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Gangster Birds of the Kalahari Desert

A drongo in the Kalahari. (Photo/Andy Radford, University of Bristol)

Drongos, African Kalahari Desert birds with a penchant for thievery, are taking a turn towards the avian equivalent of organized crime, a new study finds.

The victims in this case, pied babblers, have long contended with the risk of drongos popping in to make off with the babblers’ hard-earned insect prey. Now it seems a set of behaviors have evolved that are taking this interaction from a purely parasitic relationship to one of more mutual benefit. Researchers found that the drongos form protection squads for foraging babblers, keeping an eye out for trouble and strong-arming danger when it arrives.

“Like any good gangster,” says Andrew Radford, a scientist with the University of Bristol who led the research team, “as well as lying and stealing, the drongos also provide protection by mobbing aerial predators and giving true alarm calls on some occasions.”

That means pied babblers can spend less time watching for predators and more time looking for prey. The relationship is not without its caveats. Drongos still aim to take advantage of babblers, crying wolf to scare the babblers and grab the insects. The babblers likely put up with it, the researchers say, because the benefit of not having to worry about predators outweighs the cost of the drongos’ antics.

The research, which is a collaboration with the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Cape Town, is published online in the current issue of Evolution.

Andy Radford (University of Bristol) and a pied babbler in the Kalahari. (Photo/Matthew Bell, University of Cambridge)

A pied babbler in the Kalahari. (Photo/Andy Radford, University of Bristol)

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Sagebrush Ecosystem: Rising from an ancient sea

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Sagebrush country, it kind of makes you itchy and scratchy just looking at it. This is a place where every footstep crackles, and there are no forests to shelter under. You’d never realize that where you’re standing used to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

Look to your feet, the rocks and soil, and you’ll quickly see otherwise. Rocks crumble away revealing more fossil than straight rock. The remains of the ancients run thick through this ground, giving rise to a new ecosystem remarkable for its hardiness and coveted for its carbon.

Here, the faint lemony fragrance of the sage floats in on the breeze. Antelope bolt for the hills, and the  “drip-thoink” calls of male sage grouse echo across the dawn as they try to win the hearts, or at least  reproductive rights, of their ladies.

Nearby Craig, Colo., boasts the largest coal-fired power plant in the state with a 1,304 megawatt capacity. Open pit coal mines and natural gas development serve as a backdrop to rolling hay fields and seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush.

The sagebrush is not endless however. It’s shrinking faster than people know it exists. So here’s my attempt to give it some props. Even if it’s difficult to stand before the sagebrush sea in awe like you would Yosemite and Yellowstone, you can’t help but respect the wilderness that insists on living there.

This isn’t your fluffy, lush Walden Pond wilderness. This is your crawl from a dried up seabed, live where others can’t sort of wild. You fall asleep to shorts and t-shirt kind of weather and wake to 50mph winds and blizzard kind of havoc. But if you have the guts to stop your car and venture out for awhile, you’ll understand that this place fights for every moment of its existence, and it kicks ass.


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