Saturday, July 15, 2006

Letter: Regulated trade in wild birds

Sir: The potential for avian flu to spark a global influenza pandemic is first and foremost a human health issue, and one which should be taken seriously. However, the EU's recent one-month ban on imports of live captive birds other than poultry has also put a spotlight on the international trade in wildlife.

Your own recent coverage of avian flu (25 October) claims that '250,000 exotic birds are smuggled illegally into the UK each year'. I believe many of the people promoting this view are motivated by a desire to see the ban on live bird imports extended after the health crisis has passed.

The reality is that international trade in the 1,700 species of wild birds regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is well managed and subject to robust tests for sustainability.

Many of the world's poorest communities rely on the earnings that trading wildlife can bring, and without this income people living in close proximity to wild animals may not have the same incentive to protect them. Developing countries need to be assured that unilateral trade bans will only persist as long as there are legitimate human health concerns behind them.

Whilst the UK might import several hundred thousand wild birds per year, the Mammal Society reports that about 55 million are killed each year by cats in the UK with, according to the RSPB, no evidence that this is having any impact on bird populations.

Candid cameras catch rare Asian cats

After 3 decades of armed conflict, what remains of Cambodia's wildlife riches? Plenty, according to a photographic survey begun 2 months ago.

Biologists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society trained local Cambodians to set up automatic cameras along suspected tiger trails. They mounted the cameras on trees at a height chosen to pick up these big cats. Triggered as animals cross an infrared beam, the cameras have snapped almost 2,000 images, including birds not previously identified in Cambodia and more than 60 types of large mammals.

Last week, the groups released a few of the photos. They confirm the survival of Indochinese tigers and for the first time, document marbled cats in Cambodia. Kristin Nowell, director of Cat Action Treasury, a wild-cat conservation group based in Los Gatos, Calif., says she was thrilled by the latter finding. This apparently arboreal feline, about the weight of a large house cat, is so rare, she says, that no ecology data or world-population estimates exist.

WWF tiger specialist Judy Mills in Washington, D.C., notes that Cambodia's tigers may constitute "the last, best Indochinese tiger population in the wild." Interviews with local hunters, she says, suggest that 700 of the majestic cats may survive there. This would constitute up to half of this tiger's worldwide population. With word of their apparent abundance out, she now worries, "there'll be a race between scientists and hunters to see who can get to them first."

Cambodia's new wildlife-photo gallery also includes leopards and three other wild cats, eight primates, two species of wild cattle, a wild dog, Asian elephants, and sun bears. A few snapshots depict a more disturbing species, human poachers, notes Andrew Maxwell, chief technical advisor to WWF-Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

Loose Cats - stray cats

Thinking of taking in a stray or feral cat? Make the most of your budding liaison with that free-roaming feline.

She had the kind of face you couldn't forget. Those gorgeous green eyes that looked right through you. They haunted you even after you got home. Lying in bed at night, you couldn't get her off your mind. The shy way she hesitated when you reached out to touch her. And at the same time the familiar look of one who has been around. You tried to resist her, but the pull was too strong. She's one in a million, but are you ready for the commitment?

Excerpts from a tawdry romance novel? In Animals magazine? Before you worry that you picked up the wrong publication at the newsstand, think again. The gorgeous green-eyed heroine of this story can be found in almost any backyard, alley, or barn--and she comes with her own fur coat.

She goes by many names. The stray tabby, neighborhood cat, little lost kitty--they are all variations on the same theme. Cats without homes, or without owners accepting full-time responsibility. And they are everywhere. They come in all colors and breeds. They range from sleek, well fed, and friendly to shabby, skinny, and petrified of human contact. The one characteristic they all share is a very real--if not always obvious--need for human support.

If you know one of these cats and you're thinking about making a commitment, you're not unique. Every year--in fact, every day--stray and homeless cats are romancing their way into new homes in communities across the country. The stories are as numerous as the cats themselves, and if you ask many of those who've taken the plunge, so are the rewards.

But before you assume that this new relationship will be an instant match made in heaven, think again. The casualness that launches many feline-human ties all too often foretells their end. Easy come, easy go is the tragic theme that describes how many people acquire--and eventually lose or discard--the family cat. And according to experts, it is one of the key reasons that the number of homeless and marginally cared for cats roaming our communities continues to grow.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Do the wild cats of Kerguelen dream of cat-flaps and whiskas with rabbit?

In the imagination of the tame, the call of the wild strikes a chord. We know, or think we know, what it was like to exist in a state of nature. Brought to heel, we still feel the tug. We suppose that other domesticated creatures must too.

Pets, for instance. If Mary's little lamb lifts a woolly head to the distant bleatings from the moor, we sympathise. As the caged canary sings out his heart, we hear in his song some inchoate bird-knowledge of skies beyond the cage. And when Tom's or Tabitha's whiskers twitch to the noises of the night, we smile: the dark, furry unconscious beckons. Cat history calls.

So much for the call of the wild. But what about the call of the tame? Can the wild hear it? The possibility springs less readily to mind. Since the Dark Ages at least, man has been coming in from the cold and bringing his pets with him. The wolf has no ancestral hearth to remember, the desert rat hardly pines for his exercise wheel, and budgerigars in Australia do not daydream of bells or mirrors.

Or so we presume. That is why there is something at the same time touching and strange in the behaviour of the wild cats of Kerguelen. I have been following this remarkable tribe on two long journeys into the island, accompanying the man whose special job it is to track these reclusive creatures.

Sub-Antarctic islands were left without resident predatory mammals (without any mammals at all) by the last ice age. But near the end of the century before last some did make a landing here - as survivors of shipwrecks, or with whalers and sealers who called. Though humans left, cats stayed, eating ground-nesting baby birds and the shipwrecked rabbits that were beginning to thrive. In the end, though, this feline colony perished, probably in a formidable winter.

But half a century ago a second wave of cat colonists set paw to shore. These came as companions to the Frenchmen who in the early 1950s established the island's only human settlement, the base at Port-auxFrangais where I have been staying. There were half-a-dozen cats or more, of which the more successful breeders were black, white, or black and white. These roamed, following the scent of rabbits.

Stalking The BLACK-FOOTED CAT - wild cats in South Africa

A persistent biologist provides the first look into the nocturnal life of a pint-sized predator in South Africa

Every muscle in Lamu's small, wiry body tightens. She is now 40 minutes into a nighttime stalk, and her snakelike tail swishes violently as she closes in on a black bustard bedded down, chickenlike, in the brick red sand of the Kalahari Desert. I hold my breath.

Lamu is a black-footed cat, one of the least-known felids in the world, and as a bright moon bathes this arid landscape in a natural spotlight, I am able to watch her hunting behavior. The bustard opens one eye warily and for a fraction of a second looks as if it is about to erupt skyward with the insultingly loud scream I have witnessed so frequently before. But Lamu moves fast. Planting her tiny black feet into the ground, she leaps, snagging the bustard as it attempts to fly. The bird, half Lamu's weight, struggles only for seconds before the predator's needle-sharp teeth break its neck.

Black-footed cats are dwarfs in the cat world--2 to 3 pounds for females, 3 to 5 pounds for males. What we know about them comes mostly from anecdotes, many prompted by their fierce behavior when cornered by dogs.

Bushmen suspect, incorrectly, that they are able to kill giraffes by piercing their jugulars, for instance, and as with most of the other small cat species that roam the world, their secretive habits have prevented us from learning about their behavior and ecology in the wild. I was determined to change that, and for the last five years I have followed radio-collared black-footed cats through their busy nights. As a result, I have observed these little-known creatures more than any other person on Earth, in the process building a picture of what this diminutive cat is really like and particularly how it hunts.

Enriched foods help birds in winter

Through the rain and wind, I walked back from the chicken coup and tossed a handful of leftover scratch on the deck. Later, a gang of raucous sparrows gobbled it all up, proving not all birds flew south for the winter.

It is remarkable that such meager plumage could insulate the tiny bodies of these plucky little birds. The fact that they live out the winter cold seems impossible. It's no wonder they flocked to the scratch. Bugs were gone or dormant in January. The plants were either barren, frozen or flat. Any remaining seed was buried in mud and snow.

I threw out more birdseed each day. The gang of 10 grew to 20 and then 30. I had no cats, so the little birds were free to roam ever closer to my window. It became a three-ring circus out there all the time. But when spring blossomed, they stopped coming to my scratch, preferring bugs and worms and fresh seed.

During the growing season birds are the salvation of our gardens. They are nature's most perfect pest control mechanism. If they become local residents in the garden, they consume the caterpillars that devil my spring orchard and nightshades. Chickadees surgically peck the aphids off my sunflowers and roses. Quail thrive on slugs and earwigs. Birds keep the natural balance of plant-to-pest in check.

While interviewing an ornithologist on the radio, I was shocked to discover my birdseed wasn't as helpful as I thought. The expert told me that scant nutrition in standard wild birdseed mixes barely matches the energy required to crack the seed hull and digest it. The expert emphasized the importance of using special high nutrition feed in the winter to give the birds what they desperately need.

So I began to sweeten the offering. On cold midwinter days, I'd set out edible seed from the health food store. I bought raw shelled sunflower seeds. I crushed peanuts and set them out. I watched the birds consume these with relish. They refused the lower value seeds until the richer stuff was gone.

Then I discovered Audubon Workshop,, and found I could order higher quality bird feed at a better price and more conveniently than the health food store. The catalog offers a full range of unique feeds that will give these cold weather avian species the nutrition and dietary diversity they need.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bird flu found in 3 Austrian cats

VIENNA, Austria -- Three cats have tested positive for the deadly strain of bird flu in Austria's first reported case of the disease spreading to an animal other than a bird, state authorities said Monday.

The sick cats were among 170 living at an animal shelter where the disease was detected in chickens last month, authorities said.

The World Health Organization called bird flu a greater global challenge than any previous infectious disease, costing global agriculture more than $10 billion and affecting the livelihoods of 300 million farmers.

Poland reported its first outbreak of the disease, saying Monday that laboratory tests confirmed that two wild swans had died of the lethal strain.

Dr. Margaret Chan, who is spearheading WHO's efforts against bird flu, told disease experts meeting in Geneva to discuss bird-flu preparations that the organization's top priority was to keep the deadly strain from mutating into a form easily passed between humans. That could trigger a global pandemic.

Since February, the virus has spread to birds in 17 new countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, she said.

"We truly feel that this present threat and any other threat like it is likely to stretch our global systems to the point of collapse," said Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO's director of epidemic and pandemic alert and response.

WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said experts hope to isolate outbreaks and establish agreements allowing inter- national health authorities to respond quickly, testing viruses and putting in place measures to contain the disease.

In Austria, all the cats from the affected shelter have been moved to a location where they will remain under observation. The shelter has been closed, Health Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat told reporters in Vienna.

"We have decided to put all the cats in quarantine," Rauch- Kallat said. "Here they will be observed by veterinarians and experts in the coming days and weeks."

German authorities last month confirmed that a cat on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen had succumbed to the deadly virus, which it is believed to have caught by eating an infected bird.

That would be consistent with a pattern of disease transmission seen in wild cats in Asia.

German officials have warned pet owners to keep their cats indoors and dogs on a leash in areas where the disease has been detected.

These Rare Birds Flock to a Shopping Mall In Search of Home Furnishings

Atlantic Coast least terns shopping for safe nesting grounds are finding a good deal at Glynn Place Mall in Brunswick, Georgia. A flock of about 200 terns has recently been nesting on the mall's gravel and tar roof, one of a growing number of roofs hosting colonies of these rare birds.

The robin-sized terns descend on the mall each spring because their traditional nesting sites--undisturbed beaches--are now at a premium. "Least terns were once distributed across natural beaches in Georgia," says Sara Schweitzer, a biologist at the University of Georgia who monitors the state's least tern colonies. "But those locations are also desirable to people and development."

While nesting on high has drawbacks, in many built-up areas it is now the best the birds can do. Seventy-three percent of Georgia's 1,270 known breeding least tern pairs nested on gravel rooftops, compared with only 1 percent on beaches, according to a 1997 study by Schweitzer and her colleague Michael G. Krogh. The remaining 26 percent settled on dredge-spoil islands, where sand has been dragged up and dumped to clear channels. Of all the sites, the Glynn Place Mall had the highest nesting success, with 53 percent of the eggs hatching.

The rooftop nesting trend represents some good news for the beleaguered least terns. Once abundant along sandy beaches from the East Coast to Southern California, these dainty water birds became scarce after receiving a one-two punch from unregulated hunting, then habitat loss.

Rooftop nesting colonies have turned up since the 1970s in Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, providing hope that the least tern might once again bounce back. Of the tern's three subspecies, only the widespread Atlantic Coast population, which numbers more than 40,000 birds nesting from Maine to Texas, has been recorded nesting on roofs. The other two subspecies are federally listed as endangered. The interior least tern, which nests on river sand bars from the Mississippi Delta north to South Dakota, numbers about 6,800 birds. The California least tern population, which hangs on in coastal Southern California, totals more than 8,000.

Royal Parks birds to be caged in the fight against flu outbreak

BIRDS in London's royal parks are set to be caged amid fears avian flu could reach the capital.

Park chiefs today confirmed they have held crisis talks with the Government, and have built quarantine areas to house almost 100 exotic birds. The eight parks, including Richmond, Regent's, Hyde and St James's parks, cover 5,000 acres and are home to tens of thousands of wild and captive birds. A quarantine cage has already been built in St James's Park to protect its six pelicans. It is hoped the area, on Duck Island in the middle of the park, will keep them away from wild birds that could be carrying the lethal H5N1 virus.

A spokeswoman for the royal parks said staff were monitoring the estimated 200 swans that frequent its open spaces, following the discovery of avian flu in a swan in Scotland - the first case in a wild bird in Britain.

"We are planning contingency arrangements for our collection of exotic birds, which form part of the Royal Menagerie," said the spokeswoman. "The key is isolation, and keeping wild birds away.

"It is important to stress that at the moment there is no advice from Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] to move birds inside.

But we are, of course, planning for every eventuality."

Meanwhile tests were today being carried out on 14 Scottish birds to find out how far the H5N1 strain may have spread.

Samples from 12 swans and two other species are being examined amid fears the virus could quickly become endemic in the wild bird population.

Defra today said it had tested more than 1,000 British birds in the last five weeks.

Experts have warned it was highly unlikely the dead swan, found on Wednesday last week in the fishing village of Cellardyke in Fife, was an isolated case.

It was almost certainly part of a cluster infected by migrating wildfowl, said scientists.

Dr Bob McCracken of the British Veterinary Association said: "We have to accept the situation that the virus will be spreading among wild birds in the Fife area, and probably through time will spread to other parts of the UK."

Professor Albert Osterhaus, an expert on avian flu at Erasmus medical centre in the Netherlands, warned Britain could expect to see a similar pattern as Germany has. There, the virus spread slowly among wild birds, but yesterday reached a poultry farm. It has also infected cats in one region, sparking fears that domestic pets could be at risk.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

'If one of our birds had avian flu you wouldn't miss it' BIRD FLU:

THE signs are up around the 90-acre farm near the small Fife town of Craigrothie. Makeshift plastic barriers are in place, preventing movement both in and out of Ring Farm in Cupar, Fife, the property and family business of Moira Henderson, 46, and her husband David.

Together they look after 11,500 chickens, all in cages and therefore at no immediate risk of catching avian flu from wild birds who may or may not be carrying the infection. Nevertheless, nothing is being taken for granted.

"We're definitely taking precautionary measures, " says Henderson as she steps out of her Land Rover a few feet away from a sign warning strangers not to pass that point.

"We're restricting movement up and down our farm road. Obviously, when you're dealing with poultry you take certain hygiene measures as a matter of course, and are always thinking about bio-diseases. We're taking all the advice issued by Serad [Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department], such as asking our staff to change their shoes when coming in and out of the property." As well as running the farm, Henderson is chair of the Scottish Egg Producers' and Retailers' Association, which represents Scotland's egg industry, and is keen to point out the lack of any known infection in commercial flocks.

"Prevention is better than cure, definitely, but I think it's important to stress that no poultry has been infected with avian influenza, " she says.

"Basically, our task is to try and distance and protect the birds we have on our farm from the wildlife, because we don't know yet how extensive a problem this is, but as large numbers of birds haven't been found I would have to say that it doesn't seem like an outbreak." Contrary to fears of possible public hysteria over the Cellardyke swan, confirmed to be carrying the H5N1 strain of avian influenza which has so far claimed more than 100 lives worldwide, Henderson says the shopkeepers and locals she does business with are taking the whole thing in their stride.

"It hasn't affected our business at all, " she says. "In fact, our sales actually went up significantly on Friday, which admittedly could have something to do with the fact it was the start of the Easter holidays. But I think people in Scotland are quite level- headed, and that means the industry hasn't been affected too badly. The strategy for any kind of outbreak has been planned for more than a year now and we knew what to do.

For bird flu, cats might be canary in coal mine; Researchers say

Although H5N1 avian flu has caused many people to look at migrating birds and domestic poultry in a new, menacing light, it may be time to reappraise the bewhiskered feline serenely licking her paws on your couch.

Danish and Italian researchers are calling on the world's health organizations and experts to start taking notice of cats. And they're urging officials to consider these domestic animals as both potential threats to human safety and as possible sentinels for the arrival of the disease.

"We believe that the potential role of cats should be considered in official guidelines for controlling the spread of H5N1 virus infection," wrote the authors in a commentary in today's issue of the journal Nature.

But others say too little is yet known about these animals' role in the spread of the virus. And in North America, where avian flu has not appeared, there is little cause for alarm.

"We believe at the present time a general survey of cats and other carnivores, certainly in North America, and even in H5N1- endemic regions, may not be generally warranted, as the exposure of the cats to infected birds is likely to be low," said Hon Ip, director of the diagnostic virology laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison.

But, he said, if cats begin "showing unusual morbidity or mortality" in areas infected by the virus, that stance might have to be reconsidered.

According to the authors, cats have been relatively silent victims in the spread of the flu. As early as February 2004, reports of domestic cats dying from H5N1 started to appear. In a household near Bangkok, Thailand, 14 out of 15 cats "became weak, started vomiting and coughed up blood before dying."

Tigers and a leopard in two zoos in Thailand also have died after eating fresh chicken carcasses infected with the virus or being exposed to birds with H5N1.

"These reports were surprising because both domestic cats and wild felids were considered to be resistant to disease from influenza A virus infection, of which H5N1 is a subtype," wrote the researchers, who include Thijs Kuiken and Albert Osterhaus, virologists at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, as well as Peter Roeder of the Animal Production and Health Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Italy.

Widespread and high mortality of cats has been reported in areas where the disease has become endemic, including Iraq and Indonesia.

They even kill cats

It's that time of the year again and Barry Unsworth is trying to keep the hunters off his property in Umbria


HERE in Umbria the hunting season is again upon us. Black Sunday - the first Sunday in September - has been and gone. From now until the end of January the hills around us will resound with gunfire. Seven years ago, just at this time of year and impelled by much the same stress of feeling, I wrote a newspaper article about Italian hunting (which means shooting creatures, mainly small) from the point of view of one living in rural Italy and so seeing, and suffering from, the business at first hand. We still live in the same, very beautiful place; and the fact that it is autumn now and was autumn when I wrote before is not really a coincidence, because it is then that the season is in full flush, the ardour of the hunters hasn't been dampened by rainy mornings, there hasn't yet been time for us to develop even a partial resignation to the loud reports of the rifles, the killing and wounding in our immediate vicinity.

In those days we were recent arrivals; there was much that was unfamiliar to us. There were things we should have made sure about in advance and somehow didn't: whether there was enough water, for example; whether there was any de facto right-of-way through our land. We were lucky in these respects - luckier than we deserved. But it did not occur to us to ask about the hunting; and in any case we could hardly have known that our four acres were on an ancestral hunting route, that generations of men with guns and dogs had come down through these terraces of olive and wine, down into our little wood and along our stream, shooting at practically anything that moved.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Are these birds big or what? - facts about large birds

So, you say you're too old for TV's Big Bird? Then take a look at these wild big birds from around the world. (And some smaller birds that are big in other ways!)

The biggest bird in the world is the ostrich (photo at left). It can't fly, but you should see it run--up to 40 miles (65 km) per hour across the African plains. An ostrich can grow to be nine feet (2.7 m) tall. So it would bump its head on the ceilings of most houses. But don't let one into your house--it can kick as hard as a horse!

What's the heaviest bird that can fly? It's the Kori bustard (above) from Africa. But this 40-pound (18-kg) bird doesn't fly unless it has to. All that weight makes it hard for the bustard to lift off. It would rather hide from danger than fly away. In fact, the word bustard comes from two Latin words that mean "slow bird."

You've heard of eagles and you've heard of owls--now meet an eagle owl (above). It's the biggest kind of owl in the world. Eagle owls live in Europe and Asia. Their beaks and feet are as sharp and strong as an eagle's. And the owls are really good at sneaking up on their prey.

Most birds have stiff wing feathers that make noise when they fly. But owls' wing feathers are soft along the edges, and that helps the owls fly silently.

Eagle owls are so big and strong that they can kill small wild cats, foxes, and young deer. Their prey may weigh three times as much as the birds do!

The Andean condor (right) from South America is the heaviest bird of prey. It may look scary when it soars on wings that stretch 10 feet (3 m). But no one needs to worry--it doesn't attack people. In fact, it doesn't attack anything. Condors are called birds of prey, but they don't kill to get their fill. They eat dead--even rotten--meat.

You might think a condor's naked head makes it one ugly bird! But a head without feathers is just great for a hungry condor. It can easily slide that skin-covered head around inside an animal's dead body. And when it's finished eating, it doesn't have a lot of yukky feathers to clean off!

This long-tailed widowbird from Africa (left) is a little bigger than a house sparrow. But at mating time, the male grows a 20-inch (50-cm) tail. Compared to his body size, he has one of the longest tails of any bird. He flies back and forth past the females with his tail drooping behind. It's as if he were trailing a sign that said, "Hey, just look at ME!" So even a little bird can be big in its own special way.

Nature's bird feeders…two dozen plants that will attract birds

Nature's way of feeding the birds is one of the easiest and most enjoyable. The plants lay out the menu for you, there are no tubes or trays to clean and refill, and there's no question whether the birds are getting nutritious food.

All you have to do is choose plants that birds like and then provide routine garden care. In fact, the less pruning and grooming you do, the better the birds will like it.

How long do you and the birds have to wait for dinner to be served?

if you start with a 1-gallon plant, most of these shrubs and vines will present at least a smaller appetizer the first year; some large, fast-growing kinds should deliver a hearty feast by next winter. Five-gallon and larger plants, of course, will produce more right away. Small trees, such as dogwood and hawthorn, may take several years to produce fruit, but once established, they are among the most bountiful feeders.

Listed here are more than 2 dozen of nature's best bird feeders. All are common landscape plants that are easy to grow and good-looking. Most produce in winter or early spring when other bird food tends to be in short supply. For more information about plant sizes and best choices for your climate or sun exposure, check the Sunset Western Garden Book or ask your nurserymen. In cold-winter areas, planting will probably have to wait until mild weather arrives.

Plant in a place you can see from the house and where birds will feel safe from cats and other predators. Birds generally favor gardens with a thick perimeter of shrubs or trees around a clearing. Since banqueting birds tend to increase problems with stains or litter, avoid placing berried plants over paths or paving.

Berry banquets. Favorites include all dogwoods (shown in Cornus capitata), hawthorns, mahonias, mountain ash, pyracanthas, toyon, and most viburnums (for a heavier crop, plant several of the same kind; snowball types don't bear fruit).

Seed and insect cafeterias. Alders, birches, ceanothus, maples, and rosemary can fit into even a small garden. If you have space for larger trees, consider oaks, pines, sycamores, and willows, all especially popular with a wide variety of birds. Prolific annuals like sweet alyssum, California poppies, and forget-me-nots usually scatter enough seeds to feed the birds as well as create new plants; to get your first crop established, you may have to cover the seedbed with bird netting.

Missing! Have you seen these birds lately? - reasons why songbird populations are shrinking


Some songbirds - those little singers that flit around the woods in spring and summer - are in trouble. Right now, colorful warblers, swallows, orioles, and thrushes are winging their way to North America. They're flying up from southern lands, just as songbirds have done for millions of years (see map). But there aren't as many of them as there were when your parents were young. What's going on?


Birds that travel long distances meet many dangers along the way. Some of the dangers are natural, and others are caused by people: * Hawks and owls sometimes snatch songbirds in the sky or at their resting places. * Cold air, strong winds, and big storms can easily wipe out a million birds as they migrate. * Bad weather is especially dangerous to birds crossing the ocean, because there's no place to rest. When the tired birds finally reach land, they have to rest and eat right away. But every year more and more ocean-front hotels are built in the birds' favorite resting spots. So the birds have to keep going. Often they are too tired and hungry to go any farther. * Birds that fly over land also need places where they can rest and find food. If their resting spots have become cities, they're in trouble. * Some birds are hit by cars and airplanes. And during the day, many birds see trees reflected in windows. If they fly toward the reflections, they can hit the windows and die. * Night migrators often fly toward the lights of tall towers, and some crash into the towers and die.


Probably the biggest problem for songbirds is that their habitats (the wild places they need) are disappearing. Birds that live near water are in trouble because so many of their wetlands are now cities and farms. And people have destroyed songbird habitats by spraying them with poisons to kill insect pests. Then birds that eat insects are out of luck.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Basic or fanciful baths for birds

IF YOU WANT TO ATTRACT A CROWD OF FRIENDS THIS SUMMER, just say, "Come on over for a drink and a swim." It's a sure bet they'll come flocking. The same goes for birds, who never turn down an invitation to sip and frolic in cool water--especially on a warm summer day.

All birds need water for drinking and bathing. They'll happily frolic in a streambed or a puddle, but a birdbath in the right spot your garden--kept filled and clean--is the ultimate watering hole for all kinds of feathered visitors. On these four pages, we show a collection of birdbaths that you can buy or build yourself. Some are basic bowls. Others, like the sleek triangular flagstone bath or the whimsical miniature swimming pool carved in wood, are as much for people to look at as for birds to splash in; you can display them as sculpture among garden plants.

Once the birds discover this reliable water source, they'll bring your garden alive with color, sound, and activity. You'll discover the quiet pleasure of watching finches, jays, robins, sparrows, and other song birds swoop into the bath for a splashing-good time. If you add a bird feeder nearby, there's sure to be an even bigger crowd. (You might even see birds washing berries in the water.)

While a bath can cool off the birds and enhance your garden in summer, it's beneficial to birds in winter, too; bathing then actually helps insulate birds by keeping their feathers free of dirt and leaving space between them for pockets of trapped air.

Birdbath basics

Whether you buy or build a birdbath, here are a few rules of thumb to help you choose and locate it.

Keep it shallow but roomy. Most birds bathe by wading into shallow water that's no deeper than their legs are long, so 2 to 3 inches is deep enough. The bath's sides should slope gradually, so birds can wade in to a depth that's comfortable for them. If the bath has vertical sides, some birds find it difficult to judge the depth; add a flat rock in the bath's center.

Researchers, animal activists at war over rats, mice, and birds

Medical researchers are strongly opposed to a recent settlement agreed to by the US Department of Agriculture to add laboratory rats, mice, and birds to species protected under the Animal Welfare Act. This agreement was reached in October to settle a lawsuit filed in federal court by an animal activist group, Alternatives Research and Development Foundation (Eden Prairie, MN). The act already covered larger animals such as cats, rabbits, and primates.

Activists say that this agreement would ensure humane treatment of these animals, but researchers believe this move will make "the use of mice, rats, and birds prohibitively expensive and extremely burdensome," said Estelle A. Fishbein, vice president and general counsel, Johns Hopkins University, in an editorial in the February 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. "This raises the distinct possibility that such research is in danger of experiencing the strangulation by red tape that is threatening medical research in the United Kingdom."

Animal rights activists argue that if research institutions are already providing humane care to mice, rats, and birds, application of the USDA regulations would not be burdensome. This is not true, explained Fishbein, because there has been an enormous increase in the numbers of these animals because of the success of the Human Genome Project and the "consequent ability to develop transgenic mice that model the symptoms of human diseases. Application of the USDA regulations to the accelerated growth in the numbers of species would divert scarce grant funds from actual research use, distract researchers from their scientific work, and overload them with documentation requirements that would not improve" humane care, she noted.

Changes can still be made in the agreement until this fall. The fiscal 2001 Agricultural Appropriations bill prohibits the USDA from spending any part of its appropriation to change the regulatory definition of "animal" in the regulations promulgated under the Animal Welfare Act. This prohibition gives the research community a year to obtain a permanent solution from Congress, explained Fishbein.

Birds and bees for tigers and pandas - for the people

The Chinese government in Beijing has employed all sorts of efforts to get human families to limit their offspring, including application of severe penalties to families that have more than one child. But when it comes to the tigers of southern China and the country's unofficial mascot, the giant panda, government policy is just the opposite.

Ten zoos throughout the country contain a total of only 49 south China tigers among their denizens, and experts fear that the cat will become extinct. For whatever reason, the tigers have no urge to mate. So officials at a zoo in Sichuan province have authorized the medicating with Viagra of two male south China tigers that show "no sexual desire" at all, according to a dispatch from Reuters.

The hope is that the disinterested big cats will become "tigers" in more than one sense of the word and sire many litters of their species. Interestingly, for officials in a communist country, the experts speculate that restrictive life in a cage is one of the causes of the tigers' impotence.

Scientists also are considering giving Viagra to China's giant pandas, animals also famous for disinterest in sexual activity. Thus far this amorous encouragement of the species has been limited to showing them videos of pandas in the act of mating, a kind of panda porn that has not excited paternity.

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