Decorah Eagle Camera Catches Live Video of Eagle Hatchlings

The great outdoors has gone viral.  Efforts to raise awareness about animal conservation and habitat preservation have found a new niche adapted specifically for the online community.  And this community of online enthusiasts was treated, recently, to a one-of-a-kind event: This past week a family of bald eagles in Decorah, Iowa, saw the first of their three hatchlings emerge from its egg.

Perched 80-feet in the air, the Decorah eagle couple could have done a lot worse when they settled atop a tree located at a fish hatchery.  The first of three eggs was laid on February 17, and if you are anything like me you have remained practically glued to the computer screen since, trying to figure out how to tell the difference between a male and female eagle (There is no difference, as far as my eyes can see.).  For well over a month, thousands of viewers have tuned in to watch a bird sit (and sit), ruffle about, get comfortable, sit, pick at things, and sit in its nest. 

For weeks, the birds tended the nest and eggs, each taking his/her turn to do what I can only assume to be eagle things like grabbing fish from a lake and posing on the top of flag poles. By the time the estimated hatch date arrived there were upwards of 65,000 visitors to the site waiting to get a look at the fuzzy little bundles of joy. Just one day past its original due date, the first eaglet was born, sending high pitched shrieks of joy through the field…actually that was just me, I was really excited.

A day after the first hatching, the second eaglet had shown signs that it, too, was ready to make its debut.  “The bald eaglet will probably take at least 12 hours, and possibly as many as 48 hours to break completely from its shell,” so says Wired.  “The first chick will have a head start on its siblings and will likely enjoy being the biggest eaglet in the nest for months.”  So true; in the days to come, we will see one more eaglet cracking through its shell, making for a grand total of three Muppet-looking birds, waving their little heads around as if they were tied to strings.  For now, the first—and oldest—of the babies has dibs on just about everything.  

The live stream of the Decorah eagle nest will continue to capture every moment of the baby birds early lives until they grow large enough to leave the nest, giving viewers an opportunity unlike any other to witness this little-known aspect of the lives of bald eagles.  It is hoped that by making the bald eagles’ lives accessible to the public, interest will swell up around the animals, and from this, a growing desire to protect these animals will materialize. 

In the past, this idea of broadcasting the lives and births of wild animals has worked in gathering support from the masses, specifically with a family of black bears in Minnesota.  This past January, Jewel a black bear in the Ely woods was caught on camera giving birth to her cubs in a den equipped with cameras.  A global audience had followed the family for some time, reveling in the good times and reeling in the loss of one of the bears to local hunters.

It is a trend that continues with the Decorah eagles who continue to rack up views with each passing day, proving that in some way these large birds are adapting to the age of technology.  With their newfound internet fame, the future is looking brighter for the animals—just as long as we keep watching.


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Vultures the Next Wave in Criminal Investigation?

The name Sherlock is taking on a whole new meaning. Now a household name in Germany, the rest of the world is just getting introduced. Normally native to North and South America, Sherlock the turkey vulture can be found in Walsrode bird park in northern Germany, the largest bird reserve in the world. But unlike the other residents, this raptor has very important job to do.

The goal is to make this tame vulture into a missing persons detective. Using the bird’s natural instincts, Sherlock may be the first of his kind in the world to sniff out human bodies for the police force. A GPS device attached to his leg can track his movements and hopefully lead investigators to the scene of the crime more effectively than dogs. Officer Rainer Herman reports the plan came from “a colleague of mine [who] got the idea from watching a nature program.”

Trainer German Alonso is teaching the 5 year old bird to associate the smell of decomposing human flesh with delicious reward. Sherlock is presented with small bowls of meat next to a cloth previously used to cover a corpse at a mortuary. Visitors at the park can see him perform this trick as his trainer tries to ready him for more ambitious tasks.

The advantage of vultures over dogs is the sheer distance a 6-foot wing span can cover “as the crow flies.” Unlike most raptors who rely only on keen eyesight to hunt, vultures possess an adept sense of smell, enabling them to detect animal remains from 3000 ft high. In difficult terrain like dense woodland, often a prime location for dumping bodies, the bird’s flight becomes quite the time saver. The same area would quickly tire out terrestrial-bound dogs, who need recurrent breaks from the search to recoup.

The results have yet to be seen and several hurdles stand in the way of ultimate success. Vultures search for food in groups, so one trained bird isn’t enough. Last year two chicks called Miss Marple and Columbo were obtained from a breeder in Austria, and now join Sherlock in training. But the birds are stubborn, and Alonso reports “They fight with each other like crazy and Sherlock prefers searching on foot to flying.”

Not to mention the worry that the vultures will revert to their natural behavior and peck at the bodies they find, something Alonso hopes to overcome as well.

Even without these challenges, sniffing dog detectives won’t be out of a job anytime soon. The Pentagon announced last year that dogs are still 30% more effective at detecting explosives than even the most innovative bomb seeking technology developed, and they’re a lot cheaper too. Turkey vultures are rare to find in captivity, and need to be tame in order to work with, so even if Alonso and his trio are successful, it will likely be a slow trend to spread. Nevertheless, there is interest from nearby countries to this new and potentially effective crime resource.

Interesting Turkey Vulture Facts:

The often described “ugly” bald head of the turkey vulture serves a very important hygienic purpose. Eating from the carcass of large animals often requires the bird to delve its head deep inside. Meat would inevitably get stuck in feathers and serve as a breeding ground for the bacteria that comes along with it. A bald head is simply cleanlier.

Another hygienic oddity is the vulture’s tendency to urinate on its own legs. The high acid content of the urine sterilizes their legs and feet, often soiled with bacteria from the carcass the bird was standing in. Urine will also cool the bird as it evaporates, a relief for hot climate dwellers.

The legend of vultures “projectile vomiting” is only partially true. Projectile is an over-exaggeration, but a vulture will regurgitate when threatened or agitated, and in the wild a vulture is most vulnerable while feeding on carrion. Being gorging animals, vomiting is thought to be a quick way to lessen its weight, making a quick flight an easier method of escape.

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Oldest Known Bird Survives the Tsunami’s Damage

laysan albatross WisdomMarch 25, 2011 – Brett Leverett

In the wake of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake just outside of Japan, a devastating tsunami swept throughout the Pacific Ocean damaging everything from nuclear power plants to wildlife refuges.  Tsunami warnings ranged as far away as Alaska, but the brunt of the impact was taken much closer.

The oldest free-flying bird was residing on Sand Island, a part of a National Wildlife Refuge between Hawaii and Japan, when the tsunami struck on March 11.  This 60-year old albatross was one of nearly a million Laysan albatross which reside in the refuge.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is composed of three islands within a reef only about 5 miles across. The quake generated four successive waves with the tallest at 1.5 meters.  These waves pounded the refuge, nearly completely immersing one island.

The series of waves killed an estimated 2,000 adult albatrosses and about 110,000 chicks in the refuge.  While these numbers are only a fraction of the total population, nearly 20% of this year’s hatchlings did not survive.

To the surprise of many, federal officials announced on Tuesday that the elderly bird named Wisdom and her recently hatched chick were spotted alive about a week after the tsunami hit.

“It’s a dangerous world out there. There’s lots going on, so I would say she’s very lucky… Although wildlife biologists generally manage at the level of populations, we, too, become entwined in the fates of individual animals. Wisdom is one such special creature,” Barry Stieglitz, project leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said in a statement.

Wisdom, a 60 year old Laysan albatross, holds the record as the oldest wild specimen documented during the 90-year history of the U.S. and Canadian bird-banding research program.  She was initially tagged with her aluminum identification band in 1956 and was estimated to be five years of age at that time.

“Because she is the oldest, she’s able to provide us some information that no other albatross can at this point in time, and that’s exactly how long-living are these animals,” Stieglitz said.  Biologists estimate that Wisdom has logged about 3 million flying miles in her lifetime, the equivalent of six round trips to the Moon.

All but two of the 21 species of albatrosses are in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The birds commonly drown after diving for bait used for long-line fishing, or die from being hooked on a long-line dyed blue for the night.  According to the United States Geological Survey, chicks’ deaths can be credited to lead poisoning from old paint, and from dehydration caused by being unknowingly fed regurgitated food containing plastic and other trash floating in the ocean.

The Laysan albatross breeds on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai and feeds off the western coast of North America, including the Gulf of Alaska. One will spend its first three to five years in constant flight, never touching land, and is believed to even sleep while aloft.

After their first three to five years in flight, they return to their colony but do not mate for their first time until seven or eight years old.  During their return time at the colony they form pair bonds with a mate they will typically keep for life.  Courtship involves a process of elaborate dances with have up to 25 ritualized movements.

Occasionally the birds form homosexual pairs consisting of two females.  This has been observed in colonies where the sex-ratio of male to female is two to three.  Unpaired females pair up among themselves and successfully breed.  These eggs are commonly fathered by already paired males, who “cheat” on their spouse.

Although Wisdom has outlived her spouse, many female Laysan also form permanent bonds amongst themselves to help cooperatively raise their young.

Wisdom’s latest chick, believed to be her 35th, hatched nearly a month ago making her not only the oldest free-flying bird, but also the oldest free-flying mother at the age of 60.

Photo source USGS

Oil Spill Threatens Endangered Rockhopper Penguins

penguins-Tristan de Cunha Islands-oil spillMarch 22, 2011 – Nick Engelfried

Less than one year after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an oil spill far away in the South Atlantic Ocean threatens to devastate the largest population of a highly vulnerable bird species.  Officials from the Tristan de Cunha Islands, a remote group of islands lying two-thirds of the way between Argentina and South Africa, say a cargo ship has broken up near the islands and toxic oil is encroaching on the habitat of endangered northern rockhopper penguins.  About half the world population of northern rockhoppers lives on Nightingale Island, the island closest to the sight of the spill.  If oil from the cargo ship cannot be contained, thousands of penguins are likely to die.

Compared to last year’s BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Nightingale Island spill is relatively tiny.  However an oil spill doesn’t have to be huge to have a devastating impact on wildlife and local economies.  Because the Tristan de Cunha Islands are one of the most remote island groups in the world, cleaning up the spill will be exceptionally difficult.  Conservationists warn that because there is no well-established bird rescue center on the islands, many penguins and other birds are likely to die before they can be helped. 

Penguin expert and researcher Dyan deNapoli has been posting about what the oil spill means for rockhopper penguins as reports have come in from Nightingale Island.  “There will undoubtedly be tens of thousands of penguins, as well as thousands of other seabirds, oiled in this spill,” deNapoli wrote on Monday.  “Getting the necessary resources, as well as enough people to care for the birds out to these islands will prove to be a superhuman endeavor.”

On Tuesday about five hundred oil-covered birds had been rescued from the waters around Nightingale Island.  However saving them will be a complex business; there is no permanent freshwater supply on Nightingale Island, meaning birds must be transported to other islands for cleaning.  Thousands more penguins are likely to be impacted by the spill as oil coats the water around Nightingale Island.  Besides the northern rockhopper penguin, other endangered bird species like the speckled petrel could also be affected.

In addition to wildlife the oil spill threatens the economy of the Tristan de Cunha Islands.  Slightly fewer than three hundred people live on the island group, which is officially a colony of Britain.  The economy of the Tristan de Cunhas revolves around lobster fishing, and the fishery could be as severely damaged as the rockhopper penguin population by oil in the water.  It will be difficult for residents to look beyond the island group for employment, because normally the Tristan de Cunhas are linked to the rest of the world only by a boat that travels from the islands to Cape Town, South Africa nine times every year.

An effort is underway to bring in wildlife rescuers from South Africa, the mainland country closest to the Tristan de Cunhas.  Since there is no landing strip on the islands, rescuers will probably have to come by boat—a journey that takes several days.  By getting penguins and other affected birds help from outside the islands, conservationists hope that as many as possible can be saved.  However as deNapoli and others have noted, a rescue effort on the same scale as would have occurred in response to a oil spill in US waters is almost impossible at this point.  The spill off Nightingale Island in the Tristan de Cunhas will remain a stark example of how damaging oil spills in remote locations can be.

Photo source: “Debs” on Flickr

Endangered Parrot Trade Declines in Mexico

March 17, 2011 – Nick Engelfried

In Mexico a ban on capturing and exporting wild parrots, combined with a major public education effort, seems to have slowed the rate at which endangered birds are being taken from the wild.  Partly thanks to a law passed in 2008, wildlife protection officials reported the number of parrots taken from the wild and sold in Mexico dropped to the lowest level in nearly a decade last year.  Conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife have hailed the trend as a victory for many parrot species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies ninety-four of the world’s 330 parrot species as endangered.  Though loss of tropical forests and other habitats is the most important cause of the decline, many parrots are taken from the wild to be sold as pets or to collectors of rare animals.  Often these birds are smuggled out of their country of origin under unhealthy and stressful conditions, and as many as three-quarters of parrots taken from the wild end up dying during transit.  In countries like Mexico the international parrot trade has helped push many rare birds near the brink of extinction.

In 2007 Defenders of Wildlife published a report documenting the impact of the parrot trade in Mexico, and arguing that the capture of wild parrots threatened the country’s natural heritage.  The next year the Mexican government passed a law prohibiting the capture, import, and export of all of Mexico’s parrot species.  However the new law was just the first step toward ensuring a future for these birds—conservation groups have had to work with the Mexican government to ensure enforcement of the law while educating the public about the importance of parrot protection.  Defenders of Wildlife used posters, radio, and even children’s books to spread the word about how ordinary people can help protect parrot species.

Though the parrot trade in Mexico continues illegally, the new law and public education efforts have already had an effect.  This is good news not only for the more than twenty parrot species native to Mexico, but also for parrots in other parts of Central America.  In Guatemala, which shares a border with Mexico, the parrot trade has been illegal for a long time and poachers have smuggled parrots into Mexico for sale.  Now that selling wild parrots is banned in Mexico as well, there will be less incentive for parrot poaching in Guatemala and other nearby countries.

While Mexico works to save parrots within its borders, pet owners in the US can also help fight the illegal parrot trade.  Before purchasing a parrot as a pet, Defenders of Wildlife urges owners to seek out documentation proving the animal was either bred in the United States or imported legally after being bred in another country.  All imported parrots should come with permits showing US Fish and Wildlife Service approval—a parrot that does not come with such forms may have been captured from the wild and imported illegally.  Parrot breeders in the US should be able to produce written records showing when the bird was hatched and where it came from.  Again, parrot sellers who cannot produce such records may have come by their birds illegally. 

Mexico is home to twenty-two of the more than three hundred parrot species in the world, ranging from the magnificent scarlet macaw to the tiny yellow-naped Amazon.  Mexico’s diverse assortment of natural ecosystems—which includes lush tropical forests, mangrove wetlands, mountainous areas, and deserts—has made it a good habitat for a large assortment of parrots, including some found nowhere else in the world.  Species like the Mexican parrotlet, maroon-fronted parrot, and red-crowned Amazon live only within Mexico’s borders.

Photo source: “Ian and Sarah” on Flickr, Jenni Douglas

Emperor Penguin Colony Dissapears

Pair of Emperor PenguinsThe British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has recently noted that a small colony of well documented emperor penguins no longer reside on their island off the West Antarctic Peninsula.  Scientists believe that the loss of the colony is due to a reduction in sea ice, which would normally be an important habitat for the penguins to nest and forage for food.  This report comes from the February edition of the scientific journal.

According to researchers from BAS and the Scott Polar Research Institute, this is the first documented case of an emperor penguin colony disappearing. 

All penguins have a common trait in their ability to fly, but emperor penguins stand above the rest; literally.  They are the largest of all the penguins, reaching heights of nearly 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall and weighing 70 to 90 pounds (30 to 40 kilograms).  Emperors can mate as early as 4 years of age and live to be 20 years old.

Aside from being the largest, these penguins are arguably one of the most biologically interesting.  Emperors do not migrate outside of Antarctica, but actually breed on the sea ice in some of the coldest conditions on Earth. Instead of building nests or defending a fixed territory, they use their warm bodies to incubate and raise their young.  Emperors are the only Antarctic bird that breeds in winter, and this unique breeding habit may have developed to allow chicks to grow to be independent at a time when food is most plentiful and predators are few.

The small colony of these penguins, previously residing on Emperor Island, was discovered in 1948 when a team of scientists recorded seeing 150 pairs gathering to breed.  Unfortunately these numbers have been declining steadily since 1970.  As of 2009, a high resolution survey taken from the sky recorded no remaining trace of the once thriving colony.  The observed decline and loss of this colony has an uncanny correlation with a rise in local air temperature and seasonal changes in the duration of the sea ice.

Regarding the first documented loss of an emperor penguin colony, the lead author from BAS, Dr. Phil Trathan, writes,

“It is not clear whether the colony died out or relocated. Emperor penguins are thought to return each year to the sites where they hatched, but the colonies must sometimes relocate because of changes in the sea ice. It is clear that emperor penguins are vulnerable to changes in sea ice and the one site in Antarctica where we have seen really big changes in ice is the West Antarctic Peninsula. For much of the 20th century, this region has warmed at an unprecedented rate, particularly in recent decades. Continued climate change is likely to impact on future breeding success.”

The paper also looks into alternative hypothesis of why this colony disappeared.  Possibilities include unusual weather conditions, impacts from tourism, disease, and loss of food due to competition with fisheries. According to the authors, competition with fisheries and impacts from tourism can be ruled out, and there is no data to support the hypothesis of disease or unusual weather conditions.

A prolonged warm period in the late 1970’s resulted in an emperor penguin population decline of nearly 50% in the Terre Adélie region.  This warm period caused a reduction in sea-ice coverage and is blamed to be the reason for the increased adult mortality, particularly among males.  The species is unfortunately considered to be highly sensitive to climate changes.  Studies show that even an abnormal increase in sea-ice coverage can also lead to reduced rates of egg hatching success.

Due to the effects of climate change and industrial fisheries, the emperor penguin is on the decline and is up for consideration to be placed on the US Endangered Species list.

photo credit:

FCC Considers Protecting Birds from Tower Collisions

December 14, 2010

Every year throughout the United States, hundreds of bird species migrate north to their spring nesting grounds, returning south in fall as the weather turns cold.  During the course of their journey migrating birds face many challenges, at least some of them caused by re-shaping of the landscape due to human activities.  From depletion of natural wetlands to conversion of forests into farmland, modern society has altered the landscape in many ways since the migration patterns of North American birds first evolved.  

However one of the most serious and potentially easily addressed dangers migrating birds face are collisions with brightly lit communications towers.  For this reason groups like Defenders of Wildlife are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to adopt guidelines that minimize bird deaths at these buildings. 

According to the American Bird Conservancy, up to 50 million birds are killed each year when they collide with communications towers, such as those used to guide aircraft that are coming in for a landing.  Many of the casualties belong to tropical species on their way south to spend the winter in Central and South America or the Caribbean.  These species may face other pressures in their winter habitat due to degradation of destruction of tropical forests—so preventing other threats to their survival is especially important. 

A total of more than 230 bird species have been recorded as being affected by communications towers.  Some of the species most frequently found dead due to collisions include the golden-winged warbler, cerulean warbler, seaside sparrow and wood thrush.  Most of the collisions occur at night under foggy or overcast conditions, when migrating birds appear to be drawn to the lights from tall communications towers.

Studies on the causes of bird-tower collisions suggest certain types of light may interfere with the visual or magnetic clues migrating birds use to stay on-course, causing them to veer away from their migration path and toward the source of the light.  Though the details of what prompts these collisions are not completely clear, some types of tower lighting appear to be far more dangerous to birds than others.  According to at least one US Fish and Wildlife Service study, lights that flash on and off with a longer period of time between flashes may be much less likely to attract birds than lights that blink on an off more rapidly.  Strobe lights also seem to be less attractive to birds than other types of lighting.  By designing communication tower lighting with the needs of migrating birds in mind, these structures can be built with minimal impact on birds and without compromising aircraft safety.

With this goal in mind, conservation organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, the American Bird Conservancy, and the National Audubon Society have recently partnered with a coalition of communication industry groups to draw up recommendations for how migrating birds can be protected.  The partnership urges the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates communications towers, to take new steps to make these structures as bird-friendly as possible.  Specific recommendations include outfitting new communications towers with the type of lightly least likely to attract flying birds, and ensuring that existing towers which undergo significant upgrades have their lighting replaced.  Partly in response to these efforts, the FCC is now initiating an environmental review of the registration program for new towers.

Though a plan to protect birds from fatal collisions has not been adopted yet, conservation groups remain hopeful the FCC will decide to protect birds in a way that complies with environmental laws, as part of its review process.  Defenders of Wildlife is urging its supporters to contact the FCC and show an outpouring of public support for rules that prevent unnecessary bird deaths. 

Photo credits: US Army Environmental Command, Pascal