Friday, August 12, 2005

Birds in the News #22 - Extinction is Forever

Red Knot, Calidris canutus rufa, in nuptial plumage.
Image courtesy of Arthur Morris/

Bird 911:

As many of my regular readers know, the Eastern population of the Red Knot, Calidris canutus rufa, is rapidly sliding into extinction. The cause is a dramatic decline in the bird's food, horseshoe crab eggs, due to overharvesting. Horseshoe crab eggs are essential to fuel these birds' annual 12,000 mile migration. A bird pal, Jim, found a website sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy where you can help save this beautiful bird by demanding an emergency moratorium on the horseshoe crab harvest in Delaware Bay. Click here for more information and pictures of the amazing red knot. The picture above appears here with the kind permission of bird photographer, Arthur Morris, at Birds as Art.

People Helping Birds:

Recent research has shown that organic farms are better for wildlife than conventional farms. Researchers who spent five years monitoring 180 farms across lowland England found that organic fields supported more plant species, spiders, birds and bats than those treated with non-organic pesticides. This survey was carried out by scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Unit.

This story tells how the popular film The Parrots of Telegraph Hill was made. Filmmaker Judy Irving spent 4.5 years following the star, Mark Bittner, and his feral parrot companions with a camera. Irving says, "It's tough to get good nature footage. You have to wait around, and you miss a lot. And a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. I spent 21 days, for instance, under a tree, waiting for a baby bird to fledge. I didn't have any money, but I had lots of time." GrrlScientist note: If she had asked me, I would have been able to tell her about fledging times for that species, cutting down her wait time to several days.

BirdLife Botswana recently held its first bird field guide training course, inspired by the success of similar courses created and run by BirdLife South Africa. BirdLife South Africa’s venture into avitourism less than two years ago was an innovative way of involving local people in bird conservation whilst also giving them an invested interest in caring for local birds. During this time, more than 150 local bird guides have been trained, and guides on the Zululand Birding Route alone have earned more than R250,000 in guiding fees. If you are planning a birding trip to either of these areas, be sure to support BirdLife's program by hiring one of their guides.

People Hurting Birds:

Time appears to be running out for New Zealand's cute little kiwis, Apteryx species, despite efforts to save the flightless bird from extinction, according to a report in the International Journal of Vertebrate Zoology. The birds are frequent victims of people's pet cats, dogs and other non-native predators. The kiwi is a protected species and is the focus of the Kiwi Recovery Programme launched by New Zealand agencies in 1991.

In this sad story, we learn that the Khor al-Beidah lagoon -- bird-filled wetlands -- are significantly diminishing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) due to dredging and construction aimed at attracting tourists. The crown jewels of the planned $3.3 billion luxury development at Khor al-Beidah, which consist of homes, shops, marinas and beach resorts, are the private villas to be built on artificial islands with gated access and views over one rare remaining mangrove archipelagos in the Persian Gulf. A half-million migratory birds stop at the Khor al-Beidah lagoon every year. It is one of the last such natural places remaining in the UAE. GrrlScientist wonders: If this development is completed at Khor al-Beidah lagoon, what will tourists who stay there have to look at?

Avian Zoonotics News:

Sadly, six more dead birds that were infected with the mosquito-borne West Nile virus were discovered in San Diego County, reported the county's Department of Environmental Health on 11 August. This discovery brings the total number of birds that have tested positive for West Nile virus in SD county to 11. This linked article provides contact information where residents can report dead birds to the appropriate health officials. "It is important that the community continues reporting dead birds," said Gary Erbeck, director of the county Department of Environmental Health. "It allows us to focus our resources where the virus is found."

Finally, an effective avian influenza vaccine has been developed. But there is a problem: it is so dilute that two separate large doses are required before the human immune system is triggered to fight back.

According to this story, a race to purchase limited stocks of 'Tamiflu', which is the only known drug capable of stopping an epidemic of the deadly avian flu, has intensified the divide between the developed and developing world. If left unchecked, this divide could have disastrous consequences for all. Not surprisingly, this disparity is the result of the speed with which the developed world, led by the United States, is using its financial muscle to acquire global stocks of the drug that health authorities say is the most potent anti-flu medicine currently available.

The bird flu outbreak in Siberia is subsiding and should disappear altogether in 10 to 15 days, a World Health Organization specialist said Tuesday. The Emergency Situations Ministry reported that the number of deaths among domestic and wild birds was just 15 overnight compared with a total of 5,583 since mid-July.

Of course, since bird flu is in Siberia, it is a short distance for migratory birds to travel to enter the United States, so officials are carefully monitoring the situation. This linked story includes a map detailing the Pan-Pacific flyways that birds traditionally follow during migration.

This opinion piece shows how evolution of the avian influenza virus is making monkeys out of researchers by mutating into new forms that are not recognized by the immune system after vaccination.

This interesting interview with science writer Laurie Garrett explores whether we are prepared for avian influenza. Laurie Garrett is the only journalist to win the the Peabody, the Polk and the Pulitzer prizes.

Bird Mysteries:

What happened to Poland's storks? This story reports that thousands of stork couples have disappeared during migration, and those that return are not producing enough chicks. As ornithologists try to figure out what went wrong for the storks this year, new dangers lie ahead: European Union agricultural subsidies have begun flowing into the country, and Polish farmers are gearing up to modernize their operations. A major transformation of the Polish countryside already is under way, a bad omen for the bird whose appearance each spring is always taken as a good omen.

Streaming Birds:

This previous week on the popular streaming radio broadcast BirdNote, they featured the Flammulated Owl, Otus flammeolus; Ospreys, Pandion haliaetus, nesting on cell phone transmission towers; the Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dendroica coronata; birding from the ferry; and a Native American myth, How Raven Made the Tide. This site includes pictures of these featured species. Each show is two minutes long and is available as a RSS/PodCast Feed. BirdNote can be heard live on Monday through Friday mornings between 8:58-9:00 throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia.

Miscellaneous Birds:

This interesting piece discusses the recent flurry of rediscovered 'extinct' birds, which raises hopes that more might be rediscovered soon. What does this mean? Why are we seeing these species now? "We think we've explored the planet when we haven't. We have this assumption that we know it all but we don't," says Nigel Collar of UK-based conservation group BirdLife International. Despite the new finds, BirdLife cautions that the overall situation of the world's birds is worsening. [Pictured: The long-legged warbler, Trichocichla rufa, was once feared extinct because it was not seen by experts since 1894. The long-legged warbler was found alive and well in the mountains of Fiji in 2003.]

I can't help but link to this interesting news story about the very talented and talkative Einstein, an African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus erithacus, who lives at the Knoxville Zoo. "African Greys naturally like to mimic sounds," trainer Stephanie White said. "She's pretty exceptional, though. Not all African Greys are like her. She really enjoys mimicking things. If she hears a sound that she likes, she'll start to repeat it over and over. Then we'll put it on cue. She gets a lot of these sounds like us oinking like pigs."

Thanks to my bird pals Jim, Ellen, Ian and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here. Thanks also to photographer Arthur Morris for providing the lovely photograph of a red knot that appears at the top.

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Academic Job News: none, yet. Ho-hum. Although .. the chair of the science department at Sweatshop U (where I taught this past spring semester) did leave a voicemail yesterday, asking me to teach this autumn semester. Many thoughts occur to me regarding this request, and none of them are gentle.

Non-academic Job Rejections: 1, for a web editor position that I interviewed for about six months ago. I'd forgotten I had applied until they reminded me with their rejection letter!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

17 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous Julia said...

Thanks for posting all this information. I used to be all about birds when I was younger and some other hobbies and interests have taken over. I found your journal through medical links, but I realy love the avian stuff, too!

11:29 PM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks for posting the Red Knot links. I'm adding my name to the petitition.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

That top photograph is gorgeous. I went over to the Birds As Art site and found some interesting and informative stuff.
Thanks again for all your work bringing us the bird news. It's my favorite Friday reading.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:47 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Julia and John; I am glad to see you here!

RD; I was impressed with the Birds as Art site, too. The photographer, Arthur, is a nice guy for sharing his work here so readily.

Anonymous; if I didn't know better, I'd think you were spamming this blog, especially since the whole world knows that I am nowhere near marriage, neither in the USA nor in the UK, unless I decide to marry my parrot. Oh, wait, she's a girl parrot. Isn't there a law or something against same-sex marriages?


9:08 PM  
Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I'm very sad about the Kiwis. They're one of my favorite birds! It so depressing to think people's pets are eating them!

As for the job stuff, are you sending more applications this month? August is the big month, you know. Polish up your stuff and send it. Do it for me.

9:21 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Ms. PhD.; I have not sent out any applications recently. I guess I should get started on that (ugh), but it's really difficult to get past two years of rejections. I had sort of accepted that I have no future at all; not in science; not in writing; not in academics .. in fact, not really doing anything at all, except scrabbling for an existence (but not living a real life) on the edges of society. Because I no longer have the energy to be outraged by my situation, I've almost gotten comfortable with merely existing, I guess.

But I can always apply for jobs now and then retreat back into my dark cave of "futurelessness" in the new year, after the academic job hunting season has mostly ended.


2:45 PM  
Blogger V M said...

Hi Hedwig,
Just dropping by to say hello :)
Heard the greater coucal the other day ... :)

1:03 AM  
Blogger Plague of Crickets said...

This probably won’t be of much help, but in case it might, I'll offer some of my observations about the academic job market in biology.

The job market, from the perspective of an applicant, is incredibly capricious. By this I don’t mean that hiring decisions are random, but rather, the individual circumstances of a given position in a given program at a given time can have a huge effect on the type of person that is hired. And many of the factors that will affect the hiring decision are unknowable by the applicants. For example, a program might advertise for a systematist. They cast their net wide in order to attract as many good applicants as possible. They are open to hiring a systematist who works on any organismal group, using almost any type of approach. But they have some wants and needs. They really need someone to teach plant anatomy, and they have a couple of invertebrate developmental biologists who would really like to branch out into evo-devo related questions. They don’t say in their job ad that preference will be given to plant and invertebrate systematists since they would be willing to hire someone working on other groups if they can’t get what they most need or want. But if they get good plant or invertebrate applicants, those are the people they will most likely bring in for interviews. As a result, many outstanding applicants may not get interviewed simply because they are working on the wrong group, or the wrong questions, for that position at that time.

A variety of other factors can also influence who gets interviewed, from the individual teaching and research biases of the members of the search committee to illegal criteria such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation and marital status (the illegal five can cut all possible ways, not just in favor of young, white, male, straight and married). Unless an applicant is intimately familiar with a department, there’s no way they would be aware of the all the undertones of the search. Even the members of the search committee may not be aware of all the undertones.

Does this mean that young biologists should despair? Absolutely not. But unless someone is so good that almost anyone will hire them for almost any position (and few of us fall into that category), it does mean that they have to keep submitting applications for a broad range of positions, sometimes for many years. It’s a very depressing and degrading process, but more than just about anything else, persistence wins the race. I can’t count the number of people I know who kept applying for jobs, year after year, moving from one soft money position to another, before finally landing a tenure-track job that they’re very happy with. All you need is to have your application at the right program at the right time. Since you can’t know which program this will be, and when the right time will be, all you can do is keep working, keep looking at the job ads, and keep sending out applications.

I have a file with all my rejection letters, and it’s a big one. I know first hand that it’s hard not to take the lack of success personally, as a reflection of your worth as a scientist and as a person. But it’s really not. (This is easier, of course, for me to accept in retrospect than it was during the time I was jobless.) Merit does play a role, but to borrow from Stephen J. Gould, so does historical contingency.

So keep at it and good luck!

1:32 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

VM; wow, you heard a greater coucal? Where in Indonesia are you? Or are you instead in Asia? What else are you seeing?

Plague of Crickets; welcome to the blogosphere, it's very good to see another scientist join the world of bloggers/blogging.

I did keep my rejection letters, thinking I'd use them as toilet paper one day (ouch), but the stack of paper grew so huge and overwhelming that it depressed me beyond belief so I finally threw them all away.

I will act on your advice (and Ms. PhD, too) and continue seeking a real job in academics, but my basic opinions regarding my situation remain unchanged; I don't believe that I have a future in the field that I love and have sacrificed everything for. I am certain that the "illegal criteria" that you mentioned will (and do) work against me. I made a life mistake to relentlessly pursuing my dreams -- I always thought I'd end up in a better "place" than I would have if I didn't try at all, but now, I am not so sure.


10:51 AM  
Blogger jamie said...

Another great BITN! Off topic, I just saw March of the Penguins, and it's great. I can't help but wonder, though, why the Intelligent Designer(TM) gave those lovably goofy penguins wings useless for flight, legs nearly useless for all that walking, and had them laying eggs in a place where seconds of exposure results in non-viability. . . is the Intelligent Designer(TM) a sadist?

7:09 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Jamie; I have yet to see that movie, but the trailers look great, and everyone else who has seen it tells me they loved it. Maybe I'll get the DVD one day?

I can't help but respond to your observations about penguins .. Penguins' wings are not useless for flight because they fly underwater! And those short stubby legs are short so they don't freeze in the cold arctic waters .. but as far as going on long forced marches using those legs .. well .. yeah. That is odd, I agree. This is another case for "Stupid Design" (or poor planning), methinks.

You'll have to go see the other bird film that is out, Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Be sure to report your thoughts on this film here.


10:43 AM  
Blogger V M said...

Hi Hedwig,
Yes, it was interesting to view the greater coucal's loud call ... more later ?

Also, just fyi,
surfed by ...

8:33 PM  
Blogger jamie said...

The Parrots of Telegraph Hill looks great, but I'd have to drive about 2 hours to see it (upshot: 2 hours into the mountains - good place to see vultures and hawks, yay, downside: driving my car 2 hours would mandate belief in miracles). I was disappointed that MotP didn't mention anything, at all, about evolutionary adaptation, save for a brief mention about Antarctica drifting south. At least we still have PBS (for now?!?!).

My state's zoo has a lovely Puffin exhibit - watching birds fly underwater is . . . I'm not a poet so I won't even try.

10:28 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

VM; hrm, I ought to write a few paragraphs for wikipedia about my birdums, shouldn't I?

Jamie; I am pleased to see that the Penguins movie is so popular this summer. I have yet to see it -- nor have I seen Parrots of Telegraph Hill yet (although I did see Winged Migration on opening day .. and I dragged a pilot in the marines with me to that movie. Hrm. I wonder if that's why he faded into the wallpaper soon afterwards?)

Hopefully, all these fine films will be available on DVD?


8:30 AM  
Blogger V M said...

Hi! Just a quick note ...
Please have a look at the wikispecies, wikipedia, project site. They are in public domain and are a wiki. Also please see among others,
Just fyi.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Trix said...

Hedwig, thanks for another great, informative issue of BITN. The Red Knot info is very helpful.

9:20 PM  

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