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

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!

 

 

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 Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea)

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I couldn’t wait to write a blog about this species, so I have waded straight into it before the dust has even settled from another round of #BeakoftheWeek.

I had the pleasure of working at a research station (Fowlers Gap) in New South Wales a few years ago where there was a group of habituated apostlebirds, which was a fantastic experience. All you had to do was give a whistle and they would fly over and gather around you in the search of tasty treats. This allowed me to get some great photos like the one below.

Apostlebird1

Apostlebird PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

This social, cooperatively breeding passerine species is an Australian mudnester (Corcoracidae) and is one of many species that had the pleasure of first being described by British Ornithologist John Gould (in 1837). Yup, that is the man who pointed out to Charles Darwin that there was something special about those birds he had brought back from the Galapagos. The 12 seminal ground finch species. This subject could cause me to massively go off on a tangent as I am sometimes wanton to do, but I will stick to the apostlebirds this time.

Apostlebirds are the only member of their genus and one of only two species in the Corcoracidae family, along with the white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos). If you head over to Onezoom you can see what other species they are closely related to.

  • Apostlebirds are around 30cm in length and largely grey in colour (hence Cinerea, which means grey in latin) except for their brown wings and long black tail which has a greeny gloss in certain light. Sexes are similar in appearance, as are juveniles except that they appear to have slightly softer feathers on the head and body.  They have a black bill and legs.

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Apostlebirds are very vocal, with harsh, gritty calls. Xeno Canto, provider of an unparalleled range of bird calls and songs has once again allowed me to share with you the distinctive sounds these birds make.

  • Where can you find this species?

    Apostlebirds are endemic to Australia, across most of inland Eastern Australia with an isolated population in the Northern Territory. They prefer open habitats, and are typically found in arid and semi-arid woodlands/shrublands.  They can become quite bold and tame around places like campsites and farms, so you might be able to get a better view of them there, if you happen to be in Australia that is…

     

    Apostlebird Range

    Apostlebird Range

  • Breeding

    As I mentioned earlier on in this article, this species breeds cooperatively. This means that the breeding effort in this species is shared amongst members of the group, helping to take some of the burden off of the breeding pair. Members of the group help by assisting with tasks like nest building, egg incubation and nest defence.  The number of helpers in a group can be as high as 17.

    It is in fact the group-living nature of these birds that gave rise to their name.  They are often seen in groups of 12, much like Jesus’s Apostles. Although this species has a whole host of other names, such as the “Cwa-bird” and the “lazy-jack”. Apostlebirds also charmingly called “grey jumpers”, a name derived from their habit of jumping from branch to branch.

    As an aside, this species forms a fission-fusion society with these “breeding units” coming together with other breeding groups in winter to former larger groups, before then breaking off again when breeding season comes around.

    You scratch my back, i'll scratch yours.

    You scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours. PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

    Breeding generally occurs between August and February, with exceptions occurring at other times of the year in drier areas where breeding can commence following rain.

    The mud nest, which all group members take part in building, is typically around 7m (range = 3-12m) from the ground in the horizontal branch of a tree. Nests are commonly built in Eucalyptus , Cassuarina and Acacia trees, and are constructed using dried mud, twigs and grass.

    Typically 3-5 eggs are laid, with the breeding female undertaking most of the incubating (19-20 days), although all group members help somewhat. The whole group then takes responsibility for meeting the nutritional requirements of the nestlings (18-20 days) and subsequently the fledglings for up to 10 weeks. Offspring form a major part of breeding groups and often stay in their natal groups for many years.

    Diet

    You’ll see these birds foraging on the ground looking for seeds and insects, although they have been known to steal eggs from other species’ nests and eat small mammals. They have been seen to kill mice by thumping them into the ground before eating them, what a delightful way to go.

  • How is this species faring?

    This species is not considered to be under threat according to the IUCN redlist but is seeing population declines in some areas due to drought, fire and clearance for agriculture leading to habitat loss.

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library

    I don’t think we have given a shout out to the Biodiversity Heritage Library as of yet, so this is as good an opportunity as any.  It is a fantastic resource that has digitised a large amount of biodiversity literature, such as the Birds of Australia.  It has been created by a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries, such as the Natural History Museum (London) and Smithsonian Libraries, with the aim of digitising biodiversity literature in their collections and making them available to all (open access).

    This project gives members of the public access to reading material that they would most likely never get the chance to see otherwise, unless they had a wealth of time on their hands and the ability to travel the world on some carefree reading adventure.

    Here is the Birds of Australia for you perusal.

References

BirdLife International. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22705385A38386489. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22705385A38386489.en. Downloaded on 29 July 2016.

Rowley, I. & Russell, E. (2016). Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea). 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/60602 on 28 July 2016).

Photos and Videos

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

Investigative Apostlebird by Benjamint444 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Audio

Marc Anderson, XC171837. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/171837.

Lab Updates April 2016

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Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

Overall we have scanned 67% of the world’s birds! You can view many of these 6700 species on our MarkMyBird gallery.

Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macrornyx croceus)

Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macrornyx croceus)

Our current target is to scan every species from our list of ‘island bird families’. The remaining island families we are yet to complete such as fantails, monarchs and drongos are quite difficult to scan owing to their dark shiny bills, and rictal bristles that obscure the sides of the gape of the bill and so this has slowed down our progress a little. However, we have also been targeting some easier to scan bird families to keep things moving such as the pipits and wagtails (Motacillidae). As well as having bills that are easy to scan, many have incredibly long hind claws (such as the aptly named yellow-throated longclaw, Macrornyx croceus) which are thought to be an adaptation to help them walk through grass.

To date we have scanned:

  • 6688 (66.93%) of species
  • 3153 (77.81%) of species from island families
  • 3532 (59.20%) of passerines
  • 3153 (78.30%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: UV and Visible Photography

Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri)

Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri)

On the photography side of the project this month we have been lucky enough to work on the birds of paradise. With such an incredible variety of colours, amazing iridescence and some of the most extravagant feathers, this plumage is incredible to see up close (and a practical challenge to image at times!).

It’s particularly fascinating to see first hand just how vivid much of this structural colour remains in historical skins and it will be of particular interest to see how these photographs fare in our later analysis.

We continue to progress through the Passerine families and are currently working our way through the bright and colourful Oriolidae.

To date we have reached:

  • 51 (26.29%) of families completed
  • 2108 (21.09%) of species
  • 9583 specimens: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
  • 57498 photographs: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen

Mark My Bird

Our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org has now exceeded 790 registered landmarkers. The fantastic efforts of these citizen scientists has seen our overall landmarking progress reach 40%, contributing vital data as we proceed further into the analysis stages of the project.

This doesn’t mean the chance to contribute to the study is over, far from it! There are still thousands of these fantastic 3D models of bills in need of landmarking. With new species being added as each family is scanned from museum specimens, you can learn more about this research or join in and have a go yourself by visiting our website www.markmybird.org.

We have a new mailing list for MarkMyBird where we send out a monthly research highlight for our landmarkers. This month you can see how accurate your shoebill mark up was! You can sign up to our mailing list here.

Publications

Raptor skull change with size

Raptor skull change with size

Jen was lead author on a paper published this month in PNAS investigating shape change in birds of prey. As the skulls of birds of prey increase in size, they do so in a predictable way. The bills are tightly linked to this change in skull size – one cannot change without the other – indicating a constraint on how the bill can evolve. If this constraint is broken, it could have important implications for avian groups that exhibit high bill diversity, such as the passerines, particularly in families that have undergone rapid and explosive radiations, including the Darwin’s finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers. You can read more on the University of Sheffield’s press release, or by reading the full paper below:  

Bright, J.A., Marugán-Lobón, J., Cobb, S.N. and Rayfield, E.J. (2016). The shapes of bird beaks are highly controlled by nondietary factors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

Our twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has continued every Wednesday, with Tim Blackburn and Paul Sweet remaining at the top of our leaderboard- all are welcome to have a go and perhaps even beat our current contenders to the top slots!

We post regular blogs about some of our favourite species chosen for the weekly challenge over on our website, this month including the fabulous Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas).

Images
Yellow-throated longlaw (Macrornyx croceus) taken by Carmelo López Abad is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (Astrapia mayeri) by markaharper1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

MMB banner (c) Jen Bright

Raptor gif (c) Jen Bright

The Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus)

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This #BeakoftheWeek riddle was one for the performers. An undisputed king of the dancefloor, the twelve-wired bird of paradise is truly a sight to behold.

If you’re struggling to find a signature move then maybe a watch of some birds of paradise will set you on the right path.  Either that or you will find yourself drawn into the black-hole that is watching bird of paradise videos. Perhaps I should add a NSFW tag on this post as these videos can be seriously detrimental to work place productivity, you have been warned.

This passerine species is from the relatively small Paradisaeidae family, consisting of 40 species of truly stunning birds from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Eastern Australia. It is well worth taking a look at every single one of these species as they each have something to offer the casual bird lover. If I had to point you in the direction of just three I would go for Wilson’s Bird of Paradise, the King of Saxony and Lawes’s Parotia.

Sir David Attenborough narrated a fantastic documentary on this family recently (“Paradise Birds”) which included some beautiful drawings of how artists thought the birds displayed their feathers before they were seen in the wild. How wrong they were! These remarkable displays have got to be seen to believed so I strongly encourage you to do some exploring into them yourselves.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty you can see what species are closely related to this one, thanks to OneZoom, below.

  • As shown below, this species is found almost exclusively on the island of New Guinea, which is Papua New Guinea in the East, and part of Indonesia in the West. This species is presumed to be a resident and not migratory,

    12 wired BOP range map

    Twelve-wired bird of paradise range map.

    These birds are found up to 180m in flat lowland rainforest, especially in swamp-forest.

  • This sexually dimorphic species ranges in size from 33cm for males to 35cm for females. Males weigh slightly more at 170-217g with females weighing 160-188g.  The differences between the two sexes can be clearly seen in the picture below.  Females are in fact smaller than males but their much longer tails gives them a slightly longer measurement.

    Females are dull-coloured especially in comparison to males,although they do have slightly dull-purple iridescence on their head and upper mantle. Males, with their bright, blood-red irises, are far more showy with their velvety black head with its iridescent olive-green shine and iridescent purple crown. Their throat and breast is also velvety black with olive-green iridescence. Iridescent emerald-green feathers border the lower breast before the remaining lower-parts become brilliant yellow. Lastly but not least the male has 12 recurved “wires” emerging at it’s tail, giving it it’s name.

    12wired BOP 2

    Male (top) and female twelve-wired birds of paradise.

    If you get to see one of these I am extremely jealous, and if you are going into their range you should arm yourselves with all you can to help you spot one. The first steps after knowing what they look like is to discover what they sound like. Over to you Xeno Canto for another useful sound clip:

  • This polygynous species breeds almost all year round (January – early November). You will not be disappointed to hear that the males display, which occurs at traditional perches, is pretty special.  Males finds leafless, vertical, typically dead tree stumps that stand out from the forest canopy and vocally advertise. They have their favourite perches that they defend and they will typically only display on these.

    The display can be seen in the earlier youtube link but if you’d rather read my attempt to describe it – The male endeavors to prove his genetic prowess with a feast of dance moves that would dazzle even the most skeptical of females. Their displays includes perch dancing, bill-fencing and an up-close and personal avian version of twerking – the “wire-wipe display”- where the male attempts to titillate the female by wiping his flank wires across his face.  Just to make sure that he gets his display bang on the money he practices when he thinks no-one is watching.

    Here is a nice video explaining how the male is using his wires.

    Two male twelve-wired birds of paradise

    Two male twelve-wired birds of paradise.

    After all the effort that goes into this display perhaps it is unsurprising the male doesn’t get involved with the nest, which is entirely the female’s responsibility. The nest, built in pandanus or sago palm trees, is a shallow cup made of stems inside pandanus bark and vines atop a base of leaves and sticks. It is lined with plant fibres and can be built up to 14m from the ground.

    Typically 1 egg is laid, sometimes 2, with incubation taking 20 days and the nestling leaving the nest at 3 weeks.

    Diet

    This species forms mixed-species flocks, when it is foraging, with other birds of paradise and pitohuis. Their diet is roughly 50% fruit (mostly pandanus) and 50% animals. They tend to feed on arthropods, nectar and small vertebrates such as frogs and lizards.  They are acrobatic feeders, hanging upside down to probe inside holes in trees to find tasty morsels.

  • This species is listed as “Of Least Concern” on the IUCN species redlist due to its extensive range and habitat, with the population thought to be stable.

    Hunting is not the same problem that it used to be back in the 19th and early 20th century with legal protection against hunting helping to prevent population declines.  Although some hunting is permitted to tribes for ceremonial purposes.

    Alfred Russell Wallace was a famous collector of these species and his collection exploits are detailed in “The Malay Archipelago”.

    Alfred Russell Wallace's Malay Archipelago.

    Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago.

  • I am going to use this section to point you in the direction of a fantastic resource for all things bird, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and in particular their “Bird of Paradise Project“. The project has gone to great lengths to get pictures of every single species and there is a great deal of information on this site about the different species, how they collected data, female choice, natural & sexual selection and much more.

    What’s that you say? I forgot to mention that this magnificent specimen is also featured on stamps? All the best birds get their own stamps and the twelve-wired bird of paradise is no exception.  Here is a lovely stamp from Indonesia featuring our feathered friend.

    Indonesian stamp.

    Indonesian stamp.

References

BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Seleucidis melanoleucus. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 29/03/2016.

BirdLife International. 2012. Seleucidis melanoleucus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22706233A38419655. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22706233A38419655.en. Downloaded on 30 March 2016.

Frith, C. & Frith, D. (2016). Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus). 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/60661 on 29 March 2016).

Images and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Seleucidis melanoleucus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-3

LabofOrnithology. 2012.Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise. Online. 30/03/2016. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7E-2bqwvPU.

Male and female twelve-wired birds of paradise by Daniel Giraud Elliot is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Twelve-wired bird of paradise stamp by Post of Indonesia is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Two male twelve-wired birds of paradise by Bowdler Sharpe is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Audio

Bas van Balen, XC141153. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/141153.

The King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)

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This #BeakoftheWeek challenge allowed us to take a closer look at the king of the seaducks, the King Eider.

This is definitely in my top 5 favourite ducks, not least because it looks like Picasso got creative with its face in the design stage, and it is right up there on my “to see list”.

King Eiders taking flight

King Eiders taking flight

I have gone for a different approach with this blog entry, so that you can click on what you want to read about rather than having to scroll through to find what you are looking for. Hopefully it works a bit better!

The King Eider is from the anatidae family and is one of three members of the genus Somateria, which also includes the spectacled eider and common eider. The common eider is the duck that gives us eiderdown.   When the common eider nests it sheds feathers which are then collected and used to make some extremely comfortable pillows and duvets. If you fancy splashing out, a pillow alone can set you back around $3,000. I know, a bargain. Fortunately goose down pillows are available for far more reasonable prices.

You can check out what other species are closely related to the king eider on OneZoom.

  • As you can see from the range map below they are found exclusively in the Northern-hemisphere, breeding (Brown) around the Arctic coasts of Europe, Asia and North America and moving further south in the winter (Orange).

    King Eider Range

    King Eider Range

    This is a marine species, breeding on the edge of freshwater lakes, bogs, pools and small rivers, usually near to the coast. During the rest of the year it spends its time at sea, often in deep waters away from land (which can make accurately counting it rather tricky).

  • This sexually dimorphic large duck ranges in size from 47-63cm, with males being slightly bigger than females.  Males are unmistakable and the clear differences between the sexes can be seen in the video below.

    Males have a white breast and black rear half, crown and nape are pale blue, cheeks greenish and throat white. Their bill is orangey-red with a striking yellowy orange frontal shield. Females however are mostly rufous brown with cinnamon-brown head and neck and a grey beak. Males have dull orange legs whereas the females’ are greenish grey.  One of the things I love about this species is the dorsal fin-like feathers the males have on their back.

    If you are out birding, sight is not the only weapon in your armoury. Knowing what a species sounds like can be extremely helpful when trying to identify it, especially if they are just out of sight. For this purpose I have always found Xeno Canto to be a great resource.  Below is an example of some King Eider calls, more of which can be found on Xeno Canto.

  • King Eiders are seasonally monogamous, although males can mate with more than one female. Breeding starts between June and July with nests being scrapes in the ground (typically near water) lined with feathers (I bet that is one comfy nest) and plant material. Clutches of olive/olive-buff eggs (average 4-5 eggs) are incubated by the female alone and take around 22-24 days to hatch.  Typically only one brood is laid.  Chicks are precocial and are able to leave the nest soon after hatching, feeding themselves.

    Chicks fledge and become independent around 50-60 days after hatching and sexually mature after three years. Crèches, supervised by 1+ females, are sometimes formed by broods.

    Female King Eider

    Female King Eider

  • This species feeds predominantly by diving, often in groups, typically to depths of 25m but up to 55m (that is the height of the Tower of Pisa!). It does also feed in shallow waters through sieving and probing.  Its diet consists of crustaceans, insect larvae, molluscs, echinoderms and plant material. They do however partake in some fishing and here is a lovely picture of a male munching on a herring.

    Array of seabirds including the King Eider from the Birds of North America

    Array of seabirds including the King Eider from the Birds of North America

     

  • Although the number of King Eiders is in decline, due to the vast number of individuals of the species (~850,000), it is listed as “Of Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist.

    King Eiders are predated by a number of species both as eggs and when they are young. These include: artic foxes, parasitic jaegers, the common raven and the glaucous gull.

    Arctic Fox

    Arctic Fox

    As eggs and young, king eiders have many predators, including: the glaucous gull; common raven; parasitic jaeger and Arctic fox. Pollution and hunting are also major problems for this species, with a quick Google image search for “king eider duck” producing many proud hunters with their catch.

  • The aim with this section is to provide some interesting links for you to check out if you are interested in learning about more about this species. This can come in many forms, from scientific journal articles to popular science blog articles or even just some cool videos that we have found.

    So far I have not found a great deal of extra reading on the King Eider so I thought I would go off on a tangent here and talk about the wonders of the Birds of America (by French naturalist and painter John James Audubon). The reason I take this tangent is because of the fantastic colour plate that you can see under the “Diet” tab.  This plate is not from the Birds of America but you can’t talk about the wonders of colour plates without going back to Audubon’s seminal work.

    The Birds of America was the fruit of Audubon’s desire to paint every single bird in America. It was printed in series between 1827 and 1838 and in total 435 plates were made. The plates featured now extinct species such as the passenger pigeon and the great auk as well as beautiful depictions of American flamingos, great horned owls and many other species.

    Audubon made the drawings from birds (dead of course) held in position with threads and wires and set in backgrounds of their natural habitats.  All of the birds were drawn, or engraved to be more accurate, life-sized, with Audubon contorting larger birds so that they would fit.

    Audubon-gif-2

    Some of Audubon’s magnificent colour plates

    Audubon’s work is still a masterpiece to this day and the fact that 3 of the 10 most expensive books of all time are first editions of his work is testament to this. The most recently sold copy was bought in 2010 for more than £7million in London at Sotherby’s.

    I fully encourage you to log onto the audubon website where you can see the plates for yourself and read more about this fantastic piece of work.  There is also more information about each species in the book if you want to read up on them.

    To link it back to the original subject, the King Eider, you can follow this link to zoom in on Audubon’s take on them (no it isn’t my Ebay account).

References

BirdLife International. 2012. Somateria spectabilis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22680409A40146039. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22680409A40146039.en. Downloaded on 03 February 2016.

Carboneras, C. & Kirwan, G.M. (2016). King Eider (Somateria spectabilis). 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/52915 on 2 February 2016).

Suydam, R. S. 2000. King Eider (Somateria spectabilis). In The Birds of North America, No. 491 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Images and Videos

Arctic Fox by A Neumann is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

Audubon’s Colour Plates by Johan Audubon is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Somateria spectabilis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-3

Female King Eider by Ómar Runólfsson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

King Eiders taking flight by Ron Knight is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

groenelantaarn. 2013. King Eiders. Online. 04/02/2016. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK9qZHa79Do.

Seabird plate from Birds of North America is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Audio

Andrew Spencer, XC141727. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/141727