Sunday, November 27, 2005

I Passed Eighth Grade Science

If this is an example of the general quality of the average eighth grade science test, it's no wonder that our kids are failing. They can't decipher the tests because they are so poorly written.

For example, you will not get 8/8 unless you substitute neutron for neuron on this test. And that is just the beginning.

You Passed 8th Grade Science

Congratulations, you got 8/8 correct!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

It Isn't Easy Being Green

According to this survey, my blog is the wrong color.

Your Blog Should Be Green

Your blog is smart and thoughtful - not a lot of fluff.
You enjoy a good discussion, especially if it involves picking apart ideas.
However, you tend to get easily annoyed by any thoughtless comments in your blog.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Holiday Gift Idea

What does a disenfranchised chemist do for a living when she is unable to find a job doing anything at all?? Even though I am not a chemist, I have spent years wondering this myself in the context of my own tiny life and today discovered one possibility in my email box from a self-described "disenfranchised struggling moonlighting female scientist". She reports that some of her similarly disenfranchised and unemployable colleagues actually got together and started their own business, designing and selling t-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia to their still-employed scientist-colleagues and their geeky friends and family members. So if you, dear readers, would like to support several more scientists who are currently struggling to survive and receive something special in return for your contribution, you should check out Yellow Ibis (no, I didn't name them).

I really love their logo (pictured at top), and wish they had a t-shirt with that on it they tell me that they can make one for me if I wish!

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, November 25, 2005

Birds in the News #37

Portrait of the endangered Whooping Crane, Grus americana

Birds in Science

Removing an egg from the endangered whooping crane's nest increases the species' chances of survival despite governmental concerns about tampering with nature, says a University of Alberta scientist. Dr. Mark Boyce, from the Faculty of Science, studied the policy of removing from Wood Buffalo National Park one of two whooping crane, Grus americana (pictured top), eggs laid and raising it in a "foster-parenting" program. Cranes usually rear a single chick and the other dies to siblicide or is killed by a predator, such as wolf or fox. The egg-removal program was initiated years ago by Ernie Kuyt, an Edmonton-based scientist who reasoned that one egg could be taken and used for artificial propagation programs. The idea was so successful, says Boyce, that the whooping crane's numbers have skyrocketed to over 200 birds in the original population and two new populations have been established elsewhere. But Parks Canada prefers that no future egg collections occur in Wood Buffalo National Park due to concerns that egg removals may reduce the productivity of the whooping crane population and that more generally, human intervention and disturbance should be minimized. Boyce's research found, however, that taking one egg away actually increases the probability of nest success. His paper, co-authored by Subhash Lele from the U of A's mathematical and statistical sciences department as well as Brian Johns from the Canadian Wildlife Service, is published in the December issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Biological Conservation.

European songbirds are canceling their annual winter breaks in Africa, preferring instead to fly to Great Britain, bird experts say. The surprising detour in European warbler migrations was revealed by data from an ongoing survey that involves bird-watchers across Britain. It's as if the birds are now saying, "Let's not bother to go all the way to Africa this winter," said Greg Conway, a researcher with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who runs the survey.

People Helping Birds

A report commissioned by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) showed that more than half of the 60 species of migratory birds of prey found in Africa and Eurasia face extinction, either globally or within their regions. "Of all types of birds, birds of prey have always fascinated people," UK Biodiversity Minister Jim Knight said this week at the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species in Kenya. Fortunately, Britain has put forward a plan for international action to protect such rare birds of prey as eagles, vultures and owls from extinction. If the 93 signatories of the convention agree by the end of the conference on Friday to commit to the British proposal, the UK will organise an intergovernmental conference to work out further details, Knight said. So far Britain, backed by all its 24 European Union partners, has outlined priorities for the protection of the threatened species, said a DEFRA spokeswoman in Nairobi.

People Hurting Birds

The Kori Bustard, Ardeotis kori (pictured), is the world’s largest bustard and it occurs across sub-Saharan Africa. Although this species is still common in some protected areas, it is currently experiencing rapid population declines across much of its range. Botswana is a stronghold for the species, but it is threatened by habitat loss due to overgrazing and poaching. BirdLife Botswana has undertaken an investigation of Kori Bustard poaching and found the practice to be widespread, both for local consumption and for export to South Africa and beyond. "We found that many Kori Bustards are poached for local consumption, mainly by men over 30,” says BirdLife Botswana’s Kabelo Senyatso. “Snares are mostly used to kill birds in KGR, whilst guns are favored in KTP. In some areas only tribal elders are allowed to eat bustard meat. Sometimes a traditional doctor is brought in to 'treat' it before it is eaten, because of a belief that bustard meat can otherwise cause mental illness."

Ivory-billed Woodpecker News

Scientists and birders will resume their search this winter for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, to prove, once and for all, that the bird really lives in the vast eastern Arkansas wetlands. "The birds are relatively silent," said Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and member of the search team. "The woods, they're like a jungle, just thick foliage, just incredibly hot, humid, buggy and snakes everywhere. Everything about it is just as bad as could be." A crew from Cornell and its partner agencies will train 100 volunteers for the six-month search of 500,000 acres, Gallagher said.

Avian Influenza News

Countries that ban the import of wild birds to stave off deadly avian flu may drive the trade underground and make it more difficult to detect the spread of the virus, a senior UN scientist warned on Sunday. A number of countries, including European Union members, have slapped a ban on the import of live birds and feathers in a desperate attempt to contain the spread of the virus. "As long as there is a demand, there will be a trade and you can't stamp out illegal trade by banning the legal trade," David Morgan, head of the Scientific Support Unit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

A respected Japanese scientist, who works with the World Health Organization, says 300 people have died of H5N1 bird flu in China, including seven cases caused by human-to-human transmission. He says he was given the information in confidence by Chinese colleagues who have been threatened with arrest if they disclosed the extent of the problem. The allegations, which he revealed at a meeting in Germany, contrast sharply with China’s official position. GrrlScientist wonders Oh, right. And this is the same government that claims benzene poisoning is not occurring at this very moment.

Streaming Birds

Did any of you hear the story about Sandhill cranes on National Public Radio's Morning Edition this past Tuesday morning? I did and I liked it, and I think you will like it, too.

On BirdNote, for the week of November 21, we consider the LBBs and LBJs, the little brown birds and the little brown jobs so frustrating to new birders; a bit about feeding birds in winter; ducks in eclipse plumage; and on Thanksgiving day, what else? the Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo (pictured); and "Which Jay Was That?" -- about the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, and another blue jay, the Steller's Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri. BirdNote programs are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM in Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia on KPLU radio and now also in North Central Washington state on KOHO radio. All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. [mp3/podcast].

Miscellaneous Birds

I normally don't link to obituaries, but this one is rather interesting, especially for the bird banders out there. Jane Olyphant of Lake Elmo, New Jersey, was a licensed bird bander for 45 years. During her lifetime, she fastened tiny aluminum bands on 84,000 birds, most of them migratory songbirds. With a license granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she banded her first bird, a white-breasted nuthatch, in her back yard on Oct. 1, 1959. "Young people stare spellbound when they see a small, vibrant, alert bird first in the net and then in my hand," she wrote of her nature-center teaching in the November-December 1977 edition of the Minnesota Volunteer, a newsletter of the Department of Natural Resources. The biggest challenge was "to help them become aware of life going on around them and to explain the vital role birds play in the world."

Thanks to my bird pals; Caren, Ellen and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here. Please accept my apologies for the lateness of this issue of Birds in the News. I am having trouble locating a consistent internet connection and this is particularly apparent (and annoying) on holidays, when my internet options are seriously limited.

Previous : : Birds in the News : : Next

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Included with the Big Apple Blog Festival
Issue 16.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I and the Bird #11 Now Available

I was just notified that the eleventh issue of I and the Bird was published this morning. For those of you who are new to "this blog thang", I and the Bird is a relatively new blog carnival. Blog carnivals are link harvests of writing or photoessays or other materials published on blogs that meet certain criteria. In the case of I and the Bird, all contributions were published within the past couple months and are dedicated to celebrating some aspect of wild birds and their biology. The current host kindly contacted me a couple days ago, hoping I had something to contribute to this edition, so I sent her a link to one of my recent stories. You'll have to peek there to figure out which piece it was (especially yous twos, Rob and Chris; you might be pleased even though I still want to rework that piece), and while you are looking, you will also find many other fine stories about birds to entertain you over this holiday weekend.

And to the rest of you, dear readers, I promise that there isn't even one recipe for cooking any species of bird in the collection.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Galapagos Tortoises Visit NYC

Galapagos giant tortoise, Geochelone elephantopus.

Early this morning, I visited the two Galapagos tortoises, Geochelone elephantopus, who currently reside on the third floor of the American Museum of Natural History. Even though the sign outside their large glass-enclosed area claims they are female, their handlers now suspect that they are both male. Apparently unperturbed by their mistaken gender, these teen-aged giants act as unofficial greeters to the crowds that are flocking to the newly opened Darwin exhibit at the museum.

"They're brothers. That's Frank and this is Charlie," Beth said, pointing to each tortoise in turn. The closest tortoise, Charlie, looked serenely through the glass at us, a piece of hay hanging out of his mouth.

Even though they are brothers, Beth explained, they are distinct and their caregivers can easily distinguish them by the shape of their scutes, the thick scales comprised of keratin that cover their bony shells. Keratin is a protein that is also found in hair, nails and hooves. But there are other physical differences between these brothers, too.

"For one, Frank is heavier, and Charlie is taller," Beth explained. I leaned down and squinted my eyes, trying to compare their respective shell heights from their level and found myself wishing for a tape measure.

Frank and Charlie's ancestors are terrestrial reptiles found only on the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos lie in the Pacific Ocean, west of Ecuador (click map above for larger image in its own window). The Galapagos are really a group of more than 15 islands and islets, and each one has a different habitat and is occupied by a distinct combination of plants and animals, including giant tortoises. Historically, approximately 250,000 tortoises inhabited these islands, but unfortunately, their numbers plummeted because sailors ate them and routinely abandoned their domestic animals, such as dogs, pigs, goats, cats and rats, on these islands. Because these introduced species either ate tortoise eggs, preyed on young tortoises or competed with the adult tortoises for limited plant resources, only 10-15,000 individuals are alive today.

After a century of scientific study, it is not known for certain if each island's tortoise population can be classified as a true species, or if they might instead be subspecies or local variants of one species. However, recent DNA evidence suggests that at least a few of these island populations are legitimate species.

Giant tortoises have long been the focus of great scientific and historical significance because they were one of the many species that fascinated Charles Darwin on his voyages.

"I never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted," Darwin wrote about these tortoises in his popular 1839 book, The Voyage of the Beagle.

After a conversation with the Vice-Governor of the islands, who claimed that each tortoise population was characterized by marked physical differences, Darwin discovered that he too, could identify a tortoise's home island, particularly by carefully noting the tortoise's overall size and the shape of its carapace (the bony shell). Just as selective breeding by humans caused the wolf to be modified into hundreds of distinct breeds of dogs, each breed with its own talents, these tortoises were likewise modified by the demands of their new environment. Over the millennia, this selective pressure shaped the original tortoises into distinct populations inhabiting each island. Because these changes are influenced by nature instead of humans, this essential process of evolution is known as natural selection. Consequently, because these animals illustrated the correlation between geographic isolation and morphological divergence, they became instrumental to the formation of Darwin's concept of evolution through natural selection.

In Darwin's day, there were 15 distinct populations of Galapagos tortoises. Representatives from 14 populations were formally described by the scientists of that time and 11 of these populations are still live today, although some are endangered.

These populations fall into two "morphotypes" based on the shape of their carapace, which is one of the tortoise's physical adaptations to the habitat found on their particular island home. It was noticed that generally, tortoises living on larger and wetter islands are very large, with domed carapaces and stubby, thick legs. These are the "dome-backed" group, of which Frank and Charlie are representatives.

The other morphotype, the so-called "saddleback" tortoises, are found on smaller and drier islands in the Galapagos archipelago. They are physically smaller than their dome-shelled cousins, with longer and thinner legs, and their carapaces flare out above their necks and legs. It is thought that these physical modifications provide the saddlebacked animals with greater mobility necessary to reach the succulent pads of the Opuntia cactus (interestingly, this cactus, which is a major source of water on the dry islands, evolved a tree-like form in response to the demands of hungry and thirsty tortoises). Because the saddle-backed tortoises reminded the early Spanish explorers of a type of riding saddle called the "galapago", this group inspired the name for these islands.

But who were the ancestors of all these tortoises and how did they get to the remote Galapagos islands? New DNA data reveal that the giant Galapagos tortoises are close relatives to the much smaller chaco tortoises, Geochelone chilensis, that are native to South America. It is thought that the Galapagos islands were colonized 2-3 million years ago by either a pregnant female tortoise or by several individuals that rafted from the mainland to the newly formed volcanic island of Espanola or San Cristobal. From this tenuous beginning, the resulting offspring of these tortoises then colonized the other islands in the Galapagos archipelago.

Unlike their mainland cousins, these island tortoises are huge animals. Male Galapagos tortoises from some island populations can attain a carapace length of 130 centimeters (approximately 4 feet) and can weigh up to 270 kilograms (600 pounds). Males are much larger than the females, who never exceed 300 pounds. Galapagos tortoises reach sexual maturity at approximately 40 years of age and can live to be 150 years old. So as these tortoises go, Frank and Charlie are mere whippersnappers: they are roughly the size of a footrest and weigh approximately 80 pounds each.

"They just celebrated their 13th birthday this past August," said Beth to a crowd of their admirers who were watching the two boulder-shaped animals move sedately around their enclosure. She noted that it's a good thing that these tortoises are relatively small because the larger and stronger adults tended to walk through closed doors when they so desired.

"If we had a full-grown male on display, he could crash through the wall of the display," Beth explained. I peered around the large reptile hall for a moment, imagining what it might be like to be greeted by a 600-pound giant tortoise out for an early morning stroll across the gleaming floors.

"Do they bite?" I asked after a moment, watching the piece of hay disappear into Charlie's mouth.

"No. Well, not really," Beth paused. "If they do bite, they just grab a little bit of fabric [of your clothes]."

As you might have already surmised, Galapagos tortoises are herbivores. Depending upon the island where they originated, they eat a diet consisting of those particular species of prickly pear cactus and fruits, bromeliads, water ferns, leaves, shrubs and grasses that are native to their island homes. Beth noted that they have good color vision, and show distinct preferences for food items that are red, green or yellow in color.

"This is probably because foods with these colors had the highest nutrition content on their islands," she said.

The tortoises also have tremendous water storage capacities, and have been known to survive as long as one year without water. This led to their popularity as a menu item from the 1700s onward for hungry sailors craving fresh meat and oil during their long voyages.

Because Galapagos tortoises are protected species, Frank and Charlie were domestically bred animals: they hatched in Oklahoma and then were purchased seven years ago by Reptileland in Pennsylvania where they usually live when not visiting museums in New York City. Beth was not certain which island was home to Frank and Charlie's ancestors because one parent's ancestry cannot be verified.

"They're probably mutts," she said.

Regardless of their ancestry, Frank and Charlie are fascinating animals with a remarkable story to tell about the origin of all life on earth.


GrrlScientist sincerely thanks Beth for answering her many questions.

More Information

AMNH tortoise cam. Image refreshed every 30 seconds.

The Endangered Galapagos Tortoise, Discover Galapagos. Provides information about each tortoise population.

Galapagos Tortoise, Honolulu Zoo (includes video of nesting tortoises).

Interactive Galapagos map.

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Included in the Bonfire of the Vanities Blog Carnival, issue #127

Included with the Big Apple Blog Festival
Issue 16


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Movie of My Life

The Movie Of Your Life Is A Black Comedy

In your life, things are so twisted that you just have to laugh.
You may end up insane, but you'll have fun on the way to the asylum.

Your best movie matches: Being John Malkovich, The Royal Tenenbaums, American Psycho

Of course, I've never seen any of these movies, so you'll have to tell me, dear readers -- are they are good? What are they about?


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Blogging Rights

Surely you have read stories of people who were fired for blogging, but did you know that Rick Santorum (R-PA) is trying to restrict the public's right to access taxpayer-funded information provided by the National Weather Service? Were you aware that Sony sold millions of music CDs that they intentionally infected with computer viruses programmed to damage the computer hard drives of unsuspecting customers? Do these issues affecting freedom of digital information and expression concern you? If so, and especially if you are a blogger, then this is the website for you (click image).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is working to protect freedom of digital information and particularly freedom of expression for bloggers. To this end, they have created an online legal guide for bloggers that anyone can refer to. This legal guide provides information about bloggers' legal liability issues, bloggers as journalists, and other legal issues, such as students who blog, blogging about political campaigns, workplace blogging, and publishing adult material on one's blog. You can also join EFF and support their efforts by making a donation (I joined, and my t-shirt is pictured on the right). You can also check out EFF's action alert page to learn more about who is assaulting the public's right to free speech and what types of speech are are under attack.

Via Crooked Timber


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, November 18, 2005

Birds in the News #36

Greenwing Macaw, Ara chloroptera.

Birds in Science:

In the Solomon Islands, east of New Guinea and northeast of Australia, lives the monarch flycatcher, a medium-size songbird, which is refining our understanding of evolution. Curious about how new species arrive on islands, Chris Filardi, a University of Montana visiting scholar, began gathering DNA samples from the flycatchers and reconstructing relationships between the birds on the islands and on the island’s nearest continents. What he and co-researcher Robert Moyle discovered was that islands are much like a petri dish that sprouts its own biodiversity. Contrary to conventional thinking, the scientists, both of whom work for the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, have found evidence that islands are not evolutionary dead ends, but can actually be sources of new species. “If we keep getting this kind of result, it will be relevant for the whole world,” Filardi said. “And because of that, we will have to think differently about islands everywhere and what we do with them.” This study was published last week in the top-tier research journal, Nature.

A change in the diet of seabirds may be making them less intelligent and lowering their chances of survival and breeding, a new study shows. Scientists used lab experiments to mimic changes observed in the diets of kittiwakes in the Bering Sea - changes probably caused by a warming ocean. Chicks given a diet low in lipid-rich fish were less able to find food. The 1980s saw the start of a decline in populations of red-legged kittiwakes, Rissa brevirostris (pictured), on the Pribilof Islands in the southeastern Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska. The cause has been unclear, though scientists have documented a change in their diet that occurred around the same time. Around the coast of the UK, some sea bird populations are in catastrophic decline, also due largely to the removal of high-lipid prey such as sand eels. This appears also to be linked with climate change. The study is published in the Royal Society’s science journal Proceedings B.

A deep-voiced black-capped chickadee, Poecile atricapillus (pictured), may wonder why other birds ignore it, but there may be a good reason behind the snub, says a University of Alberta study that looked into how the bird responds to calls. Dr. Isabelle Charrier and Dr. Chris Sturdy modified the black-capped chickadee calls, played those sounds back to the bird and observed how they reacted. They found that the chickadee relies on several acoustic features including pitch, order of the notes and rhythm of the call. They also rejected the calls of the control bird, the gray-crowned rosy finch, in favor of their own species. The chickadees’ two most well-known vocalizations are the “chick-a-dee” call and the “fee-bee” song. Males produce their song to attract a mate and to defend their territory during the breeding season. The learned call is produced by both sexes throughout the year and is believed to serve a variety of functions such as raising mild alarm, maintaining contact between mates and co-ordinating flock activities. They even go through stages of learning this “song language,” which explains why juvenile birds can be heard frantically practicing to perfect this call. In this study, the researchers found that if they raise the pitch, the bird would still respond, but if they lowered it, the chickadee stopped answering. “We speculate that this happens because the pitch may be related to size, so the chickadee thinks, ‘wow, that bird sounds big,’ and they stay away from it,” says Sturdy, co-author of the study. “The first thing birds use to identify vocalizations is the frequency range. Different birds use different acoustic ranges as a filter, so if it is too high or too low, they ignore it.” This research is published in the current edition of the research journal, Behavioural Processes.

Birds in Education:

Professor David Hall, a handful of undergraduate research students and a volunteer taxidermist named Miles Stelios, have been working on a teaching collection of stuffed birds and skeletons for his undergraduate biology classes. Most of the birds in Hall’s collection died of natural causes, or were found dead after accidents such as flying into windows. These birds bodies are prepared and used for teaching and public outreach. “Outreach is what makes me feel all warm and fuzzy,” Hall said. “As a lecturer, I try to get more job satisfaction. I want to use it for teachers to improve science education in Texas, to get people interested in conservation and biology in general. It’s a huge benefit.” Most of Hall’s work for the collection has been on his own time, since, as he says, the University puts more funding toward research than materials for teaching. GrrlScientist says; this is a long but very interesting and worthwhile story, and the photographs are beautiful.

People Hurting Birds:

This story wins the award for the most unbelievably disgusting display of human stupidity and cruelty in 2005. This week, a sparrow flew into an exhibition hall in Amsterdam, became trapped and then panicked, knocking over 23,000 dominoes that had been set up for a new world record attempt. The terrified and defenseless bird was cornered and then shot dead by an exterminator packing an air rifle. The miscreant was a House Sparrow, Passer domesticus (pictured), an endangered species in the Netherlands. “Under Dutch law, you need a permit to kill this kind of bird, and a permit can only be granted when there’s a danger to public health or a crop,” said Dutch animal protection agency spokesman, Niels Dorland. The Endemol Production company, the dumbass TV firm that organized the event, attempted to defend their inexcusable revenge killing. “That bird was flying around and knocking over a lot of dominoes. More than 100 people from 12 countries had worked for more than a month setting them up,” said Endemol spokesman Jeroen van Waardenberg. BooHooHooHoo. So besting their own world record is more important than a life? How far would they stoop to protect their silly world record, a record they already hold? Fortunately, the Dutch animal protection agency plans to submit the case to prosecutors. A Dutch website,, is dedicated to collecting people's reactions to the death of this sparrow. So far, more than 4,000 have been posted.

Bird Flu News:

Why would anyone want to resurrect a long-dead flu virus? This is the question that the public commonly asks regarding research into the 1918 flu virus that killed millions of people worldwide. But the genetic sequence from the virus has the potential to help us develop vaccines that might help protect humans from another pandemic. However, recently reconstructed 1918 virus surprised researchers with its weird genetic sequence. Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, a molecular pathologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Technology who led the research team that reconstructed the long-extinct virus, said that a few things seemed clear. First, the 1918 virus appears to be a bird flu virus. Second, if this virus originated in a bird, it is not a species that anyone has studied before. It is not like the H5N1 strain of bird influenzas in Asia, which sickened at least 116 people, and killed 60. Additionally, it is not like the influenza viruses that infect wild waterfowl in North America. Yet many researchers still believe that the 1918 virus, which caused the worst infectious disease epidemic in human history, is a bird flu virus. If so, it is the only “bird flu” virus that has ever been known to cause a human pandemic. That, Dr. Taubenberger said, gives rise to a question. Are scientists looking for the next pandemic flu virus in all the wrong places? Is there a bird species that no one ever thought about that harbors the next 1918-like flu? And if so, what bird is it, and where does it live? [pictured: electron micrograph of Influenza viruses]

Incidentally, the parrot that was thought to be the UK’s first victim of bird flu probably did not have the virus, it was finally reported earlier this week. A Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs report admitted that a mix-up in samples taken from a quarantine center where several birds died led to the South American parrot being suspected of bringing the killer virus into the country and of being its first fatality. It now appears that the only birds to be infected at the centre in Essex came from a consignment of finch-like mesias, Leiothrix argentauris, imported from Taiwan. Samples taken from a mesia that died and from the Amazon parrot from Surinam, who died in an adjoining cage at the Pegasus Birds center, became mixed up, leading the testing laboratory wrongly to conclude that the parrot was the source of the H5N1 bird flu strain. The report says that 53 of 101 mesias died in quarantine. It was also found that the virus was not passed on to other bird species being held at the center - a fact that Ben Bradshaw, the animal welfare minister, hailed as having “potentially huge implications” for international efforts to tackle avian flu. GrrlScientist note: Why is this story not even mentioned in any of the newspapers in the USA, and it was barely even mentioned in the UK, even though the original story received so much press coverage? And why did it take almost one month for this story to appear in the British papers? (The mix-up was first reported to have occurred on 26 October and this story was published on 16 November). Perhaps ‘pandemic fear’ becoming a little too convenient?

European Union veterinary experts on Wednesday extended a ban on imports of captive live birds from outside the EU for a further two months to guard against the spread of bird flu, the European Commission said. The ban, which covers captive live birds other than poultry imported for commercial purposes, was imposed in late October and was due to expire at the end of this month. It will now run until the end of January, when the EU vets will review it again.

As Bush outlines the nation's plans to respond to a possible avian influenza pandemic, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) today called on the federal government to immediately take preventative measures to reduce the risk of a pandemic, with a specific focus on the animal-human disease pathways. “President Bush and the U.S. Congress should not overlook several steps that they could take now to minimize the chances of an avian influenza pandemic,” said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO. “Cockfighting, the importation of live birds as pets, live poultry markets, and the unregulated transportation of birds all present unnecessary risks of spreading disease and should be halted.” GrrlScientist note: Mr. Pacelle is very cleverly using our “bird flu” fears to shove his own political agenda down our collective throats. Part of his agenda is to prevent Americans from enjoying the company of domestically-bred companion birds. Did you see how he managed his sleight-of-hand? Even though most of these guidelines are reasonable, there is one notable exception: There is no rational reason to ban importation of live pet birds. The USA only allows the importation of two pet birds per person, and "pet birds" are defined as birds that have been kept as pets by their owner for at least one year. Mr. Pacelle overlooks this, and he also conveniently forgets the fact that pet birds almost always live indoors with their owners where they are unlikely to be exposed to any influenzas, and further, he ignores the fact that all imported birds are subjected to a 30 day quarantine at a licensed quarantine station prior to being released to their owners. The evidence suggests that, in the vanishingly rare event that a pet bird might be infected with an influenza virus, they will either develop the illness or clear the virus from their systems during that 30 day period of quarantine. Additionally, it is useful to remember that there are many flu viruses out there that are not the deadly H5N1 that terrifies us, so in the incredibly unlikely event that an imported bird develops the flu, it is probably not H5N1.

Streaming Birds:

This week on BirdNote, we peer into the world of the Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani; learn about the eagle eye (the website includes an amazing photo of a Golden Eagle taken by my bird pal, Don Bacchus); soar along with Red-tailed Hawks, Buteo jamaicensis; celebrate the “snowbird,” the Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis; and also they discuss the return from the North of the Trumpeter swan, Cygnus buccinator, and Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus (a swan is pictured). BirdNote programs are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM in Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia on KPLU radio and now also in North Central Washington state on KOHO radio. All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. [mp3/podcast].

Miscellaneous Birds:

Seattle is experiencing a bird problem. Nona Raybern thought she’d lucked out a couple of weeks ago when she found a parking spot on Fourth Avenue just a half block from the Starbucks at Westlake Center, where she works as a barista. But, like all good things that happen in a person’s life, this parking space came with a price. At precisely 5 pm, about 200 small black European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris (pictured), that had been circling over Macy's, landed in the trees, filling the air with the sound of chirps and the pings of poop hitting windshields. Raybern later discovered her mistake. “I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I just got inside [my car] in disbelief. On the drive home, everyone was staring and pointing. I had to run it through the car wash twice, so it ended up costing me $25,” Raybern complained. The starling problem has been worse in some cities in the Midwest and the East Coast, “where they've suffered an invasion numbering in the millions,” said Roy Francis, the city's manager of urban forestry. Some have poisoned the birds; others have played loud noises and hung colorful streamers in the trees to mimic predators. Nothing has worked. But other people are philosophical. For Brahim Mahdoubi, bird poop is the price to pay for living in a city intertwined with nature. He parked his black Mercedes under a tree with about 50 birds perched in it, knowing what he’d find when he came back. When questioned about this, he shrugged, looked up at the tree and said: “Look at all the birds. How lucky are we to see that beauty?” But there is a bright spot in all this. More people are taking the bus to work.

Isn’t it interesting how birds lose when corporate profits are threatened? For example, when a Washington state board gathered this week to pretend how to best protect endangered spotted owls, Strix occidentalis caurina (pictured), the man in charge was a Department of Natural Resources official who had privately met with timber industry executives and promised to soften proposed regulations. An internal timber industry memorandum obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer outlines how Pat McElroy, chairman of the Forest Practices Board, agreed to eliminate a key DNR staff recommendation to be considered today. The memo also suggests that McElroy had planned to alter his agency’s recommendations without telling others involved in the talks, such as environmentalists and tribal leaders. “This just shows how stacked the deck is against a credible public process,” said Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center, which represents environmentalists in timber lawsuits. “We've been working for two years to convince them what they need to do to protect owls. This is what the DNR staff came up with, and it almost went into the trash.” GrrlScientist observes; In view of shenanigans like this, how can any sane and rational corporate droid not understand that the public is fully justified in their mistrust of corporations when environmental issues or endangered species are at stake?

Okay, this week has made me feel really cranky, so I had to cheer myself by ending this issue of Birds in the News with a humorous birds-in-clothing story. Incredibly, this story is true. According to this news story, a 35-year-old woman near Fort Myers was charged this month with stealing a Greenwing Macaw, Ara chloroptera (pictured at top), from a bird farm by hiding the bird in her bra. How on earth did she do this? “When you got a thousand birds, it’s hard to keep track of all of them,” said Hobbs Guenther, the owner of Baby Exotic Birds. The suspect, Jill Knispel, 35, of Englewood, Florida, was employed as a bird feeder at Guenther’s farm when she made off with the rare parrot, which can grow to a height of 4 feet. That seems like a lot of bird to stuff in a bra, even by today’s augmentation standards. “She didn't take it when it was full grown,” Guenther said. “It was just a baby. Only about two inches.” Apparently, Knispel’s mouth also runneth over, otherwise, Guenther might have never known. After Knispel stole the bird, raised it, and traded it for a Karmann Ghia car, she then, being a genius, blabbed about it to a woman who happened to be Guenther’s former girlfriend. Ooops.

Thanks to my bird pals; Jamie, Caren, Mary, Eddie, Pat, Debi, Fred, Ellen and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here. Thanks also to Devery for financial support for Birds in the News.

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Survival Job applications: 4 (shotgun method, again. I actually have no idea if any adjunct positions exist at any of these schools)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Carnival of the Vanities is available!

I am having major problems with Blogger STILL, so hopefully this message will be published instead of disappearing somewhere in the big "out there" (Grrrrr!).

I just found out that the latest issue, #164, of the Carnival of the Vanities was posted today at Dr. Charles' Examining Room, and my island birds essay was included!

This is the first time I've ever contributed anything to the Carnival of the Vanities, although, as I understand it, this carnival is the "grand dame" of blog carnivals, the one that started the whole blog carnival scene. This particular blog carnival specializes in linking to the very best blog writing within the past week, so definitely stop by to read the hottest and newest blog essays!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tangled Bank is available

The Tangled Bank (TB) issue #41 was published today. I am not a contributor to this issue because I wanted to have an essay of mine nominated by someone else -- just once!! -- and I was hoping that someone would nominate my island birds essay. I was hoping this because PZ had admired it so openly on his blog, and had mentioned that it should be included in this issue of TB. So I apologize to my colleagues for letting my own silly wishes to supercede the importance of promoting their work. Certainly, I have been promoting this essay (their work) to every venue possible, but I wanted just this one venue -- the most obvious one of them all -- to be my first ever essay nomination. Alas, I will have to wait for that elusive nomination.

Anyway, I mention TB here not because I wanted to tell you that embarassing story (I merely offer it as an explanation for my bad behavior), but because I encouraged a blog pal to contribute his work to TB. This friend of mine is a freelance journalist who lives in London, and writes "behind the scenes" stories of his journalistic adventures and publishes them on his blog. This story, The Cup Runneth Over, is the one that I encouraged him to submit to this issue of TB, and they accepted it!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What Type of Humanist am I?

Thanks to PZ, I found out that I am a ...


You are an atheist, a rationalist, a believer in the triumph of science and of reason over libido. You can’t stand mumbo jumbo, ritual, spiritual nonsense of any kind, and you refuse to allow for these longings in others.

Astrologers, Scientologists and new–age crystal ball creeps are no different in your view from priests, rabbis and imams. They’re all just weak–minded pilgrims on the road to easy answers. Nature as revealed by science is awesome enough for you, but it’s a nature that needs curbing and taming by us on our evolutionary journey to perfection.

Your heros are Einstein, Darwin, Marx and — these days — Gould, Blakemore, Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin. Could you be hiding a little behind those absolutist views, worried that, if you let in a few doubts and contradictory ideas, the whole edifice might crumble? Loosen up a bit and try to enjoy the amazing variety of human belief systems. Don’t worry — it’s unlikely you’ll end up chanting your days away in some distant mountain cult.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

(another silly online quiz for you to amuse yourself with)


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Monday, November 14, 2005

More Me, Take Two

The BestOfMeSymphony #103 was published today and once again, I have contributed one of my older essays to the line-up. For those of you who don't know, the BestOfMeSymphony specializes in linking to essays that were published 2 months or longer ago. Because "Bird Flu" is such a huge news story, and also because it is one of the top search phrases that brings people to my blog, I thought I'd share this story again, Influenza: How Its Biology Affects Vaccine Production. [Some of you, dear readers, know that I also have a strong background in virology, both educational and practical, and that I particularly enjoy thinking and writing about avian influenza. I plan write more about this topic -- I have two essays in progress on my computer, in fact, and one of these days, I'll finish both of them.] So stop by the Symphony and discover something that you might have missed the first time!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Saturday, November 12, 2005


This image was made by my blog pal, Tabor, who saw the earlier message I'd published here where I lamented the lack of birds in this nearly perfect streaming commercial. I think she made this image to amuse me.

She succeeded. She also made me wonder.

Where does Tabor find the time to invest in creating an image for a person she's never met? Tabor is a busy person with a real life; she has a loving husband, two kids, a grandbaby, and a fulltime job in addition to building her retirement home and drinking fine wine! And she has a blog full of funny essays about her life. And she still manages to do little things for strangers like me.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bird Flu Symptoms

The Center for Disease Control has released a list of symptoms of bird flu. If you experience any of the following, please seek medical treatment immediately:

1. High fever
2. Congestion
3. Nausea
4. Fatigue
5. Aching in the joints
6. An irresistible urge to shit on someone's windshield.

Thanks to my Seattle Bird pal, Dawn, for forwarding this to me.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Birds in the News #35

Pied Monarch, in hand.
Photo Credit: Christopher E. Filardi, American Museum of Natural History.

Birds in Science

Oceanic islands were always thought to be evolutionary dead ends, but new information show this is not always the case. Far from species hopping steadily down an island chain from a continent and coming to a dead stop, the research using new DNA techniques shows the process can actually go into reverse and spread back to the continents. "People have always assumed that the source for biodiversity has been continents," said lead author Christopher Filardi from the American Museum of Natural History, and a colleague of mine. The paper was published this week in the top-tier research journal, Nature. (One of the bird species featured in the study is pictured above).

The global decline in seabird populations is of growing concern to ecologists, and now researchers have discovered a new cause – some may be becoming too stupid to survive. Climate change may be the root of the trouble. New environmental conditions lead fish to migrate, leaving the birds that feed on them malnourished. The new research shows that lack of a specific nutrient in red-legged kittiwakes, Rissa brevirostris (pictured), damages their cognitive abilities and could leave them too daft to find food. Red-legged kittiwake populations have plummeted by half since the 1980s in the Pribilof Islands in the southeastern Bering Sea. So another colleague of mine, Alexander Kitayski and colleagues at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Irving, US, devised an experiment to try to find out why. The sharp drop in the seabird numbers coincided with a climate shift that resulted in a reduced abundance of lipid-rich fish in the area, though other fish species remained available as food. The researchers theorised that chicks born at or after this time lacked the lipid-rich foods they needed for proper cognitive development, leaving them less likely to have the skills needed to survive as independent adults. “This is really fascinating research, and demonstrates a very complex mechanism driving a reduction in population,” says Mark Grantham, from the British Trust for Ornithology. “Climate change has had a noticeable effect on both the timing and success of breeding of many of our bird species, but this new study just shows how unpredictable such consequences can be.”

People Helping Birds

Good News! New Jersey and Delaware officials finally came to their collective senses when they agreed this week to cut the harvest of horseshoe crabs in half, a move intended to stop the decline of both the helmet-shaped creatures as well as the migrant shorebirds that feed on their eggs. The agreement, which still must be ratified by fisheries councils in each state, also would prohibit harvesting during the horseshoe crabs' prime spawning season, May 1 through June 7. Public access to some Delaware Bay beaches also would be limited to reduce shorebird disturbance. Environmental groups welcomed the move as a step toward a total ban on horseshoe crab harvests. A decline in their spawning numbers has roused the concern of environmentalists and international researchers who believe migrating shorebirds, particularly the endangered red knot, Calidris canutus (pictured), a long-distance migrant who are not finding enough crab eggs to eat when they arrive on Delaware Bay beaches to refuel each spring. "The Delaware Bay is a shared resource and drastic measures are called for on both sides of the waterway to address the alarming decline of the horseshoe crab population and wildlife that depends on horseshoe crab eggs as a primary food source," Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell said. GrrlScientist says: I am keeping my fingers crossed that this was enacted in time to save the red knot, whose Delaware Bay numbers declined dramatically from more than 150,000 to approximately 17,000 in less than 10 years.

Each year on November 7th, one of the world’s richest bird areas is celebrated. "November 7th is a reminder each year that the forests of the Tumbesian region represent one of the richest and most threatened sites for biodiversity on the planet," said Amiro Perez-Leroux, BirdLife Americas Partner Development Officer. The Tumbesian region, which stretches from northern coastal Ecuador south to just north of Lima in Peru, holds exceptional levels of endemic bird species – species found nowhere else on the planet. However, heavy deforestation has resulted in many of its inhabitants becoming threatened, converting the region into a major conservation priority for BirdLife and other conservation organisations.

BirdLife's new Global Office in Cambridge, UK, was officially opened recently by Her Imperial Highness Princess Hisako Takamado of Japan, BirdLife's Honorary President. After a lifetime of strong interest in birds combined with many years of activism on their behalf, HIH Princess Takamado was named to be BirdLife International's Honorary President in 2004.

Buzzards are again breeding successfully across Scotland after years of decline, a leading conservation body has found. Research by RSPB Scotland indicated the birds of prey, dubbed miniature eagles, have again started to breed and live in some of Scotland's most densely populated and built-up areas. Until recently the birds were largely confined to the west of Scotland but have now become more evenly distributed throughout eastern farmland areas. In the past, many were shot and many also died due to ill effects of agricultural pesticides. Their spread and overall increase is also attributed to a reduction in poisoning and trapping, particularly in the lowlands.

People Hurting Birds

The stately Southern Ground Hornbill, Bucorvus leadbeateri (pictured at left), or "Lehututu" as it's locally called, may not be around for much longer. These huge black birds with their distinctive beaks and bright red wattles are part of the hornbill family that occur naturally only in Africa and Asia. But hornbill numbers are declining due to habitat destruction. "Many species will not survive without human intervention," said chief executive officer of the Limpopo Tourism and Parks Board, Benny Boshielo.

The flock of conures known as the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, that took up residence on a hill overlooking the San Francisco bay, becoming the subject of a documentary and best-selling book, are searching for a new home after one of their perches was cut down and two others face a similar fate. Mark Bittner, who brought attention to the birds that have delighted tourists and residents for years, halted a crew this week before they cut down three cypresses whose owner wants them removed because they pose a hazard. "I would be a horrible human being if I wasn't helping my friends out, and they are my friends," Bittner, 53, said as he stood outside his cabin near the lone cypress stump and the surviving pair of trees.

Bird Flu News

Revealing once again that governments are often willfully stupid, the Vietnamese government recently issued a warning that kissing pet parrots can help spread bird flu. GrrlScientist rant: When will this dumbassery stop? Pet birds cannot spread avian influenza unless they have FIRST been exposed to birds that were already ill with the virus. This erroneous information is already causing problems for perfectly healthy companion parrots. And while I am ranting, I might as well add that I am appalled that wild birds are being blamed for spreading the bird flu across Asia when the evidence shows that this was not the case until very recently -- within the past few months. In fact, there is more evidence to suggest that during the five years previous to this, bird flu was spread by people who sell their sick poultry at market, and by people moving their cockfighting birds all over creation. By moving sick birds freely, and also by not keeping their sick domestic poultry separate from wild migratory birds, it appears that people infected wild birds with avian influenza, and now people are erroneously blaming wild birds as being the primary source of this virus. This allegation is ridiculous and is not reality based.

Are you afraid of catching bird flu from your bird feeder? Well, don't be. Naturalists say fears of an international bird flu pandemic should not stop anyone from enjoying birds at their backyard feeders. "Birds carry a variety of strains of avian flu," said David Bonter, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, during a telephone interview with The Tribune. "But most strains of flu don't affect birds (we would see) at feeders." GrrlScientist says; Base your bird feeding decisions on facts, not fears. Birders and bird feeders should continue to enjoy their activities. But use common sense. Cleanliness and sanitation should be maintained at all times, whether you’re a feeder or outdoor sportsman. And don't forget that the simplest behavior, hand-washing, will tremendously reduce your rate of infection with any disease organism, including influenza viruses.

Streaming Birds

This week on BirdNote, we talk about the disappearance of scaup; mixed-species flocks; the Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor (pictured); a bit about common sayings that have birds as subjects; and the episode I am most interested in, the relationship of birds to dinosaurs. BirdNote shows are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM on the radio throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia and is also available as RSS/Podcast feeds from BirdNote. Congratulations as BirdNote expands its listernership: this is the first week when BirdNote are broadcast on the radio in North Central Washington state (they also stream BirdNote live). All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. [mp3/podcast].

Miscellaneous Birds

If you enjoy marine birds, then you will also be interested to read the research journal, Marine Ornithology, that is dedicated to them. This journal is also published online and provides free PDFs of all papers published in volumes 16 to the present.

How are your bird identification skills? You can test them by going to Bird Quizzes and find out. The tests are designed to challenge novice, intermediate and advanced birders and the answers to the quiz are posted to the website at the end of the month. This website also has a comments section (similar to what you find on blogs) that you might find interesting.

There is a new bird website out there, eBird, that focuses on birds in and around Ontario. Their most recent article, winter finch predictions discusses nine winter finch species and three erruptive passerines to expect in the Ontario area. The article features a beautiful picture of one of my favorite bird species, the Bohemian Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus.

Thanks to my bird pals; Frank, Cheri, John, Dawn, Michael, Ellen and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here. Special thanks to MJE for financial support for Birds in the News.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Backtracking Birds Show Islands are not Evolutionary Dead Ends

Kolo Sunset.
Photo credit: Christopher E. Filardi,
American Museum of Natural History
(Click on image for a larger picture).

Finally, dear readers, I can tell you the news that I have hinted at on my blog several times during the past few months! Two of my ornithologist colleagues, Chris Filardi and Rob Moyle, published a paper yesterday in the top-tier research journal, Nature. This paper is especially exciting because it shows that oceanic islands are not necessarily the evolutionary "dead ends" that they have traditionally been portrayed to be. In fact, Chris and Rob's data show that a group of birds have actually accomplished what scientists had never previously been able to document; some island species doubled back and successfully re-colonized the continents from where they originated.

Historically, scientists thought that continental species colonize island chains by hopping from one nearby island to the next in a stepping-stone fashion as they progressively moved away from the mainland. This "stepping stone hypothesis" was based on traditional methods for categorizing measurements of certain physical characteristics, such as beak shape, collected from different bird species. These morphological data were analyzed to build family trees based on the numbers and relative similarities of shared physical characters between bird species found on different islands. Using these data, taxonomists thought that those island bird species that most resembled each other also tended to be located within the same island chain, while remote islands hosted birds that were more distantly related. Thus, traditional hypotheses about speciation were built upon the assumption that geographically isolated species were also most likely to be evolutionarily distant.

However, many of these physical characters, especially beak shape, were later discovered to be particularly malleable and will quickly change in response to environmental demands. Because birds located on neighboring islands often live under comparable environmental demands, those particular morphological characters tend to be similar, even when the birds are not closely related. As a result, traditional taxonomic methodologies can provide data such that distant relatives are erroneously classified as close cousins.

The model system supporting the stepping stone hypothesis are the Monarch Flycatchers (Monarchidae), an Australasian family that comprises approximately 60 species of birds. These small- to medium-sized passerines are also widespread throughout the islands and archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean as the result of historic colonization events. Island Biogeographer Ernst Mayr, who first proposed the stepping stone hypothesis, completed most of the studies of this group using traditional taxonomic methods. These taxonomic data suggested that species colonize island chains by moving in only one direction -- away from continents. Because the biological traffic appeared to be one way, this implies that islands are evolutionary dead ends, which is one of the predictions of the stepping stone hypothesis. But the DNA data from the Monarchs conflict with the taxonomic data, and reveal that this is not necessarily always true.

"The original source [for these birds] was continental, but if you look at island lineages and analyze all the unique forms at once, as we have, you find that the Pacific is an engine of diversity ... that can contribute to continental diversity," explained Chris Filardi, lead author of the paper, in a late-night telephone conversation.

These data were exposed using powerful DNA technologies that quickly reveal important details that were previously undetectable by traditional taxonomic methodologies. These DNA data were statistically analyzed to build a family tree, known as a phylogeny, for these birds (Figure 1, below).

    Figure 1: The tree is rooted with Machaerirhynchus and Rhipidura (not shown). Daggers indicate taxa for which DNA was extracted from museum study skins and are represented by mitochondrial DNA only. Asterisks indicate nodes receiving more than 0.95 posterior probability and/or more than 70% maximum-likelihood bootstrap support. General geographic distributions are indicated to the right of taxon names. Ancestral area assignments for nodes are based on maximum-likelihood-based reconstructions (see Supplementary Information for details). Node age ranges were estimated with rates of 0.01 and 0.0276 substitutions per site per lineage per million years (see Supplementary Information). NG, New Guinea; AU, Australia. [Click image to see larger version in its own window].

The resulting phylogeny suggests that speciation patterns of the Pacific Monarch Flycatchers are more subtle and complex than previously thought. For example, these birds diversified from a single continental colonist which then expanded outward from its island home (Figure 2, below) – instead of speciating after a recurring series of colonizing island "hops" away from Australasia, as implied by the older taxonomic data.


    Figure 2: Bird drawings are roughly to scale and illustrate some of the marked morphological differentiation between island endemics that has complicated the evolutionary interpretation of the group. Coloured circles indicate three classes of node age by using point estimates from ND2-specific rate calibration. Branch lengths are not to scale. The image representing the continental monarchs (Monarcha verticalis) is typical of taxa within clade B (Fig. 1). Large hatching outlines the distribution of Clytorhynchus and small hatching outlines the range of M. cinerascens. [Click image to see larger version in its own window].

According to Rob Moyle, co-author of the paper, the DNA data also revealed that the oldest monarch lineages inhabit the most remote Pacific islands while younger species groups are closer to the continental source area, New Guinea. This finding is contrary to "stepping stone" predictions. Additionally, the DNA data show that species that were previously classified into six different groups, or genera, are actually embedded within another genus, Monarcha (Figure 1). This shows that the birds are actually more closely related than suggested by their physical characteristics alone.

These data will refine our understanding of the role of oceanic islands as potential sources of global biodiversity.

"People have always assumed that the source for biodiversity has been continents," said Chris Filardi. This is because the proposed barrier that prevents island species from successful re-colonization of continents is the complexity of their floral and faunal communities, which islands lack.

This research will undoubtedly have important ramifications for identifying conservation priorities for oceanic islands.

"Islands aren't just little landforms worth saving as icons of evolutionary quirkiness ... They are important in a broader sense and may contribute significantly to future diversity of life on earth," Chris Filardi concluded.

Female White-capped Monarch, Monarcha richardsii, in hand.
This species is endemic to the Solomon Islands.

All photographs appear here with permission from Christopher E. Filardi, American Museum of Natural History.


Single origin of a pan-Pacific bird group and upstream colonization of Australasia (2005). C Filardi and R Moyle. Nature. (You can request a PDF of the original article from Chris by going to First Paragraph and writing to his email address shown there).

Island birds show evolution is no one-way street (Reuters).

Special thanks to my colleagues, Chris and Rob, for trusting an excitable itchy-fingered scientist-blogger with their manuscript for so many months, and to Chris for sharing some of his wonderful photos here. Also thanks to PZ Myers for telling me the secret scanner-free method for grabbing images from Nature papers so I can share them all here with you.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing" by The Tangled Bank,
Issue #42.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

I and the Bird #10

The 10th Edition of I and the Bird, the bi-weekly blog carnival of the best in bird blogging, is now up at Thomasburg Walks. This edition includes 28 contributions from four continents describing bird identification, migration events, unlikely birding, lucky (and unlucky) birding, endangered birds, birds in recovery, and more.

Enjoy! I will be back here this afternoon with my own little essay, I am just waiting on the pictures and a few more materials.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The History of Life in 50 Seconds Flat

Okay, I need some serious cheering up. Maybe you do, too. Ian, one of my Seattle pals, emailed this link to me. It combines nearly everything I enjoy (in this case; evolution, beer, animals and humor, but alas, no birds, though) into one cute video.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Stolen Moment

I know some of you, dear readers, have wondered where I went (I have been wondering this very same thing) and what I am doing. Basically, I have been innundated by a tremendous amount of teaching commitments as well as trying to deal with some needless political gamesmanship at the little college on the hill. These issues have exhausted and depressed me and also made me wonder many things that I probably should not be thinking about at this time.

However, in the midst of the madness and unpleasantness that are my life right now, I have focused on one lovely glimmering science story where birds are our teachers, one wonderful story that I can hardly wait to share with you, dear readers. I am working on it especially for you during those moments that I have stolen away from my other obligations. I am not allowed to tell you more about this story yet because it is still under embargo by Nature magazine, but I will publish it here Thursday afternoon, complete with breathtaking photos -- and this story, dear readers, is definitely worth the wait!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, November 04, 2005

Birds in the News #34

Male Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana.
Photo by Nan Moore.

Birds in Science

What is the connection between wine and bluebirds? According to a recently published study, Western Bluebirds, Sialia mexicana (pictured at top), are increasingly falling on hard times along the Central Coast in California, in part, at least, because these are good times for grape growers. If bluebird families don't have enough mistletoe berries to eat during the winter, their sons are apt to up and leave, the study showed. But mistletoe grows in oak trees, and oak trees are disappearing all too rapidly as land is cleared for agriculture -- especially vineyards. The intersting study, which is presented in this linked news story, was co-written by Andrew McGowan of the United Kingdom and published online in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B last month and will come out in print later this year. The study was conducted at the Hastings Reserve in upper Carmel Valley while Dickinson was an associate research zoologist there. She is now an associate professor at Cornell University and the director of citizen science at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

People Hurting Birds

Bizarre and wildly fluctuating weather patterns have confused - and could yet kill - plants and animals across the country. Botanists, twitchers and wildlife-watchers in Scotland say last week's record-breaking heatwave fooled numerous species into believing winter had already passed. They now fear animals and plants will perish in their tens of thousands if, as predicted by some experts, the UK suffers its coldest winter for years with temperatures as low as minus 27°C. GrrlScientist note: I have never had the priviledge of visiting Scotland, but this scenario sounds rather melodramatic.

The avian influenza panic has caused uninformed or stupid people to release their pet exotic birds outdoors rather than take them to the vet to be tested for the virus. GrrlScientist comment: Even though this story reports what is currently happening in Rochdale, UK, this is happening elsewhere and will also happen in the USA after influenza arrives here. My hope is that the public will spend even as much as three minutes talking to their vet or reading accurate reality-based information on the internet, because pet birds cannot possibly be a source of the influenza virus. The only way a pet bird can infect humans with avian influenza is if the birds were housed outdoors with domestic poultry that died from avian influenza, or if they were in close physical contact with wild migratory birds, especially waterfowl, that were shedding this virus. Don't forget that bird flu is not easily passed from an infected bird to a human, either. It requires very close contact, or that the person drinks the bird's blood, raw. How many pet owners are going to do that?

Those of you who believe that abandoned and unwanted or neglected pet cats that roam freely in a city or elsewhere are not a menace should think again. This excellent story describes the many problems created by free-roaming cats. Pet owner negligence is the Number one contributor to the feral cat population, experts say. "People need to know how to take care of their pets," said Marc Hammond, a member of the Animal Welfare Alliance of Southern Arizona, and co-owner of Animal Experts Wildlife Rescue and Trapping Services. "If you own a cat in the US, it's not a right; it's a privilege." Nationwide, an estimated 70 million feral cats are roaming, more or less the same number as house cats.

People Helping Birds

With almost all of the world's remaining Short-tailed Albatrosses, Phoebastria albatrus (pictured), breeding on a steep slope of a Japanese volcanic island that is subject to eruptions, mudslides and erosion, an international team of scientists has a proposal to help the endangered birds by luring them to a safer island. The relocation idea, part of a draft recovery plan released on Thursday by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, involves the use of decoys and recorded bird calls to make some other site seem as enticing as Torishima Island. The approximately 2,000 short-tailed albatrosses left in the world spend their winters on the remote Japanese island but spend their summers spread out over Alaska's southern coastline. "You're not going to get adults to change. If there's a bunch of lava coming down and they're incubating an egg, they're just going to sit right there and let the lava roll right over them," said Greg Balogh, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who is coordinating the recovery plan. Instead, the plan focuses on chicks, which might form attachments to new places if moved at the correct time, he said. A new island has not yet been chosen for the birds.

A guide is available for distinguishing endangered Whooping Cranes, Grus americana (pictured), from other birds that appear similar in flight, such as White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, and Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis, is available online. Includes a link to the streaming news report comparing these cranes to other birds.

Bird Flu News

The man who runs the quarantine center in the UK where two Amazon parrots died from bird flu has a history of evading quarantine procedures. The Government was recently facing questions over why Brett Hammond, who runs the Pegasus Birds Centre in Essex, was given a licence to quarantine birds when he has a self-confessed history of ignoring quarantine rules. Customs officers claim that Hammond made up to £4m through his alleged bird-smuggling operation. At his appeal hearing in June 1997, at which his 18-month jail sentence was reduced to a year, it was disclosed that the reason for his tax evasion scheme was to avoid having to put birds through a month-long quarantine, a process that cost him time and money. As if that is not bad enough, it has also emerged that Howard Savage, who helps to run the quarantine center, also works at a local hospital, fuelling fears of a spread of the influenza strain. Hammond kept the (now dead) parrot in a cage in "quarantine" in his back yard. GrrlScientist comment: this story is so astonishing that it almost deserves its own category; Unbelievably Stupid People and the Greed-Driven Things They do to Innocent Birds.

For your reference, here is a basic primer on How Bird Flu is Transmitted. Please add it to your list of bookmarks.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) also issued a recent warning against overreacting to avian influenza. "[We must] reassure the public that they are in no immediate danger so that they don't get too concerned about rushing off, getting immunisations that don't exist, and rushing off getting tablets and sprays against influenza that may not work," said Dr Mukesh Haikerwal of the AMA.

Governmental overreaction to the bird flu can be conveniently used as a political and economic weapon, as we currently see in several South American countries. GrrlScientist wonders; Hrm, what next?

Where is the next logical place for bird flu to pop up? Researchers think the next stop for the bird flu, which threatens a global pandemic, will be Africa, where it could have a major impact. The H5N1 virus is expected to be carried by migratory birds into the Middle East and east Africa within weeks, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In a special report, the top-tier research journal Nature said the health and economic consequences could be worse than in south-east Asia where the virus is already widespread. The pattern of the virus's spread to date points strongly to wildfowl travelling southwest from northern Russia to the African continent.

The US Agriculture Department said on Wednesday it would step up testing of migratory fowl for bird flu as part of federal precautions against the deadly disease. The US government said it is planning more extensive testing in 2006 in the flyways where wild birds, believed to be the primary carrier of the disease, enter the United States. Officials did not say how many birds would be tested or where, but wild birds are expected to carry avian influenza into the USA by way of Alaska along the western flyway. The United States is the world's largest producer and exporter of poultry meat, with chicken, turkey and duck production valued at about $23 billion annually, and exporting approximately 5.4 billion pounds of chicken meat in 2005 alone.

But the US Agriculture Department and other official agencies throughout the world would be well-advised to remember that there’s no record of avian flu in wild birds or cases of humans being infected with the disease by wild or migratory birds. Bird Life International, British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in a statement, said that while there are numerous strains — at least 144 — of avian influenza, most of these viruses within wild bird populations are benign. “Highly pathogenic-avian influenza viruses (including H5N1) can cause great mortality in domestic poultry flocks, but are very rare in wild birds,” the statement said. “H5N1 is highly pathogenic but was never recorded in wild birds before the recent outbreaks in Southeast Asia, Russia and countries around the Black Sea. It is likely that it originated in domestic poultry through mutation of low pathogenic sub-types and was subsequently passed from poultry to wild birds.” The statement noted that there is a possibility that migrating water birds may be involved in the spread of the virus.

The parrot, named Koki, who belonged to the former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito has been placed in quarantine as a precautionary measure following the bird flu cases reported in Croatia. The Croatian media reported that Koki has been quarantined along with other birds in the northern Adriatic archipelago Brijuni, a former summer residence of Tito, who passed away back in 1980. Koki, who is a talking parrot, is a tourism attraction for all guests at Brijuni. Earlier in the week the strain of the bird flu virus lethal to humans was found in Croatia. GrrlScientist comment: this sounds like a bit of an overreaction unless this parrot was exposed to birds that are known to have died from avian influenza. On the other hand, at least the bird was not "culled" -- a definite overreaction!

Streaming Birds

This week, BirdNote celebrates Hallowe'en with Spooky Shearwaters; Freeway Hawks; Beaks and Bills; The Douglas Squirrel, Tamiasciurus douglasii; and Birds in the Winter Garden. BirdNote shows are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM on the radio throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia and is also available as RSS/Podcast feeds. All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. Incidentally, BirdNote can be heard in North Central Washington beginning the week of November 7 [mp3/podcast].

Miscellaneous Birds

Who says there aren't feral parrots in NYC?? If you look around, you'll find that one of the light poles next to Brooklyn College's athletic field is crowned with a large nest made of sticks. This shelter is a sturdy home to an extended family of small green parrots known as Myiopsitta monachus (pictured) - Monk (Quaker) Parakeets to you - who have thrived in Brooklyn for the better part of 30 years, well outside their native habitat in South America. The small birds have fist-size bodies and long tails, they are covered in mossy green feathers with notes of blue peeking out beneath. When about a dozen converged on some human-provided seed, a few of them began to squawk angrily at one another. "They're having an argument there," said birder, Steve Baldwin, who works in marketing for a small publishing house. "But this is Brooklyn, so that's to be expected." Mr. Baldwin has been a devoted fan of these birds; he even started a free blog about these birds in March,

A Black-tailed Gull, Larus crassirostris (pictured), normally found around the seas of Japan or along China's northeast coast, has turned up on the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermont. "This bird has never been seen in Vermont, and it's extraordinarily rare in the US," naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer said. Pfeiffer speculated the bird was thrown off course by a storm, migrated in the wrong direction or could have gotten a ride on a ship.

Speaking of lost birds that are giving birders a cheap thrill .. Hurricane Wilma has given bird watchers a treat after dozens of rare feathered visitors appeared on the island as the monster storm passed to our west.
The extraordinary influx of birds included Frigate birds, Sandwich terns, Sterna sandvicensis, Royal Terns, Sterna maxima, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Coccyzus americanus. Andrew Dobson, president of the Bermuda Audubon Society, said Wilma had brought unprecedented numbers of seabirds. He noted that seabirds have a good chance of survival when being blown off course by severe weather, but thousands of landbirds will not have been so fortunate. "Many thousands of migrant birds will have perished at sea, judging by the large number of landbirds that have arrived," he said. National Public Radio's Weekend Edition broadcast a story recently about these hurricane-misplaced birds that you will enjoy listening to.

This is a love story that might warm your feathery heart; Princess Sayako (also known by her nickname, Princess Nori), the daughter of the Emperor of Japan, will marry. Her match is Yoshiki Kuroda, a 39-year-old urban planner who still lives with his mother. Princess Nori, who is an avid bird watcher, part-time researcher at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology and co-author of a book about her hero, John Gould (the British ornithologist), were members of the same nature-lovers club when they met. Unfortunately, single women in Japan, referred to as loser dogs, will be deprived of their most famous icon when Princess Nori marries.

Thanks to my bird pals; Ian, Cheri, Leslie, Ellen and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here.

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