Nature Blog Network Future Earth: March 2008

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Swiftlet soup for supper?

Rather an avian flavour to this blog recently so here’s one more post that takes that literally. Birds nest soup has been a menu option in China for over a thousand years, although it went out of f(l)avour politically for a while. Now the demand from the Chinese diaspora is huge, and over-exploitation of the traditional supply from caves across south-east Asia edged the nest building swiftlets onto the CITES menu a few years ago.

One of many memorable Attenborough moments – the sainted Sir Dave, feet traditionally planted in bat and bird guano, peering into the upper reaches of Malaysian caves as the local nest collectors risked life and limb to secure “white gold”, the set saliva of the male swiflets that is meant to protect the eggs and nestlings. The birds can produce three nests per breeding season so collecting only the first two can allow one brood to survive and sustain the supply.

Sadly though, the trade has become just too profitable. Where there’s muck (can’t get that image of the cave floor out of my mind!) there’s money … but where there’s money there’s muck too. Over-exploitation, trade rackets – demand exceeding supply leads to a $60 price tag on a single bowl of soup in Hong Kong. Its big business and people will kill to protect it.

Enter the entrepreneur. Colonies of twittering swiftlets that have set up in town houses are now managed for productivity; even though some of the techniques are mean (“Midnight Music” post – 20th February), they are cosseted as valuable residents. Have a look at these photos though – new build along the coast of Borneo is all for the birds – the giveaway is the large flat sides with evenly spaced ventilation holes. Bordellos for working birds. Swiftlet Hiltons – except its build your own bed, at least twice. Populations are increasing though, so just who is exploiting who?

P.S. And why? Chinese scientists have recently determined that the active ingredient (thought to have a range of medicinal properties) is destroyed as the nests are prepared for consumption. Ah well.

P.P.S. There is a nasty sting in this tale however. The birds eat insects from their surroundings, and not surprisingly the most sought-after nests are ones where the foraging is from natural environments. Another ecosystem service at risk?

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Albatross Anthem

IT IS a baby Albatross,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long great beak and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

He holds him with his trusting stare,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
‘It spewed out all this plastic stuff
Into the azure sea.

And now the storm-blast came, and it
Were tyrannous and strong:
The plastic lay above the beach
Where nesting birds belong.

The stuff was here, the stuff was there,
The stuff was all around:
We thought it looked like little fish
And scoffed all that we found.

We ate the food we ne'er had eat,
And round and round did spew.
We started dying one by one
Not many made it through’.

‘But I have come to help you out -
A conservation trooper.
We are averred, to save the bird
from such a major blooper.
Ah wretch! We say, the plastic day,
Has gone – is that not super?’

We looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew our eyes away
We looked upon the plastic beach,
And vowed it would not stay.
We’d bury it for 50 years
No albatross would feast
Of plastic fare, we’d save the life,
Of man and bird and beast. .

We went like those that hath been stunned,
And worked through dusk and dawn:
Both sadder and yet wiser men,
We rose the morrow morn.

Feasting Finches

A diversity of finches, eh? Well, to such we owe our understanding of evolution (thank you Charles D.) but what can we opine from the increasing prevelance of finches in UK gardens? The annual survey by Britain's birders has shown a continual decline in overall bird numbers in 2008, but that several finches are staying on these islands longer, moving into gardens from wooded areas and becoming more numerous than some traditional residents. Winter numbers of finches are higher than any count in the last 5 years.

They are pretty, these finches and they rejoice in such delightful names as "siskin", "brambling" and "redpoll". But are they also harbingers of doom? Are they indicators of a changing climate unsettling natural balance? While welcoming those Norwegian siskins, are UK residents aware that the contents of their seed-feeders are supplanting a lack of natural seeds for the siskins back home? While we observe and adapt, we might ponder where we will fly to when our own food supply runs low. Perhaps we can feast on finches?

Saturday, 15 March 2008

What firstborns always secretly knew

Research just published by Keith Sockman -

shows that firstborns do not get it all their own way, at least not if you are a Lincoln's sparrow. Exposing those first eggs to a touch of neglect seems to increase the chances of survival for the whole brood and therefore the different types of talents they represent.

What a rich seam of speculation within this finding... what do you think, human firstborns?

Friday, 14 March 2008

A Nose for Business

Well, we can be all scientific and professional about this.... we can look at the mutual dependency that has driven the domestication of canid species on behalf of hominid survival etc. We can examine the different benefits of dog ownership for an increasingly stressed (and hungry) human global population and all the types of talents used on our behalf by working dogs and gun dogs. We can wrack our brains as to the survival value of the designer dogs carried around by the likes of Paris Hilton (but that would lead us into the realm of imbalance in the use of global resources that I'll pick up at another time). We can view the announcement of UK/New Zealand cooperation to breed the best noses in the business as an advance in the field of preventing transmission of agricultural pests across borders.

Or we can just sit back and enjoy the quintessentially cute litter of beagle puppies in the embedded video...

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Refreshing news for elephants, ants and all of us.

Date mark this post. Aceh's Green Governor is not waiting for the rest of the world to wake up.

(Further background on

Arjay is celebrating this ray of hope for Future Earth. As visionaries dig deep into their pockets, those at the coal face (carbon face?) are rolling up their shirt sleeves to make it work.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Tilting at windmills?

So, we've got 20 years before the sh.. hits the fan(s) have we? Never mind, James Lovelock won't be here to say "I told you so" as we fry and die (eating powdered nematodes as our last meal, perhaps). He is the grandfather of doom with a cheerful smile and an irritating habit of being right. In last Saturday's Guardian he uses an interesting analogy about humans and war, which focuses the mind and creates ("enjoyable"?) collaborative behaviour, apparently:

So, do we just throw in the towel, party, party, party and watch it happen? Personally, I'm all for tilting at those windmills, and betting on the human race not following the foibles of fabled fantasist Don Quixote.