Archive for: May, 2005

Interview with Tim Gallagher, Author of The Grail Bird

May 31 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I finally have managed to get the email interview with Tim Gallagher, author of the newly released book, The Grail Bird, ready for you to read. I sent the questions to him later than I had said I would (this past Sunday, to be exact) because my end-of-semester obligations took up more time than I ever imagined possible. But Tim was a very good sport and answered very quickly, as you can see. So without further ado, here is the interview for your reading pleasure.

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"Elusive Ivory" by Larry Chandler.

This question is from a reader, Mike; I've noticed that many individuals online are concerned that the ivory-bill is commanding a disproportionate level of attention and resources while other less charismatic species are still being ignored. Though I'm not worried about this at all, I wonder if Mr. Gallagher has any insight into what other at-risk species will benefit from IBW conservation efforts.

Every living thing in that southern bottomland swamp forest habitat -- birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles, plants, you name it -- will benefit from the conservation work being done on behalf of the ivory-bill. And that's no small accomplishment. Throughout our history, this has been one of the most neglected habitats in America. At a time when people were saving Yellowstone, Yosemite, and so many other great places, no one did anything for the southern swamp forests. And they were well worth saving. When the Civil War ended, they were still an immense wilderness of towering trees, full of bears, wolves, panthers, and other magnificent animals -- including the ivory-billed woodpecker. But it didn't take long for the large logging interests to move in and start cutting. Millions of board feet a year were harvested for decade after decade after decade, until little of consequence was left. We had a chance to save the Singer Tract -- an 80,000 acre remnant of primeval forest in northeastern Louisiana -- in the early 1940s, but we didn't do it. We let it slip away. We should be very thankful that we have a charismatic bird like the ivory-bill to help us preserve and enhance and expand the bottomland swamp forest habitat of the South.

An anonymous reader asks; I guess while other skeptics are expressing themselves, I'd like to ask Mr. Gallagher if all the scientists and conservation experts involved in this rediscovery really think the government should be spending so much money on the possibility of there being more than one woodpecker when so many other species need help. (Habitat preservation aside.)

Well, this question implies that if money were not spent on the ivory-bill, it would be spent on these other worthy but neglected species. Sadly, this is probably not the case. The funds would most likely be spent on something completely unrelated to conservation. At least if we help the ivory-bill, we're helping every other plant and animal species present in these bottomland forests. I should also point out that so far the lion's share of the funding for research and land acquisition has come from private donors, not the government, and this will probably continue.

Do you have confidence that the Nature Conservancy has the funds and other resources available to protect adequate habitat for these birds? If so, what makes you so confident?

They've certainly got a great track record with this project so far, with more than 18,000 acres of forest saved since our sighting. And they'd already done some excellent work in the Big Woods of Arkansas in earlier years, helping to save the very bayou where we saw the bird. Twenty years ago it had been slated to be channelized. Imagine that. There would have been no trees at all, just a straight channel going for miles.

Do you think that the current administration has the political will to protect these birds' habitat? If so, why do you think this?

Well, that's the big question, isn't it? And I don't know the answer. But it was very gratifying to see the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture pledge $10 million to help save the bird and its habitat. I hope they see it through and do what is necessary to protect and expand the ivory-bill's habitat.

Another anonymous reader asks; I'm sorry to say it, but I'm put off mightily by the fact that announcement of the rediscovery of the Ivory-bill was delayed until a snappy logo was created, not just one but several websites were designed, a magazine article was prepared, (auto?) biographies were written, and, oh, yes, Tim Gallagher's book (and Terri Roberts Luneau's children's book) were readied for publication. Is someone also selling Ivory-bill coffee? And Ivory-bill t-shirts? Scott Weidensaul quotes John Fitzpatrick as asking, "You know what? Our lives are going to change." Just what, I wonder, did he mean by that?

The delay in announcing the rediscovery of the ivory-bill had nothing to do with designing logos, web sites, etc. We didn't even think about any of that until fairly recently. Our primary concern has always been the well-being of the species. We needed time to develop plans for research, conservation, and public education. The first research goal was to get physical proof of the bird's existence. When Bobby Harrison, Gene Sparling, and I came out of the swamp in February 2004, we had only our word that we had seen an ivory-bill. Although that's enough for people who know me, we knew that the world at large would demand solid proof. For more than half a century, scientists have regarded ivory-bill sightings as being the same as Bigfoot or Elvis sightings. We had hoped -- and believed -- that we would be able to find a nest or at least a roost hole and take excellent photographs and videos of ivory-bills, but unfortunately this didn't happen. Every sighting was brief, with no chance to raise a camera and take a picture. David Luneau only got his video of the bird because he kept his camcorder running constantly and it happened to be pointed in the right direction as the bird took off. The only other video we got in 14 months was one taken by Bobby Harrison, and the glimpse of the bird it provided was even shorter than David's. Over these months we did develop and hone our search technique, but it's been a daunting task. So far, we've only searched about eight percent of the forest in the area.

I'm happy to say that our conservation efforts are moving ahead quickly. Since February 2004, the Nature Conservancy has placed more than 18,000 additional acres into conservation in the Big Woods area of Arkansas. The web sites, press releases, and other media materials were part of the public education effort, as were the descriptive panels put in place at the designated visitation areas. We knew that everyone would want to learn more about the ivory-bill as soon as the story came out, and that's why we created all the educational materials and web sites.

As for my book, it was well underway before we saw the bird in Arkansas. In some ways, the book led directly to the rediscovery, because I was following up on seemingly credible reports across the South -- the ones that everyone was writing off as Elvis sightings -- when Bobby Harrison and I checked out Gene Sparling's sighting and saw the bird. Otherwise, I'm afraid Gene's excellent sighting would have gone unnoticed like so many others.

About John Fitzpatrick's statement that our lives were going to change, I think he was warning me that we were crossing the Rubicon, and there was no turning back. We were completely embracing the idea that the ivory-billed woodpecker
still exists -- and putting our careers on the line. From that day on, we knew that this bird would be the focal point of our lives for years -- perhaps forever -- and it was a sobering thought.

A friend, Ian, also asks what was meant when Fitz said "You know what? Our lives are going to change." Ian says that you all still have to go to work every day, still have to do the same mundane tasks, so how exactly does this event/sighting change your lives?

Yes, we still have to go to work each day and do the same tasks. The only difference is that now we have two full-time jobs -- in my case, editing Living Bird magazine and working on the ivory-bill project. But the deepest change is in the focus of my life. I seem to spend most of my waking hours now thinking about the ivory-bill and what we can do to help it. This has completely changed my direction and my goals.

What do you think of using aviculture to help increase the numbers of this bird, as they are using successfully for the California Condor? [I am especially thinking of removing some eggs and using artificial incubation until they hatch (to increase egg/chick production) combined with fostering the chicks under other woodpecker species until they can be replaced into an ivory-billed woodpecker nest while still nestlings and possibly providing additional feedings to the nestlings several times per day]

I'm nervous about using such a hands-on approach at this point. I worked on the peregrine falcon recovery in the 1970s, and that was a wonderful success using aggressive techniques such as manipulation of wild nests, captive breeding, and massive reintroduction efforts in areas where the falcons had vanished. But this was a special case. Raptors (even wild-trapped adults) adapt readily to captivity. This had been proven by countless falconers over the centuries. Condors proved to be similarly successful at adapting to captivity and producing young in artificial conditions. I'm not sure things would work out as well for ivory-bills. These are shy, secretive birds. Trying to trap them and keep them in aviaries could prove disastrous -- and just suggesting such a plan would be very controversial. I believe in this case we'll have to help these birds the old-fashioned way by protecting and expanding their habitat. I don't think there's any shortcut here.

Is anyone considering installing a nestbox cam into an active ivory-billed woodpecker nest? These cams are getting ever smaller and are not very intrusive, and I think it could be a great fund-raising or public-relations campaign. If free access to the webcam is provided to the public, it could reduce the numbers of people wandering the swamps in search of these birds, too.

It might be risky and would certainly be controversial to install a nestbox cam inside an ivory-bill's nest cavity. But we have talked about having one of these cameras on an adjacent tree, aimed right at the cavity, so that the public could watch the comings and goings of the ivory-bills. But first we've got to find a nest or roost hole.

A reader, Tabor asks; I'd like to know if he thinks there is a good breeding population or was this just a lucky sighting of one bird in a tiny population? Also, is there an effort underway (perhaps you birders already know this), to expand habitat for this species?

I think this is clearly a very small population, or the birds would be much easier to find. Some people have asked me if I think this is the last ivory-bill in the world. I truly doubt it; the odds against it are astronomical. These birds probably only live 10 to 15 years, so this bird was hatched in the 1990s or perhaps even in this century, more than 50 years after scientists had written off the species. That in itself is a miracle. A major effort is now underway to expand the habitat for these birds. Since our sighting of the bird in February 2004, the Nature Conservancy has already placed more than 18,000 additional acres into conservation in the Big Woods area of Arkansas, and that's just the beginning.

I (and an anonymous reader) was quite bothered about Jerome Jackson's lack of any sort of role in the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. We both ask; I'm curious to know how it was determined who would be on the large, secret search team; I'm especially wondering why Dr. Jerome Jackson, who has done extensive work on the IBWO, written a book about them, wrote the Birds of North America account on them, and participated in the Zeiss search, was not included or even told about the discovery.

I did not have a prominent role in determining who would be included in the search team. A key concern from the start was to keep the story of the bird's sighting quiet until we'd had time to search the sighting area thoroughly and determine whether the bird was breeding. This process would have been greatly complicated if crowds of birders or the media had descended on the swamp at that time. Obviously, this would be the hottest birding story imaginable. We knew as soon as it hit the Internet, the story would be circling the globe in minutes. Let's face it, all birders are blabbermouths, myself included. The only way to keep it quiet was to tell as few people as possible. Everyone had to be approved by the core group of researchers and had to sign nondisclosure agreements. I have many good friends and colleagues who are angry with me because I didn't tell them about the ivory-bill, but I think it was good to keep it quiet. One of the most remarkable things about all this is that we kept things quiet for fourteen months. As for Jerry Jackson, I have nothing but respect for him. He is one of the few scientists who kept hope alive for the ivory-bill when so many others had written it off.

I have one last question; Do you think that Mary Scott really saw the ivory-billed woodpecker? It seems impossible for one person to see such an astonishingly rare bird not once, not twice, but three times (!) in such a short time period.

I admit I'm not sure about Mary Scott's first two sightings. She was new to ivory-bill searching at that time, and it's impossible to say for certain what she saw. But after that, she became totally committed to learning everything she could find out about this species. She created a lecture and slide show and took it on the road. By the time she went to the White River in March 2003, she really knew what she was looking for. So it's much harder to dismiss that third sighting. She stepped out of a car, she saw a large woodpecker fly up and land on a tree trunk, and she locked her binoculars on it. The way she described this bird to me was perfect for an ivory-bill -- and nothing else. Did she dream it? Did she make it up? I don't think so. To me she seems perfectly credible. I've played the recording of my interview with her for several people -- including a couple of skeptics -- and all agree that she is completely sincere; she believes she saw an ivory-bill. I might add that the habitat where she saw the bird is some of the best I've seen. I should also say that the first thing I did after interviewing Gene Sparling for the first time was to look at a map and determine how far his sighting area was from Mary's. They were about 48 miles apart, connected almost the entire way by a narrow corridor of forest. Would I have checked out Gene's sighting if it hadn't been so close to where Mary had
seen her bird? Probably not.

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I would like to thank Taryn Roeder from Houghton Mifflin publishers for suggesting this interview and for setting it up, Tim Gallagher for taking time from his very busy schedule to write thoughtful answers to these questions, and most of all, I'd like to thank you, dear readers, for asking interesting and lively questions. I had so much fun with this. If you have follow-up questions that you'd like to ask, Tim is willing to answer them. He says that it may take a couple weeks because he has other commitments (a job, for example) that he needs to take care of.

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Several images linked from;

Rediscovering the ivory-billed woodpecker, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, National Public Radio's Radio Expeditions.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

By John James Audubon, from his book, The Birds of America

8 responses so far

Regarding the Smithsonian and the Discovery Institute

May 30 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Apparently, the scientists at the Smithsonian are also mystified as to what is happening between their museum and the Discovery Institute. This comment (below) by Scott Wing, who is the Chairman of the Paleobiology Department at the Smithsonian Institute, was posted yesterday to the Panda's Thumb. The Panda's Thumb readers are embroiled in an interesting debate regarding the IDiot mess that the Smithsonian placed itself into the middle of when they agreed to screen the creationist film, The Priviledged Planet.

Scott Wing writes;

In spite of renting the Baird Auditorium for the showing of the “The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe,” I know that the staff and the administration of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History endorse the statement of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on intelligent design, specifically:

“Whereas, ID proponents claim that contemporary evolutionary theory is incapable of explaining the origin of the diversity of living organisms;
Whereas, to date, the ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution;
Whereas, the ID movement has not proposed a scientific means of testing its claims;
Therefore Be It Resolved, that the lack of scientific warrant for so-called “intelligent design theory” makes it improper to include as a part of science education.”

I don’t know how the Smithsonian ended up renting the auditorium to the Discovery Institute, and neither do the other Smithsonian staff I have consulted in the last few hours. The rental certainly does not reflect any endorsement by the staff or the administration of intelligent design.

Scott Wing
Chairman, Dept. of Paleobiology
National Museum of Natural History

I suspect that the Discovery Institute will present the Smithsonian's screening of this film as representing their tacit support for ID beliefs. These powerfully mixed signals from the Smithsonian Institute will only serve to further confuse the vast majority of the public who do not know what the evolution-ID argument is really about.

I also found the trailer for the film indexed in a variety of formats, which deals with astonomy and cosmology and only indirectly attacks evolution and the Big Bang. After going to their trailer index, I tried to view the trailer and it crashed my computer, so be careful! But some people saw the trailer and lived to tell about it. They have a few things to say;

Correction for The New York Times: Documentary at Smithsonian Isn’t About Biological Evolution by Jonathan Witt

The New York Times has a story reporting on the June 23rd screening of The Privileged Planet at The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. A factual error in the story’s headline and lead sentence suggests that the science documentary makes a case against biological evolution. In fact, the film doesn’t even touch on the subject.

The Privileged Planet focuses on cosmology and astronomy, and on Earth’s place in the universe. One could be a strict Darwinist and still agree with the argument in The Privileged Planet. In fact, that accurately describes at least two of the prominent scientists who endorsed the book.

(Posted by Jonathan Witt at 02:35:27 pm)

Think again, Jonathan! Here's a quote posted by Albion (also in The Panda's Thumb comments) that reveals Jonathan is either deliberately lying or he is merely a tool;

“Is it possible that this immense, symphonic system of atoms, fields, forces, stars, galaxies, and people is the result of a choice, a purpose or intention, rather than simply some inscrutable outworking of blind necessity or an inexplicable accident? If so, then it’s surely possible that there could be evidence to suggest such a possibility…

“Perhaps we have also been staring past … a signal revealing a universe so skillfully crafted for life and discovery that it seems to whisper of an extra-terrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we’ve been willing to expect or imagine.”

Do these IDiots think that rational, thinking humans don’t understand what is meant when they claim there is “an extra-terrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we’ve been willing to expect or imagine.” Or perhaps they are now asking us to believe in space aliens?

I am convinced this film screening is in direct violation of the Smithonian Institution's Special Events Policy, which states that "Personal events (i.e. weddings, etc.), fund raising events, and events of a religious or partisan political nature [italics mine] are not permitted." This screening also damages the proud tradition of the Smithsonian Institution's reality-based scientific research.

The only option is to protest. In addition to the Smithsonian contact information link that I provided yesterday, Pat Hayes provides more contact information for the Smithsonian so you can make a more direct presentation of your displeasure (remember to be polite);

Public Affairs can be contacted at
Phone: 202-633-2950
Fax: 202-786-2982

Here are the numbers for Public Affairs staff:
Randall Kremer: 202-633-0817
Michele Urie: 202-633-0820

The Special Events e-mail address is: nhevents@si.edu

I also plucked their snailmail address from the web (Correction: a friend sent this updated address -- an unfortunate result of the anthrax events);

National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
PO Box 37012
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012

Call, write, email AND FAX your displeasure to these people.

Some things to remember when writing effective protest letters:

1. Your words as well as your numbers are important -- numbers are determined by the number of letters received and the method of delivery used to send them (US mail receives the greatest respect but is the slowest to be delivered).
2. Deliver your letter of protest using both email and USmail at least. If you have access to a FAX machine, use that delivery method, too.
3. In your letter, clearly state; (a) the problem (screening of the creationist film, The Privileged Planet), (b) your disapproval and (c) your desired solution (do not screen this film at the Smithsonian Institution).
4. Concise and clearly-worded letters (250-500 words) are most effective.
5. Sign your letter with your name and contact information (unsigned letters or letters without contact information are ignored and discarded).

Other things to include in your protest letters;

I suggest you get as much mileage as you can from your letters of protest. Because the Smithsonian is directly funded by congress, let your congresscritters know of your displeasure. If you are a constituent of any of the political animals who are on the Smithsonian's board of trustees or who are otherwise involved with this decision, be sure to tell
them how their reaction to this event will affect your future vote. You should mention in your letter if you or your family and friends already are (or plan to become) members of the Smithsonian Institute and how their screening of this film will affect your future membership plans. Hit 'em in the pocketbook!

13 responses so far

Smithsonian Institution Screens Anti-evolution Film for Money

May 29 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

In a shocking development, the "Discovery Institute" has teamed up with the Smithsonian Institute to offer a national premier screening of the anti-evolution film, The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe.

The Seattle-based Discovery Institute promotes the religious belief, "intelligent design", that supposedly explains how life came to be. In contrast, the Smithsonian Institution houses many fossils that support the scientific Theory of Evolution.

Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, said his organization approached the Smithsonian's public relations company and the museum staff asked to see the film. After watching the film, Chapman claims that "they liked it very much - and not only would they have the event at the museum, but they said they would co-sponsor it," he recalled. "That was their suggestion. Of course we're delighted."

In his zeal, Chapman obviously hasn't read the Smithonian's Special Events Policy carefully, which clearly states that the museum co-sponsors all events that result in "an unrestricted contribution to the National Museum of Natural History" (the Smithsonian Institution). The Policy also states that these gifts "help support the scientific and educational work of the Museum."

Randall Kremer, a museum spokesman seemed to confirm this policy when he said, "We're happy to receive this contribution from the Discovery Institute to further our scientific research."

This will undoubtedly be the first time that the Discovery Institute has ever supported any sort of evolutionary research.

The museum, Chapman acknowledged, offers rental of its Baird Auditorium to many organizations and corporations in return for contributions. The Discovery Institute paid $16,000 to the Smithsonian for use of the auditorium. In view of this, it is obvious that the Smithsonian accepted an "unrestricted contribution" from the Discovery Institute to fund museum research in exchange for co-sponsoring the screening of this film. So basically, the nation's premier museum was bought. For a mere $16,000.

But even more appalling, this film screening is a blatant disregard of the Smithonian's Special Events Policy, which goes on to state that "Personal events (i.e. weddings, etc.), fund raising events, and events of a religious or partisan political nature [italics mine] are not permitted."

It is obvious that the Smithsonian really screwed up.

But Chapman attempts to be cautious. "We are not implying in any sense that they endorsed the content, but they are co-sponsoring it, and we are delighted. We're not claiming anything more than that. They certainly didn't say, 'We're really warming up to intelligent design, and therefore we're going to sponsor this.' "

So it appears that this event will take place. Already, the Discovery Institute's director is announcing on their web site that they and the director of the Smithsonian "are happy to announce the national premiere and private evening reception" on June 23. But so far, this screening is not listed on the Smithsonian's online Calendar of Events. I wonder why? Because it's private? Or ... ?

All this leads me to ask what are the Smithsonian's Board of Trustees thinking? Is the nation's premier museum broke again? Or are they making yet another ethical miscalculation on behalf of the nation's troubled museum as they seek to protect their special funding status and restore their prestige?

This story has every appearance of being true, despite the source (the Discovery Institute) so we need to voice our opinion as loudly as possible regarding this event. At the very least, think carefully before renewing your annual membership!

8 responses so far

Ten Things I've Never Done Meme

May 29 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

BotanicalGirl, tagged me with this meme .. it took me awhile to respond because this past week has been the most hectic week I've experienced this entire year. Who would ever have thought that underemployment could be so demanding? Besides, I was (characteristically) trying to think of a clever answer. Finally, I gave up on the "clever" part of my answer because I realize that those neurons were sizzled by excessive stress. I hope they regenerate themselves for your sakes, dear readers.

Ten Things I Have Never Done;

1. eaten chocolate-covered ants

2. mist-netted a woodpecker

3. been to New Guinea, Australia, the Solomon Islands, Fiji or Tahiti (where my research birds live)

4. prepared an avian study skin

5. personally attended any of the Triple Crown horse races, although I have seen almost all of them on TV (since I was five years old or so)

6. owned a television

7. picked up a man at a bar or been picked up at a bar (but it is "Fleet Week" so Manhattan is swarming with thousands of gorgeous navy men in their dress whites .. maybe my courage and luck (lust?) will change?)

8. served on a jury (but I intend to write about it when I do)

9. gone subway surfing ("get IN the train, not on it!")

10. fallen out of a tree

tags: , ,

3 responses so far

Ordinary Beauty

May 28 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I have been restoring order to my messy apartment and cat sitting most of today and will be doing so for the entire weekend. This means that I don't have as much time as usual to respond to emails, to write blog essays and to finish those articles that are languishing on my computer. I am also writing another scientific paper and preparing for this Friday's interview with "that very respectable college", an interview that will last four hours (I am interviewing for a spring semester teaching position). As part of this interview, I will give a 45 minute presentation. Yesterday, my contact at the college informed me that they want me to give a talk about the physiological and genetic underpinnings of behavior.

Hrm. That sounds remarkably similar to my dissertation work. But they don't want me to talk about my dissertation. So I have decided to prepare a talk about the physiology and genetics of aggression and song in the white-throated sparrow (WTSP), Zonotrichia albicollis. These remarkable little birds are closely related to my own dissertation birds, the white-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys, and they have similar behaviors and physiology. But they are remarkable in the ways that they differ from their close relatives. First, WTSP have two easily identifiable color morphs, the "white morph" and the "tan morph", which describes the color of their head stripes. Both sexes of white-morph birds have higher testosterone levels, higher aggression levels and higher songs rates than do both sexes of tan-morph birds. Basically, WTSPs are color-coded as to their physiological and behavioral traits.

But wait, there's more; these traits are genetic, although the genetics are somewhat more complex than one might initially assume. We know that WTSPs mate assortatively; most breeding pairs of these birds are comprised of one tan morph and one white morph bird and their nests contain chicks of both color morphs. So the chicks are all growing up in a similar environment, and yet their behavior is determined mainly by their genetics. There also is a seasonal component; apparently white morph birds are more aggressive in spring when days are growing longer, whereas they switch roles in winter when tan morphs are typically more dominant.

So I am describing a common migratory wild animal who lives and breeds in our backyards throughout the eastern USA and Canada. This common species has clearly marked morphological differences (tan versus white morphs), each morphology is associated with distinct behavioral traits (differing levels of aggression and song), and these behaviors are supported by a different physiological character (easily measured disparities in plasma testosterone concentrations).

WTSPs are such a strikingly beautiful system that link genetics, physiology, morphology and behavior that simply thinking about them gives me chills of excitement. I hope my presentation captures the beauty of these birds and inspires my audience to think more about them and about what we can learn from them, too. Perhaps my audience will never look at another white-throated sparrow the same way again.

Tan morph male white-throated sparrow (left) has subdued tan and brown coloring on its head and face. Photo courtesy of Surfbirds.
White morph male white-throated sparrow (right) has a more crisp black and white coloring on its head and face. Photo courtesy of Lang Elliott, linked from Annenberg/CPB Learner.org.

3 responses so far

Birds in the News #13

May 27 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Birds in Science and Environment

While carrying out some tasks, humans have a tendency to devote more visual attention to the left side of the visual world than the right side, a phenomenon known as pseudoneglect. Researchers now report that pseudoneglect is shared with birds, suggesting that it may reflect an evolutionary adaptation that allows animals to devote attention to multiple aspects of their environment. This also suggests that brain structures that are currently thought to play a role in pseudoneglect may not actually be essential for this phenomenon.

Recently published research shows that the world's biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, threatening human well-being and future development. This presents a crisis that requires new thinking about conservation, says a sweeping international report released on Thursday. This report, prepared by the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment with the cooperation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, blames biodiversity change on a number of factors including habitat destruction, climate change, pollution and over-exploitation of resources.

Another recent report sounds the alarm again that the red knot, Calidris canutus, could become extinct in 5 years. The red knot is a migratory shorebird that weighs less than 5 ounces (142 grams), that feeds on horseshoe crab eggs while completing its 10,000-mile (16,093-km) migration from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to its breeding grounds in Arctic Canada.

Biologists believe their old methods of finding spotted owls, Strix occidentalis, which relied on owls hooting in response to biologists' calls, may not be working as well as in the past. Scientists think spotted owls may be keeping quiet so as not to reveal their whereabouts to newly invading predators -- and that may be leading timber companies to erroneously conclude that the protected birds are absent from places where they actually still live.

What is causing the dramatic decline of the lesser spotted woodpecker, Dendrocopos minor, and other woodland birds in Great Britain? In the past 30 years, the lesser spotted woodpecker has declined by 80%, alarming observers. In fact, all woodland birds are rapidly becoming scarse. Possible causes include a population explosion of introduced species or removal of too many dead trees, which woodpeckers rely on for insect larvae. These stories reveal the complexities of ecosystem mangement.


Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus. [Reuters Photo]

Many places in India are also experiencing loss of birds and other rare animals as valuable habitat is destroyed. This story, Distress calls, sadly observes; it is almost like a big farce that each one of us is pulling on the other. We have not realised that the joke's on us, each one of us, on our water, our air, our forests, our wildlife; the very systems without which we would not be. [...] What's happened in Sariska is only a blip on the radar, more like a bad dream. It is merely a symptom of a malaise that runs deep.

People Helping Birds:

Can bird watchers make significant contributions to the science of ornithology? This opinion piece describes how birders are helping to preserve bird populations while contributing new information about birds to science.

One example of "citizen science" in action is this story, which shows that windows take a toll on bird populations. This story not only describes the observed problem and the studies that provided the data that further define the problem, but it also proposes solutions to reduce or stop mortalities from birds flying into windows.

This short story tells the story of recovery for Comanche, a badly injured eagle in West Virginia.

After discovering 178 migratory birds that died from avian influenza, China began vaccinating three million migratory birds against bird flu in the province of Qinghai on Monday. Migratory birds, especially waterfowl, have been widely blamed for the spread of avian influenza throughout Asia. However, there is "no ultimate proof" that the bird flu is spread by migratory birds, says the head of the Chinese Ornithology Society, Song Jie. I agree: officials throughout Asia should closely examine their poultry handling practices, including ranching, marketing, and slaughter, and they also need to stop cockfighting, which is the probably the primary culprit for distributing bird flu far and wide.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker News:

Another member of the ivory-billed woodpecker search team, Mindy LaBranche, tells the story of her sighting of the elusive bird as it flew past her one rainy day.

Why has the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, so electified the public? This interview with Phillip Hoose, author of the book, The Race to Find the Lord God Bird, might provide some insight. This article describes the history of the ivory-billed woodpecker's decline in the southern USA. But perhaps one reader captured the public's response best in his letter to the editor of The Advocate; "The ivory bill is a precious, tenuous link to our real Southern heritage. We have a rare, tangible chance to go back in time and save something we thought was lost, but now, amazingly, is found."

People Hurting Birds:

In a shocking display of human cruelty, a pair of introduced mute swans, Cygnus olor, were beaten, stabbed and then killed in a NYC park while they apparently tried to defend their nest. The birds' bodies were discovered near their eggs, which were taken to an emergency animal shelter and incubated. Surprisingly, this small act of kindness has paid off nicely because the eggs are hatching.

Officials on the Caribbean island country of Trinidad and Tobago confiscated thousands of birds and other animals from a couple who ran an illegal wildlife smuggling and distribution op
eration. The couple sold these protected and endangered animals to pet stores throughout nearby Venezuela.

A Chinese-registered logging vessel was found to be smuggling endangered parrots from the Solomon Islands, according to this story.

Birds Hurting People:

This is a humorous update on Houston's great tailed grackles, Quiscalus mexicanus, that are hammering passersby on the head.

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Haiku Happiness

May 25 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Okay, I am feeling happier by the minute because I am almost done grading final exams! To reward myself for my hard work, I decided to borrow an idea from Dharma Bums, who are some of the bestest peeps on earth, peeps whom I would hang out with on a regular basis if they only lived 3,000 miles closer to me (or I, to them).

In this blog entry, Rexroth's Daughter reminded me of how much I love Haiku, and I think that all of you should love them, too. So in an effort to spread Haiku happiness, I am going to ask you all to respond to this blog entry with a Haiku. To get the ball rolling and to show you that I am not afraid to look silly in public, I'll share this (not very good, but fun to write) Haiku that I quickly scribbled in their comments section;

fierce living jewel
hummingbird hovering over
my open hand

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I'm Baaaack!

May 25 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Okay, I am finally here after a harrowing three days. My illness, which never really was resolved, became worse during the past three days. Coincidentally, I was writing my Anatomy & Physiology students' final exam during the past three days, too. Last night was the final exam. The most I will say (for now) about the entire experience is that

it is over!!

Well, almost!

A Seattle pal of mine sent a cartoon that I know you all will chuckle over. Keep in mind that I am a bird lover (okay, I am an ornithologist) and an evolutionary biologist, so I think this cartoon is brilliant. While you enjoy that, I will get a latte to sip while I compute final lab grades for my biochemistry class (I co-taught that one), grade my students' A&P final exams, compute final scores and turn them all in to the registrar (I have 48 hours to get this done).

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Linked from Working for Change.

6 responses so far

Misperceptions

May 22 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

A couple days ago, I said I would tell you about my most recent job interview that occurred last Thursday. I am writing this story mainly because it illuminates so many things, and also because it is the most positive experience I've had so far interviewing for an academic position. It also is a rather peculiar story, or so I think. The short story is that the interview went well -- to my great surprise -- and I also learned a lot, especially about Sweatshop U.

In response to my "shotgun" job application methodology that I am now thinking of patenting, I had been contacted by this particular school a little more than two weeks ago regarding an interview. The Chair of the Biology Department called and spent a fair amount of time asking questions that vaguely annoyed me such as "you've certainly worked a lot of different jobs, haven't you?" and "why doesn't your current employer keep you?" and "I don't understand why no one has hired you yet."

By the time that first conversation ended, I was tense and cranky. And I was still sick, too. In fact, the day before my scheduled interview with this school, I was still quite ill so I cancelled it because the two-hour each way commute was so daunting. But more than that, I didn't want to interview there because I could not imagine trying to rebuild my shaky self-esteem while working under a Department Chair who was so unaware of the current job market. I did not ask to reschedule the interview for a later date.

I hoped that my interview cancellation would make this school go away. But it seemed to increase their resolve: the Department Chair pursued me relentlessly, calling several times per week, first to reschedule our interview and then to ask more questions. After the fourth phone call, I was convinced that she was accusing me of some sort of misrepresentation when she asked for yet another explanation for my "unusual" work history -- a history that I thought attested to my resourcefulness and determination to remain in science despite all the hardships I'd faced. I felt a particularly uncomfortable jab of pain behind my eyes when she suggested that a car would make commuting easier. I was certain that she was misrepresenting the situation, as Sweatshop U had done, when she claimed that working for her school would be a great opportunity. In short, I dreaded the interview. Finally, she contacted my postdoc advisor and asked him the same series of questions that she had subjected me to.

Meanwhile, even though I was still sick, I was interviewing with other, much closer, schools, scrambling to locate that elusive summer job that might pay my rent through the beginning of autumn semester, when I had two Adjunct job offers, both of which I intended to accept. Even though I was so ill, I felt I had to interview because, according to my fellow Adjuncts, summer positions are very difficult to get, even for returning summer Adjuncts. Because of this scarcity of summer jobs and the likelihood that I would not be hired, I also planned to apply for welfare and food stamps to help pay some of my bills after my Unemployment Benefits ended this summer.

The evening before this interview was to take place, I casually mentioned it to my fellow Adjuncts. A silence suddenly fell over the room. I looked up from the stack of papers that I was grading and saw them all staring at me.

"Wow, that's really impressive," the retired government microbiologist said finally. "They're a very good school."

Surprised, I told them the remainder of the story and concluded by saying that I didn't want that job because the commute was too long, the Department Chair was out of touch with the realities of the job market, I thought she lacked tact and I was tired of trying to explain my work record to her.

"Hey, they don't pursue anyone -- they don't have to pursue anyone, especially for an Adjunct position -- and they are pursuing you," commented another of my fellow Adjuncts. "You should take this interview very seriously."

My fellow Adjuncts have never steered me wrong so, despite my misgivings about the situation, I followed their advice: I took the interview seriously. I prepared for the interview for the remainder of the evening, hoping that my efforts would be good enough despite my late start.

The next day, I wore the best outfit I own, a silver-grey silk suit with thin white pinstripes and a white-on-white striped blouse. I had saved my money for months and purchased this suit almost one year ago (at a substantial discount), in the hopes that I would soon be using it for interviewing. This was the last piece of clothing I bought before my funding ended and this was the first time I've worn it. I looked great, even if I must say so myself.

The next morning, I sat on a speeding subway train, clutching my black TravelPro briefcase in my hand while reading and rereading the meticulous notes I had made the previous evening about each faculty member's interests and research. Occasionally, I looked at my reflection in the subway windows, readjusting the collar of my blouse ... should I wear it outside or inside of my suit collar? I couldn't remember which way was proper. I tried not to be nervous and even though I never truly get lost, I suddenly had visions of my fellow Adjuncts sending out a search party a week later to find me, lost and hungry, brambles tangled in my hair, somewhere in the wilds of NYC.

Despite my misgivings, I made it to campus without a problem. Because I typically budget "getting lost time" into my travel plans, I arrived early, in fact. Sipping on a latte (thanks, James!), I wandered the halls of the Science Building, admiring display cases full of rocks from all over the world and dozens of topological maps of the area, each stretching fifty feet down the hallways. Judging from the science building alone, this was the best school I've interviewed with.

I arrived 20 minutes early in the Biology Office, where the secretary was in a heated telephone conversation with a woman who was demanding that her daughter be registered for a summer biology course that was closed. At some point in the conversation, the caller revealed that she was a state judge.

"That doesn't change the fact that the course is closed!" The secretary stated flatly in her Long Island (Lon-Goy-Lan?) accent. I liked the secretary immediately.

The Department Chair appeared and invited me into her spacious office.

"I spoke with your Postdoctoral Advisor and he had a lot of good things to say about you," she said as soon as I had sat down. I was pleasantly surprised and relaxed a little bit. The conversation evolved from there. In fact, we talked about science for two and a half hours. It was fun and interesting and I was pleased to discover that the Department Chair was a woman whom I could easily respect and admire and with whom I would happily learn from and work under. Honestly, I was astonished to realize that I had misjudged her so badly -- I have never misjudged anyone so erroneously before. And to think that I almost blew off this interview as a result! I am still puzzled by this egregious error, and the only explanation I can arrive at is the combination of my long illness with a telephone interview (I hate telephones) seriously impaired my judgment.

"We want to hire you," the Department Chair said soon after I went into her office and she repeated this several times during the interview. Much to my intense relief, I was offered a year long Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biology position so I will not have to constantly look for work for the following semesters.

The Department Chair informed me that they are opening up a search for a tenure-track position in evolutionary biology and she wants me to apply for it. Since there are only two or three tenure-track positions available in this field each year, I think it is very unlikely that I will get it, b
ut her confidence that I could get it was inspiring and exhilarating.

She then advised me to develop collaborations with the faculty so I could get my name on a few more papers. This astonished me because Adjuncts are never provided such opportunities, according to my sources and experiences. She also told me about a "teaching postdoc" that she wants me to apply for because she wants me to stay there (in the event that I am not hired for their tenure-track position? She never stated that, but I assume so). This postdoc provides two years of funding, one year for research and the other year for teaching. This truly is a great opportunity because they are obviously willing to invest time and resources into helping me develop my career further. I fell silent, too overwhelmed to speak.

It all sounded too good to be true, but she seems to be a person who would not misrepresent the situation nor her intentions. Perhaps to help build my trust or maybe to reassure me that she was sincere, the Department Chair showed me the current wage scale and stated that my wages at Sweatshop U are $10.79 below union minimum for an Adjunct with a PhD, that I was in fact being paid the union minimum for an instructor with a Bachelor's degree. She was very concerned that I should claim my lost wages by filing a grievance with the union. Of course, I would be insane not to pursue this: this sum of lost wages is sufficient to pay my rent for two months!!

I was quiet because I was stunned by everything, especially by this last revelation. I didn't bother mentioning that I had told Sweatshop U's Science Department Chair that I was barely scraping by on unemployment when he hired me, that despite knowing this, he turned in my paperwork so late that I went six weeks without any income at all, and ended up paying rent with my credit card and mooching food and metrocards from friends so I could get to work. Adding this insult to that very real financial injury made my blood run cold. I realized that Sweatshop U's Chair is probably as untrustworthy and unethical in all his endeavors, especially in his science, as he was when dealing with me when I was so vulnerable.

Later that same day, I went to Sweatshop U to pick up some papers that describe the desired format for the final exam, and I saw the Department Chair. He pretended not to notice me even though I could see surprise in his eyes (surprise that I was dressed so well? That I was there on a vacation day?).

"Hello," I smiled quietly at him, cheerfully imagining that he had been discredited as a scientist and spends his nights sleeping on a park bench. His dark bushy eyebrows gathered together into a giant furry unibrow as he ignored me and walked away without even a backward glance.

21 responses so far

Eight Reasons Why We Watch Birds

May 21 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I am not feeling well today (still) so I am still writing my interview story for you. Because I want to give you something to read and because I conveniently found this essay several days ago, I am republishing it here for your reading pleasure. I particularly relate to point number eight, especially after surviving the past eight months.

Eight Reasons Why We Watch Birds

1. It sharpens your sight. Before you know it, you learn to see the ruby-crowned kinglet, to identify the ever-so-slight upswing in the bill of the greater yellowlegs, and to spot the half-inch wide band on the breast of the bank swallow as he twirls past you at 40 miles per hour.

2. It encourages you to explore the world. You ride out on chartered fishing boats with fishermen who are wondering why anyone would spend 30 bucks not to fish but to look for something called "shearwaters," which, when finally found after nine solid hours of looking, turn out to be only some long-winged dark birds that skim across the waves and disappear in a minute.

3. It gives you something to write about: "Dear Mom, How are you? It snowed here the other day, but we still have two kingfishers down on the pond. Against the white they seem especially beautiful..."

4. It makes you an authority in the neighborhood. People you have never met will bring you robins and orioles their cat caught and ask, "What's the wingspan of an eagle?"

5. It helps you to treasure a moment -- that June evening, for example, when you find on the branch of a fallen tree, his plumage dark and golden, one eye closed and one eye watching you back, your first Chuck-will's-widow.

6. It provides you with opportunities to meet someone like my friend John Henry Hintermister -- who keeps his life list locked in a steel box in case of fire; who every spring, in the second week of March, hikes the route Frank M. Chapman hiked in 1890 in search of the now-possibly extinct Bachman's warbler. He comes home exhausted, ticks in his hair, and says, "I'm only going to chase that !#@& bird for 15 more years. If I don't see one by then, I'll give it up."

7. It will make you politically active. You will write intricately argued, adrenalin-fueled letters to your congressman demanding that something be done so people will stop littering, riding jeeps on beaches, throwing rocks at gulls, building condominiums, driving airboats in the Everglades, spraying insecticides, and sawing down trees.

8. Finally, it can save your life. One day you will be walking home from work, depressed. Your kid has the flu; the car's clutch needs to be fixed; and you are thinking tomorrow is your birthday. Another year has passed, and once again you have not triumphed at anything, really. Then you glance at the sky in despair, and right there, right over your head, blessing that particular air space on your street forever, is the world's most beautiful bird! With pearly white head, black and white wings, long forked tail, it circles slowly, a hundred feet up, eating dragonflies, tearing off the wings and letting them flutter down -- while you toss your briefcase in a bush, grab the first person to come along, and shout, "A swallow-tailed kite! A swallow-tailed kite!" until he, too, looks up and blinks at the sight and knows suddenly that he must buy some binoculars and become a bird watcher himself.

-- Jack Conner, Eight Reasons Why We Bird, Bird Watcher's Digest, July/August 1984.

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