Guy writes: Recent events have again brought into sharp focus the impact of humans on the planet. The recent People’s Walk for Wildlife and Chris Packham’s thought provoking ‘A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife’ was followed by the WWF ‘Living Planet’ report outlining that humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970. Now comes a further warning from the UN about the silent killer of biodiversity loss
Amongst the doom and gloom, what often fascinates me is the apparent contradiction between people’s ability as individuals to marvel at the beauty and aesthetic value of the living world, yet collectively we appear unable to effectively tackle major issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, over exploitation of natural resources and pollution. There are some wildlife species which appear to particularly captivate people, charismatic megafauna like elephants and big cats are obvious examples. Amongst birds, hummingbirds to me are one of those special species. Whilst the first encounter with a hummingbird is particularly jaw-dropping, whenever you subsequently see them continues to impose a sense of disbelief. They are truly mesmerising.
There are some 338 species, I expect I have probably seen over a quarter of these (must count up one day) and they are all utterly amazing. I also like the fact these avian jewels have been given some fantastic names including Topazes, Hermits, Mangoes, Brilliants, Coquettes, Mountain Gems, and Emeralds. This green-breasted mango was photographed at a feeder in Costa Rica a few years ago and is one of my favourites. Even using a high speed flash the energy of movement cannot be stopped.
Hummingbirds, with a wide range of sizes and bill shapes, have co-evolved with flowers. In exchange for helping with pollination they are rewarded with nectar to fuel their energetically expensive lifestyle. They aptly demonstrate the ability of evolution to stretch what seems biologically possible. They have specialised vision and neural processing to deal with their high octane lifestyle and the speed at which these birds zip through the rainforest is almost impossible to comprehend. Their heart rates can be over 1000 beats per minute and during flight, oxygen consumption is comparatively about 10 times higher than that measured in elite human athletes. In contrast, their metabolism can slow at night or when food is not readily available, as the birds go into a torpor to prevent energy reserves from falling to a critical level. During the night, body temperature can fall to 18 °C, with heart and breathing rates dramatically slowed and heart rates down to a ‘mere’ 50 to 180 beats per minute.
If you could bottle the sense of wonder that hummingbirds and many other wildlife species bring and provide that to our world leaders and decision makers then perhaps we would have a much better chance to extract ourselves from the mess we have created.
Image taken with Canon 400D at 1/100 second with a Canon 7–200 f4.0 L lens at f5.6 ISO 200 and flash in manual mode.
A memorial celebration for the life of Peter Melchett will be held at the Royal Geographic Society, 1 Kensington Gore at 10am on Friday 7 December. Register here.
Have a look at the Celebrating Peter website which is full of information and lovely stories.
Ornithologists kill critically endangered hummingbirds – an open letter
In a paper recently published in The Auk, October 2018, (Sornoza-Molina et al 2018) a group of ornithologists collected seven specimens of a hummingbird new to science, and then declared that because of its extremely small range, it must be critically endangered (CR under IUCN Criteria). They tried to justify the killing by claiming that because once the birds had been killed, and others moved into their territories, the species range must be limited by the available habitat. This seems a bit perverse, since they had already killed the birds. What would their conclusion have been if no individuals had occupied the vacant territories?
There was an outcry several years ago when in 2006, ornithologists from Louisiana State Museum killed an extremely rare antpitta (the Jocotoco Antpitta) simply on the grounds that it was the first time it had been seen in Peru (previously only known from Ecuador (where it too had been killed as a museum specimen).
The days when it is necessary to kill extremely rare animals in order to describe them scientifically have long gone. In the case in hand, excellent photographs were taken, and DNA was collected and used to confirm the identification.
In 2010, a new species was named after conservationist and ornithologist George Fenwick, based on photographs, feathers and DNA. Consequently, there was no justification for the killing of seven specimens. A couple of feathers and good photographs would have provided all the evidence needed to publish a description of a new species.
The authors of the paper would certainly have been aware of the controversy surrounding this outdated practice – one of them, Sornoza, had in the past been Director of the Fundacion Jocotoco, a major bird conservation charity in Ecuador. It is perhaps even more reprehensible that a respected journal of a respected ornithological society (the American Ornithologists Union) should consider it suitable for publication.
Collecting for museums was an important part of the scientific past of ornithology, and there is still a case to be made for preserving specimens in museums. However, there can be no justification for killing a new species of bird, when you consider it to be critically endangered. No doubt when IUCN/Birdlife International publish the next Red List, they will include this species, and among the reasons to be given for its endangerment, will presumably be ‘collecting for museums’.
Gerald Bertrand, John Burton, Richard Porter, Martin Woodcock.
I’m disappointed (and a little bit guilty, as a trustee) that I can’t make this evening on 14 December. It looks great fun.
You need to get your entry in to the Terra Incognita Wildlife Blogger competition by the end of the month – click here.