Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Cape Eagle Owl rescue

 “There’s an owl on the ground!” I pointed excitedly just off the road in front of us to my sister and her boyfriend. We’d just started a drive to the high part of the reserve when I noticed the bundle of feathers unusually exposed and obvious for relatively late in the morning.

We admired it for a while, and it seemed to ignore us, so I continued towards it slowly and carefully. Eventually it sat up and glared at us, and as I inched closer it hopped slowly away. Something wasn’t right. Any other owl I’d seen around here was usually flushed up and flying away at a fair distance by now.

I got out the Toyota land-cruiser and started to approach, and the owl continued to hop lethargically away. Several things were going through my mind: was the owl suffering from eating a poisoned rat? Even if I do catch it, what will I do with it? I don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to looking after an injured bird, and I was a bit sceptical about what would happen given my last rescue attempt with the meerkat.

I scooped the owl up easily after it gave up its chase among some dead bushes. It clacked its beak in warning, but I was more worried about the massive talons. Now that I had the bird in hand it was clear what was wrong: the bird had a severely damaged eye, and was clearly thin and malnourished. It was likely starving to death due to an inability to feed itself.

What now? John, my sister’s boyfriend had mentioned that his daughter was in Knysna. Radical Raptors, the only people who I could think of who would be able to examine and perhaps rehabilitate the bird were down the road in Plettenberg Bay.

John agreed to drive, and 3 hours later over the busy and bumpy Prince Alfred’s pass we delivered the owl to Dennis at Radical Raptors. Another 4 hour drive later we were back home at Blue Hill. A long way to save a bird, but in this world were almost everything we do has a negative impact on the environment, I had felt compelled to make the effort for this beautiful bird.

The following day we received the good news that the owl was eating and had regained energy. Whether it will be worthwhile releasing the bird again remains to be seen. 

Like a giant stuffed animal, just with really dangerous claws

The Owl when we first saw her (and she only half saw us)

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The secret to being popular: A case study of South Africa’s favourite bird

So why does everyone need to be popular to some degree? Rather simply: because if you are popular you have access to a larger social circle; and you can draw on their knowledge (if you’re in trouble) and resources (if you need money); and have your pick of partners (the tall, good-looking blonde for example). On the other hand being unpopular means one can be marginalized to the point of invisibility and since humans are social creatures, this carries a threat of being deprived of social and material resources critical to health and happiness, and perhaps to survival itself. Therefore we all have an innate need to be recognised, although the extent of this need will vary from the attention of one’s family to the attention of stadium crowds.

When I heard that South Africa’s favourite bird was the Cape Robin-chat my reaction was: What?! WHY?

Some background information on the Cape Robin-chat: it is a medium sized song-bird, one of around 10 species of Robin in South Africa. It is widespread, and rather common, especially in suburban gardens. While it is a pretty bird, arguably there are more striking robin species: Chorister Robin-chat and Red-capped Robin-chat spring to mind. But it was competing with birds like this:

So, some important background information as to why Cape Robin-chat has the status of South Africa’s favourite bird. There are 846 species of birds in South Africa. These birds range in size from the world’s largest (Ostrich) to among the world’s smallest (Cape Penduline Tit); in colour from the almost indistinguishable cisticolas, larks and pipits to beautiful rollers, sunbirds and bee-eaters.
BirdLife South Africa, South Africas largest bird conservation NGO, decided to hold a poll to determine which South Africa’s favourite bird was. Given the expected coverage of the poll, the experts at BirdLife South Africa whittled down South Africa’s birdlist of 846 species to just 52, with representative species from most groups. Very boring groups were under represented (larks etc).

To make things interesting, a number of celebrities, sportspeople and organisations were invited to campaign for their favourite bird species. But this isn’t fair because then our targets are not judged on their inherent traits! Well, life isn’t fair, and this aspect makes this analysis all the more fascinating.

BirdLife South Africa then invited all South Africans to vote for their favourite bird in an online poll from December 2014 to February 2015 here:; where summary results of the 9744 votes can now be seen. Given all the above, the status of the Cape Robin-chat should really be described as “South Africa’s favourite bird out of a set of 52 (or 6%) of South Africa’s bird species as voted by members of BirdLife South Africa and those exposed to the poll through their species’ champion campaigns”. A bit unwieldy, but nevertheless, we’ll settle for the simple title for the moment.

So what has this all got to do with being popular? Well: from an analytical perspective we now have a database of 52 species ranked by votes. I.e. we have a metric for rankism (popularity). We can now ask: what are the important factors in determining how well a species did in the poll?

Factors I consider are:

Size (some say it matters!)

Beauty (I subjectively ranked colour from 1 to 5 with 1 being dull, brown and boring; and 5 representing ooh-ahh colours)

Sociability (social creatures like meerkats receive more attention than lone mongoose species, and so I use flock size as a surrogate for this)

Marketing (27 species had a species champion)

Exposure (how often do the general public see the species? Here I used average reporting rates from the South African Bird Atlas Project or SABAP2)

Coverage (what proportion of the general public see the species? Here I used the species range size in South Africa again from atlas data: a count of sites (pentads) in which the species has been recorded)

Plaasjapie (perhaps those with a preference for the rural life are on a back foot when it comes to social niceties: in South Africa someone from a farm background is called a plaasjapie).

First off, the top ranked species all had species champions: someone marketing their cause, as you can see from this chart of the average number of votes across the two groups:

So having a champion may mask broader patterns for popularity and so I decided to look at each set of the remaining variables dividing the information into those with and those without a champion. A common predictor among each set is more likely to be useful to us overall and, as we will see, what contributes to being popular works very differently with and without a champion.

However, when doing such an analysis, it is a good idea not to include correlated variables. Apparently the plaasjapie birds are significantly bigger, with lower exposure and coverage. Isn’t that what we’d expect from a farmboy? These guys were pretty popular… and Cape Robin-chat was an exception for garden birds.

Good news is that size is not that important. Well, it is but it’s complicated. Perhaps size is important if we could account for boys vs girls where trends would be expected to work in different directions, but we can’t do that with this data.

As expected, looks are important, both if you have a champion and if you don’t. The good news is you can get away with being okay looking: our top ranked bird had a beauty score of 3 out of 5. But looks don’t count for everything: the group of most beautiful birds as a group did not score higher than the ones and twos. Perhaps personality accounts for something: who’d you rather date: a beautiful wax model from Madame Tussaudes or a real person?

Turns out though when it comes to birds, being social and preferring to be in bigger groups does not work in your favour if you have a champion! Perhaps that’s the secret to being a successful politician? Again: Cape Robin-chat is pretty much a loner – but is also an exception in that group, as most other loners had very few votes, especially if they didn’t have a champion.

So lets round this off by looking at the two more marketing related variables: coverage and exposure. I took how common a species was and treated this as exposure: how often someone was likely to see a bird on a day to day basis. It turns out that this is an important variable that works in very different ways depending on if you have a champion or not, and probably means two very different things. Firstly, it is clear that if you don’t have a champion, then increased coverage is a good thing. However, those species with champions had higher scores if they were rare! Perhaps this can also be interpreted that a rare bird is special; or that special makes you more popular. Coverage (range) showed a similar trend to exposure.

What does this all mean for being popular, or a bird? From both perspectives it is very clear that having a champion is very important for your popularity. Having a champion means you can overcome perceived shortcomings and even turn some of these to your advantage with the right marketing campaign! For the bird this means you are more likely to be the focus of conservation initiatives and it will be easier to raise money to help you. It is no secret to big companies that marketing is important, which is the reason it is a multi-billion dollar industry, and why we are subjected to some very bizarre things through the media. On the other hand if you’re a teenager looking for a boyfriend, social media and broadcasting oneself is going to be important – a fact innately grasped by so many already today.

Clearly this analysis does not cover all aspects of trends in popularity for birds or people: the quality of your voice, confidence (very important!), various symmetrical variables, socio-economic backgrounds etc. We’re dealing with a cherry picked sample and I could not rate the quality of marketing campaigns or efforts. However, it does help me to understand why the Cape Robin-chat is South Africa’s favourite bird.

Technical details
I used a glm to model votes as a function of the various variables, with a poisson distribution. I used the step function to select the best model. Only significant variables with p<0.01 in the final models are illustrated above.
Thanks to Nikki McCartney for technical assistance with aspects of this post

Friday, 18 September 2015

Exciting Resighting: Female or Male?

I posed the question above to the Western Cape Birding Forum last weekend for the following photo of a Cape Rockjumper:

Except it was a trick question. The bird is in fact an immature bird ringed in 2013 during our first round of Cape Rockjumper captures. At the time I registered the bird as a youngster based on the brown, not red, iris, buff wing spots and residual gape. But I also called it a possible female and duly gave the bird a one colour identification ring.

This past season Gavin Emmons was helping Krista Oswald catch more Cape Rockjumpers. He took the following photos of a splendid male – with yellow ring. Thanks to the colour band we know he is the same bird from 2013! Very exciting to get this resighting :)

Centre of attention: here fellow family members direct their calls to male yellow. Photo courtesy of Gavin Emmons.

Below is a photo of a juvenile Cape Rockjumper, probably only 1-3 months old, from the Swartberg Mountain range.

Note the black, not red, iris

And this is how they start off life. Sad thing though: >60% of nests fail; which is pretty much the norm for ground nesting birds. 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Radical Raptors revisited: the flight of the drone

Radical Raptors remains one of my top recommendations for visitors to the Garden Route. The personal touch, strong conservation and education messages and quality of the performance make the raptor flight shows a real winner. After my first experience I was very keen to bring the family along.

The first owl we were introduced to was Charlie the Spotted Eagle Owl. Our Charlie was rather impressed with the feathered version. Eli preferred Barney the Barn Owl. For me the highlight was a new addition to the show: the Harris Hawk demonstrating its aerial attacking ability on a drone.

Despite a very windy morning, which can impact bird flight behaviour, we had a thoroughly enjoyable show. It is also very nice to know that the entrance fee supports raptor rehabilitation: so please do support Dennis and his extended feathered family if you get a chance to do so. Raptors are a group of birds doing particularly poorly in our rapidly changing world, due to poisoning and persecution and every cent helps.

You don't want to be a mouse at Radical Raptors... 

Harris Hawk attack on a model bird supported from a hover drone

Birds of Eden

The Garden Route of South Africa in the region of Plettenberg Bay hosts a vast range of entertainment attractions to satisfy every whim of the diverse range of tourists that visit the coastal region. One of which I have been interested in visiting for a long time is Birds of Eden, an immense walk in aviary boasting 200 species with thousands of individual birds.

With a few days off I decided to treat the family (or myself?) to an afternoon here. Treat being the word – because with an entrance fee of R175 per adult, this is a fair whack of money for most South Africans. There are combo tickets available should one also wish to visit MonkeyLand next door (R280 for entrance to both), but since we’d been chasing hungry Vervet monkeys from our doorstep in the morning, Monkeyland just wasn’t on our wishlist.

The aviary has a very long walkway that winds through forest, with a gushing stream in the valley below. The roof is very high overhead, with plenty of flight space for the birds: staring up I felt as though I was in the fighting arena from the Hunger Games movies: just no Mocking Jays to be seen.

Food tables with very tolerant birds line the route. The bird diversity is represented by birds from all over the world, so Cape Weaver and Red-eyed Doves from Africa (probably among the most common birds) feed alongside Blue-and-Yellow Macaws and Red-faced Parakeets from South America. Spectacular Golden Pheasants fed below our feet while a variety of Turacos bounced among the branches above us.

Despite it being mid-afternoon bird activity was plentiful. The attention we could pay to the birds was frequently compromised by our kids getting sometimes a bit over-excited by the proximity of some of the more tolerant birds; but also unfortunately by wheelbarrows ferrying sand along for some construction project. The calls of birds in some places were indiscernible above the sound of compressors and machinery. Very, very annoying since we felt compelled to hurry through several hundred meters of walkway.

The highlight of the trip was Elena being courted by a Burrowing Parrot, who followed her on foot for a good section, and dropped flowers at her feet. The parrot also put in a good effort chasing off Charlie when he got too close.

Overall, if I had to give a score out of 5 it would be 2. While I’m not excited about animals in captivity, I’m not against them either if there is a strong educational and conservation motive. This is lacking at Birds of Eden, where the motivation is clearly financially driven and there is ample room for improvement. The Eden district of South Africa is home to 8 species of birds endemic to South Africa: 7 endemic to the Fynbos, and 1 to the Forest (the Knysna Warbler); yet there is no mention of these anywhere. There are also several impressive bird research and conservation projects being undertaken in the region through Mark Brown and the Nature's Valley Trust; but how or if any of these are benefiting from the Birds of Eden cash cow is not clear. 

I'm afraid to say I won't be back anytime soon. 

There are several green Turaco species in the aviary.

One of the World's most spectacular birds: Golden Pheasant (male)

Busy bird feeders with a good choice of food

Deja Vu: this photo could easily have come from my study sites in the Tambopata

White-faced Ducks and many other species look like they are at home

Scarlet Ibis is always a winner

Typical scenes from the long board walk through the aviary.

Fulvous ducks didn't get the thumbs up from the kids...
... not when your boyfriend is a Burrowing Parrot that gives you flowers!

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