August 2014
5 Facts about Feathers
  By: Melina Sejmenovic and Larry Miller, SCP Volunteers 

Birds come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. The one thing that makes birds so unique is the fact they all have feathers. In fact, birds are the only animals that have feathers.

 

1. Did you know, there are many different uses of feathers on a bird? Each type of feather is adapted to serve a specific role or function:

 

* flight

* thermo-regulation (keeping warm and cool)

* protection from impact

* defense (both physical and visual)

* incubation of eggs

* brooding of young

* display (both visual and aural)

* camouflage

* hunting by touch

* carrying water (in some cases)
 

2. Did you know? Color in birds is not a simple thing, but a complex, specific recipe.


 

For decades, scientists have known how birds with yellow or red feathers usually get their color: It comes from pigments in foods the birds eat. The pink color of flamingoes, for example, is derived from carotenoids found in the crustaceans and algae that the birds sieve from the water.

 

BLACK, BROWN, WHITE: Melanin produces black or dark brown coloration. White feathers are caused by a lack of pigmentation.

 

RED, ORANGE, YELLOW: carotenoids pigments produce red, orange or yellow feathers and are produced by plants. When birds ingest either plant matter or something that has eaten a plant, they also ingest the carotenoids that produce the colors in their feathers.


GREEN: Porphyrin pigments are essentially modified amino acids. Porphyrins are the rarest of the three pigment groups and can produce red, brown, pink and green colors. The best-known example of porphyrins is the red pigment (often called turacin) that is found in many turaco species and turacoverdin, the green pigment found in many of the same turaco species.

 

BLUE: When white light strikes a blue feather, the keratin pattern (a tough protein of which feathers are made of) causes red and yellow wavelengths to cancel each other out. The result: blue, an example of what scientists call a structural color. And different shapes and sizes of air pockets and keratin make different shades of blue.
 

3. Did you know, Sonic Hedgehog plays an important role in the development of feathers?

No, not that Sonic the Hedgehog! Sonic Hedgehog are signaling genes that act like dimmer switches, controlling not just the activation of cell growth but the intensity as well. When researchers examined the genetics of feather growth they found Sonic Hedgehog directing the show, coordinating the intricate dance of starts and stops of cell growth. It is a gene that produces a protein that acts in concert with other proteins to activate or inhibit a highly conserved metabolic pathway - simple right!? Maybe to a molecular geneticist. A large team of people who worked on isolating and decoding the Sonic Hedgehog gene and their efforts contributed to a Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1995. It is known they spent countless hours in the laboratory and that they were meticulous, patient observers. It is also known that they played a lot of video games.

 

4. Which birds produce the 'most powder' from their preen gland?

 

Birds use their beaks to preen or clean and arrange their feathers.  Most birds have a gland which releases oil called the preening gland. Enormous concentration and time is spent oiling and cleaning feathers. The preening gland is very important to the health of a bird's feathers as it releases oil (or in some birds a white powdery substance) which birds spread all over their feathers with their beak while preening. The oil or powder helps maintain the feathers cleanliness, protects the bird from becoming wet by making the contour feathers waterproof. African Grey parrots, Cockatoos, and Cockatiels produce the most powder from their preen gland. Amazon Parrots and Hyacinth Macaws do not have a preen gland.

 

5. Feather fault bars - Who's at fault?

 

Fault bars (fault lines, stress bars) can look like bars or lines that run perpendicular across a bird's feathers. They are translucent and look like bands. Recent research has uncovered that fault bars in feathers are the result of a multitude of factors such as: handling, exposure to bad weather, living conditions, and being exposed to loud noises such as traffic. Stress, change in diet, and immunities are also known to have caused fault bars on feathers.

 

Not all birds produce fault bars due to the same factors or at the same rate. Different species produce fault bars under different circumstances. Some species are more prone to fault bars than others.

 

Like examining rings in a log, some scientists can tell the condition a bird was in the year before just by looking at their fault bars. It is really amazing that fault bars can tell so much about a bird's condition both in the past and in the future.

 

 

Picnic with the Parrots!
  
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Lilac-crowned Amazon:
   Now listed as an Endangered Species
            By: Larry Miller and Melissa Hughes, SCP Volunteers

Amazona Finschi, commonly known as the Lilac-crowned Amazon, also known as Finsch's Amazon is named after Dr. Otto Finsch, who wrote well over 400 books on ornithology and documented these birds as early as 1864. In their native habitat of Jalisco, Mexico and throughout the the Pacific slopes of Mexico, these splendid birds go by their spanish names of Amazona Guayabera, Cotorra Frente Roja, and Loro Corona-violeta.


The Lilac-crowned Amazon has a vibrant green body with a burgundy or maroon forehead, and lilac-blue crown and neck. The outer feathers of the wings are edged in black, with blue and red tipped primary and secondary feathers. Juveniles resemble the adults; but have duller plumage, dark brown eyes with white eye rings and ceres (fleshy skin above the beak). Which is in contrast to the yellow-orange iris that develops as the bird matures. Lilac-crowned Amazons are one of the smaller Amazon parrot species typically averaging 280 - 327 grams in weight.

 

The Wilson Ornithological Society published research that noted Lilac-crowned Amazons had two peak activity periods, early morning and late afternoon. Radio-telemetry techniques were used to closely monitor hourly activity patterns in their native tropical dry forests of Jalisco, Mexico. Individuals were generally inactive and did not change location for 5-6 hours throughout the middle of the day. They display a very even temperament that stays throughout adulthood. As with most breeds of Amazon, Lilac-crowns may display very aggressive behavior during sexual maturity and especially during mating season. Courtship usually begins in May, resulting in the laying of two to four eggs, which take about 28 days to hatch. The offspring usually remain in the nest for roughly two months. The Lilac-crowned Amazon can be expected to live 40 to 60 years.

 

The Lilac-crowned Amazon feeds largely on seeds in the wild. In order to make the most of the available food sources its diet changes throughout the varying dry and rainy seasons.  

 

As assessed by BirdLife International and published by the IUCN Red List on July 24, 2014, this species has been uplisted to Endangered. The major threat facing the Lilac-crowned Amazon is capture for the domestic and international wildlife trade. Poaching of Lilac-crowned Amazon nests is extensive, and is much more common outside of nature reserves where these birds are not protected.

 

The rapid disruption of tropical forests probably imperils global biodiversity more than any other contemporary phenomenon. In Mexico, tropical dry forests have one of the highest rates of deforestation. This leads to habitat fragmentation, reduction in breeding sites, and reduced food availability. These pressures resulted in the Lilac-crowned amazon having disappeared from more than 70% of its estimated former range, Marin-Togo et al. (2012).

 

Their native habitat from southeastern Sonora and southwest Chihuahua to southern Oaxaca is mostly humid pine-oak forests varying up to about 6,000 feet (~1,800 meters) in elevation. Its no wonder why populations have established themselves in beautiful southern California including; San Diego County, Orange County, Riverside County, Santa Barbara County, Los Angeles, and the San Gabriel Mountains. This species has naturalized in residential and suburban areas as pictured in the map below.

Organizations like So Cal Parrot continue to bridge the gap in care and consideration for these birds by educating the public and rehabilitating these wild naturalized psittacines. It is with small steps and acts of kindness that we can each help bring about change and awareness to protect the overall biodiversity of our fragile planet.


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