Birds in Japan experiencing strange mutations, abnormal feather growth

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(NaturalNews) A researcher at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology (a branch of zoology that focuses on the study of birds) who has studied fowl near the city of Fukushima since the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami heavily damaged three nuclear power reactors there says he is noticing some changes among many of the region's birds, but he has yet to link those changes to radiation from the crippled plant.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily newspaper, Nakamura has visited a riverbed where the Abukuma River runs through the city of Fukushima 20 times since the quake, as well as taken trips to the city of Minami-Soma and the village of Iitate, in the same prefecture. The purpose of the trips is to gather and record data after analyzing birds he catches every 30 minutes, usually beginning around 4:00 a.m.

The data he gathers includes species, gender, wingspan and physical condition; after recording the data, he tags the legs of the birds and releases them. This "bird banding survey," as he calls it, is being conducted with the goal of learning about the birds' ecologies, migration routes and other information, the paper said:

The survey starts at sunrise and lasts for six hours. But the birds do not get trapped in the net so easily. On May 24, the "results" consisted of 18 birds, including great reed warblers, bull-headed shrikes and common kingfishers. Other than a great reed warbler with a parasitic disease in the leg, there was nothing particularly odd about the birds.

"In Iitate, I caught a Japanese bush warbler in the net yesterday," he said. "It had feathers missing from the back of its head, and its skin was dark on that part. I found the same thing last year and the year before in Minami-Soma. I don't know the reason. I need to study this more. Maybe I'll catch a Japanese bush warbler today."

On that day, he did not, the paper said.

Weird changes as yet unexplainable

The institute's first documented abnormal change following the 9.0 magnitude quake came near a body of water in the Niigata Prefecture; on Oct. 24, 2011, a common reed bunting -- which is a small migratory species -- was found with uneven tail feathers which had a moth-eaten appearance.

Following the finding, the institute began conducting emergency surveys at 14 prefectures from the northeastern Tohoku region south to the Kyushu region.

"Bird banding surveys of the common reed bunting began in 1961, and nearly 480,000 of the birds have been examined," Kiyoaki Ozaki, deputy director-general of the institute, told the paper. "The tail feathers on the chicks and the adults have different shapes, so we monitor them closely. But this sort of abnormality hasn't been reported before. I've seen thousands of the birds, but it was the first time for me to see tail feathers like these."

The researchers say the most confusing aspect of their findings are overly long feathers. For instance, they note that the common reed bunting's body is normally around 15 cm long, and its feathers grow reliably to a certain length. Birds not yet fully grown may have shorter feathers, but Ozaki said he could not imagine any reason why they would be longer.

The scientists said that, by March 2012, a year after the incident, the same abnormality was found at all research sites across the country. The proportion of birds found with the abnormality stood at 13.8 percent.

'Not out of the realm of possibility' that changes are radiation-related

And in at least one place, the ratio exceeded one-quarter of all birds found; birds born in 2011 account for more than 97 percent of specimens with the abnormality.

The Asahi Shimbun further reported:

When feathers begin to grow, they are wrapped in a sheath-like structure. Researchers have found feathers that already appear moth-eaten when they split open the sheath. Some birds even grew back feathers with the same deformity after the researchers plucked out older, misshapen feathers.

"There is something unusual occurring inside the birds' bodies, perhaps with their genes or hormone secretion," Ozaki said. "That is a possibility, I think."

And yet the researchers say they don't yet know why. They do admit, however, that it is "in the realm of possibility" that the changes and abnormalities could be caused by radioactive fallout from the damaged power plant.

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