Where to find Britain’s nesting seabirds

The BBC has a quick overview of some of Britain’s largest and best nesting colonies of seabirds: Seabird spectacular.

Nesting seabirds

A nesting colony of northern gannets

Imperial woodpeckers–extinct or hanging on?

Large, stuffed black and white woodpecker with red crest

Imperial Woodpecker (male) from birdforum.net

I had never even heard of an Imperial Woodpecker, and no wonder. They were last seen in 1956, after an eradication campaign by lumber companies in the pine forests of the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. The forest workers feared that the giant woodpeckers would damage lumber. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology recently acquired a copy of the only known film footage. There may still be a few in remote wooded pockets of the mountains, but even those are being damaged by illegal drug growers.

Wierd and wonderful: Verreaux’s Coua

Coua verreauxi is a member of the cuckoo family that lives in a very small area of southwestern Madagascar. The bird lives on the shores of a single salt lake and is classified as Near Threatened. It lives in dry-adapted scrubland and is threatened by habitat loss. You can see a video clip here: BBC, Zoo Quest: Island of Marvels, Part 3. Video clip, 0:06:50 – 0:08:35, Verroux’s coua. the bird in this clip is puffed up against the cold.

a crested, grey and white cuckoo with its feathers puffed up

Verreaux's coua

Old Britannica

Quagga mare

This Google Books section of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, about Africa, is from such an old edition that it gives the range of the quagga! Africa.

“The quagga, exclusively African, inhabits the most southern parts of the continent, and is scarcely found north of the Orange river, but occurs in great herds, associated with the white-tailed gnu. The zebra (Equus Burchellii), or zebra of the plains, is widely distributed over Africa, from the limit of the quagga to Abyssinia and the west coast; the zebra of the mountains (Equus zebra), more completely striped than the rest, is known only in South Africa. The true onager or aboriginal wild ass is indigenous to North-East Africa and the island of Socotra. A species inhabiting the high land of Abyssinia is distinct from these.

…the Cape buffalo, a species peculiar to Africa, reaches as far north as a line from Guinea to Abyssinia; the Bos Brachycerus is a species peculiar to West Africa, from Senegal to the Gaboon. Of sheep, the Ovis Tragelaphus is peculiar to North Africa; the Ibex goat extends into Abyssinia. the family of the antelope is essentially African, five-sixths of the species composing it being natives of that country, and chiefly of the portion lying south of the Sahara, occurring in dense herds. Lastly, the giraffe, one of the most celebrated and characteristic of African quadrupeds, ranges from the limits of the Cape Colony as far as the Sahara and Nubia.

Of Edentata the seven species known to occur in Africa are also peculiar to it. The aardvark (Orycteropus capensis) is essentially burrowing in its habits….

A genus of moles is met with in South Africa, but is not found in the tropical regions. The Cape or gilded mole, chryso-chlore, is so called from its iridescent glossy fur; two or three species of hedgehog occur in the continent, and Madagascar has a peculiar family resembling those in appearance, but without the power of rolling up into a ball for defence. Bats are numerous in Africa, but few are peculiar to it.

Of Rodenta the burrowing kinds prevail. The African species of porcupine are known in the the northern and western coast-lands and in South-Eastern Africa. The hyrax extends over Eastern Africa and a portion of the west coast. Hares are only known in the countries north of the Sahara and in the Cape colony. Among squirrels, those with bristles or spines in their fur are peculiar to the southern regions of the continent….

The ostrich, the hugest of birds… is found in almost every part of Africa. But its chief home is the desert and the open plains; mountainous districts it avoids, unless pressed by hunger. The beautiful white feathers, so highly prized by the ladies of Europe, are found in the wings of the male bird. The chase is not without its difficulties, as it requires the greatest care to get within musket-shot of the bird, owing to its constant vigilance and the great distance to which it can see. The fleetest horse, too, will not overtake it unless stratagem be adopted to tire it out. If followed up too eagerly, the chase of the ostrich is not destitute of danger; for the huntsman has sometimes had his thigh-bone broken by a single stroke from the leg of a wounded bird.

The large messenger or secretary-bird, which preys upon serpents and other reptiles, si one of the most remarkable African birds. It is common near the Cape, and is not seldom domesticated. Of gallinaceous fowls, adapted to the poultry-yard, Africa possesses but a single genus, the guinea-hens, which, however, are found in no other part of the world. These birds, of which there are three or four distinct species, go in large flocks of 400 or 500, and are most frequently found among underwood in the vicinity of ponds and rivers.

Bonus quotation: “Plants of the proteus tribe also add to the extraordinary variety in the vegetable physiognomy of that region.”

The quagga was hunted to extinction in the wild in the 1870s, exact date not noticed, and the last known quagga died in the London Zoo in 1883. The only photograph of a live quagga was taken at the London Zoo in 1870.

Evolution caught in the act—again!

sparrow flying

A sparrow from Pompeii

Scientists have shown that the Italian sparrow is a newly evolved species of the sparrow family. DNA analysis shows that it originated as a hybrid of the house sparrow and the Spanish sparrow. However, it is now breeding true and is not interbreeding with the Spanish sparrow in areas where they occupy the same range. That is one of the more practical definitions of species.

this study, led by evolutionary biologist Glenn-Peter Saetre from the University of Oslo, is a genetic snapshot that appears to settle the debate.

Reference: Hybrid speciation in sparrows I: phenotypic intermediacy, genetic admixture and barriers to gene flow. Jo S. Hermansen, Stein A. Sæther, Tore O. Elgvin, Thomas Borge, Elin Hjelle, Glenn-Peter Sætre. Article first published online: 19 JUL 2011. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05183.x

Bird and feather evolution summarized

feathered-dinosaur clades

This is from the 2005 Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences: “Feathered Dinosaurs“.

Recent fossil discoveries from Early Cretaceous rocks of Liaoning Province, China, have provided a wealth of spectacular specimens. Included in these are the remains of several different kinds of small theropod dinosaurs, many of which are extremely closely related to modern birds. Unique preservation conditions allowed soft tissues of some of these specimens to be preserved. Many dinosaur specimens that preserve feathers and other types of integumentary coverings have been recovered. These fossils show a progression of integumentary types from simple fibers to feathers of modern aspect. The distribution of these features on the bodies of these animals is surprising in that some show large tail plumes, whereas others show the presence of wing-like structures on both fore and hind limbs. The phylogenetic distribution of feather types is highly congruent with models of feather evolution developed from developmental biology.

Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences
Vol. 33: 277-299 (Volume publication date May 2005)
First published online as a Review in Advance on January 7, 2005
DOI: 10.1146/annurev.earth.33.092203.122511
Mark A. Norell and Xing Xu

Penguin chicks are losing their feathers

Naked Magellanic penguin chick

…and we don’t know why. However, for some reason we’re not guessing organic toxins from oil spills and industry: “So far, the possible causes include pathogens, thyroid disorders, nutrient imbalances, or genetics.”
The loss of feathers means that chicks lose heat, grow more slowly, and are more likely to die. The disorder appeared in 2006 on both sides of the South Atlantic in different penguin species, Magellanic and African. To me, that suggests a wind-borne or water-borne problem, perhaps contaminating food, not “genetics.” I suspect organochlorines, CFCs, and the like. Has anyone done a biological assay of a dead chick?

The problem began in 2006, peaked in 2007 with 97% of the chicks suffering feather loss, and subsided in 2008 (for now).

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