Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Birds in the News: Puffins, Penguins, and More

Atlantic Puffin
Bird stories have been popping up in the news quite a bit in recent weeks. Jamie Dunning, who studies phylogeny and evolutionary history at the University of Nottingham, was fooling around with bird specimens in his lab one day, putting them under a black light. When he placed an Atlantic Puffin under the light, what to his wondering eyes should appear but bright fluorescent areas on and around the beak.

Puffin under blacklight. Photo by Jamie Dunning.
Dunning already knew that another oceanic bird belonging to the same Alcid family, the Crested Auklet, fluoresces under black lights. Unlike humans, birds can detect UV wavelengths in daylight. Dunning suspects that the markings may have evolved in these very colonial species to help adults pick out the best potential mates or recognize one another in a crowd, or to help chicks see or recognize their parents. (Story in Newsweek)

On the other side of the globe, NASA satellite images of penguin poop led researchers to discover a supercolony of more than 1.5 million Adélie Penguins in the Danger Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula’s northern tip. This is especially good news because penguin populations are declining grievously along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, due primarily to climate change. The researchers also found several populations of more than a hundred Gentoo Penguins and one small population of Chinstrap Penguins; this was reported this week in Nature. (Story in USA Today)

Also in Antarctica, Eddie Gault of the Australian Antarctic Program left a camera at the Auster Rookery near Australia’s Mawson research station, and soon two Emperor Penguins investigated. They flipped the camera over and somehow produced a 38-second selfie video which has gone viral.

Downy and Hairy Woodpecker

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch posted an article this week by a researcher trying to tease out why Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers look so similar. They do belong to the same genus, but the Hairy is more closely related to the White-headed and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers while the Downy is more closely related to the Ladder-backed and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers. Using citizen science data from participants of FeederWatch, Gavin Leighton concluded that Downies are probably using their similarity to Hairies and their own dominant behaviors to trick other birds into thinking they’re the larger, tougher Hairy Woodpecker. He says this supports what is called the “Innocent Bystander Trickery Hypothesis,” but will be following up with more studies.

Pine Warbler

Finally, in Florida, a judge has lifted a restraining order that was keeping bulldozers from destroying one of the last stretches of endangered pine rockland in the nation as a lawsuit plays out. The Walmart developer is planning apartments, a Chili’s, an LA Fitness, and of course a Walmart on the endangered habitat. The Wildlands Association, Tropical Audubon, and the Miami Pine Rockland Coalition claim in the lawsuit that the US Fish and Wildlife Service incorrectly permitted Ram Realty to build on the land, using the corporation’s own environmental assessment without considering peer-reviewed research or concerns by other groups or the general public. 

As the general public grows increasingly distanced from accurate information about ecology and species diversity, and as the Trump Administration continues stripping science and conservation from the EPA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other governmental units charged with protecting our air, water, and land, I’m afraid we’ll be seeing more and more of these kinds of permanent losses. (Story in Miami New Times)