Birds

What a handsome fellow I am! Don't you agree?

I am Mr Blue-billed Duck and the most handsome fellow on the whole lake! The ladies are really very lucky that I am around .........


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.... and I am Mrs Blue-billed Duck! These males at this time of the year are so silly, but they do get me all flustered and happy to watch their antics - I wonder what the show will be today, as Mr Duck has a wicked twinkle in his eye!

To impress Mrs Duck today, I think I will first show her how I can make a large circle of bubbles and small waves all around me. That should show her that I am full of energy, creative and have strong legs.

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He he he. This is SUCH fun and look at her just watching while pretending not to watch too closely. Next I will put my head under the water and then explode out in a shower of water and bubbles - then a very quick shake and flapping of the wings should get me looking all handsome and attractive again. I am sure she will not be able to resist at all! This is usually the show stopper and after that ... dare I say things get easier!?

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Now Mrs Duck, would you like me to start all over again or are you quite ready to come over here and do a little preening before we have some fun? Come on, just a tiny little hint of your mood and I will respond so quickly you will not know what happened!

What will global warming do to the birds around us?

by David Nowell

Everyone is beginning to talk about global warming and the effects it will have on our everyday lives such as warmer weather, less water, rising sea water levels, greater variability in weather and so on. If the weather is going to affect us this much, perhaps we should take a little time to think of the creatures that are entirely dependent upon the weather and other natural phenomena. Birds are typical. They are dependent upon weather for things such as:

* Food: their food is dependent upon the environment whether it is grain, fruits, insects or fish.
* Water: like humans, birds will die without water!
* Migration: birds have to migrate many thousands of kilometres at times to ensure they do not perish in the winter weather, and so that they will continue to have access to food.

Let’s take a closer look at just these three factors.

Food
Humans can either buy their food at the nearest store or we can grow it for ourselves (if they are lucky enough to have access to some land). Birds are entirely dependent on food becoming available at the time when the need it. Therefore, if the environment changes, they may not have food at the critical times during their life cycle and this can affect things such as the breeding season, survival of their young or their ability to survive while migrating. People studying this phenomenon have shown that certain kinds of insects are now emerging at different times of the year (for example, earlier than normal due to the increased winter temperatures in some areas). This means that if insect eating birds do not breed earlier than normal, they may not have enough food for their young or the food could be exhausted before the young can fend for themselves. There are apparently also large changes taking place in sea bird populations. For example, in the northern Atlantic the certain birds’ food (smaller fish species) appears to be moving further north with the cooler water and the birds will now need to follow their food supply. This means they may have to abandon their traditional nesting sites and may not be able to breed in a given season.

Generally, changes in food availability and types of food, will result in changes in the occurrence and distribution of birds and some people are already convinced we are beginning to see this trend occurring in many parts of the world.

Water
Water is essential to life as we know it and birds are no exception! Many bird species are entirely dependent upon water - not just to drink but also for their food (fish or water plants) and breeding habitat. Small changes in water availability could have large effects on bird populations - this means that species could change (some will disappear and new ones may appear). If there is a lot less water, water birds and wader populations could crash, but if there is more water (for example, rise in sea levels) then the number and variety of water birds and waders could increase. If regions are already dry and they start getting less rain or higher temperatures, then certain bird species may no longer occur in the region, while others could increase considerably. There are a small number of birds that get almost all of their moisture from the food they eat, but many of these species are not found in Europe.

Migration
Migration is dependent on many factors. Two key factors are the availability of water and food for most species - not all species migrate over long distances in a few days (some species are now known to fly continuously for more then 8,000 km without stopping long i.e. food only). Many bird species are dependent of food and water along the way to keep themselves going on their long journey. There is emerging evidence that some of the traditional migration routes may not be as favourable as they were due to reduced availability of water en route, for example, raptor migration over the Sahara region. This means that fewer birds can use such routes and/or that migrations times can change significantly and this then affects the birds’ ability to breed when they get to the normal breeding locations.

Although we do not understand all the information involved, it is well documented that many bird species time their migration to coincide with the availability of their food in the spring. Changes in temperature can change food availability patterns completely and this means birds need to adapt their migrations habits/patterns to ensure they are there when food is most abundant so that they can breed successfully?

This is just a superficial look at some of the key factors affected by climate change. Just imagine how confusing it is too many of our little feathered friends and how difficult life may become for some of them.

Being bird brained .... is it that bad?

By David Nowell
FAO Casa Gazette, October 2005

Frequently the term “bird brained” is used to refer to fellow individuals (humans) who are perceived to have reduced intelligence or intellect, or individuals being small minded or having done something less than intelligent. However, some people have recently been astounded to find that a number of the intelligence characteristics (such as language, tool use, awareness of self ad others, and deception) originally though to be entirely human are not only found in some mammals, but also in birds. Perhaps those that are most astounded were being “bird brained”.

Bad jokes aside, there is mounting evidence that birds develop skills that were previously thought impossible, and these skills are associated with brain functions normally only associated with intelligent species. Sometimes these skills are developed at short notice.

Vocalization
Some species of birds show definite learning skill; they sing a song that is a bit of mess at the beginning of their first season, but after a couple of weeks of practice become much better at singing the species' “ anthem”. In the wild though these birds learn from their own species.

Some birds learn, even in the wild, from other species and the ability for birds to mimic other bird calls suggests a significant degree of memory and logic at times. Not only can they mimic similar bird calls/songs, but those calls belonging to a wide range of bird species and vocalization activities e.g. red-capped robin-chat or Natal robin (
Cossaypha natalensis) or Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen). Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for instance will copy the whistles of various shore birds as well as the sound of other songbirds, even mechanical sounds, and incorporate them into their song. One of the greatest song mimics though are the Marsh Warblers. Scientists have recorded and distinguished the calls of over 200 other bird species being used by Marsh Warblers, though not all by the same bird.

It is well known that a variety of birds can be trained to “talk”, or at least repeat words or simple sentences e.g. parrots or the common mynah (
Acridotheres tristis). A quite startling recent fact is that an African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) has been shown to have a vocabulary of over 900 words and can construct simple sentences in response to changes in the environment or the situation i.e. it creates simple sentences and may we even dare say “hold a rudimentary conversation”. The vocal / speech ability of this parrot has been substantiated by a number of well known anthropologists, including Jane Goodall of primate research fame. A simple vocal exchange / conversation with the parrot could certainly beat talking to oneself, or a partner who practices selective hearing or does not respond.

Use of Tools
There were very few examples, outside the human species, of clear planning of original solutions to new problems by individuals. However, on closer examination in recent years some bird species show this characteristic very clearly. A whole variety of birds are able to utilize tools, construct simple tools, and even construct tools from materials they have never encountered before. Birds ability to use tool goes as far back as the late 1940s when the Galapagos Islands Woodpecker Finch (Geospiza pallida) were found to routine spear or pry out grubs from under bark with twigs. The recent classic example is the New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) called Betty. Although the phenomenon of New Caledonian crows developing tools in the wild (such as developing wire or wooden hooks to remove insects from wood) has been carefully documented by some, Betty has been carefully studied in a “laboratory” and there is no doubt that she not only has the ability to solve problems, but to develop specific tools for a given occasion. In the wild, these birds are known to store their tools after use so they are available for repeated use.

Tool usage has also been found to occur in Varied Sitellas (
Daphoenositta chrysotera), crested shrike-tit (Falcunuus frontatus), grey shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica) and white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos) in Australia. Many other tool using species from around the world have been documented in more recent years.

But what else can they do?

Fire and fishing: Black kits (Milvus migrans) have been known to pick up smouldering sticks from areas recently burnt by a bush fire and drop them into unburnt areas so that they can feast on the small mammals that flee from the resulting fire. They have also been observed dropping “bait” into a lake to bring fish to the surface so are easier to catch.

Deception: white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos) in Australia are known to be very cunning. Young birds often pretend to help feed the chicks (they are often too hungry themselves to help properly) at another bird nest, or only assist with a task such as preening when other birds are within sight, in order to convince onlookers they are valued members of the group. This probably has to do with social acceptance and status.

Anting: Perhaps some of the strangest behaviour indulged in by birds is anting. Anting occurs either as active anting, in which the bird picks an ant up and applies it to its plumage, or passive anting. Normally, the ant during active anting will be stroked along the feathers, usually the flight feathers. Over 250 different species of birds have been recorded displaying this behaviour at one time or another. Starlings (Sternus vulgaris) actively seek out formic acid producing ants which suggests that the ants' ability to spray formic acid is an important consideration. It has been observed by many people that during anting the birds appear to get exceedingly excited. After the ant has been applied to the feathers it is either discarded or eaten. Other active anting birds are Babblers, Tanagers and Weavers.

Passive anting involves the bird finding an ants' nest and lying down among the ants. This process often likened to bathing in ants is not as well studied as active anting. Birds which are passive anters include the European Jay (&hellipWinking, Crows and Waxbills. The Blackbird (
Turdus ….), Redwings and other thrushes exercise a flexible strategy, being either passive or active anters as the occasion or some unknown need takes them.

What actually happens during anting is easy to observe and record, especially as many birds will display anting activity in captivity if offered ants. A more difficult question to answer is why. In truth nobody seems really sure what birds get out of anting. People have theorised that the ants help rid the birds of pests like feather mites and louse flies, other theories suggest that the anting is just a way of getting the ant to discharge its store of formic acid before eating it. The trouble with this idea is that it doesn't explain passive anting. Scientific evidence supporting the pest control theory is hard to find. However, it is known that ants are only eaten after they have discharged all of their acid. It is not unreasonable to assume that active anting as we see it today evolved from a detoxifying action to make ants edible but gave the added benefit of pest control to some extent. Nature often likes to perform several roles with one action and though scientists like to understand the order of importance and/or the order of origination of an action this is not always easy to achieve.

Memory: Some people claimed that animal with the best memory on earth is the bird! AN example of extraordinary memory is shown by Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). This North American bird collects up to 33,000 seeds in November each year which it buries in over 2,500 food cache sites over an area that may measure 300 km2. Over the next 12 months it retrieves over 90% of these sees and some may be buried by more than a metre of snow!! ........ migration, storage of food.

Innovation: The Japanese crow (Corvus corone) were found to crack walnuts by placing in them in the path of traffic. When the lights changed to red they hopped down to the road and placed nuts in front of waiting cars. When the lights turned green, the birds flew to safety while the motorists drove over the nuts and cracked them open. Again when the lights turned red, they jumped onto the road and ate the freshly cracked nuts. Image if our brain could do that, particularly in response to exams!

The black-breasted buzzard (
Hamirostra melanosternon) are known to drop stones onto the nest eggs of Emu (….), bustards and Brolga (…..) in order to break open the eggs so they can eat the content. As are Egyptian vultures (…&hellipWinking known to use stones to break ostrich (Struthos ….. ) eggs.

Faeces: burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) are widely known to collect mammalian dung and place it around their burrow / nest. This has now been shown to act as bait for their primary food – dung beetles. They are known to stand motionless outside their burrows and then pounce on any unsuspecting dung beetle that may wonder near the burrow. The use of dung as a tool significantly increases the both the number of species and beetles it catches each day.

The bird brain
Recent studies have shown there is a strong direct relationship between increase size of a bird’s forebrain and the frequency of feeding innovation. Bird’s forebrain is usually about 5 times the size of the hindbrain. However, 2 groups with prominent forebrains are “corvids” (crows, magpie etc) and parrots which have increased ability to solve challenges, reasoning and language.

Studies also suggest that the bird brain is far more malleable than that of the human. The formation of spatial memories (such a relocating stored food) triggers massive increases in the number of nerve cells that migrate to the hippocampus (which is known as the area for spatial memory). As a result a bird’s hippocarpus may swell over 30% in only a few weeks. As maintaining this brain matter is expensive in terms of energy, it shrinks again when this memory demand has passed.

Investigation of songbird brains show that discrete brain structures are required by songbirds and such studies are giving us insight into basic issues of neuroscience that are applicable to other species.

Where does that leave us?
Clearly we are not the only animals on earth with intelligence and the ability to reason and solve challenges. Perhaps man is more impressive than any other animal in this regard, but we are less unique than we thought a few years ago. I suspect many of the current concepts and theories relating to bird behaviour will have to radically change. Over the next decade or so, we will learn an increasing amount about birds and their ability to think and/or reason, their memory, and behaviour. Complex social ornithological behaviour that we currently do not understand (or perhaps even some of those we think we understand) may become more understandable, provided we studied it more carefully and did not restrict ourselves to looking for the answers within normal “expected” bird behaviour from a current human knowledge perspective.

And now, what do we do with the usually standard sayings such as “being bird brained” or “learning like a parrot”? Perhaps we could still use these expressions, but we will now have to use them more carefully in a variety of very different or new contexts. Given the way my memory normally behaves, I could probably only benefit from having a bird brain – a “ food storage” bird brain that is.

Additional reading
Boland, C. 2003. Bird brains. Nature Australia 2003-2004. pgs 47-53.
Hunt, G.R and Gray, R.D. 2003. Diversification and cumulative evolution in New Caledonian crow tool manufacture. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. 270: 867-874.
Levy, J.L., Duncan, R.S. and Levins, C.F. 1004. This bird distributes animal dung in and around its brrow to provide bait for its prey. Nature 431:39.

Parrots in Rome?

By Magnus “The Birdwatcher” Grylle
FAO Casa Gazette, 2004.


Being a birdwatcher, friends of mine occasionally start a conversation along the lines “the other day I saw this bird in the garden”. It is always terrifying. My reputation and self-respect is immediately at stake. To make bad worse, experience says that most descriptions that will follow are bafflingly vague. They can often fit any bird from an owl to starling - and probably everything in between. Europe is not the richest of continents in terms of bird species, but it still gives some 100 reasonably even- and mid-sized birds to choose among.

Therefore, it was a great relief when my friend, living in Monteverde close to the Doria Pamphili Park, recently continued saying “they were this big” (waving hands) “and all green, making squeaking noises”. He helpfully added, “they sat in the top of a tree”. Deeply satisfied, and for once fully confident, I replied: “You have seen parrots!” My friend is not totally uninformed, so he objected “but parrots are not supposed to be in Europe, or are they?”

He is right. Parrots are a very large family of birds, and amongst others include parrots, parakeets and cockatoos, and there are over 300 species worldwide. They are a familiar sight to many of us working at FAO, but then in tropical locations. Parrots occur in Australia, throughout south Asia, over to Africa and South America up to south Mexico, but not in Europe. So, how could I be so certain about what my friend had seen?

Parrots are robust, tough and long-lived birds. They are also strong and quick flyers, living of seeds, fruit and various vegetables. The Roman climate is not tropical, but sufficiently forgiving so new arrivals can learn where to find food and shelter. Parrots live naturally in northern India and there the winters are also harsh and they managed to survive. Although their population density is low, they live relatively long lives and there is a slim, but fair chance, they may meet a partner if they only hang in there long enough.

Popular cage birds as they are, they are caught, bred, and traded throughout the world. Occasionally, they escape. Others are deliberately released, when their owners get bored with maintaining them. A common cage species is the Rose-ringed Parakeet, a species occurring naturally in India and the Sahel region in Africa. It’s an all green parrot of about 40 cm long. The bird is smaller than the measurement suggests as much of it is a long green tail. The parrots my friend saw were this species. The male has a characteristic rose-coloured ring around the neck, which is completely absent in the female. They have typical parrot beaks, are part of the extended parrot “family”, and are essentially seed eating, although they are known to eat a variety of food including some fruit. They fly fast and characteristically have a fast wing beat. They are social and can be found in flocks of up to 20 birds. Nesting takes place in tree hollows or nests other birds have hollowed out in trees – normally at least 8 metres above the ground. Cavities are in the region of 300 – 500 mm deep, a 70 mm diameter entrance hole, and an internal width of approximately 150 mm. The local pine trees are ideal as they have many such potential nest sites. They produce clutches of 2-3 eggs (unmarked white colouration and around 31 x 24 mm in size) in a clutch and are usually able to raise at least 2 babies a year. Only the female partner incubates the eggs and both parents feed the babies. The nestling/fledgling period lasts for approximately 49 days. They are known to be well adapted to cultivated and urban areas, and do particularly well in areas with older trees that form natural cavities readily.

Rose-ringed Parakeet have successfully bred in Rome for the past few years. Although it is not exactly known how it occurred, it is most likely two lonely unwanted immigrants met in a tree top somewhere a few years back. The rest is history and they are now quite common in the Monteverde area. They also occur in other parks of Rome as Cafacarella and Celli Montana. It is even possible to see them at and around FAO. Once, three of them came swooping down into the large garden below while we enjoyed our coffee at the terrace outside the “Blue Bar” in building C.

Introducing a species, intentionally or by mistake, in a new area isn’t always such a brilliant idea. There are numerous examples of mistakes e.g. the European starling in non-European locations is one example of a bird now completely out of control. Rose-ringed Parakeets are definitely foreign here. So far they are only a slightly exotic addition to the Sunday stroll in the park, but the population is growing in numbers and distribution. To my knowledge they occur only in cities (Rome is not the only one), in Europe. However, these birds are very adaptable, have a relatively high breeding success, and are known to out compete a number of indigenous species on other continents. In these regions, this means they are invasive and have basically become an unwanted pest. It will not be long before they can be found throughout Rome, or at least were they have an appropriate habit to breed and survive. As it is almost impossible to eliminate them (even if this is what one would want to do), the best we can do is try not to encourage them too much, learn more about them and their local habits so that we can develop a management strategy, and at least try to learn to appreciate them. After all, they are beautiful birds in their natural habit.

Although they appear to be relatively well adapted, the urban environment is relatively new for them. Although this species is known to impact on indigenous bird species in other countries, not enough is known whether “our” parakeets can fully exploit the local environment without negatively impacting any other winged or non-winged species. Time will tell, and then it may be too late to do anything about it if they become problematic. If they ever make it out to the natural forests – we’ll see, if we hang in here long enough.

What is happening to the birds around us?

by David Nowell, FAO Casa Gazette, April 2004

Have you noticed the changes in the bird communities this spring? Or was it only the birds becoming very vocal again that made you aware of them, or that you seldom notice them at all? As we go about our daily lives at this time of the year, many changes are taking place in the bird communities around us. Spring is a truly remarkable period for birds with much change taking place in these communities, which most of us just take for granted.



The resident birds are welcoming the new season and the prospect of summer by becoming very active in preparing their nests, courting, feasting on fresh food, and breeding. It is during this period that the more observant of us usually notice an increase in birds singing, particularly as the sun comes up. If one looks more carefully during the day there is great activity as birds select and build their nests – European starlings, hooded crows and blackbirds breed in late winter and early spring. Soon they are foraging for food as they have to feed many hungry mouths back in the nests, and there is a continuous food shuttle back and forth to the nest to keep the noisy nestlings temporarily happy. It will not be long before the little birds emerge and start fending for themselves while often being guarded by their agitated and aggressive parents.



Those species that visited us for winter, while their summer home was too cold or had no food during winter, have started moving back inland or further north. Some of these birds species are with us all year, but their numbers can increase a lot in winter. These birds included greenfinch, black redstart, Sardinia warbler, common kestrel and European robin. Other winter visitors are particularly apparent if one visits surrounding water bodies during the winter months e.g. Lago di Bracciano or Lago di Vico. It is possible to see many different water birds during these months, many of them in large numbers (for example, pochard, wigeon, teal, and the ubiquitous mallard), over this period and you may even get lucky and see less common birds for this area such as the bittern. Many of these birds start leaving in February and gradually move north as it begins to warm up.



The big change of course is the migrating birds! What a wonderful time of the year it is with so many different types of birds returning to summer in the northern hemisphere. Many of these return to breed or feed in the city or locally, but an even greater number pass by on their way to northern Europe. We are sometimes lucky to see these migrating birds if and when they stop to rest and feed, before continuing their long journey north (particularly waders in areas outside the city). Some of these birds may only have been to northern Africa, but the majority have travelled much further – even as far south as South Africa. It is incredible that such small animals are able to travel this distance in a short space of time to their old summer feeding and breeding grounds. For central Italy, this migration starts in earnest in March and will last into May.



In Rome, we can soon expect the willow warblers, yellow wagtail, pied and collared flycatcher, amongst many others, to join the house martin and common swift that arrived in late March. Soon they will also start nesting and breeding while there is food and before it gets too hot and dry. This will also give the young time to grow and prepare for the long journey south at the end of summer to start the whole cycle all over again.



When one looks closer at these different birds, it is remarkable to see such variety and beauty (they range is size, shape and colour) in such small creatures that we normally pass without taking any notice. So, when next you are outside, whether it is for a walk or stuck in the traffic, look around for our feathered friends. You may be surprise how much joy they can bring for so little effort........


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