Archive for: August, 2005

Birds in the News #24

Aug 26 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Spix's Macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii,
painting by artist Elizabeth Butterworth (2000).

Birds New to Science:

Have you ever seen a bird that was not listed in your bird field guide? Sometimes, ornithologists do, too. Two new bird species have been described from the Cordillera Central mountains of Colombia, both of them are tapaculos in the genus Scytalopus. The first observation, published in The Auk (122:445–463), is a bird that was christened, Stiles’s Tapaculo, Scytalopus stilesi. The second new species that was identified is the Upper Magdalena Tapaculo, S. rodriguezi. "It was frustrating, waiting for years knowing there were new species to be discovered and protected", says Paul Salaman of Fundación ProAves, one of the expedition members who describes the Upper Magdalena Tapaculo in the Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club (125:93–108). Some taxonomists regard Scytalopus tapaculos as the most complicated of all Neotropical genera. Voice is the most important aid to their identification, and study of birds in the northern Andes has already led to the description of three new species, and the elevation of several former subspecies to specific level in Ecuador.

People Helping Birds:

American Bird Conservancy and the Colombian conservation group, Fundación ProAves, announced the establishment of the first South American reserve for a songbird that breeds exclusively in North America, the Cerulean Wood-Warbler, Dendroica cerulea, a striking bright blue and white migratory bird that has experienced significant population decreases in recent years, mainly due to loss of habitat on both its nesting grounds in North America and wintering grounds in South America. "This Cerulean Warbler reserve is a ground-breaking step in the conservation of migratory song birds" said Mike Parr, Vice President for Communications at American Bird Conservancy. The new reserve also contains three Critically Endangered bird species along with many other threatened and endemic birds. (click here to see gorgeous images of the Cerulean Warbler and click here to see a map of the Cerulean Warbler's winter, migration, and breeding ranges, together with the location of the new reserve.)

In a rare good news story for Iraq, Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said their latest satellite imagery showed the ancient Iraqi marshlands drained by Saddam Hussein as punishment against their occupants are back to almost 40 percent of their former level. These marshlands are important refueling sites for migratory birds. "The near total destruction of the Iraqi marshlands under the regime of Saddam Hussein was a major ecological and human disaster, robbing the Marsh Arabs of a centuries-old culture and way of life as well as food in the form of fish and that most crucial of natural resources, drinking water," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director. National Public Radio story and podcast.

The only known Spix’s Macaw, Cyanopsitta spixii (Critically Endangered), in the United States was returned to a zoo in Brazil, where it will be transferred to the Spix’s Macaw captive breeding programme in Recipe. The male bird, known as 'Presley', was illegally smuggled into the US at least 25 years ago and kept as a household pet in Colorado. Despite his age it is hoped that it still might be possible to pair Presley with a receptive female. The last remaining wild Spix's Macaw has not been seen since 2001 and is thought to have perished. [Spix's Macaw is pictured at top.]

Ivory-billed Woodpecker News:

After analyzing more than 18,000 hours of recordings from the swampy forests of eastern Arkansas, researchers at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University have released audio recordings offering further evidence -- including the legendary bird's distinctive double knock -- for the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, once thought extinct. These sounds were recorded in the same area of Arkansas where the species was rediscovered in 2004. National Public Radio story and podcast.

Birds in the Media:

Featured this week on BirdNote are the Clark's nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana; the comeback of the purple martin, Progne subis; the chorus line of the Bonaparte's gull, Larus philadelphia; Birdwatching 102 -- what do you look for?; and woodpeckers love ants. BirdNote shows are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds with stories that illustrate the interesting — and in some cases, truly amazing — abilities of birds. BirdNote can be heard Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM, throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia and is also available as RSS/Podcast feeds.

Is March of the Penguins too lovey-dovey to be true? Some scientists are criticizing the surprising hit movie March of the Penguins for portraying the Antarctic seabirds almost as tiny, two-toned humans. The poster for the surprise hit film reads, "In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way." And the movie describes the annual journey of emperor penguins, Aptenodytes forsteri, to their breeding grounds as a "quest to find the perfect mate and start a family" against impossible odds. But is this love? "In a way, the film anthropomorphized the lives of the penguins, but I think it's OK," says marine biologist Gerald Kooyman, who studies penguins at Antarctica's "Penguin Ranch". "Simplifying some aspects of the penguins' life story makes it more accessible to the general public." GrrlScientist wonders: What is love?

Avian Zoonotics News:

The United Nations agency said a donation by Swiss drug maker Roche of enough of its Tamiflu antiviral to treat 3 million people could slow the spread of the outbreak among humans, especially in countries too poor to afford their own stockpile.

With all the international worry about the projected mortaility for humans, what about bird mortality? The very informative BirdLife Avian Influenza Position Statement is based on the best information available about birds and Avian Influenza as of 25 August 2005.

With more than a half million acres of lus
h rice fields in Northern California, rice farmers and the California Rice Commission began preparing several years ago for the arrival of West Nile virus. Historically, sections of the Sacramento Valley have been covered with wetlands and marshes -- the perfect habitat for mosquitos. Records of the insect's abundance in the Valley go back to the Gold Rush era. Of concern now, however, is the introduction of a new pathogen to humans, horses and birds that is transmitted by feeding mosquitoes.

This interesting story discusses the relationship between West Nile virus and its mosquito vectors (free registration required). It also includes contact information for reporting dead birds in California and prevention tips. If you are interested to monitor the latest news about West Nile virus activity in the state of California, bookmark this webpage provided by the State of California. It is updated every Friday.


Imagine this; it is the early 1940s, America is involved in World War II, and you wish to hide hide fossilized dinosaur tracks -- how would you do it? Well, you could hide it in plain sight by putting plaster around the sides of the fossil footprints, painting the whole thing a whimsical muddy red, take it to Brooklyn College in New York and bolt it to a classroom wall with an unadorned case, where they were recently discovered. This was the choice of Roland T. Bird, a Harley-riding excavator who dropped out of junior high school and worked as a cowboy before barnstorming the country on his motorcycle showing archaeological finds for the American Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, because Mr. Bird died a long time ago, no one knows where the tracks came from, nor why they were hidden at Brooklyn College.

Avian Miscellany:

The Aquatic Warbler, Acrocephalus paludicola, is the rarest songbird in mainland Europe. Its numbers declined by 95 percent during the 20th century because its marsh and wetlands habitats were drained for agriculture. But this rarity is not for lack of effort on the warbler's part. Over the last fifteen years, researchers investigating the sex life of this small, retiring brown bird have uncovered a pattern of promiscuous behaviour, with male birds "continuously ready to mate and testing every female for her willingness to copulate". Almost two-thirds of all broods of young Aquatic Warblers have more than one father.

Climate change is being blamed for alterations in the number and distribution of birds in Britain, and more changes are expected, according to a report published a week ago, Friday. Milder winters have pushed bird populations eastward and could result in new bird species being found in Britain, The State of UK Birds 2004 report found. "It is now clear that we must adapt the recovery plans for our threatened bird life to take account of the likely effects of climate change on our rural and coastal landscapes," said Phil Grice of the English Nature group, which contributed to the report.

Many thanks to my bird pals, Ron, Ian, and Ellen for some of the links you are enjoying here. Thanks to Ian for corrections to this document.

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Academic Job News: Finally! I learned that my position is formally known as a "Substitute Assistant Professor". It is full-time but temporary, and is renewed on a semester-by-semester basis for a total of four semesters. I presumably have a job for two semesters. This position does not support any research activities, nor does it provide medical/dental insurance, sick leave, vacation pay, and it does not make payments into Unemployment Insurance benefits, which means that the next time I end up unemployed (think; Christmas "vacation", etc.), I could be on welfare (provided of course, that I qualify for it). Additionally, the department chair doubts that I will be interviewed for the evolutionary biology position that they are seeking to fill next spring. Needless to say, that very same night, I suffered a panic attack while I was asleep. It was my first, and hopefully, my last.

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Interesting Comments Regarding the IBWO

Aug 25 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

This message was posted to the Birdwatching list, BirdChat. I think it makes several interesting points that might interest my readers, although I would have written it in a milder tone. His letter appears here in its entirety, with his permission. My comments and edits appear in brackets. I also provide a link to a dissenting opinion at the end.

Bob and all,

I have to say, that I'm amazed as well, NOT by the people reporting these birds but by the people still doubting they could be anything but true. I understand that some in the academic/scientific community want to disprove it, because some of these individuals have been so adament over the years stating very surely that the bird is extinct. In fact the loud public ridicule by some in this community has indeed destroyed careers, and public standing for those brave enough to suggest they have seen these birds. For individuals guilty of this, I somewhat understand the reluctance to flip/flop, it would be horribly embarrassing. In fact this sentiment became so rampant that some in the professional scientific community didn't dare follow up on some decent sounding reports in past years (and there have been many) for fear that they too would be destroyed professionally and viewed as a ghost hunter.

It is this mentality, driven by a fear of being labelled, that has so many people in sheer disbelief today because so many icons, people we trusted explicitly, told us with such certainty that this bird wasn't possibly still in existence. As such, many of us have been brain washed and we just can't admit it can be true. How could so many be so wrong, how could these birds have been missed?

We'll get to that later though, but first let [me] address the ridiculous questions of field marks and really analyze the situation. First off, I'd like to address a quote in Tim Gallagher's, Grail Bird (a great read by the way, I highly recommend it) in his recounting of Nancy Tanner's commentary, it was interesting to note that she says it was the eye that stood out to her, not so much the bill. Surely few (no?!?) people living at the time of Tim's writing of this book had more experience with living Ivory-billed [woodpecker]s than she as she tripped through the Singer tract with her husband, Jim [Tanner, an IBWO expert, now deceased]. Thinking about that, I actually have seen similar things with Yellow-billed Loons, a bird with far more color in its bill than an Ivory-billed should show. Indeed at times when viewing Yellow-billed Loons the bird's signature mark is almost invisible. It certainly doesn't stand out. So at any rate, I'm not personally troubled by the white bill not being visible.

Regarding the other lack of field marks noted on these sightings, if you are any sort of birder and not simply someone who reads about birds on a computer, then you must realize that there are many aspects of bird ID beyond simple "field marks". In many cases, there are birds that are superficially similar in markings but don't look anything like one another when seen in life. Take for example an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk and an immature Northern Goshawk; the two are very similarly marked and if you saw one vs. the other with no experience of either, the ID is difficult. Often I've seen people try to turn a young sharpie into a Gos, but when a large stocky Gos finally shoots by, these people "know" instantly they have seen an enormous bird fly by and never consider Sharp-shinned as a possibility.

Similarly, I remember in my early years of birding scanning meticulously through winter flocks of Cedar Waxwings in upstate NY, looking for the tell tale red undertail coverts that would cinch my first Bohemian Waxwing sighting. Then after two years of searching I saw my first Bohemian and wanted to kick myself in the head for wasting so much time! I spotted it with my naked eye, driving at 70 mph down a highway. I pulled off to glass and sure enough this behemoth dark bird that looked closer to a starling in this flock of Cedar [waxwing]s was as obvious as anything had ever been. Sure, in the [field guide], they are marked very similarly, and they are only an inch or less apart in length, but in life the two are so different that when together there is no mistaking them, regardless of field marks.

Want another example? ... struggle with a yellowlegs for hours, "Lesser or Greater [yellowlegs]? hmmmm!!!" (C'mon, you know you've done it!) Then you find a mixed flock .... oh man, the two birds are so different! It is SO obvious!

Now take that lesson and apply it to the current situation. Here you have trained, professional biologists spending weeks at a time surrounded by Pileated Woodpeckers that they are intently studying to ensure that they aren't missing their quarry. If you actually look at the details of the reports, most observers "knew" they were seeing something different in their gut before noting a single mark. We are talking about an extremely different bird here. Sure, they are marked similarly, but an Ivory-billed [woodpecker] absolutely dwarfs a Pileated [woodpecker] in mass, it's a much bulkier bird, with a different wingshape, it is said to have an entirely different flight style, and a different silhouette and shape.

If these were amateurs, backyard birders at a feeder, not [scientists who are] infinitely familiar with Pileated Woodpeckers, then I'd agree with the skepticism. But the fact is that these are trained professional observers, many are career researchers and scientists with hard earned reputations with families and no other career to fall back on. These folks have nothing to gain and everything to lose by admitting to seeing one of these mythical creatures. I guarantee you, none of these folks are going to go off on a whim and risk their very careers, their reputations, and the livelihoods that their families depend on. Especially, not in a very skeptical community! They wouldn't admit they had seen something without being 100% sure (they have far more to lose than any one of us). I'd bet my very existence on it. I think the arm chair quarterbacks of the [birding] community need to think more about all of this before spouting jibberish about reflections or an abarrent Pileated. To these folks, those other field characters (not [just] the field marks) will scream out, "I am NO PILEATED!"

I would bet that everyone in that swamp has looked harder at Pileated Woodpeckers than nearly any one of us on this list and moreover, have seen more of these birds in a week (perhaps in a day) than others reading have in a lifetime of birding. I'd bet they could go into lengths about features, behaviors, and flight characteristics that most of us have never even dreamed of considering. The reason, a Pileated [woodpecker] ID is a slam dunk, nothing like it (or so we have been led to believe). We really never had to consider these features as ID characters, because our mentors have told us our entire birding careers that Ivory-billed [woodpecker]s were gone, right?

Now to the argument, why hasn't anyone seen one? Well, it's not true. Many have been seen, but a vicious community virtually ate up and spit out every "FOOL" brazen enough to admit they had seen one and the rumors were quickly snuffed (and likely, many others were never reported).

In the scientific community, where absolutes are the rule (always dangerous when dealing with a living system, too easy to wind up with egg on your face!), lack of concrete proof has to be considered as hypothetical or undocumented, I fully understand and agree with this. However, in the case of the Ivory-billed [woodpecker], something else happened... something very unscientific. It was a human condition, driven by ego, cruelty, whatever.... [where] the unconfirmed [report] became untrue or a lie, it became a laughing matter, a point of ridicule and disdain. This is not a part of the scientific process, this is an unfortunate side of human nature, fed by fear and insecurity.

Indeed, the long string of reports over the past 4 decades or so were summarily dismissed for the most part. I won't speak for all, but I'm a bit mad about this. I wish just once in my twenty years of birding I'd run into a few people who had said, ".. they're out there, there have been reports, but so few go looking!" In my twenties when I was a crazed field biologist, "bins for hire", I wish someone would have come and asked me, "You want to spend months traipsing through southern swamps looking for Ivory-billeds?" I would have jumped at an adventure like that, but unfortunately in my decade and half of doing that sort of thing, no one dared speak of such craziness! It was absurd, insane even.

I'm also mad that I bought into the hype, and never even considered trying to look because I was led to believe there was no hope! It was pointless, right? I feel like I was deprived of that opportunity. So many were so sure, the many I believed and trusted. Remember the days when the world was believed [to be] flat?

Why weren't they seen? Lack of effort, for one [reason]. How many of us can actually say that we've ever even tried reaching the depths of a primeval swamp, filled with poisonous snakes, mosquitos, where you have to canoe and then portage through waist deep mud. If this has been the Ivory-billed's sanctuary over the past decades, I don't find it surprising at all it hasn't been documented. Without a boardwalk, I think it is safe to assume most birders would [never] attempt this (especially if you believed the "Lord of God bird" was [extinct]). Without that allure, as one interested in seeing birds, a swamp is a spot with very limited bird diversity, and all of the few species within (except maybe one) are easily seen at the edges of this habitat and in a wide variety of other habitats. Generally speaking, bird diversity in a deep swamp or forest gets less interesting the further into the depths you go. There is more activity along the edges, more exciting to bird.

At any rate, I am convinced that in time, more proof will come and then the only ones doubting will be those who are convinced that the whole thing is a giant hoax, a conspiracy maybe. Given human nature, I'm also certain that these "hold outs" will be viewed as lunatics and become the center of ridicule themselves. I do hope though that once all are satisfied, that we learn from our mistakes and learn that maybe, just maybe unconfirmed does not always mean "crazy", "liar", or "even incorrect." That is not supposed to be the way it works (as I understand it) in the scientific process, it is only unconfirmed, inconclusive, or hypothetical. [italics mine]

Good birding,

Jeff Bouton
Port Charlotte, FL

However, here is a dissenting opinion.

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There's A New Webbed Science Publication Out There

Aug 24 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday, I learned that there is a new science publication on the web when, out of the blue, the editor for Science Creative Quarterly, David Ng, contacted me, asking permission to republish my essay, "The Greatest of These .. "

The Science Creative Quarterly is a project that explores multiple science writing styles. It is currently being supported by the University of British Columbia and is produced by Dr. Ng (a molecular biologist, who does some writing on the side), a few of his colleagues (generally with various science backgrounds) and some very enthusiastic science journalism and creative writing students. Many of their contributors also write for McSweeney's Internet Tendency (including Ng; see 1, 2, and 3). Its main goal is to engage the general public in the sciences.

Because I am an incurable editor and essay tinkerer, I usually decline to allow the text of an essay to escape my control, unless I am being paid for it, of course. However, this publication looks really good, it is also available as a downloadable PDF and, according to Ng, its promotional site, BioTeach, receives approximately 60,000 unique IPs hits per month. So I went back to edit and polish my essay so I might not embarass myself too badly by being included there, particularly because I don't think that essay is especially "scientific".

They also asked for a "blurb" about me to include with my essay. I couldn't resist temptation, so I wrote this for them;

    GrrlScientist is an ornithologist, evolutionary biologist and freelance science writer who somehow scrapes by in New York City, along with her companion parrots. Her wide variety of skills and abilities have uniquely qualified her to be the world's first scientist who is unemployable in any capacity whatsoever. Her writing has appeared in a variety of obscure publications, often without monetary compensation. GrrlScientist will reveal her real-life name in exchange for a reasonable job offer.

Additionally, if you are a writer who is seeking a wider audience for your work, Science Creative Quarterly might be able to help you. Currently, the Science Creative Quarterly is having a fiction writing contest (using evolution as a theme) and the prize is a copy of Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (I'd sure like to own a copy of that book!). More details are available on their main page.

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The Greatest of These ..

Aug 23 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

This previous Saturday, I received a telephone call from a woman, MaryAnne (not her real name), who lives in Greenwich Village and whose pet parrots I care for. After I answered her call, she paused for a long moment and then, very unexpectedly, she offered to give me her pet African grey parrot. I was stunned.

Nearly all of my life, I have wanted a so-called "Congo" African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus erithacus, but I never got one for a variety of reasons ("my life is not stable enough" or "I can't afford one" were my typical reasons). But really, I am a "lory person": intelligent, energetic, intense, and .. er, eccentric. I was afraid that any grey parrot I lived with would be utterly miserable, and the bird would then punish me for being myself by becoming a terrible feather plucker. Somewhere along the way, I simply accepted that my life would never be "good enough" to share with one of these birds, so I instead became resigned to caring for other people's pet grey parrots.

But then I met Charlie. He is unlike any grey parrot I've met before because he is so openly affectionate. But perhaps his sweetness is a reflection of his youth? He is, after all, only a fledgling parrot, merely five months old, as MaryAnne tells me. She purchased him from a pet store in New York City and, as everyone knows, a pet store is hardly the best place to meet the emotional needs of a young parrot.

Charlie lived with MaryAnne for approximately one month when I met him. When I first saw him, I noticed that he had been quite busy plucking his feathers from his back, neck and wings, leaving his breast mostly feathered. He was downy (or bare) everywhere else, except for his few remaining wing and tail feathers, which were heavily chewed and damaged. MaryAnne said that he was fully feathered when she brought him home, but that obviously didn't last long. What happened?

Parrots begin plucking and chewing their feathers for a variety of reasons, including fear, anxiety, sexual frustration, illness or pain, or a combination of these. Since the bird had already visited the vet several times in the previous month for his feather picking habit and had been pronounced to be in excellent health, his plucking and chewing were probably triggered by some combination of emotional factors. But, as with all behavioral problems, feather picking and chewing must be resolved quickly before it becomes a life long habit; stubbornly persisting after the original triggers for the behavior are long gone and forgotten.

Perhaps the source of this bird's unhappiness was MaryAnne's other pets; one dog, two cats and two other parrots. After caring for her pets, I thought that MaryAnne's three-year-old Ducorps cockatoo, Cacatua ducorpsii, Sammy (not his real name), was certainly part of the problem because of his annoyingly frequent habit of screaming obscenities that he learned from MaryAnne. Or perhaps it was the environment -- a studio apartment -- that they all were living in. Or perhaps, as MaryAnne told me sadly, the source of his unhappiness was MaryAnne herself.

When she admitted this to me, I felt sorrow .. for her. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you cannot meet the needs of those you love, and it takes even more courage than that to say it aloud to a person whom you barely know.

Despite the cramped and emotionally charged environment that these animals live in, I want to make it clear, dear readers, that none of MaryAnne's pets showed any signs of being physically neglected or abused. In fact, all of her pets were healthy, gentle and affectionate. She clearly loves her animals, but had reached a point in her life, for whatever reasons, where she couldn't live with all of them and they responded by driving her and each other crazy.

So it was obvious that this newest addition to the family was deeply unhappy, but despite his melancholy, he somehow still retained a basic optimism and emotional honesty that only the young seem to manage. I think this is what I sensed and was attracted to when we first saw each other. Even though I have lived with birds for most of my life, I've never lived with a feather plucking or chewing bird and I have never wished to do so, even rejecting other offers of free birds (that pluck their feathers) because I have seen the anguish it causes in those who live with such birds. But, surprisingly, despite Charlie's fluffy semi-plucked self and my bias against that, I felt an instant emotional connection with this particular parrot, and he with me. It was like magic.

So needless to say, since I had been acquainted with Charlie in a caretaker role and I was well aware of his fondness for me (but never wanted to encourage it), when MaryAnne asked me if I would consider giving Charlie a permanent home, I immediately accepted.

I am renaming Charlie, too. MaryAnne says this is fine with her, that he is an exceptional parrot, and I agree (although I think that all parrots -- all birds, really -- are exceptional), so I am trying to think of an exceptional name that will fit him. [So far, the names I have thought of are; Gandalf (even though I love this name, it is a really common name for a grey parrot, which makes me want to avoid it), Tesla, or Bix or ... ?]

I think this event revealed that MaryAnne is an exceptional person. She loves her pets as her family, and yet, she is willing to part with them if this is, as she said, "the best thing for them". She could have sold this parrot (and probably should have, these are very expensive birds, after all) but instead, she chose me specifically to give this parrot to, knowing that he and I share a special bond, wishing only that I keep him and love him and help him solve his problems, that I purchase him a nice cage to live in, and that I invite her to my apartment every now and again to visit him.

What she doesn't know is that she gave me something that I had allowed to die, that I never thought I deserved to have; hope. Her gift of this precious bird gave me a glimmer of hope that my own life might improve also, and that my life does have a purpose even if it has been hidden from me for more than a year, that I need to be needed and this little bird definitely needs me right now. And that gives me great joy.

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Included in the Blog Carnival, I and the Bird, Issue #6,
the Best of Bird-related Blog Writing.

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Harry Potter and the Recessive Allele

Aug 22 2005 Published by under Uncategorized


Nature 436, 776 (11 August 2005) | doi: 10.1038/436776a

Harry Potter and the recessive allele

Jeffrey M. Craig1,3, Renee Dow2 and MaryAnne Aitken2,3

    1. Chromosome Research, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Royal Childrens Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia

    2. Genetics Education, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Royal Childrens Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia

    3. Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne, Royal Childrens Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia


We are bombarded with news of genetic discoveries on an almost daily basis, but people without a formal knowledge of heredity and genetics can have difficulty in deciphering and applying this information. Education and debate across all ages would undoubtedly help, but how can we teach children these concepts?

We believe that successful lessons for younger children can be achieved using analogies of direct interest and relevance. Most children are familiar with J. K. Rowling's stories about the young wizard Harry Potter (whose latest exploit, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was published by Bloomsbury in July). They are set in a world like our own, but populated by a minority of people with supernatural powers (wizards and witches) and a majority of people without (muggles).

Wizards or witches can be of any race, and may be the offspring of a wizard and a witch, the offspring of two muggles ('muggle-born'), or of mixed ancestry ('half-blood').

    With the use of these examples, the concepts of mendelian genetics can be introduced to children as young as five.

    J. M Craig, R. Dow, M. A. Aitken

This suggests that wizarding ability is inherited in a Mendelian fashion, with the wizard allele (W) being recessive to the muggle allele (M). According to this hypothesis, all wizards and witches therefore have two copies of the wizard allele (WW). Harry's friends Ron Weasley and Neville Longbottom and his arch-enemy Draco Malfoy are 'pure-blood' wizards: WW with WW ancestors for generations back. Harry's friend Hermione is a powerful muggle-born witch (WW with WM parents). Their classmate Seamus is a half-blood wizard, the son of a witch and a muggle (WW with one WW and one WM parent). Harry (WW with WW parents) is not considered a pure-blood, as his mother was muggle-born.

There may even be examples of incomplete penetrance (Neville has poor wizarding skills) and possible mutations or questionable paternity: Filch, the caretaker, is a 'squib', someone born into a wizarding family but with no wizarding powers of their own.

We believe that, with the use of these examples, the concepts of Mendelian Genetics can be introduced to children as young as five, and then built on by gradually introducing specific terms such as 'gene' and 'allele', and relating these to chromosomes and DNA. At every stage, the children's familiarity with the Harry Potter characters can be used as a hook to engage them in discussing concepts of heredity and genetics.


Many thanks to my friend Ellen for forwarding this to me.

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Aug 22 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

A friend, Dawn, emailed this Gullibility Factor Test to me, and I thought you might be interested to try it, too.

I missed these questions;

    The fluoride added to drinking water is sourced from naturally-occurring fluoride mineral deposits. Ew! This is way worse than the Cochineal beetles that seem to gross these people out .. incidentally, if beetles bother the writers of this test, why didn't they ask how many insect parts are in the canned food that we routinely eat? Or how many cockroach legs are found in dishes served in the average New York restaurant?

    All the clean hydrogen we need to power the world is already contained in crystals at the bottom of the ocean called gas hydrates. Huh? I guess it's time for me to do some reading.

    Having a baby is a patent violation because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office routinely grants patents on human gene sequences found in all humans. Ooookay. Why does this make me laugh?

The test writers say this about moi;

Welcome to the top 5%. You're a true free thinker and a person who is well informed about the reality in which you live. Although you may have been easily manipulated earlier in life, you eventually gained lucidity and developed a healthy sense of skepticism that you now automatically apply to your observations and experiences. You are endlessly curious about human behavior and the nature of the universe, and you have one or more lifestyle habits that most people would consider odd or unusual. You are not only of very high intelligence, you are also extremely creative in one or more areas (music, art, software development, inventing, etc.)

If you were in The Matrix, you would have taken the red pill, completed the combat training, and started fighting (and beating) agents from day one.

Your architects: You have cast off reality distortions taught to you by your parents, schooling, corporate advertising and government propaganda. You create your own beliefs based on what serves you best, without much regard for what the rest of the crowd is doing. You are guided by your own internal code of ethics (which may or may not agree with politically-correct ethical codes) rather than any pre-set system of ethics (such as from any one religion).

My score was 91. What was yours?

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Birds in the News #23

Aug 19 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Globally-threatened Superb Parrot, Polytelis swainsonii.
Native to Australia where it nests in red gum trees.
Photo by Geoffrey Dabb.

People Helping Birds:

The biggest annual ornithological meeting in the country, American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), convenes this coming week at the University of California, Santa Barbara on Tuesday through Saturday, August 23 to 27. Highlights include a public presentation on the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, in the forest swamps of Eastern Arkansas (8pm, Thursday, August 25) and a discussion another bird of great interest to the public, the California condor, Gymnogyps californianus, entitled "Endangered Species Recovery: the California Condor as a Model" (beginning at 8:30am, Saturday, August 27). The AOU is the oldest and largest organization in the Western Hemisphere that is devoted to the scientific study of birds. Although AOU is primarily a professional organization, its membership of approximately 4,000 includes a number of amateur bird watchers who dedicated to the advancement of ornithological science. Thanks to the AOU meeting, next week's Birds in the News will be crammed with all sorts of fun and interesting bird news because everyone who is anyone will be there, talking about birds.

The World Parrot Trust, the UK-based organization founded by Mike Reynolds in 1989 and now headed by ornithologist Jamie Gilardi, is spearheading an effort to persuade the European Union to enact a trade ban on wild-caught birds. A European Union trade ban is needed because, despite export controls and other efforts to control trade in wild-caught birds, there are still massive numbers of wild-caught birds being poached from the wild for sale, and Europe is a large market for these birds. Europe represents 93% of the market for CITES-listed birds and 90% of the global market for wild-caught birds. Each year, roughly one million birds are taken from the wild for legal sale in Europe; no one knows the extent of the illegal trade. Overall, it is estimated that four million birds are taken from the wild for the European trade but half die before reaching the market. Parrots, songbirds, waterbirds, and raptors - all are part of this tragedy that threatens the survival of wild bird populations. If you would like to help, go to birds are for watching, where you can sign an online petition, donate money and learn more about the wild bird trade. Cessation of the trade in wild-caught birds is essential to protect not only the wild populations of those birds, but also to protect the wild birds of Europe from disease.

Visitors to Britain’s biggest bird event – the 17th annual British Birdwatching Fair will help to save spectacular Jewel-thrush, also known as Gurney's Pitta, Pitta gurneyi. The Gurney’s Pitta (pictured) is a brilliantly coloured, but secretive bird of the forest floor. Only known from peninsular Thailand and adjacent southern Myanmar, there are approximately 20 pairs now known to still exist. The Birdfair will raise funds to establish protected areas in the lowland forests where the pitta occurs, as well as training and employing conservation staff and assisting local wildlife NGOs in their conservation work with the species.

People Hurting Birds:

In Australia, logging has devastated more than half of an endangered native bird's protected nesting colony because of a bureaucratic bungle by the Department of Sustainability and Environment. "The logging operation intruded into the protection zone for superb parrots, because that (protection zone) hadn't been recorded in the Coupe Information System, and the forestry officer who would normally have known to check the maps was away ill," Kevin Ritchie, department's Northeast regional director, said. As few as 150 superb parrots, Polytelis swainsonii, still breed in Victoria, in a handful of nesting colonies around the Barmah State Forest near Echuca. Needless to say, there are plenty of protesters who are calling for a complete moratorium on logging in the Barmah State Forest. Adding insult to injury, the logged trees were used for firewood or, as the first linked news story notes, were left behind on the forest floor to rot.

Good Bird News:

BBC News reports that this year is a good one for the barn owl, Tyto alba. Scientists said the successful barn owl season was linked to a good crop of fruit and seeds last season. "Last winter there was an exceptional glut of wild fruits, including beech mast and haws, which was great news for these mammals," said British Trust for Ornithology research biologist Dave Glue. "The rodents [that ate these fruits] in turn provide a ready food supply for barn owls." This story includes video.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker News:

Are you a good birder who has time to chase the IBWO? If so, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is looking for you! They have 15 job openings for 4 positions to staff the search for IBWO between 31 Oct 2005 and 31 April 2006 in Arkansas. They are seeking anyone with excellent field skills (especially birding) to apply! These jobs can be viewed on Cornell's online job board, at Texas A&M's wildlife and fisheries sciences job board, the Society for Conservation Biology's job board, or on the Ornithological Societies of North America's job board.

Birds in the Media:

Featured this week on BirdNote are Chickadees at Dawn; the Caspian tern, Sterna caspia -- Scapegoat; The Gulls of Summer; Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor (a rerun); and Snowy Egrets, Egretta thula, Killer Hats. This last show also announces the opening of a new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, "Birds on the Brink -- Killer Hats." This exhibit explains the feather trade of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which spawned many conservation organizations, including what eventually became the Audubon Society. BirdNote can be heard Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM, throughout Western Washington and Southwest British Columbia and is also available as RSS/Podcast feeds.

I can't resist linking to this raunchy but amusing movie review about The March of the Penguins. The author's big complaint? There were not enough explosions. (The other reason I included this link is beca
use PZ Myers from Pharyngula sent it to me, which makes me wonder if he is getting ready to come over to the bird side of life. If so, you heard it here first!) GrrlScientist Note: Strong language, so don't read this aloud to your companion parrots!

Thanks to my bird pals Lynea, Ian, Ron, Bill, Ellen, PZ and Ed for some of the links you are enjoying this week.

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Academic Job News: none, still. I called the department chair and still was not able to find out anything. I have to wait until Monday (at least). Fweh!

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Busy ..

Aug 17 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I am sorry I have fallen silent. I have been working on a research project that I am trying to complete by Friday, if possible. But to reward you for your patience, I did find an utterly silly pixar film that might give you a smile.

While you all are here, I want to tell you that I am hosting the 5 October issue of Tangled Bank -- this will be my second time! (my first hosting adventure can be viewed here). As you might expect, I am very eager to have lots of interesting science/nature/medical short stories, essays or poetry to share with a large audience .. so dear readers, start thinking of what you would like to contribute (yes, even you, BlackRat).

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Birds in the News #22 - Extinction is Forever

Aug 12 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

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

Bird 911:

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

People Helping Birds:

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

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

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

People Hurting Birds:

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

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

Avian Zoonotics News:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bird Mysteries:

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

Streaming Birds:

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

Miscellaneous Birds:

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts on the Value of Blogs to Science

Aug 11 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Weblogs ("blogs") and "bloggers" (people who create, write and edit their own blogs) are everywhere; indeed, there currently are more than nine million of them and, because many blog hosting services are both user-friendly and free, there is a new one created approximately every 7.4 seconds. A quick survey of blogs reveals that there seems to be at least one devoted to every topic in the world, from politics to sex. Yet, despite this explosion of blogs, there are surprisingly few that discuss science or are written by scientists, and there is little evidence to indicate that most scientists are even aware of blogs. Additionally, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no suggestion in the scientific or trade literature that blogs might actually be valuable to science.

Until now, that is. During the past few weeks or so, the monthly trade magazine, The Scientist, became demonstrably interested in blogs (one of their editors even emailed me several times via my blog). They were the first to break this silence when they published David Secko's interesting piece, The Power of the Blog, in their 1 August 2005 issue (registration required). Secko's article is a general synopsis of the value of blogs to scientists, and to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. In this essay, I condense Secko's piece for you, adding considerable commentary of my own, and then conclude by offering a few of my own opinions regarding the value of blogs to science.

Basically, as anyone in the "blogosphere" can tell you, the power of blogs lies in increasing the speed and efficiency of information exchange using words, pictures, and sound and video files. Using this primary characteristic as a starting point, Secko found that bloggers' motives range from the idealistic to the practical, even among scientists. For example, biochemist Jeff Bizzaro is one of the early science bloggers who created bioinformatics for an organization that boasts a membership of 15,000 because he wanted to "create something of a utopian place for people to share ideas."

In fact, many scientist-bloggers are exploring the utility of blogs for sharing and organizing their thoughts about new research and its implications to their own work. "I get a lot of ideas and feel I'm at the edge of science news [because of blogs]," says Michael Imbeault in Secko's piece. Imbeault is a blogger who is a virology doctoral student at the CHUL Research Center in Quebec.

Other scientists use blogs to record the development of ideas and to increase information flow in their labs and with their collaborators, Secko reports. For example, blogger Kevin Kubarych, who will soon join the University of Michigan as an assistant professor, says "I expect to have a blog in my new group where we can have a collective conciseness." But even though blogs provide for speedy information exchange between colleagues, Kubarych also appreciates the historic value of blogs; "when someone leaves, their work is still there in the blog."

Another useful aspect of blogs is the creation of peer-reviewed open-access blog-journals, such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS), as mentioned in Secko's piece. Electronic journals, or "e-journals", have the potential to accelerate and streamline the peer-review and publication process while simultaneously alleviating the stranglehold that traditional publishers have enjoyed over the availability of scientific reports. This could benefit the international scientific community by improving information access for all scientists, many of whom labor under severe financial constraints that prevent them from subscribing to dozens of expensive journals in their fields of expertise. Such access could also increase the overall efficiency and quality of research, allowing scientists to consult with their colleagues as they pursue their work so they can avoid costly mistakes while allowing them to strengthen their line of inquiry by addressing online criticisms. Towards this end, one idea that is being explored is providing resources to encourage a real-time discussion at the end of each scientific article on the publishing e-journal's webpage, just as you find in the comments section of a typical blog.

Another advantage to publishing in open-access e-journals is the increased access to current research for the public. This would provide the scientific community with the added benefit of helping citizens become better-informed and more scientifically literate consumers and voters.

Secko also discovered, not surprisingly, that businesses are beginning to notice science blogs, too. For example, the high-traffic science blog, In the Pipeline, attracts a lot of business attention. In the Pipeline is written by chemist Derek Lowe, a blogger who works for the pharmaceutical giant, Bayer. In his blog, Lowe primarily discusses the pharmaceutical industry with an insider's eye, although he sometimes comments on other relevant issues. Insights from blogs such as In the Pipeline have the potential to lead to new investment opportunities as well as helping to improve the flow of data while potentially avoiding redundant lines of research at these companies.

"You have a huge amount of money going into drug discovery compared to only a small number of drugs approved by the FDA each year," says Eric Gerritsen, who runs a small investment company called Global Seed Capital, based in the Boston area. "It looks to me like a huge productivity problem."

Despite these obvious advantages, Secko found that there is a lot of skepticism regarding the value of blogs among those few scientists who are aware of them.

"The whole thing is still very immature," observes Gerritsen, who runs a blog that provides an international forum for scientists to discuss and share their research. This reluctance to explore blogging as a communication tool may be due to scientists' aversion to future retribution, unfamiliarity with the technology or because they do not yet understand the inherent significance of blogs. Nevertheless, scientists should be jumping on blogs, Gerritsen continues. "I expect to see this within the next year."

Secko's points that I summarized here are all fine and good, but the article completely missed what is in my opinion the most compelling value of blogs to science and scientists: public outreach and education, particularly for protecting and enhancing scientific curriculum in public schools. Considering that there is a "science versus religion in classrooms" argument raging in this country indicates that the scientific community has thus far failed, and failed miserably, in their public outreach and education efforts.

As I see it, America is currently engaged in an internal war that is centered around science and scientific education; it is a battle for the minds of the public. On one side is a small but militant group of christian fundamentalists who noisily portray science, particularly evolution, as a fallacious way of perceiving how the world functions. On the other side are scientists and secular humanists who refuse to allow religion to be taught under the guise of science in the public schools. In the middle are the majority of the American public, who know little or nothing at all about science and who are apparently confused by all the rhetoric. What is needed are more scientist-bloggers who are willing
to bridge this gap by presenting a clear, concise and engaging argument to the public regarding the veracity and value of science, especially evolution, to society.

To accomplish this, we should encourage more scientists to join the blogosphere. We need more scientists to create blogs that present scientific research to the public, that explain the scientific method and identify what constitutes good science, that methodically catalogue the multitude of differences between science and pseudoscience/religion, and that describe future economic, technological and medical/scientific damages that will inevitably follow if our nation supports the teaching of religion under the rubric of "science" in our public schools.

Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and a frequent speaker on evolution issues, said in a recent Nature op-ed piece (436, 753; 11 August 2005) that all scientists should be deeply concerned about this evolution versus intelligent design debate. "Make no mistake — this is not an attack on evolution, but on science," he stated.

Scientists have a responsibility to make it clear to the public that there is no dissent regarding the theory of evolution within the scientific community. Scientists must explicitly state that if intelligent design had any scientific merit whatsoever, it would have been addressed by the robust and open scientific process -- just like all scientific theories. Additionally, scientists must make it clear that this so-called "debate" is truly a battle for control; control over what this nation's children will be taught in public schools, control over what Americans will be allowed to talk about and ultimately, control over what we all will be allowed to think and do. Scientists have a responsibility to safeguard the public trust by providing accurate information about science to the people, and blogs are a fast and effective tool for achieving this.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue #36.

Included in the Carnival of Education Issue #30,
the Best of Education Blog Writing.

Included in the Philosopher's Carnival #18.

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