Thursday, May 14, 2015

"The Chicken or The Egg?"

The question of who came first: "the chicken, or the egg?" is an age old paradox that finds its roots in the musings of ancient philosophers of old, Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch etc. who pondered upon such conundrums as they were evocative of the creation of life, of bird, and of the Universe.  The question, which was originally postulated as a metaphysical or symbolic one in nature, alluding to the supposedly unsolvable case of a circular cause and consequence dilemma, has nonetheless found much weight in a literal sense today. Scientists, for instance, are interested to know which came first because it will undoubtedly shed much light on the evolutionary history of chickens, or indeed, of birds in general, while regular folk like us on the ground want to know simply because it is interesting and would (probably) put the worn out conundrum to rest once and for all! 

Thankfully for those of us who are interested, conventional scientific understanding of the evolution of animals may have answered that question for us once and for all.  Based on our current understanding of the world through science, all living beings came to be through the process of evolution and natural selection. Evolution, or the gradual adaptation of animals that results in the manifestation of unique new, and distinct forms of animals, is largely considered to be a cross-generational process. What this means is that no species can exist spontaneously and no animal evolves into another species during its lifetime. Instead, the genetic markers for any given species are passed on to the offspring of that animal by its parents and with each generation, grows to be more and more refined and defined until the resulting offspring several generations hence is considered to be almost entirely genetically distinct from the birds that bore its forefathers.  This point of differentiation is also known as the "threshold" upon which a new species is born.

The domesticated fowl, or chicken as it is known, is not a naturally occurring species. Rather, it is a bird that is thought to have been "created" by humans over at least 5000 years through the process of artificial selection. Artificial selection is the breeding of various birds with the sole purpose of refining or bringing out specific genetic markers and traits.The ancestry of the domesticated chicken is still one that is commonly debated but many sources concur that at least one of the chicken's ancestors was the red jungle-fowl, a tropical pheasant that still exists in the wild across Asia, and the grey jungle-fowl which is endemic to India.  The chicken, as the resulting offspring of the red jungle-fowl, and the grey jungle-fowl, is therefore to be regarded as a very specialized hybrid. Therefore, this stands to reason that the "chicken" in turn did not come to be until a "threshold" was crossed that differentiates the "chicken" from its ancestors. The first bird that was said to have crossed this "threshold" and come to be regarded as the very "first chicken" had to have hatched from an egg, the "first chicken egg", while the parents of said offspring, by definition, occupied a position that was on the other side of the "threshold" and were therefore not considered to be a chicken per say. For many scientists, this seems to have settled the argument once and for all: that the egg came first, before the chicken. 

From top to bottom: The roosters of a red jungle-fowl, a grey jungle-fowl, Sri Lankan jungle-fowl, green jungle-fowl and a domesticated chicken. The more widely dispersed red and Sri Lankan jungle-fowls are believed to have supplied a bulk of the genetic makeup and appearance of the domesticated chicken, but it is the green and grey-jungle fowl that is though to have been the contributing ancestor for the light/yellow legs in the domesticated chicken (note the black legs of the jungle fowl) 
Evolutionary philosophers, however, have postulated that the genetic markers that eventually resulted in the emergence of the domestic chicken species had to have always existed in some way in the ancestor birds and theoretically could be traced back to before the evolution of birds themselves which, for them, seems to indicate that on a cellular level, it was arguably the "chicken" that came first, before birds, indeed, before all egg-laying animals and so in some way the conundrum continues to those who find currency with this latter explanation. Another thing that the chicken and the egg conundrum can show however, is is also how important and significant these birds really are to the development of human culture and society. Of all the animals in the world, it is often argued that the chicken is the most influential to humans whose own evolutionary history is the most closely tied to our own. Almost every single culture in the world makes allusion to chickens, whether as food, totems, or as religious and spiritual symbols and chickens commonly serve various purposes in the day-to-day functions of ancient societies. In the modern world, chickens are one of the most common and widespread of all the domesticated animals, including pets. There are an estimated 26 billion chickens currently living in the world which makes them the most abundant species of bird known to man. 

Despite having gone through thousands of years of domestication, chickens are considered by many to be highly social birds that quickly establish flock hierarchies, or pecking orders, that are similar to those employed by their counterparts in the wild. Unlike many other species of birds whose eggs and chicks fall under the responsibility of one, or both, the biological parents, many chickens take a communal approach to egg hatching and chick rearing with mothers often choosing to lay in similar locations, sometimes even in the same nest. Roosters are commonly the dominant chicken in any given flock and are known to call loudly to gather the flock when food is found.  Due to the escape of domesticated chickens and free-range chicken rearing in the outskirts of Asia, the wild counterparts of the domestic chicken such as the red jungle-fowl, green jungle-fowl, and grey jungle-fowl species are considered to be threatened and susceptible to extinction due to hybridization with domesticated birds that results in the dilution of the wild gene and its resulting traits such as longer wings, lighter more stream-lined bodies (meaning these birds are capable of long and sustained flight) that are more suited for survival in the wild.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Featured Bird: 4 birds that are TOXIC

In the wild, most birds (with the exception of raptors) are generally recognized as "prey species". This means that many birds are generally foragers that are in turn susceptible to being attacked by predatory animals such as mammals, reptiles, and even larger birds.  Evolutionary pressure over the years has resulted in a wide range of self-defense mechanisms employed by birds in order to elude or discourage predators ranging from camouflaging plumage, communal roosting, bluffing, and may more. While many of these methods have been of interest to ornithologists all over the world, none perhaps can match the various species of birds who are known to use toxins as a means of self-defense. To date, no bird species is known to actively inject, or produce, venom but there are a select few species of bird that can produce poisons on their skins that make them untouchable and unpalatable to the many host of avian predators out there. The following are a list of the 4 iconic species of toxic birds.

1. The Spur Winged Goose

A goose is certainly one of the less exotic of birds on the list and the spur wing goose is considered to be highly abundant throughout its range. A fairly handsome bird with black and white feathers, and an orange or reddish bill, the spur-winged goose is a native to the African Wetlands and is often considered as one of the contenders for the title of the "World's Largest Wild Goose". Tough the bird resembles other species of geese in many ways, the spur winged goose is the exception in that it is the only species of goose known to sequester poisons in its very flesh, making it completely unpalatable and untouchable from both predators and humans alike. The poisons housed in the tissue of the goose is known as cantharidin, a toxin capable of causing severe chemical burns, and is sequestered by the goose from the blister beetles that it eats in its natural environment. The poison is present in the goose even when it is cooked and ingestion of spur-winged geese meat has been known to cause severe poisoning in human beings. Cantharidin is lethal when ingested by humans in doses as small as 10mg and may often cause damage to the gastrointestinal lining and urinary tract, and permanent renal damage. This, of course, is very fortunate for the goose as it often finds itself avoided by predators, animals and humans alike.

This is one goose that won't be served on anyone's dinner table anytime soon! 
2. The Hooded Pitohui

Arguably one of the more striking of candidates on the list, the pitohui, or New Guinean Oriole, is a small, beautifully colored bird that is also widely distributed across its range. The hooded pitohui, along with its cousins the variable pitohui and the rusty pitohui, were one of the first few documented species of poisonous birds. Much like the goose, the pitohui does not produce this poison on its own. Rather, the poison is sequestered from various beetles and insects that compose the bird's natural diet. The poison is a kind of neurotoxin called homobatrachotoxin and is secreted, presumably by oil glands, onto the bird's skin and feathers. Handling the bird may cause a reaction in those whose skins are particularly sensitive. In many humans the sensation is often described as acute numbness or tingling of the nerves. The poison in the bird's skins makes it difficult to consume and its brilliant orange and black colors often warns predators that consuming it would not be kind of the palate. They are sometimes consumed by predators, and local New Guineans, during desperate measures but in order to consume them safely, the bird's skin and feathers must be thoroughly removed. Among the local Papua New Guineans, this beautiful bird has unfortunately gained the nickname of "Rubbish Bird", though this is probably a good trade off for the bird who almost never gets eaten. 

The bright colors of the pitohui are believed to serve as a form of aposematism: red, orange, and yellow on black is often recognized by many in the animal kingdom as cautionary colors that advertise an animal's toxicity. 

3. The Blue Capped Ifrit

The Blue Capped Ifrit employs a similar line of defense as the Pitohui in that the poison it sequesters is of a similar compound and is also though to be obtained from the various insects consumed by the bird in its everyday life.  The blue-capped ifrit is a unique bird in that it is the only member of its genus. Like the Pitohui, it is widely spread out across New Guinea and is also considered to be of "bad eating" among the locals. Because this toxin is sequestered and not produced, however, birds who do not consume enough poisonous beetles on a day-to-day basis may exhibit a lower toxicity than birds who are able to find them everyday.
The blue-capped Ifrit.
4. The Common Quail

This is one bird on the list that may surprise many. The common quail is widely known across the world as a delicacy that some choose to partake in. In fact, the common quail is so widely consumed that not many people are aware of the bird's potential for toxicity.  In the wild, quail are migratory birds and often travel a considerable distance in search of more favorable conditions during the winter. During their journey across the European continent, the common quail are believed to consume a large variety of plants, many of which may be poisonous in nature. Many of these poisons are broken down by the bird's digestive tract but some, it would seem, linger on within the very flesh of the bird itself. When consumed, the poison results in a sickness known as coturnism that ultimately results in muscle cell breakdown. Most of the quail that are consumed these days are farmed, which greatly reduces the risk of the disease in modern times, but back in the day when the hunting of quail on their migratory passage was widespread, the occurrence of coturnism in quail-eating nobles, was a very common thing. Furthermore, historical accounts seem to illustrate that the poison is stable and can persist even in quail that have been pickled and preserved for as long as four months! The poison is also fat-soluble and can be transferable to other foods cooked in the fat or oil of affected quails. Little is known about the poisonous compounds that are stored in the flesh of affected quails or the plants that give them their toxicity and due to the fact that a large majority of consumed quail is presently farmed, coturnism may be one of the rare health conditions that is wiped out long before it is completely understood. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

To Clip or Not To Clip?

What Wing Clipping Is

For as long as people have kept birds as companion animals, there have been people on both sides of the fence of the wing-clipping issue. As someone who has birds of both kinds in one household, I can also attest to the fact that making this decision is one that is not taken lightly. Wing clipping is the process of inhibiting, or limiting a bird's capacity for flight through the removal of several flight feathers on each wing. The flight feathers that are removed in the clipping process are generally the primary flight feathers, which are the strongest outermost 6-8 feathers on a bird's wing. As their name suggests, the flight feathers provide the bird with the necessary lift to propel itself upwards and keep it airborne. A wing clip, when properly done will limit the bird's capacity to do this, but still does not severely hamper it's flight. A wing clipped bird, in other words, should have little to no difficult fluttering from one post to another, or slowing itself to a glide so that it doesn't come crashing to the floor. Wing clipping is a temporary process as birds replace their feathers on average once a year during their molt. If a bird is going through its molt, clipped feathers may be replenished quicker than usual and so it may be a good idea to allow it to complete the molt before clipping its wings. There are several methods and styles of wing clipping that different carers will use for different purposes.

A moluccan cockatoo at the Singapore Zoo. The bird exhibits a partial or "show" clip that, while reducing its ability to fly, still gives it a "natural" appearance at rest. This is a clip that is commonly used at bird gardens, public aviaries, and zoos for aesthetic purposes.
What Wing Clipping is NOT!

Many people have confused the term wing clipping with the term "cutting" and some have even use the term interchangeably. Wing clipping, however, is not wing cutting: a process also known as "pinioning". Pinioning, though sometimes practiced on companion birds such as parrots, is more commonly practiced on waterfowl, pheasants, and other "free ranged" birds that are kept in an open environment. Pinioning is a controversial process that involves the amputation of a bird's wing from its outermost joint thus inhibiting the bird from flight forever. Pinioning is generally done when the birds are very young so as to facilitate the bird's adjustment to the missing wing. Birds that have been pinioned are able to be kept in an open enclosure all year round because the amputated joint does not grow back and the birds will never be capable of flight. While pinioning has been historically done throughout the centuries, recent animal welfare groups have increasingly questioned the long term effects of pinioning on birds' mental and physical well being. Pinioning is legal in some countries such as England whereby the procedure must be carried out by a licensed veterinarian, whereas completely prohibited in others such as Australia. 

A saddle-billed stork that has been pinioned. Notice that one wing is "shorter" than the other due to the removal of the first carpal wing joint. 
How To Wing Clip? (section written in consultation with an avian vet)

Wing Clipping, for the inexperienced, is always better done by a practicing avian veterinarian or an experienced vet. Wing clipping should not be carried out by inexperienced hobbyists as there is always the risk of causing injury to the bird. Cutting a growing flight feather for instance may cause the bird to bleed out as a growing feather is essentially a keratin casing that is being fed a constant supply of blood. In most cases a light wing clip is often preferred to a heavier one as it continues to allow the bird a certain level of mobility. Starting with a light wing clip is also a way of gauging the bird's aptitude for flight and the severity of the clip can then be increased in stages as and when it is needed. For this reason, it is always better to clip a bird's wings too light, than too heavy.  If for whatever reason clipping must be done by the caregiver at home, the process will require 2 individuals and the first session should ALWAYS be supervise and guided by a highly experienced parront or an avian vet.

  1. First, inspect the bird's wings for any blood feathers. These are feathers that have not yet matured. Their shafts will appear bluish or purplish and will generally have a thicker and waxy appearance. If the bird has any blood feathers, clipping should not take place until these feathers have matured. 
  2. The bird must first be restrained. Care should be given not to apply too much pressure to the chest area as this could restrict breathing or result in a collapsed lung. Instead, the bird should be gently wrapped in a towel to restrain its head, both feet, and the opposite wing. The head of the bird can gently but firmly be restrained by placing one's index finger on top of the bird's head with the other fingers around the side of its lower beak.
  3. When the bird is secure, the birds wings may be extended and spread out so as to reveal the primary flight feathers. The wing should not be held by the feathers, but at the base of the humerus. This is to prevent injury in the event that the bird struggles or flaps its wings. 
  4. It is not advised to use scissors to clip a bird's wings as scissors can leave jagged, or rough edges that may cause discomfort to the bird. The sharp tips of scissors may also slide and cause injury to the bird. Instead a set of animal claw clippers or specialized wing clippers would be ideal to provide a quicker, and cleaner cut. 
  5. Having fanned out the bird's wing, select the first few primary flight feathers (1) and cut them. How many feathers you select is really dependent on your level of comfort and the bird's but I generally like to begin with just 3 or 4, and gradually clip one or two more if it turns out to be necessary. How much of the feather to remove is also a situational matter, and personally I prefer to remove less first, and remove more later if the need arises. Wings should never be cut below the covets (2) and the secondary flight feathers (4) should also be left intact. This conservative method of clipping in stages is generally only needed during the bird's first wing clip and does help prevent overclipping.  In general smaller, lighter birds, would need to have more feathers removed than larger, heavier birds, in order to effectively inhibit flight. Smaller wing clipped birds may often also take flight in the event of a gust of wind or upward draft. 
A pet Meyer's Parrot with clipped wings. Some would say that the wings on this bird have been clipped too severely or overclipped. 
A properly wing clipped bird should have no problem fluttering for short distances, and safely gliding to the floor in the event that it falls off of its perch. If a bird drops like a rock after it has been wing clipped, the clip was too severe and the bird should be restrained from climbing up tall objects as such falls can often cause injury to the breastbone. 

Why Wing Clip?

Birds are usually wing-clipped with the consideration of their safety in mind. Birds that are not wing-clipped that live in certain households may be at risk of injury, for example: by flying into clear glass objects such as windows and sliding doors, or being hit by moving objects such as ceiling fans. Birds that display extreme forms of aggression towards certain members of the household, or other animals, may also be wing clipped to restrict mobility to discourage such behavior. A bird that is fully flighted will also have more chances of escape through an open window/door or through a loose hatch. Less common, and more controversially, are birds that are wing clipped to "force" them to become tame by restricting their independence and coercing them into depending wholly on the owners. Wing clipping can, however, facilitate the training and taming process of problematic birds (typically those who have been rescued from bad situations) and is sometimes done as a temporary measure that is discontinued once the bird has been resocialized to the rescuer's satisfaction, It is considered of paramount importance that all birds be allowed to fledge and fly prior to wing clipping. This enables the birds to develop the skills it needs to take off, and more importantly to land in a safe fashion, that will greatly reduce the risk of accidents caused by crash landing after the wing clipping procedure has been carried out. Studies have shown that baby birds who have been wing clipped are not only more accident prone, but also less confident and active than birds who have been allowed to fledge leading to health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

A Moluccan cockatoo with a very conservative wing-clip with only the first quarter of the primaries removed. This is sometimes euphemistically called  a "wing-trim" instead.

Why Not To Wing Clip?

Those who do not choose to wing clip however, have their own reasons too. Aside from the fact that an inexperienced wing clipper can cause serious harm or injury to a bird, many who choose to free flight their parrots do not wing clip as they do not wish to restrict the bird's natural range of movement. Flying, in parrots, is an invaluable form of exercise considering these birds often travel for miles on wing in their natural habitats searching for food. As such, it is hardly surprising that fully flighted parrots are therefore less prone to health problems associated with being overweight, or a sedentary lifestyle than wing clipped birds. For birds that do not always get a lot of attention from their owners, flying is also a great way to provide mental stimulation and prevent boredom. Although certain objects around the household remain a birdy hazard for flighted birds (such as open doors and ceiling fans *which can be disconnected*), many tame flighted birds do eventually learn to avoid clear objects like glass doors and windows. Similarly, with some training, pet parrots also learn to come on command and can be almost as easily handled as a wing clipped bird. Training also provides an opportunity for trust building and bonding between the human and the bird. The invention of bird harnesses have also facilitated more forms of outdoor social interaction between humans and parrots while reducing the risk of escape and without compromising on safety

A pet blue and gold macaw by Mike Baird with unclipped wings.

All in all there are many reasons why parronts would chose to, or not to, clip their birds wings. Needless to say the living situation of all captive birds differs largely from the living arrangement of parrots in the wild. With issues like safety, level of activity, socialization, and lifestyle in mind, it is up to every parront to make this decision to the interest of all who are involved.

Photosource: Wikimedia.commons

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Nightmarish Scenes from Indonesia's Illegal Bird Trade

A post was brought to my attention recently regarding a small flock of birds that were confiscated by the Indonesian police. The birds were critically endangered yellow-crested cockatoos, and were found cruelly crammed into plastic bottles so that they could get through customs at the Port of Tanjung Perak, in Surabaya, Indonesia. Though these birds have been through a literal hell, they still number among some of the luckier ones as many other birds are caught and traded each day in an open manner at some of the open air bird-markets that are situated all across Indonesia. Hug your fids tight, then hug them even tighter because some of the things you are about to see will make you realize how fortunate our fids actually are, and how many birds in fact, do not get to be so lucky. 

These cockatoos had been cruelly stuffed into bottles to restrain them while smugglers attempted to sneak them through customs. 

It is estimated that up to 40% of the birds will not survive this cruel procedure. The desperate look in this cockatoo's eye says it all: no living being deserves to be treated in such a manner.

The Indonesian Bird Markets

Goffin cockatoos at a bird market in Medan, Indonesia
Bird markets are a common occurrence across the world with similar setups existing in countries like Hong Kong, India, and various parts of South America. Among all such establishments, however, the bird markets of the Indonesian isles are largely regarded as being of a class of its own, when compared to similar establishments around the world. The reason for this is the sheer number of birds that are traded at such markets on a regular basis. The much well-known bird markets of Medan, for example, are hailed far and wide as boasting the  largest collection of bird species in any given location. Though many of the birds are shipped - even smuggled - to neighboring countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, it is perhaps the thriving local demand for exotic bird species that continues to fuel the proliferation of bird markets across the nation. Consequently, it is unsurprising that many of the bird markets across Indonesia have also become the site of illegal trafficking, and trading of many protected and endangered species of birds in what are arguably some of the most deplorable conditions known to man. The reason why Indonesia, above all other places in the world, can function as the hub for the exotic bird trade is because of her unique eco-system that seems to combine the best of both the Asian and Australian continents. Consequently, many exotic birds and parrots that exist in Australia or other Asian countries, often have sister-species that can be found in various locations across the Indonesian isles. While on the one hand, this means that Indonesia boasts some of the most diverse and unique bird species in all the world, on the other: it also translates into ample opportunity for the exploitation, of these amazing animals as well.  

Fowl, and other birds languish in their cages as their minder dozes off for a short nap in a small stall in the Medan bird market.

The chattering lory (Lorius garrullus) was listed as one of the top three most numerically available species of parrots in a survey conducted by Traffic from  1997 - 2001
In between the years of 1997 and 2001, a study was conducted by Chris R. Shepherd of The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) to assess the impact of the Indonesian bird markets. The four year study ultimately revealed that the bird markets of Medan, Indonesia, was in fact one of the most notorious hot spots for illegal wildlife trade in the world. An estimate of at least 3500 birds were reported, of which total number of 300 different species of bird were identified by the researchers, during each survey. Of the 300 bird species that were identified, at least 56 were considered to be critically endangered and supposedly protected by Indonesian wildlife law.  It was also discerned during the period of study that the unsanitary conditions in which the bird were displayed - often caged and crowded into cramped enclosures that were stacked on top of each other - resulted in a high rate of :overnight mortality among the market birds. The prevalence of disease in the crowded and unhygienic conditions of the market were recognized by the traders but little was done save to remove birds that were considered more economically valuable and therefore "less disposable" than their "cheaper" counterparts. Certain birds such as cassowaries, and imported parrots, were often kept in separate locations and not displayed at the markets for similar reasons.  
More chattering lories at the pramuka bird market
A black capped lory housed in unsanitary conditions at the Yogyakarta bird market

Birds frequently die overnight succumbing either to shock, or more likely to the unsanitary conditions of the markets.
Other species of birds that were ill suited for captivity such as  kingfishers (halcyonidae. alcedinidae), woodpeckers (picidae), pittas (pittidae), and true owls (strigidae) and nightjars (caprimulgidae) were also readily available at the markets. These birds were sold for relatively low prices as many of the traders considered them to be "novelty pets" that were not expected to survive long in captivity. Having been sent to the markets shortly after being caught from the wild, many of the birds succumb to shock or stress and end up refusing food or water. The dietary requirements of many of these specialist feeders was also deduced to have not been met at the markets. Although the markets trade largely in birds, other animals are often available opportunistically or when there is demand. Otters (mustelidae), leopard cats (prionailurus bengalensis), small primates such as macaques (cercopithecidae) and gibbons (hylobatidae), and the slow loris (nycticebus coucang) are also readily available, often with their teeth removed or otherwise "blunted" through the crude use of nail-clippers to make them "suitable" as pets and house animals. Blood pythons (python curtus) were also frequently sold to dealers for their skins 

Caged owls at the yogyakarta bird maret
Javan mynahs and fire tufted barbets at the Medan Bird Market

Purple breasted starlings crammed in cages for sale. 
The slow loris is the only venomous primate in the world and often has its teeth cut off by nail clippers before it so sold as a "tame" animal at the bird markets. 
photosource: wikimedia.commons

A young monkey has its fangs forcibly removed by pliers in order to "tame" it for captivity.
photo by Mark Leong. 
Hundreds of blood pythons and other reptiles are slaughtered each day for their skins in Sumatera, Indonesia
photo by Mark Leong
Despite recognizing that the trade in many of these species of wildlife is illegal, little has been done by authorities to date. On February 28th, 2015, current Indonesian president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who reportedly has an academic degree in forestry, is reported to have bought over 300 birds from the Pramuka Bird Market in East Jakarta for release, purportedly to "maintain the ecosystem in the two areas".  Many, concerned local citizens and bird lovers have criticized this move, however, as it does not inherently address or resolve the issue regarding the illegal trapping, sale, and trafficking of local wildlife whilst providing poachers and trappers with the incentives to trap more animals to replenish their stock. Others have urged President Jokowi to instead take more definitive measures to enforce wildlife and conservation laws to crack down on the illegal, unsanitary, and unsustainable practices that are going on at such bird markets across the Indonesian isles. 

A follow up study that was carried out in 2006 revealed that very little had changed at the bird markets. Despite governmental institution of a "harvesting quota" for protected species of birds and animals, little enforcement is carried out on the ground and has reportedly resulted in a sharp decline of bird populations. As of 2006, Many traders reported a difficulty in obtaining certain species of birds in locations where they had been previously common.  Some notable declining species that were reported by the traders themselves were the red lorikeets eos bornea and the blue streaked lorikeets eos reticulata. Demand for these birds were also noted to have increased due to a perceived shortage and rarity of the species and traders were reported to have resorted to nest-raiding to fuel that supply. Some birds are bred for sale by private breeders though at the time of the study, as many as 95% of traders reported to having collected their birds from the wild. What makes the situation in Indonesia all the more disturbing is the fact that such illicit, unethical, and illegal trade of protected birds are able to occur in broad daylight and on such a large scale.  The black market, in other words, is one that happens openly. Poachers and trappers are trading without fear.

the Blue streaked lory is listed as near threatened in the wild. The causes for its decline include deforestation and habitat loss as a result of the palm oil industry, and trapping of adult birds and raiding of nests for chicks, for the illegal pet trade.
photosource: wikimedia.commons
As the rest of the world watches on and laments, and tourists are encouraged to boycott such markets, the REAL work has to be done on the ground, by Indonesians: concerned citizens and bird lovers, who must stand up and speak out against what is happening to some of their country's most beautiful animals. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Featured Bird: The Coquette Hummingbirds

A couple of months ago, I was approached with a picture of a bird asking if I could possibly come up with an ID on it. The bird pictured was so remarkable and festive looking that I couldn't help but perform a double take. Surely, this bird could not possibly be real and so I thought to myself that it HAD to be a work of fiction, the result of some particularly good photoshopping. As it turns out, the bird in the photograph was real, and a quick google search revealed to me that it was in fact a tufted coquette (lophornis ornatus), a small bird belonging to the family Trochilidae of small hovering birds, more commonly known as "humming birds". 

A photo of the tufted coquette that was circulating on Facebook.
credited to:
Humming birds are known to be one of the smallest flying vertebrates in the world and are one of the few renowned species whose evolutionary history remains relatively shrouded in mystery to date. There are very few fossils of ancient humming bird species that paleontologists can learn from and this is because humming birds are not only small, but also have exceptionally frail and hollow bones. 

The coquettes stand out among other humming birds because of their rather outlandish feathers, resembling, perhaps, the headdress and adornments of carnival folk, or various kinds of flowers. Like many other humming birds, the Coquette's principal source of food are the nectar of flowers, which they sip with the aid of a long, thin tongue, and sharp piercing beaks. Coquette's are also known to feed opportunistically on small invertebrates such as flies or ants, typically during the breeding season when the bird's need for protein increases.  Some Coquette humming birds, like the tufted coquette are considered to be relatively widespread animals while others, like the short crested coquette are believed to be critically endangered due to habitat loss, and deforestation for agricultural purposes. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Why do Parrots Eat Clay?

Geophagy, or the practice of eating earth-like substances (most notably clay) is not exactly an uncommon occurrence in the animal kingdom. Many ground dwelling/foraging birds that feed on hard grains and seed, for example, some doves and various species of fowls, may intentionally ingest small bits of pebbles and earth that aid in digestion. This is thought to be because these kinds of birds swallow their food whole and the small pebbles and rocks provide rough and hard surfaces to help mechanically break the food particles down in the crop - a digestive pouch located along the bird's neck. But not all birds ingest earth matter as a digestive aid. 

A modest flock of green-winged macaws (ara chloropterus) gather at a clay-lick in Peru
On the banks of the Peruvian Amazon River, and like clockwork each day, large flocks of parrots - sometimes numbering in the hundreds - gather to imbibe on clay rich soil. The gathering of so many parrot species in one location, is arguably one of the most unique and beautiful displays of group feeding in the animal kingdom. This behavior is practiced by many of the Amazon Rainforest's colorful collection of birds, most notably the larger and strikingly colored macaws. For the longest time, however, experts were baffled as to why the parrots were behaving in such a manner. Parrots, unlike other birds, have beaks that are perfectly adapted for chewing and do not as a general rule, swallow the nuts, seeds, and plant matter they eat whole. Earth matter, in other words, was not being ingested to aid in the digestive processes of parrots.

Pionus parrots flocking to a clay lick in Peru
An early explanation for geophagy in parrots was suggested by James Gilardi of the World Parrot Trust in 1996. Gilardi speculated that because parrots such as macaws frequently feed on a large amount of fruit, nuts, leaves, and other parts of the plants in their environment, they would in turn, inadvertently ingest a significant amount of plant matter that was poisonous, or caustic enough to cause substantive harm to the bird's digestive tract. It was therefore proposed, that in order to counteract the ingestion of these poisons, parrots would then later feed on large amounts of clay from the Amazon basin. The clay, in turn, was thought to have a binding effect on the poisons, neutralizing them, or separating them from the edible plant matter in the bird's digestive tract so as to not be absorbed into the body. The behavior was thought to be hardwired into the genetics of parrots who feed on poisonous plant matter as the birds were observed to visit these "clay licks" with such regularity and frequency, except in situations when weather conditions were unfavorable. For the better part of the past decade, this was the only explanation for geophagy in parrots and was thus largely accepted as a scientific fact by ornithologists all over the world. 

In an even more recent study, however, it is revealed that geophagy in parrots may in fact be utilized for yet another purpose and that is to counteract a supposed sodium deficiency in the parrot's living environment. The study was conducted by Donald Brightsmith of the Tambopata Research Center in Peru, who discovered that they key difference in the composition of soil ingested by parrots, and soil from the same bank that was ignored, was in fact not the soil's capacity for absorbing toxins (cation-exchange capacity) but rather, that soil favored by parrots was higher in sodium than others. This theory was also supported by the fact that the distribution of clay licks on the Western side of the Amazon basis seems to place many of these birds' habitats the furthest away from any oceanic influences and thus, away from the largest naturally occuring body of diluted sodium. A third theory was offered that parrots were thought to ingest clay to absorb trace amounts of vitamin B12 and calcium but this claim was largely unsupported as macaws residing outside of the Western Amazon region do not exhibit geophagy and so, the wild birds must be getting the bulk of their calcium and B12 requirements from another source. 


In captivity, it is largely accepted that macaws do not need to be fed clay. Companion macaws do not forage and are fed by their parronts thus reducing any or most risk of accidentally ingesting poisonous plant matter. Furthermore, all captive parrots should be fed a mix of parrot-formulated pellets, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and the occasional treat from the dining table that should ensure that almost all of their nutritional requirements are being met. 

photo source: wikimedia.commons.

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