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Birds in the News

:: The New York Times “City Room” blog reports on the death of Violet, a red-tailed hawk whose nest in Washington Square Park became the setting for a webcam that drew over a million viewers. Violet died following surgery to amputate a necrotic foot. [“Violet the Red-Tailed Hawk Is Dead,” nytimes.com] Roger Paw reports on his blog that Violet suffered a heart attack following the surgery, and that a vet performed CPR on the hawk for 20 minutes in an attempt to revive her. [“Sweet Violet has passed away,” rogerpaw.blogspot.com]

:: When a local newspaper reported that thousands of “crazed seabirds pelted the shores of North Monterey Bay, California” in August of 1961, director Alfred Hitchcock took note. The incident became an inspiration for his classic thriller “The Birds,” but a question lingered for decades: what drove the gulls to descend upon the town? Ocean environmentalist Sibel Bargu of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge believes they were poisoned by plankton. [“Mystery of incident that inspired ‘The Birds’ solved?“, USA Today]

:: We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of another ornithological mystery: the sudden death of thousands of blackbirds over Beebe, Arkansas. The National Wildlife Health Center later determined the birds died of blunt-force trauma, possibly from colliding with cars and buildings after being startled by fireworks displays. This year, the local police department is stepping up enforcement of a ban on commercial-grade fireworks during the New Year’s holiday with the hope of avoiding another mass casualty incident. [“Arkansas dead birds: Beebe birds one year later“, todaysthv.com]

:: Earlier this month, thousands of grebes were killed and 2,000 more were rescued after a mass downing in southern Utah. Wildlife officials believe the birds mistook parking lots for lakes and ponds and made an ill-fated attempt to land for the evening. [“Thousands of birds make crash landing in Southern Utah,” thespectrum.com]

:: Nest here often? New research shows that birds living in cities use different mating calls than their country counterparts. Buildings absorb and refract songs, and the drone of traffic and other urban noise drowns out lower-register calls. “Those low-pitch sounds decline in five out of six species that we studied in urban areas,” Peter Marra, a scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, said in an interview with NPR. “So birds have sort of tried to change their songs to higher-frequency songs or midfrequency songs.” [“To Flirt In Cities, Birds Adjust Their Pitch,” npr.org]

Starlings over a Hadley farm, February 2010. (c) Greg Saulmon 2010

I just ran across this 2009 article from Audubon Magazine about research into how birds can fly in flocks comprising thousands of members, at speeds of 40 miles per hour, without colliding.

Theories in the 1960s, author Peter Friederici explains, posited that the tight maneuvers of flocks of birds were similar to the movements found in schools of fish — and that each individual need only mimic the movements of its closest neighbors.

But in the 1970s, graduate student Wayne Potts discovered a flaw in the theory: it didn’t explain how flocks can execute maneuvers so quickly. Friederici writes:

By making movies of their flocks and analyzing, frame by frame, how each individual bird moved, he was able to show that a turn ripples through a flock just as a cheerleading wave passes through sports fans at a stadium. He explained the finding with the name of his theory: the “chorus line hypothesis.” An individual dancer who waits for her immediate neighbor to move before initiating her kick will be too slow; similarly, a dunlin watches a number of birds around it, not just its nearest neighbors, for cues. […]

“The wave was propagating through the flock at least three times faster than could be explained if they were just watching their immediate neighbors,” says Potts.

Some of the latest research into flock behavior was taking place in 2009 at the Roman National Museum in Rome, Italy, where a roost of starlings gathers each winter. Scientists are now using software designed for statistical mechanics to create three-dimensional maps of flocks in flight.

Read more about the project, codenamed StarFLAG, here. And, be sure to check out this photo gallery by Richard Barnes that accompanies the Audubon article.

Crows gather in Springfield's Brightwood neighborhood, February 2011. (c) Greg Saulmon

Crows like Terre Haute, Indiana, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

In winter the crow-to-human ratio approaches 1:1, with about 50,0001 of the loud, smart birds descending upon on the city. Last year, The New York Times reported Wednesday, the city formed a “crow committee” — which in term created a “Crow Patrol” whose members were trained to shoot fireworks and flares near common roosting areas.

“The intent was not to kill the birds but to launch a varied disruption so sustained that the they would move to dedicated zones: an empty field, say, at city’s edge,” Dan Barry writes, noting: “All last winter, the boom of evening fireworks echoed through Terre Haute, with modest results. It turns out that crows don’t believe in zoning.”

The Terre Haute Crow Response Committee officially released its winter 2010-2011 crow control plan [PDF] in August, 2010. The plan — converted to the PDF format from a PowerPoint presentation — runs 19 pages and calls for a first-year budget of $15,000. Two staff members, a planning director and a field director, received salaries of $6,000 each. The remainder went to supplies, equipment, mileage and postage.

The crux of the plan, as mentioned in the Times article, involved designating zero-, moderate-, and full-tolerance zones, with volunteer patrol members working with the planning and field directors to “encourage” the birds to congregate in full-tolerance areas. “Believe it or not, Vigo County contains plenty of places that crows can roost in large numbers without bothering anyone,” the plan reads. “The trick is getting them to go there when they don’t choose those spots on their own.” The plan also argues the necessity of the full-tolerance zones: “Otherwise, you’re not giving the crows you move out of zero tolerance zones anywhere to go.”

A call for volunteers issued shortly after the rollout of the plan identified two primary positions: “Observer/Data Collector” and “Pyrotechnics Launcher”. The latter position was charged with using fireworks to keep crows out of the zero-tolerance zone.

Terre Haute based its plan heavily on strategies developed by Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County Crow Coalition. The Lancaster coalition advocates for a “humane, non-lethal, and environmentally sound approach” to the crow issue, and uses CafePress to sell hoodies, tote bags and coffee mugs bearing the organization’s logo. Slogan: “Crows are Cool.”

While the coalition champions its success in moving most of the roosts out of the city, the group’s website reminds residents that “[c]rows aren’t pests” and offers a somewhat resigned take on the effort: “Crow management will continue, each year, probably forever.”

This year, Terre Haute held a Crow Committee volunteer training session on October 11. Volunteers met for an hour in the City Hall court room to review the plan and receive hands-on training for the upcoming crow season.

But like Lancaster County, Terre Haute, too, encourages its citizens to exercise tolerance for their sometimes noisy neighbors. In its crow-management plan, the first bulleted item on the slide titled “The Public’s Role” reads: “Accept that there will always be crows here.”

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1The New York Times cites a winter crow population of 100,000, but Terre Haute’s crow control plan offers the 50,000-crow figure. The city’s population, according to the 2010 Census, is 60,785.

A Massachusetts Environmental Police officer holds an owl rescued on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Aurburn Saturday morning. Photo by Trooper Michael Golenski | Courtesy of the Massachusetts State Police | Click to enlarge.

When Trooper Michael Golenski arrived at the scene, he saw the Barred Owl in the Turnpike’s breakdown lane, trying and failing to fly.

Goenski is credited with saving the owl’s life as it begins its journey of healing from surgery for a broken wing at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton.

A motorist heading east on Interstate 90 in Auburn Saturday morning reported the struggling bird just before 10:30 a.m. and Golenski arrived shortly thereafter, Massachusetts State Police spokesman David Procopio said in a press release Monday. Golenski then requested the assistance of the state’s Environmental Police as he left to respond to a call for a stranded motorist a short distance away.

Twenty-five minutes later, Golenski returned to check on the owl. He waited with the bird until Environmental Police Sgt. Scott Amati and Officer Jason Dejackome arrived and took it to the Wildlife Clinic at the Tufts veterinary school, Procopio said.

“We hope that all will go well and [the owl] will be released when healed,” Robin Shearer, wildlife program assistant at the clinic, wrote in response to an email I sent Monday.

Tom Keppeler, associate director of communications for the school, told the Boston Globe: “He had a fracture in his humerus. [As of today] the owl is bright, alert, and doing fine.”

Shearer said veterinarians at the clinic performed surgery to insert pins in the owl’s broken left wing over the weekend and that, for the time being, the bird is recuperating in a small cage. Staff will check the owl’s progress regularly to determine when the bone has healed enough for a second procedure to remove the pins.

Then, the road to recovery continues as the bird prepares to regain its flight.

“After a little more time of cage rest the bird will be moved to a larger cage. The cage size will be increased until the bird and bone are strong enough to go into our flight cage. At that time it will stay until it regains it strength and endurance,” Shearer said.

Staff at the clinic believe the owl is a male, based on its weight, adding that while its age is unknown it is fully grown.

When asked whether the bird had earned any kind of nickname following its ordeal, Shearer reiterated her hope that the owl would one day return to its natural habitat. “We do not name the patients as they are wild and we do everything we can to make sure they can be returned to the wild — a name implies ‘pet’ or domestication, and we do not want to jinx them,” she said.

The clinic treated 61 Barred Owls in 2010,  and 48 so far this year. A total of 1,910 patients have received treatment at the clinic to date in 2011.