Citizen science helps assess the state of India’s birds

The State of India’s Birds 2020 takes into account 867 of the 1,333 species that have been documented in India on eBird. According to the assessment, species adapted to living alongside humans are doing well, others not so much. Overall, migratory shorebirds and raptors have been hit the hardest. Read the full story here.

The art of making paper birds

A hummingbird hovering in the air laps up nectar from a coneflower. Newborn bulbul chicks beg their mother for food. A male kingfisher offers fish to a female kingfisher, perched on a mossy piece of driftwood. These are some of the natural history moments captured by artist Niharika Rajput in her lifelike paper sculptures.

I interviewed the artist for Atlas Obscura about her artistic process and all things birds.

Image credit: Niharika Rajput

Fish eggs hatch after being pooped

Found in temporary desert pools and mangrove swamps, some species of killifish can go without water for weeks at a time. And their eggs are no different: no water, no problem! Now, scientists have found that the eggs of two killifish species are so hardy, they can withstand being digested by birds, too. The finding may be the first firm evidence supporting an idea that has long held sway in scientific circles—that birds disperse fish.

Read my full story about killifish eggs over at Hakai.

Image of a developing killifish embryo. Credit: Vinícius Weber

London’s wild side

There is a nip in the air and gusts are shaking the trees awake. The morning sun is hidden behind an overcast sky whose sullen grey is mirrored by the lake stretched out before me. As I scan the Serpentine’s waters, something familiar catches my eye. A rufous-and-cream bird with a feathered ruff around its head is surfing the lake, preening its feathers. It’s a great crested grebe, a bird that has eluded me for a year. And here it is, smack in the heart of London.

When the grebe finishes preening it swims in a frenzy, as if looking for something—wait, there’s another nearby. The two swim towards each other and, before I know it, erupt into a courtship dance. 

Read about the pair of dancing grebes and other urban wildlife of London here.

This moth supplements its diet with bird tears

In the forests of Brazil lives a moth that drinks tears of birds. It perches quietly at the back of an antbird at night – when the bird’s not very active – and uses its long, flexible proboscis to lap up its tears. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

*I’m not crying; there’s something in my eye*

You can read the story behind the video over at Science magazine.

Multimedia credits: Leandro Moraes

Egg theft might cause seabird decline

Among the 36 Lakshadweep islands dotting the Indian Ocean, one is particularly famous for its bird life. Pakshi Pitti is a flat sandbar that several species of seabirds come to for breeding. Devoid of predators such as rats and cats, and even humans, it is the perfect place for these birds to nest in.

Except, year after year fisherfolk from the nearby populated island of Kavaratti come to Pitti and plunder its wealth of seabird eggs. On every visit they make, they collect 14%–45% of the eggs. About 72% of the islanders of Kavaratti are involved in poaching and trading eggs from Pitti, showing that the network is quite vast.

The eggs are sought for their supposed medicinal properties, and their trade, scientists fret, could have a huge impact on the island’s seabirds, especially terns, whose numbers have plummeted from 20,000 in the mid-1900s to 970 in 2014.

Pitti was declared a bird sanctuary and afforded legal protection to stop this age-old practice of egg consumption. But a lack of regulation is defeating that purpose.

To know more, read my report published today in The Wire.

Photo credit: Ravichandra Mondreti

Little auks slurp like fish

The little auk is a small seabird that would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. At only about 150 grams, this featherweight bird eats 20% of its body weight in prey each day. And this takes some underwater hunting skills. Diving up to depths of 27 meters, the bird spots and slurps its prey, much as fishes do. Read more about the world’s only slurping seabird here in my first piece for Hakai magazine.

Photo credit: Manfred Enstipp

Bird Ballet

I had a dry spell for the whole of April. But the start of May has brought some good news – a new byline. This is a piece that’s very close to my heart because it is my first true attempt at nature writing. (I am a science writer, so of course I backed it up with science.) And to top it all *pause for effect* it carries some of my photographs. This story was fun to write as it brought together all the things I like – writing, writing about science, photography and birding! Isn’t that great?

So without further ado, let me quickly tell you what’s it about and then you’re free to go read it. (Or to keep the surprise element intact, skip to the end). It’s about Rosy Starling – a lesser-known species of starling that also murmurates like its European counterpart but hasn’t got as much attention. Earlier this year I went birdwatching at a lake not very far from where I live. And I found this huge conglomeration of rose-coloured birds resting on trees there. When dusk fell and it started to pour, the flock of birds took off and started swirling through the sky. It twisted and turned, split into smaller flocks and merged back again, singing all this while. The flock then returned and rain downed on the trees, preparing for a long night.

I describe this in a lot more detail for JLR Explore. Go, check it out.

Introducing my newsletter ‘Birds & Words’

Starting today, I will be sending out a monthly newsletter on birds. I have been dwelling on the idea for a while but there couldn’t be a better time than the ‘Year of the Bird’ to stop thinking and start doing.

The newsletter will bring smart stories about some very smart birds straight to your inbox at the end of every month. It’s about all things birds—birds in science, culture and art. What’s not to love?

If you’re into birds, please subscribe here.

Update: It is 2021 and the newsletter is still going strong. So do subscribe, if you haven’t already!

Cracking the mystery of not cracking the eggshell

Greater Ani is not your regular cuckoo. Rather than dump its eggs in the nests of other species it builds its own and raises its young alongside other breeding Anis. The eggs bump into each other with quite some force as parent birds turn them during incubation. Now, researchers have shown that Anis have evolved eggs with the added protection of an uncommon mineral that keeps the eggs from cracking under pressure.

Vaterite, a form of calcium carbonate, sits on the eggshell of some birds in tiny spheres of varying size. It is less stable and abundant than calcite – another form of calcium carbonate that primarily constitutes the shell. Vaterite gives freshly laid Ani eggs their white chalky appearance. As incubation progresses, it gets scratched, exposing patches of the pigmented calcite underneath. When scientists studying nesting Greater Anis (Crotophaga major) in the Panama Canal noticed this change in the egg surface they decided to look deep into it.

Read the rest of the story here at Chemistry World.

Photo credit: Christina Riehl

The strange origins of alcohol intake

Birds do it. Chimps do it. Humans do it. We all booze. Some get tipsy, others don’t. Find out why in my latest story here at BBC Earth and if you make it to the end, you might even be rewarded with a smile. Now, I’ll drink to that.

champagne-rm

If you like it, share it. The story I mean (and maybe a drink, but please don’t drink and fly).

When life gives you ice, break through it

Animals struggle during winters. No surprise there. But it isn’t a shortage of food alone that bothers them. This January was pretty harsh with temperatures lingering below zero for days on end and that meant ice was everywhere. Even the city lakes were covered in ice. When it comes to birds, you may think “that’s no problem, they can fly.” But icy conditions made it really hard for some. From the antics that played out on the ice, it seemed highly sensible of these swans to break their way through the ice than to walk over it or take off on the slippery runway:

Swan photo and video are mine, all mine.

 

Slow slimy slugs slaughter songbirds

What harm could a slimy little critter slowly crawling on the forest floor possibly do to a bird? A lot, it turns out. Slugs are shell-less mollusks that have a specialized mouth with a sandpaper-like structure. That rough surface can easily rip the skin and eyes off of a baby bird, leaving the chick to fight for its life.

Many don’t survive.

To be sure, this chick-icide by slugs is rare, European scientists now report. Still, they note, it could become a problem for ground- and shrub-nesting birds if slug numbers climb.

Justyna Chachulska is a graduate student at the University of Zielona Góra in Poland. Katarzyna Turzańska studies at the University of Wrocław, also in Poland. In 2014, both PhD students were monitoring nests of the common whitethroat (Sylvia communis), a mid-size European warbler. They were on the outskirts of the city of Wrocław.

The season was wet and cold. As a result, the ground teemed with slugs. One day, the young scientists noticed a slug in a nest with three newly-hatched chicks. They couldn’t imagine this slug posed a threat to the baby birds. So, they carried on with their work on other nests. But when they returned to the same nest the next day, two nestlings were dead. The third was missing.

To know how this avian murder mystery was solved, read the full story over at Science News for Students.

Photo Credit: Andrzej Wuczyñski

What’s behind the recent spate of discoveries?

Deepak Veerappan was in-between research jobs when, out of boredom, he started exploring the parched open lands in the south and west of India. He ventured out on his own into sun-baked landscapes in search of a “fan-throated lizard” – a small lizard with a large double chin. His post-doctoral position at the Indian Institute of Science, and thus funding, were yet to come but he had already laid the foundation of what would keep him busy for the next few years.

Only two species of the unusual lizards Veerappan loved watching had been known from India. From observing them in the wild, he knew there were actually more than two. This led Veerappan to discover five new species of fan-throated lizards – named so because the males have loose, stretchable skin hanging from their necks.

This spectacular find is one among a slew of discoveries we have seen so far this year in India. Wherever you look, be it the shores in the south or mighty mountains in the north, sun-scorched lands of the west or wet hills of the east, new species are being found everywhere. And yet scientists say there’s more to come. What on earth is going on?

To find out, read the full feature at The Wire.

Photo credit: Varad Giri

Songbirds tap dance to seduce their mate

The blue-capped cordon-bleu (Uraeginthus cyanocephalus) has a special talent. Not only can it sing, it can shake a leg or two. For its courtship display, it holds a piece of nesting material in its beak, points its head upward, moves up and down, and sings. Both males and females bob and sing like this, and choose their partner…

Read the full story here at Science.