Category Archives: Review

UK’s Blogging Red Kites

Blogging Birds is the name of a web-site run by a group of researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in conjunction with members of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The site’s byline, The lives of red kites, told by computers, sums up what the site is all about.

Red Kites 5 (5939879892) The Red kite is a species of raptor that, according to the web site, was once widespread in the UK and, after having been almost extirpated (down to 10 breeding pairs in Wales in the 1940’s) is making something of a comeback.

What the researchers have done is to fit several birds with satellite transmitters that provide accurate positions for the birds several times per day. These can be plotted on a map which anyone can see online. So far, pretty cool, but there’s more!

In addition to the geo-tracking, the researchers have linked in information from other databases that tell them about the areas visited by the birds. They know if an area is urban or rural and, based on land use information, can guess at how a bird might be feeding itself. They also know when a kite is near its home turf or if it is exploring far outside its normal range. Finally, if their path crosses that of one of the other tracked kites, they have information about their possible interactions with others of their species.

The final piece that let’s them create blog postings on behalf of the kites is something called Natural Language Generation which synthesizes all the data with known kite behaviour and spits out the weekly computer generated postings that anyone can see. Looking at the web-site today I see that they have four blogs on tap for the kites: Wyvis, Moray, Millie and Ussie. There appear to be other tracked kites as well with one of them, Beauly, mentioned in Millie‘s latest post for the week of August 12 to 18.

It will be interesting to follow one or more of the kites over longer periods of time. Perhaps these blogs can help to reduce the animosity that once almost led to the Red Kite’s extirpation from the British Isles.


Of the three most common North American kites, the Red Kite is closest taxonomically to the Mississippi Kite of the south-eastern US sharing the same sub-family (Milvinae) but different genera. The White-tailed and Swallow-tailed Kites are both from a different sub-family (Elaninae). All of these kites are from the family Accipitridae of diurnal birds of prey.

The related species of Black Kite is sometimes seen in England, usually during migration. Both it and the Red Kite are from the same genus Milvus and have been known to hybridize.

Birding Song Parodies by Young Birders

A couple of mornings ago, I came across the following ABA blog post by ABA president Jeff Gordon: Ladies and Gentlemen, LIVE from Camp Avocet…Pish & Twitch!!!. For anyone who likes birding and musical parodies it’s worth a listen (I missed breakfast and was almost late for a dentist appointment trying to make it through the YouTube links).

In a nutshell: Camp Avocet is an ABA run summer camp for young birders and Pish & Twitch is a musical duo newly formed by two of the campers Caleb and Brendan. Following a long tradition in song parody, they took well-known tunes and replaced the lyrics to poke fun at, in this case, birding and birders. Five songs were recorded and can be found on YouTube, through the links in Jeff’s article.

The first three songs (in posted order) used contemporary tunes the only one of which I recognized was their second song “Moves Like Jaeger” which was obviously a parody of the Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera hit “Moves Like Jagger”. The other two tunes were lifers for me once I made identifications with the help of my phone’s SoundHound app.  The first song “Chase Me Maybe” about going after rare bird sightings, covered “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Japsen and the third tune, about night-time bird call identification, “Flight Calls”, used the melody (if you can call it that) from “Thrift Shop” by “Party DJ Rockerz”.

The final two songs were based on well known hits from my own youth. The first of these was “Migrants Go By” sung to the Don Mclean hit “American Pie”. Impressively, they covered the 8-plus-minute long version and not one of the shorter radio-friendly variants. And finally, the song, “Bill Stewart”, clearly aimed at all of the camp leaders, was sung to the Billy Joel hit “Piano Man”.

It wasn’t what you might call a ‘tight’ performance as they had obviously bitten off more than they had time to practice for but that did not seem to detract from the energy in the room.  Besides, the hard part of a parody is crafting the lyrics and there they did some excellent work.

If you are a part or or even just familiar with birding culture then you will probably enjoy listening to Pish and Twitch.

Songbirds in the City

The Smithsonian Institution is more than just a museum.  According to their own information they consist of a total of 18 museum’s and galleries as well as the National Zoo.  One of the organizations associated with the National Zoo is the Migratory Bird Center founded in 1991 with a goal of “fostering greater understanding, appreciation, and protection of the  grand phenomenon of bird migration“.

In a recent posting (Smithsonian Scientists Discover That Urban Songbirds Adjust Their Melodies to Adapt to Various Elements of City Life), Sarah Bloom Leeds describes the results of some research carried out by scientists at the Migratory Bird Center on how songbirds adapt their songs and calls in a noisy urban environment.

Birds use sound to communicate and their survival often depends on it.  Their songs, usually only given by the males during the breeding season, are used to find a mate and to define and defend territory.  Calls allow a bird to communicate with other birds, usually of the same species.  The alarm call, for instance, is an important way in which a bird seeing an approaching predator or other threat can quickly let all of their friends know.

In an urban environment, any person with a good sense of hearing knows how hard it can be to communicate over when noise levels are high.  We adapt by changing our voice – usually just raising the volume.  Birds, perhaps not surprisingly, have also learned to adapt their sounds to the noisy environment as well since their survival may depend on it.  The level of adaptation is, species dependent.

The article goes on to describe how some birds will raise the pitch of their songs where there is a significant (low-frequency) background noise level.  On the other hand they will lower their song frequency when reflections off of hard surfaces (e.g. buildings) distorts the sound, an effect more serious with higher frequency sound.  Apparently when both effects are present, many birds can have a much harder time adapting.

It’s a fascinating article on bird behaviour and adaptation.  The best part of Sarah’s post, however, are two sound recording links for a Carolina Wren from both an urban and a rural site.  You can clearly hear that the bird singing in the urban setting has a much smaller dynamic range: the lowest urban frequency is about 700 Hz higher than the lowest rural frequency while the highest urban frequency is about 1600 Hz lower than the highest rural frequency.

For those wanting to know more, there is a link to the original research published in 2011 that can be downloaded for free in either HTML or PDF format.