Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Hallowe'en

Since tonight is Hallowe'en, I thought I'd share my story about last year's Hallowe'en adventure in lovely NYC! I was tempted to repeat this adventure tonight because it was so fun last year and the music was so spectacular, but alas, I am trapped here at the little school on the hill and cannot make it to the cathedral in time for tonight's performance.

I also would like to tell you that an essay that I wrote was linked by the 101st issue of the BestOfMeSymphony (BOMS), a blog carnival that keeps good older blogged pieces in circulation by linking to them. As such, all submissions for this blog carnival must be at least two months old. My particular submission, Dead Birds Do Tell Tales, is more than one year old and was originally published as a "little vignette" in email to my Seattle pals, but it was then published in the print media, and then later, after I started this blog, it was published here. As I read some of the articles in this week's BOMS, I noticed this one, Bloggers: The New Pamphleteers, which might give you some food for thought regarding the role of blogging in society. BOMS was published this morning, so be sure to stop to read the linked essays there.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Harry Potter News

As some of you might know, the latest Harry Potter film is being released on 18 November. Even though the idiots out there can and do happily claim that any adult who enjoys HP is a nascent pedophile, I will go out on a limb anyway and tell you that I have been eagerly awaiting this film, feeling a secret thrill of happiness every time I see the film posters (such as the one posted here) that decorate the subway platforms, although I have kept rather quiet about this on my blog.

Of all the Harry Potter films, I have been most looking forward to this one (and of course, HP5) because the nature of the topics they deal with are more serious than in the earlier three books .. Harry and his pals are growing up and the problems they encounter become less black-and-white as well. (And there is less Quiddich -- yawn -- in the later books/movies, too).

Considering the outrageous price of films these days, unless my pals at Scholastic Books or my actor pal come through for me with free tickets for a sneak preview or an opening night extravaganza, I'll have to attend a public showing by forking over "cat cash"; money I've earned by scooping cat shit. This is fine with me! But one thing that cat cash apparently cannot buy is the company of a birdwatching pal to go watch this film with me, as I enjoyed for the previous films (I enjoy having a second pair of eyes to rely on for the inevitable after-film debriefing of bird species). Perhaps one of my Seattle Bird pals would like to visit NYC in the near future, and see the latest HP film with me?

Incidentally, does anyone keep a bird list for all the birds seen in Harry Potter films? Or a "film bird list" for all birds seen and heard in any film they've watched?

But I digress. For those of you, like me, who are spellbound by the upcoming release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, this link to a trailer of the new film, called "The Maze", is for you! (Those of you who have read HP4 will know exactly what "The Maze" refers to). This next link is full of all sorts of very amazing teasers that you'll like (the winged horses flying past the classroom window and the Tall Ship popping up out of the lake are especially wonderful). Also linked from this page are other clips that you'll love!

Links courtesy of my ever-watchful pal, Ian, who keeps me in touch with those things that really matter when stupid issues threaten to sweep all pleasure from my life.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Bored to Death

A real neutrophil with a nucleus shaped like a question mark. A neutrophil is a type of granulocytic white blood cell and is an integral part of our immune system. Perhaps this oddly shaped nucleus is evidence of Intelligent Design? Naaaaw!

For the first time since I've started teaching at the little college on the hill, I gave a lecture to my students that made me happy. I gave them an overview of blood (erythrocytes, leukocytes and platelets) and the lymphatic system, as required. But because I thought this lab was severely lacking in any interesting activities, I then used this required information as the background for a brief introduction to the wonders of the immune system and how it functions, the similarities and differences between immune response to bacterial infections versus viral infections, and then I discussed some cutting-edge research about the immune response to cancer and the relationship between immune cells, depression and cancer. Talking openly about these very interesting subjects cut through my own despondency and made me want to design a graduate-level course (or write a book) that addresses these topics.

I am not sure if any of my students learned anything from my lecture, although I'd like to believe they did, but at this point, I don't care. For the first time this semester, I was satisfied and that is all that counts right now. The oddest thing about this? I relied on only a few notes to remind me of the basic facts because I am going to examine them over those, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t accidentally misstate this information to them. But I did not write out my lecture in meticulous detail and in advance as I always do. I just talked to my students about what I think is so very interesting about these related topics. My thoughts and words came so easily, as if I was describing a series of events as they occurred in front of me, and my students' questions wonderfully anticipated the next topic that I was going to talk about .. how did they do that? I almost felt like a tour guide leading them on a great adventure; a great adventure of the mind.

Unfortunately, for the next few weeks, I am back to delivering "canned" lectures, although I think this will be fine since my students will be learning about the circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems. As a result, they will have some interesting dissections to keep them engaged so an interesting lecture is probably not necessary. Incidentally, last week, the lab technician told me that I am the only professor in this class that delivers a lab lecture at all, the others just spend ten minutes or so telling the students what they are supposed to be doing that week in lab, but provide no other background or contextual information. Yet, despite my devotion to detail, I am the only professor who is spot-on target with the course syllabus; all of the other classes have fallen behind, some of them are three weeks behind where they are supposed to be. Gah! It's no wonder that more than half of the students in the class are failing! The professors' apathy is killing them: They're bored out of their skulls!

I decided that my students can anticipate one more "fun" lecture from me, at the end of the semester (if I feel equal to it). Our lab covers the endocrine system on the last week of the semester, and a quick glance ahead in the book reveals that the lab manual succeeds once more in transforming another intriguing living phenomenon (endocrinology) into a boring exercise in rote memorization. However, I am just the person to remedy that situation: Because I researched the relationship between hormones and behavior in birds for my dissertation, I told my students today that I will give them a lecture about the mechanisms of how hormones cause changes in behavior and physiology. Like today's lecture, my upcoming presentation about hormones will be another lecture that requires my students to have mastered previous material covered in the class. If they have mastered it, I think this lecture will help them to better understand those previously memorized facts because they will have a context for them and context provides relevance. And relevance is what this entire course lacks. In fact, it's downright embarassing to be part of this particular course.

After all my subversive lectures have been delivered, I am sure the little college on the hill will fire me (I am too different from what they seek in an adjunct, they say). Or (because I agree with them), maybe I will quit and pursue homelessness as a viable life option? That seems to be the only option remaining since I can't find a satisfying job that pays a living wage. Of course, at this point, I am too disillusioned to care.

tags: , , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, October 28, 2005

Birds in the News #33


Orange-winged Amazon Parrot, Amazona amazonica.
This is the species of parrot that died from avian infliuenza, H5N1,
in the UK this past week (stories below).
Photograph by Pascal Dubois.

Birds in Science

We can put a man on the moon, transplant human hearts, split atoms, create the Internet, cell phones and digital-recording devices, yet we can't fully grasp the intricacies of bird migration nor avian evolution. However, this i9s changing. A population of songbirds that share summer breeding grounds may be dividing into two populations based on where they spend their winters, according to a report in this week's top-tier research journal, Science. European Blackcaps, Sylvia atricapilla (pictured), that follow a new migratory path tend to mate with each other and reproduce more successfully than birds that stick to the traditional route. This split into two breeding groups could increase the likelihood of the birds forming separate species, the authors note. This is the first time biologists have directly observed a mechanism -- selective mate choice -- that is separating a species into two populations, said Pete Marra, a senior scientist at the Migratory Bird Center of the National Zoo in Washington, DC. "To actually have this demonstrated is nice," noted Marra, who was not involved in the study. (If you wish to read more about avian migration generally, this nice little article provides more information about the questions that scientists ask about bird migration.

Birders Helping People

BirdLife is appealing for donations for the earthquake survivors in the Palas Valley in Pakistan, which is near the epicentre of the earthquake that struck on 8th October. In this valley alone, an estimated 80 people were killed and over 100 badly injured, and 30,000 people face the Himalayan winter without shelter. Most houses collapsed and approximately 3000 people are now living in the open. With the onset of the Himalayan winter, there is tremendous risk of further death and disease among the earthquake survivors. Most displaced households have lost all their belongings, including warm clothes and essentials such as cooking utensils. Food is in short supply. Many of the injured are in upper Palas, which has been always difficult to reach because there are no roads beyond the mouth of the valley (pictured).

People Helping Birds

Some birds under threat of dying out across Britain appear to be making a comeback, according to an important annual survey. According to the government's indicator of 111 wild bird populations for 2004, published last week, total bird numbers across the UK are now almost 10% higher than ten years ago. Bird populations are considered to be a good indicator of the broad state of wildlife and the countryside because they occupy a wide range of habitats and tend to be near or at the top of the food chain. Mark Avery, RSPB director of conservation, said the wild bird indicator was showing its value. "It will become increasingly important as we measure progress towards the Government's target of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010," he said.

Parrot News

An enigmatic species of Australian parrot - last seen mummified on a Queensland roadside in 1990 - has surfaced at the center of a dispute in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Ecologists report "very convincing" sightings of three of these critically endangered Night Parrots, Pezoporus occidentalis (pictured left), in marshes at Mulga Downs. Normally, this would be good news, so why the uproar? These ecologists work for Andrew Forrest and they claim the sightings occurred on the pastoral station owned by Australia's richest woman - and Forrest's mining competitor - Gina Rinehart.

Some of you may remember that I provided many links to stories about New Zealand's mysterious Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus (pictured, below right), in my earlier editions of Birds in the News. A reader sent me a link to this story that reminds us that the Kakapo resumed breeding in February of this year. This is wonderful news: the Kakapo is revered in New Zealand as a unique treasure. However, this species consists of only 83 known individuals world wide, so this bird is included on the international list of critically endangered species. The Kakapo has a combination of biological features not shared with any other parrot species; it is a large, flightless, nocturnal and eccentric parrot that can live for decades. In addition to their nocturnal habits and their tendency to freeze when imperiled, they have other owl-like features such as soft plumage and almost fur-like discs around their eyes. Kakapos' main defence is their camouflage of mossy green and yellow feathers. Kakapos are the heaviest parrot in the world, with males weighing up to 4 kg. They also are the only parrot in the world to have a ‘lek’ mating system: males compete for specially dug out bowls in ‘calling pits’ and ‘call’ each night for up to four months for a female. The male’s low frequency mating boom travels up to 5 km.

Bird Flu News

Sadly, parrot news and avian influenza news seem to be merging. I am sure that all of you have heard that H5N1 was confirmed in a parrot that died in a UK quarantine station after importation from South America. The parrot imported from Surinam was apparently kept in quarantine with a second parrot imported from Taiwan that was ill with avian influenza. Because of this, and also because of the way in which the influenza tests were performed, there is confusion as to which parrot was truly ill. It is known that the flu strain that killed the parrot(s) is different from the strains from Romania and Turkey and it is not a strain that the Veterinary Laboratory Agency has seen before. In fact, the closest match to the flu that killed this Orange-winged Amazon parrot, Amazona amazonica (pictured), is a strain identified in ducks from China earlier this year. "Our working hypothesis is that any infection in the birds from Surinam is likely to have arisen in the quarantine system, most likely in the facility in Essex where the Surinam birds shared airspace with the birds from Taiwan," said Chief Veterinarian Debby Reynolds. "There are more tests underway on the birds from Taiwan because we have established that some of them died before October 16." But, as expected, Taiwanese officials deny that the parrot was infected by exposure to the Taiwanese poultry. Because the parrot died in quarantine, the UK's "disease free" status remains intact -- news that should help mitigate the widespread panic that has ensued in the UK.

EU veterinary experts will soon discuss plans to ban imports of live captive and pet birds, another measure to prevent the spread of bird flu within the European Union, the EU's health chief said recently. "It will be a general ban, not just on one specific country, on imports of captive birds. And we also have to regulate pet birds ... there has to be control of imports of these birds as they can also transmit disease," EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said at a news conference. The EU imports 1.76 million birds destined to be pets each year, German animal charity Pro Wildlife said. London called for the ban on Sunday after an imported South American parrot died in quarantine in Britain of the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu that has killed over 60 people in Asia. (Interestingly, not everyone agrees with this ban on importing exotic birds, especially when situations like this one in China, and this one and this one in the UK occur).

After a huge uproar resulted in the wake of Abu Dhabi's announcement that ALL pet cage birds were to be killed in a misguided attempt to prevent the spread of avian influenza, officials in that country finally came to their senses and announced that caged pet birds that do not come in contact with outdoor birds do not have to be destroyed. "Currently our concern is over loose birds in neighborhoods that may potentially have contact with migrating birds. Pet birds kept in enclosed cages at home are of no concern to us," said Mohammad Al Bowardi, Managing Director of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency. Veterinarians say pet birds kept in private homes are highly unlikely to catch and spread the deadly bird flu virus because they are isolated from wild birds. GrrlScientist notes: One of the most effective ways to ensure rapid spread of avian influenza is to kill pet birds. Because people will go to great lengths to preserve and protect their pets, this overreaction is nothing less than punitive. Pursuing this senseless course of action will only result in reduced public cooperation and will serve to increase people's mistrust of the authorities involved. Further, some agencies are questioning the effectiveness of government-initiated killing of wild birds and draining of wetlands to contain the spread of influenza (these actions certainly have not proven to be particularly effective so far).

Those of you who accept all the media coverage of Bird Flu as being completely accurate will want to read this article which explores this 'accuracy in reporting' issue regarding avian influenza in more rational detail.

I was surprised to learn this week that most people are unaware that there is a vaccine against avian influenza for use in birds. As you will learn from this linked story, the poultry vaccine against H5N1 is already in wide use in China and Vietnam. GrrlScientist notes: Because of variations between even different isolates of H5N1, vaccinated birds can still become ill with influenza because vaccines are limited to providing protection against only a few strains. Additionally, because influenza viruses evolve so rapidly, vaccines are rapidly outdated, providing protection for older versions of the virus that are no longer in wide circulation.

For the American dog owners who rely on the internet for their news, please be warned that the dangers of a newly discovered dog influenza that mutated from an equine flu virus are being blown out of proportion by pet owners, fueled partly by rumors spread online, veterinarians and researchers say. "It's all over the Internet. The rumors are rampant," says Gail Golab of the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Illinois. The disease was identified in racing greyhounds in 2004 and spread to other canine populations. It moved into the national spotlight when a September 29 paper in the top-tier research journal Science identified it as a mutation of a form of the disease found in horses. If you read this and related blogs very often, dear readers, then you know that influenza has been found in species such as horses, pigs, cats and birds for years, but this is the first canine flu. But even with a high infection rate, dog mortality is low, Cynda Crawford, the veterinary immunologist from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville who first identified the virus, said at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefing. "Despite the rumors that are out on the Internet and other such sources, this disease is not as deadly as people want to make it." Incidentally, there are no reports of either dog or horse influenza ever being transmitted to humans.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

This long but very interesting opinion piece by Keith Sutton notes that before the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, most people who visited the Big Woods were hunters and fishermen. And most people knew that those hunters and fishermen were the ones primarily responsible for conserving the last large remaining tracts of the Big Woods in Arkansas. Sutton's point? Conservationists and birders owe a huge debt of gratitude to hunters, fishermen and the agencies that their dollars fund because they purchased the majority of the lands now part of the Big Woods. Without this intervention, it is likely the Big Woods would not exist … and neither would the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Streaming Birds

Featured this week on BirdNote are answers to those Burning Bird Questions (BBQs) that keep you awake at night; who was the Anna for whom the Anna's Hummingbird, Calypte anna, was named; the rugged life of the Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus (pictured, right); step two of feeding wild birds -- keeping your feeders clean; another Native American legend, Why Crow Is Black; and the folklore of owls. 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 Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM, 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. [mp3/podcast].

Holiday Gift Ideas for Your BirdPals

The holidays are coming, so I am including a few links for gift ideas for your bird-loving friends. Because bird flu is such a huge news item this week (even my students were asking me about the infected parrot!), I included a link to the BirdFlu Shop as a potential gift source for your terrified friends. The BirdFlu Shop has some interesting designs, such as the one you see pictured here (right), that the bird lovers on your shopping list might find amusing.

Speaking of (apparently legal) gifts for the bird lover in your life, perhaps this mounted specimen of the extinct Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius (pictured, left), might tickle someone's fancy -- and your wallet!

For the computer-geek-birder, there is some birder-written software out there designed for identifying birds, called EnjoyBirds. I especially like the sample scroll-over feature shown on this linked page that shows where particular bird species may be found within their habitat. This is PC-only software, so I cannot personally tell you more about the user interface, but the webbed samples certainly looks interesting, and might be a great gift for your birdwatching friends.

Miscellaneous Birds

There has been a lot of chatter on several email lists about the validity of these photos of a preying mantis that has captured and killed a hummingbird. One of the reasons mentioned regarding authenticity of this photograph (courtesy of Pablo and Al), are that that the Mantis has its foreleg claws open. However, other people claim that the photographs are real because there are not any blurry edges around the hummingbird, as one would expect if the photographer had enhanced his work with photoshop. What do you think, dear readers? [As part of this discussion, several papers regarding this phenomenon were cited; Miller and Gass (1985). Survivorship in hummingbirds: Is predation important? Auk 102: 175-178; Johnson (1976). Concerning the feeding habits of the praying mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis Saussure. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 49: 164; Nickle & Harper (1981). Predation on a mouse by the Chinese mantid Tenodera aridifolia sinensis Saussure (Dictyoptera: Mantoidea). Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 83: 801-802; Holling (1964). The analysis of complex population processes. Canadian Entomology 96:335-347; and a 2001 paper on Belotomatids in Rev. Society of Entomology Argentina. 60:139-146.]

For the fans of San Francisco's Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Mark Bittner, author of the book and star of the film with the same name has a webpage about them that you might enjoy. Includes links to informative pages about these birds and a wav file of the parrots talking to each other.

A singing parrot in the Pennsylvania legislature irked the nerves of a key state senator after the bird was invited to sing by the lieutenant governor. State Senator Robert Jubelirer, the top senator in the legislature, approved the animals' visit but publicly took issue with Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll when she allowed the bird to sing.

This long but interesting story from the UCLA student newspaper describes how, in a city of mostly concrete and actresses, there are people who look in mirrors and there are people who look in bushes. UCLA alumnus Jason Finley, a graduate in cognitive science, finds his excitement peering into the latter because Finley is one of UCLA's campus "birders." "I've become fascinated with watching the birds on campus because it has really added a new level of perception to my experience of the world around me," Finley said, moments after spotting a Yellow-rumped Warbler. "It turns out that we're surrounded by birds most of the time and it's something you would probably never even notice unless you started paying attention."

Thanks to my bird pals; Ellen, Pablo and Al, Leslie, Jamie, Phil, Mike, Scott, Rex, Ian, Genny, Jeremy, Marty, Anonymous and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here.

Previous : : Birds in the News : : Next

tags: , , , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Me, Take Two

The Science Creative Quarterly reprinted one of my blog essays on their site recently, but with all the excitement this week, I neglected to mention it to you. The two primary reasons that I point this out to you is because (1) I am trying to bolster my ravaged ego and (2) I am somewhat proud of my author bio, which I think is amusing.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Thursday, October 27, 2005

I and the Bird #9

Thoughts of Birds

Birds can mark passages in our lives, as Laura Erickson reminds us in her sweet essay that celebrates her son’s 20th birthday. This is a nice little history of the relationship between her kids and birds. Laura, who is a good bird pal of mine, also shares this link to her gallery of bird wallpapers that you might want to download for your desktop.

Mariya is a first-time contributor to this blog carnival. Her short contribution describes how birds give her reasons to do things that she'd prefer not to do.

I'll bet that Mariya (and the rest of us) would be thrilled to join Duncan, who contributed this photo-rich essay describing three interesting days surveying birds in Australia. Duncan's essay includes a few links to outside webpages with pictures of the more interesting birds that he mentions. Duncan is a retired construction worker whose blog appears to be in the process of migrating to a new URL.

Seattle photographer Doug Plummer wrote that he sometimes is distracted from writing about digital photography and instead writes about birds. In this contribution, he writes about his recent visit to Chicago, when the highlight of his trip was watching a hunting peregrine falcon.

Thoughts of birds can distract us when we are sick, as the author of Bootstrap Analysis mentioned in her submission email to me. She was sick at home and thus remembered to submit an essay to this blog carnival, Audubon's “sweet little creatures”, which describes the natural history of the American Tree Sparrow, Spizella arborea. I hope you are feeling better now, Nuthatch.

Speaking of Birds

Amy Hooper wrote about Bobby Harrison's presentation about the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker at the Midwest Birding Symposium. Amy is the editor of WildBird magazine and writes the blog entitled WildBird on the Fly.

Wild and crazy BirdChick attended the same birding Symposium as Amy Hooper did, but her description of what what really happens at birding symposiums gives a very different picture of the event. Includes some incriminating photographs of people and a few lovely photos of birds.

Lessons from Birds

This past summer, Pamela tried to make some real advances in her sparrow identification skills. Even though she did make some headway, she also managed to get herself rather muddled as well. She has already written about this twice on her blog, hoping that as the breeding sparrows left her area she could relax for the winter, and resume the challenge again next spring. But a couple of things prevented this, leading to the writing of Little Brown Birds, Part 3.

After three years of birding, Lynn still considers herself a novice, but her Guru of Ornithology strongly encouraged her to share this essay here. Student Revolt is an episode in a one-day trip to Hagerman Wildlife Refuge on the Texas-Oklahoma border. In it, Lynn and two of her birding companions scan the marshes for water birds and conflict breaks out between the journeyman birder and his protégé, the author.

Mike writes about all of the typical avian harbingers of winter in NYC that he’s seen and photographed in the past week.

Bughunter contributed this interesting overview of a recent article published in the top-tier research journal, Science. This article found that birds that evolve flexibility in the onset of their breeding cycle are likely to survive climate change. Bughunter is an unemployed biologist and author of the blog, Thinking for Food.

Guardians of Birds, Gifts from Birds

People may occasionally find an injured wild bird that needs help. This requires that the bird be housed in captivity while its injuries heal, and housing wild birds requires special facilities. Dave at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, Alaska, writes about some recent repairs to the rehab mews by a handy friend and neighbor to Bird TLC.

Wise Crow, author of the blog, Crows Really Are Wise, is concerned for the future of the Cozumel Thrasher in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma.

Canadian Clare talks about the easy familiarity of his favorite birding guide in Like an Old Friend. He and his new wife are currently building a Bed and Breakfast and will offer Eco-tours starting in the 2006.

Seeking Birds

John writes about his recent walk at Roosevelt Island in Washington D.C. He includes lots of links to outside pages for each bird species mentioned. John is the author of A DC Birding Blog and one of his stated goals is to see a cerulean warbler, Dendroica cerulea.

My blog pal, Tony, realizing the relative dearth of submissions to this blog carnival, nominated this essay by Ro Wauer from The Nature Writers of Texas blog describing the recent addition of a new bird species to his yard list, the Western Tanager, Piranga ludoviciana.

Birds provide continuity and wonder to our lives, as David reveals in his contribution, Signs in the Heavens. In this essay, he describes a rather ordinary day punctuated by some extraordinary moments as he attempts to settle in to his new life in Dallas.

Visions of Birds

This essay is older than most included here, but I nominated this blog, 75 degrees South, because it tells the tale of the adventure of a lifetime. The author, who is British, has lived and worked in Antarctica since November 2003, at a small research station, managing the data from the Upper Atmospheric science experiments. This essay, Visiting the Penguins, includes links to other essays about these penguins and lots of photos, including one that the author suggests using as your desktop wallpaper.

Huitzil shares several stunning photos of a lovely adult male flycatcher that he saw recently.

A Nice Set of Boobies We Saw at the Museum of Natural History was nominated by Dave, editor of the online magazine, Science Creative Quarterly (SCQ). Dave says this piece is just so funny that I feel it needs to be exhibited. The SCQ has recently reprinted this essay with permission of Chris, its author, and one of the SCQ collaborators.

This lovely photoblog about the Steller’s Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri, was sent in by my good Seattle pals at Dharma Bums. Be sure to poke around their site because they have other bird photoblog essays to share, too. One thing that makes me especially proud of this submission is that the authors of this blog told me that I was the person who helped nurture their interest in birds.

Even though Dave's Birding Blog appears to be rapidly running out of steam, he shares some lovely photos and stories of birds he's been seeing recently. Perhaps some encouragement by you, dear readers, might keep this photoblog going.

Humorous Birds

I nominated Speaking of Birds' collection of universal laws that govern birdwatching, including rules from several of my birding pals!

This story by Socar, author of Ratty's Ghost, asks do birders have a special uniform? Perhaps they should.

Ron said his essay about surface area of a bird is “sort of silly”. What do you think?

Future Birds

The next issue of I and the Bird will be hosted by Thomasburg Walks on 10 November. The deadline for submitting or nominating essays is 8 November. Please send your submissions/nominations to Mike, who will make sure the next host receives them in time for I and the Bird #10.

tags: , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Issues, Issues, and More Issues

I have been experiencing some issues with my Blogger account. It hasn't let me publish anything for the past few days! In fact, Blogger destroyed this message twice when I tried to publish it so I rewrote it each time, partially because I was so mad that rewriting it was the least I could do to get it out of my system. Of course, considering the events of this past four days, my silence is probably a favor for all of you, dear readers. But I do have a story to tell you that might amuse you (at my expense, of course).

As you probably recall, I have been having problems with my apartment recently; smelly problems. Even though the dead mouse issue did eventually resolve itself -- on the day that I expected it would render my apartment uninhabitable -- but my apartment problems do not end with dead mice. (Incidentally, I now agree with you, dear readers, this mouse probably did expire in the walls and not under my cabinetry, as I hypothesized in that essay). In fact, it seems that everything in my apartment has decided to break all at once.

It all started when my bedroom light decided to stop working because it is getting ready to fall off the ceiling and onto my head. The fixture is currently hanging by one wire -- a wire that I am certain will explode into flames one night soon, transforming all my parrots and me into crispy critters. When I complained about this to the Building Super, he refused to listen to me, instead advising me to replace the light bulb. I insisted that the malfunction had nothing to do with the light bulb itself, that the fixture was the source of the problem. He finally relented and made an appointment with me to look at the fixture, but never showed up. Because he doesn’t answer his phone nor does he respond to voicemails, I had to physically hunt him down. A few weeks after this broken appointment, I managed to corner him near the garbage cans. At this point, he made a second appointment to look at the light fixture. But then he stood me up. Again.

By this time, it was getting dark early, so I have no ambient light in the early mornings when I get up. I now use a flashlight to choose my clothes each morning -- a situation that resulted in some rather odd color combinations -- combinations that probably keep my students entertained.

Before I managed to corner the Building Super to schedule yet another appointment with him to fix my bedroom light fixture, the next thing to begin to show unmistakable signs of decay is my one and only functional door lock. The barrel-like thingamabob that the key fits into is falling out of the lock, so this means that I can barely unlock my door, and only inconsistently even then, so I have to perform all sorts of special gyrations with the key before I can gain entrance to my own apartment. Of course, when this lock finally falls apart, I don’t have a functioning deadbolt that I can use as backup because the doorframe is in a state of advanced .. disrepair .. so it must be rebuilt before the deadbolt can be installed.

So why didn't I get the doorframe rebuilt way back when? Well, I certainly tried. When I first moved in, the Building Super promised that he would fix the door frame as he was putting the finishing touches on the apartment refurbishment, but this was an all-day job, which meant that I had to take a day off work while he fixed it. He scheduled several appointments with me to fix it, but never showed up for any of them, he also never called to let me know that he wouldn’t show up, and he never answered his phone nor responded to his voicemail messages. So after missing a day of work here and there for three months or so (this was when I had a real job, mind you -- a job that I loved), I never managed to get around to it again. It was an enormous hassle and besides, no one wanted to break in; I didn't own anything worth stealing. Or so my reasoning went.

Then this past weekend, another thing went horribly wrong in my apartment: my bathtub decided to clog up and create a small flood. This was rather exciting because my parrots like to jump in to the bathtub when I take a shower, never expecting that they need to know how to swim first. After three days of making increasingly rude and insistent phone calls to the landlord, the Building Super, the landlord's emergency answering service and then finally to the City of New York Housing Authorities, I finally found the Building Super at my door late on Sunday night, furious that I had filed a formal complaint with the city. Anyway, five minutes later, the bathtub issue was resolved.

But after he had finished clearing the bathtub pipe, the Building Super then accused me of throwing aquarium rocks in the bathtub, which is absurd because I don’t keep any aquariums. I repeatedly told him that the ceiling plaster surrounding the steam-heat pipes in the bathroom was cracking and breaking and falling into my bathtub, that the heat had just been turned on this past Friday which is when the clog problem began, and despite sweeping the dirt from my bathtub every morning, several tons of rock had evidently managed to escape down the drain.

He closely inspected several of the retrieved rocks before grudgingly conceding that I was right. He looked up at the rubble-filled hole in the ceiling surrounding the steam-heat pipe.

“This problem will only come back if that is not fixed right away,” he said, as if I had not already realized this. As he packed up his tools, he made an appointment to fix the bathroom ceiling on Tuesday (today). Then, as I went to open my apartment door for him, he saw the half-installed deadbolt (thanks to me) and the ravaged doorframe (thanks to him).

“What’s this?” He asked, brushing his fingers along the deadbolt and the doorframe. “What happened here?”

“Oh, you remember that, don’t you? That’s the deadbolt that you were supposed to install when I first moved in two years ago,” I replied evenly.

“Ooooh … “ he said as if suddenly remembering all those years of .. forgetting. He fingered the free end of the lock that should have been attached to the (nonexistent) doorframe before he regained his composure.

“But you never complained about thees,” he said defensively, his accent becoming more obvious.

“Oh yes I did complain! I complained for months! You never showed up for any of your appointments!”

“But you never complain about anything!” He asserted, as if this was my fault, as if I had not responded to his comment at all. “If you complain, I fix it!”

He stepped into the hallway with his tools. I locked the door behind him. I then went into the kitchen and pulled on the cord attached to the light fixture, only to have it fall away in my hand. Sighing with defeat in the darkness, I went into the bedroom to find my flashlight so I could wash the dishes.

So today was the day when the Building Super was supposed to show up to fix my bathroom ceiling. I'll bet you can guess what happened! I think I now need to wear a motorcycle helmet while taking a shower.



© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, October 21, 2005

Birds in the News #32

Sky Chase.
This stunning photograph resulted in Manuel Presti being named Wildlife Photographer of the Year by BBC Wildlife Magazine and London's Natural History Museum. (story below)

People Helping Birds:

Imagine this: Sex in a minefield. This is a true-life story of how people are inadvertently helping birds. The star-crossed lovers are penguins, who are too light to detonate the deadly mines laid more than two decades ago during a war on the far-flung Falkland Islands. Thousands of penguins and other feathered and amphibious creatures choose to nest and rest in no-go zones. The British estimate that some 25,000 land mines, mostly sown by Argentine forces in the 1982 war with Britain, remain. Wildlife numbers in the mined areas appear to be on the rise and conservationists cannot hide their enthusiasm about this unorthodox form of protecting lands previously trampled by people or overgrazed by sheep. Grant Munro, director of Falklands Conservation, says the boost to wildlife is a bit anecdotal since "it has really not been looked into, for obvious reasons." He added; "But you see an assemblage of plants in the minefields, all fenced and inspected, with no livestock inside. Vegetation has had a chance to recover." (pictured: Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarctica)

The Society for Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL, BirdLife in Lebanon), is reviving the hima, a traditional system under which communities manage natural areas such as woodlands, grasslands and wetlands, and protect them from over-exploitation. Two himas have been established in areas of high biodiversity; in Ebel es-Saqi (a potential Important Bird Area or "IBA", and raptor flyway bottleneck), and in the Kfar Zabad marshlands. Following Municipal Council decisions, hunting has been banned at both sites. Dating back at least to the sixth century, the hima system began to decline with modern changes in land use and transport, and the availability of imported livestock feed and other substitutes for natural resources. The hima system allows a mixture of strict protection and sustainable use, and one of its side effects has been the preservation of biodiversity. For example, one hima in Saudi Arabia was found to have vegetation cover of 47 percent, compared to just 8 percent outside the hima. As well as serving as refuges for birds and other wildlife, himas have great potential as seedbanks for regenerating the degraded lands around them. "SPNL believes that sustainability in the conservation of natural sites is more ensured when local people are involved," says Bassima Khatib of SPNL.

When an osprey, Pandion haliaetus (pictured), extends its wings, there's little that can compare with this bird of prey for grandeur. When viewed from below, which is almost always how the osprey is observed, its white wings have a black patch where they kink back at the elbow joint, giving the bird one of the most distinctive profiles in the avian world. Formerly rare, ospreys are making a resurgence in San Diego County [USA] and can be seen at all the coastal lagoons and many inland waterways. Patton said the overall population of osprey rebounded after the pesticide DDT was banned in the 1970s. The bird is not classified as threatened or endangered, but the state lists it as a species of special concern. "Their numbers have really increased during the last 20 years," said Robert Patton, an avian biologist and a board member of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy. "In the last 10 years we've seen significant numbers."

Streaming Birds:

Featured this week on BirdNote are answers to those Burning Bird Questions (BBQs) that keep you awake at night; Steller's Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri, the mimic; How Raven, Corvus corax, Made the Tide (a Native American myth); the Pileated Woodpecker, Drycopus pileatus, a cartoon; raptors and wind farms; and what birds can hear in a song, featuring the talented singer, the Winter Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes (pictured). 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 Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM, 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. [mp3/podcast].

Bird Flu News:

"Bird flu" has caused people to ask questions, but there are few concrete answers available. For example; are birders and people who feed wild birds more likely to get avian influenza than the average person? Of the more than 135 different strains of the influenza virus found in wild birds, only one is potentially pathogenic to humans; H5N1. For more information about avian influenza, please check out this informative article with outside links about Avian Influenza published by the Seattle Audubon Society. GrrlScientist note: A reader correctly points out that all strains of Influenza are potentially pathogenic to humans. Unfortunately, I failed to make this clear when quoting this story here.

Circumstantial evidence is mounting that wild birds are carrying the H5N1 virus along major migratory pathways. The virus has been linked to ducks moving through Europe's Danube delta. Though no solid proof exists so far, concern is growing that these ducks could play a role in creating a flu pandemic. [National Public Radio; mp3/podcast].

But really, after all these dire warnings about wild migratory birds acting as a vector for bird flu, who REALLY is more likely to bring Avian Influenza into a "clean" country; birds or people? According to Spanish ornithologists, air passengers are more likely to bring bird flu to Spain than wild birds. Alejandro Sanchez, head of the Spanish Ornithology Society, explained that the migration routes of wild birds from Southeast Asia do not pass through Spain, so the country's wild birds are less likely to spread the epidemic.

Thus, in some countries, the avian influenza threat is prompting the demand for a detailed study of behaviour of migratory birds. A group of ornithologists will soon seek approval for this nationwide project with officials from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests. This research project will document the flyways followed by migratory birds and will rely upon volunteer networks, as well as the skills of the forest and agriculture officials. Migratory birds will monitored at Haigam and Hokasur in Kashmir, Pong Dam in Himachal Pradesh, Harike in Punjab, Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, Kahar Lake in Bihar and Chilka lake in Orissa. The birds that will be monitored are the brown-headed gull, Larus brunnicephalus, Palla’s gull, Larus ichthyaetus, great cormorants, Phalacrocorax carbo, and bar headed geese, Anser indicus -- all species travel great distances to winter in India. The birds will be marked with normal rings [leg bands] as well as satellite rings to track their migratory patterns. Satellite tags would be fitted as backpacks on the birds, after taking their faecal and blood samples. This would help locate them if any H5N1 virus were detected.

Miscellaneous Bird News:

If you've been following the Bird Flu stories, you might think that all ducks are "Demon Ducks of Doom". But speaking of Demon Ducks of Doom, this particular duck looks like it could be something straight out of Jurassic Park -- caught in a dramatic, running stance, it is the Burke museum's [University of Washington, Seattle, USA] latest arrival -- a nine-foot skeleton cast of the largest bird ever to roam the earth -- is nearly impossible to overlook. The ancient Australian creature, known as the Mihirung, a member of the extinct dromornithidae family of birds, is now a permanent part of the Burke's collection. An extreme rarity, the UW possesses one of the only two Mihirung skeleton casts on display in the world. The other resides in an Australian museum."The bird came in a crate, in many pieces, with all of the limbs separate," said Liz Nesbitt, the Burke's paleontology curator. "It took us over six hours to simply get it out of the crate -- especially since the enormous box was filled with Styrofoam packing peanuts." The Mihirung skeleton is a permanent installation in the museum.

I'll bet that you never learned about the famous Battle Bird in your US History classes, did you? This is the story of Wisconsin's famed battle bird, a tame bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, named Old Abe (pictured at left), after President Abraham Lincoln. Old Abe was the mascot for the Eau Claire "Badgers" Company C 8th regiment during the Civil War (this regiment was renamed the "eagles" in honor of Old Abe). During his period of military service, Old Abe traveled 14,000 miles with his regiment. After the war concluded, he was brought back to Wisconsin and given to the state, where he lived in a two-room apartment in the basement of the capitol in Madison. In 1881, oil and paint that were kept close by Old Abe's room ignited. The eagle was rescued but he later died from inhaling the fumes. But Old Abe was not forgotten: even to this day, soldiers in the Army's 101st Airborne Division have an image of Old Abe on their shoulder patch, and a replica of Old Abe is perched above the Speaker's Podium in the Assembly Chambers in the capitol. [Another story about Old Abe].

The black and white image of a peregrine falcon sweeping into a flock of starlings (pictured at top) won Manuel Presti this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. The Italian caught the action scene, titled Sky Chase, high above a city park in Rome. "Sky Chase is a powerful image and, like it or not, it's one that you will never forget," said Mark Carwardine, one of this year's judges. "The sky was cloudy so I overexposed the image intentionally to make it white. A slow shutter speed - 1/50th of a second - gives it this dynamic of the starlings moving under the psychological pressure of the peregrine diving," said Presti. The competition, organised by BBC Wildlife Magazine and London's Natural History Museum, is one of the most prestigious in world photography. This photo won the Animal Behaviour: Birds category as well as the overall title, and was chosen from 17,000 entries from over 55 countries.

The founder of Ronin Air Falconry Services, Jeff Diaz, was in the midst of a series of antics designed to find, lure and retrieve a bird that escaped from his truck last Sunday. Wearing a bucket hat and fatigues, Diaz jumps around near his truck and claps his hands. Then he fires a .22-caliber blank that emits a screaming whistle. He is trying to scare off a murder of crows, but succeeds only in frightening a woman and her dog. Jake the Saker falcon, Falco cherrug (A Saker Falcon portrait is pictured at right), is Diaz’s fifth escapee in three years. Diaz had been training the bird to intimidate sea gulls on Capitola Beach, advertising two aspects of his business on the back of his white Ford Tundra: falconry demonstrations, and "Environmental Bird Pest Control." Though he has not been hired by the City of Capitola, Diaz claims he and his falcons should be employed there to eradicate a long-standing water-pollution problem caused by sea gulls. "He calls every couple months," says Steve Jesberg, city public works director. "But we have no active interest. He just hasn’t gotten that message." GrrlScientist comment: as a fellow job seeker, I think Diaz deserves credit for having balls AND birds.

Although Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon were outstanding early ornithologists, they still made errors in identifying North American songbirds. One confusing fall migrant that gave them fits -- Hilton Pond refers to as Audubon's Extra Warbler (a breeding plumaged male of this species is pictured at left) -- is the topic of discussion for the latest in This Week at Hilton Pond. As always, they included a list of all birds banded during the previous week, as well as a few nature notes and a comment about their waning numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris.

Birdwatchers are in a flutter after a rare species was spotted for the very first time on the Scottish mainland. Hundreds of avid twitchers from all over the UK have flocked to the car park at Torness power station after a local birdwatcher first caught sight of the paddyfield warbler, Acrocephalus agricola, on Thursday. Ornithology experts said today the sighting of the small brown and white bird, which breeds in sites along the Black Sea coasts of Romania and Bulgaria, was the first of its kind ever spotted on mainland Scotland. "Several hundred people have already been from all over the UK to see it. It has been seen in Kent and Cornwall but is a very rare bird. It's small, about the size of a blue tit, brown and white and isn't going to win any beauty contests," said Peter Macdonald, a dedicated birdwatcher who lives just minutes away from the East Lothian site where he captured the vagrant bird on film.

Special Announcements:

Incidentally, the next issue of the Bird Blog Carnival, I and the Bird, will be published here on the 27th of October. I am seeking both author submissions and reader nominations of blogged writing and photographs about birds for this blog carnival. Please send links to me by the 26th of October.

Thanks to my bird pals; Ellen, Bill, Robin, Adele, Caren, Jennifer, Richard & Cyndy and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here.

Previous : : Birds in the News : : Next

tags: , , , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Blog Carnivals Published

My two favorite blog carnivals were published today and I think you'd like to read them; The Tangled Bank, issue #39 (even though I tried to soften my TB separation anxiety by nominating approximately ten essays for this issue, I can see that they are doing just fine without me, fweh!) and the Carnival of Education, issue #37. An essay that I wrote at the last minute about the faculty meeting I attended at my little college on the hill was listed in both carnivals.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

I and the Bird Blog Carnival: Request for Submissions

Do you love birds and watching them? Do you enjoy watching the people who watch birds? Do you watch wild birds and write about it? Welcome to I and the Bird, a carnival for bloggers who love birds and writing about them.

I and the Bird is a new blog carnival that celebrates the interaction between humans and avians, it is an ongoing exploration of the endless fascination with birdlife all around the world. It is a biweekly showcase of the best writing about wild birds on the web, published on alternating Thursdays.

But .. where are our blogging birders? Where are your stories about the birds who dine at your feeders? ... about the birds you traveled 3,000 miles to see? ... about the veterinarian whose dedication and medical acumen saved an injured wild bird from certain death? ... about the injured wild bird that was successfully rehabbed and released? ... about the wacky birders whom you run into on the trail? Did all of you migrate to warmer climes, out of reach of a computer? I am beginning to suspect that my dear readers get a sadistic enjoyment from watching me freak out about blog carnivals because, once again, it is only one week away from my publication date yet I have received only two submissions so far. TWO! As you might predict, I am becoming somewhat anxious that my issue of I and the Bird will be an ostrich-sized flop. Save me from this humiliation, my good peeps! And save yourselves from having to read 13 essays written by moi! My edition of I and the Bird will be published here on 27 October, so please send your submissions and your nominations to Mike or to me by the 26th of October!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Monday, October 17, 2005

Faculty Meeting with the President

I attended the second departmental meeting of my so-called professional life today. This was a meeting between the biology department staff and the president of our little college on the hill. The focus of this meeting was money; how money affects tenure-track hiring (a tenure track is referred to as a "line" .. a term I mistakenly thought applied only to certain illegal drugs); space allocation, expansion and refurbishment; the quality of new graduate students and faculty; and how to compete successfully for city and state funds for our department when there are 16 other "branch campuses" in the university system with "sister" biology departments that share these funding issues.

Even though a variety of complaints and topics were mentioned during this meeting, the overriding concern was for the future development of the department itself. The department's future depends upon funding, and funding depends upon the special niche that the biology department defines for itself among all sister biology departments that exist within the larger university system. Unfortunately, this funding problem is larger than our department, and even our college; the entire university system is experiencing a terrible budget crunch this year, a crunch that the president hopes will be alleviated in next year's legislative session. Needless to say, the competition for money is ferocious between sister departments within the university system, and even among all the departments at the same college.

To this end, my colleagues discussed how next year's two "new hires" should strengthen the department as it seeks to formally consolidate its special position for funding within the larger college and university system. The goal; to explicitly establish our little department as the "lead" in the university system with regards to a particular subdiscipline or two within the biological sciences. Apparently, a department that is not the "lead" for any biological specialty within this particular university system is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to attracting graduate students and the public funding that comes with them.

If I recall correctly, several specialities that have already been or are being established by other biology departments within the university system are plant biology, molecular biology, and "ecoevo" (ecology and evolution). As I understand it, our biology department is much more comprehensive than our sisters at the other colleges because it always concentrated on providing a strong broad-based biology education to undergraduate students from a wide variety of majors, rather than concentrating mainly on the more focused needs of graduate students. Our nearly universal coverage of biology subjects has been an advantage for producing well-informed graduates in other professions, but at the same time, it has worked against this biology department's long-term interests because it has led to a general lack of research space and funding to purchase essential (and expensive) teaching and research equipment. Thus, a lack of space and funding is less attractive to potential graduate students, and fewer grad students results in decreased quality of new faculty actually hired along with an increased turn-over among tenured faculty, leading to a growing reliance on adjuncts to fulfill teaching duties.

Or so they said. I have never seen a direct connection between the quality of graduate students and new faculty, turn-over of established faculty and over reliance upon adjuncts for teaching. In fact, the only connection that I have seen regarding institutional over-reliance upon adjuncts has been purely monetary: briefly, adjunct professors are extremely cheap labor by any standard, not only because they are paid very badly, but also because they receive no benefits whatsoever, they work part-time and then after they have invested several years into the system and thereby qualify for a miniscule pay raise, their contracts are either "not renewed" (they are "fired") or their hours are cut, so a new adjunct can be hired more cheaply in their place. Further, despite departmental assurances to adjuncts that they will be interviewed for future open "lines", there is a tremendous bias against hiring adjuncts for any tenure-track position because, as the reasoning goes, if a person is good enough to be tenured faculty, that person never would have had to work as an adjunct in the first place.

Generally, higher education is being managed like a large and unwieldy corporation; not only is funding decreasing for many university departments, but entire university departments are also being cut to protect the institution's "bottom line". Additionally, the long-term monetary investment in the future of individual departments has decreased substantially. These "corporations" prefer to force their potential future employees -- who are new graduates, often deeply in debt while trying to start a family at the same time -- to make that huge investment on their own. All adjuncts that I know either teach at two or three campuses each semester, they rely on a fully-employed spouse, or they hold a full-time job outside of academics simply to survive. Certainly, no one is getting rich by working as an adjunct. After two or three years of this forced poverty and overwork, most adjuncts give up and leave academics altogether.

But I digress.

During the meeting, the faculty and staff expressed particular concern for the non-majors' biology "survey" courses that have annual enrollments of 700-800 students at our college. One reason for this disproportionately high enrollment is because these survey courses fulfill the basic science requirement for all university students, regardless of their major field. But unfortunately, even though the department offers these required survey courses to the general university community, they are not adequately compensated for doing so in terms of increased funding, equipment and faculty research space, so keeping experienced faculty who teach these courses is becoming increasingly difficult. Further, the consensus among the faculty was that hiring an adjunct to teach one of these survey courses was invariably "a disaster" because these survey courses demand an excessive time commitment that cannot be adequately compensated for by the adjunct salary.

To ensure their funding within the university system, the faculty considered field biology as one possible subdiscipline of specialization for the department. It turns out that this department always had a strong field component among its course offerings, but all of the impending faculty retirements within the next 2-3 years are field biologists, leaving only one field biologist on the faculty. After they retire, courses with a strong field component, such as entomology and parasitology, will be available only as a hodgepodge of inconsistent offerings among the 17 biology departments within the university system -- if at all. But at the same time, the department must also meet the demand to train its students in high technology (molecular biology, etc.), so their biology graduates might possibly find paying jobs in the field.

Unfortunately, this general lack of regard for field biology has been a long-term trend, I've noticed. Even though I am a molecular biologist, I am also an ornithologist and I have spent some time in the field, so I have tremendous respect for good field research. Despite this, I strongly doubt that a specialization in field biology will gain any funding or respect for any biology department, especially within this university system, although I think it is a noble and worthwhile goal: I think this department must have a second (more practical and employable) focus as well, such as "evodevo" (evolution and developmental biology), cancer biology, molecular phylogenetics and evolution, or bioinformatics. I am sure the faculty has already thought of this, but it was never plainly stated during this meeting.

But this discussion raises an important issue that is facing biology today; this national trend to sacrifice a broadly-based biological knowledge in our relentless pursuit of increasing specialization. On one hand, specialization is a powerful advantage because it allows scientists to focus their energies and funds more productively than ever before, to push back the boundaries of humanity's ignorance and to make astonishing discoveries almost daily. But we as a society are so bedazzled by the resulting smorgasbord of discovery and innovation that we seem to have forgotten that specialization has its limits, too; it can lead to alienation between the fields and a lack of vision tempered by reality among our scientists. If we isolate biology into competitive subdisciplines that rarely communicate or collaborate with each other, we will lose the ability to see, to understand and to successfully deal with the larger biological challenges that we will be faced with; problems that we can address only if we possess an expansive knowledge of and appreciation for all living things.

After this meeting, I feel somewhat heartened because I can realistically try to fill this peculiar niche. Even though I have a strong molecular biology background, I also have some experience with avian field work and I am (once again) thinking about how I can refocus some of my energy into pursuing a research project or collaboration with a formal field work component that will lead to a peer-reviewed publication. I already have one (recently rejected) grant proposal that I am particularly fond of that I should rework and rewrite. Hopefully, one of my "hybrid" field biology-molecular biology grant poposals will be accepted.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing" by The Tangled Bank,
Issue #39.

Included with "The Best Education Blog Writing" by the Carnival of Education,
Issue #37.

tags: , , , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Breaking Science News

The 2005 IG Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Neuticles inventor Gregg Miller. Harvard University's top prize was awarded to Miller during ceremonies held Oct 6, 2005 in Cambridge, Mass. "Today... over 150,000 dogs, cats, horses and bulls have been 'Neuticled' in all 50 states and in 47 countries worldwide without a single complication. Caring pet owners now have an option when altering. Many are pet owners that simply would not neuter before - and as a result - pet overpopulation is being reduced and happier, healthier pets are a part of loving families worldwide. And it all started with a Bloodhound named Buck," said Miller to the cheering 3700 people in attendence.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Intelligent Design and the Bird Flu

A friend sent me this brilliant cartoon.


tags: , , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Google Discoveries

I found this truly silly quiz when looking at the search phrases that brought people to my blog. The search phrase that brought this anonymous person to my blog was "quizilla dinosaur". This same phrase also turned up this quiz .. Which Dromaeosaurid Are You?

This is me;

Sinornithosaurus - Chirky! You love bugs, and are
a small feathery 'raptor-bird... thing.

Brought to you by Quizilla


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

I am a ...


40% Combativeness, 40% Sneakiness, 76% Intellect, 19% Spirituality
Brilliant! You are a Wizard!

Wizards are spells-casters who study powerful arcane magic. While Wizards tend to be pretty fragile, some of those spells can pack quite a punch. Unlike Clerics, Wizards aren’t as good at fixing people as they are at breaking them, so watch where you toss that fireball…

Your most distinctive trait is your intelligence. You're probably well learned and logical, if perhaps a bit fragile.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 18% on Combativeness
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 69% on Sneakiness
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 54% on Intellect
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 9% on Spirituality

Link: The RPG Class Test written by MFlowers on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test

This is in response to PZ's quiz results (he's a wizard, too), and his precise blog entry is linked here so you can check his results and comment, too.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, October 14, 2005

IBWO Rediscovery Featured on "60 Minutes"

Exciting news! The CBS news magazine 60 Minutes is airing a special segment on the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker this weekend!

This year’s news of the amazing rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long-believed extinct, stunned birders, scientists, conservationists, and the general public around the world. The rediscovery efforts, led by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy, continue to generate headlines. Now this story will be featured for a national television audience on CBS TV’s 60 Minutes.

In recent months, producers from the CBS television news magazine have been speaking with researchers from the Lab of Ornithology and conservationists from The Nature Conservancy, investigating the sightings and following the search for the ivory-bill. Featuring the veteran TV reporter Ed Bradley, the 60 Minutes segment will air this Sunday, October 16 at 7 pm on CBS TV stations. The news segment was shot on location in the Arkansas bayou where the ivory-bill has been sighted and in the acoustic analysis lab at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. The show features the people of Brinkley, Arkansas, scientists and searchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and conservationists in Arkansas with The Nature Conservancy. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Nature Conservancy, the nation's leading conservation group, and the U.S. Fishand Wildlife Service formed the Big Woods Conservation Partnership in an effort to further document the magnificent bird and conserve its habitat and the habitat of other wildlife in the Southeastern region.

Be sure to tune in and get the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s rediscovery and of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientists, The Nature Conservancy conservationists, and the birders involved in this acclaimed rediscovery and recovery effort.

Incidentally, if you can burn this news report on a CD/DVD, send a copy to me!


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Pesticides, Endangered Species, and Global Climate Change

I just received this email from a long-time e-friend of mine who is blogless blog-free that I wanted to share with you, dear readers.

Folks --

Dr. Thomas Cade, founder of the Peregrine Fund, has stated more than once that the key to recovering the North American peregrine from threat of extinction was the bold move by a Republican administration executive, William Ruckleshaus, to ban DDT. That pesticide not only drove the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle to near extinction, but it seriously affected other raptor species, songbirds, waterbirds, and who knows if it would have ultimately caused increased human cancers, etc.

The U.S. Senate is about to consider a revision of the Endangered Species Act, which (I believe) is called the Endangered Species Recovery Act, which was written and promoted by the arch-enemy of conservation in the U.S. Congress, Richard Pombo. An amendment to Pombo's legislation prevents the U.S. government from using the Endangered Species Act to protect endangered species from pesticides in critically significant ways. It is as if Richard Pombo is saying he wished the peregrine and the bald eagle and the other birds that survived because of the DDT ban had actually become extinct!

First, I encourage everyone who reads this note to go to and read the analysis of the Pombo legislation and vigorously fight it by insisting to your U.S. Senators and other lawmakers that you (along with myself and many others) treasure our native biodiversity and that you reject such bad legislation and would prefer to vote out of office any Senators and Congresspeople who would advance such legislation.

And I also encourage you to think about the predictable future. We have been aware for some time that global climate is changing. Changes are predicted to result in likely increases of disease, including insect-borne diseases that could affect both humans and wildlife. The threat of disease to humans could result in the dissolution of the current ban on DDT and the bringing back of wide-spread use of that chemical, which will obviously be devastating to the same endangered species we have fought so hard to recover. We need to think about how we can protect human health AND wildlife without putting our
biodiversity at risk. We need government funded research on means of disease vector control that is environmentally safe, and we need to be proactive about this!

I think the environmental community and the conservation community need to be much more proactive and reduce the need for emergency reaction to predictable threats to ourselves and our beloved natural world.

Stan Moore San Geronimo, CA

tags: , , ,


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Birds in the News #31

Endangered Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

Birds in Science

Penguins are some of the most improbable animals on the planet. They have wings and feathers but cannot fly. They are not fish, but they have been recorded as deep as 1,755 feet underwater. And the most improbable is the emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri (pictured), which waddles across 70 miles of Antarctic ice to reach its breeding grounds. New research on penguin DNA suggests that the emperor also has the most ancient lineage of living penguins. Scientists have long recognized a link from penguins to petrels and albatrosses. While albatrosses have more conventional bird bodies, they share subtle traits with penguins, like the arrangement of beak bones. They are generally considered the closest living relatives of penguins. The researchers, based at the Royal Ontario Museum, concluded that penguins diverged from the ancestors of petrels and albatrosses about 71 million years ago. It's possible that the earliest penguins resembled petrels, which have short wings that help them dive as far as 240 feet underwater. Over time, penguins may have become more adapted to diving. "That required sacrificing flight," Norberto Giannini, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History, speculated. The study also finds that the living species that belong to the oldest branches of the penguin tree - the gentoo, chinstrap and king penguins, along with the emperor penguins - can all be found around Antarctica. "The ancestor of the modern penguins were in Antarctica or very close," said Dr. Pereira. This paper was recently published in the respected peer-reviewed journal, The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

The recent discovery of a 90-million-year-old dinosaur in Patagonia demonstrates that dromaeosaurs, a group of carnivorous theropods that includes Velociraptor and is closely related to birds, originated much earlier than previously thought. Rather than originating during the Cretaceous, dromaeosaurs can now be traced back to the Jurassic, possibly as far back as 180 million years ago. Meanwhile, the new dinosaur's birdlike features -- its huge, hollow wishbone; long, winglike forelimbs; and bird-like pelvis -- provide more evidence linking dinosaurs to birds. Buitreraptor (bwee-tree-rap-tor) gonzalezorum (pictured) is approximately the size of a very large rooster, but with a long head and very long tail. It is the most complete small theropod (carnivorous dinosaur) ever discovered in South America. It is described in the October 13 cover story for the top-tier scientific journal, Nature. It was excavated last year by a team of Argentine and American paleontologists, including Peter Makovicky, curator of dinosaurs at The Field Museum. "Buitreraptor is one of those special fossils that tells a bigger story about the Earth's history and the timing of evolutionary events," says Makovicky, lead author of the Nature paper. "It not only provides definitive evidence for a more global distribution and a longer history for dromaeosaurs than was previously known, but also suggests that dromaeosaurs on northern and southern continents took different evolutionary routes after the landmasses they occupied drifted apart."

In contrast to the previous story .. Dr. Alan Feduccia of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a team of scientists says that as a result of their new research and other studies, continuing, exaggerated controversies over "feathered dinosaurs" make no sense. No good evidence exists that fossilized structures found in China and which some paleontologists claim are the earliest known rudimentary feathers were really feathers at all, Feduccia says. Instead, the fossilized patterns appear to be bits of decomposed skin and supporting tissues that just happen to resemble feathers to a modest degree. "We all agree that birds and dinosaurs had some reptilian ancestors in common," said Feduccia, professor of biology in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. "But to say dinosaurs were the ancestors of the modern birds we see flying around outside today because we would like them to be is a big mistake. The theory that birds are the equivalent of living dinosaurs and that dinosaurs were feathered is so full of holes that the creationists have jumped all over it, using the evolutionary nonsense of ‘dinosaurian science’ as evidence against the theory of evolution," he said. "To paraphrase one such individual, ‘This isn’t science . . . This is comic relief.’" A report on the team’s latest research appears in the peer-reviewed Journal of Morphology published online on October 10. Other authors are Drs. Theagarten Lingham-Soliar of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and Richard Hinchliffe of the University College of Wales. GrrlScientist comment: This article shows how desperate some scientists get when protecting their life's work. Feduccia is astonishingly desperate if he even mentions creationist reactions in his quest to prove his hypothesis. Creationists jump all over anything that doesn't agree with their militant world view, regardless of the quality of the evidence, so using them as an example of scientific "thought" is hysterical. But at this point, Feduccia is merely attending to the dying gasps of his pet hypothesis; that birds are not theropod dinosaurs. The "Birds are Descendants of Theropod Dinosaurs" hypothesis is widely accepted in the Avian Evolution community.

Birds in Trouble

Too much rain and high water caused a drop in wading bird nests this year in the Florida Everglades, according to a new survey. The report found 31,869 nests from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay — a drop of 41 percent from last year and 54 percent from 2002's historic high of 68,750 nests. Five species — white ibis, snowy egret, wood stork, great egret and tricolored heron — are considered "indicator species" or barometers for the broader Everglades ecosystem and surrounding natural areas. "This continues a disturbing downward spiral of both nesting effort and breeding success" for the endangered wood storks, the report said. GrrlScientist note: Hrmmm ... I wonder why the rainfall is increasing so dramatically?

People Hurting Birds

Around 100,000 albatrosses a year—approximately one every five minutes—drown when taking bait from hooks suspended on longlines up to 130 km long. As a result, 19 of the world’s 21 species of albatross are now threatened with global extinction. Hanging streamers near fishing lines to scare birds away, weighting lines to make hooks sink more quickly and dyeing bait to make it less visible to seabirds are all extremely simple and proven techniques to avoid the needless slaughter of albatrosses and other seabirds. BirdLife’s Save the Albatross campaign has launched an initiative by the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) to place trainers on longline fishing vessels to show the crews simple and practical techniques to prevent seabird deaths. Funds to support the Task Force will be raised through a new RSPB/BirdLife website,, which will invite people to donate online to help efforts to save these magnificent birds. The site will host information on all aspects of albatrosses, and there will be regular updates on the birds and other wildlife seen by crews taking part in the world’s premier ocean sailing challenge—The Volvo Ocean Race—whose organisers are supporting the Save the Albatross Campaign. "Albatrosses should be free to circle the globe for millions of years to come—we must stop this needless slaughter now to prevent an entire branch being torn from the evolutionary tree," says Sir David Attenborough. [one species of albatross is pictured at top]

As many as 400 songbirds were killed in one night after they flew into wires holding up a television tower in Madison, Wisconsin. The birds were killed the night of Sept. 13-14 at the WMTV tower. "There were birds all over the place," said Steven Ugoretz, a DNR environmental specialist who works on tower-related issues. Searchers found 172 birds around the base of the 1,100-foot tower. Crows, cats and other scavengers took another 200 or more, and Ugoretz estimates more birds likely died because no one searched a heavily wooded area just north of the tower. A similar kill occurred the night of Sept. 7-8, Ugoretz said. Matteson and Ugoretz said they want to form a task force of bird experts and communications industry representatives to study the issue. Possible solutions include using lights to illuminate wires and changing the blinking frequency of red warning lights, Matteson said.

From the verdant rain forests of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula (pictured) to the depths of Puget Sound, this region is unusually rich in its variety of plants and animals. But many of those species are at risk of vanishing or are already gone, according to a sweeping report card released today by environmental groups. The report recognizes the need to save species through complete ecosystem conservation. To protect rare Western gray squirrels, Sciurus griseus, for example, the focus is on saving the oak woodlands and prairies where they live -- benefiting other fragile species at the same time. The report by the environmental groups identifies the loss of wild places where imperiled species live as the No. 1 cause of their decline. Pollution, climate change and invasions by non-native species are also blamed for shrinking populations of rare plants and animals. "We have pre-empted the environment in which they live either by paving it over or making it a subdivision, or we've changed it in ways that make it unsuitable for them," said Gordon Orians, a University of Washington ecologist. This story also lists some of the 957 imperiled species.

National Public Radio has a streaming story available for download that details how the Western snowy plover, Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus (pictured), a bird on the threatened species list, may lose their protected status if Bush's plan to revise the Endangered Species Act is approved. [mp3/podcast].

Another streaming National Public Radio broadcast on All Things Considered, reveals that an apparent increase in eagle poaching in the Northwest has drawn attention to the market for eagle feathers and talons -- both legal and illegal. [mp3/podcast].

Birdwatchers were disappointed when an American thrush that landed in Shetland after being blown thousands of miles off course was killed by a cat. They believe the bird, called a Veery, Catharus fuscescens (pictured), was swept across the Atlantic during its migration from North American forests to South America for the winter. "These birds are here because they are getting caught up in the strong westerly winds coming across the Atlantic and they are being blown off course. We have had quite a few American warblers in the last few weeks." Twitchers managed to trap the veery after it was spotted at Northdale, Unst, on September 22 and ring (place a numbered band on) one of its legs. The following morning they were horrified to find the songbird had been caught and killed by a marauding pet cat. Derek Shaw, of Shetland's Bird Observatory, said: "This sighting was only the fifth recorded of a veery in Britain. They are extremely rare so it is sad that it wasn't around for a bit longer."

People Helping Birds

California condors, Gymnogyps californianus, are expected to return soon to the skies over San Diego County, nearly a century after they disappeared. Scientists say condors released in Mexico three years ago have made exploratory flights within 15 miles of the United States, and they believe the birds will cross the border in the next few months. "I thought it would be several years from now," said Mike Wallace, a team leader with the California Condor Recovery Program. The condor is North America's biggest bird, with wingspans up to 9 feet. It could once be found from coast to coast, but hunting, pesticides and so-called "development" drove the birds to the brink of extinction. GrrlScientist note: "development" is a socially-approved word for human-caused habitat destruction.

Bird Flu News

Strains of avian influenza that have low pathogenicity circulate in wild birds, especially waterbirds, usually at low levels. These strains cause either mild or no symptoms. However, strains of the H5 and H7 subtypes can occasionally become highly pathogenic following a specific mutation. These highly pathogenic viruses can cause great mortality in domestic poultry flocks but are very rare in wild birds, with only one recorded instance prior to 1997 when the current strain of concern, H5N1 appeared. Cornfirming what I had long suspected, new genetic evidence clearly points to H5N1 originating in domestic birds after mutations of one or more low pathogenicity strains of avian flu. Subsequently, the very virulent H5N1 has been passed from poultry to wild birds on several occasions, and as the disease spreads, these instances are likely to become more frequent. Transmission is promoted in domestic flocks due to the density of birds and the consequent close contact with fecal and other secretions that contain the virus. Husbandry methods like those in SE Asia, where domestic flocks are often allowed to mix freely with wild birds, especially waterfowl, make the transmission to migratory waterbirds easier. In view of this information, BirdLife has published their position statement regarding avian influenza. It makes for very interesting reading.

Fears that H5N1 bird flu has reached Europe intensified this week with apparent outbreaks in Turkey and Romania. It will not be clear for several days whether the outbreaks are avian influenza, and if so, whether it is the same H5N1 strain that has spread across east Asia and killed at least 65 people. But scientists caution that Europe’s free-range poultry could be putting the continent at risk. We expect a sample from Turkey today,” VLA spokesman Matt Conway said. It will take 48 hours to confirm if the virus is the “Z genotype” H5N1 circulating in Asia. GrrlScientist comment: considering how many wild birds will die from this pandemic before it makes the jump into humans, I think we should carefully reconsider the ignored costs from free-range poultry to wild bird populations around the world. The fact that people refuse to see and consider this damage is the real tragedy in this outrageous situation. As such, one can easily recast this entire subsection as a specially hideous case of "People Hurting Birds".

Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who has been studying the risk of pandemic flu for decades and is a US government adviser, said governments should be preparing to cope with the pandemic instead of relying entirely on the hope of using vaccines and drugs to control it. If the H5N1 avian flu begins to easily infect humans, it will move too quickly for drugs and vaccines to be of much use, Osterholm said. "We have had a pandemic flu plan as a planning process since 1976," said Osterholm. "Nobody has completed it. It been one of the most long-standing incompleted processes in Washington. Nobody wants to believe that modern medical science can't handle something."

As they say, knowledge is power: Do you want to learn more facts about H5N1 "bird flu"? Additionally, here is a chronology in the Asian bird flu outbreak.

Streaming Birds

Turn up the volume to enjoy some spectacular photographs of one of my favorite ecosystems in the world. "Hawai'i's Outer Kingdom" segment is particularly well-done. They also have some lovely footage of Laysan albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis (pictured at left), and black-footed albatross, Phoebastria nigripes (pictured at top).

Featured this week on BirdNote are answers to those Burning Bird Questions that keep you awake at night; satellite tracking of Northern Pintails, Anas acuta; the Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes, a graceful giant (pictured at top); Merlin, Falco columbarius!; the Silly Willow Ptarmigan, Lagopus lagopus; and the Clark's Nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana, Bird of the Northwest. BirdNote shows are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds with 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. Each story is accompanied by a photograph on the BirdNote site. BirdNote can be heard Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM, 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. [mp3/podcast].

Miscellaneous Birds

Buddy and Becky York tell of a deathbed promise fulfilled in this touching story about a true albino hummingbird (includes a picture).

Demon Ducks of Doom? The skeleton of one of the largest birds that ever lived has been installed at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle. The museum is acquiring a cast of the fossil bird, known as Dromornis stirtoni (pictured at left), and it will be the first one ever displayed in the United States. Over nine feet tall, Dromornis stirtoni roamed central Australia more than 8 million years ago. Mihirungs, the common name for this group of extinct birds, is an Aboriginal word meaning giant emu. Mihirungs were a unique group of Australian flightless birds also known as “thunderbirds” and were derived from early waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans). The last of their kind became extinct about 30,000 years ago. This Dromornis cast, mounted in a dramatic running posture, is a gift to the Burke Museum from Hugh Ferguson.

Thanks to my bird pals, Ken, Ellen, Mike, Ian, Caren and Ron for some of the links you are enjoying here.

tags: , , , ,

Previous : : Birds in the News : : Next


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist