Discovery Night 2017

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discoverynightMarch saw the return of the University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Science and Engineering. For the fifth year running this included Discovery Night, a family outreach evening demonstrating current research within the departments of science, engineering and medicine through demonstrations, talks and hands-on activities. Our research group is usually based in two places- the university and the Natural History Museum in Tring- so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring ourselves and the various sides of our project together to take part in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences’ (APS) offerings.

Despite the publication of our first wide-ranging paper earlier this year, we are not yet finished with data collection. Our aim, to 3D scan the bill and photograph the plumage of as many of the world’s approx. 10,000 species of bird, is a huge undertaking so communicating the scale and scope of this work seemed an interesting approach to take  when sharing our research.

birdspecimensWhilst we aren’t able to remove the irreplaceable specimens we use everyday from museum collections, we are lucky enough to have a small selection of data-less bird skins for testing our methods and for outreach. Museum’s will generally only keep natural history specimens within their research collections if they are adequately labelled with associated information (such as taxonomy, locality, who collected it and when) that makes them useful for research and/or identifiable as historically significant. As such, material will occasionally be deemed unsuitable for these needs but ideal for alternative uses, such as inclusion within handling collections- where material is  set aside to be used in teaching activities.

studyskins2Museum collections are absolutely essential in our work and form an incredible archive for research, interest and education so it was only fitting they took pride of place in our display. Not only are they wonderful to look at up close, illustrating some key points in our study, but they also act as a brilliant starting point in explaining why these primarily historical resources can be such an important resource for the future.

Much of the last two years has been spent extracting  the data we need from these specimens to allow us to explore evolutionary diversity amongst species through 3D scanning and photography.

sarahscanningScanning bird beaks, whilst allowing us to generate incredibly detailed digital replicas, is a hugely varied undertaking- one that requires lots of practice to tackle the bristles, feathers, damaged keratin, hooks, casques, curves and glossy surfaces that we encounter every day working with specimens. We gave scanning demonstrations throughout the evening, showing the process of imaging a bill from a variety of angles to capture a full three-dimensional model. We were also given a run for our money by some particularly talented members of the public!

markmybirdGetting people involved with our research via the next stage of our work, landmarking, is another important point for us. To turn a detailed 3D model into data that we can compare and interpret across all species, we need to place key points on every single scan. This is a time-consuming but engaging task and one we want citizen scientists of all ages to be able to try. Our crowdsourcing site – markmybird.org – has so far seen an incredible input from interested people all over the world, but there is still plenty left to get involved with!

In recent months we’ve also been experimenting with 3D printing, attempting to create accurate physical models of the bills we image. After some trial and error and with the help of experienced staff within the APS department, we were aultimakerble to create models of a selection of bills- much better for handling and demonstrating than the real thing!

We were lucky enough to have the 3D printer in action throughout the evening, slowly but surely creating a model of a sturdy corvid bill. It’s been brilliant to see our digital models taking physical form once again, providing a visual tool for displaying the variety in the form and shape of bird bills. Each model of the size pictured below takes around four hours to print. A life-size replica of a shoebill beak, for example, would take upwards of 24hours!

3DprintedbillsAlongside these demonstrations of our work we also had bill-weirdness Top Trumps, a plumage identification computer game, videos showing our work based in the Natural History Museum’s collections and an opportunity to take your own ultraviolet plumage shots. It was great to speak with so many interested visitors (with so many brilliant questions) and have the chance to show what we’ve been up to- whether as visitors or demonstrators, hopefully we’ll be back next year!

teamdiscoverynight

 

 

Lab Updates February 2017

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It’s been an exciting few weeks for all of us here at Team Macrobird with February seeing the first paper from our project published in Nature. We’re thrilled to finally have this out in print after over two years of data collection, analysis and the hard work of citizen scientists from around the world. We’ve already received some wonderful feedback and mentions in publications from the New York Times to the Yorkshire Post. You can learn more about the paper and our findings in our recent blog post or view it in full here.Nature issueAlongside this, the first portion of our data has now been made available via the Natural History Museum’s Data Portal– a dedicated space to ensure the museum’s collections, research and associated data is accessible to everyone. Whilst our website markmybird.org provides a gallery of approaching 8,000 3D scans, the data portal provides more in-depth data for an initial 2,028 specimens, comprising raw scan data and multiple landmarks for each as well as an adjoining spreadsheet featuring sex, museum registration number and taxonomic details. By making this data freely available we hope that more questions regarding beak shape can be investigated and answered by researchers, students and anyone with an interest well into the future.

NHM Data Portal

We’ve also had a new research assistant join our team collecting data at the Natural History Museum at Tring- Michael Jardine will be helping photograph the plumage of the world’s birds for the next six months. So too, Yichen He began his PhD towards the end of last year, working with PI Gavin Thomas to characterise phenotypic data for MicroCT scans of zebra finches.

Data collection: 3D scanning & UV photography

Whilst our first paper explores bill shape at genus level, we are still aiming to build a far more comprehensive dataset of bill and plumage information- covering as many of the approximately 10,000 extant species of bird as possible. This means data collection will be continuing full force, using the Natural History Museum’s ornithology collections at Tring.

Scanning has been going ahead in small increments this month with a number of new world warblers, australian robins and ovenbird species soon to be added to our site. Next month however, we aim to have a new push to complete the Furnariidae- more on this later.

sulphur crested cockatooIn contrast, towards the end of this month we moved over to having two photography light tents in operation for the first time. Not only will this increase the number of specimens we are able to image but the new, second light tent will also allow us to photograph larger passerines and many of the non-passerine families we choose to focus on.

Even better, this month we reached a significant milestone- with 25% of all world bird species imaged. This equates to a whopping:

12265 specimens photographed: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
73590 photos taken: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen
22.68% of families
29.41% of genera
25.94% of species

MarkMyBird

Having only just celebrated the 1000th volunteer signing up to our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org last month, February has seen an amazing increase in new members with many first-time landmarkers contributing to our ongoing study through citizen science. We now have in excess of 1400 registered users with over 1000 bills landmarked this month alone, brilliant stuff!

great billed hermit

Landmarks placed along the beak edge of the Great-billed hermit (Phaethornis malaris), a species of hummingbird.

However, with scans for almost 80% of world bird species uploaded and ready to view on our website, the hard work isn’t over yet! If you’ve just heard about our project, have an interest in ornithology, are interested in the way historical museum specimens are used in modern science or are just curious to see what it involves to become a citizen scientist, head on over! We’ve even made a short video, showing the basics of landmarking a bill from beginning to end:

#BeakoftheWeek

Maui parrotbillOur twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek takes place every Wednesday- a chance to test your bird identifying skills against our 3D models. A favourite pick from this month was the Maui parrotbill (Pseudonestor xanthophrys), an unusual and misleading bill shape that really kept people guessing! Everyone is welcome to join in and a place on our leaderboard (as well as bragging rights) is up for grabs…

Other news

Macrobird post-doc Chris Cooney was lucky enough to undertake a research visit to the University of Chicago- spending time with Trevor Price and his lab group before scanning some hard-to-find species from the collections at the world famous Field Museum. You can read more about Chris’ American adventure here.

Finally, congratulations are in order for Will Wood and Louie Rombaut, both of whom undertook summer research projects last year as part of the University SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) scheme. Both Will and Louie spent time with us collecting data at the Natural History Museum in Tring and presented their findings at a recent open evening.

louie, will, chris

Mega-evolutionary dynamics of the adaptive radiation of birds

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Nature bills

The idea to 3D scan the bills of the world’s 10,000 bird species from museum collections has always seemed like an ambitious undertaking. However, after two years of data collection, months of analysis and the input of hundreds of citizen scientists, the first study resulting from our work was published in Nature last month.

This initial, wide-ranging exploration of bill diversity, compared over 2000 species from across all genera, considering the full range of present-day bill shapes.

The diversity we see in bill shape today is extraordinary and studying this characteristic can tell us a lot about species and how they interact with their environment- from foraging, hunting and eating food, to preening and nest building. Traditional methods of gathering information relating to bill form have often relied on length, depth and width measurements alone, missing many key elements of shape, such as curvature. By 3D scanning bills, we have been able to capture far more detailed information, providing a true reflection of bill diversity.

It would have been impossible to collect this information from birds in the wild so our study has been reliant on the incredible ornithology collections at Manchester Museum and the Natural History Museum in Tring. These archives of biodiversity have allowed us to create fantastically detailed models through access to such a broad variety of species, alongside curatorial expertise and work space.

One of the most novel aspects of our study was the way in which much of our initial data- the 3D scans- was processed through the input of citizen scientists from around the world. With each scan requiring landmarking by at least 3 different people, this in itself was a huge task and one that would not have been possible without such a collaborative effort. By helping us place key points and trace edges on every scanned bill, online volunteers assisted in turning these hugely complex 3D models into data that could then be analysed.

From this we have been able to highlight that the majority of bill diversification evolved quickly and, once extremes of shape were reached, the amount of change slowed down significantly as birds began to fill increasingly narrow ecological niches. As a result of this initial fast change and huge variety of form, birds have been able to exploit the equally wide range of habitats and sources of food.

The full paper can be read here and, excitingly, has also received some fantastic press attention, including a discussion of our findings with project PI Dr Gavin Thomas on both the Nature podcast and BBC Inside Science (interview starts at 20:00 minutes) – if you prefer a good listen, rather than a good read. A selection of our online coverage is listed here:

Audubon – Post-docs Dr Chris Cooney and Dr Jen Bright spoke to Audubon magazine about our findings and how they build upon our previous understanding of bill diversity.
BBC Science & Environment – ‘How birds of a feather evolved together’
New York Times – ‘Finding the Speed of Evolution in a Study of Bird Beaks’
Natural History Museum – Our study wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum. This statement highlights our reliance on this resource as well as how our data can be used in the future.
University of Sheffield – A summary of our project and findings as part of the Department of Animal & Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield.

If reading about our work has caught your interest, it’s not too late to contribute. Our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org is still very much up-and-running as we continue to increase our data relating to all extant species. Whether you want to browse our scan gallery or have a go at landmarking, everyone is welcome.

Chicago: lab visits, bird collections & the field museum

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Chris in Chicago

In early January, I headed stateside to begin a month-long visit to the University of Chicago with the main aim of spending some time working with Trevor Price, a world-leading expert on speciation, species diversity and colour vision in birds. Trevor began his research career studying Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands with Peter and Rosemary Grant, and since then has gone on to have a long and distinguished career working on a huge range of Chris scanquestions related to the ecology and evolution of birds. Many of these insights were synthesised in his 2008 book “Speciation in birds”, which discusses the factors regulating the formation of new bird species for almost every conceivable angle. The wide-ranging nature of Trevor’s approach to understanding bird evolution is also reflected in the diversity of his lab group, whose current research interests stretch from understanding competitive interactions between ants and birds in the Indian Himalayas through to the role of chromosomal rearrangements in the formation of new bird species. The opportunity to spend time in such a vibrant research group that is doing so much exciting research was a great privilege, and I would like to say a big thank you to Trevor Price and his lab group for their hospitality and for the huge amount of inspiring discussions during his visit. A special thank you must also go to Macrobird PI Gavin Thomas, who encouraged and supported me in this visit from first to last. Thank you to everyone who made the visit such a success!

Field Museum

Aside from talking all things evolutionary with Trevor Price and his lab group, while in Chicago I also took the opportunity to visit the world-famous Field Museum of Natural history and add to the ever-expanding 3D beak-shape dataset. The Field Museum is one of the most prominent public museums in the world and is also home to one of the largest collections of natural history specimens. Like many natural history collections, a vast number of these specimens are birds, providing the perfect opportunity to locate and scan several hard-to-find species that are not represented in UK collections. In total I managed to add an extra 18 species to the dataset while out in Chicago, including several species of parrot (such as the blue-headed macaw, Primolius couloni) and Newell’s shearwater (Puffinus newelli) .

Chicago skyline

As a slight aside, one interesting—and perhaps slightly unfortunate—fact about the Field Museum is that every year their bird collection grows significantly owing to the fact that many hundreds of thousands of migrating birds perish after colliding with buildings in Chicago’s famous skyline. Many of these unfortunate birds are collected by museum volunteers or members of the public and then passed on to the Museum, who endeavour to preserve as many as possible in an effort to make the best of a bad situation. Because of the scale of the problem, the City of Chicago now takes steps to prevent as many bird collisions as possible, by modifying buildings and people’s behaviour, including encouraging workers to ensure office lights remain off overnight during migration periods. Again, the opportunity to spend time working at the Field Museum and to learn more about the role of the Museum in the fight against bird collisions was a huge privilege – a big thank you to Shannon Hackett, John Bates, Ben Marks at the Field Museum and Graham Slater at the University of Chicago for making that possible.

Happy New Year-ish!: Lab Updates January 2017

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It’s been another busy few months for all of us here on team MacroBird and time has flown since our last update at the end of the Summer. Team changes, data collection, paper writing, outreach and PhD-beginnings have kept us occupied as we start another year of all things macroevolution!

Data collection will be continuing throughout 2017 using the fantastic ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring. With two remaining research assistants and a new member joining the team, both scanning and photography will be pushing on over the coming months. Emma Hughes, one of our original RAs, is now based with the rest of the team in Sheffield, beginning a NERC-funded PhD exploring the impact of global change on avian diversity.

IMG_8589At the end of September we took part in Science Uncovered- the Natural History Museum’s European Researcher’s Night event- for the second year running. MacroBird PI Dr Gavin Thomas gave a talk about our research and crowdsourcing project whilst we demonstrated our use of the collections with our scanners, specimens and citizen science website. You can read more about the night here.


Data collecting in Tring: 3D scanning & UV photography

Having achieved approaching 90% of species processed (with over 75% successfully scanned), we’re well on our way to completing the scanning component of our project. The remaining species that are available within the Natural History Museum’s collections will be scanned over the coming months and added to our crowdsourcing site MarkMyBird, increasing the diversity of bills available to view and landmark through our galleries. Remaining target families include the Tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae) and Ovenbirds (Furnariidae).

Finches

Clockwise from top left: I’iwi or Scarlet honeycreeper (Drepanis coccinea), Brown-capped rosy finch (Leucosticte australis), Long-tailed rosefinch (Carpodacus sibiricus), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

As such, data collection has had a shift of focus in recent months as our efforts have been turned from scanning to photography. After some alterations to the equipment we are using whilst imaging the plumage (male and female) of every extant species in both the human visible and ultraviolet ranges we continue to photograph our way through the passerines. We are currently progressing through the brilliantly varied Fringillidae family, including everything from the European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) to the fascinating Hawaiian honeycreepers.

MarkMyBird 

Fratercula arctica- Atlantic puffinOur crowdsourcing site markmybird.org still needs you! We are aiming to scan the bills of as many as possible of the world’s 10,000 species of bird and now have almost 80% of this total uploaded and ready for you to view and landmark on our dedicated crowdsourcing website. In order to include these incredibly detailed 3D scans in our study, we need citizen scientists to help us ‘landmark’ these models, placing key points and traMagpie2cing curves and edges. The process allows you to get up close to this fascinating and massively variable area of avian anatomy and contribute to this wide ranging research. We have everything from extinct and endangered species to old favourites such as the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica– left) and the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica– right) to explore. This month we reached a fantastic milestone, exceeding 1000 registered users on the site- brilliant stuff! 

#BeakoftheWeek

Our weekly twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek is still going strong with some especially unusual choices in recent weeks- including the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii), as pictured below. Anyone is welcome to join in and have a guess every Wednesday- you might even be first to get the correct answer and make your way onto our extremely prestigious leader board.

kiwi

Publications

After over two years of data collection, thousands of 3D scans (and even more specimens assessed, measured and processed), the contributions of scores of citizen scientists and months of analysis, we’re thrilled to say that the first paper resulting from this project has been accepted for publication. The paper will available to read very soon and we’ll be sure to make lots of noise when the publication date arrives- watch this space!

Images

All scans (c) of Team Macrobird and The Natural History Museum (London and Tring)
Finch photographs: credits provided.

Science Uncovered 2016

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After having a great time showcasing our research last year, we were invited back to take part in the Natural History Museum’s offerings for European Researcher’s Night 2016.

IMG_8574-2IMG_8589

One of the best parts of our role as Research Assistants is the freedom to work with the museum’s collections everyday, moving across all taxa and, at times, preparation methods (study skins, spirit and skeleton specimens) as data collection requires. Without access to such incredible collections, wide-ranging studies such as ours simply wouldn’t be possible and the importance of highlighting the many uses of such diverse and well-maintained resources is becoming increasingly important. When they were collected, primarily during the heyday of Victorian exploration and collecting, nobody could have anticipated the ways in which these specimens would be used. Yet, by preserving them for future generations, this historical material can now be utilised in contemporary science projects, continuing to help us understand the evolving biodiversity of the planet.IMG_8576

There’s no better way to show this than with the real thing so we selected an array of study skins- exactly like those kept in the natural history museum’s ornithology research collections and used in our study- for people to explore up close. Alongside these were a selection of skulls from the museum’s handling collections, ranging from the large, stocky bill of the marabou stork and the curved, pointed bill of the kestrel to the filter feeding bill of a flamingo and the mud-probing bill of an ibis.

With our portable 3D scanner in tow, we were alsIMG_8578o able to give live scanning demonstrations with anyone welcome to have a go at creating their own 3D digital bill model- not as easy as it looks! By demonstrating how we move from a physical specimen to a detailed digital replica it becomes clear why this is only possible with study skins- it would be practically and logistically impossible to replicate this process with living birds in the field.

One of the great things about talking to the public about our research in particular is that anyone interested can actually become a citizen scientist and contribute to the study through the wonders of our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org. With over three-quarters of world bird species now uploaded, there are thousands of bills to explore up-close via our gallery as well as opportunities for anyone to have a go at landmarking our 3D scans, assisting with our analysis and helping answer key questions about avian evolution.

In addition to our stand, Principal Investigator Gavin Thomas gave a talk introducing our research and its reliance on ornithology collections. Situated in thIMG_8588e public galleries of the Natural History Museum at Tring- a Victorian zoological collection and display space donated to the NHM by its founder, Walter Rothschild- it was a great opportunity to highlight the value of largely unseen research collections and highlight the questions we are hoping to answer.

Alongside our offerings were demonstrations from expert taxidermists showing how museum specimens are preserved and the opportunity to see some of the manuscript treasures of the Natural History Museum being made available through the digitisation efforts of the amazing Biodiversity Heritage Library. There was also the opportunityscarlet rumped trogon drawing to talk to curators about contemporary museum issues: from a stand exploring the use of bird skins in helping identify material picked up by HM Customs, blocking aircraft engines or contaminating foods to discussions concerning how natural history museums deal with selecting (and declining) new acquisitions.

You can learn more about European Researcher’s Night here, the Natural History Museum at Tring here and us on our team website, twitter and crowdsourcing site!

 

 

Lab Updates August 2016

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It’s been another month of change here at Team MacroBird with two of our original team members moving on to adventures anew.

14100385_10104845417626067_3774523421000460044_nPost-doc Jen Bright (green t-shirt, thumbs up), geometric morphometrics whizz and all-round human-encyclopedia, is taking up a new post as Assistant Professor of Geosciences at the University of South Florida.

Research assistant Elliot Capp (cheesy grin, beard), mechscan master, brains behind #beakoftheweek and all round zoology ace is off to become a teacher extraordinaire.

To mark these departures, all of us on team MacroBird went on a trip to South Kensington to see the new Colour and Vision exhibition at the Natural History Museum. We saw the octopus Charles Darwin kept as a pet during the voyage of HMS Beagle, lots of very cool trilobites, some impressive iridescent butterflies, plenty of birds (Gouldian finches galore) and learnt that ‘cyborg artist’ is someone’s actual job title.

Colour & Vision

Data Collection in Tring: 3D scanning

With all this change on the horizon, we’ve been pushing to meet as many data collection targets as possible. This involves progressing through remaining large families and returning to those we moved on from whilst nearing completion.

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3D Scan of Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus) from www.markmybird.org

One such example is the birds of prey which are, in general, great to scan. Although some genera have obstructing feathers and bristles, most have clear landmarks and well-defined ‘cutting edges’ that are clearly picked up by our scanners. One of the last non-passerine families in need of completing were the Falcons and Caracaras (Falconidae) – with all the larger species having already been imaged on the bigger of our two scanners (the R3X) we still had a number of significantly smaller, finer bills remaining. After what feels like months of Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and Sunbirds (Nectariniidae), finishing a family with such chunky, nonlinear bills was a breeze!

On the other end of the scale, we had some really big species that needed our attention. Both the Rheas (Rheidae) and the Cassowaries (Casuariidae), two of the tallest and heaviest living birds, are primarily stored as either mounted taxidermy or in a compact, curled-up form within the collections due to their size and shape. Selecting a specimen suitable for scanning can be a real challenge as we need to access the bill from all angles in order to capture enough images to build a 3D model. Rather than simply rotating the specimen (as we do with small passerines for example) we have to get a bit creative and move the scanner around these huge specimens, carefully manoeuvring the long, brittle necks to ensure no damage is caused. In moments like this, such as scanning the last of the cassowaries (below), we realise just how peculiar parts of our job are…

cassowary

Data Collection in Tring: UV photography

This month we’ve been photographing the plumage of some really interesting species- with the Pittas (Pittidae) being a particular favourite.

The Pittas are a small family of charismatic birds found across Asia, Africa and Australasia. They are small-medium in size and stocky in form with very short tails and comparatively long legs. What really sets them apart from other species is their brightly coloured plumage (particularly interesting for this element of our research), in vivid shades of red, blue and purple. In the wild, Pittas are notoriously difficult to pinpoint as they are highly secretive and perhaps because of this, they often feature on lists of species birders particularly want to see (including one or two members of our team!). 

Being able to access these species within museum collections allows us to use an ultraviolet filter when photographing the specimens, which provides us with a different perspective of this fantastic plumage. Certain patches of colour positively glow- as you can see from our images of the Azure-breasted Pitta (Pitta steerii) below. 

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MarkMyBird and #BeakoftheWeek

We’ve recently been experiencing some technical problems with our crowd sourcing website markmybird– thank you to everyone for being so patient and for keeping us updated. Everything is now up-and-running again and we’ve uploaded more than a thousand new 3D bill models for you to view and landmark, even more reason to revisit or sign up and give citizen science a try!

black-winged stilt

Our weekly twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has seen some great picks this month, including a number of first-time guessers and winners. Chris Packham was successful in spotting the black-winged stilt (above) in record time, followed by the hen harrier in his honour. There are still thousands of species to pick from so the competition is far from over, join us on twitter every Wednesday and give it a go.

Images

All images (c) of Team Macrobird and The Natural History Museum

 

Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma)

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This New World blackbird (Icteridae) has got to be one of my all-time favourite birds to scan. Usually a few times a week (after you have been working with museum collections for a while and every species is not as exciting as it once was) you will open a draw and marvel at nature’s achievements. From its bright yellow tail to its simply fantastic multi-tonal face and beak, this bird is stunning. The joy at this species didn’t stop there, as not only did it look good but it scanned beautifully. It was done and dusted in 5 minutes flat. As someone who spends a large portion of their time 3D scanning birds this is quite the treat.

Montezuma Oropendola in flight.

Montezuma Oropendola in flight.

You can see how beautifully the scan of the Montezuma Oropendola or Great Oropendola came out by checking out our #BeakoftheWeek tweet.

 

  • What does it look like?

    Say you are out for a stroll in Mexico and you see a beautiful avian specimen sitting in a nearby tree, how would you know if it is one of these guys? Being with a local bird guide would help, but apparently they are not always on hand. Knowing what they look like is always a good start, and by taking a scrutinising look at the picture below you’ll hopefully get your eye in for such an occasion.

    Males are slightly bigger and heavier than females (m-47.5cm,  ~500g; f-40cm, ~250g), and they do look similar so remembering this fact will be helpful in identifying the sex of what you are looking at. Starting from the bottom up, they have black legs, a yellow tail with black central feathers (retrices), dark chestnut body feathers and black head and neck feathers. Their faces have a patch of bare blue skin with a pink wattle under it and then the beak is half orange (from the tip to the centre) and half black (from the centre to where it meets the facial feathers).

    Montezuma Oropendola in all its glory.

    Montezuma Oropendola in all its glory.

    As we like to say, you cannot guarantee that you will get to see any bird species that you set out to see, so knowing what it sounds like is a huge help when IDing bird species. Below is a sample of what they sound like, and you can head over to the fantastic Xeno Canto to listen to some more of their calls (it is Definitely worth having a listen to these as they are marvellous). Xeno Canto is a great way to spend a few minutes listening to random bird species if you find yourself at a loss.

  • Where can you find this bird?

    This central american bird is found from the Atlantic slope of Eastern Mexico and South through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica down to Panama. The map below shows in more detail the range of this species.

    This Oropendola is found in tropical forests and in forests along the banks of rivers (riparian forests) up to 1600m.

    Montezuma Oropendola range.

    Montezuma Oropendola range.

  • What does this species eat?

    This species tends to forage in the upper canopy, rarely on the ground and it eats a wide variety of stuff. This ranges from the fruits of the gumbo-limbo and the Florida thatch palm, as well as the more familiar bananas and cacao, to nectar, insects and small invertebrates. They have also been known to eat bird species such as Lance-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia lanceolata) chicks.

    Breeding

    Breeding occurs at different times across the range, but primarily from February to August. Their mating system is harem polygyny, where one male lives and mates with numerous females, but females only mate with one male. They live in colonies with a varying number of nests per colony, this can range from as low as 3 nests to as high as 172 nests, with the average being around 30-60, depending on where they are found.

    There is a dominance hierarchy amongst males which influences the amount of time males spend in a colony. The more dominant male spends the most time in the colony, with lower ranking males visiting when he is absent. In DNA tests of 21 chicks, dominant or alpha males were found to sire 33% of chicks and beta-males 19% with lower-ranking and males displaying outside the colony siring the rest.

    When displaying/showing off to females, males perform what could be deemed as a bow and is definitely worth checking out.

    Females are responsible for nest building, usually 13-22m from the ground, with it taking 13-18 days to complete a nest. The nest is a “purse” 60-180cm long, that is open at the top, and formed from coarse plant fibres of eg banana/palm leaves. The female lines the nest with dry leaves, which she often cheekily steals from neighbouring nests.

    You can see what the nest colonies look like in the picture below.

    Two eggs are laid which, incubated by the female, take 17-18 days to hatch before the chicks then remain in the nest for around 35 days, being fed by the female. In Costa Rica it is reported that usually only one chick survives.

    Montezuma Oropendola nest colony.

    Montezuma Oropendola nest colony.

  • Good news on this front, with this species being listed as “Of Least Concern” on the IUCN redlist. It has range of around 450,000km2 and is seen as quite common in a lot of places across this range, which would be the reason for this lower degree of concern for this species. This is good news for colourful beak fans!

  • For further reading this week I have selected a paper that looks into the effect of sexual selection on song evolution in oropendolas and caciques.

    For further interest, and i’ve gone off-piste here, I find the thought of using DNA to encode data fascinating and thought some of you might as well. If you do, head on over the Nature News to read some more.

    Oropendola intrigued by song evolution?

    Oropendola intrigued by song evolution?

References

. 2010. Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=680076

BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet:Psarocolius montezuma. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 31/08/2016.

BirdLife International. 2012. Psarocolius montezuma. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22724004A39873355. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22724004A39873355.en. Downloaded on 26 August 2016.

Fraga, R. (2016). Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/62242 on 26 August 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Psarocolius montezuma. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1.

Montezuma Oropendola in all its glory is by Doug Janson and is licenesd under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Montezuma Oropendola in flight is by Paulo Philippidis and is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Montezuma Oropendola nest colony is by Charlesjsharp and is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Oropendola intrigued by song evolution? is by Jerry Oldenettel and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Audio

Peter Boesman, XC274124. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/274124.

 

The Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata)

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From the fantastically diverse vanga family (vangidae) the sickle-billed vanga really is sight to behold.  When a species has a bill as distinctive as this you can see why it would be quick to identify on #BeakoftheWeek, and low and behold the bird that the bill belonged to was quickly ascertained in the weekly challenge. Some of the beaks we have had the opportunity to scan at the Natural History Museum collections in Tring are a joy to work with, and this was definitely one of those.

Here is a nice video from the internet bird collection for you to watch to get a feel for what this bird looks like and how it moves.

 

  • What does it look like?

    The sickle-billed vanga is the largest in its family and it really stands out because of the strongly decurved bill that is possesses. There is no sexual dimorphism in this species, with both males and females being mostly white except for its upperparts, which are black with a blue sheen (as can be seen below). These vangas have blackish-brown irises, its legs are dark grey/pale blue and its bill is bluish grey fading to ivory at the tip.  Juveniles are similar in appearance to adults.

    sickle-billed vanga 2

    Sickle-billed vanga

    This is all very well and good if you can see the bird, but what if it is doing what birds are wont to do and hiding just out of sight? Well then we can rely on what it sounds like, if it decides to make any sound that is. Below is a recording of this species in the wild for you to memorise if you happen to be heading out to Madagascar.

  • Where can you find this bird?

    This species is endemic to Madagascar and is a year round resident along the whole of the western side of the island nation, as can be seen below. They are typically found in dry deciduous forests and Savannah.

    Sickle-billed Vanga range

    Sickle-billed Vanga range

  • Diet

    This species forages in holes and crevices of living and dead trees on the hunt for invertebrates (such as spiders, beetles and cockroaches) and small vertebrates (e.g. geckos). In the non-breeding season they form large foraging groups of between 20-30 individuals and sometimes form mixed groups with other species such as Madagascar Crested Drongos (Dicrurus forficatus).

    Sickle-billed Vanga

    Sickle-billed Vanga

    Breeding

    These vangas breed between October and January in NW Madagascar. Interestingly they are Polyandrous, where more than one male mates with one female and all the males (plus the female) then feed the young. These modern males also help with predator defence, territorial defence and sometimes incubation and brooding.

    This nest itself is built 9-16m off the ground in the fork of a tree and is formed from twigs into a cup-shape before being lined with more comfortable materials. Once it is ready a clutch of 3-4 eggs will be laid, which will then be incubated for 16-18 days. The chicks will then remain in the nest for 19-23 days before entering into the real world.

  • Good news on this front in that this species is seen as of “At Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist for species. It is common to fairly common across it’s large range and it also found in many protected areas.

  • Sickle-billed vangas are polyandrous, as mentioned previously, which is a rare mating system thought to only occur in less than one percent of bird species. It is well documented in phalaropes, although this “strange” mating system did lead to John James Audubon mislabelling all of his males and female phalaropes in his illustrations.

    There are two types of polyandry: Sequential polyandry is where a female mates with a male, lays eggs and then leaves the male to do the rest as she goes off to find another male to mate with, and Simultaneous polyandry, where a female holds a large territory which contains numerous smaller nesting territories where males care for the eggs and young.

    For further reading this week I am providing a link that will explain polyandry in more detail and also provides links to information on different mating systems, such as polygyny and cooperative breeding. Follow this link to a Stanford University site to begin your learning journey.

References

BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Falculea palliata. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 26/08/2016.

BirdLife International. 2012. Falculea palliata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22708041A39344831. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22708041A39344831.en. Downloaded on 25 August 2016.

Yamagishi, S. & Nakamura, M. (2016). Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/60562 on 25 August 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Falculea palliata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1

ian_hempstead, IBC1195731. Accessible at hbw.com/ibc/1195731.

Keulemans’ Sickle-billed vanga by John Gerrard Keulemans is licensed Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Sickle-billed vanga by Cédric de Foucault is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Audio

Hans Matheve, XC155300. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/155300.

The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

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I say this far too frequently for it to warrant much merit but this is definitely a #favebird. Not only is it a highly skilled snake assassin but it has some rather fanciful “hair” to boot.

This one was solved pretty quickly on #BeakoftheWeek by our resident expert but it was mistaken for quite a few other accipitriformes first.

Check out the video below for a quick run through about this species before diving into a bit more detail.

  • What does it look like?

    This rather large bird is over a metre tall (125-150cm), that is almost as tall as Kylie Minogue! I would love to say I have seen one of these birds in the wild, but I Should Be So Lucky. I will have to make do with wonderful pictures like the one below for the time being.

    This species weighs between 2 and 4.5kg and has a large wingspan of up to 215cm (as wide as Shaquille O’Neal is tall- wow).  It is an unmistakable bird with it’s long pink legs, bare orange face and black crest feathers. Males are similar to females, although females are slightly less blue in appearance and juveniles have a shorter tail and crest.

    Moving swiftly away from celebrity heights…

    Secretarybird

    Secretarybird

    Xeno canto has let us down on this occasion so the best I can do is relate a description of their calls from the fantastic Handbook of the Birds of the World. Their most frequent call, which they make whilst perched/in flight is described as a high-pitched “ko-ko-ko-ko-ka”. They can also be heard making a more audible “kowaaaaa” and a “cockerel-like broken “kurrk-urr””.  I don’t know about you but I feel like I could do quite a good impression of a secretary bird now, thanks again HBW.

  • Where can you find this bird?

    Endemic to Africa the secretarybird is typically found in open grassland and savannah in the sub-Sahara and tends to nest and roost in Acacia trees. As you can see from the range map below they are found extensively across Africa.

    Secretary Bird Range

    Secretary Bird Range

  • Breeding

    This species isn’t fussy, as long as there is a good level of food availability they will nest at any time of the year. Secretarybirds hold territories of 25-45km² in which they build their nests. Nests are formed 3-7.5m from the ground (although they have been seen much higher at 36m) on top of low trees such as an Acacia. The base of the nests is formed with sticks which are then lined with grass, wool and dung. They sometimes re-use nests but more often than not a new one is built.

    One-three eggs are laid, which are then incubated by both sexes (42-46 days). The chicks remain in the nest for typically 75-90 days, and can remain dependent for 62-105 days.

    Nesting Secretarybirds

    Nesting Secretarybirds

    Diet

    You would be mistaken to think the secretarybird restricts its diet to our serpentine friends, it mostly feeds on arthropods. Particular faves are beetles and grasshoppers, but it isn’t a finicky eater. They have been known to eat a wide range of small animals, ranging from lizards and frogs to tortoises, squirrels, hedgehogs, hares and birds eggs and young.

    In order to kill its prey is usually kicks them to death with its long legs and strong toes, before swallowing smaller prey whole and tearing larger prey apart whilst holding it down.

    This species is known to hunt around grass fires, eating prey as it tries to escape/if it has been killed by the inferno. What a way to go.

    Secretary bird feeding

    Secretarybird with a tasty treat

  • Unfortunately this species is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Redlist, with some surveys estimating that total numbers are only in five figures. Rapid declines have been seen across much of its range, with no sightings occurring in Western African making it perhaps the most threatened raptor in the region.

    There are number of factors which could be causing the decline in this species, such as cultivation, urbanisation, burning of grasslands reducing prey numbers and severe drought. It is hoped that by educating locals on the threats facing this species it will help to lessen this decline.

  • I have gone for a mix of further reading today, a bit of science mixed in with a bit of art.

    Let’s start with art. The illustration below is by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (b1874, d1927), a man synonymous with ornithological art. He produced thousands of drawings and paintings in various mediums throughout his lifetime before tragically dying in a car accident.

    Fuertes made his artwork from animals in their natural setting, as well as from fresh study specimens and in order to create these masterpieces Fuertes went on many expeditions, travelling thoughout much of the Americas and Africa.

    Not many people have a species named after them. Fuertes managed that achievement twice – Fuertes’s Oriole and Fuertes’ Parrot.

    By design this further reading is intended to whet the appetite and encourage you to go off and learn more.  I recommend doing a simple search to see more of his illustrations to start with (here is his fantastic white-cheeked hornbill).  John James Audubon, whom we have spoken about previously (click link and scroll down to further reading) was perhaps the most famous ornithological artist and Frank Chapman, curator of the American Natural History Museum who collaborated with Fuertes many times, wrote a comparison of Audubon’s and Fuertes’s work and personalities that can be read here. Frank Chapman also wrote an obituary of Fuertes in Auk where you can see in what high esteem he was held and read more about his achievements.

    Fuertes secretarybird

    Fuertes’ Secretarybird

    Now for a quick bit of science! Imagine the importance of accuracy when targeting a venomous snake, the consequences of missing could be deadly. This journal article (S.Portugal et al. 2016) looks into the locomotion and mechanisms behind the secretarybird’s kick and gives you a great insight into just how powerful this bird’s kick really is.

References

BirdLife International. 2013. Sagittarius serpentarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T22696221A49946506. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2013-2.RLTS.T22696221A49946506.en. Downloaded on 23 August 2016.

Kemp, A.C., Kirwan, G.M., Christie, D.A. & Marks, J.S. (2016). Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.).Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved fromhttp://www.hbw.com/node/53186 on 23 August 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2013. Sagittarius serpentarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1.

Fuertes’ Secretarybird by Louis Agassiz Fuertes is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Nesting Secretarybirds by Peter Dowley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Secretarybird by Ian White is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Secretarybird with a tasty treat by Jean & Nathalie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Planet Doc Full Documentaries. 2015. Secretary Birds of Africa | Nature. [Online]. [23/08/2016]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1UEneEPZO8.