Archive for: March, 2005

Avian Influenza and the 'War on Birds'

Mar 30 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Millions of birds are being slaughtered throughout eastern Asia in an effort to contain the deadly “bird flu”. The avian influenza virus, which causes “bird flu”, is very contagious among birds, and often has dramatic consequences when it infects domestic ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys. Even though influenza often enters the domestic poultry population by crossing from wild to domestic ducks, domestic chickens are most acutely affected, usually hemorrhaging to death within 24 hours after infection.

But as illustrated by an editorial cartoon in the January 27 (2005) Bangkok Post that depicted migratory birds dropping “H5N1” fecal bombs from the sky onto an innocent planet Earth, wild birds have been vilified for a problem that primarily stems from human-based activities. In fact, the widely sanctioned practice of harassing and killing wild birds only makes the problem worse by distracting public attention and energy from the real problem, poultry farming methods.

“Bird flu” is typically carried in the intestines of wild birds. These avian carriers often remain healthy but shed the virus in their feces, especially when they are under stress, thus transmitting it to other birds and also becoming ill themselves. In 1997, this “bird flu” virus roared onto the epidemiological scene by decimating poultry markets in Hong Kong and stunning health officials around the world by killing six people in that city. However, after extensive testing, scientists realized that this supposedly “new” virus had actually been identified decades earlier: It is a variant of the H5N1 virus that was first isolated in 1961 from terns in South Africa.

It is not known how this particular virus managed to disperse away from South Africa, but scientists suspect that it sequestered itself inside the intestines of migratory wild birds and hitchhiked around the world, as is typical for flu viruses. But this virus did not pose an international health problem until it reached eastern Asia, where huge concentrations of domestic poultry are found. Thus, combined with the effects of widespread poverty, particularly with its resulting overcrowding, poor hygiene and inadequate nutrition, H5N1 found itself in the ideal environment to enhance its lethality and transmissibility while also being presented with numerous opportunities to “jump” the species barrier into humans and other animal species.

To prevent the “bird flu” from becoming established in the area, panicked officials implemented a domestic poultry “depopulation” program combined with a vigorous campaign to slaughter wild and migratory birds and pet exotic birds. This extermination program has been ongoing for several years now, and has triggered increasing numbers of protests worldwide. Fortunately, after attending last month’s emergency Avian Influenza meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, United Nations officials finally ended their silence on this matter several days ago.

“Killing wild birds will not help to prevent or control avian influenza outbreaks,” asserted Juan Lubroth of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Animal Health Service. Even though wild birds do act as a reservoir for avian influenza viruses, “to date, there is no scientific evidence that wildlife is the major factor in the resurgence of the disease in the region.”

Further, avian eradication programs can have dramatic, unanticipated and tragic consequences, as illustrated by China’s Great Leap Forward Program in the late 1950s. This misguided program effectively declared war on birds by legitimizing the extensive slaughter of sparrows and crows, which led to the failure of rice crops and triggered widespread famine because these birds actually controlled crop pests.

The other main focus of this program, the unrestricted harassment of wild birds, also exacerbates the problem, according to William Karesh of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York City. “Hunting wild birds, some of which are listed as endangered, or cutting down trees to destroy roosting sites, is likely to disperse wild birds into new areas, stress them further and could make them susceptible to avian influenza or other diseases.”

Instead of making war on wild birds, public health officials should instead focus their attention on designing effective programs that honestly assess and realistically deal with how poultry farming practices in the region contribute to the development of increasingly lethal avian influenzas. This would have the added benefit of improving public health in the region because other pathogenic organisms thrive in the same or similar conditions as avian influenza viruses.

First, more than 90 percent of domestic chickens and ducks in Asia are free-range birds that can intermingle with wild birds. These wild birds then potentially infect their domestic brethren with influenza viruses. These free-range domestic birds then bring the virus home to their roosts or carry it with them to market, where cramped, damp and filthy living quarters facilitate rapid transmission.

Such overcrowded living situations also provide avian influenza with many opportunities to infect other animal species. In fact, this season’s H5N1 variant is becoming progressively better at making this jump, a feat that greatly concerns health officials. By late 2004, this virus had “jumped” the “species barrier” numerous times by infecting 55 people, killing 48 of them. It also jumped into cats, another species that avian influenza had never before infected. It rapidly killed several endangered tigers and leopards after they ate infected chicken carcasses provided by zookeepers.

Second, intensive poultry farming is growing rapidly in Asia and as such, presents increasing opportunities for avian influenza to mutate. Intensive poultry farming relies upon overcrowding birds and raising them to a marketable size as quickly as possible so as to maximize profits. Because overcrowding birds stresses them and thus weakens their immune systems, they become vulnerable to infections that they normally could fight off. To avoid this problem, poultry farmers provide commercial feeds that are laced with small doses of several antibiotics. Antibiotics in feed conveniently mask latent disease problems and have the added benefit of increasing the rate of weight gain in young, growing animals, for reasons that are still not clear.

Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but they do affect bacteria. In fact, widespread use of antibiotic-laced animal feeds by farmers around the world is one of the main contributors to the development of drug resistant bacteria, some of which cause pneumonia when inhaled by flu patients. Pneumonia, whether bacterially- or virally-caused, is the most common sequela of influenza. As if that was not bad enough, drug-resistant “super bugs” freely share their resistance genes with other species of bacteria in the environment that may have never been exposed to these antibiotics, some of which also cause disease.

Dr. Romeo Quijano, a medical doctor and toxicologist at the School of Pharmacology with the University of the Philippines, says “the massive use of antibiotics and many other toxic chemicals inherent in the capitalist food production system leads to the weakening of the natural capacity of both animals and humans to co-exist peacefully with microbes.”

Co-existence is certainly a worthy goal because, if anything, avian influenza is already established throughout the region. “This virus is not just endemic in Vietnam and Thailand,” says Dr. Guan Yi, an avian-flu expert at the University of Hong Kong. “In countries like Cambodia they don’t have a systematic surveillance program, so we don’t know yet. But I’m sure the virus is endemic in Southeast Asia.”

In 2004, H5N1 influenza was found in 10 countries and is known to be currently present in at least fou
r; Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Indonesia. Estimates place the Asian population of domestic chickens in excess of 7 billion birds, even though more than 50 million have already been slaughtered and mass poultry killings are ongoing in Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China and Taiwan.

Faced with the magnitude of avian influenza’s distribution and its increasing capacity to jump into new species, the ultimate goal should be to prevent influenza infection of domestic birds, and not the killing of wild, migratory and exotic pet birds. The most immediate, realistic way to accomplish this objective is through improved biosecurity for poultry; this means (1) keeping domestic birds – particularly chickens and ducks – separate from their wild brethren using fences, (2) quarantining all poultry for at least several days before eating or selling them, and (3) thoroughly disinfecting baskets used to transport birds to market.

“We can talk about vaccine development, strength of surveillance, stocking of Tamiflu [an expensive antiviral drug], and all that, but in the end the reduction of pandemic risk will be decided by the number of chickens infected in Asia,” says Dr. Klaus Stohr who heads the World Health Organization’s Global Influenza Program.

It is short sighted, ineffective and potentially dangerous to exterminate wild, migratory and exotic pet birds when the real problem can be found in how people raise and market domestic poultry. The way to deal with this problem and to prevent a pandemic is by educating the populace about safe poultry husbandry, slaughter and meat-handling practices and also by investing money, materials and personnel into improving poultry farming methods in the region.


Avian flu: no need to kill wild birds [FAO Newsroom]

Farmers 'key to bird-flu control' [CNN].

Avian Flu: one more indictment of unsafe industrial food production [Centro Internazionale Crocevia]

Russian Scientists Join Effort to Track Avian Flu [Audio Link to All Things Considered, National Public Radio story, 28 March 2005].

My brain, which collects all sorts of information from the many (many!) papers, books and magazines that I read, from the scientists who tell me cool things, and from the superb university classes I've taken.


More Essays about Avian Influenza;

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds', Part 2.

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds'.

Influenza: How Its Biology Affects Vaccine Production.

Public Confusion Surrounding Influenza.

Is Avian Influenza THAT deadly?


This essay was recognized as among the "Best Medical Blog Writing" by
Medical Grand Rounds XXVIII.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 25.

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More Silly Internet Diagnostic Quizzes

Mar 26 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

My previous blog entry about internet quizzes generated so many responses that I thought I'd do it again, especially since most people are celebrating the holidays with their families this weekend and probably don't want to read and think about anything that's very complicated. Besides that, most of today was devoted to taking care of other people's cats (and then shopping for groceries!) so I haven't had much time for thinking and writing. Even though I love my cat clients and their kitties, and I need the cash desperately, I wish I could send my clone out to care for cats and birds somedays so I can get more writing done. Maybe one day before I die, I'll be paid to write or to commit acts of evolutionary research once more.

Today's internet quiz extravaganza was started by gone to the dogs. Despite the fact that this quiz doesn't give you the code so you can link to a cute picture that pops up on your blog, it is one of the best designed websites I've ever seen (and that includes Ben and Jerry's Iscream website and JK Rowling's official website, which amuse me, too). This quiz is based on the premise that there is a dog inside each one of us, just waiting to get out. It features a quiz, "What dog are you?" that relies on the amazing Canine Algorithmic Transfer System (CATS) to identify your trapped inner breed of dog. I am a Saluki, by the way.

Speaking of our fascination with dogs, I also found this amusing and odd little test that no normal person can get 100% correct; dog toy or marital aid? Go ahead, I dare you to reveal your score here! My score was an abysmal 50% in both the warm-up and difficult rounds .. so unfortunately, I am only allowed to play with the quiz author's dogs while under supervision. This really hurts my aspirations to expand my extracurricular money-making activities into dog sitting and dog walking.

And while we are on the topic of life's little deceptions, have I ever mentioned that one of the biggest fears of the average red-blooded New York male, ranked right after a stock market crash, is .. shemales?? Yes indeed, I was surprised to discover that identifying shemales is one of the top five topics of conversation among NYC men between the ages of 8 and 80 years of age. In fact, when I went out on a first date with one NYC lawyer, he stood next to me at the bar and accused me of being shemale because I was "too tall to be a real woman". That was his exact phrase, I kid you not. The coatcheck woman, who easily overheard every word he uttered (along with 82% of the other people in the bar), told me that she disagreed with his assessment when I collected my coat from her before sneaking out the door. Needless to say, he should have taken this quiz before embarassing me publically; female or shemale; can you tell? I identified all of the pictures correctly so that might explain why I am not a paranoid loud-mouth.

I then discovered Quizilla, which is a very efficient time-waster as its name suggests. I decided to get the most that I could from all the quizzes that I was stupidly sucked in to taking by posting only a few results at any one time. I chose to share my "daemon" results today because it fits well with the dog theme that seems to have unexpectedly popped up here. The font in this picture suggests this is a Harry Potterish type of quiz, so I was bummed out to realize that it does not offer a snowy owl as one of its "daemon options".

Wolf Daemon
Your WOLF DAEMON shows that you are solitary,
ferocious, and often intimidating, but not
without your sufficient loyalty and poise.
People tend to misunderstand you, but you
prefer your own company, anyway.

What Animal Would Your Daemon Settle As?
brought to you by Quizilla

On the other hand, wolves are wonderful animals, too.

If your family is driving you crazy this weekend, may I suggest popping some virtual bubblewrap as a stress reliever? I find that manic mode is the most amusing/addicting.

11 responses so far

Birds in the News #4

Mar 25 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I and my wonderful flock of bird pals found several interesting news stories this week that describe birds and their relationships with people. I found some RaptorCams to share and I have a special surprise for you; two readers gave me permission to post some of their photographs of a “backyard bird” that might interest you. If you find an interesting story about birds or have some pictures you would like to share, feel free to email them to me.

Birds in Science (Birds teaching humans):

Do birds see the world in the same way that people do? Apparently they do, at least when it comes to being deceived by camouflaged invertebrates, as a research group from the University of Bristol discovered recently. Using “artificial moths” pinned to trees and baited with a tasty insect, they found that the same disruptive color patterns that deceive humans were also most deceptive to birds, suggesting that birds’ and humans’ visual perceptions are similar. Their research was published in the 3 March issue of Nature, one of the top science journals in the world.

Have you ever looked carefully at a bird’s nest? Surprisingly, most scientists haven’t either, but Dr. Mike Hansell, a biologist from the University of Glasgow is changing all that. This long and very interesting article, Building Castles in the Air, discusses various aspects of birds’ nests; choice of materials, patterns of construction and different species’ nest styles along with the functional reason for these structural differences.

Birds Helping People:

Birds and other animals are being used in an unusual therapy program to help people deal with depression and illness as described in Animals are our Friends. Sometimes, birds change people’s lives, as happened to one felon mentioned in this story whose “therapy bird” taught him compassion and led him to become a student of ornithology after his release from prison.

A review of a popular documentary reveals “the behind the scenes story” of how the film, The Parrots of Telegraph Hill, was made and reveals how these feral parrots in SF changed several people’s lives while inspiring the same sort of widespread passion for them that rivals the affection felt for Pale Male and Lola in NYC.

People Helping Birds:

I can’t resist writing this teaser for this news story: What is the relationship between an endangered South American parrot, coevolution and the Catholic Church? (And, do you suppose that reading this story will be made illegal in Florida?) You have to read this story to find out the answer to most of these burning questions!

Recently, India finally outlawed the use of diclofenac, the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug that was causing the extinction of all vulture species in SouthEast Asia. In previous issues of Birds in the News, I have linked to stories that report initial efforts to set up a captive breeding program for those few individual vultures that still live, so I hope that the combination of captive breeding and removal of diclofenac from the environment will be sufficient to recover these ecologically invaluable birds.

If you are following news of the irruption of great grey owls and several other owl species into the northern parts of the United States (as linked in previous Birds in the News), then you are aware that some of these birds become injured and need veterinary care to recover. As is the case for humans, medical care for birds is not cheap, even when veterinarians and their assistants donate their time. Other materials and resources, such as food, supplies and other medical consumables to care for these birds, still cost money. If you wish to make a tax-deductable donation to help these magnificent birds, your donated money will be matched 1:1 by the Katherine B. Andersen Fund.

BirdCams (Bird watching while sipping wine and wearing jammies):

If you are like me, you are looking for fun and free things to do in the evenings and at night. If so, take a peek at this Valmont Owl Cam that features infrared images captured of a nesting pair of great horned owls, Bubo virginianus, in Boulder, Colorado. The camera sponsor, XCel Energy, also supports several other RaptorCams that are linked from this site, so please explore! For a more comprehensive listing of BirdCam URLs (and several MammalCams!) from around the United States and the United Kingdom, click here.

Speaking of nesting, the colony of severely endangered parrots, the kakapos, Strigops habroptilus, are expecting at least 4 chicks to hatch this year, just in time for spring. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn whether Tilly (linked from a previous issue of Birds in the News) also nested this year. Tilly is a female kakapo who recently regained her health and was sent to her island home after a long bout of medical care that saved her life.

Backyard Birds: (reader-donated photos)

Did you know that bird beaks grow continuously, just as human hair and fingernails do? Considering that, would you be surprised to discover a dead woodpecker with an overgrown beak under your bird feeders one morning, as pictured here? One reader thinks this is very interesting and kindly shared these pictures with all of us (click on the photographs to see a larger image in its own window).

Bird beaks are comprised of underlying bone that is covered with hard, smooth layers of keratin. Because the beak is a bird’s primary tool for obtaining food and for building nests, the outer keratin layers grow continuously throughout their lifetimes to replace wear from constant use. Keratin is a tough, fibrous protein that has many functions throughout the animal kingdom; besides comprising human skin, hair and fingernails, keratin also makes up horns of animals such as wild sheep and goats, the outer layers of turtle and tortoise shells and also baleen in whales, just to name a few. In birds, abnormal growth of the beak is caused by a variety of problems, including an infestation with Knemidocoptes mites and malnutrition, as seen in this individual, whose beak was just over 3 inches long.

Two readers who live in Michigan found this dead hairy woodpecker
, Picoides villosus, below their bird feeder several weeks ago. According to Jack Swartz, who gave me permission to share these pictures on my blog, “It [the bird] was in pretty sad shape since it could not preen and was infested with mites and it is possible that it had avian pox or some type of bacterial infection.” Debbie Swartz took these excellent pictures and also was temporarily infested with the bird’s mites in the process! They took the bird’s body to their local DNR office and it was then sent to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology in Ann Arbor, where it now resides.

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Non-academic job applications: 1 (full-time neuroscience or biochemistry/chemical biology copy editor)

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The New Tangled Bank is Accessible!

Mar 23 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Tangled Bank #24 is now available and I have three essays in this issue. (I guess this means that I have to write more new material for the next issue of TB as well as the other blog carnivals I contribute to!). Take a look because there are lots of great articles and essays in this issue, including some from people who were new contributors to "my issue" of TB! Be sure to write comments on your favorite essays and thereby encourage the authors to write more material for future issues of TB.

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Mar 22 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

One or two of you might be aware that I am working as a part-time temporary Professor of Science at a college in the area. Two weeks ago, I was subjected to a course evaluation/observation in the Anatomy and Physiology course I am teaching (I also teach the lab section for a Biochemistry class, but I guess they don’t evaluate/observe labs). Besides the fact that this was my first-ever course evaluation, it also caused me much angst these past two weeks because the evaluator surprised me by showing up in lecture without notifying me first, as is required. So of course, this meant that I had not meticulously prepared my lecture and I was not dressed in my best clothes (even my best clothes look shabby next to everyone else there). But worst of all, I was simultaneously trying to rebuild my self-esteem as a professor along with my relationship with my students after the majority of them flunked their first lecture exam in the previous lecture period.

Needless to say, my students blamed me for their poor exam performance and I was ready to quit because of the resulting stress and frustration and, well, guilt, too.

But yesterday, I finally was given the results of this evaluation and it seems that I did reasonably well, despite everything. The evaluation itself is rather boring: It basically is a condensed version of my lecture notes about bones. But this is the summary paragraph; “This was a lecture packed with information, which was nevertheless delivered at a calm and relaxed pace. Prof. [my corporeal name] occasionally asked a question of the classroom, and several students would answer. She gave examples where appropriate, and illustrated her explanations with drawings on the blackboard.” The evaluator/observer surprised me with this; “It was obvious that Prof. [my corporeal name] is very knowledgeable in the subject, and she was doing a fine job of passing this knowledge on to her students.

Then, because she had to criticize me for something (or so I suppose), the evaluator also included this in her summary; “I believe that her lecture could be even more effective if she would make use of color transparencies to illustrate some of the more complex points, and to give the lecture an additional dimension.

This evaluation is a prime example of how people are easily fooled. First, because I am a molecular biologist, I know very little about bones except they hurt like a #$%@*!! when they are broken and second, ever since my first day on this job, I have been fighting with several faculty members at the school and also with the book rep to get transparencies, without success.

So the only criticism was for something I have no control over. Sometimes, I think this is the story of my life.

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Why I STILL Can't Find a #%*@#! Job

Mar 20 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Or, how to politely tell someone to just die already and stop wasting the world's precious and limited resources by keeping his/her useless carcass alive, Part 2.

I promised myself that I would never, ever rant about personal matters on my public blog (people have enough shit to deal with in their private lives without reading about mine, too) and I would at least attempt to maintain some level of objectivity about my life here (especially about those things that I am completely powerless to change), but my resolve has cracked: This is a rant. Seriously, I need to vent before I implode or die from despair. I apologize for this. Please move on to my next message if this sort of thing bothers you. There will be more useful and interesting essays coming soon (I have been trying to write them today, without much success). All I need to do right now is produce my cosmic scream.

Basically, I try to remain calm about my current un(der)employment situation but this is increasingly difficult as I watch my miniscule financial reserves slip away and as my financial dependence on the kindness and generosity of others increases dramatically. But my no-rant resolve was shattered on Friday when I read an LA Times news story by Nicholas Riccardi that made my heart skip a beat or two. In fact, I am still unable to shake the fear that this story inspired. There are two points in this story that haunt me. First;

Even with the national unemployment rate at a relatively low 5.4%, the share of those out of work for more than six months is higher now than during the early 1980s, when the jobless rate was in the double digits, analysts say. The average length of unemployment is also higher now than at any time other than the early 1980s.

Okay, that is absolutely horrible, especially when one realizes that the government compiles their unemployment statistics from data based on state Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits paid each week and by randomly calling people on the telephone to ask about the employment status in the household -- does anyone see a flaw in this process? I do! I do! First, UI benefits last only six months and are never extended under any circumstances, so people who are unemployed longer than six months disappear from state unemployment rosters. Coincidentally, "disappearing from unemployment rosters" is also what unemployed people do after they find jobs, even if they only get a part-time temporary position that places them at or below poverty level. In fact, there are no reliable methods to track the fates of the long-term un(der)employed so, for this reason (and several others), I think this problem is grossly underestimated. The only way to capture even a fleeting glimpse of this problem is by randomly calling households on the phone to poll them, which leads me to my second point; how many un(der)employed people have telephones? Not many, I can assure you. Many un(der)employed people rely on the pay phone on the nearest street corner or on a sympathetic friend or family member to collect their phone messages, or they might be lucky enough to still have a cell phone, as I currently have. Even though a cell phone is cheaper and more convenient than a conventional land-line for most people, especially the un(der)employed, let me remind you that the government doesn't call cell phones (nor pay phones!) to collect their statistics.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the story made another point that grabbed me by the throat and shakes me awake in the middle of the night in a panic;

The number of long-term unemployed who are college graduates has nearly tripled since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, statistics show. Nearly 1 in 5 of the long-term jobless are college graduates. If a degree holder loses a job, that worker is now more likely than a high school dropout to be chronically unemployed.

I simply must repeat that last sentence because it has made it nearly impossible for me to eat or sleep much these past few days; If a degree holder loses a job, that worker is now more likely than a high school dropout to be chronically unemployed. Notice that we are not talking about newly minted college graduates who only have so-called "book learning", these are degree holders who already have work experience but are unable to find any sort of job after they become unemployed. Honestly, this statistic robs me of all words, rendering me nearly catatonic, so I'll let you connect the dots while I breathe into a paper bag for a few minutes.

Okay, I am still conscious and relatively coherent right now, so let me change course somewhat and tell you that I received another rejection letter the same day that I read this news story, which certainly compounded my reaction. Perhaps the text of this letter can provide insight to you as to why I am astonishingly, insultingly underemployed in a part-time temporary position that ends in a couple months, earning barely enough money to simply pay my rent.

7 March 2005

[GrrlScientist Note: I guess it took the secretary a few days to lick those hundreds of stamps because I did not receive the letter until 11 March]

Dear [my corporeal name],

Thank you very much for your application for the faculty position in Evolutionary Biology at [elided]. I speak for the search committee in saying that we appreciate your interest in our College (sic) and our Department (sic), and we appreciate your patience as we wound through the seemingly interminable search and interview process.

[GrrlScientist Note: If he thinks their search and interview process is "seemingly interminable", then I invite the entire search committee to stand in MY shoes for a few hours out of the more than 500 days that I've already devoted to finding a job!]

It is now my unpleasant duty to let you know that we hired someone else for the position. We were greatly impressed by the quality and quantity of applications we received, and we were consequently able to apply very specific criteria reflecting our departmental needs for teaching and research areas. A large number of applicants were competitive for the position, and many more would have been competitive for a slightly different position here.

[GrrlScientist Note: Basically, they are seeking perfect people who are a 110% "fit". This is the standard for hiring these days, as my colleagues and fellow un(der)employed pals tell me. However, after more than 500 days of job hunting, it has become clear to me that I will never be "perfect" by anyone's standards (neither for a job nor for anything else, for that matter) and further, I realize that by diligently following my passions, I have effectively transformed myself into a person who will never be a 110% "fit" for anything that actually pays a (living) wage.]

We wish you the best of luck in all future pursuits.

[GrrlScientist Note: Because I will need it, especially when fighting with the local drunks, crackheads and nutjobs for a park bench to nap on in Central Park this summer.]


[name elided]

Chair, Evolutionary Biologist Search Committee

The personal touch in this letter is surprisingly satisfying because the few rejections I've received are very cold and formal letters that could have been written to almost anyone, well, anyone except a potential future colleague. On the other hand, this letter is also disarming because it makes it easy for me to feel that it is a rejection of me as a person. But at least they sent me a rejection letter, which is more than I get from approximately 90% of my academic and non-academic applications. In fact, most positions that I apply for (and
all of the positions that I've interviewed for, save one), have not sent any letters at all, except for those familiar affirmative action postcards that universities send out to their job applicants. Even though I try not to think about it, I am sometimes left wondering what the hell happened? for months afterward.

The implication of this lack of rejection letters is that all those hours I invested into finding the job, assembling the application, researching the school and the departmental faculty and then writing a specific-for-this-job cover letter were so worthless as to not even warrant a response. Further, because these sorts of creative writing exercises consume most of my free time, the oblique implication is that my time is worthless (and it's easy to make the small trip from there to thinking that I, also, am worthless).

Well, on that happy note, I have finished ranting to you about Things That Cannot Possibly Be Fixed In My Lifetime. It's time for me to wade out into that nasty rainstorm that prevented me from distracting myself from my woes by hanging out under Pale Male and Lola's nest today.

24 responses so far

How I Hosted the Tangled Bank ..

Mar 19 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

.. and what I did to make it a success.

When I hosted the 23rd issue of the Tangled Bank (TB23) on 9 March, I didn’t know what to expect because I had never hosted a blog carnival before and in fact, I had only recently figured out what a blog carnival actually is. Nevertheless, my primary goals were to have fun and to avoid the pitfalls experienced by previous hosts. One of the worst problems that recent issues of TB experienced was technological. The previous TB host’s anti-spam software trashed most submissions, so few stories were received and linked for issue 22. I was determined to circumvent the ravages of anti-spam software, so I decided to email acknowledgments to each author so they knew their submissions had been received. Additionally, because I had read, thought about and observed TB during the previous couple months, I took the liberty of developing a few minor goals of my own for “my issue”, goals that (I thought) nicely complimented the original, more encompassing purpose of TB.

As I stated, my main objective was to have fun yet still make it a success. First, to prevent TB23 from becoming a chore, I broke it up into smaller pieces that could easily be accomplished each day and I also made sure that my working and master files were properly backed up. To do this, I made two TB23 files; one was on my blogger account and the other -- the master copy -- resided on my computer desktop. Early every morning, I worked on TB, reading and summarizing each article that had been submitted during the previous 24-hour period of time. This work consumed between 15 minutes to 2 hours each morning and was saved on my computer desktop file. When blogger was cooperating, I then copied the entire desktop file to my blogger TB23 file.

This duplicate system of using a desktop “master” file only consumed a few extra minutes each day but prevented damage due to blogger crashes (always a possibility), and copying the entire file to my blogger account allowed me to work on TB23 anywhere and any time that I had internet access while simultaneously safeguarding this file from corruption due to computer crashes (“my” borrowed computer is very unstable). For those of you who are curious, within the two-week period of time that I worked on “my issue” of TB, I experienced one blogger crash (the day before TB23 was to be published) and two major computer crashes, any one of which would have spelled disaster for this project.

My time commitment abruptly increased on Monday, several days before TB23 was to be published. During the three days prior to publishing TB23, I was consistently investing two and sometimes as much as three hours reading and summarizing articles. I initially tried to work additional time late in the evening on TB, but found that I was not as coherent as I wished the following morning, so I instead shifted my entire time commitment to the morning. This worked out better.

The morning that I posted TB23, I finished writing the lead opening paragraphs, made final edits to the master draft, rearranged the topic categories (again!), and tried to make logical transitions from one article to the next to keep my readers’ interest. I double-checked all internal links on my authors’ articles and notified them of any that were broken (I found only one broken link and the author was able to fix it within a few hours).

To increase the number and variety of articles submitted, I published two appeals for submissions to my blog; one was posted two weeks before the publication date and the second was posted one week prior to publication. Then, regardless of where in the city I was located, I could check my email account for new submissions and add them to my blogger file, beginning the very day that TB22 was published. (You might think this was premature, but my first three submissions arrived that very morning, in fact!). Because I strongly disliked wondering if my own submissions to previous issues of TB (and other blog carnivals) had been received, and because I suspected that other authors felt the same way, I acknowledged each submission as I received it. As each story was sent to me, I replied to the author in 24 hours or less (and cc’d this acknowledgement to PZ when he had forwarded the original message to me) and then copied the text of the original email into my desktop master file (which was usually copied to blogger later) so I could work on it later. I also saved all TB emails to a special file on my email account, so all would not be lost if a “supercrash” somehow managed to destroy both TB files.

As I mentioned earlier, I developed several minor goals of my own for this issue of TB. These goals were to encourage contributions from female bloggers, to seek contributions from “new voices” and, because blogging is a global enterprise, I wanted to foster a more international flavor by encouraging contributions from “non-Americans”. To this end, I approached some of my own contacts in the blogosphere for particular articles that they gladly contributed to “my” issue, and one TB contributor unexpectedly helped by telling me about some “interesting blogs” that I should check out. These “interesting blogs” all contained material that were ultimately included in TB23, and the authors were flattered to be approached by me (some of whom have since sent ecards, personal emails and other tokens of their appreciation). I am pleased to say that I think I achieved all of my goals.

On the publication date after all my work was finished, I copied the entire completed master file to my blogger account and .. held my breath while the wheels of blogger publishing churned .. somewhat clunkily .. and then .. there it was! After quickly checking the document for formatting issues that needed fixing, I sent email to all contributors and included the URL so they all could link to TB23 from their blogs (14 of them did include links).

On Wednesday, the first day that TB23 was publically accessible, my hit meter registered 574 hits (my normal number of hits per day is between 90-150), so this was roughly a three- to four-fold increase in visitors to my site. On the following day, Thursday, MSNBC somehow discovered us and linked to TB23 in a story describing the power of blogs and bloggers. The result was a respectable 301 visitors for that day, approximately one-third to one-half of which were from that one story. In fact, this one MSNBC story resulted in a steady stream of 20-50 readers each day for more than a week and, as of today, I still receive 2-10 visitors each day from this one reference.

Then on Friday afternoon, InstaPundit finally honored my repeated requests and linked to TB23 in the early afternoon (EST). Within minutes, my site meter registered a dramatic jump in visitors: I saw a greater than ten-fold increase in hits, from 30 per hour to more than 300 per hour. The peak number of visits from the InstaPundit link were 421 per hour and total visits for that Friday alone were 2,107 -- a number that diminished to “only” 636 on Saturday. Don’t forget that the number of Saturday visits was still higher than the total number of hits that TB23 received on Wednesday, which is traditionally the single day with the highest number of visitors. Surprisingly, visits from InstaPundit dropped off more rapidly than those from the MSNBC story and I rarely received more than one or two hits from this reference five days after it was published.

I hope this little document can help you make the decision about whether to host TB, and I hope it gives you some ideas for how to organize your time and efforts if you do host it. In short, the entire TB experience was wonderful and I high
ly recommend it. I read a lot of good science writing and I happily seized this rare opportunity to “meet” all of the contributors through email, to approach and add new contributors to our growing group, to “meet” new readers who subsequently flooded my email box, and I managed to make the contributors happy with additional traffic to their sites as well as with the end product, the TB23 index (or so I think). Hosting TB23 also allowed me to indulge several of my personal goals; to share good science, medical and nature writing with the public and to encourage scientists, medical doctors and others to continue writing by providing a venue for them to share their essays with the public. I also had the added -- and unexpected -- benefit of building stronger personal connections with all of the contributors. In short, TB23 was one of the most positive and pleasant experiences I’ve had in the past 8 months and I would happily (eagerly) host it again.


The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 25.

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Birds in the News #3

Mar 18 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a nice collection of bird stories to share with you this week, thanks to my efforts and those of some birdy friends of mine. Several stories linked here are special because of the quality of their photographs, so be sure to look at those.

Beginning next week, I plan to include interesting bird photos that my readers have sent to me (you would have seen an interesting bird photo today, but technological problems intervened). If you have found an interesting story about birds in the news or if you have an interesting photo that you want to share, please send it to me so I can include it in my weekly "Birds in the News" round-up.

Birds and People:

Here is an absolutely fascinating link that allows you and your kids to soar the heavens with Tilly, a four-year-old female Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos! Using one of those newly-developed microcameras mounted on Tilly's back, this site features astonishing close-up streaming footage of a flying eagle (including an aerial "dogfight" with a buzzard) that you must see!

I cannot resist linking to this story where my Seattle colleagues and former long-time birding pals are interviewed about their version of name that tune. It is so good to see them doing well and helping more people discover the beauty of birds!

After enduring a lengthy hospitalization and several surgeries to cure a cloacal abscess, Pearl, one of only 83 Kakapos, Strigops habroptilus, remaining in the world, was sent to her new home in her own helicopter. Kakapos are large, flightless charcoal-green parrots found only on several islands in New Zealand. Their physical appearance resembles that of a green owl and they are nocturnal, also like owls, so they are locally known as "owl parrots" or "parrots of the night".

This year, North America has experienced a large southward irruption of owls who are searching for food. This has also resulted in a large number of injured owls, some of whom are receiving medical treatment. I included this story because it features a short but very interesting photoseries detailing the surgical treatment of a female great grey owl's broken wing.

Birds in Love:

In news from my other beloved home, NYC, Pale Male and Lola are nesting again, thanks to protesters around the world who prevented them from losing their nest site on their fancy fifth avenue home in Manhattan. (I am proud to say that I played a somewhat prominent role in this protest, which you can read about in earlier entries in this blog). This is a NYTimes story that requires (free) registration. [If you are severely opposed to this sort of thing, I believe you can still access the NYTimes by using "clreader" as your username and password.]

Like people, birds can and will travel long distances across harrowing barriers in their quest for love, as this love-lorn female ferruginous pygmy owl, Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum, demonstrates. (This story also requires free registration).

Birds in Urban Settings:

Chicago is setting an example for all tall cities around the world by holding a meeting that seeks to address deaths of migratory birds that fly into skyscrapers. Already, their concerns about the welfare of migrating birds have led to some changes; they estimate that approximately 10,000 birds have been saved each year since the managers of more than 20 of Chicago's tallest buildings began turning their lights out after 11 pm during migratory seasons.

Speaking of bird deaths, the Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia, Canada, has a bird problem due to their close proximity to the Fraser River Delta, which provides a superb refueling stop for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl. Unfortunately, as you will learn in this story, birds and airplanes are not compatible. I hope airport officials devise better ways to discourage birds from hanging around the airport other than killing them; methods such as more harassment by dogs and also inviting in falconers and their birds on a rotating basis, as happens at JFK airport in NYC, which is also located on a major flyway and near an avian refueling stop. (This story also includes an optional sound file).

Birds and Art:

If you like bird art, Audubon paintings or if you are looking for fun things to do in NYC, then this is the event for you! The New York Historical Society is currently hosting a special exhibit called Audubon's Aviaries, which features 40 paintings of John James Audubon's North American birds. I have already seen this exhibit and I plan to return tomorrow before I write a more lengthy narrative for my blog. The show ends 3 April 2005, so hurry!

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Academic job applications: 1 (one-year teaching contract (not tenure-track) at a local university)

Academic job rejections: 1 (assistant professor of evolutionary biology)

Other job applications: 2 (part-time science writer, full-time science information specialist)

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The Carnival of Education #6 was Published

Mar 16 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I was a little surprised to see that an essay I wrote was included in the recent Carnival of Education, published this morning. I was surprised because this essay, Owls and other Fantasies, is not one of my more optimistic pieces. My essay is listed somewhere closer to the top than the bottom of this index.

Unfortunately, the Carnival of Education does not have a primary index site that links together everything they've listed (otherwise, I'd link to it from my sidebar), but each new issue does provide links to previous index issues, so you can check them all out if you wish.

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Medical Grand Rounds XXV was Published

Mar 15 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Hey, dear readers, Medical Grand Rounds XXV was published a few hours ago and several essays that I wrote are included in it! Not bad for an unemployable evolutionary birdologist, eh? Of course, I am very happy about this, so please do check it out, especially if medicine and medical issues are interesting to you. The host, Orac, has a rather unusual way of organizing the submitted material -- making me wish I had a TV! I hope you enjoy it.

(Okay, I'll make it easier for you to find me in Orac's list; I am listed in the Tuesday, 9-10pm time slot, for a TV show called House, M.D., as a "guest star" for an episode titled A Bird in the Hand.)

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