Skip to content

Free email delivery

Please sign up for email delivery in the subscription area to the right.
No salesman will call, at least not from us. Maybe from someone else.

The Bowerbird’s Grand Performance! | BBC Earth

April 11, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

The Flame Bowerbird of south-central New Guinea puts on a show to impress the female. Will it be good enough? This is one of the more bizarre bowerbird dances. You may recognized the narrator’s voice.

If no film or link appears in this email, go to the blog to view it by clicking on the blog title above. If the film stops & starts in an annoying manner, press pause (lower left double bars ||) to let it buffer and get ahead of you.   [Chuck Almdale]

Filling in the Bird Tree of Life

April 7, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

Note to readers: Over the past few months I have seen the diagram/painting below appear in many places. This circular “tree of life”-style diagram looks interesting and claims to include 10,135 species of birds, but the detail is far too small to read or be of use. I have searched unsuccessfully for an interactive version. If you find such a version, send me a link and I’ll post it. Lacking that, I include below links and snapshots of the OneZoom Trees of Life, which I blogged about in December 2015.

The tremendous changes in our understanding of phylogenetic relationships continue to mount. Since I began birding in the late 1970’s, almost 2,000 species have been added, some from field work but many from genetic analysis in the laboratory. The number of avian families has varied from 171 (Wetmore 1960) to 143 using a DNA-DNA hybridization technique (Sibley & Monroe, 1990 & 1993), to the current 249 based on the whole genome analysis (Cornell Lab Birds of the World, Apr 2021).

Fig. 1. 10,135 bird species are shown on a draft phylogeny that synthesizes taxonomic and phylogenetic information. In total, 363 species, covering 92.4% of all families, now have at least 1 genome assembly per sequenced family (purple branches). The grey arc (lower half) marks the diverse Passeriformes radiation, with 6,063 species, of which 173 species have genome assemblies now. Chicken (*) and zebra finch (**) are marked for orientation. Center point indicates the last common ancestor of all birds around 150 Ma (million years ago). Paintings illustrate examples of sequenced species. Image from Nature 11-Nov-2020, Dense sampling of bird diversity increases power of comparative genomics.

The chart above came from the following article.

Dense sampling of bird diversity increases power of comparative genomics. | Shaohong Feng, Josefin Stiller,…Guojie Zhang | 11 Nov 2020

The following is their abstract. The entire article is free to read on the link.

Whole-genome sequencing projects are increasingly populating the tree of life and characterizing biodiversity. Sparse taxon sampling has previously been proposed to confound phylogenetic inference, and captures only a fraction of the genomic diversity. Here we report a substantial step towards the dense representation of avian phylogenetic and molecular diversity, by analysing 363 genomes from 92.4% of bird families—including 267 newly sequenced genomes produced for phase II of the Bird 10,000 Genomes (B10K) Project. We use this comparative genome dataset in combination with a pipeline that leverages a reference-free whole-genome alignment to identify orthologous regions in greater numbers than has previously been possible and to recognize genomic novelties in particular bird lineages. The densely sampled alignment provides a single-base-pair map of selection, has more than doubled the fraction of bases that are confidently predicted to be under conservation and reveals extensive patterns of weak selection in predominantly non-coding DNA. Our results demonstrate that increasing the diversity of genomes used in comparative studies can reveal more shared and lineage-specific variation, and improve the investigation of genomic characteristics. We anticipate that this genomic resource will offer new perspectives on evolutionary processes in cross-species comparative analyses and assist in efforts to conserve species.

The following chart is from an earlier study of 48 species representing the 40 orders of Neoaves from Struthioniformes (Ostrich) to three major divisions of Passeriformes (Perching or Song birds). This came from the following article.

Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds. | Jarvis, Mirarab, Aberer, Li, Houde, Ho, | 12 Dec 2014

There is a slightly interactive version of this chart here (it doubles in size).

Fig. 1. Genome-scale phylogeny of birds.
Branch colors denote well-supported clades in this and other analyses. Names on branches denote orders (-iformes) and English group terms (in parentheses); drawings are of the specific species sequenced. To the right are superorder (-imorphae) and higher unranked names. In some groups, more than one species was sequenced, and these branches have been collapsed. Text color denotes groups of species with broadly shared traits, whether by homology or convergence. The arrow indicates the K-Pg boundary at 66 Ma, with the Cretaceous period shaded at left. The gray dashed line represents the approximate end time (50 Ma) by which nearly all neoavian orders diverged. Horizontal gray bars on each node indicate the 95% credible interval of divergence time in millions of years.

Finally, here’s a few screensnips from the OneZoom Trees of Life. These are completely interactive on their website, and you could spend the rest of your life looking up the relationships of everything of interest to you. Watch out!

Here’s their basic tree, covering earthly life from bacteria to eukaryotes. In case you’re wondering, you are an eukaryote, one of many.

A bit closer in, here’s the turtle-crocodile-bird branch.

If you want to look at just birds, this has 9,993 of them, no turtles need apply.

Let’s zoom in to our Northern Mockingbird. First we have to find the Passerines. As with using the alphabetically organized dictionary, it helps to have at least a vague idea where it might be located. Passerines (perching birds or song birds) are the most recently evolved avian order, so they’ll be at the farthest end of the curling branches, at the tip of that long one on the right.

Now that we found the Passerines, let’s zoom in some more and find Mockingbirds. There they are, buried among the Starlings. Didn’t know there were so many Starling species, did you? Looking at this, you can assume that Thrashers & Mockingbirds are — evolutionarily speaking — actually a divergent group of Starlings. How did this come about?

As the 34 species of Mockingbirds & Thrashers are all New World birds, and the remaining 113 species of Starlings and allies are all Old World Birds (never mind those European Starlings squeaking away outside your window, they’re human imports), it’s (relatively) safe to assume that somewhere around 23-28 million years ago (according to the little divergence dates in the Tree of Life) a few ancestral starlings flew over from Asia or Europe, settled in the New World, and speciated. That, in a nutshell, is one of the main features of evolution by means of natural selection.

And we finally get down to our Northern Mockingbird, whose closest relatives are the Socorro (splitting off 2.33 million years ago) and Tropical Mockingbird (split off 1.61 Mya).

If you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can open the search bar, type in “Northern Mockingbird” click <Next Hit> and you’re there, without all the zooming in which might give your right index finger a repetitive stress injury. Then you can zoom back out.

I think this is a absolutely terrific program. There have been permanent links to it on our blogsite’s right-side sidebar (in “Other Blogs” near the bottom) for about five years.

The Secret Lives of Gulls (and what their poo may reveal) with Dr. Kristen Covino: Zoom Evening Meeting reminder Tuesday, 6 April, 7:45 p.m.

April 5, 2021

Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society
is putting on our fifth ZOOM evening meeting.
You’re all invited.

Adult Great Black-backed Gull and chicks
On April 6, 2021 at 7:45 pm, Join the Zoom Presentation by CLICKING HERE

Hormones affect a wide range of physiological and behavioral traits of birds, but repeated testing of their blood isn’t possible for all species. Scientists want to study the link between testosterone and aggression in Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) but need a non-invasive and repeatable sampling method. If hormone levels can be reliably and easily determined from excreta, produced by the common voiding of urine and feces, that solves the problem. Students collect excreta samples from gulls throughout their breeding season on Appledore Island, Maine, then categorically score the gulls’ aggression levels. Then Dr. Covino’s Loyola students focus on developing, testing, and validating the protocols necessary for accurate hormone determination from the excreta. Once protocols are established, we’ll compare excreta testosterone levels to those from plasma to determine how well excreta hormone levels represent circulating hormone levels in this species. Following that, we’ll compare excreta testosterone levels to aggression scores of individual gulls. Ultimately we will also explore the effect of sex on aggression, testosterone, and the interaction between them. If successful, this study will validate the usefulness of excreta samples for hormone quantification in Great Black-backed Gulls and will allow for further exploration into hormonal drivers of behavior in this relatively understudied species.

Adult Great Black-backed Gull standing on a poop collection board
with mate on nest in background.

The 2019 Field Ornithology Class (Shoals Marine Laboratory) after conducting a gull population survey.
LMU students Frankie Foltz and Allie Waller
measuring out dried gull fecal samples.

Dr. Kristen Covino is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Loyola Marymount University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi where she investigated physiological breeding development in migrating songbirds. Her research ranges from avian physiology and behavioral endocrinology to continental-scale migratory movements, and seeks to understand the movement biology and whole life-cycle biology of migratory birds. Numerous journals have published her research, including: Hormones and Behavior, General and Comparative Endocrinology, Auk: Ornithological Advances, and The Journal of Ornithology. At Loyola she currently teaches Ecology & Evolution, General Physiology, and Avian Biology. Her teaching goals include integrating active- and team-learning activities into traditional lectures, incorporating science communication into courses, and mentoring undergraduate researchers. In the summer she teaches Field Ornithology at Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, Maine where she also co-manages the Appledore Island Bird Banding Station. Along with the Center for Urban Resilience Dr. Covino is also working to establish a bird banding site near Loyola Marymount University. Dr. Covino receives funding from the Foster (SMBAS) endowment at Loyola.

On April 6, 2021 at 7:45 pm, Join the Zoom Presentation by CLICKING HERE

(If this button isn’t working for you, see detailed zoom invitation below.)

Meeting ID: 837 2761 5017
Passcode: 135769
One tap mobile
+16699009128,,83727615017#,,,,*135769# US (San Jose)
+13462487799,,83727615017#,,,,*135769# US (Houston)

Dial by your location        
+1 669 900 9128 US (San Jose)        
+1 346 248 7799 US (Houston)        
+1 253 215 8782 US (Tacoma)        
+1 301 715 8592 US (Washington D.C)        
+1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)        
+1 646 558 8656 US (New York)
Meeting ID: 837 2761 5017
Passcode: 135769
Find your local number:

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

Butterfly Visions will Soon Take Flight | Los Angeles Times

April 4, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale.]

A Monarch Butterfly fluttered through the yard a few days ago; our native milkweed plant now has eleven small leaves. Monarch Season will soon be upon us.

That’s not a given, though. Far from it. The number of West Coast wintering Monarchs dropped 97.5% from 1997 to 2019, then dropped another 93.6% in 2020. Only 1,914 Monarchs were present on last year’s Thanksgiving Count, down from 1.2 million in 1997. That’s for the entire West Coast, not just Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times had another full-page article on the Monarchs in their 3 April 2021 Saturday section, again written by Jeanette Marantos, who did a bang-up job on her 27 Feb. article, You can Guide Monarchs Back to their Throne. The new article (linked below), equally as informative and useful, recapitulates some information but most of it is new. A few highlights are below, but I recommend you read — perhaps print out and keep — Marantos’ article.

Monarch Butterflies fans are clamoring for native milkweed.
Here are eight places to buy it
Los Angeles Times | Jeanette Marantos | 3 April 2021

  • Native milkweeds — especially narrow-leaf milkweed — are just now emerging from dormancy. You can’t hurry this. It’s a summer bloomer and goes dormant in midwinter. Plants big enough to sell are not available at most nurseries until mid-April.
  • Increased demand this year means the April crop is “reserved out;” it could be May or June before you find any. You may want to make an advance order yourself.
  • Two bills were introduced in Congress in mid-March to help fund monarch habitat restoration and preservation.
  • Pink is Good, Orange is Bad. Native milkweeds have pink, white and cream-colored flowers. Buy those. Tropical milkweed has showier, orange flowers. Don’t buy them.
  • Live on the coast? Don’t plant any milkweed. It’s just too warm year-round by the ocean, and all milkweeds will stay green and not go Winter-dormant. What to do? Plant California native plants that bloom during winter (Nov-Apr). They will provide nectar for the adult butterflies. It’s only the Monarch caterpillars that eat milkweed. What blooms in winter? Ask your favorite purveyor of native California plants.
    Addendum: Alert Reader Judy Villablanca, member of the Malibu Monarch Project and who lives near “the coast” comments that her native Narrow-leaved Milkweed does die back in the winter, and is beginning to re-sprout right now (April 5). So….if you live along the coast and have native milkweed, keep an eye on it. If it doesn’t die back (i.e. lose all its leaves) cut it back, down to the ground. That’s what we did (San Fernando Valley), then thought it was gone forever, but danged if it didn’t start re-sprouting about 2 weeks ago.
    Addendum #2: Judy recommends as blooming food plants California buckwheat, white sage, salvia, California asters. Another great website for plant information is California Native Plant Society’s website (
  • Buy Organic only. Pesticide residue on or in the plant will kill your butterflies.
  • Aphids on your milkweed? Ignore them. You may not like their looks, but (growers say) they’re harmless to both milkweed and caterpillars. Native California plant growers should (you might want to ask them) know how to control aphids without pesticides — systemic or otherwise — that make the plant toxic to caterpillars.
  • It’s caterpillar food, not human decoration. Don’t sweat it if the caterpillars and aphids eat all the milkweed leaves right down to the stems. That’s what is supposed to happen.
  • Want additional Information? Contact the Xerces Society They also want photos.

Some Southern California Native Plant Nurseries
  • Artemisia Nursery – 5068 Valley Blvd. in El Sereno.
  • California Botanic Garden Grow Native Nursery – 1500 N. College Ave. in Claremont.
  • Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery – 4550 Oak Grove Drive in Pasadena.
  • Moosa Creek Nursery – Valley Center, near San Diego; wholesale grower not open to the public but does take special orders online delivered to a partner retailer.
  • Roger’s Gardens – 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar.
  • The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Nursery – 1212 Mission Canyon Road in Santa Barbara,
  • Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery – 10459 Tuxford St. in Sun Valley.
  • Tree of Life Nursery – 33201 Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano.
  • Matilija Nursery – 8225 Waters Road in Moorpark.

The showy Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) may be killing the adult Monarchs. Most SoCal nurseries have only tropical milkweeds, which bear feathery purplish-green leaves and deep orange flowers.

Tropical Milkweed does not die all the way back during winter in SoCal, as does native milkweed. That permits protozoa parasites (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) to multiply on the plants and continue on the plant through the winter. When the caterpillars hatch, they eat the protozoa along with the leaves. Scientists believe that when a caterpillar eats too many such protozoa, it sickens and weakens the adult monarchs, interfering with their migration patterns, mating success, flight ability and lifespan. Milkweed blooming during winter may also disrupt their migration patterns.

What Actually Makes Water Roll Off a Duck’s Back?

April 3, 2021

Ducks and geese spend a lot of time preening their all-weather feathers. This obsessive grooming – and a little styling wax from a hidden spot on their back side – maintains the microscopic feather structure that keeps them warm and dry in frigid waters.

This is another installment of the PBS Deep Look series. If no film or link appears in this email, go to the blog to view it by clicking on the blog title above. If the film stops & starts in an annoying manner, press pause (lower left double bars ||) to let it buffer and get ahead of you.   [Chuck Almdale]

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: