science

Birds hit by cars have smaller brains

New research has uncovered an interesting finding about the consequences of birds’ learnt behaviour in relation to traffic.

When driving along a fast road, you may have seen some species of bird happily wandering the hard-shoulder, apparently oblivious to the traffic zooming past them. Some species, such as magpies, seem especially expert at hopping out of the way to avoid on-coming cars.

Previous studies have actually shown that birds are able to adapt to the direction of traffic and lane use, and this apparently results in reduced risks of fatal traffic accidents.

A new study by Anders Pape Møller and Johannes Erritzøe analysed the link between birds killed by traffic and their relative brain mass. Looking at 3521 birds from 251 species that were brought to a taxidermist, scientists found that birds that were killed in traffic had relatively smaller brains, while there was no similar difference for liver mass, heart mass or lung mass.

These findings suggest that birds actually learn the behaviour of car drivers, and that they use their brains to adjust behaviour to try and avoid mortality caused by rapidly and predictably moving objects. 

More about this fascinating topic can be read in the full research article here.

 

Regional dialects in songbirds

A fascinating citizen science project has successfully mapped the distribution of dialects in yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella) in both New Zealand and the UK.

Yellowhammers, like us, have regional dialects, with differences in their song depending on the region that they live. A familiar farmland bird in the UK, the species was introduced to New Zealand over 100 years ago, and this has provided researchers with a unique opportunity to investigate two completely isolated populations.

The Yellowhammer Dialects project used citizen science volunteers to record yellowhammer song in the field. This allowed the project to access lots of data from across a very large area, which was then compared with historic recordings from archives. All this information was then used to accurately map the composition and distribution of different dialects in the two countries.

Researchers found an interesting difference in dialect between the populations of yellowhammers, with New Zealand yellowhammers sing nearly twice as many different dialects than yellowhammers in the UK.

They explain this result by suggesting that New Zealand yellowhammers have retained song structures which were originally from the UK, but have subsequently been lost in the mother country, perhaps due to the widespread decline in yellowhammers in the UK.

The yellowhammer dialect system may be the avian equivalent of a phenomenon already noted in human languages, in which ancient words or structures are retained in expatriate communities.

A fascinating finding, and one which will hopefully be complemented by further results in the near future; after the success of this project, the researchers have decided to host sister projects in both Switzerland and Poland.

The full research paper can be found here.

Hugh’s research paper published

The latest paper from SongBird Survival’s Keith Duckworth project has recently been published in Ibis.

PhD student Hugh Hanmer has been studying urban bird ecology and conservation with Professor Mark Fellowes and Dr Rebecca Thomas at the University of Reading. The primary focus of his PhD has been on the indirect effects of garden bird feeding, though other work has taken in nest boxes and domestic cat ranging across the urbanisation gradient.

Hugh’s recent paper investigates whether feeding birds increases local nest predation. Using the university’s suburban parkland campus as a study site, Hugh replicated a typical suburban garden. He set up artificial nests, containing quail eggs, either 5 or 10 meters away from feeding stations. A variety of feeder types were used (guarded/unguarded, peanut-filled/empty), and both the nests and feeding stations were monitored with camera traps to see which species visited them.

Hugh found that Eurasian magpies and grey squirrels were frequent visitors to unguarded feeders, and this resulted in a five-fold increase in predation rates of nests that were set up near these feeders. Eurasian jays also predated these nests, although they did not visit the feeders.

-parakeets-and-squirre

The researchers suggest that magpies and grey squirrels are attracted to the food, and then forage locally, increasing the chances of finding local nests, and that the Jays respond to the presence of the other species, rather than the presence of the food itself.

Irrespective of the behavioural underpinning, the result of providing food was increased nest predation.

Wildlife gardening is hugely popular in the UK, and we spend £200 million on bird food every year. But we need to ensure that we are doing the right thing for wildlife.

Hugh’s research has important implications for how we feed the birds in our gardens, to make sure we are benefiting song and other small bird populations.

Hugh suggests that feeders are placed as far away as possible from potential nests sites during the key nesting period in late spring. It’s also important to offer food which is less attractive to nest predators and more suitable for the birds we want to support. Finally, he advocates the use of feeder guards, even though this didn’t reduce predation. This is simply because the use of guards means that more food goes to the target beneficiaries, rather than helping grow local populations of squirrels and magpies!

For more information on how to benefit songbirds in your garden, visit the SongBird Survival website. To view Hugh’s full research paper, click here.

 

 

Saving Our Dawn Chorus

What is behind the continuing decline of our songbirds today? What are the underlying reasons and what potential solutions should be investigated?

SongBird Survival is committed to finding out the answers to these questions through commissioning quality scientific research into the issue.

In 2016, we produced a short film, presented by ecologist Katy Thomas, introducing SongBird Survival and looking at where the UK’s famous dawn chorus is heading.

Since the 1970s, populations of songbirds in the UK have crashed, and our dawn chorus is far less rich and diverse than it was in our parents’ and grandparents’ day.

Yellowhammer populations have declined by 55%, cornbunting numbers are down by 87%, whilst tree sparrows have suffered a rapid decline of 95%. These figures are shocking, but what is causing our small birds populations to crash? Loss of habitat? Predation? Intensification of farming?

SongBird Survival believes that research is the key to understanding why.

We fund high quality scientific research to investigate the drivers behind these population declines and promote evidence-based solutions to restore songbird numbers.

With your support we hope to draw attention to the plight of our song and other small birds. Your membership and donations help to fund our research programme and add weight to our work with other organisations. Together, we can save our songbirds before it’s too late.

To find out more about our research and objectives, watch our YouTube video.

SBS YouTube (2)

We partner with like-minded organisations to commission targeted research into areas where scientific evidence is currently sparse, inadequate or lacking.

To date we have partnered with the University of Exeter, the University of Reading, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the University of St Andrews, in projects which examine the potential causes behind songbird population decline. Such research produces high-quality, peer-reviewed research papers, contributing to ornithological and ecological knowledge in the UK.

We have exciting future projects in the pipeline, and will be bringing you news of this very soon. In the mean time, further information about our current and past research programmes can be seen on our website.

SongBird Survival: Saving Songbirds With Science