Saturday, July 30, 2005

IBWO Streaming Interview

Female ivory-billed woodpecker at her nest entrance.
Jim Tanner, 1937

Living on Earth has a streaming interview with Jerome Jackson and Tim Gallagher that you might be interested to hear. The transcript is also present on this page. This interview is available in mp3 and RealAudio formats.

Here is a 1935 video of an ivory-billed woodpecker working on a tree trunk.

If you don't already think that ornithologists are nuts, look at this video from the 1935 expedition in northern Louisiana to find the IBWO.

Links courtesy of the Ivory-billed woodpecker conservation stamp print, where they also have other links that have appeared here previously.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, July 29, 2005

Petition for emergency listing for the Red Knot

I learned today that a coalition of environmental groups, including the New Jersey Audubon, the Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Audubon Society have begun proceedings to have the rufa subspecies of the red knot, Calidris canutus, protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As you know from reading previous issues of Birds in the News, red knot populations have declined globally in recent decades, and the rufa subspecies, which migrates along the east coast of the United States, has plummeted by as much as 60% since the late 1980s.

The rufa subspecies winters in Tierra del Fuego and other parts of South America, and migrates some 9,000 miles to its Arctic breeding grounds in Canada. Along the way, the birds concentrate in vast numbers at staging areas to refuel and rest, which makes them particularly vulnerable. Delaware Bay is the most important of these stop-off points, where the knots feed on the eggs of horseshoe crabs to sustain them on their long journey north.

Overharvesting of horseshoe crabs by fishermen for use as bait in conch and eel pots has been linked to these declines in red knots. This is alarming because the red knot has evolved a relatively long lifespan and a commensurately low reproductive rate. Thus, even if everything was set right today, it will take these birds a long time to recover their former numbers. Conservationists have noted that although the population still numbers in the tens of thousands, it is rapidly crashing and they predict that the red knot could become extinct in ten years if the current rate of decline continues.

ABC and National Audubon Society have led efforts to protect horseshoe crabs, and the knots and other shorebirds that rely on their eggs. These efforts appear to be paying off, as the 2004 take of crabs reached its lowest levels in more than a decade. In 2004, crab landings in Delaware Bay, a critical place for both crabs and shorebirds, fell by 53% from 2003 levels. Coastwide landings dropped to just 630,000 crabs. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will initiate a public comment period if they decide to proceed with the listing process.


Image source: Wildlife Conservation Society: Red Knot Migration and Horseshoe Crab Conservation in the Delaware Bay.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Birds in the News #20

Photographer: Gene Oleynik, FermiLab

Birds in Science:

It was widely reported in the news that the space shuttle collided with a bird during its recent launch. These stories discuss how the astronauts are scanning the shuttle’s heat shield for potential damage using a new extension of the craft's robot arm.

Researchers report that club-winged manakins, Machaeropterus deliciosus, rub specialized feathers behind their backs to impress mates with a violin-like sound, researchers report. The manakins vibrate their wings at more than 100 cycles per second, twice the speed of hummingbirds. “Essentially an instrument has evolved in this species, in this case a refined instrument,” said Cornell University’s Kimberly Bostwick, the lead author. The findings are published in today's issue of the top-tier research journal Science.

These days, it seems, even the moral values of birds are subject to scrutiny. To investigate the spousal fidelity of eastern imperial eagles, Aquila heliaca heliaca, large raptors that are native to central Asia, a team of surreptitious scientists collected feathers the birds had shed near their nests in northern Kazakhstan. Extracting and analyzing DNA from the feathers confirmed that not a single eagle had strayed from its mate during the course of the six-year study - a degree of monogamy unusual among birds. In more than 75 percent of avian species looked at so far, researchers have discovered broods that have two or more fathers.

A rare bird-of-prey species, on the verge of becoming the focus of a last-ditch captive breeding program, doesn't exist, say researchers who studying the genes of the Cape Verde kite, Milvus fasciicauda. By comparing the mitochondrial DNA of five living Cape Verde kites with those of century-old museum specimens and related kites in Africa, Eurasia and Australia, researchers at the University of Michigan and the Peregrine Fund have discovered that the nearly extinct Cape Verde kite is really a couple of other common kites, depending on when you look. The results of the study by Mindell, and the Peregrine Fund's Jeff Johnson and Richard Watson, appear in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Last week, nearly 2,000 of the world's leading environmental scientists of various disciplines met in Brasilia to present papers at the 19th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology. The conference featured more than 750 oral presentations and 965 scientific abstracts. Listed on this link are a sampling of some of the bird conservation-related papers submitted for the conference. All descriptions are excepts from the official "Book of Abstracts" from the meeting.

People Hurting Birds:

Authorities are trying to figure out who took four endangered piping plovers, Charadrius melodus, from the sands of Duxbury Beach earlier this month. The alleged theft occurred on July 10 in this town 33 miles south of Boston. On that Sunday afternoon, shocked beachgoers reported seeing a woman and a teenager picking up piping plovers from a fenced-off area of the beach. Throughout the 19th century, piping plovers were hunted for their feathers, which were used to decorate hats. The species was nearly wiped out until federal protection laws were passed in 1918. Since then, piping plovers have slowly recovered. More recent news about piping plovers.

People Helping Birds:

The Humber Estuary has become one of the most successful breeding grounds for a rare British bird. More than 100 pairs of pied avocets, Recurvirostra avosetta (pictured), have nested on Reads Island this year, raising at least 120 chicks.

Well, who would have thought it, but there are bald eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, nesting within a couple blocks of where I myself nest in Manhattan! Apparently, four fledgling raptors are calling a platform above the Inwood Hill Park their home, as part of a city Parks Department project to reintroduce this iconic bird to New York. The article has a link to a live feed of the birds.

Following a 98% crash in numbers due to predation by feral housecats, the seabird population on Ascension Island is beginning to recover its numbers, mostly confined to those birds nesting on offshore stacks and inaccessible cliffs. After finally removing the last of the feral housecats from the islands in early 2004, the Ascension Seabird Restoration Project has released a special stamp commemorating the return of some of the endemic seabird species.

Two osprey chicks, Pandion haliaetus, were getting ready to fly for the first time at Glaslyn, in Northern Wales, UK. Experts ringed the fledglings at the same time when they weighed and measured them, determined to keep track of them.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker News:

This is an interesting story about a woman who saw the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, in the Cache NWR in Arkansas in April 2005 (just before the public announcement). Incidentally, she was not part of the Cornell Team nor was her sighting mentioned in either the Science article or Gallagher's book.

Southeastern wildlife officials plan to gather next month to decide how far to expand their search for the recently rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker - and the path could lead to Georgia. The bird once lived across the Southeast, including the Altamaha and Savannah rivers and the Okefenokee Swamp. "It would be a long shot, but if we were going to find it, it would be in places like that," said Terry Johnson, manager of the nongame endangered wildlife program for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Birds in the Media:

The loquacious chat starts this week out on BirdNote, followed by peregrines, Falco peregrinus and shorebirds; the red crossbill, Loxia curvirostra; birds that are named for their call or song; and the gray jay, Perisoreus canadensis. Check out the schedule and see photographs of the birds here. Also available as an RSS/PodCast Feed.

I have linked to this website before, but I am doing it again in case you missed it the first time. This website has collected a gazillion nesting bird cam links from around the planet for your viewing pleasure. They are categorized by species.

Bird Mysteries:

The mysterious deaths of at least 300 egrets in a Guangzhou forest park sparked fears that the bird flu was to blame, the South China Morning Post reported Monday. Residents in the area, who said they had discovered the birds in the past few days, estimated the death toll had reached 300. Some villagers blamed the heat, but others feared it was linked to the bird-flu virus and urged the government to investigate.

The recent sighting of a rare hummingbird has bird biologists in Texas almost giddy. A white-eared hummingbird, Hylocharis leucotis, spotted in Lubbock earlier this month was the first to be seen in the South Plains and Panhandle regions, according to the Llano Estacado Audubon Society. Eight other individuals have been seen in West Texas this year. Between 1972 and the end of last year, only 14 had been sighted in Texas. GrrlScientist wonders: Is this a range expansion for this species? If so, is this a precursor to range expansions by other tropical birds?

Birds Telling Off People:

I couldn't resist sharing this short but amusing story with you. In Britain, Barney the five-year-old blue-and-yellow macaw, Ara ararauna, can now be seen only on special request, like the British Library's collection of erotic books, in case he turns on potential donors or gives a dreadful example to visiting children. He was placed in solitary confinement after swearing repeatedly at distinguished visitors including a mayor, a vicar and two police officers.

Worthy of Another Mention:

I link to DigiMorph every so often because it is so excellent and I want to be sure that people are aware of its existence.

Thanks to my bird pals Ellen, Laura, Karl, Ron, and Fred for some of these links that you are enjoying.

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Academic Job Offer: 1 -- Adjunct Assistant Professor at a local university this autumn, teaching Evolution.

Non-academic Job Interview: 1 -- I got the job in a bookstore -- for $7.50 per hour. Now I can work full-time AND be homeless.

New Development: This morning, the acting department chair sent me email, asking if I wish to be appointed as a full-time Adjunct Assistant Professor at my little school on the hill. I don't know all the details because the department chair is presently on vacation and she is the one who can tell me more, but they say that my current teaching load will remain unchanged (I teach a lot, apparently). They say that I will be assigned a modest amount of non-teaching tasks, and -- best of all -- my wages will increase by approximately 40%! I need to find out how this will affect my research time and will I get benefits? etc. I am also going to purchase that laptop that I have had my eye on!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Some of you might know that I am an evolutionary biologist who is currently unemployed. While I continue my two-year long job search, I have been trying to survive by working as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at a local college, a job that barely pays my rent, and as a freelance writer and an animal care provider, in an attempt to pay all my other bills. Most of my animal care clients are cats, although I do care for some dogs and, when I am lucky, even a few parrots.

This week, I am caring for a certain feline whom I will refer to here as HellKitty* while her human vacations in a remote region in China. As her pseudonym implies, this cat is the most miserable and hateful creature I've ever met. HellKitty is hugely overweight, can barely walk and apparently spends all of her time sleeping or eating. Because HellKitty was recovering from anesthesia the day when I first met her, I was blissfully unaware of the depth of her passions. It turns out that she had visited her veterinarian (whom she also despises) earlier that same day, and he had trimmed and filed her claws smooth and had shorn off all of her long, thick fur, exposing her 22 pounds of righteous outrage to the world.

She looked ridiculous and she knew it.

Initially, during our introductory pre-cat sitting meeting, HellKitty gave me a friendly and interested sniff but, quickly realizing her mistake, she immediately set about correcting it by hiding under the bed, growling and hissing ferociously. HellKitty's human slave, whom she apparently only tolerates, feigned confusion about her "uncharacteristic aggression", blaming the anesthesia. I was clearly too astonished by her behavior to correctly read the warning signs and back out of this job before it was too late.

Usually, feline personality disorders such as these are not a problem for cat sitting, except in those rare cases where the cat sitter is required to routinely violate the cat's personal boundaries. Unfortunately, HellKitty is a rare case because she suffers from diabetes mellitus and thus, must have insulin injections every 12 hours, or she will die. This of course means that the cat sitter (me) has to touch her twice per day. My mistake; HellKitty never gave me permission to touch her and there was nothing I could say or do to convince her otherwise. After working with HellKitty for four days, I have concluded that she is not especially bothered by the insulin injections as most people might suspect, but instead, she simply hates people and she especially hates to be touched by strangers.

When I was a very young kid, I was attacked by a cat as I took the garbage out. It was a warm summer evening, and I remember seeing a beautiful Siamese cat sitting on the back porch looking at me as I walked to the compost pile. I reached my open hand out towards the cat and suddenly, I found the cat hanging off my left arm by its claws, its teeth moving up and down my arm like a cartoon chicken pecking its way up and down an ear of corn. It seemed that I stood there for at least an hour in horrified fascination, watching this cat's teeth punching their way through my flesh like twin sewing machine needles and seeing red, red blood spurt in all directions. It was like watching a movie.

I heard the plastic bowl containing the garbage drop to the cool green grass with a soft plop as I reached out my right hand to slap the cat, startling it such that it went flying from my arm and ran into the alfalfa field a short distance away. Much of the rest of that day and the next is a blur, but I do remember sitting in a hospital room being questioned at great length by medical doctors, veterinarians and animal control officers about the cat. The Cat, The Cat, The Cat.

I remember telling them that it was all my fault, that I should not have tried to pet The Cat.

I also recall that the result of this discussion was that I almost was subjected to rabies vaccinations -- they were described to me as having a foot-long needle jabbed through your belly button and into your spine once per day for 30 days. I remember trying visualize in my mind's eye what a foot-long needle might have looked like, what it could have felt like as it poked through my guts and finally pierced my spinal cord. I realize now that this vision gave me nightmares for years afterwards. In view of this, it's odd that I am not afraid of cats (nor needles), that I am actually quite fond of cats (and I tolerate needles).

So here I am, a few decades later, trapped in a tiny Manhattan apartment, facing down a partially shaven cat who is screeching like a mountain lion while I hold a teeny-tiny needle in my hand. After I wrapped a thick towel around HellKitty's body and pinned her down so that I would not be bitten, I injected her in the scruff of the neck with the life-saving insulin. I then released her and jumped back as quickly as possible, watching her struggle free of the towel, screeching madly all the while.

As I left the apartment, I found myself sweating and shaking uncontrollably, feeling faint. Inexplicably, I could smell sweet green alfalfa ripening under the summer sun and I could hear the distant echo of a screeching cat as it methodically bit its way up and down a tanned child's arm, leaving scars that I carry to this day.


* Not her real name, although it ought to be.

NOTE: the picture (above, top) is not HellKitty, it is an imposter. But it gives you an idea what HellKitty's haircut looks like.

This story was included with the 71st issue of The Carnival of Cats,
"Best of Cat Blogging".


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Blog Carnival Daily Double

The Tangled Bank

I was feeling uncharacteristically bold recently and submitted an essay I wrote to the latest Tangled Bank and also to the Education Carnival, wondering if either one would like it well enough to accept it. Amazingly (to me, anyway), both of them accepted it. Simply shocking, I know, since this essay is not a thoughtful analysis piece (you know, the sort of thing that I like to write when I have a few minutes to think about things and when I am not battling that potent malaise that grips my soul).

Anyway, to celebrate this public exposure, I did add a picture to the piece, a picture that hopefully adds a little er, "atmosphere".


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Wizard's Apprentices' Last Day

Today was my students' last day as Wizard's Apprentices. After today, they all will have finished their one required lab course (this was a basic "survey of biology and chemistry" course) and will return to complete their business, accounting or english degrees as they work their way towards their bright and shining futures as tomorrow's Masters of the Universe.

I spent 2 hours this morning preparing their lab practicum, which examined them over the anatomy of the fetal pig, Sus scrofa, that they have been intensively exploring during the second half of the semester. This exam consisted of 30 questions, one per "station", where a student's fetal pig dissection would be lying in a pan on its back, splay-legged, guts obvious to the world. A pin sporting a small, numbered piece of tape was stuck into a particular structure or organ that the students had to identify. Each student was given one minute to identify each item as they moved from station to station in unison (well, more or less). Later, the lecture professor, who acts as the lab sections supervisor, told me that he thought the exam was "beautifully done." I should take some pride in that, I suppose.

I, on the other hand, was somewhat disappointed by this exam because all the other instructors decided that the students (non-majors, after all) should only have to identify particular organs and structures, but were not required to know anything at all about the physiology (the special function) of each structure. I think this lack of required knowledge placed these students at a disadvantage because part of identifying something is to know a little about what it does. Or so I think because that's how I learn best.

After I had finished setting up the practicum, I found myself with a few minutes remaining before the exam was scheduled to begin, so I ran through the sweltering heat to the science building for an iced latte as a treat to myself. I later realized this was a mistake as I tried to move errant pins back to their proper location with shaking hands.

The exam didn't take long, as I had planned. My students, who seemed to prefer talking to me rather than taking the exam, had to be reminded repeatedly that this is a final exam, not a somewhat smelly social hour at the nearby pub. But really, I spent those last minutes with them secretly feeling happy that they still wanted to speak to me.

Almost all of my students are of the Jewish faith and many of them did not like hearing about evolution -- at first. But I think I did reach most them (I am not sure how I managed this) because they all became more comfortable and interested to discuss evolutionary theory with me as the semester progressed. This freedom to speak so freely with them about evolution was tremendously satisfying to me.

Of course, we all shared a passion for Harry Potter, which might have been how we connected. Shortly after the semester began, one of my students cautiously informed me during classtime that they had all agreed that I reminded them of Professor McGonagall -- this was before they knew of my passion for Harry Potter. I was surprised and complimented. I can only suppose that my lab section (there were four in total) was thought of as Gryffindor House, although none of us mentioned it. A few days later, I accidentally referred to the lecture professor in front of my students as "Professor Binns" (as mentioned in an earlier essay on this blog -- let this be a lesson to you all regarding the nicknames you choose in your blogging for your associates). My students, whom I had been referring to as "my Wizarding Apprentices", laughed and began referring to him that way, too. Oh, and don't let me forget to mention that, after finishing the taxonomy lab, the entire class had a great time trying to figure out the proper classification for hippogriffs, unicorns, and centaurs!

But today, it all ended as abruptly as it started.

Today, I realized that I am probably the last real interaction that most of these people will ever have with a scientist, or with science and evolution. I hope that I did a good job, that they learned something that interested them, that they learned something that they can take with them always, as I told them several times during class. I hope they saw the astonishing beauty that was before them every day, disguised as a pig. I hope that they grew to appreciate science and her practitioners. I hope that I had made a subtle difference in their lives and in how they think about things. And also, selfishly, I hope they will not forget me.

After the exam was over, I packed up my books and answer papers and walked out the door to find one of my students waiting for me.

"Thanks, Professor," she smiled at me. "I learned so much from you. Now I want to take an anatomy class!"


Image sources;

Purchase College, State University of New York (no, I am not affiliated with them)

Holy Trinity School (no, I am not affiliated with them, either).

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue #34.

Included in the Carnival of Education Issue #26,
the Best of Education Blog Writing.

technorati tags: , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Saturday, July 23, 2005

IBWO: Insider Comment on the ID Challenge

This email regarding the ivory-billed woodpecker was forwarded to me by a longtime bird pal of mine;

Actually, I am not on any side with regard to the paper's contention that the video doesn't support the assertion that IBWO still exists. It is just a crummy video. I thought Cornell made a mistake by not including all the audio evidence they have at the time of their initial publication. Apparently they made the judgment that the specificity of audio evidence is insufficiently well known among the public at large that they would publish it later for what they thought would be a narrower audience.

I eagerly await the analysis of Prum, Robbins and Jackson. And the rebuttal by Fitzpatrick, et al. And the re-rebuttal by Prum, et al.

When we were taken into the confidence of TNC and Cornell, we were told that there was no picture. They desperately needed a picture! David Luneau, who captured the video, sat right across the table from me and didn't say a word. Well, they still need a picture! Given how super-wary that bird is, I think Elvis is going to have to trip the shutter on himself.


(This forwarded email was published from a nearby public library, while others of the public loudly bitch and whine in the background, demanding their own ten minutes of internet access).


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

IBWO: Streaming Update

National Public Radio's Christopher Joyce (All Things Considered) has an update on the ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWO) controversy that you might be interested to listen to.

(This was published from a nearby public library)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, July 22, 2005

Birds in the News #19

Birds in Science:

A newly published paper in the top-tier scientific journal, Nature, reveals that predatory dinosaurs had bird-like pulmonary system. "What was once formally considered unique to birds was present in some form in the ancestors of birds," said Patrick O'Connor, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine and lead author on the study, which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Birds long have fascinated biologists because of their unusual pulmonary system. Pulmonary air sacs prompt air to pass through the lungs twice during ventilation, which makes it the most efficient ever known. This system also creates holes in the skeleton of birds, which has led to a popular notion that birds have "air in their bones," O'Connor said. [An added bonus for you, dear readers, is PZ Myers' fine piece describing the dinosaur (and bird) respiratory system.]

The lovely Eclectus parrot, Eclectus roratus, endemic to Australia and several South Pacific islands, has always mystified humans with their astonishing colors. Unlike most parrot species, this species has color-coded males and females (dimorphic plumage coloration); males are brilliant emerald while females are shocking scarlet. So different are the sexes that for many decades, the males and females were classified as different species! Why are female Eclectus parrots more brightly colored than their mates? Australian National University researcher Robert Heinsohn and colleagues studied this centuries-old question by looking at the birds through avian eyes. Basically, the female's brilliant coloring comes in handy before nesting. Since nest cavities are rare commodities and because a competitor's first view of a potential nest tree is typically from above where the resident female spends most of her time just prior to breeding, her brilliant colors let others know this nest cavity is taken! This research was published today in the top-tier scientific journal, Science.

This is exactly what george bush wants to hear: Local toxic hotspots in the Arctic are caused by .. sea birds! Canadian researchers, Jules Blais of the University of Ottawa, Ontario, and colleagues, found that lakes in the Arctic that are frequented by northern fulmars, Fulmarus glacialis, can harbour 10-60 times more pollutants than neighbouring, birdless lakes. Pollutants enter the water in the birds' excrement, researchers say. These pollutants include persistent, toxic compounds such as mercury, DDT and hexachlorobenzene (HCB), which were once common ingredients in pesticides and fungicides. This research was published in the top-tier scientific journal, Science.

Scientists discovered that introduced house mice gang up on endangered albatross and kill their chicks. On one of the Earth's most remote islands, Gough Island, a speck in the Atlantic between the southern tips of Africa and South America, mice have learned, and are apparently teaching each other, how to attack and kill bird chicks that are 200 times their size. Scientists found that Tristan albatrosses, Diomedea dabbenena, were losing their chicks at an extremely high rate: up to 80% were dying. Husband-and-wife team Ross Wanless and Andrea Angel spent a year on the island videotaping birds' nests and the videos confirm that mice are taking on the chicks, biting them over and over until they die from loss of blood or infection. Wanless, an invasive-species biologist from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, vividly recalls watching the first videos. "It was carnage. Chicks half alive, with massive gaping wounds and guts hanging out." The mice take advantage of the fact that the birds, which have evolved in an area that has been without land predators for millions of years, have no defensive response against such attacks.

Bird Flu News:

In the admirable spirit of the 2005 Bush administration and the 1930s Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, the Chinese government is ignoring science that it finds "inconvenient". The head of the ministry of agriculture's veterinary bureau, Jia Youling, has rejected research on bird flu published last week in the top-tier scientific journal, Nature, by Yi Guan and his colleagues at the universities of Hong Kong and Shantou. The paper concluded from genetic analysis that the H5N1 bird flu killing migratory birds at Qinghai Lake in northwest China had come from southern China and an independent team in Beijing reported similar findings. Stubborn Chinese officials instead claimed that the virus came from another country. Last week Jia told the official Xinhua news service that Guan's paper "made the wrong conclusion" and "lacks credibility" because birds do not fly to Qinghai from southern China - even though this is a well-known migratory route (click for pictorial link detailing avian migratory routes, also see a more detailed account of Chinese avian migratory routes). Stubborn Chinese officials go one step further than the current American administration by claiming that Guan's group did not go to Qinghai nor did they have permission to do the research, and that his lab does not meet safety standards.

In closely related news, so-called "Trojan Ducks" might be spreading avian influenza throughout Asia, thanks to a mutation in the viral genome that renders it harmless to ducks but deadly to other birds, animals and humans. The H5N1 strain of the virus has been circulating in Southeast Asia since 2002, killing dozens of people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. At least 97 people have been infected.

Because the Thai people love their fighting cocks to death and refuse to stop or postpone the vile practice of cockfighting despite the threat of avian influenza, Thai officials now issue passports for every cock that records his recent health history to ensure the widely-traveled birds do not add to the spread of avian influenza. The "passport" features the name of the cock's owner, as well as photos of the bird, and close-ups of its shins and head, said Yukol Limlaemthong, head of the Livestock Development Department. Thais are devoted to cockfighting, and prize birds can carry price tags of up to 1 million baht ($23,900).

Birds and Harry Potter:

As you all might have surmised from my official blog handle (Hedwig the owl), I am a very devoted fan of the Harry Potter book series. So in honor of the newly released and much anticipated book number 6, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, I was sent the link to this wonderful webpage by Laura Erickson, The Owls of Harry Potter. Interestingly, Laura, whom I correspond with privately, goes by the moniker "Professor McGonagowl" while lecturing publically about owls. Coincidentally, my own students (wizarding apprentices all), decided within the first few days of class that I reminded them of Professor McGonagall (obviously my attempts to impersonate Professor Snape were unsuccessful). [Pictured above: Harry Potter and his pet, Hedwig, the snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus]

Birds in the Media:

Featured this week on the streaming show, BirdNote, were Rock Pigeons, Columba livia -- and why they walk the way they do; the Tufted Puffin, Fratercula cirrhata; the Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, and plumage that protects. You can find a linked archive of all past shows and links to other sites of interest at this site. BirdNote can be heard M-F, 8:58-9:00 am on a variety of National Public Radio affiliates throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia, otherwise, if you live elsewhere, you can get this show streaming on the web.

Speaking of books, I cannot resist telling you that the latest catalog from Princeton University Press shows that Joseph M. Forshaw will release his NEW Parrots of the World in February 2006 at $65.00. Guess who is planning to scoop even more cat turds so she can save those extra pennies, nickles and dimes in eager anticipation for this day? [These names are for Ian, who is going to buy me a copy of this book (aren't ya??): species shown on the book cover (top to bottom and left to right); hyacinthine macaw, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus; red-fronted(?) conure, Aratinga wagleri; black-masked lovebird, Agapornis personata, salmon-crested cockatoo, Cacatua moluccensis; blue-streaked lory, Eos reticulata; Bourke's Parrot, Neophema bourkii; Eastern rosella, Platycercus eximius]

Bird Mysteries:

In a previous issue of Birds in the News, I linked to a news story that described the mysterious abandonment of nests by 28,000 pelicans at a wildlife refuge central North Dakota. The plot thickens because this year, US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) officials are investigating the mysterious deaths of thousands of pelican chicks in this same location. At least 8,000 chicks may have died over the past two months, said Ken Torkelson, a spokesman for the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The USFWS found that approximately 500 chicks remain from a nesting period that could have produced as many as 9,000 of them. All but about 2,000 adults had left, from a population estimated at 18,850 in late May. White pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, are one of the largest birds in North America, breeds only once a year, and males and females take turns caring for their young. The birds have a wingspan of nearly 10 feet and live approximately 25 years.

With a record number of dead seabirds washing up on West Coast beaches from central California to British Columbia, marine biologists are raising the alarm about rising ocean temperatures and dwindling plankton populations. "Something big is going on out there," said Julia Parrish, an associate professor in the School of Aquatic Fisheries and Sciences at the University of Washington. "I'm left with no obvious smoking gun, but birds are a good signal [of environmental disaster] because they feed high up on the food chain." On Washington beaches, bird surveyors in May typically find an average of one dead Brandt's cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus, for every 34 miles of beach. This year, cormorant deaths averaged one for every eight-tenths of a mile, according to data gathered by volunteers with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, which Parrish has directed since 2000. "This is somewhere between five and 10 times the highest number of bird deaths we've seen before," she said, adding that she expected June figures to show a similar trend.

People Hurting Birds:

Figures from the British Trust for Ornithology's (BTO) breeding bird census identified an alarming 62 per cent reduction in Scotland's swift population between 1994 and 2003. The problem for swifts, Apus apus, is one of accommodation; the buildings where they traditionally nest are demolished or renovated without any provision being made for replacement nest sites. "Many of our swifts nest in church towers and other buildings," says Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of land use policy for the RSPB in Scotland, adding that modern building methods and materials such as the soffit and fascia boards for sealing roofs all too often stop the birds from getting inside the roofing. "And they are very traditional nesters," he adds. "They will come back to the same site, sometimes for hundreds of years."

Have you ever held a dead eagle? The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act says that anyone who so much as collects a fallen eagle feather off a forest floor could face as much as a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Despite these tight regulations, the system of legal protections and government-controlled distribution of eagle parts to Native Americans is showing signs of breaking down and the demand for eagle feathers is soaring. Black-market prices for eagle feathers and parts are climbing and that could set off a wave of poaching — with disastrous results.

People Helping Birds:

Scientists report good news for another endangered woodpecker species; the population of the severely endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, Picoides borealis, has increased: family groups with three birds or more have increased nearly 30 percent, from 4,694 in 1994 to 6,061. Farming, clear-cutting and commercial forestry deprived them of critical habitat and the woodpeckers were declared endangered in 1970. The Fish and Wildlife Service launched a program in the 1990s to save them. "We have turned the corner," said Ralph Costa, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's red-cockaded woodpecker recovery coordinator in Clemson, S.C.

Carrying binoculars and notebooks, thousands of nature lovers and conservationists scoured semiarid grasslands of western India last Sunday to count a bird considered on the brink of extinction. The great Indian bustard, Ardeotis nigriceps, is long-legged with a black crown on its forehead and stands up to 3 1/2 feet tall. It breeds in grassy plains in western India and its dwindling numbers are the first warning that the grasslands are deteriorating. "Never before has a census been done on such a scale," said conservationist D.R. Panihar about the launch of the first in a series of efforts to protect the bird. "The situation is so alarming that if effective conservation steps are not taken the great Indian bustard will be extinct soon." India ranks third after Indonesia and the Philippines among Asian countries with the most threatened species of birds. Hunting and livestock grazing are the main reasons for halving the population of the great Indian bustard in India in the past six years.

In Hornell, New York, city employees saved an American kestrel chick, Falco sparverius. The hapless fledgling was found floating in a mud puddle in the city garage during one of the region's hideous downpours. The parent birds recently left the fledgling behind to fend for itself, according to Department of Public Works Foreman Mitch Cornish. Thanks to these human heroes, there is one more American kestrel alive today. This short story includes a very cute picture of the rescued bird.

Depending upon the outcome, this story could have either gone into this category or into "People Hurting Birds". In Port Orchard, Washington, a group of feral quaker parrots (also known as the monk parakeet), Myiopsitta monachus, protested vehemently when an expert tore apart the nest they'd built on a decommissioned cellular-phone tower. Fred Olin, a local resident and bird lover, circulated a petition opposing the birds' capture and collected more than 1,000 signatures. Supporters hope the birds will rebuild their nest in Cingular's new cell tower, which is approximately twice as tall as the old 60-footer.

Peculiar Birds:

In Moessingen, Germany, birds have learnt to imitate the ring tones of omnipresent cell phones, say German ornithologists. Jackdaws, starlings and jays were the best mimics, said said Richard Schneider of the NABU Bird Conservation Center near the university city of Tuebingen, Germany. He noted that even practiced birdwatchers [and cell phone chatterers?] were fooled by the birds' ring tones. The birds were simply adapting to their environment in imitating human sounds in what he termed an "evolutionary playground". "The birds have an uncanny ability to mimic these ring tones. This has picked up in tandem with the boom in mobile phone ownership," said Schneider.

Many thanks to my bird watching pals Ian, Caren, Ellen, Robin, Laura, Fred and Ron for sending me some of the links that you are enjoying in this issue of Birds in the News.

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Academic Job Interview Requests: 1

Academic Job Rejections: 1 (from a crappy school, so it doesn't matter)

Non-academic Job Negotiations: wonder of wonders, my little blog might have helped me find a writing job. More details on this if and when I have them.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Thursday, July 21, 2005

IBWO Fans and mp3 Fans Unite!

A friend, who asked me to promise to not reveal what I know to anyone about the IBWO dispute, sent me an mp3 to make up for the fact that the entire world scooped me on this story. Anyway, I want to share this song with you; The Lord God Bird (mp3 link), was written by Sufjan Stevens at the request of my heroes, National Public Radio (NPR). The Lord God Bird (and I do mean the song and not the bird) exists because independent radio producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister were curious about how Stevens writes his songs, which, much like their own work, are filled with stories of places and people. So, they introduced Stevens to the Arkansas town of Brinkley, located close to where the IBWO was first rediscovered. Stevens then wrote a song about the IBWO, locally known as the "lord god" or "great god" bird because of its breathtaking appearance. The Lord God Bird is currently rated as the 72nd most popular download by The Podcast Directory and is only available from NPR.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis.
1. Adult female; 2. Adult female; 3. Adult male; 4. Adult female.

2002, David Allen Sibley.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

IBWO: This Just Out

I guess I can stop keeping my promise to keep my mouth shut about what I know about the ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWO), since everyone in the world is talking about it now.


The identity of the authors certainly answers my question posed to Timothy Gallagher in the interview with him that I published on my blog as to why Jerome Jackson was not part of the original search team. Mr. Gallagher never did satisfactorily answer my question, as you'll notice.

The story as it stands today: The paper that questions the IBWO discovery was written by Richard O. Prum and Mark B. Robbins, ornithologists at Yale and the University of Kansas, and by Jerome A. Jackson, a zoologist at Florida Gulf Coast University and the author of the fine book, In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, published in 2004 (pictured) and the Birds of North America account for this species. This paper has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, which could post the analysis online within a few weeks.

But the paper will be accompanied by a fierce rebuttal by the team that announced the discovery, and a response to that rebuttal by the challengers. "The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got an ivory-billed woodpecker," Dr. Robbins said in an interview.

Everyone agrees that the bird that appears on the video tape is either an ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, or a pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, a slightly smaller bird that is relatively common. Both species have a mix of white and black plumage. However, the ivory-billed woodpecker has a white trailing edge to its wings [the drawing by Tim Gallagher shows the white "trailing edge" of the wings of the bird he saw in flight in the field (right)] while the pileated woodpecker has a black trailing edge.

"In my opinion," Mr. Jackson wrote in an e-mail message on Wednesday, "the data presented thus far do no more than suggest the possibility of the presence of an ivory-billed woodpecker. I am most certainly not saying that ivory-billed woodpeckers are not out there. I truly hope that the birds do exist in Arkansas or elsewhere and have been championing this idea for a long time."

For those of you who wonder what is happening regarding this bird, John W. Fitzpatrick, co-leader of the IBWO search party and director of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, said it was normal for scientists to disagree about evidence of this sort, especially because in this case the video in question was "pretty crummy."

To recap the evidence so far;

The video of the IBWO flying away from the boat (in the distance). This video is under dispute as to the species of the bird seen.

The abstract of the paper published in the journal, Science.

The Science paper announcing the IBWO discovery, also includes a link to the PDF of the complete paper and other links to the film, viewable in a variety of formats.

The excellent National Public Radio story, both print and streaming.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Smithsonian Releases never-Seen-Before Scopes Trial Photographs

This just arrived from my friend, Ian: Rare, unpublished photographs from 1925 Tennessee vs. John Scopes "Monkey Trial" were recently discovered in the Smithsonian Archives by Marcel C. LaFollette, an independent scholar, historian and Smithsonian volunteer. In 2005, the Smithsonian Institution restored fifty-two of the negatives with funds granted by the Smithsonian Women's Committee. The linked page shows twelve of these images. All photographs were taken by Watson Davis, Managing Editor of Science Service, while he was in Dayton, Tennessee, June 4-5, 1925, and July 10-22, 1925.

John Thomas Scopes was tried and convicted for violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of the theory of evolution in 1925. William Jennings Bryan served on the prosecution team, and Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.

[Photo Above]

July 20, 1925 was an extremely hot Monday afternoon, so Judge Raulston moved the court proceedings outdoors. This is one of the photographs taken from the proceedings that day. The session was held on a platform that had been erected at the front of the Rhea County Courthouse to accommodate ministers who wanted to preach during the time of the trial. Defense lawyers for Scopes (John R. Neal, Arthur Garfield Hays, and Dudley Field Malone) are visible seated to the extreme right. One of the men at left, with his back to the camera, appears to be Scopes. The court reporters are seated at the table. The photographer appears to have been standing on the platform directly behind Scopes.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Monday, July 18, 2005

IBWO ID: The Latest Buzz

It is possible that the three "anti-IBWO paper" authors are claiming that the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, sighting was really a leucistic* pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, since leucistic PIWO have been reported in Texas and mistaken for IBWO. The authors of the original paper claim this bird was not a PIWO because the bird they saw was significantly larger than a PIWO and that "acoustic signatures consistent with Campephilus display drums also have been heard from the region" (original paper online includes a link to the PDF).

*Leucism (in birds): albino, unusually pale or having abnormally large patches of white where they normally do not occur.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Yet Another Version of Creationism

It turns out that the Kansas school system really has their hands full, trying to decide which creation stories to teach in their public schools. The most astounding aspect about this alternative creation story (linked) is that it actually contains graphs to substantiate its claims created from scientifically tested data. The enterprising presenter of this alternative er, story also sells mugs and t-shirts to help to make this particular belief system more accessible (and therefore, more acceptable) to the public.

I can see by reading the highly entertaining FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] that Mr. Bobby, this alternative creationist's founder, not only claims to be an unemployed scientist, but he needs to take remedial spelling (unlike me -- I was the former spelling champion for my entire grade school. Although it is painfully obvious that spelling really doesn't matter because only six people in the entire United States can properly spell most words so misspellings are not only shockingly common, but are acceptable and even something to be proud of).


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, July 15, 2005

IBWO update: incorrect ID?

I am posting this forwarded email from a nearby public library.


There has been a paper submitted for publication by three individuals with credentials, re-evaluating the Cache River report that states the bird in the video is a Pileated and presenting their doubts of the sightings. So the rumblings are much deeper than just the recordings and by folks you will see that carry some weight. Everything should be out in the open soon with some discussion I'm sure at the ABA Convention starting July 18 in Tucson, where Fitzpatrick I believe is doing a presentation. May be sour grapes or collision of egos but time will sort it all out. Let us all hope the bird wins out.

Good Birding!!!

Jeff R. Wilson
Bartlett, TN



© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Birds in the News #18

Birds in Science:

A recent news story reveals that migrating birds may carry "bird flu" out of Asia. "The occurrence of highly-pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus infection in migrant waterfowl indicates that this virus has the potential to be a global threat," Jinhua Liu of China Agricultural University, George Gao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues wrote in their report that was published in the top-tier research journal, Science. GrrlScientist Comment: While I have no doubt that this can and probably is occurring, I do not believe that wild bird migration is the primary reason for the movement of avian influenza throughout the region, certainly not when domestic poultry breeding and handling practices are so poor in this region, and absolutely not when cockfighting is so prevalent in this region. I sincerely hope that this paper does not trigger yet another massive extermination of wild birds in Asia when there are so many reasonable avenues that can be pursued to control the spread of this virus.

Birds Teaching People:

Recent research has revealed that spectacled parrotlets, Forpus conspicillatus, creates its own names for friends and family members. Since vocal labeling indicates that the namer must first be able to imagine the individual or object in its mind, the discovery likely means that bird thoughts and communication are far more complex and closer to human levels than previously realized. "We have shown that they use specific calls that only refer to the individual in question," said Ralf Wanker, a Hamburg University ornithologist and lead author of the study. "To my knowledge it is the first time that labeling or naming is described for animals in this way." The findings are published in this month's issue of the scientific journal, Animal Behavior.

People Helping Birds:

According to a recent report, New Zealand's Takahe, Porphyrio hochstetteri, the world's largest flightless rail, has experienced a dramatic increase in numbers. The annual census, carried out by New Zealand's Department of Conservation, covers a core part of the 50,000 hectare Takahe Special Area within Fiordland National Park. The 2005 census showed that Takahe experienced a 13.6% increase in the number of adult birds, with the number of breeding pairs up 7.9%.

Biologists confirm that a California condor chick, Gymnogyps californianus, hatched recently in Arizona, near the state border with Utah. Eddie Feltes, a field biologist with The Peregrine Fund, said he saw the chick with its mother through a scope. "The female condor was looking down toward her feet at a commotion of feathers and debris," he said in a press release. "Soon after, a chick stood out, contrasted against its mother's dark plumage." The birds' population dipped to 22 in the 1980s but thanks to captive breeding programs, there are now 54 condors in the wild in Arizona and 274 in all, including captive and free-flying birds in California, Oregon, Idaho and Mexico.

Hurt Birds:

Coastal wildlife officials recently revealed that Tropical Storm Cindy severely damaged nesting sites for least terns, Sterna antillarum, and black skimmers, Rynchops nigra, along U.S. 90. "This has been a pretty tough year for the birds," said Jan Dubuisson, chairwoman of the least tern committee for the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society. "We've had so much rain during this nesting season, and we've already had one storm that washed out some of the birds. I'm sure with the combination of the two storms, we've probably lost half the birds we would normally have during a good season."

Bird Mysteries:

As I noted in an earlier edition of Birds in the News, hundreds of dead and dying shearwaters and other pelagic seabirds are washing ashore from Florida to Virginia along the East Coast of the United States. Alarmingly, these reports are increasing; as many as 150 dead and dying birds can wash up on a single beach in one day, yet no one knows why. Necropsies are being carried out at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine by the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in cooperation with National Wildlife Health Center, and results are still pending. For those who live nearby or who plan to visit East Coast beaches this summer and who would like to help, please contact Becky Harris at Tufts University with any reports of dead or dying shearwaters even if you are not regularly walking a beach. Additionally, Tufts has a program called SEANET that offers training to those who wish to volunteer to monitor beaches. GrrlScientist wonders; has anyone been monitoring seawater temperatures during the past decades? Since greater shearwaters, Puffinus gravis, which form the majority of these avian mortalities, are known to prefer cooler waters, is it possible that the cause of their deaths might be related to increasing ocean temperatures? This scenario might not be as far fetched as you might think because we know that heat combined with unusually high numbers of mosquitoes caused high mortality in another seabird, Brünnich's Guillemot, Uria lomvia [Gaston AJ, Hipfner MJ, Campbell D (2002) Heat and mosquitoes cause breeding failures and adult mortality in an Arctic-nesting seabird. 144 (2) Ibis, 185-191.].

Birds in the Media:

A pair of one of Britain's rarest birds of prey, the peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus, has hatched three eggs on a tower in central London. Watch the action with their live webcast every day from 9.30am until 10pm (London time)!

Donald Kroodsma was recently interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR) about his new book, The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong. This wonderful book and CD (included) not only describes Dr. Kroodsma's life and how he became interested in birdsong, but it also describes the latest research data and what they reveal about birdsong and the most recent technologies used to study birdsong itself. Says Kroodsma of his lifetime passion, “There's this wonderful Zen parable: If you listen to the thrush and hear a thrush, you've not really heard the thrush. But if you listen to a thrush and hear a miracle, then you've heard the thrush.”

As you recall from previous editions of Birds in the News, the movie, March of the Penguins is getting rave reviews. Apparently, these reviews are increasing this film's momentum because it recently expanded to 150 theatres and will open in 500 more theatres next week! Will this summer's sleeper be about penguins?

Avoiding Spam While Enjoying These Linked News Stories:

Many of the stories that I link to are published online by newspapers, and many newspapers demand a "free registration" before you can access their stories. If you are uncomfortable providing personal information about yourself (I always register as a 22 year old male Martha Stewart), you can use Bug Me Not to protect your privacy and your email box from copious spam.

Thanks to my bird pals Caren, Fred, Pat and Robin for these links.

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Non-academic Job Applications: 1 ("anything" at Barnes & Noble. We'll see how long it takes them to stop laughing at my application and offer me a paying position)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


I feel very bad today.

Two years of job hunting, liberally punctuated with un(der)employment, will do this to a person.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Wizarding Apprentices' Surprising Discovery

Today, my students eagerly embraced their opportunity to whine loudly and plaintively about the upcoming exam in their wizarding potions lab course (er, chemistry), claiming that it interfered with their scheduled weekend entertainment; reading the newest Harry Potter book, which is being released in a couple days (but you already knew that, unless you have been living under a rock for the past 10 months). I pretended to sympathize with them and whined to them about sacrificing my own perfectly good Harry Potter weekend plans that I had made approximately nine months ago, by being forced to write their lab midterm exam for them (I neglected to mention that the midterm is already written, but they don't know that, hahaha).

So dear readers, you might imagine that there was plenty of championship whining and griping happening in lab today (which there was), but that was nothing compared to what happened after the lecture professor walked into the lab to speak to me about the upcoming exam. He apparently overheard me tell my disgruntled students that they could imagine themselves as wizard's apprentices at Hogwart's School of Magic and imagine that I am the cruel and greasy (yet mysteriously sexy -- at least in the movies) Professor Snape.

Basically, the lecture professor is an older gentleman who is shorter than me (almost everyone is shorter than me, but he is much shorter), round, nearly bald, and is a reservist in the army. Of all the people employed by my little school on the hill, he is the least likely to be accused of understanding or enjoying any of the Harry Potter books. In fact, I would have guessed that he had no clue whatsoever who this Harry Potter character is. In essence, the lecture professor reminds me of Hogwart's Professor Binns.

So imagine our collective surprise when Professor Binns, er, the lecture professor casually mentioned that he owns a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, thanks to a good friend of his in the publishing industry, and that he has already been reading this book to his grandson at bedtime for one week. Immediately, all whining ceased. Silence descended upon the lab like a blanket dropping from the heavens. We were thunderstruck, especially when Professor Binns made it clear that despite our voiced threats of student riots, of student slumber parties held nightly at his house and possible book burglary, he steadfastly refused to tell us who dies in the book, he would not reveal any titbit about the story nor would he even breathe one word about the book to us (except to lean closer to me and admit in a conspiratorial sort of way that "the plot has many surprising twists and turns").

We all stared at him silently, mouths open in wonder at the unfairness of it all. The only sounds to be heard in the lab came from the boiling water necessary to one of our experiments and the rapid, cheery songs from the Northern mockingbird standing in the tree outside the window. After a moment of silence, I delivered my suddenly less-than-inspiring lecture about the many wonders of carbon chemistry.


The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 33.

Included with
"The Best of Education Blog Writing".

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Monday, July 11, 2005

Introducing: Subway Book Reviews

I have a confession to make: I am a bibliophile. Like many bibliophiles, I read books. A lot of books. In fact, many of my best friends are books. [My other best friends happen to include a flock of birds who live with me. But my parrots do not enjoy sharing me it appears, because they occasionally open their doors when I am not home and use their freedom to express their displeasure by autographing some of my book covers with v-shaped holes. I am sure that learning this alarming detail about my family makes you, dear readers, very grateful to know that I, my parrots and my books are all merely electrons on your computer screen instead of real characters who live and breathe next door or down the street to you. But I digress.]

Anywho, since I read so danged many books each week during my long commute and also because I did publically announce that my summer recreational project is to read Online Human Events' list of the Ten Most Harmful Books Published in the 19th and 20th Centuries (along with their 20 "honorable mentions"), I decided to feature a sporatic book review on my blog, ostensibly to motivate me to read all of those subversive books when there are so many more wonderful books crying out to be read instead. I know, I know, in truth I -- a barely employed cluster of electrons -- am poorly qualified to be a book reviewer. However, as you may have surmised by now, dear readers, I do read plenty of books, even though I rarely talk about them here. But considering the number of books that I read combined with my ability to form an opinion of what I have read should make me at least somewhat qualified in this regard.

So I have decided to change my nearly silent state of literary opinionation and in doing so, I have designed my own unique, never-before utilized book review ratings system: This system, my Subway Book Review System (SBRS), is the brainchild of my own misguided imagination and so is patented as belonging exclusively to me. [Incidentally, my parrots also have their own system for reviewing books, a system that they may one day give me permission to reveal here. But until that happy day dawns, you will have to tolerate my system.]

As its name implies, my book ratings system relies on the NYC subways and busses for providing numerical data that I will use to compute a rating for each book that I read. But before detailing my SBRS, I must remind you that this is not a perfectly objective system. Basically, your attempts to replicate my results may vary because I am a very knowledgeable and adept subway rider who carries a map of the entire MTA system in my head, that I know the ins and outs of NYC subway routes as well as any passenger could, which is almost as well as the average subway rat -- a feat that gives me great pride. I am also very adept at finding my way around on subways, having proven this quite nicely when I was alone in Tokyo for six weeks, using the subway system to travel all over the place to go birding, with only my poor command of the Japanese language and a Japanese language subway map to aid me. So, keeping these facts in mind when interpreting all my book reviews and numerical ratings, these are the bases for numerical data that I will collect for my soon-to-be-famous Subway Book Review System (the nuts and bolts);

1. missed stops: the number of times that the reader (me, in this case) misses her stop while reading a particular book, divided by the total number of trips taken while reading the book in question on the subway or bus.

2. missed trains: the number of times when the reader (me) mistakenly jumps on the wrong subway (or bus) or jumps on the correct train (or bus) travelling in the wrong direction, divided by the total number of opportunities that the reader has to make such errors.

Distances traveled out of my way due to these errors are not computed in the results because one express train can really skew these data!

Note: this system replaces the previous book ratings system that I employed while a graduate student in Seattle (that system was based upon the number of times that the reader (er, me) crashed into parking meters and the number of bruises acquired as the result of reading a book while simultaneously walking down the sidewalk. However, this system is currently antiquated because there are no parking meters on the NYC public transit system).

Also note: If this system is successful (in other words, if it amuses me and you, dear readers) I might continue it after I have finished reading the list of subversive literature.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wizarding Jobs Available

A friend of mine sent me this link while I was torturing, er, teaching (ahem) wizarding potions (chemistry) to my pupils. Unfortunately, even though I am a highly skilled and well-educated wizard, particularly in potions and other subtle forms of magic, I am not qualified (as usual) for any of these advertized positions. However, being the good and kind wizard that I am, I thought one of you out there might enjoy applying for one of these jobs.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Harry Potter's Voices

If you are like me, you have been thinking and planning about how and where you will spend those precious hours after you purchase your copy of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince this Friday night/Saturday morning at midnight-oh-one. Perhaps some of you purchase the audio book tapes instead? Our passion has not gone unnoticed: National Public Radio (NPR) is aware that millions of fans are interested to hear and read the smallest scrap of information about this book series, so they recently interviewed the man who does the voices on the Harry Potter audio tapes for their show, Weekend America. When this page pops up, scroll down a little more than halfway to the interview entitled A Man of Many Voices, and click on the audio icon. The interview is 4.56 minutes long and requires RealPlayer.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, July 08, 2005

Birds in the News #17

Birds Teaching People:

Is behavior correlated with brain size? Yes, according to scientists who recently published an article in the top-tier scientific journal, Nature. Daniel Sol of the Independent University of Barcelona and his research team determined that birds with bigger brains tend to stay put in the winter and are more innovative in their feeding habits. “Species with greater foraging flexibility seem to be able to cope with seasonal environments better, while less flexible species are forced to become migratory,” Sol said. The research paper recorded observations taken from 134 European bird species.

Many conservationists believe that habitat areas -- and animal populations -- must be linked by so-called “travel corridors” that allow easy movement. In this research article, published in the other top-tier scientific journal, Science, biologists fed wax myrtle fruits coated with fluorescent powder to migratory birds and then studied the movement of these birds by tracking their droppings using a fluorescent scope. The researchers learned that the birds followed so-called wildlife corridors through forested areas, a discovery that may prove useful for wildlife management. “There’s a lot of controversy over whether corridors work,” said Douglas Levey, a zoologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “It seems intuitive that they should work. But people see all the time that animals move though places that they shouldn’t be. So it’s unclear how much [animals] truly depend on corridors.”

Scientists are investigating whether a parrot hit on a concept that human mathematicians failed to grasp for centuries. Alex, a 28 year old African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus, recently began — unprompted, and as the result of a temper tantrum — using the word “none” to describe an absence of quantity, according to researchers at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Although zero is an obvious notion for most of us, it wasn’t so for people long ago. Scholars say that zero came into widespread use in the West only in the 1600s; India began using it about a millennium earlier.

Wildlife biologists snap radio collars on ground squirrels, strap transmitters on bats and stick electronic devices on just about anything that moves. Yet now some scientists are asking “Should we do this? Are there other, less distressing, ways to get the data we need?”

Is there a practical reason to know more about bird songs, sounds and dialects? Yes. For example, a system that was recently installed to scare birds off the runway at Capital International Airport in Beijing, China used recorded sounds made by predatory birds. Not surprisingly, this did not work because it used the wrong bird species' sounds. As you might remember from earlier issues of Birds in the News, Bird-aircraft strikes are a major challenge for airports: Nearly 200 people have died worldwide as a result of such strikes since 1988.

People Helping Birds:

Good news: this is a rather long but interesting field update about several of the endangered California condors, Gymnogyps californianus, that have been released in Arizona.

A rare whooping crane, Grus americana, is spending the summer in Vermont after mysteriously veering 800 miles off course on its migration toward the Midwest. One of only about 400 such birds in the world, the 4 1⁄2-foot-tall female been in a river floodplain in the Lake Champlain valley since at least 9 June. “We’re not sure what she’s doing there, but she seems to be selecting proper habitat for whoopers,” Duff said. “We want to leave her there as long as possible and see if she can figure out her way back.”

Environmental experts in Volusia county, Florida are investigating the mysterious deaths of nearly 300 shearwaters (note the misspelling in the article) that were blown ashore recently. Shearwaters are small, pelagic birds classified in the avian order Procellariiformes.

Birds in the Media:

Believe it or not, Tom Cruise is waddling along in second place in the summer movie pecking order. ... and the first place film is? March of the Penguins -- a drama that follows the annual trek of emperor penguins, Aptenodytes forsteri, from the safety of the shoreline to their inland breeding grounds. The film documents how males incubate and protect the single egg for two months while females search for food. This is a delightful story about the filming of this movie (I know I already linked to several articles about this film in the previous issue of Birds in the News, but I couldn't resist linking to this story this week).

Do you need some help planning your next birding trip? Google Maps is a new (test) site to explore when preparing birding trips because it includes road maps as well as satellite images. For example, you can zoom in to a detailed map and then toggle to the satellite image of that area. Currently, this site only covers North America and Great Britain.

This week, the popular daily two-minute radio program, BirdNote, featured the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, for the 4th of July, the broken-wing act of the killdeer, Charadrius vociferous, American robin, Turdus migratorius babies, Western sandpipers, Calidris mauri, and Birdwatching 101, Where to Look. Each story has its own RSS/Podcast feed.

Bird Eggs:

What bird species laid that egg whose beautiful shell you found on the ground this morning? There are several wonderful egg photo collections on the internet that you can access to answer this and other questions you might have about bird eggs. The best on-line collection of egg photographs are by the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Canada. However, if you are a bibliophile and wish to have a book to refer to, the best book I’ve found on the subject is A guide to the nests, eggs, and nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd. Edition, by PJ Baicich and CJO Harrison (1997, Academic Press). I do not know if the recent Princeton University Press reprint of this title has corrected the egg illustration for the marbled murrelet, Brachyramphus marmoratus (the original book erroneously substituted a picture of an egg for the ancient murrelet, Synthliboramphus antiquus) -- you, dear readers, will have to let me know the answer to this burning question.

Bird-Fun for the Kids:

Here is a web-based jigsaw puzzle of a zebra finch, Poephila guttata, in flight to entertain you while sitting in that boring meeting at work. Your kids might also enjoy it.

Birds, Birders and Terrorists:

It is not a surprise that Americans have been subjected to increased government restrictions and scrutiny at airports and elsewhere since the September 11 terrorist attacks. But it might be surprising to learn that birdwatchers have become a common target of increased security restrictions even though all they do is “walk quietly through the woods”. But those woods are often next to military bases, wastewater management plants and dams — places where government authorities fear that terrorists, disguised as birders, could lurk or strike. At popular bird watching sites across the country, birders are facing stricter regulations — in some cases being required to hire a police escort — as authorities beef up national security.

We Will Not Forget:

From a New Yorker

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Academic Job Interviews: 1 for a full-time position (they refused to tell me if it was tenure-track. Why? Probably because it is NOT tenure-track).

Honestly, I have no desire to interview for this job because this particular interview appears to be yet more futility as well as a huge waste of several weeks’ preparation time wrapped up in the bright illusion of high hopes and dreams that will be dashed, which will make me feel worse than I already feel, if that’s at all possible.


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