Bird brains more precise than humans’

Enviro talk

( —Birds have been found to display superior judgement of their body width compared to humans, in research to help design autonomous aircraft navigation systems.

A University of Queensland (UQ) study has found that budgerigars can fly between gaps almost as narrow as their outstretched wingspan rather than taking evasive measures such as tucking in their wings.

UQ Queensland Brain Institute researcher Dr Ingo Schiffner said previous research showed humans unnecessarily turned their shoulders to pass through doorways narrower than 130 per cent of their body width, whereas birds are far more precise.

“We were quite surprised by the birds’ accuracy – they can judge their wingspan within 106 per cent of their width when it comes to flying through gaps,” Dr Schiffner said.

“When you think about the cluttered environments they fly through, such as forests, they need to develop this level of accuracy.

“When they encounter a narrow…

View original post 257 more words

September 22, 2014 at 6:18 am Leave a comment

My conservation education experience with children

Enviro talk

In 2013, I took up something I never did before. Though journalism is and always be my first love, there was something that was going on in my mind when it comes to conservation. How can we tell the children the importance of forests and its links to the water we get everyday?

In South India, almost 69 rivers originate from the Western Ghats. The mountains absorbs the rains during monsoon and reserves it. Then it slowly releases the water-drops of water form small rivulets, then a stream flows, and finally the river gushes, giving us our daily supply of water.

The film that portrays this in its best is Save our Sholas by Shekar Dattatri

A bit about the film:

Titled ‘SOS – Save Our Sholas’, the 24-minute film, narrated by celebrated conservationist, Valmik Thapar, showcases the rich biodiversity of the southern Western Ghats forests and the problems…

View original post 800 more words

April 7, 2014 at 5:58 am Leave a comment

Banned pollutants are still found in sparrowhawks

High levels of polluting chemicals which are used as flame retardants have been detected in the livers of sparrowhawks in the UK.

So-called PBDEs (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) are a group of 209 closely related chemicals – some of which are toxic.

They are used as flame retardants in electronics and a wide range of products, including furnishings and cars, but they are released into the air during the lifetime of the product and can also flake off and become airborne as dust. PBDEs can accumulate on the feathers of the birds, which end up eating them when they preen.

Previous studies have shown these pollutants can be detected in sparrowhawk eggs. But this new research has characterised contamination levels in the birds themselves and shows that adult birds have higher levels in their livers compared to juveniles. The higher level in adult birds suggests the toxins accumulate over time.

The work also shows that if the bird was malnourished, then concentrations of PBDEs in the liver can be up to fifteen times higher than in the level seen in chicks or well-fed birds.

Professor Richard Shore from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, co-author of the study, explained that birds with poor nutrition accumulate dramatically higher levels of these toxins in their liver. This is because PBDEs may be found in fat stores and other tissues which a bird remobilises as it goes through starvation and, in addition, the liver shrinks in size. 

‘These birds have the same amount of chemicals inside them as non-starved birds, but a smaller amount of tissue to store them in. So, even though the amounts are the same, the concentration is higher,’ he says. This has emphasised the need to look at an animal’s body condition if liver concentrations are used as a way of monitoring persistent organic pollutants, like these.

Scientists don’t currently know how high the concentration of these PBDEs needs to be to prove harmful to birds. But even at relatively low concentrations they can disrupt hormones and affect the reproductive success of the species.

Because of this, many PBDEs have already been banned. But levels of these banned toxins don’t appear to be lowering in sparrowhawk populations, unlike in other birds.

‘What we found happened with gannets was that levels of PBDEs rose sharply in the early 1990s when usage increased but they also fell very sharply when they were banned. We didn’t see this with sparrowhawks,’ says Shore.

‘It’s possible that since gannets are seabirds there is something in the marine system which metabolises these toxins, which we just don’t have in the terrestrial system,’ he explains. ‘We know some fish are capable of metabolising PBDEs, but perhaps there is no equivalent in the terrestrial system.’

Shore stresses that the ban has been effective, but as these compounds are phased out, a range of newer compounds are being introduced in their place. ‘A main focus on future work is to continue to monitor and analyse new compounds to see if they are entering the food chain, and if they are having any adverse effects,’ he says.

April 29, 2013 at 10:35 am 3 comments

Urban noise leads to less songbird diversity: Study


A team of Canadian researchers has found that anthropogenic noise (noise created by people that impacts other species) in urban areas leads to less songbird diversity. In their paper published in the journal Global Change Biology, the researchers describe how in studying songbird diversity in and around the city of Edmonton, they noted that songbirds that sang in low frequencies tended to have difficulty in communicating when having to compete with urban noise, leading to less mating and offspring production.

Many cities around the world have begun to implement plans to host songbirds—they are seen as an attractive feature in parks and other semi-natural settings. Unfortunately, such efforts have not lived up to expectations in many areas as diversity has been much lower than anticipated. Seeking to discover why, this new research effort focused on the idea that many songbirds may have trouble competing with urban noise, and as a result, fail to thrive.

The researchers surveyed 113 natural sites in and around the city of Edmonton Canada, noting the richness of songbird diversity, as well as elements commonly associated with their habitat, such as vegetation, food source etc. In analyzing their data, the team found a correlation between high urban noise level and songbird diversity—the more noise, the fewer the number of species. More specifically, they found that those songbirds that sang in low frequencies were more adversely impacted by urban noise, which they note generally comes from traffic, which also creates a lot of low frequency noise. 

The researchers suggest that interference from low frequency traffic noise could cause interruptions in mating songs in addition to general communication problems between the birds, leading to less mating, and fewer offspring. The result is urban environments that favor songbirds that sing in high frequencies, at the expense of those that are more heavily impacted by noise in their environment, i.e. less diversity. 

The team also studied seven particular species of songbirds to see if their numbers decreased as the level of noise around them increased, and found that the three species that sang in low frequencies did indeed show smaller and smaller population levels as the level of urban noise in the area increased. 

More humans reside in urban areas than at any other time in history. Protected urban green spaces and transportation greenbelts support many species, but diversity in these areas is generally lower than in undeveloped landscapes. Habitat degradation and fragmentation contribute to lowered diversity and urban homogenization, but less is known about the role of anthropogenic noise. Songbirds are especially vulnerable to anthropogenic noise because they rely on acoustic signals for communication. Recent studies suggest that anthropogenic noise reduces the density and reproductive success of some bird species, but that species which vocalize at frequencies above those of anthropogenic noise are more likely to inhabit noisy areas. We hypothesize that anthropogenic noise is contributing to declines in urban diversity by reducing the abundance of select species in noisy areas, and that species with low-frequency songs are those most likely to be affected. To examine this relationship, we calculated the noise-associated change in overall species richness and in abundance for seven common songbird species. After accounting for variance due to vegetative differences, species richness and the abundance of three of seven species were reduced in noisier locations. Acoustic analysis revealed that minimum song frequency was highly predictive of a species’ response to noise, with lower minimum song frequencies incurring greater noise-associated reduction in abundance. These results suggest that anthropogenic noise affects some species independently of vegetative conditions, exacerbating the exclusion of some songbird species in otherwise suitable habitat. Minimum song frequency may provide a useful metric to predict how particular species will be affected by noise. In sum, mitigation of noise may enhance habitat suitability for many songbird species, especially for species with songs that include low-frequency elements.


Journal reference: Global Change Biology

March 15, 2013 at 6:17 am 1 comment

How human language evolved from bird songs?


“The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language,” Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man” (1871), while contemplating how humans learned to speak. Language, he speculated, might have had its origins in singing, which “might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.”

Now researchers from MIT, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, say that Darwin was on the right path. The balance of evidence, they believe, suggests that human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: first, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals.

“It’s this adventitious combination that triggered human language,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, and co-author of a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The idea builds upon Miyagawa’s conclusion, detailed in his previous work, that there are two “layers” in all human languages: an “expression” layer, which involves the changeable organization of sentences, and a “lexical” layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence. His conclusion is based on earlier work by linguists including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser.

Based on an analysis of animal communication, and using Miyagawa’s framework, the authors say that birdsong closely resembles the expression layer of human sentences — whereas the communicative waggles of bees, or the short, audible messages of primates, are more like the lexical layer. At some point, between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans may have merged these two types of expression into a uniquely sophisticated form of language.

“There were these two pre-existing systems,” Miyagawa says, “like apples and oranges that just happened to be put together.”

These kinds of adaptations of existing structures are common in natural history, notes Robert Berwick, a co-author of the paper, who is a professor of computational linguistics in MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“When something new evolves, it is often built out of old parts,” Berwick says. “We see this over and over again in evolution. Old structures can change just a little bit, and acquire radically new functions.”

A new chapter in the songbook

The new paper, “The Emergence of Hierarchical Structure in Human Language,” was co-written by Miyagawa, Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya, a biopsychologist at the University of Tokyo who is an expert on animal communication.

To consider the difference between the expression layer and the lexical layer, take a simple sentence: “Todd saw a condor.” We can easily create variations of this, such as, “When did Todd see a condor?” This rearranging of elements takes place in the expression layer and allows us to add complexity and ask questions. But the lexical layer remains the same, since it involves the same core elements: the subject, “Todd,” the verb, “to see,” and the object, “condor.”

Birdsong lacks a lexical structure. Instead, birds sing learned melodies with what Berwick calls a “holistic” structure; the entire song has one meaning, whether about mating, territory or other things. The Bengalese finch, as the authors note, can loop back to parts of previous melodies, allowing for greater variation and communication of more things; a nightingale may be able to recite from 100 to 200 different melodies.

By contrast, other types of animals have bare-bones modes of expression without the same melodic capacity. Bees communicate visually, using precise waggles to indicate sources of foods to their peers; other primates can make a range of sounds, comprising warnings about predators and other messages.

Humans, according to Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya, fruitfully combined these systems. We can communicate essential information, like bees or primates — but like birds, we also have a melodic capacity and an ability to recombine parts of our uttered language. For this reason, our finite vocabularies can generate a seemingly infinite string of words. Indeed, the researchers suggest that humans first had the ability to sing, as Darwin conjectured, and then managed to integrate specific lexical elements into those songs.

“It’s not a very long step to say that what got joined together was the ability to construct these complex patterns, like a song, but with words,” Berwick says.

As they note in the paper, some of the “striking parallels” between language acquisition in birds and humans include the phase of life when each is best at picking up languages, and the part of the brain used for language. Another similarity, Berwick notes, relates to an insight of celebrated MIT professor emeritus of linguistics Morris Halle, who, as Berwick puts it, observed that “all human languages have a finite number of stress patterns, a certain number of beat patterns. Well, in birdsong, there is also this limited number of beat patterns.”

Birds and bees

The researchers acknowledge that further empirical studies on the subject would be desirable.

“It’s just a hypothesis,” Berwick says. “But it’s a way to make explicit what Darwin was talking about very vaguely, because we know more about language now.”

Miyagawa, for his part, asserts it is a viable idea in part because it could be subject to more scrutiny, as the communication patterns of other species are examined in further detail. “If this is right, then human language has a precursor in nature, in evolution, that we can actually test today,” he says, adding that bees, birds and other primates could all be sources of further research insight.

MIT-based research in linguistics has largely been characterized by the search for universal aspects of all human languages. With this paper, Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya hope to spur others to think of the universality of language in evolutionary terms. It is not just a random cultural construct, they say, but based in part on capacities humans share with other species. At the same time, Miyagawa notes, human language is unique, in that two independent systems in nature merged, in our species, to allow us to generate unbounded linguistic possibilities, albeit within a constrained system.

“Human language is not just freeform, but it is rule-based,” Miyagawa says. “If we are right, human language has a very heavy constraint on what it can and cannot do, based on its antecedents in nature.”


February 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm Leave a comment

Have you cleaned your ear yet?


Often in the urban jungles, the voices of birds get muffled by the sounds of cranes (machine) and noise pollution. In such a scenario, how can we ‘listen’ to the voices of nature?

There are some scientists who are working on acoustic ecology to bring out these nature sounds for people. Apart from scientists, even musicians are making an attempt to revive nature sounds, like Troels Folmann, who is trying to raise awareness about music with bumblebees.

Acoustic Ecology is a term coined in the early 1970s, emerging largely from the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. The writings of R. Murray Schafer, most notably A Sound Education and The Tuning of the World (reissued asThe Soundscape), have provided a foundation from which several distinct yet related threads have grown.

Prominent themes in acoustic ecology today are:

  • The effect of soundscapes on humans, in cities, nature, and buildings, including urban planning and architectural design that takes sound into account.
  • Ways to become more aware of the sounds we are making, so we can make these choices more consciously.
  • Reflection on the soundscapes we encounter day to day.
  • The effects of human sounds on wildlife.
  • The “right to quiet,” which comes into play in wild lands recreation debates about motorized use, as well as in urban settings.
  • The idea of acoustic windows or acoustic niches, employed by various species in a given habitat to avoid masking each other’s vocalizations.


Some researchers are attempting to find how people react to different sounds and how various sounds in daily lives impact them.

In the world that we live today, sounds of nature can actually heal us. Are you listening?

December 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm 1 comment

Idaho – the worst place in the world for wolves

Hunter posing with wolf caught in leghold trap

Is Idaho the worst place in the world for a wolf to live right now?   Evidence suggests it is following the state killing nearly 400 wolves out of a population of less than 1000 in the 2011-2012 hunting season and then becoming the focus of a media storm after a wolf was caught in a leghold trap and then illegally shot at and injured by passers-by.  The trapper, known as Pinching is a US Forest Service employee, and photos of him smiling triumphantly and posing with the injured and then the dead wolf were subsequently posted on  The photographs show a wolf with its hind leg in the trap and the snow around the wolf stained with its blood in a large red circle. The poor animal looks completely dejected, exhausted and, from its stance and demeanour, you can see it has suffered greatly, and is in pain. The images were quickly removed but not before they went viral after a shocked and horrified audience voiced their protest at such gruesome scenes, and the accompanying comments on the trapper forum that evidently showed the wolf had been tortured over a three day period.

You might ask why such animal cruelty is still going on in a civilised nation in the 21st century, but Idaho has very weak animal cruelty legislation according to the Humane Society.  Their website states that: “Idaho’s animal cruelty laws are some of the weakest in the country, as one of only three states with no felony level penalties for egregious animal cruelty”.  Furthermore, its policy-makers, including Governor, CL “Butch” Otter, have made no secret about waging a war on wolves, and with trapping and snaring being legal, and trappers given carte blanche to get away literally with murder of charismatic wild species, it is easy to see why Idaho, despite its vast wilderness and excellent habitat, may be the worst place to be for the wolf.

The comments from other trappers on the forum also indicated that this is not an isolated incident and they are also at complete odds with the Mission Statement on the website which talks at length about their goal of ethical trapping.  The site states: “It’s imperative that we show the public who we are and the good we are doing for wildlife.”  Did I miss something here?  How can torturing a wolf, and revelling in the fact ever be equated with “doing good for wildlife”?

Perhaps more worrying is that someone apparently from the trapping community then issued a death threat against a Montana woman on an anti-trapping forum speaking out against the brutality that has been meted out to this particular wolf.  This is thuggery at its most vile, and demonstrates a level of psychopathy that ought to be of serious concern to Idaho government officials.  It is widely documented that animal abusers are often abusers of family members too.

What allows this war against wolves to continue, and which also provides the legal framework for the continuing violence against wolves and other wild species, is the power that minority groups have to shape policy and legislation.  According to Safari Club International there are 259,000 hunters and anglers in Idaho; a state that has a population of 1.42 million living in 83,557 square miles.  Hunters and outfitters complain bitterly and vociferously that elk numbers are declining, and many claim this is due to wolf predation. However, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the state’s authority on ungulates, doesn’t agree that the sky is falling on elk numbers.  “We’re having trouble in some areas, but overall things are looking pretty good,” big game manager Jon Rachael recently told the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.  Female elk numbers meet or exceed objectives in 21 of 29 elk management zones and are below objectives in eight zones. Bull elk meet or exceed objectives in 20 zones and are below objectives in nine zones.

Idaho is breaking its pledge to manage wolves like other game species

During the March 21st public hearing at Idaho Department of Fish and Game, commission chairman Tony McDermott repeated the claim that Idaho is adhering to its public commitment to manage wolves like cougar and bears. But, compare how these species are managed and judge for yourself if this is true.

Cougar and bear cannot be sport trapped or snared in Idaho. Wolves can.  Cougar and bear are managed for abundant populations. There are approximately 3,000 cougar and 20,000 black bears in Idaho, whilst wolf numbers are approximately 548 adult wolves remaining in Idaho after the state allowed hunters and trappers to kill almost 400 wolves in this season alone.

Idaho has reduced its wolf population by nearly half since wolves were exempted by a congressional rider on a budget bill, and yet it has just approved a hunting plan that will allow more wolves to be killed in the next season. There is no quota that sets a maximum number of wolves allowed to be killed.

Instead of managing for a healthy population of wolves, Idaho is only interested in maintaining less than 200 wolves in the entire state. If bears or cougar populations fell to that low level, there would be an immediate halt to hunting and actions taken to restore their numbers. And while the Idaho state government doesn’t seem to value wolves, the state is essential to a healthy wolf population in the West.  The state is the prime habitat for the core western Gray wolf population and crucial for the recovery of wolves to the Pacific Northwest and expanded range in the Rockies.

The arguments put forward for managing wolves at such low levels are that wolves kill livestock and compete with humans for elk. These arguments however don’t merit the discriminatory manner in which wolves are managed. Wolves kill fewer livestock than disease, bad weather, birthing problems, noxious weeds, rustlers and other native predators. Wolf losses are the lowest they have been since 2004 with less than 200 cattle and sheep depredations confirmed statewide.

At the meeting, wolf advocates outnumbered those against wolf conservation by 3 to1, and yet the voices of the wolf advocates were totally disregarded and dismissed, with a further meeting being held the following morning to push through the motion to continue hunting and trapping wolves and increase the limits. One of the commissioners even went as far as calling the wolf advocates “crazy environmentalists”, which I find quite unbelievable and shocking in this day and age. In that room there were scientists and professionals speaking out for the conservation of wolves. To call them crazy environmentalists only serves to highlight the arrogance that exists in those who hold power in the state, and who now seem to want to pursue only their own interests rather than the interests of all Idaho’s citizens.

 The Idaho war against wolves not only ignores the science behind wildlife conservation, but clearly also blatantly ignores the majority public opinion.

A Human Solution for a Human Problem

The real problem, just like anywhere else there is human/wildlife conflict, is a human one.  It is the human perceptions of wolves, but the real conflict is between human groups with different and greatly polarised perspectives.

In Europe, there are the same problems, but it would seem that wildlife management is way ahead of Idaho when it comes to “grown-up” thinking about co-existing with wolves and other large mammals.  In Bulgaria, a country that has also had a history of widespread hatred of wolves, perspectives have started to change with the development of a wolf management plan.  The process surrounding the planning has brought together all the different groups and actors including foresters, farmers, livestock growers, hunters, rangers, policy-makers, conservationists and wildlife managers.  Bear in mind, that this is also a country with a large ratio of hunters in the population.

In Bulgaria, wolves have never been extirpated  Although Bulgaria is a mountainous country, with highly developed extensive livestock breeding, its farmers have always shared the mountain pastures with large carnivores, and there has never been any really extreme opposition to wolves and bears. Older shepherds remember the times when they had large flocks of sheep and always said: “There was enough for us and for wolves.”

Poisoning and trapping of wolves occurred many decades ago, but in the late 1970s, when wolf numbers had decreased to around 200 individuals in Bulgaria, the species was included in the National Red Data Book as “endangered”. In 1991,Bulgaria was one of the member countries which ratified the Bern Convention, which prohibits most of the previous methods of hunting for all game species, among which was the use of poisons and traps. These “hunting” methods became illegal!

Today, the wolf population in Bulgaria is estimated at around 1000 individuals, in a country territory with only 111 000 sq. km of territory (less than half the size of Idaho which complains that even a few hundred wolves are too many).   Recently, the BALKANI Wildlife Society initiated a process for the development of a Wolf Management Plan and invited all interested groups to work together over a period of time to discuss the future management of the species so that it is preserved for the future generations in Bulgaria and the Balkans.  Officials, foresters, hunters, farmers, scientists, conservationists worked closely together over many months to develop the plan and agree the main issues for the future conservation and management of the species. The whole process operated on the basis of reaching a consensus, which meant compromises had to be made from all sides and an understanding reached.  As a result, all parties did finally reach an agreement that Bulgaria would implement a three month period of protection for the wolves during the months when wolves reproduce and the young pups are very dependant on their mother (April, May, June). This is a major leap forward in a country where hunters and farmers previously had a history of hating and fearing wolves, and where there was? a significant bounty offered for wolves killed that is equivalent to two weeks wages.

Bulgaria is not the first nor the only country to adopt such a mature and effective approach towards the conservation of its large wild mammalian species – Croatia, France, Italy to name a few others, are also adopting a more ecological approach to conservation.

So, what lessons can Idahoans learn from their counterparts throughoutEurope?  It takes foresight and courage for policymakers to really make a difference in protecting their wild heritage. Idahohas never engaged its stakeholders in a meaningful conflict resolution process.  At the moment Idaho’s governor and state officials appear to the rest of the world to be failing miserably in this respect.  There needs to be some sensible dialogue taking place and not the mud-slinging and fear-mongering and revenge killing of wolves that is the current default position.

Governor “Butch” Otter of Idaho, the world is watching, and you are being judged on how you treat your wild species.  ‘’The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the ways its animals are treated ~ Mahatma Gandhi‘ (1869-1948)!

The situation in Idaho is directly due to the inadequate delisting criteria approved by the federal US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Wildlife scientists around the world should protest any plan that allows all but 100 – 150 wolves to be killed in a state likeIdaho.  Unfortunately, the Service and the Obama administration failedIdaho’s wolves and are soon to approve a plan allowingWyomingto followIdaho’s lead in reducing wolf numbers to ecologically unsustainable levels.

Links to other articles about wolf trapping incident and the media storm it has created:

Wolf Conservation in the UK

This article was written for Wolf Print, an international magazine published by the UK Wolf Conservation Trust which is run largely by volunteers who work tirelessly to help wolves in the wild. Although the UK lost its last wild wolf in the 17th century, conservationists here are keen to see that wild wolves elsewhere don’t suffer the same fate and enjoy protection not only because of the vital role they play in the ecosystem but also for future generations to enjoy.

Defenders of Wildlife

Suzanne Stone provided additional information for this article and is the Northern Rockies Representative for the Defenders of Wildlife.  She has worked tirelessly for the conservation of wolves for  24 years including serving as a member of the USA – Canadian wolf reintroduction team for Idaho and Yellowstone. For the last 12 years, she has worked  closely with ranchers and farmers to help them co-exist with wolves by adopting non-lethal control methods and livestock protection through better animal husbandry. She grew up in Idaho and still resides there today.

Balkani Wildlife Society

Elena Tsingarska is a biologist and Project Leader for Balkani Wildlife Society in Bulgaria.  She has studied wolves in the country for many years and has been the driving force behind the recent successful Wolf Management Plan process.  She has also been one of the leaders in the team behind the building, development and equipping of the Large Carnivore Education Centre based in Vlahi in the foothills of the Pirin Mountains.  In the past ten years, the project has provided outreach education programmes to over 10,000 children throughout the region, as well providing workshops and seminar programmes for adult learners on the conservation of wolves, bears and other wild species in Bulgaria.

April 6, 2012 at 9:14 am 7 comments

Older Posts

Education 4 Conservation

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 30 other followers

Twitter posts


Share this blog

Share |