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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: ornithology (7)

Bill Bailey, birdwatcher

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
13 September 2012
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UK comedian, musician and birdwatcher Bill Bailey is in Melbourne this week as part of his Qualmpeddler tour of Australia and New Zealand. Yesterday he, and fellow comedian and ornithology buff Jeff Green, visited collection stores and exhibitions at Melbourne Museum.

Bill and Jeff in collection store Bill Bailey and Jeff Green in the Ornithology collection store at Melbourne Museum.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

It’s all thanks to a timely radio broadcast: PhD student Darren Hastie heard an interview in which Bill talked about being a fan of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator (with Charles Darwin) of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Learning this, collection manager Rolf Schmidt sent a message to Bill via his website to tell him that Museum Victoria holds a number of specimens collected by AR Wallace, and to invite him to come and see them.

Bill is not just a fan of Wallace; he is the patron of the Wallace Fund which works to give the great naturalist due credit for his contributions to our understanding of evolution. Bill has spent five years researching Wallace’s life and work, which will culminate in a BBC documentary in 2013. Next year marks a century since Wallace’s death and, if all goes to plan, will also see a portrait and statue of Wallace erected in the Natural History Museum in London to equal its famous marble statue of Darwin.

Bill Bailey in collection store Bill Bailey opening the cabinet filled with bird specimens collected by AR Wallace, saying, “This is why I love museums. You think, what’s in here? Then OH MY GOD…”
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Having recently returned from filming the Wallace documentary in Indonesia, Bill swapped tales with ornithologist and collection manager Wayne Longmore about the bizarre fauna found in Sulawesi, Indonesia, due to what is now called the Wallace Line. To the west of the line, Asiatic species predominate, while to the east, Australian lineages appear. Sulawesi is right in the thick of it and its animals are an amazing assortment of both origins. For eight years, Wallace travelled through Malaysia and Indonesia collecting birds, insects and more, and it was his astute observations of the patterns of species distribution that spawned the science of biogeography, and helped him develop his theory of evolution.

Poor Wallace, however, has been obscured by time and the greater profile of Darwin. Said Bill, “Wallace was an extraordinary field naturalist, probably one of the greatest. And he hasn’t got the recognition he deserves. He needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Darwin, or at very least get equal billing.” Darwin had been working on his theory of natural selection for many years but it wasn’t until 1858, when Wallace sent him his own fully-articulated theory, that Darwin was prompted to stop thinking and get down to the business of publishing. The two presented their theory together at a meeting of the Linnaean Society. As Bill said, “at the time it known as the Darwin-Wallace theory, but when it was revived in the 30s, Wallace’s name was gone.” Jeff in turn suggested that the Australian city of Darwin switch its name to Darwin-Wallace for 2013 for the centenary.

After viewing the Wallace specimens in the ornithology store, Bill and Jeff visited the Science and Life Gallery where the Darwin to DNA exhibition has Wallace-collected skins and mounts on display, complete with his original hand-written tags. Next Rolf took them to down to the palaeontology collections and labs. Rolf reports, “Bill was quite interested in the size and scope of our collection, as well as the stories around the objects (like the Janjucetus skull). He was also rather excited when I let him have a hold of our Darwin barnacle holotype.”

Visiting the palaeontology collections L-R: Darren Hastie (PhD student and fellow AR Wallace fan), Rolf Schmidt, Jeff Green (kneeling), Bill Bailey and Dave Pickering amid the Palaeontology collection.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Bill’s fascination with Wallace is infectious - and he certainly loves museums. He says he always tries to visit the natural history museums of the cities where he performs. We’re very glad he dropped in to visit us, and will watch with interest as the Wallace100 plans unfold.

Links:

The Wallace Fund

Stories from the filming of the Wallace documentary on the Wallace100 blog (via Natural History Museum)

MV Blog: Wonderful Wallacea

MV Blog: Happy birthday A.R. Wallace

The colour of birds' eggs

Author
by Nicole K
Publish date
19 March 2012
Comments
Comments (4)

Your Question: Why are bird eggs so variable in their colours and patterns?

The colour and colour pattern of bird eggs vary enormously from species to species (and often between individuals of the same species, and sometimes between the eggs of the same mother).

  A tray of eggs from Museum Victoria's H.L White egg collection, showing the diversity of patterns and colours for a single species, the Australian Magpie <i>Gymnorhina tibicen</i>. A tray of eggs from Museum Victoria's H.L White egg collection, showing the diversity of patterns and colours for a single species, the Australian Magpie Gymnorhina tibicen.
Image: Michelle McFarlane
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Eggs are made of calcium carbonate, which is white. White is therefore the default colour for bird eggs, but many birds lay coloured or colourfully-patterned eggs. Why?

The colouration of bird eggs can often be explained by the animal's biology and behaviour. The eggs of ground-nesting birds, for example, need to be well-camouflaged to avoid discovery by predators. They are usually coloured and patterned to match the substrate they are laid upon.

The highly-camouflaged eggs of the American Golden Plover <i>Pluvialis dominica</i>, which nests on the ground. The highly-camouflaged eggs of the American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica, which nests on the ground.
Image: MeegsC
Source: Wikimedia Commons
 

Tree-nesters, on the other hand, usually have blue or green eggs.

American Robin <i>Turdus migratorius</i> eggs in nest The American Robin, Turdus migratorius, which nests in trees, lays bright blue eggs.
Image: Laslovarga
Source: Wikimedia Commons
 

Birds whose eggs are hidden from view (in hollows, burrows or deep nests), or who sit on their eggs continuously throughout incubation, tend to have white eggs.

  The now extinct Paradise Parrot <i> Psephotus pulcherrimus</i>, which laid its eggs in termite mounds, had white, unpatterned eggs. The now extinct Paradise Parrot Psephotus pulcherrimus, which laid its eggs in termite mounds, had white, unpatterned eggs.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The patterns on eggs have developed over eons via natural selection – the better the camouflage, the more likely the eggs are to survive and pass on the genes for well-camouflaged eggs to the next generation. Ornithologists have classified egg patterns and given each "style" a name in order to distinguish them: splashed, blotched, spotted, dotted, marbled, streaked, scrawled, overlaid, capped, and wreathed.

Eggs from Museum Victoria's Ornithology Collection Eggs from Museum Victoria's Ornithology Collection
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria

Colour also provides another form of protection: it is thought to act as a sunscreen, protecting the developing foetus from UV light. The addition of colour also strengthens the eggshell. Birds that are calcium-deficient lay thin-shelled eggs, which are more likely to break. Scientists have found that birds that have multiple clutches in a single season have more highly-coloured eggs in the second and subsequent clutches (when the mother's calcium supplies are reduced). Patterned colouration is also more common in areas with calcium-deficient soils.

The specific colours are incorporated into the shell in the final stage of egg development. Blue and green colour comes from a pigment called biliverdin (which is the same pigment that causes green bruises in humans). In egg colouration, biliverdin comes from bile; the red and brown colour on eggs comes from protoporphyrins, which comes from blood.

The Red-vented Bulbul <i>Pycnonotus cafer</i> lays red eggs. The Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer lays red eggs.
Image: J. M. Garg
Source: Wikimedia Commons
 

Australia's native birds are protected. It is illegal to collect eggs or to interfere with birds' nests without a permit. Details of regulations and permits can be obtained from the Department of Sustainability and Environment.

Links:

Museum Victoria's Ornithology Collection

H.L. White Collection of Australian Birds’ Eggs

The evolution of egg colour and patterning in birds

Australian Magpie Eggs

Penguin Awareness Day

Author
by Karen Rowe
Publish date
20 January 2012
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Karen Rowe is a Research Associate at MV where she studies evolutionary ecology and behaviour in birds and mammals.

January 20th is an auspicious day for birding enthusiasts, marking Penguin Awareness Day. With 17 species currently recognised, members of the family Spheniscidae (pronounced sfen-IS-kuh-dee) are found only within the southern hemisphere. While most of us think of penguins as cold-adapted animals, surviving long treks over ice to breed and raise their young in the middle of winter, many species live further north, among the islands off of Antarctica, along the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, and one species is found on the Galapagos Islands (the aptly named Galapagos Penguin).

Royal Penguins Royal Penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli) – among Elephant Seals on Macquarie Island.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

As a group, penguins possess an amazing array of adaptations, uniquely suited to their predominately marine existence. Unlike other birds, penguins have solid, rather than air-filled bones, to help them dive in the water. They have highly modified feathers that form a thick insulating layer that cover the body, rather than growing in the well-defined feather tract found in other birds. They also have unique eyes that allow them to see clearly both on land and in the sea. And while their short legs and feet make them seem awkward on land, many species actually travel tremendous distances over land and rocks to reach their breeding sites – some even traveling as far as three kilometres from water.

Magellanic Penguin Captive Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) floating in the water. The coloured flipper band allows zoo keepers to distinguish between individuals.
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Extant species show a wide range of body sizes, from our own Little (or Fairy) Penguins, weighing 1.1 kg and standing 40 cm tall, to the largest species, the Emperor Penguin, at a whopping 30 kg and up to 115 cm tall.

Little Penguins Little Penguins (Eudyptyla minor) in captivity. These coloured leg bands are another way to tell individuals apart.
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But even the Emperor Penguin is dwarfed in size by some of the extinct fossil penguins, including a 15-million-year-old giant penguin (Anthropodyptes gilli) from Victoria that may have approached twice its size. Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Dr. Erich Fitzgerald studies fossil penguins here at Museum Victoria. "Victoria was home to a remarkable diversity of penguins over the last 20 million years," says Dr. Fitzgerald. "The tiny Little Penguin living in Australia today is an oddity on a geologic timescale. The fossil record tells us that most penguins that have lived in Australia were large to huge in size and that at any one time there were perhaps two or more species coexisting here." Currently, Dr. Fitzgerald and his student, Travis Park, are working on six-million-year-old fossil penguins found in Melbourne on the shores of Port Philip Bay that are thought to be the size of the living Gentoo and Emperor Penguins.

Penguin limb bones The upper wing bone (humerus) of living penguins compared with their fossil counterparts from Victoria. From left to right: the 18-million-year-old fossil Anthropodyptes gilli; the living emperor penguin Aptenodytes forsteri; the living fairy penguin Eudyptula minor; the living gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua; and the 6-million-year-old fossil Pseudaptenodytes. Credit: Photograph by Erich Fitzgerald
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Emperor Penguin and chick Emperor Penguin and chick, Antarctica.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

The unique ecology of penguins makes them particularly susceptible to a variety of human-induced threats. In particular, commercial fishing, often leading to death through by-catch or competition for prey items (which include fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods), directly impacts their survival. Penguins are also dependent on breeding grounds close to the shore and habitat loss is a major source of population declines. Smaller and fewer breeding grounds also promotes disease, as most species of penguins breed in large colonies.

Royal Penguin colony Royal Penguin colony. This species is endemic to Macquarie Island and this is the largest Royal Penguin colony with over 180,000 breeding pairs. The fluffy young penguin in the front on the right is in moult.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

Although little research has been done looking at the impact of climate change on penguins, their specialised lifestyle suggests that climate change could have dramatic impacts on their distribution and abundance. "Penguins are an ancient group of birds, with a history stretching back some 65 million years to the extinction of the dinosaurs," says Dr. Fitzgerald. "In southern Australia they have persisted through the last 20 million years of major climatic changes, but it is unknown how they will respond to the current human-exacerbated wave of environmental upheaval. It would be a terrible shame to see this ancient and superbly successful group of birds become threatened with extinction within our lifetime."

Adelie Penguin, Bechervaise Island, Antarctica. Adelie Penguin, Bechervaise Island, Antarctica.
Image: Julie McInnes
Source: Julie McInnes
 

Links:

Emperor Penguins in the Wild: Amazing animals in a changing world

Penguins on Atlas of Living Australia

Happy Feet Two at IMAX Melbourne

Meet Me at the Museum episode 2

Author
by Dr Andi
Publish date
12 December 2011
Comments
Comments (3)

Here is episode two of 'Meet Me at the Museum', a video series about our collection.

We marvel at how particular specimens made it into our collection.

Let us know what you think in the comments section. And be sure to see our previous episodes if you haven't already.

 

Watch this video with a transcript.

Long-tailed Cuckoos

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
31 October 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

October is an important time of year for bird migration. In the southern hemisphere birds head for their summer breeding grounds. Most species of cuckoo are migratory and the Long-tailed Cuckoo (Eudynamys taitensis) is the greatest traveller of the southern hemisphere cuckoos. It is added to the Australian list owing to its seasonal presence on Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. Museum Victoria has several specimens of this species, mostly from New Zealand.

Long-tailed Cuckoo skins in their drawer. Long-tailed Cuckoo skins in their drawer.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Some of the specimens are over a hundred years old. Not unusually one of the skins is from John Gould, acquired around 1860, another from James Cockerell, a pioneering nineteenth century collector who gained his specimen in the Solomon Islands in 1879; others are of more recent origin. They almost radiate with a sense of history, and perhaps some mystery too.

Long-tailed Cuckoos spend the winter months in the more tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean, mainly in Polynesia. Their spring migration takes them to New Zealand and its surrounding islands. From French Polynesia, the islands around Tahiti, the distance is over 3000 kilometres, a route over open ocean. It is in this group that it is thought the New Zealand Maoris had their ancestral home, the paradisiacal land of Hawaiki.

Some students of Polynesian voyaging have theorised that the original discovery of New Zealand was made by following cuckoo migration. But it is a controversial idea. Maori mythology is replete with stories of ancestral voyaging. The mythology also acknowledges the existence and character of the Long-tailed Cuckoo, 'a lazy parent'. But there does not appear to be any definitive link between them and the voyaging.

Nevertheless, it is a persuasive idea. Long-tailed cuckoos are land birds. Individual Pacific Islands hold relatively few bird species, especially land birds. However unpopulated New Zealand was heavily forested, with a bountiful range of host species which cuckoos could parasitise; the result – lots of cuckoos. Their presence and movements in the islands would have been prominent. Also they migrate over a period of two or three weeks, usually in October. They fly day and night, low over the ocean, calling loudly to each other as they go in a way that can be heard on the water in the dark.

A remarkable Australian, Harold Gatty, was probably the most prominent proponent of the bird migration theory. As a young man he had gained a thorough knowledge of navigation. He emigrated to the United States and rose to fame in 1931 as the navigator on a historic flight around the world in eight days. Along with the pilot, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York and a medal by President Herbert Hoover. Later he served with Macarthur's headquarters in the South Pacific.

In 1943 Gatty published The Raft Book, a survival guide for airmen at sea. It was standard issue in the life rafts aboard all Allied aircraft in the Pacific. The book includes Gatty's ideas about how to navigate using the techniques of 'the greatest pathfinders in history', the Polynesians. As Gatty says, they understood bird migration long before Europeans, understood there was land where the birds were seen to go to, and then return from. They were an adventurous people and brave sailors in canoes that they said 'dared the clouds of heaven'.

Just imagine you are far out from any known land at night, the infinite starry sky above and a seemingly infinite world of water around you, your next landfall an unknown distance away -and nothing but a bunch of cuckoos to guide you on your way. Brave sailors indeed.

Two Long-tailed Cuckoo specimens Two Long-tailed Cuckoo specimens mounted for exhibition.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Whatever the truth about Maori migration, it is certain that the adult birds in the Museum Victoria collection would have made great voyages across the South Pacific. There is a Long-tailed Cuckoo in the Amazing Animals of Australasia, Oceania and Antarctica in Wild: Amazing animals in a changing world.

Further reading:

Harold Gatty, Nature is Your Guide: how to find your way on land and sea, Collins, London, 1958

David Lewis, We, the Navigators: the ancient art of landfinding in the Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra, 1972

For the sceptical view:

Andrew Sharp Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963

Strehlow’s egg

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
26 August 2011
Comments
Comments (5)
Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

Amongst the greatest treasures of the museum are its bird egg collections; their delicate beauty is outstanding. A number of the collections were made privately before the practice was ended by government in the 1950s, one the best of them by Norman J. Favaloro. He was a solicitor in Mildura and a leading field ornithologist. He published many papers on his work and was appointed an Honorary Associate in the Ornithology Department in the then National Museum of Victoria. His position enabled him to continue collecting, and towards the end of his life he presented his collection to the museum, complete with detailed documentation. It is one of the largest collections with 1500 clutches nestled in boxes neatly aligned within finely crafted glass-topped drawers in a cedar cabinet, one of the most beautiful in the bird room.

Favaloro's cabinet Favaloro's cabinet.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Amongst the thousands of specimens I find one particular treasure that draws my eye. Set marks were used by collectors to identify clutches. On this one is pencilled: "C.A. Red-tail Cockatoo, 17.5.1919, C.S." The Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus banksii (once known as Banks' Cockatoo for Joseph Banks) is one of the most magnificent of the cockatoo family. It is under threat in parts of Australia, especially Victoria, but central Australia is one of its strongholds, where it is associated with rain in Indigenous culture.

  Calyptorhynchus banksii macrorhynchus Mounted specimen of Calyptorhynchus banksii macrorhynchus, one of five sub-species of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Like most collectors Favaloro swapped items with others to build his collection. In this case he has acquired an egg originally collected by one "C.S.". The data slip states: "Chas. Strehlow. Egg rested on wood dust in a hollow spout of a Red Gum at height of 20 feet up. Bird seen leaving nest." In 1919 Strehlow, a tall, strong man was 47 years old. But without doubt the egg would have been collected by an Aboriginal companion.

Strehlow's egg Strehlow's egg.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

'Charles' was the Reverend Carl Strehlow, a German missionary who ran the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg from 1894 until his death in 1922. He was also an ethnologist, and has been a rather forgotten figure in the broader discipline of anthropology in Australia. Strehlow's mission was among the central Australian tribes, in particular the Arrernte (or 'Aranda' to use his own spelling). They were the same people studied by Walter Baldwin Spencer, a long serving (1899 to 1928) and perhaps the most famous of Museum Victoria's former directors, and his colleague Frank Gillen.

Strehlow published the results of his ethnological fieldwork in German only, in a series of tomes from 1907 to 1920. They were a major resource for such luminaries of the time as Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and Bronislaw Malinowski. But continental schools of thought were rejected by British-oriented social anthropologists who saw themselves as supporters of Darwinian science.

In the early years of the 20th century there was much controversy over the nature and origin of  religion among tribal peoples. Strehlow became embroiled in it. His reputation suffered from a clash with Spencer. Then World War I came. He was shocked by the outbreak of anti-German sentiment. Alhough a naturalized citizen, he found himself obliged to register as an enemy alien. By the time he collected the egg near the mission in 1919, he was hardly even a footnote in the literature of Australian anthropology.

Spencer continued on his illustrious and productive career until his death at Tierra Del Fuego in 1929. Strehlow's fate was not just obscurity, but a painful end. Just three years after collecting the egg, in October 1922 the strains of his work and life in general brought on an attack of the condition then known as dropsy, a massive swelling of the body due to accumulation of fluid. Strehlow needed hospitalisation urgently. His body was so bloated he could only travel strapped in a chair perched in the back of the old horse-drawn mission cart.

He left the mission for the last time with an Arrernte choir singing a hymn derived from J. S. Bach. As he was taken down the dry bed of the Finke River every bump on the track caused pain in his body, every thought the torments of Job. His family and their Arrernte friends were trying to get him to Oodnadatta and the train down to Adelaide. But when they reached Horseshoe Bend he died. The episode is recounted by his son Ted Strehlow in a great memoir, Journey to Horseshoe Bend. The story has what may be thought of as an operatic tragedy about it, and indeed a cantata of the same name was written by the Australian composer Andrew Schultz with the librettist Gordon Kalton Williams, and performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2003.

It is a rich and fascinating part of Australia's history, all there in one little egg in that beautiful Favaloro cabinet.

Links:

Spencer and Gillen Project

Ornithology Collection

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