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Blog Birding #276

What’s the deal with the gonydeal spot on the bills of gulls? It serves several a couple purposes, not least of which is as a useful field mark for several species. Amar Ayyash of Anything Larus explores this tiny spot of color on a nearly uniformly black, white and gray group of birds.

The gonydeal spot is thought to have evolved as a prodding stimulus to help chicks focus their solicitation when begging for food (Tinbergen 1950). In effect, chicks nudge or peck their parents which usually results in food being regurgitated from the crop, or proventriculus. Bill pecking may also serve as a cue for adults to vary their diet accordingly (note that some females peck at the male’s bill, although near the bill-base and gape instead of the tip). Interestingly, the tip of the bill is suspected of being more sensitive than any other part of the bill (Ferns & Smith 2009).

Rails are common, but mysterious and infrequently seen and all the more exciting because of that. Laura Erickson shares an experience with a Virginia Rail that illustrates why we like them so much.

One of my favorite groups of birds includes species I’ve heard far more often than I’ve seen: the rails. I’m particularly fond of Soras and Virginia Rails. Hearing them is always fun, but somehow because seeing them is so much harder, it’s a Red Letter Day when I do get a glimpse, and cause for celebration if I manage to get even a poor photo.

Placing geolocators on migratory birds in order to track where they’ve traveled is one of the more exciting aspects of ornithology these days. The technology is now small enough to apply to smaller birds and is increasingly used for that purpose, but does it have a cost to the bird? Graham Appleton at Wadertales explores.

Marking birds is not without cost. Catching a bird to fit a ring, however light and however expertly applied, subjects the individual to extra risk. Perhaps the ring might get wool tangled around it for instance? Logic suggests that every extra device, from colour-rings through to a harness that carries a satellite tag, adds mass and potential problems. This paper focuses on geolocators – the half-way house between satellite tags and colour-rings, in terms of weight. I find it encouraging that so many scientists have combined in this review of the way that geolocators affect birds’ lives. By providing their data for analysis, they remind us that professional ornithologists have a shared concern for the birds that they work on. As people, they want to minimise the effects on individual birds and, as scientists, they need to reassure themselves that tagged individuals are providing data that are representative of other birds of the same species.

One of the more ironically named group of birds has to be the redstarts of genus Myioborus, many of which have limited red anywhere on their bodies, let alone their “starts”, whatever that is. Rick Wright, at Birding New Jersey and Beyond, explains why it doesn’t matter what they’re called.

It matters no more to me than it does to the birds themselves what we call the warblers of the genus Myioborus. Names, after all, don’t signify in the same way as other words. Call these tropical flitters redstarts or whitestarts or falsestarts: each of those names is just as “good” and just as “bad” as the others.

Thus, the AOU check-list committee’s judgment on Proposal 2016-A-2 can go with equal appropriateness either way, retaining the traditional name “redstart” or adopting the neologism “whitestart.” It’s hard to get terribly exercised about onomastic housekeeping like this.

Birds get sick just like humans do, and when we feed them we’re likely to attract those who are less likely to find food on their own for whatever reason. Sharon McInnes at Birds Canada shares some symptoms of various ailments, and what you can do to prevent them from making your feeding station the home of a bird patient zero.

If you pay attention to wild birds you’re bound to see a sick one at your feeder from time to time. Birds get sick and die for a myriad of reasons, just like humans – old age, accidents, disease. They also get taken by predators (both the natural and human varieties) and, increasingly, die young due to poor health or starvation related to fast-changing habitat. We can’t do anything to prevent death from old age, of course, and it’s an ongoing challenge to protect bird habitat – as the recent State of North America’s Birds 2016 Report demonstrates all too well – but we can try to do something to reduce early deaths resulting from disease.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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