Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Birds in the News

Photo by Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan

Birds have been making a lot of news stories lately. There’s the superbly happy news item reported on the BirdWatching magazine site that a bird believed to be extinct was captured and photographed on Borneo. A single specimen of the Black-browed Babbler had been collected some time between 1843 and 1848, killed by Carl ALM Schwaner, a German naturalist who sent it to Charles Lucien Bonaparte. The specimen was mislabeled as having come from Java, but in 1895, naturalist Johann Büttikofer realized that the specimen couldn’t have come from Java because Schwaner had not collected any birds there. Scientists studying Schwaner’s travel records in Indonesia speculated that he may have found the bird near Martapura or Banjarmasin in Borneo. But there was no time machine to confirm this. And no bird like it was ever reported again.  

Until October, when Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan were gathering forest products in South Kalimantan province and accidentally caught an unexpected bird. They took photos and notes and released it unharmed back into the forest, and sent the photos to a local birdwatching group hoping someone would identify it for them.   

That group suspected it might be the babbler, and contacted ornithologists who compared the photos to photos of the only known specimen, which is at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands. The ornithologists and the two men who found the bird published a brief paper about it on February 25 in BirdingASIA, the journal of the Oriental Bird Club.  
The pandemic has had all kinds of effects on birds, good and bad. Salon Magazine posted a story this weekend  about a scientist in Spain named Oscar Gordo from the Catalan Ornithological Institute in Barcelona. He found that without noise pollution, urban birds modified their behavior to sing earlier in the morning, just like they would if they had been born into natural conditions.  

"We were surprised to find a so sudden change in the daily routines of birds," Gordo said. "They just needed a few weeks to show a pattern of daily activity as the one observed in wild populations."
While the birds changed their behaviors surprisingly fast, the world wasn't in lockdown for long enough for bird populations in cities to increase substantially, according to the study.  

Razorbill (left) and pair of Common Murres
Razorbill (left) and two Common Murres on Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine

But on the dark side, changes in tourism patterns have been a mixed blessing. Stora Karlso, a nature reserve off the coast of Sweden, is a popular visiting place for birdwatchers to watch seabirds nest. They’re required to keep their distance from the rocky ledges, but people assumed that the sudden absence of tourists would give the birds a boost during last year’s nesting season. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Instead of adults spending their normal amount of time attending the nest, they were taking off and flying all the time, some individuals remaining away from their nest for days. Instead of being more relaxed, the birds were much more nervous.   

That’s because another species was usually driven to more remote places by all the tourists—the White-tailed Eagle. Suddenly eagles stuck around all season. Ironically, eagles don’t kill many murres, but their presence spooked the murres over and over. And that invited hungry crows and gulls in, who do prey on eggs and chicks. Chick production plummeted there last year.   

Tourists feeding birds at resorts and outdoor restaurants is almost always a bad idea. Next time I’ll talk about one disturbing consequence of the pandemic, when tourists stopped feeding birds.