For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in the News: Hurricane Charley, and drug testing for pigeons

Original Air Date: Sept. 17, 2004

How did Hurricane Charley affect coastal birds? And drug testing for racing pigeons?

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Birds in the News

In this week’s Birds in the News, Chad Gillis of the Naples Daily News reports that biologists are trying to understand how Hurricane Charley affected coastal bird populations. Right now state and federal researchers are studying mangrove rookeries and other coastal bird sites in an attempt to understand just how large tropical systems such as Hurricane Charley affect Southwest Florida species. Charley’s high winds pulverized many of the smaller mangrove islands in northern Lee and Charlotte counties that birds such as brown pelicans and frigate birds use to raise their young. With the mangrove canopy destroyed on some islands, biologists are trying to get a grip on what coastal bird populations in Southwest Florida will look like over the next several years. Lou Hinds of the US Fish and Wildlife Service said, “We flew over Bird Key (near Cayo Costa) and the mangroves there had been laid flat. That has been a very productive rookery over the years, and it was just plain brown.” Charley made landfall near a cluster of federally protected areas, including the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Ding Darling is known by birding enthusiasts as one of the country’s best places to spot rare species that are unique to tropical climates. With little mangrove canopy left for coastal birds to roost and nest in, Hinds and others are hoping the bird populations re-establish themselves soon.

“We don’t exactly know what the impacts are, but, overall, they were very, very localized,” Hinds said from his office in Atlanta. “We fully expect the birds will recover once the habitat recovers.”

Steve Nesbitt of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has researched tropical storm effects to coastal birds throughout the eastern United States. He said most coastal species eventually return to their chosen nesting sites, although it may take years for some birds to reclaim their former homes.

“We looked at the pelican colonies after Hurricane Charley came through and some of those colonies were hit hard,” Nesbitt said. “The question is whether or not the mangroves will have enough structure to support future nests.”

Birds ranging from frigatebirds to reddish egrets and bald eagles are some of the most vulnerable species during hurricanes.

Eagles tend to leave their nesting sites and return a few years later, Nesbitt said, even if their nesting trees were claimed by storms.

As for the sheltering tactics of coastal species, Nesbitt said strategies range among birds.

“I don’t know what pelicans do. They may find some place in the lee (of the storm), but we don’t know,” Nesbitt said. “Sandhill cranes will get flat on the ground, and they can survive very strong winds.” Nesbitt’s office is located in Gainesville, and the biologist said he and other researchers have recorded coastal species being blown inland during large storm events.

“We’ve even seen (roseate) spoonbills up here during storm events on the west coast,” Nesbitt said. “But they know where they are and how to get back where they came from pretty well.”

One bird that will have a tough time finding its home is a bridled tern that was dumped south of Naples after Charley made landfall. Bridled terns are a Caribbean species.

“It was a young bird born this year, and it probably rode with the storm from south of Cuba,” said Ted Below, a researcher for Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Other than that, “there’s been no difference,” Below said. “We’ve been doing censuses after every blow (storm) we’ve had, and populations are about normal.”

Inland nesting areas in Collier weathered the storm unscathed.

Ed Carlson with the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary said sustained winds of 50 mph were recorded at the preserve.

“I haven’t noticed a single negative impact,” Carlson said. “The birds that are supposed to be here are here and the birds that aren’t supposed to be here aren’t.”

In other news, the Glocestershire Echo in Great Britain reports that the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, based in The Reddings, has introduced drug testing kits for birds. The aim is to stamp out doping in Britain after fears it is common on the continent. The association’s general manager Peter Bryant said: “The kits come in a sealed package to the organisations, which consist of two containers, gloves, a spoon for the droppings and a bag. “The droppings are collected from the loft, placed in the containers, put into the bag and sent back to us here at Cheltenham.” The reason the association needs to get tough is because there is big money at stake in pigeon racing. Competitors can win up to £20,000. The kits cost £2. It is a further £50 to have the samples tested because they have to be sent to a laboratory South Africa.

The kits test for anabolic steroids, opiates, steroids, performance enhancing stimulants and synthetic hormones.