Enough with feeding the ducks.

Bread in Langstone Millpond
Bread in Langstone Millpond

Look, we have to talk about this feeding the birds lark. I know the RSPB tell you to do it, and the WWT make it a tourist attraction in itself.  But neither of them would have any truck with feeding white bread to ducks.  Continue reading Enough with feeding the ducks.

Why are there no really big insects any more? Blame birds.

It’s no secret that 300 million years ago, the largest insects were a lot bigger than they are now. The largest known insect that ever lived is an ancient griffenfly Meganeuropsis permiana. This creature belongs to the extinct order of griffinflies (Protodonata) – related to dragonflies –  and measured an impressive 71cm across, larger than most birds. There were a variety of other megainsects in prehistoric times, but these days, the biggest ones are considerably smaller. So what happened?

One fact which is widely considered to be relevant is the limitation of insect respiration. As insects don’t have lungs like us vertebrates, they rely upon oxygen entering their body through many tiny tubes. They can help it on its way with various tricks but in essence, if the tube is too long the oxygen can’t get down it far enough. So an insect that got too big would soon run out of oxygen and find it difficult to fly or run. So how did those huge ancient insects get around that limit? The answer is that they didn’t. In Permian times the atmosphere was more than 30 percent oxygen, compared with 21 percent today. So insects had more oxygen available, and could grow larger.

Continue reading Why are there no really big insects any more? Blame birds.

The lucky bustards

Way back in 2005 The Ranger blogged about an unexpected sighting of a flying Great Bustard (Otis tarda)seen over the Channel. It was one of what was then a few reintroduced birds which were at a secret location on Salisbury Plain.

A big bird © Portland Bird observatory

Since then the Great Bustards have been doing pretty well – with quite a bit of help. In 2007 wild Great Bustards bred in England for the first time since 1832. Now they have a great website, too, to explain a bit more about the world’s largest flying birds and the ongoing project to reintroduce them to Salisbury Plain. So, just how big is a Great Bustard? Continue reading The lucky bustards

Hospital Dinner

After The Ranger’s adventures at the Isle of Wight’s only RSPB reserve, it was HM the Cat’s turn to go bird watching – and with much more success. In the grounds of a hospital on an industrial estate next to the Isle of Wight’s only dual carriageway is a small but popular pond; popular with the hospital’s incumbents, and the plentiful waterfowl that dabble in its bread-laden waters. Cat, on a mission to photograph a moorhen got more than she bargained for one windy lunchtime…

Cormorant drying its wings (c) Cat James

Cormorant drying its wings

Continue reading Hospital Dinner

Daft reasons to fell trees

The Ranger gets to hear some pretty feeble reasons for felling trees in his job – usually along the lines of ‘it spoils my sea view‘. Just ocassionally a more creative one slips through the net, but recently, Copeland Borough Council in Cumbria had a corker from the lips of Cllr Mr Gilbert Scurrah (pictured), the Conservative member for Millom Without.

Cllr Mr Gilbert Scurrah

Mr Scurrah produced this remarkable argument during a planning meeting when Copeland Borough Council approved plans for eight new sheltered homes to be built, at the cost of 16 mature trees used by nesting birds. He said:

“With avian flu, we should be having them out.”

This is exactly the kind of over-reaction that could really mean that bird flu causes serious problems even if it never arrives here. It might be expected that people in Cumbria – seriously affected by the foot-and-mouth crisis, but equally seriously affected by the catastrophic decline in tourism that year – would be the first to realise that irrational scare stories are almost as serious a threat to the rural landscape as is the deadly virus itself. Felling trees to avoid bird flu is just silly. No, worse – it’s dangerous and wrong, because it sends out a flawed message, and one which could have serious consequences. Perhaps Cllr Mr Scurrah meant his comments in jest. The Ranger has sat through one or two planning meetings in his time and he knows that an injection of levity is rarely unwelcome. But there are jokes, and there is foolishness.

Bird flu – the advance continues

So, dead swans in Germany now. That’s getting a bit uncomfortably close. Suddenly the worries about a few Taiwanese bird-farmers look like they might have been justified. The Ranger even got an email inviting him to set up a ‘highly profitable Tamiflu shop’. Hmm. When spammers start cashing in that isn’t really a good sign. But still there is some perspective to be had on the matter. It’s not a panic yet. The disease which is spreading is a disease of birds, not humans. Whilst it could become a human disease, and indeed has in a few cases, in general we are not at risk from it. The talk now is of the need to maintain the poultry industry.

“There’s no need to panic. We have to advise the European public to stay calm. There’s no reason not to consume chicken.”

Markos Kyprianou, EU Health Commissioner sounding less than convinced himself Let’s hope it stays that way. For at the time of writing the virus has been confirmed in Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Austria, Italy, Germany and the European part of Russia. Other possible outbreaks are in Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Ukraine. Almost all the cases involve migratory wild swans. Basically, it look like the stuff is everywhere. Whilst we might hope fervently that it will not arrive in the UK, the chances of avoiding this seem to be pretty slim, even if DEFRA pluckily suggest (yesterday) that the risk remains ‘low’. However, we need to be realistic about this risk, and the risk of making too severe a response. Nobody wants a return to the madness of foot and mouth – and that disease was not known to affect humans at all. Already the Times has reported on proposed ‘no go areas’ which ‘recall the spectre of the foot-and-mouth outbreak’, prompting suggestions that the government is going to shut down the countryside once more – whereas in fact the proposed ‘buffer zones’ are for poultry movement only. Minister for animal health, Ben Bradshaw said (16.2.06) “The movements that would be affected would be those of poultry, not of human beings. Some of the rather alarmist headlines that have been around today about the countryside closing and footpaths closing are simply wrong.” Admittedly the Times article is not very inaccurate – but the comparison is unhelpful at this stage. Let’s hope that such ‘spectres’ remain only speculation. The Ranger is more concerned at present with the effect on wild birds. There have been various suggestions that migrating flocks should be culled to prevent spread of this disease. This is just wrong, because it won’t work. Birdlife International say as much – as you might expect – but also The World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation and OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health) agree that control of bird flu in wild birds by culling is not feasible, and should not be attempted (ref). So let’s not hear any more about that idea, please.

You lucky Bustard!

A remarkable story from just over the water at Portland. You’ll no doubt be well aware of the Great Bustard reintroductions on Salisbury Plain. You weren’t? Well,whatever. They’re the biggest flying birds in the world. Imagine the consternation and excitement last week when one of these flying fortresses was seen cruising in off the English Channel towards Dorset, and furthermore, turned out to be one of the releasees, presumed lost! A big bird You can even see the wing tags that they put on the released birds. Read the full tale at the Portland Bird observatory site. What a heart-warming tale!