fieldnotes

 

Avian Flu
Tracking the Spread

When avian flu killed more than 6,000 geese and gulls last spring at China's remote Qinghai Lake, ornithologists knew for certain that the virus devastating Asian poultry farms was a threat to wild birds, too. Less clear, and hotly debated since, is whether migratory birds might spread the flu to people—and what, if anything, to do about that possibility.

“This is going to be a constant issue from now on,” says Greg Butcher, National Audubon's director of bird conservation. “We saw it with West Nile virus, we're seeing it now with avian flu, and we'll see it again. Bird diseases evolve constantly. There will always be a threat that some might become deadly to humans.” How we respond to the current threat will likely determine how well we respond to future ones—and whether we help both birds and humans or miss a chance to do so. (For more about bird flu, go to www.audubon.org.)

While wild birds have long been known to carry influenza, most strains affect birds mildly and rarely jump to people. But H5N1, the deadly strain now decimating poultry and threatening a human pandemic, may have developed in the crowded, high-turnover poultry farms in Asia—near-perfect incubators for the mutation and spread of more deadly viruses. However, it's unclear whether H5N1 spread from poultry to wild birds or vice versa. Scientists have found dozens of wild bird species carrying the virus, which has killed birds from more than 20 of those species. But there's still much they don't know.

How we respond to the threat will likely determine how well we respond to future ones—and whether we help both birds and humans or miss a chance to do so.

“We know some wild birds get H5N1,” says William Karesh, a veterinarian who monitors avian flu for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), “and we know some die and some don't. But we don't know what those percentages are, how effectively the survivors carry or shed the virus, or over what distance.” H5N1 has shown up in wild birds at several sites hundreds of miles away from poultry farms, including Qinghai. In addition, genetic similarities between the Qinghai virus and strains later found in Romania and Turkey suggest that the Qinghai birds might have carried the virus west. On the other hand, it's possible that movement came from the poultry trade, and it appears no bird carried the flu last fall to Africa, despite many flyways going there from Asia. (In mid-February there were reports of the first appearance of avian flu in Africa.)

Some bird conservationists, worried about possible calls to cull wild birds (which experts say would actually aggravate matters by dispersing infected birds), insist that migration plays no significant role. They also point out that migration almost surely contributes less than does poultry traffic and the wild-bird trade. Yet the volatility of H5N1, along with the overlap of the world's flyways, suggests that wild birds are either helping to disperse H5N1 or easily could. The only sensible course, bird experts agree, is to acknowledge this and carefully track the spread.

Toward that end, the WCS, the World Health Organization, and other groups are working to create a global avian influenza surveillance network to track the virus. (Senator Joseph Lieberman, D-CT, recently introduced a bill to support this effort.) Learning more about worldwide migration routes and what viruses birds are carrying, says Butcher, “could help both human and bird health, not just now but for decades to come. It's just possible that some good will come of this.”

—David Dobbs

 

Conservation
Drive a Hybrid, Save the Arctic

Americans guzzle more than 7 billion barrels of oil each year, despite its rising cost. Since plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remain a constant threat, it bears noting that as of 2005 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that it will be economically feasible to extract just 9.7 billion barrels of oil from the refuge—less than a two-year supply. Instead of destroying habitat critical to birds, bears, caribou, and muskoxen, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has a better idea: increase the average fuel efficiency for new cars and trucks to 40 miles per gallon during the next 10 years, which will, in turn, save 60 billion barrels of oil during the next half-century. That's more than six times what the Arctic refuge is likely to generate, assuming oil prices of $55 per barrel.

Current corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards—27.5 mpg for cars and 21.6 mpg for light trucks and SUVs—have not changed much in 20 years. Last June a Senate measure to raise standards to 40 mpg by 2016 was defeated 67 to 28. Besides the usual Republicans, opponents included Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who presumably have their eyes on Michigan's electoral votes in 2008. Subsequently, a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) is gaining strength; it would require the federal government to reduce the country's oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels a day within 10 years, and by 10 million barrels a day by 2031. “If you could achieve a very substantial increase in CAFE standards directly, it would give you more certainty,” says Daniel Lashof, a senior scientist with NRDC. “But I think in the long run this bill could actually be more effective because it employs a broader suite of policy tools.” Meanwhile, 11 states either plan to or have adopted rules requiring automakers to cut carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming 30 percent by 2016. Such measures would improve fuel efficiency by 40 percent. Predictably, the auto industry is trying to block these rules, but the momentum for energy conservation may be too strong, which would go a long way toward protecting the climate and, perhaps, the Arctic.

—Todd Neale

 

Migration
On the Wing With Monarchs

The monarch butterflies had arrived by the millions at their wintering grounds in Michoacán, Mexico, on November 3, 2005, when Francisco “Vico” Gutiérrez touched down his ultralight plane on a stretch of two-lane highway near the Sierra Chincua monarch reserve. For 72 days Gutiérrez had accompanied the monarchs on their migration, from Montreal to Michoacán, logging 4,375 miles and drawing attention to the numerous threats they face as they travel across North America. The 44-year-old ultralight pioneer and filmmaker called it the journey of the papalotzin, which means “royal butterfly” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. By that final landing in Mexico, the world was watching. Hundreds of people greeted him, including local schoolchildren, the international press, and a Mazahua Indian chief, who placed a garland of fresh marigolds around Gutiérrez's neck in welcome and thanks. “It's not just about the monarchs,” Gutiérrez said later, his curly hair framing a tender, tanned face. “It's about all of us learning to live together, with each other and the earth.”

Gutiérrez's love of flight has long been matched by his fascination with monarchs. Each fall the butterflies travel south, some fluttering more than 2,000 miles to the same mountainous patch of oyamel (a kind of fir) forest in central Mexico, where the perfect combination of elevation, temperature, and humidity helps the butterflies survive the winter, in 12 main colonies. Six years ago Gutiérrez began fantasizing about joining the monarchs on their southward journey. Last year his dream came true.

He placed colored stickers on the wings of his 420-pound ultralight that resembled the distinctive orange-and-black markings of Danaus plexippus, and embarked with a ground crew of photographers and videographers from Montreal last August 22. They filmed the entire journey—funded by the World Wildlife Fund, Telcel, and the state of Michoacán— and are now producing a one-hour documentary that is expected out by June and will be shown at international film festivals.

Gutiérrez made dozens of stops along the way, meeting legendary lepidopterists and backyard biologists. Everywhere the papalotzin team went, they talked about the risks that monarchs face in Canada, the United States, and Mexico from pesticide use and habitat loss to illegal logging. They urged coordination, conservation, and protection across borders. “It's time for humans to change our attitude to nature,” Gutiérrez says. “The butterfly can teach us a lot. If we save the monarchs, we save ourselves.”

—Meera Subramanian

 

Tribute
A Life Worth Living

Richard Tompkins Paul once expressed to a colleague what being an Audubon warden meant to him: “How lucky are we—to spend our lives immersed in the magnificent wildlife of America, at such wonderful sites as Audubon sanctuaries.” Rich died of cancer last November near Tampa, Florida, at age 59.

He was an Audubon research biologist and sanctuary manager for 31 years. To those who knew him, however, he seemed to have been born with the Audubon emblem of a great egret on his sleeve. This, he felt, was his destiny, for he shared a birthday (April 26) with John James Audubon, and liked to point out that his initials matched those of his hero, Roger Tory Peterson. He grew up with a Peterson guide in his hands, learning the names of birds near his New Jersey home. For two summers he served as a maintenance man at the Audubon Camp in Maine.

In 1972 Rich joined Audubon's research department. Among other duties, he took on a long-term study of reddish egrets (“shredded egrets” they were to this lover of wordplay). I remember visiting a nesting colony on the Texas coast with him in spring almost 30 years ago, and the gentle way he folded a long-legged egret, mangled by a rival male, and cradled it in his arms till it died.

Rich found a home in 1980 as manager of the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries around Tampa Bay. Lucky visitors recall as almost mystical experiences their trips with him to islands turbulent with beating wings and screaming birds. By diplomacy and careful explanation, he fended off fishermen, photographers, and picnickers with dogs who wanted to land in the colonies. His legendary patience also built strong bonds with local industries and government agencies, which might have run roughshod over less firm or more strident conservation advocates.

A radiant marriage gladdened his last years. Ann Paul worked by his side in the sanctuary office and in the field, and now will go on looking after the birds—which is her way of still being with Rich.

—Frank Graham Jr.

 

© 2006 National Audubon Society
 

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Mi, Mi, Mi Mice

Seventy years ago the chirps of a hidden canary teased the residents of a Chicago children's home. But when, after weeks of searching, the minstrel was finally revealed, it turned out to be not a bird but an extraordinary mouse. Named Minnie, this real-life rodent went on to delight the nation by performing at NBC's Chicago radio studio. Even so, Minnie's fame never convinced scientists to place rodents alongside whales and songbirds as gifted vocalists. This view may have changed this past fall when neurobiologists at Washington University in St. Louis discovered that the male lab mice were serenading their female companions. These miniature crooners sing at a frequency too high for humans to hear—Minnie's gift remains a mystery—so the researchers recorded the sounds and brought them into our range. The songs sound uncannily like birdsong, with repeating patterns of distinct syllables. But Tim Holy, who headed the study, says the mice shouldn't quit their day jobs. “Most birds in the animal kingdom have more well-rehearsed songs than the mice do—they're like concert pianists.”

—Todd Neale


Talk About Indigestion

Last fall the Everglades provided a real-life set for what could have been the next Alien vs. Predator movie. The alien, a 13-foot Burmese python, which is native to Southeast Asia, exploded after trying to swallow the predator, a live six-foot alligator, killing both animals. It was one of five observed encounters in the past three years between the two giant reptiles, heightening concerns about the expanding python population's impact on the vulnerable Everglades ecosystem. “Potentially, they [pythons] could threaten everything,” says University of Florida wildlife scientist Frank Mazzotti. “They're a top predator. They start out at 2 feet, they grow to 20 feet, and at every stage they eat everything smaller than them.” Biologists also think they could outcompete the federally threatened eastern indigo snake, the longest snake native to the United States. Pythons originally escaped into the Everglades through pet releases, but Mazzotti says they now have a self-sustaining breeding population that probably numbers in the thousands.

—Jesse Greenspan


Running on Fumes

What to do with toxic paint fumes has plagued the automotive industry almost since its inception more than 100 years ago. Now Ford Motor Company has designed a technology, called Fumes-to-Fuel, that converts paint waste into electricity. It works by putting superconcentrated paint solvents into a Stirling (combustion) engine. The pilot program was first tested in 2003. It worked well enough that this fall a 55-kilowatt-per-hour system was installed at a Ford truck plant in Wayne, Michigan, where it currently handles 37 percent of solvent waste in one of three paint lines. Since the electricity generated powers less than one percent of the plant, it prevents the emission of 700 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Because the new technology is cheaper to produce, operate, and run, it is expected to be phased in at all of Ford's North American assembly plants.

—Jesse Greenspan


Sunny Side of Coffee

Environmentally friendly coffee is all the rage these days. Consumers in search of a “greener” cup of Joe have a variety of shade-grown, pesticide-free brands to choose from, including one sold by Audubon (www.audubon.org/market/ licensed/coffee.htm). Now Solar Roast, an Oregon-based company, is going its competitors one better: It roasts its (organic) beans using only the sun's energy. The company's device, dubbed Helios 2.0, uses 138 square mirrors to draw light into a roasting bin that heats the drum roaster to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. No fossil fuels are burned to run the bin, and thus no greenhouse gases are emitted. One of the company's prototypes, Helios 1.2, was a refurbished satellite dish that swiveled throughout the day, tracking the sun from sunrise through sunset. Whole beans, which cost $12 to $14 a pound, are available for purchase at www.solarroast.com.

—Kristine Hansen


The Big Sleeper

While most black bears in Pennsylvania dodged hunters during last December's hunting season, one 700-pound male snoozed soundly out of harm's way. Two children, ages 8 and 9, were playing in the snow outside their home in Chestnuthill Township in eastern Pennsylvania when they spotted him dozing under the front porch and ran screaming inside. Black bears typically stray into residential neighborhoods searching for food, which is readily available in bird feeders and garbage cans that have not been bear-proofed. Every year a few Pennsylvania bears are found in crawl spaces and under porches. Sometimes they are allowed to stay, eventually wandering away in the spring, says Tim Conway of the state's game commission. “As long as people don't have a problem with the bears being there, we'll leave them alone.” In this case, because the big bruin chose a spot near a school bus stop, he was relocated to nearby state lands at the end of the hunting season. As it turns out, state game officials had dragged this same bear out of a crawl space a year earlier.

—Todd Neale

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