Evolution of hummingbirds

This 5 November 2020 video says about itself:

The Evolution of Hummingbirds

Today, hummingbirds are only found in north and south America but over 30 million years ago a hummingbird lived in southern Germany, and is the oldest known fossil of a hummingbird known. How did it get there and how did hummingbirds evolve to hover and live off nectar?

Over 50 million coronavirus patients worldwide

This 6 November 2020 video says about itself:

Denmark finds 214 people with mink-related coronavirus

Denmark is culling millions of minks after a new strain of coronavirus was discovered on hundreds of fur farms in the country.

The government has confirmed the mutated virus has infected more than 200 people, prompting urgent action.

Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker reports.

By Bryan Dyne in the USA today:

On Saturday, the number of confirmed global cases of the coronavirus pandemic will rocket past the grim milestone of 50 million. One in every 156 people on the planet has so far caught the disease, with no end in sight. Of those who contracted it, more than 1.2 million have lost their lives to the deadly contagion, including more 9,000 Friday alone.

It was barely two months ago that the world witnessed its 25 millionth case, on August 28. Daily new cases regularly exceed 500,000 and are well on their way to three-quarters of a million. New deaths have exceeded their April highs despite the advances made in treating COVID-19 these past 10 months, a further indication of how entrenched the pandemic has become.

Such figures are only a prelude of what is to come. If these trends are allowed to continue, there may be 100 million cases by the end of the year, surging at a rate of 1 million cases each day. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told the Washington Post, “It’s not a good situation. All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”

One of the sharpest dangers is that hospitals become too overwhelmed to treat all of their patients, such as in El Paso, Texas and in various locations across Europe. As was witnessed in Wuhan, China, Lombardy, Italy and, to a lesser extent, New York City in the early days of the pandemic, the death rate skyrockets when there are not enough supplies and medical personnel to properly treat every patient. While the rate of new deaths to new cases is currently at just above 1 percent, it is possible and likely for that number to spike if the coronavirus continues its essentially uncontrolled spread.

The United States alone has recorded more than 10 million instances of infection, along with 242,000 deaths. The state of Texas surpassed the 1 million mark on Friday, placing it after the nation of Colombia as the tenth most infected region in the world. It is closely followed by California, which has more than 960,000 cases. Combined they have more than 37,000 deaths, more than all but eight other countries (excluding the US as a whole).

Amid such calamitous numbers in the US and internationally, President Donald Trump’s fascistic former adviser Steve Bannon called for Dr. Fauci’s beheading. During his podcast Thursday, which has since been taken down by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Bannon declared that Trump should start his second term, “firing Wray, firing Fauci” (Wray, referring to FBI Director Christopher Wray).

He continued, in openly medieval fashion, “I’d actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England. I’d put their heads on pikes, right, I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats, you either get with the program or you’re gone.”

Fauci is widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities on infectious diseases, who rose to national prominence in the 1980s for his work combating the HIV/AIDS outbreaks in the United States. He has come under increasingly right-wing attacks over the past several weeks over his criticisms of Trump’s policy, or rather lack thereof, in handling the pandemic in the lead up to the recent and as of yet still undecided presidential election.

In particular, Fauci recently advocated for a nationwide mask mandate in the face of surging cases. At the time, there were 8.8 million cases in the US, more than 1 million less than now. This sparked another round of calls by right-wing figures such as Alex Jones to “fire Fauci” on Twitter and at Trump’s in-person rallies. Trump himself has called Fauci a “disaster” and other leading medical officials “idiots” for suggesting even basic measures to combat and contain the deadly pandemic.

The necessity of both basic and far-reaching actions to end the ongoing surge in coronavirus infections was highlighted in a recent study published in the Lancet, showing that the rate at which the disease spreads increases by an average of 24 percent when schools reopen. The research, led by You Li at the University of Edinburgh, also noted that the only other increase more significant occurred after bans on in-person gatherings, including in workplaces, were lifted.

The study used reopening data from 131 countries, including the United States and several countries in Western Europe. They found that “following the relaxation of school closure, bans on public events, bans on public gatherings of more than ten people, requirements to stay at home, and internal movement limits,” new cases increased consistent with models of how the coronavirus spreads when there are no such restrictions, peaking four weeks after restrictions are lifted. While they did not comment on the rate of deaths in the wake of rising cases, that is known to rise two to four weeks after infections increase.

Conversely, the researchers found that broad restrictions on mobility, including banning public events, closing down workplaces, shutting down schools and general stay-at-home orders reduced COVID-19 transmission by an average of 52 percent within four weeks. The reduction in transmission is even more pronounced when combined with other public health measures, including robust coronavirus testing, contact tracing and any necessary isolation of infected individuals.

A further threat from the pandemic was highlighted in Denmark this past week. Danish health authorities reported 12 people infected by a mutated strain of coronavirus that came from the country’s 17 million-strong mink population. In response, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen ordered all mink killed in an effort to stop the spread of a new strain of the pandemic virus.

“Due to the discovery of a mutated infection in mink, which weakens the ability to form antibodies, resolute action is needed,” Frederiksen said on Wednesday. She continued, “The mutated virus carries the risk that a future vaccine will not work as it should.” These comments were echoed by Kaare Molbak, Denmark’s top epidemiologist, who warned that in the “worst-case scenario, the pandemic will restart, this time in Denmark.”

That such a possibility is even posed speaks to the inability of the current social order to deal with the pandemic. It is an unanswerable indictment of capitalism that the worst outbreaks of the pandemic have occurred in the most “advanced” capitalist countries, supposedly with the most resources to fight the disease. Instead, their ruling elites have closed ranks to protect the profits of banks and corporations, not human lives. Such actions make clear that the solution to the coronavirus pandemic will not merely be medical and scientific but political as the working class fights to overthrow this outmoded and disastrous system and replace it with socialism.

Rare bearded vulture in England

This video from Britain is called (Vigo) Bearded Vulture spotted in the UK to twitchers delight – ITV News – 12th October 2020.

By Peter Frost in England, 6 November 2020:

A circling vulture

Fearless PETER FROST watches as a giant bone-breaking beast flies overhead near his home. Is he frightened? No, not Frosty

IN July, like many others interested in birds, I smiled at and then ignored a number of tweets aimed at me and my local birders. The tweets suggested that a huge bird with a 2.5m (8ft 6in) wingspan had been seen near my home on the Warwickshire-Northamptonshire borders. Sadly hoaxes, or genuine misidentifications, such as these are all too commonplace.

As the day went on more sightings seemed to suggest that the giant bird did exist and was actually a rare bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) — one of the world’s biggest vulture species.

The bearded vulture is actually an unmistakable bird, not just because of its size. It has with black Elvis-style sideburns, red rings around the eyes and a long wedge-shaped tail. Facial markings and wings are black, the rest of the head, neck and body are a rich rusty orange.

When I heard that identification I reminded myself that nearby Warwick Castle actually had a captive bearded vulture named Barty, as part of its large birds-of-prey show.

The castle is closed at the moment due to lockdown but I knew that Head Falconer Chris O’Donnell lives on-site and works alongside two others to take care of the 70 birds of prey in his care.

These include some real big boys and girls. They include the largest flying bird in the world — the Andean condor. Even without an audience, all Chris’s birds need exercise — and that means letting them fly free every day.

Let’s meet some of the Warwick Castle stars. Rosie is the Andean condor – weighing 15 kilograms and with a wingspan of 3.2m.

Other giants are Marvin, a Steller’s sea eagle, and of course a bearded vulture named Barty. Bearded vultures like Barty are unique in the vulture world in not having a bald head: its head and breast feathers often appear an eye-catching rust colour, caused from dust-bathing or rubbing mud on its body.

The castle falconers soon confirmed that the bearded vulture flying loose over this corner of Shakespeare’s Warwickshire was not their Barty.

In his plays and poems, Shakespeare frequently referred to large birds of prey including falcons, hawks, eagles, owls, and kites. He loved falconry or hawking as it was then known. It was a form of hunting using birds of prey to fly free and hunt small animals and songbirds.

This is from Macbeth — a stunned Macduff reacts to news that Macbeth’s henchmen have murdered his wife and children:

“All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?”

The hell-kite is Macbeth and the phrase “at one fell swoop” has entered the English language — and what would we do without it?

But back to that incredibly rare sighting: pictures soon started to be published and soon confirmed this was a wild young bearded vulture. Those early photographs showed some very distinctive missing feathers and a damaged tail.

Once the pictures appeared online, birders abroad recognised the bird as one seen over Holland and Belgium a few weeks earlier. This bird was on a Europe-wide tour.

So had our vulture been attacking anything, or circling dying corpses? Actually its diet and eating habits are far more interesting than that. The bearded vulture was once better known as the Lammergeier, which translates as the vulture with the lamb.

They eat mainly the bones from already picked carcasses. The bird is capable of swallowing and digesting bones the size of a sheep’s vertebra. If the bones are too big, they fly up to 100 metres to drop the bones onto rocks, shattering them into bite-size pieces. This almost exclusive bone diet is remarkably rare among birds or animals.

In several regions, people did believe that bearded vultures stole sheep and even took small children — some people still do — so the species was hunted and poisoned to extinction. In the Alps the last bearded vulture was shot in 1913.

After a few days exploring Shakespeare’s country our giant bird made its way north. It was seen over Derbyshire and Yorkshire and regularly using a roost site in the north of the Peak District National Park. It even reached the Scottish border.

The Peak District is perfect bearded-vulture country with plenty of sheep carcasses, as well as typical roost sites on rugged cliffs and rocky outcrops. Bearded vultures do not like to be disturbed and need to feed quite often.

It is normal for young bearded vultures to range across vast areas, often outside their typical breeding habitat in mountain ranges. Nobody understands why. Perhaps they need to discover the motives of human gap-year travellers and compare notes. Our bird took the very unusual long-distance journey all around Wales and England, finally successfully crossing the English Channel homeward bound.

Bearded vultures usually don’t like crossing large water bodies and this might be why the species has only arrived in Britain once before, in 2016. It may be that the recent strong winds helped this year’s bird along.

Gypaetus barbatus is the rarest of vultures and there are several projects to reintroduce the bird in various high European mountain ranges as well as some in Asia. They use various methods to indentify birds, including rings, tags and feather-bleaching. However, our visitor bird did not have any rings or markings.

The bearded vulture is a protected species, with about 400 pairs remaining in Europe and is quite sensitive, gravely affected by habitat disturbance.

After four months of soaring over the lakes, along with visits to the skies over Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk including being spectacularly photographed over Peterborough Cathedral, our visitor, by now nicknamed Vigo, headed south.

Vigo was tracked south into Bedfordshire, somehow round or over the Capital and on to Kent. She reached the Channel coast on October 12, being seen at Beachy Head, East Sussex, on the afternoon of October 14.

Beachy Head is well known for observing migrating birds of prey, with rarities like the western osprey and European honey buzzard among the more regularly observed long-distance migrant raptors that either arrive in or depart Britain at this locality each spring and autumn.

After a morning of flying around the Kent and Sussex, Vigo climbed high into the sky and headed out to sea at around 12.40pm — but not for long, she was soon back.

After waiting about an hour, like some well-prepared human Channel swimmer, bright sun and a brisk north-easterly tailwind boded well for the crossing. Vigo bade farewell to our sweet isle forever.

Vigo left two small feathers to remember her by. David Ball, an eagle-eyed (or should that be vulture-eyed) birder from Yorkshire, offered them up for testing. They revealed that Vigo is a female that hatched last year in a wild nest in the Haute-Savoie region in southeast France.

Let’s hope that after her British adventure she is safely home — which would be not thanks to us humans. Preparing this column, I chanced to tap “bearded vulture” into Google. Up came pictures from a proud hunter of the massive bird he had just shot dead in the Cevenne mountains in south-central France. Yes, it was a bearded vulture — he must be proud he has reduced the world population by one.

We must never forget the dreadful risks Vigo and her relatives, and indeed most vultures and other birds of prey, continue to face from hunting folk and their gamekeepers.