Are great tit beaks really getting greater?

Heard a news snippet on BBC Radio 4 this morning reporting on how Brits using bird feeders has apparently led to great tits (Parus major) evolving longer beaks. I read an article or two (National Geographic and The Guardian) to check out how the science was being reported elsewhere and then took a look at the original research paper itself.

The researchers talk of 26-year data set from live birds in Wytham and estimate a 4 micrometre ± 1 micrometre per year lengthening in this species. That seems like quite a small change, despite that their analysis of avian genetics in this species allows them to suggest some kind of correlation with bird feeder use compared to Dutch counterparts where no lengthening was observed. Could bird feeders really have had sufficient impact on brood size rates they discuss for great tits? For a start, is 4 micrometres actually significant at all in 2500 birds measured…that’s some pretty mean measuring but with a 25% error bar…?

Research paper is here:

Grace Darling

On the 7th of September 1838, having set out from Hull on a voyage to Dundee, the paddle steamer the SS Forfarshire with 61 aboard ran aground, with engine and other problems, in stormy weather on one of the Outer Farne Islands, Big Harcar (known locally as “Great Hawker”), off the Northumbrian coast.

A handful of those aboard escaped in a lifeboat but the lives another 9 were saved by the persistence of Grace Darling who persuaded her father, the Longstone Lighthouse keeper that they could row their 21-foot Northumberland Coble the 3/4 of a mile or so to Big Harcar and pick up survivors as the paddle steamer was torn apart on the rocks. On arrival, father William left Grace to hold the boat steady while he got three surviving crew and a passenger Mrs Dawson, whose children had been pulled from her by the sea, to the boat.

Darling’s bravery on that night became a national celebration of her heroism. The fame it brought her never sat comfortably even when the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland took her under their wing at their home, Alnwick Castle, and looked after the endless donations and the demands of portrait painters, journalists, and members of the public.

Tragically, just four years later, at the age of 26, Darling took ill and was sent back to her hometown of Bamburgh with its magnificent castle that stands majestically over the Northumbrian coast. She died of tuberculosis on the 20th October 1842.

As a coastal Northumbrian myself, I’ve carried this story with me since first hearing about Grace Darling at school, I even had some memorabilia in the form of a commemorative coin and booklet that was sold in aid of the Lifeboat Appeal in the early 1970s. There have been several songs about her over the years. It’s the 175th anniversary of her death this autumn (20th October 2017) so I have now at long last written and recorded my own homage to Grace Darling.


You were born by the castle on the sand
Although a child of the land your father lit the way
For every passing sail, and every steamer grand
But your life didn’t go quite as you planned
Though your end was not at sea

Oh Grace. You darling of the waves
Won’t you come and save us from the peril of the sea
Oh Grace. You darling of the brave
Now that you have saved us, won’t you stay with me

A ship was wrecked in ’38
on rocks that flanked the isle, despite the light
Your father gave. Though little more than a child,
you rowed across the waters bleak
To bring those souls to land
But all the fame you didn’t seek
Couldn’t save you from the sand

The night was black when you returned
to the castle on the sand
And all the life you ever lacked
consumed in your last stand

At 26 you’re laid to rest,
sea fret upon a distant deck
The light reflected in the eyes
of souls you saved from Longstone’s distant wreck

Popular on the Internet

I used to be popular on the internet, 20000 visitors every day to this website, but then web 2.0 happened and social media and hundreds of other science blogs and splogs…sciencebase diluted. But, there might be salvation…according to a recent marketing study, the subjects that people like to read about and share the most are celebrities, death, chocolate, coffee, cats, dogs, nostalgia and items with a musical connection.

So, all I need to do is write about some long-dead and much-loved rockstar who choked death on chocolate while drinking coffee and loved writing songs about their pets…

…that ought to bring the crowds back.

Why has the sun gone red today?

Odd weather we’re having right now. It’s 23 Celsius outside, albeit with a stiff windchill. The wind is apparently down to the ex-hurricane we know as Ophelia. The heat…definitely not what you’d expect for mid-October, more like late July, but probably a jet stream phenomenon combined with that tropical storm pushing warm air towards us (here in the South of England, anyway; your mileage may vary).

But, it’s 3 pm and the sun is looking distinctly like it’s a sunset but too high in the sky. The fact that the cars are all covered in desiccated, dusty raindrops from last night suggests we’ve had a load of dust blow northwards from the Sahara Desert. A quick Google confirms this. That said, there are forest fires in Spain and/or Portugal that would also generate plenty of dust.

Ophelia has stirred up a storm and carried megatonnes of dust into the atmosphere of the British Isles and elsewhere. As we know from high school science lessons (you were listening, weren’t you?) tiny particles of dust in the atmosphere scatter light of different wavelength to different degrees. So, the blue end of the spectrum of the white light from the sun is scattered away from your line of vision while the lower energy red is scattered so little it passes straight to your viewpoint.

Anyway, the fat ol’ sun, the hurricane sun, above was snapped at 3 pm on my Canon dSLR with a 600mm lens #nofilter. (Sunset isn’t for another 3 hours).

All that desert/fire dust might also explain the sore eyes Mrs Sciencebase and myself are both suffering today.

UPDATE: 17:25, half an hour before sunset, this is how it looks:

Three herons

You wait around all summer, waiting for a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) and then as the leaves start falling three come along all at once, cavorting and basking in the autumnal sunshine. They took flight when they saw me and the dog, but landed on the other side of the bridge, then began whirling back and forth across the road and landing within 15 metres for me to photograph them. Not sure whether that one in the upper photo was trying to get a better look at my lens or what…



Wren – Troglodytes troglodytes

At the time of writing, the UK’s Environment Agency is busy clearing reeds from the Cottenham Lode to allow the drain to do its job properly in the winter. The reed warblers, reed buntings, whitethroats, corn buntings, meadow pipits, linnets, yellowhammers, and others that spent the summer along the Lode and in the fields and hedgerows close to it all seem quiet or to have moved on. The warblers migrating to warmer climes, the buntings, pipits, and linnets maybe just hiding or perhaps having relocated away from close to the watercourse to elsewhere in the surrounding countryside.

However, I did spot one straggler. The UK’s smallest and most common native bird, the Wren. It was flitting in and out of the reeds and almost playing at reed warbler earlier today possibly taking its last chance to snatch at insects and spiders living among the water plants before that EA dredger scrapes them out of the water and dumps them on the bank of the flood defences.

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) – the name Wren comes from a German word of unknown origin. In old High German the bird is also known as a kuningilin meaning kinglet. The troglodytes of its scientific name comes from the Greek meaning something that dives into a (mouse) hole (or in a related sense a “cave dweller”). The doubling of the word makes it a tautonym, which I’ve mentioned before means this species is the “type” of the family.

Having stalked this particular specimen for a few minutes on a drizzly, lunchtime dog walk, I eventually got a decent snap of it clinging to a reed stump (see above) and also caught it as it took flight (below). I should add that this is probably the same specimen I photographed on this exact patch of reeds at the beginning of the year.

Clean your computer

There are lots of programs out there that purport to clean up your computer, removing temporary files, logs, installation residues and the like. Among the best was one that goes by the name of CCleaner. It’s been a useful tool over the years and I used to use it a lot. But, a few years ago I switched to Moo0 Disk Cleaner, which basically does the same job, freeing up hundreds of megabytes, if not a gigabyte or two of space on your PC with a click or two.

Nevertheless, CCleaner probably remains the more well known of the pair. But, I just heard that CCleaner was targeted by hackers and a lot of people who downloaded updates during August and September may well find that their machines were infected with malware. That said, it seems the attack payload was targeted at compromising computers on big company networks, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, and others. Individual home and small business users were probably at less risk.

This does highlight the risk you take when downloading software and keeping it up to date. Even if you have antivirus software running and scan all your downloads, if a program carries out an auto-update when a new version is online and that new version has been compromised, there’s a chance that your antivirus software will not have been updated in the interim and your PC could be infected. Hashtag: #ZeroDayAttack.

Piriform the company that distributes CCleaner quickly released a clean update and blocked the hackers and their infected servers. It was only the 32-bit version that was attacked and most users were probably on the 64-bit . Nevertheless, I suspect Piriform is still on red alert.

My recommendation: switch to Moo0 Cleaner. It’s far less well known and perhaps less of a target than the popular CCleaner.

The image above shows Moo0’s report after I’d already done a full clean and used the PC for a few minutes afterwards. Generally, there will be several hundred megabytes that accumulate on your disk over the course of a week’s use. To be honest, I don’t really need to clear a gigabyte of space each week as I have a 250GB SSD for OS and programs and a 1 TB hard disk for data on this PC and neither is even half full at the moment. Your mileage may vary.

Incidentally, do not let any computer cleaner “clean” your registry or your pre-fetch folders, that way is the road to ruin and a likely need to reinstall your entire operating system and programs at some point in the near future. Cleaners are best used to simply run a quick scrub of temporary/temp files, logs, windows update residues, browser caches, the recycle bin, and program installation left-behinds.

Mossy rose galls

I talked about oak apples at the end of the May, on Oak Apple Day by no coincidence, as it happens. But there are other kinds of galls. Here’s a mossy rose gall growing on a dog rose (Rosa canina) on the edge of local woodland.

Mossy rose gall

As with oak apples, these growths (a mossy rose gall, rose bedeguar gall, Robin’s pincushion gall, or moss gall) are the result of a type of wasp, in this case the tiny Diplolepis rosae, laying its eggs (approximately 60 of them) in an unopened leaf axillary or terminal bud. There is a chemically induced distortion of the bud, which triggers the rose to generate what is essentially a protective mesh around the eggs and then the larvae which will help them survive the winter until they emerge in Spring.

Apparently, there were several herbal remedies that used dried and powdered mossy rose galls to “treat” colic and to act as a diuretic, The ash was even mixed with honey and rubbed into the scalp to supposedly prevent baldness.

The “Robin” of the name Robin’s pincushion refers to Robin Goodfellow an alternative name for Puck, the impish character of English folklore, also referred to as a hobgoblin and made famous as Puck, referred to as Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin, appears as a vassal of the Fairy King Oberon in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.