For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in the News

Original Air Date: Oct. 5, 2004

Canada is considering a potentially dangerous pipeline; garlic repels birds as effectively as it does vampires; birds caught by banders in the U.K. are setting new longevity records; and Northwestern Crows are sneakier with their families than with strangers.

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Birds in the News

This is an awful year for birds thanks to hurricanes, tornadoes, and even earthquakes and volcanoes. Dealing with nature’s catastrophes is bad enough, but for the many species of wetland birds that depend on habitat in the Great Lakes region during migration or winter, we humans are handing out something even worse. Canada’s Mackenzie River watershed is in jeopardy, thanks to a proposal to build an 800 mile long natural gas pipeline down the heart of the McKenzie River Valley in the Northwest Territories. This area is critical for birds. Fully 30% of all Bonaparte’s Gulls and 25% of all White-winged Scoters nest in the Mackenzie drainage wetlands. Common Loons, Horned Grebes, Red-necked Grebes, and myriad waterfowl species depend on the Mackenzie River watershed. If you aren’t already burned out from political action this year, send a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin asking him to protect this internationally critical habitat.

In other, more lighter news, Audubon magazine reports that garlic not only repels vampires and people of the opposite sex—it also apparently repels birds. In preliminary findings published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, curious but rude researchers found that the more garlic they added to the bowls of caged European Starlings, the less the birds ate. “They just didn’t like it,” said garlic expert Eric Block, a professor of chemistry at the University of Albany. Garlic products may be used as a natural, nontoxic bird repellant, keeping birds away from valuable crops and sensitive areas like airport runways. Co-researcher Arla Hile, a bird behavioral ecologist and visiting scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, videotaped one bird as it ate food laced with garlic and reported that it reacted in much the same way humans do when they eat hot peppers.

And also in Audubon magazine, British ornithologists may be finding a lighter side to global warming: A recent report by the British Trust for Ornithology showed that bird banders have been capturing an unusually high number of individuals that are setting new longevity records for their species. Among the notable record-setters are an oystercatcher caught 35 years after it was banded, a 29-year old Leach’s Petrel that broke the longevity record for its species by 8 years, and a 22-year-old Whooper Swan that broke its species record by 7 years. According to biologist Graham Appleton, during the past several years there have been fewer periods of the kind of freezing winter weather that cuts off access to food for these northern seabirds. Of course, banding methodology has improved over the past decade, and since our records of longevity for birds didn’t start until bird banding became systematized in 1920, and because only about 1-2% of banded birds are ever recovered, it does make sense even without global warming that the oldest known age of banded birds would be slowly but steadily increasing. But this is interesting nonetheless.

Finally, Audubon reports that Northwestern Crows, relatives of our own crows that live in the Pacific Northwest, aggressively steal food from crows that aren’t related by blood, even standing on their backs to grab items, but with family they sidle up and take the food items more sneakily.