Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A handful of feathers and bird poop

The white-winged flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) is a bird so rare that bird experts believe there are only 250 of them left in the world. In South Africa, the bird has been spotted in only about 15 sites in the 136 years since it was first described in Potchefstroom. The only other country where this small water bird with big feet has been sighted with any regularity is Ethiopia. So little is known about the bird that the question remains whether the two populations, separated by 4 000km, are linked through migration.

The ornithologist Craig Symes from Wits University would like to find out more about the rare bird. He will be using feather samples from Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia and some South African white-winged flufftail samples. By using isotope analysis he intends to work out if the birds have travelled between the two countries. If the isotope signatures of the samples from the different countries prove similar, it could suggest the birds move between South Africa and Ethiopia.
To understand more about the species, Symes also collected white-wing flufftail faeces in Ethiopia. Through DNA Barcoding he hopes to find out what the birds eat. With that information, conservationists believe the bird can be saved as only with a better understanding of its movements and habits effective conservation measures can be implemented.
A few weeks ago, there was a missed opportunity to add to Symes’s feather collection, when a worker at an airport in Durban found a white-winged flufftail near one of the runways. Unfortunately, by the time the bird was identified, it had been released. It was the first time in more than 100 years that a white-winged flufftail had been spotted in Durban. White-winged flufftail numbers are so low that  representatives from BirdLife say this individual could be one of the last of its species in South Africa.

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