., at the mouth of the North Edisto River, a small, horseshoe-shaped sandbar rises above the water. The claim of land is tenuous on Deveaux Bank, about a half-mile offshore. At high tide, it’s three-quarters submerged. Deveaux’s sand is continually shifting as swirling currents build it up and wash it away. In some years, the island disappears altogether. Continue reading

Elizabeth Gould, Illustrator Of Note

Gouldian Finches, named for Elizabeth Gould, from The Birds of Australia. Illustration: Elizabeth Gould/Public Domain

When we think of birds and illustrations, most frequently the work of John James Audubon comes to mind. But there were others:

Meet Elizabeth Gould, the Gifted Artist Behind Her Husband’s Famous Bird Books

John Gould’s ornithology books were hugely popular and cemented his name in history. But his wife’s illustrations were a big reason why.

In 1830, when English taxidermist John Gould was keen to publish his first volume of bird species, his wife Elizabeth asked him who would create the illustrations. She knew her unartistic husband wouldn’t be up to the task. Continue reading

Birding Manners Matter

A crowd hoping to see a snowy owl gathered at the reservoir in Central Park. Some birders complain that large groups can disturb rare species. Dave Sanders for The New York Times

You do not need to be a bird nerd to appreciate that an avocation like this one needs some rules of the game, especially at moments like these, which seem to come around every few years:

Twitter Is Turning Birds Into Celebrities and Birders Against One Another

A Twitter account helped spread the word about rare birds in New York City, but publicizing their locations exposed a rift among birders.

A barred owl, whose visit to Central Park has been promoted by some birders, including one who maintains the popular Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert. Dave Sanders for The New York Times

In 2018 it was the Mandarin duck. Last October it was the barred owl. Just weeks ago it was the snowy owl.

All three avian species catapulted to celebrity status after they landed in Central Park, becoming the subject of news reports from Manhattan to India and attracting gaggles of groupies, snapping away on their smartphones.

These rare glimpses of nature in the heart of New York elicit a dose of joy in the best of times. Continue reading

Migration Corridors & Conservation Priorities

Approximately 80 percent of all Lawrence’s goldfinches migrate through California’s Central Valley every spring. ALAN SCHMIERER/FLICKR

Thanks to Yale e360 for this note:

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Just Two Western U.S. Corridors

California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta host more than 82 million birds every year during the spring migration, according to a new study published in the journal Ornithological Applications. Continue reading

Advances In Animal Migration Studies

Illustration by Shyama Golden

Sonia Shah, a science journalist and author of “The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move,” has provided a great summary of recent developments on the study of animal migration:

Animal Planet

An ambitious new system will track scores of species from space — shedding light, scientists hope, on the lingering mysteries of animal movement.

‘‘I’m going to do a set of coos,” Calandra Stanley whispered into the radio. The Georgetown ornithologist and her team had been hunting cuckoos, in an oak-and-hickory forest on the edge of a Southern Illinois cornfield, for weeks. Droplets of yesterday’s rain slid off the leaves above to those below in a steady drip. In the distance, bullfrogs croaked from a shallow lake, where locals go ice fishing in winter. Continue reading

What It’s Like To Be A Bird–Book, Author Interview & Master Class

We missed this book when it was published earlier this year, until now–an interview with its author about best birding practices caught our attention. The publisher has this to say about the book:

The bird book for birders and nonbirders alike that will excite and inspire by providing a new and deeper understanding of what common, mostly backyard, birds are doing–and why

“Can birds smell?” “Is this the same cardinal that was at my feeder last year?” “Do robins ‘hear’ worms?” In What It’s Like to Be a Bird, David Sibley answers the most frequently asked questions about the birds we see most often…

David Allen Sibley is also offering this online course in conjunction with 92Y:

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a bird? Can birds smell? Is that the same cardinal that was at your feeder last year? What are backyard birds doing and why? Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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