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Thousands of Migrating Birds Found Dead or Injured in Greece

Animals
Thousands of Migrating Birds Found Dead or Injured in Greece
Migrating barn swallows rest on electricity cables in Heraklion, Crete, Greece. Patricia Fenn Gallery / Moment / Getty images

Thousands of swallows and other migratory birds have died in Greece trying to cross from Africa to Europe this spring.


The birds were buffeted by unusually rough weather, wildlife groups and experts told reporters Thursday.

"It's a major disaster," Maria Ganoti of the wildlife protection group Anima told AFP, in a story published by The Guardian.

Ganoti said the birds had been found injured or dead in the last three days. They have been found on the streets and balconies of Athens, in the country's north, on islands in the Aegean and around a lake in the Peloponnese, AFP reported. The Hellenic Ornithological Society posted images of the carnage on social media.

The group wrote that the night of April fifth to sixth was especially perilous for the birds. A combination of cold weather, strong winds and few insects exhausted birds that had already crossed the Sahara and the Mediterranean. South-blowing winds pushed the birds to North Africa, where they then faced the north-blowing winds of the Aegean and flew towards eastern Greece for rest. The group described what happened next:

On April 6th, the morning light revealed a shocking sight: tens of thousands of birds, chilly and exhausted, were unable to move. Swallows and martins had to rest on the ground, on the blacktop, on balconies, on rooftops and any other surface available. Swifts –a purely airborne species that can not rest on the ground or on a wire– found a temporary shelter by grabbing a wall or by hiding in scuppers or air ducts. Flycatchers filled parks and gardens in Athens and other cities. All this happened throughout Eastern Greece, from southernmost Crete to northernmost Macedonia.

Greece is in the flight path of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, AFP reported, and storms are a major danger for all migrating birds, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Some deaths are sadly to be expected, and birds have evolved to weather harsh conditions to a certain degree, the Hellenic Ornithological Society explained.

"However, this specific weather combination was unprecedented and pushed entire populations to their limits," the group wrote. "If we take into account all the hardships that human activity brings about during their journey — habitat loss, desertification, illegal killing etc. — these losses could prove devastating."

They urged concerned bird lovers not to approach or feed the resting birds, to protect them from drivers and cats and to call a wildlife center if they encountered one who needed medical help.

Swallows, which were particularly impacted by the harsh weather, are Greece's most popular bird, according to Greek Reporter. Their arrival heralds spring. They also make an incredible journey.

"These birds fly up to 350 kilometers (217 miles) a day, with anticyclones favoring them on their journey as they lift them higher up in the sky," associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Natural Environment at Thessaloniki University Dimitris Bakaloudis explained to Greek Reporter.. "They spent the winter months in southern Sahara and as far as South Africa and start migrating in waves from early March on a route of more than 10,000 kilometers (6,213 miles)."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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