Mass slaughter of wedge-tailed eagles could have Australia-wide consequences


Simon Cherriman, Murdoch University

Last week it was revealed that at least 136 wedge-tailed eagles have been intentionally poisoned in East Gippsland, with concerns that more are yet to be found.

In the past five years I have used satellite tracking devices to research wedge-tailed eagles’ movements across Australia, and I’ve never encountered raptor deaths on this scale.




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It’s been suggested that the birds were killed to protect lambs. Tragically, not only was this illegal cull unnecessary – evidence suggests that eagles do not often kill livestock – but it could also have ecological consequences right across Australia.

Juvenile birds

There are two main categories of wedge-tailed eagles, based on their age class: sedentary breeding adults, which stay in a home range with nest sites; and highly nomadic juvenile birds that can cover huge distances. There are usually fewer adult birds in one place, because they are territorial.

The very high number of birds affected make it likely that they were largely juveniles. There is currently no accurate data on how many wedge-tailed eagles are in Australia, but this single culling event could have serious effects on future generations’ breeding capacity.




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Sites of persecution can have impacts to eagle populations if they become “ecological sinks”. These are places that draw birds in from a wide area, perhaps because of an unnaturally abundant food source, and then result in birds dying. If these ongoing “mortality black holes” cause hundreds of birds to die in relatively short periods of time, this can start impacting the population.

Do eagles kill lambs?

The wedge-tailed eagle is a powerful predator that kills a variety of mammals. Anecdotal observations by landowners describe birds attacking live lambs and even half-grown sheep. There are also cases in the literature of them working in tandem to hunt larger prey such as kangaroos – behaviour that has been widely documented for large eagle species.

However, evidence gathered during extensive research in Australia has shown that in most cases, eagles seen feeding on lamb or sheep carcasses are “cleaning up” after other predators like foxes and crows, which were actually the direct cause of death.

There are no documented cases of wedge-tailed eagles causing significant economic impacts to the sheep industry. But even if they did, there are other options besides culling. Carcasses placed near livestock would provide easier alternative food sources, for example. Shepherds can effectively guard flocks and protect lambs. Finally, given that wedge-tailed eagles are protected, it may be appropriate for the government to pay compensation for livestock losses.




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It must also be emphasised that eagles prey on a range of other species that are considered to be agricultural pests, such as overabundant native kangaroos, cockatoos, and feral species like rabbits and foxes.

The ConversationSome eagles live, and some die. Such is life on this amazing, arid continent. Death itself is a normal ecological phenomenon, but unnatural deaths on such a large scale can have disastrous consequences for long-lived raptors like the wedge-tailed eagle. We must as a community respect the critical role that predators play in the landscape.

Simon Cherriman, Ornithology, Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The threats behind the plight of the puffin


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shutterstock.

Louise Gentle, Nottingham Trent University

Puffins are facing a perilous future. Population numbers have fallen sharply, and there are even fears the sea bird could be heading towards extinction within the next 100 years.

A much loved and enigmatic creature, puffins are easily identified by their wonderfully coloured beaks. They waddle around in a characterful fashion and make the strangest of noises. Their endearing features have been used as the symbol of children’s books, and to illustrate many stamps – but they are now also appearing on lists of endangered species.

On Britain’s Farne Islands, numbers have gone down 12% on average over just five years, with one island’s population falling by 42%.

The common puffin, named after its puffed-up swollen appearance (although its scientific name, Fratercula arctica, arises from its resemblance to a friar wearing robes) has an extensive range across the northern hemisphere, with breeding colonies from Norway to Newfoundland.

Around 90% of the global population is found in Europe, with 60% of the population breeding in Iceland (which is also home to a tradition which involves children rescuing young, wayward puffins – “pufflings” – and returning them to the safety of the sea). The UK is home to 10% of the global puffin population, breeding on many islands and mainland coastal areas.

Although there are around 450,000 puffins in the UK, the species is threatened with extinction due to their rapid and ongoing population decline. Recent surveys of the Farne Islands revealed that despite a steady increase over the previous 70 years, numbers have declined by as much as 42% over the past five years.

Unfortunately, we know very little about the ecology of the puffin outside the breeding season. Although the birds amass in large numbers to breed, they spend two-thirds of their life alone, out in the north Atlantic sea. Consequently, they are very difficult to monitor.

What’s causing the decline?

Firstly, although puffins live for a fairly long time (the oldest recorded so far reached the age of 34), their breeding population is limited to a small number of sites. They also have a low reproductive rate, laying just one egg a year, which makes them particularly vulnerable to adverse changes in the environment and means they can take a long while to recover from negative impacts.

They are also hunted – by humans and other animals. Smoked or dried puffin is considered a delicacy (or a flavouring for porridge) in some places, such as Iceland and the Faroe Islands. But although they were once over harvested by people, hunting is now maintained at a sustainable level.

During the breeding season, puffins nest in burrows on clifftops. Although this offers the nest protection from aerial predators, such as gulls, chicks and eggs are not safe from mammals, including weasels and foxes. On Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, the population of puffins fell to just 10 pairs, but since the eradication of rats there, things are looking up. Nevertheless, the Arctic skua can be a particular problem as it steals food from adult puffins which is intended for their young.

Living on the open ocean makes the puffin highly susceptible to pollution such as oil spills. After the Torrey Canyon oil spill in 1967, the number of puffins breeding in France the following year decreased by a massive 85%.

The puffin feeds almost entirely on small fish, including sandeels, herring and capelin, which make up over 90% of the diet of pufflings.

The birds have a specialised beak with backwards facing spines, which prevents their prey (up to around 60 fish at a time) from falling out of their mouths when foraging. But in years where the main food source is low, many chicks starve to death.

Puffins have also suffered increased mortality from the rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events associated with climate change. A recent succession of severe storms caused 54,000 seabirds, half of which were puffins, to be washed up along coasts. Starvation was cited as the main cause of death.

On a cliff edge

Sea temperatures have increased over the past 30 years, causing indirect effects on puffin survival. The rise in temperature decreases the abundance of plankton, which in turn leads to a reduction in the growth and survival of young sandeel and herring on which the puffins rely, particularly during the breeding season. Conditions in the North Sea are even causing some puffins to travel into the Atlantic, rather than the North Sea, in search of food – a perilous trek involving greater distances and different habitats.

It seems that a combination of factors are to blame for the decline in puffins, but the reduction in their food supply, particularly as a result of increased sea temperatures, appears to be the main culprit.

The ConversationWe need to continue monitoring puffins worldwide to better understand factors affecting populations. Hopefully, we can put measures in place to minimise pollution, reduce introduced predators and promote sustainable harvesting to try and ensure that the fate of this wonderful bird is not the same as that of the dodo.

Louise Gentle, Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Ecology, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The sage grouse isn’t just a bird – it’s a proxy for control of Western lands



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Male sage grouse at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming.
Tom Koerner/USFWS, CC BY

John Freemuth, Boise State University

The Trump administration is clashing with conservation groups and others over protection for the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), a bird widely known for its dramatic mating displays. The grouse is found across sagebrush country from the Rocky Mountains on the east to the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges on the west.

This region also contains significant oil and gas deposits. The Trump administration is revising an elaborate plan developed under the Obama administration that sought to steer energy development away from sage grouse habitat. Conservation groups are suing in response, arguing that this shift and accelerated oil and gas leasing threaten sage grouse and violate several key environmental laws.

This battle is the latest skirmish in a continuing narrative over management of Western public lands. Like its Republican predecessors, the Trump administration is prioritizing use of public lands and resources over conservation. The question is whether its revisions will protect sage grouse and their habitat effectively enough to keep the birds off of the endangered species list – the outcome that the Obama plan was designed to achieve.

By popping their brightly colored air sacs, male sage grouse create a sound that can carry 3 kilometers to attract females to their display ground.

Sage grouse under siege

Before European settlement, sage grouse numbered up to 16 million across the West. Today their population has shrunk to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000. The main cause is habitat loss due to road construction, development and oil and gas leasing.

More frequent wildland fires are also a factor. After wildfires, invasive species like cheatgrass are first to appear and replace the sagebrush that grouse rely on for food and cover. Climate change and drought also contribute to increased fire regimes, and the cycle repeats itself.

Concern over the sage grouse’s decline spurred five petitions to list it for protection under the Endangered Species Act between 1999 and 2005. Listing a species is a major step because it requires federal agencies to ensure that any actions they fund, authorize or carry out – such as awarding mining leases or drilling permits – will not threaten the species or its critical habitat.

Current and historic range of greater sage grouse.
USFWS

In 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that an ESA listing for the sage grouse was “not warranted.” These decisions are supposed to be based on science, but leaks revealed that an agency synthesis of sage grouse research had been edited by a political appointee who deleted scientific references without discussion. In a section that discussed whether grouse could access the types of sagebrush they prefer to feed on in winter, the appointee asserted, “I believe that is an overstatement, as they will eat other stuff if it’s available.”

In 2010 the agency ruled that the sage grouse was at risk of extinction, but declined to list it at that time, although Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pledged to take steps to restore sagebrush habitat. In a court settlement, the agency agreed to issue a listing decision by September 30, 2015.

Negotiating the rescue plan

The Obama administration launched a concerted effort in 2011 to develop enough actions and plans at the federal and state level to avoid an ESA listing for the sage grouse. This effort involved federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private landowners.

California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming all developed plans for conserving sage grouse and their habitat. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management revised 98 land use plans in 10 states. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided funding for voluntary conservation actions on private lands.

In 2015 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that these actions had reduced threats to sage grouse habitat so effectively that a listing was no longer necessary. A bipartisan group of Western governors joined Jewell for the event. But despite the good feelings, some important value conflicts remained unresolved.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announces the sage grouse rescue plan in Colorado, Sept. 22, 2015. Behind Secretary Jewell are, left to right, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Notably, the plan created zones called Sagebrush Focal Areas – zones that were deemed essential for the sage grouse to survive – and proposed to bar mineral development on 10 million acres within those areas. Some Western governors, such as Butch Otter of Idaho, viewed this element as a surprise and felt that it had been dropped on states from Washington, without consultation.

The Trump administration wants to cancel creation of Sagebrush Focal Areas and allow mining and energy development in these zones. Agency records show that as Interior Department officials reevaluated the sage grouse plan in 2017, they worked closely with representatives of the oil, gas and mining industries, but not with environmental advocates.

Can collaboration work?

If the Trump administration does weaken the sage grouse plan, it could have much broader effects on relations between federal agencies and Western states.

Collaboration is emerging as a potential antidote to high-level political decisions and endless litigation over western public lands and resources. In addition to the sage grouse plan, recent examples include a Western Working Lands Forum organized by the Western Governors’ Association in March 2018, and forest collaboratives in Idaho that include diverse members and work to balance timber production, jobs and ecological restoration in Idaho national forests.

Warning sign in Wyoming.
Mark Bellis/USFWS, CC BY

There are two key requirements for these initiatives to succeed. First, they must give elected and high-level administrative appointees some cover to support locally and regionally crafted solutions. Second, they have to prevent federal officials from overruling outcomes with which they disagree.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2015 that an endangered listing for the sage grouse was not warranted, the agency committed to revisit the bird’s status in 2020. To avoid having to list the grouse as endangered, the Trump administration must provide enough evidence and certainty to justify a decision not to list, as the Obama administration sought to do. If Interior changes land management plans and increases oil and gas leasing, that job could become harder. It also is possible that Congress might prohibit a listing.

The ConversationFinding a lasting solution will require the Trump administration to collaborate with states and other stakeholders, including environmental advocates, and allow local land managers to do the same. Then, whatever the outcome, it cannot reverse their efforts in Washington. As Matt Mead, Wyoming’s Republican governor, warned in 2017, “If we go down a different road now with the sage grouse, what it says is, when you try to address other endangered species problems in this country, don’t have a collaborative process, don’t work together, because it’s going to be changed.”

John Freemuth, Professor of Public Policy and Executive Director, Andrus Center for Public Policy, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A sperm race to help save one of New Zealand’s threatened birds, the sugar-lapping hihi



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A male hihi on a flowering flax bush.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY-SA

Helen Taylor

It’s likely you’ve never heard of a hihi, let alone seen one in the wild. Also known as stitchbirds, these colourful little critters are a true taonga, or treasure. They’re only found in New Zealand, and currently restricted to just seven sanctuary sites.

Without the caché of kiwi or kākāpō, hihi have gone largely ignored by conservation fans and also, crucially, by funders. Researchers have been interested in these sunny little birds for decades because of their crazy mating system and high-octane lifestyle.

A major part of hihi research goes into figuring out ways to make more hihi and get them in more places. Now, we’re combining research on hihi sperm with a major fundraising effort to try to turn this bird’s fortunes around.

Researchers are studying sperm quality to figure out what contributes to the low breeding success of the hihi, or stitchbird.

A taonga in trouble

The story of hihi is a sadly familiar one for New Zealand. They were widespread across the country’s North Island, but then humans arrived. Forest clearance and introduced mammalian predators were bad news for most of New Zealand’s native wildlife, including hihi. By 1880, hihi had been reduced to just one population on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island).

Over the past 25 years or so, conservation managers and researchers have established six new hihi populations in predator free sanctuary sites around the North Island, and numbers are on the rise, but hihi are not out of the woods yet.

At each site except for Hauturu, hihi rely on supplementary sugar-water feeding. They use the energy from the sugar water to hunt insects – their real food. On Hauturu, they get their sugar from plant nectar, but no other site in New Zealand seems to have the diverse, old growth forest that hihi need.

Catching hihi on Tiritiri Matangi, one of the island sanctuaries where they survive, to get a sperm sample.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY

Experiments have shown that when the supplementary sugar is removed, hihi numbers go into decline. The absence of decent forest isn’t the only problem for this little sugar addict though.

Small populations and dodgy sperm

The hihi’s drastic decrease in numbers after human arrival is known as a population bottleneck. When a species experiences a bottleneck, we typically see a reduction in genetic variation and an increase in mating between relatives (inbreeding).

Inbreeding can negatively affect reproduction and survival. One characteristic that seems particularly sensitive to the negative effects of inbreeding is male fertility.

Inbreeding causes dodgy sperm (and dodgy pollen) across a wide range of mammals, insects and plants. However, no one has ever really looked into how it affects sperm quality in birds.

Hihi sperm seen under a microscope.
Helen Taylor, CC BY

We know that New Zealand’s birds have relatively high rates of hatching failure. We know that hihi egg hatching rates and chick survival are negatively affected by inbreeding. But we don’t know whether this hatching failure is a result of poor male fertility, developmental problems, or a bit of both. That’s where my research comes in.

Studying bird sperm in the wild

I’m looking for links between inbreeding and sperm quality in native New Zealand birds, including the hihi. To measure bird sperm quality, we look at three things: sperm swimming speed, sperm length and the proportion of sperm with abnormalities (two heads/no tail etc.).

Getting this data from wild birds is challenging for a number of reasons.

First, you need to get the sperm. This is actually the easiest part, especially with hihi. Their mating system is so competitive that males are usually jam-packed with sperm during the mating season.

In most bird species (including hihi), males don’t have a penis. They have an opening called a cloaca, just like the female. During mating season, the area around the male’s cloaca swells as it fills up with semen. By gently massaging this swelling, I can cause a small amount of semen to pool on the surface of the cloaca and, voila! I have my sperm sample.

Massaging a male hihi to extract sperm.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY

The next challenge is measuring sperm swimming speed. Everything else can be done back at the lab, but speed has to be measured there and then and sperm have to be kept at a constant temperature, or they die. We need to run a microscope, camera and laptop to film the sperm and measure the speed. And I’m usually on a remote island or in the middle of the bush.

Working in the mobile sperm lab.
Robyn White, CC BY

To overcome these issues, I’ve designed a mobile sperm lab that runs off a small generator so I can take it pretty much anywhere. It houses my sperm speed measuring set up, plus some heat pads to keep anything that touches the sperm at a constant temperature.

The pièce de résistance is my specially designed in-bra sperm sample tube holder, which keeps samples warm against my skin before they get to the microscope.

The great hihi sperm race

In October 2017, I took my mobile sperm lab to four hihi sites: Hauturu, Trititiri Matangi, Bushy Park Sanctuary, and Zealandia.

I collected sperm and DNA samples from 128 males and am currently analysing the data to investigate the connection between sperm quality and inbreeding in this species.

At the same time, we’re attempting to address the major lack of funding for hihi conservation by encouraging people to bet on which of my 128 males will have the fastest sperm.

The ConversationThis innovative fundraiser has grabbed a fair few headlines in New Zealand and overseas, and we’ve seen bets coming in from all over the world. The race runs until April 22, 2018. To get involved, visit www.hihispermrace.nz and place your bets!

Helen Taylor, Research fellow in conservation genetics

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Yes it’s okay to feed wild birds in your garden, as long as it’s the right food


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A pair of Rainbow Lorikeets in a garden feeder.
Flickr/john skewes, CC BY-ND

Darryl Jones, Griffith University

Many Australians feed wild birds in their gardens – yet the practice is discouraged by many bird groups and governments. That’s in stark contrast to what’s encouraged in other countries, so what should we be doing?

It’s an issue I studied in detail for my new book The Birds At My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why it Matters, out this month.

But first, let’s look at what happened when a sudden cold snap gripped parts of the Northern Hemisphere recently. This provides a clear example of a positive relationship between birds and humans, and how bird feeding can work.




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When the “Beast from the East” rolled through Great Britain a few weeks ago it brought both dismay and delight to those housebound people peering out at their gardens smothered in metres of snow.

Birds – sometimes of species almost never seen in towns – were everywhere. Twitter (no pun intended) was filled with images of desperate animals.

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Feed the birds

For the millions of people who provide food for wild birds in their gardens, this became a time for action. Social media was filled with pleas for people to venture through the drifts to refill their feeders: the birds need you NOW!

Bird and conservation groups in the UK broadcast the same message: feeding can mean the difference between life and death.

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What struck me immediately about this desperate situation were the similarities to the UK’s infamous Great Blizzard of 1890-91. Despite the prevailing Victorian attitudes of “waste not, want not”, the severity of the conditions and the plight of the suffering birds lead to the first widespread examples of public bird feeding.

Spurred on by a multitude of items in the newspapers of the day, people were implored to search their kitchens for anything that the starving birds might eat.

A letter to the London Daily News from “Johnnie Thrush” suggested a mix of stale bread, water, oatmeal or barley meal and a few handfuls of hempseed.

This mixture made into a thick stiff paste which we can all sup with our bills, and the smallfry – those perky tits, chaffinches, sparrows etc., which abound everywhere, are equally delighted with the crumbs.

This appears to have been a pivotal moment: thereafter, feeding wild birds – a practice that would normally have been regarded as simply wasteful – became acceptable, widespread and even a sign of moral expression.

Wild birds at a garden feeder in the UK.
Flickr/john purvis

Today in the UK the feeding of wild birds in private gardens is a gigantic industry, and not just in cold weather conditions. Millions of people provide enormous amounts of bird food, mostly seed, all of which is consumed.

It is almost certainly the most popular form of interaction between humans and wild animals, and is actively promoted by organisations including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Humane Society in the United States.

The message is clear: if you care about birds, feed them!

Feeding Down Under?

In Australia, the social landscape could hardly be more different. The message – if you dare to ask – has long been emphatically, although still informally, “Don’t!” No jurisdictions have actually enacted anti-feeding legislation, but many have come close.

Warnings in public places not to feed the wild birds, but that’s different to feeding wild birds in the garden.
Shutterstock/ChameleonsEye

The abundance of (but thoroughly ignored) Do Not Feed The Birds signs now common in parks is part of this approach. But I would argue this is a very different matter to bird feeding in domestic gardens.

The unavoidable conclusion gained from a multitude of sources here in Australia is that any form of bird feeding is wrong, dangerous, foolish, and profoundly misguided.

Those in the Northern Hemisphere who are interested in feeding birds can obtain endless and detailed advice on every conceivable aspect of the practice, and can buy a bewildering array of foods and feeders.

The contrast to Australia is stark and intriguing. Although there are plenty of bird feed products available with the label “Wild”, these are mainly mixes for cage birds. In terms of advice on feeding wild birds, however, this is almost all negative.

For example, BirdLife Australia says a “constant supply of ‘artificial’ food can be unhealthy for birds” and recommends that people opt instead for creating a “bird habitat through planting and providing water”.

Wild birds will get most of their food from the natural habitat so planting natives shrubs can help attract birds to a garden.
Flickr/Klaus Stiefel, CC BY-NC

Despite the ubiquity of the anti-feeding message that almost everyone in Australia is aware of, the participation rate here is virtually identical to that of countries where the practice is promoted and encouraged.

Around a third to over half of all households in this country regularly feed birds at their homes. That’s millions of people, most of whom care deeply about whether they are doing the right thing but who have nowhere to get advice or directions on best practice.

The only information available is a long list of the alarming things that can result from feeding birds, such as this advice against feeding lorikeets.

NSW government advises against feeding wild birds such as these Rainbow Lorikeets.
Flickr/Adrian Tritschler, CC BY-NC-ND

These were indeed disturbing and included (to take just the top few): dependency (the birds may become reliant on the food we provide); disease (feeders can spread disease); and nutrition (the food provided is often of poor quality).

If these concerns are valid, everyone needed to be aware of them and adjust – or stop – their seemingly trivial pastime accordingly.

Finding, distilling and understanding the research on which these issue were presumably based resulted in my new book.

A Crimson Rosella in a home bird feeder in Victoria, Australia.
Flickr/Chrissy Downunder, CC BY-NC

It was a process that profoundly altered my perceptions and made me even more determined to encourage a meaningful discussion about bird feeding, here and around the world.

It’s a complex picture (as usual) but to address the key issues raised earlier: there is no evidence that birds become dependent on the food we provide (except in extreme conditions such as severe snow or drought).

Reassuringly, most birds visit feeders for a passing snack and the majority of their daily diet is still natural.

How to feed the birds

So if we want to feed the birds in your garden then there are a few very simple rules you should follow to make sure you feed them the correct way.




Read more:
Birdbath, food or water? How to attract your favourite birds to your garden


  1. It’s a snack, not a meal. You don’t need to provide too much food. The birds only need a little; they will (and should) get most of their diet the natural way.

  2. Keep it clean. Your bird feeder is a plate as well as a table, so clean it thoroughly every day.

  3. Simple is best. Avoid anything processed (including mince or bread) or which contains salt or sugar. Seeds or commercial pet food is best.

  4. Mix it up. Change the menu, and even the timing. They don’t need our food but it’s nice when they visit.

The ConversationRemember that the feeders are really for us, rather than the birds. They don’t need them but they don’t seem to mind.

If you do want to feed the birds then keep it clean and keep it nutritious.
Flickr/Lance, CC BY-NC-ND

Darryl Jones, Deputy Director of Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why duck shooting season still isn’t on the endangered list


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The rising influence of the gun lobby in Australia may have extended the prospects of duck season continuing for the foreseeable future.
shutterstock

Siobhan O’Sullivan, UNSW

On March 17, the 2018 duck shooting session will open in Victoria. The first shots were fired in Tasmania and South Australia last weekend. The Northern Territory allows certain types of bird shooting later in the year. Duck shooting is prohibited in the rest of Australia.

States and territories have jurisdiction over duck shooting. In Victoria a new raft of regulations has been introduced to try to limit the damage to the state’s wetlands. One change of note in Victoria is that this year the Blue-winged Shoveler cannot be legally shot due to the low numbers of the species.

The Blue-winged Shoveler has been added to the protected list in Victoria this year for the first time.
Flickr CC

Other new regulations require that hunters recover the birds they shoot. This rule serves to formalise what Victoria’s Game Management Authority (GMA) refers to as “standard practice for responsible hunters”.

However, in most other respects Victoria’s 2018 duck season will look almost indistinguishable from previous years. It will still be three months long, with a “bag limit” of ten birds per person per day.

In Tasmania, authorities postponed the shooting start time in 2018, among a raft of other minor amendments.

In fact, the various states regularly make minor changes to the rules. Hundreds of minor adjustments have been made over many decades. While these changes may seem significant, from a broad socio-legal perspective they do little to challenge the status quo.

Playing by the rules?

A GMA-commissioned review by Pegasus Economics last year documented regular instances of duck shooters behaving irresponsibly. The independent report concluded that “non-compliance with hunting laws is commonplace and widespread”.

The ABC has aired allegations that unsustainable hunting is on the rise and that regulators feel unable to enforce the rules. It revealed pits containing around 200 unrecovered shot birds from the 2017 opening weekend at Victoria’s Koorangie State Game Reserve alone.

Activists interviewed in the report claimed to have brought out 1,500 dead birds from the wetlands. Of these, 296 were protected species, including 68 endangered Freckled Ducks.

In my book Animals, Equality and Democracy, I argue that there is a generalised tendency for animal welfare laws to be more effective for socially visible animals. Laws that govern the welfare of zoo animals have improved much more quickly, for example, than those that cover animal welfare in factory farms.

Duck shooting is not a highly visible cause of animal harm. Relatively few people live near the wetlands where shooting takes place. But animal advocates have been effective in making it visible, despite laws that limit their ability to do so.

Elaborate events such as Duck Lake, in which animal activists performed their own version of Swan Lake on the opening morning of the 2016 Tasmanian duck shooting season, help generate media attention.

In 2017, long-time Victorian anti-duck-shooting campaigner Laurie Levy from the Coalition Against Duck Shooting was once again fined for entering the water to help an injured bird. While such activities go some way in generating public visibility, they have thus far not been able to stop duck shooting outright.

The gun lobby’s growing influence in Australia

At present, only 28,000 Australians are registered duck shooters. According to 2012 Australia Institute analysis, 87% of Australians support a ban on duck shooting. There is mounting evidence that endangered and non-game species are also being killed.

Before being re-elected at this month’s Tasmanian state election, the Liberal state government promised to soften the state’s gun laws. It also committed to “always protect the right of Tasmanians to safely and responsibly go recreational shooting”.

In Victoria the picture is a little more complex. A 2016 report asserted that most members of the state’s Labor Party oppose duck shooting and that the Andrews government’s continued support may cost it votes.

Indeed, despite the pressure from within the ALP, the daily bag limit for the 2018 season is ten, compared with just four in 2016.

‘Industry capture’ reinvigorating duck shooting

The Pegasus Economics review identifies “industry capture” as a significant factor in the continuation of duck hunting. Industry capture refers to a situation in which industry has a disproportionately close and influential relationship with policymakers compared with other relevant stakeholders.

The decision by the Tasmanian Liberal Party to share details of its proposed softened gun laws with shooters and farmers, and not other interested parties or the public, suggests industry capture is a genuine factor in Tasmania too.

The ConversationWith widespread community opposition ranged against the entrenched interests of the shooters themselves, state governments will need to make some big calls on the future of duck hunting, rather than the current tinkering around the edges.

Siobhan O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Epic Duck Challenge’ shows drones can outdo people at surveying wildlife



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A drone image of a breeding colony of Greater Crested Terns. Researchers used plastic bird decoys to replicate this species in an experiment that compared different ways of counting wildlife.
Jarrod Hodgson, CC BY-ND

Jarrod Hodgson, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, and Lian Pin Koh, University of Adelaide

Ecologists are increasingly using drones to gather data. Scientists have used remotely piloted aircraft to estimate the health of fragile polar mosses, to measure and predict the mass of leopard seals, and even to collect whale snot. Drones have also been labelled as game-changers for wildlife population monitoring.

But once the take-off dust settles, how do we know if drones produce accurate data? Perhaps even more importantly, how do the data compare to those gathered using a traditional ground-based approach?

To answer these questions we created the #EpicDuckChallenge, which involved deploying thousands of plastic replica ducks on an Adelaide beach, and then testing various methods of tallying them up.

As we report today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, drones do indeed generate accurate wildlife population data – even more accurate, in fact, than those collected the old-fashioned way.

Jarrod Hodgson standing in one of the replica colonies of seabirds constructed for the #EpicDuckChallenge.
S. Andriolo

Assessing the accuracy of wildlife count data is hard. We can’t be sure of the true number of animals present in a group of wild animals. So, to overcome this uncertainty, we created life-sized, replica seabird colonies, each with a known number of individuals.

From the optimum vantage and in ideal weather conditions, experienced wildlife spotters independently counted the colonies from the ground using binoculars and telescopes. At the same time, a drone captured photographs of each colony from a range of heights. Citizen scientists then used these images to tally the number of animals they could see.

Counts of birds in drone-derived imagery were better than those made by wildlife observers on the ground. The drone approach was more precise and more accurate – it produced counts that were consistently closer to the true number of individuals.

Comparing the vantages: drone-derived photographs and the ground counter’s view.
J. Hodgson

The difference between the results was not trivial. Drone-derived data were between 43% and 96% more accurate than ground counts. The variation was due to how many pixels represented each bird, which in turn is related to the height that the drone was flown and the resolution of the camera.

This wasn’t a surprise. The experienced ground counters did well, but the drone’s vantage point was superior. Observing photos taken from above meant the citizen scientists did not have to contend with obscured birds that often occur during ground counts. The imagery also benefited the citizen scientists as they could digitally review their counts as many times as they needed. This reduced the likelihood of both missing an individual and counting an individual more than once.

The scientists were assisted by many volunteers, without whom the #EpicDuckChallenge would not have been possible.
J. Hodgson

However, even though it proved to be more accurate, making manual digital counts is still tedious and time-consuming. To address this, we developed a computer algorithm in the hope that it could further improve efficiency without diminishing data quality. And it did.

We delineated a proportion of birds in each colony to train the algorithm to recognise how the animal of interest appeared in the imagery. We found that using 10% training data was sufficient to produce a colony count that was comparable to that of a human reviewing the entire scene.

This computerisation can reduce the time needed to process data, providing the opportunity to cut the costs and resources needed to survey wildlife populations. When combined with the efficiencies drones provide for surveying sites that are hard to access on foot, these savings may be considerable.

Using drone monitoring in the field

Our results have important implications for a range of species. We think they are especially relevant to aggregating birds, including seabirds like albatrosses, surface nesting penguins and frigatebirds, as well as colonial nesting waterbirds like pelicans.

Other types of animals that are easily seen from above, including hauled-out seals and dugongs, are highly suited to drone monitoring. The nests or tracks of animals, such as orangutans and turtles, can also be used to infer presence.

Additional experiments will be useful to assess the ability of drones to survey animals that prefer to stay hidden and those within complex habitats. Such assessments are of interest to us, and researchers around the globe, with current investigations focused on wildlife such as arboreal mammals and cetaceans.

We are still learning about how wildlife react to the presence of drones, and more research is required to quantify these responses in a range of species and environments. The results will help to refine and improve drone monitoring protocols so that drones have minimal impact on wildlife. This is particularly important for species that are prone to disturbance, and where close proximity is not possible or desirable.




Read more:
How drones can help fight the war on shark attacks


The world is rapidly changing, with many negative outcomes for wildlife. Technology like drones can help scientists and managers gather data fast enough to enable timely assessment of the implications of these changes.

The ConversationWhen monitoring wildlife, increasing the accuracy and precision of animal surveys gives us more confidence in our population estimates. This provides a stronger evidence base on which to make management decisions or policy changes. For species and ecosystems threatened with extinction or irreparable damage, such speedy action could be a literal lifeline.

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, Senior Research Scientist / Section Head, and Lian Pin Koh, Professor, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.