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Monday, February 27, 2006

Poultry Industry and Bird Flu

GRAIN, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) which promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge, has just come out with a report that places primary responsibility for spreading H5N1 avian influenza on the international poultry industry.

Here is the article abstract:
Backyard or free-range poultry are not fuelling the current wave of bird flu outbreaks stalking large parts of the world. The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu is essentially a problem of industrial poultry practices. Its epicentre is the factory farms of China and Southeast Asia and -- while wild birds can carry the disease, at least for short distances -- its main vector is the highly self-regulated transnational poultry industry, which sends the products and waste of its farms around the world through a multitude of channels. Yet small poultry farmers and the poultry biodiversity and local food security that they sustain are suffering badly from the fall-out. To make matters worse, governments and international agencies, following mistaken assumptions about how the disease spreads and amplifies, are pursuing measures to force poultry indoors and further industrialise the poultry sector. In practice, this means the end of the small-scale poultry farming that provides food and livelihoods to hundreds of millions of families across the world. This paper presents a fresh perspective on the bird flu story that challenges current assumptions and puts the focus back where it should be: on the transnational poultry industry.

This report is also highly critical of official governmental and UN responses to bird flu outbreaks and containment measures. This may be one of the more important bird flu stories to come out this year--emphasizing the multiple problems with producing and shipping potentially H5N1 carrying factory-bred poultry, and even poultry feed that contains rendered chicken parts, across the globe.

Once again, when you scratch H5N1 beneath the surface, what you find instead of wild birds spreading the disease, is an enormous network of international trade, and poor biosecurity, with people, wild birds, and small-scale poultry operations as the primary victims.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Rumors

Well, it was almost a year ago that we were all over the moon with news that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been rediscovered in Arkansas. Now, with Cornell unable to provide further proof of the bird, critics are growing more vocal. The latest rumor is that in March Science will publish an article rebutting the famous Luneau video presented by Cornell as evidence of the Ivory-bill--and that birding luminary David Sibley will be one of the co-authors.

With careers and reputations on the line, this could get ugly, exposing the world to the dark underbelly of birding, where skeptics are quick to undercut any bird sightings that they find questionable, and where egos often loom large. There is a potential backlash here against birders, birding, and bird how should we be prepared to deal with this backlash, should it occur?

We're all hoping that Cornell can come up with definitive proof that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker does indeed persist in Arkansas. However, barring any proof coming from this field season, perhaps Cornell should admit that they have failed to substantiate the birder sight records, and that there is still no direct evidence that the woodpecker is not extinct. Cornell can then decide how much it wants to spend on an additional year of searching, but should back down from its claim to have rediscovered the bird. If they are reasonable and say that they gave it their best shot, but just can't be sure that the birds are still there, then most people will be willing to let it go. Like the Pearl River search from a couple years ago. Good effort, no proof. We'll all be sad, but oh well.

If Cornell tries to maintain that the bird exists, withought being able to substantiate it with more evidence, than their credibility will be seriously questioned and things could get ugly, though mostly just for Cornell. I have friends who work there, and I wish the Lab of Ornithology the best of luck. I hope they can get convincing evidence that there are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Big Woods. But if they can't, I hope they will admit it, so we can all move on to other worthy projects. There is a lot to do to protect America's birds. If there are woodpeckers to save, so be it...and it will be worth every penny we can spend on it. But if they aren't there, we need to move on.

One last note. Many commentators have been critical of the secretiveness of the initial Cornell search in the Big Woods. While I'm willing to give Cornell the benefit of the doubt, and believe that they thought their secretiveness was in the best interest of the birds and the habitat acquisition efforts taking place at the time, I can't help but wonder if all of this uproar and controversy couldn't have been avoided if Cornell would have attempted to operate more openly. Surely, with more outside review of the Luneau video, it would have been clearer to Cornell that it was pretty shaky evidence, and they could have avoided the potential spectacle and attendant media circus of having their Science paper rebutted. Hindsight is 20/20, but hopefully we can all learn a lesson here about the value of inclusion and openness.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More Behind the Scenes at the GBBC #2

OK, the GBBC count is now up to 581 species. A good portion of the species that come in above that, will be the direct result of my bird-dogging birders and biologists to report additional sightings of unusual species this past weekend. I rounded up reports of Rufous-backed Robin, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, and Lazuli Bunting from Arizona. Still trying to get more Hawaii sightings and some seabirds from Alaska. There may be a few more species to get in Texas, California, and Florida as well. Not sure how to round up a Lesser Prairie-Chicken report (its never been reported on the GBBC--ouch!). So, lots of fun emailing folks around the country trying to see what else we can come up with. Latest GBBC species totals are here, in case you want to see how high we can get the count.

New Crows

This morning I took a break from work to go over to do a bit of work for a bit on our new house (moving in Saturday, lots to do!). Up on the roof, while my dad was patching the tarpaper, two American Crows flew over heading towards the park a block away. My new neighbors! I haven't been home (old home) much to see my neighborhood crows lately, so I'm anxious to get to know the crows at my new place a mile or two away. Since there were only two birds, they may be a mated pair without young ones, but I'll have to keep my eyes peeled. I've got a great view of the park from the rowhouse, and even though the yard is tiny, there's a lot of bird potential there. Since I've got flat roofs on a fairly quiet street, I may even be able to put up a nocturnal migrant microphone to record and identify the calls of songbirds as they fly over the house going north and south during migration. Now that would be cool!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

More Behind the Scenes at GBBC

OK, I'm officially over the moon. Northwest Territories has come in with six checklists. We now have official reports from all the Canadian provinces and territories. Very cool. This hasn't happened since 2000.

Right now the species total is at 577...with many other species known to have been seen this weekend. We should be able to get over 600. Getting over last year's 612 is still an open question.

We really need more Hawaiian reports, and reports of exotic parrots in CA and FL. If you happened to count birds on Laysan Island this past weekend, let me know! We are also missing seabird reports. But, we're rounding them up, so we'll see how many we can get!

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #9

We have a killer photo album for the GBBC this year. My favorite photo submission is this one here of a Red-shouldered Hawk. Just a quick note, the frog isn't trying to give him a hug!

We've already surpassed last year's totals for the number of birds counted this year, and are about to surpass the number of checklists submitted. Still have a ways to go to get the species totals up. I have a long list of birds that should have been findable this past weekend, and will try to rustle up some reports. This involves emailing researchers and active birders in areas where the birds should be...maybe sending out some notes onto email lists. Its a lot of fun, but a lot of work, too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #8

In case you thought the GBBC ended on Feb 20--let me tell you, its just getting going! I've had to respond to more emails today, the day after the count period, than any day yet. And we'll still probably get tens of thousands of additional checklists in. As of this morning, we were at 561 species and over 40,000 checklists--way above where we were last year at this time.

As I posted on BIRDCHAT, here are the state
(and provincial) standings, based on percentage of regular species reported:

1. West Virginia (84/65--may need to adjust their expected list)--129%
2. Tennessee (117/120)--98%
3. Nova Scotia (111/115)--97%
4. Pennsylvania (118/123)--96%
5. Texas (340/358)--95%
6. Indiana (111/123)--94%
6. New York (144/154)--94%
8. Florida (248/269)--92%
8. Kentucky (110/120)--92%
10. Wisconsin (108/119)--91%

Here's how the states fall, by percentage of expectations:
0-10 2 provinces (none from Northwest Territories)
11-20 0
21-30 0
31-40 2
41-50 4
51-60 6
61-70 5
71-80 19
81-90 15
90-100 10
100+ 1

I'd really love to see that mode move up to the 90+ range (OK, I'd love it if it was actually in the 100+ range, but that's my evil inner birder self that I'm trying to repress).

So, how do you get your state numbers up now that the count is "over"? Check out the list of species that are reported for your state, looking for species that haven't been reported yet.

Then, think to yourself...did someone, somewhere in the state, see that bird this past weekend? If your answer is yes...or your suspicion is yes, then your job is to make sure that species gets into the database somehow. Sound like a challenge? Something to keep you busy at work now that the holiday weekend is over and you're not really feeling like jumping into that pile of paperwork waiting for you on your desk (just kidding, the GBBC does NOT encourage slacking off at work! Get off the non-work related email now!).

So, Phase I is the fun birding part. No we're full into Phase II--the fun part that makes or breaks the count where we round up as many checklists and species as we can from all the fun we had in Phase I.

Monday, February 20, 2006

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #7

We're coming up on the end of the official count period, but people will be able to enter their sightings from this weekend until the end of the we're still expecting to see at least as many more reports come in as we already have. I'm pretty beat from answering emails all day, but looking forward to moving into Phase II, where we make sure all the species that were seen this weekend get recorded. Its going to be a few weeks before we have all the final numbers in, but so far things are looking good and we should have more participation this year than last year. I'll post a GBBC status report tomorrow morning when my brain starts working again. Right now we're at 553 species...and counting!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #6

As the third day of the GBBC winds down in the East, here are the latest rankings based on percentage of expected species reported:

1 West Virginia (68/65)--105%
2 Tennessee (106/120)--88%
3 Pennsylvania (104/123)--85%
4 Texas (292/358)--82%
5 Wisconsin (96/119)--81% (even in a blizzard!)
5 Florida (217/269)--81%
7 Arkansas (119/150)--79%
7 New York (121/154)--79%
9 Georgia (185/237)--78%
9 Iowa (63/81)--78%
9 Mississippi (104/134)--78%

Some good efforts out there, but my favorite sighting reported so far this year--for only the second time in the history of the GBBC, Common Ravens reported from Nunavut! Way to go up there! This is 50% of the potential species for the entire area! Its a lonely job being a birder on the edge of the arctic.

So far, we're above the rate of returns we got last year...but still below our highest pace in 2000. So, lots of birds out there to see. If you haven't done it yet, go outside and see some birds. Come back inside. Go to the GBBC website. Enter your sightings. Enjoy knowing that you helped out with an important study today.

If you take a look at the map, it is incredible to see how many people are out counting. But its also incredible to see the big gaps where nobody is counting. We're still missing reports of important species like ptarmigans, sage grouse, prairie chickens, seabirds, etc. And there are whole counties with no reports. And large metropolitan areas with less than a dozen reports. So, count the birds...and tell your neighbors to count and report theirs as well!

Tomorrow I'm going to be really hitting the emails, trying to scrounge up last minute sightings of the missing species. We really need those Hawaiian species. And exotic California parrots. And those game birds mentioned above. Somebody, somewhere, is going to be a hero and come through with sightings of these species.

Now accepting applications for bird heros!

Bird Flu, Dick Cheney, and You

What is the connection between recent finding of avian influenza in France, Egypt, and the Dick Cheney quail hunting accident? Maybe nothing...but I can't wait until after the GBBC to blog about it!

Bird flu will be found in most Western European countries by Spring. Many will blame migratory birds, but without a thorough investigation, we won't really know what is happening there, how long the virus has been present, or how it arrived.

As for Dick Cheney, the local authorities wrapped up their investigation just about as soon as it happened, so again, for all we know, there isn't much transparency there either--and we may never know exactly what happened there.

So, in both cases, apparently light investigatory work may keep us from knowing all the details. But more importantly, all the media attention to both of these stories may be keeping us from what may be more important--in Cheney's case, well, this isn't a political blog, so I'll leave any comments about Cheney's expansive view of executive power for another time. But for bird flu, the media hype about migratory birds carrying avian influenza is keeping us from seeing some larger problems--such as the role of China in the global poultry trade--including the growing and shipping abroad of potentially H5N1 infected baby chicks. The parent company of one major breeding facility in Lanzhou, which is probably responsible for the H5N1 outbreak in Tibet this summer, also according to information on its corporate website, controls 30-40 percent of the commercial poultry industry in Turkey.

More later on this, but don't get distracted by bird hunting accidents or hand-waving about wild birds. Yes, there may be something there. But pay close attention to what's happening off-stage. In this case, poultry trade out of infected countries--especially China.

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #5

Usually, I don't work or bird on Sundays, which for me are dedicated to family and church. However, during the GBBC, someone has to be on hand to answer emails and help things keep moving I came in to work after church and am now firmly esconced once again in the belly of the GBBC beast!

I just spent two hours answering emails from last night and this morning. Good news is, that we finally learned from the 2000 Florida Butterfly Ballot fiasco, and changed our online reporting checklist this year to have only one column of birds, rather than three. This has really reduced the data entry errors--so most of the errors I'm hearing about now are people changing their identifications, rather than reporting data entry mistakes.

I've gotten a few emails from people who see some strange or clearly erroneous bird reports, and then question or belittle the whole GBBC process. Others have graciously offered their assistance to help review sightings. Here's basically my take on the whole "there are some big errors in GBBC reports" idea:

1) First of all, the GBBC encourages reports from birders of all levels--including some who may be trying to identify birds for the first time. Thats good, but we need to be patient and understanding. So, having data quality issues is a good sign, a sign of growth.

2) It also highlights the educational aspects of GBBC--this gives us a chance to help people improve their identification skills. When we spot something really strange, we email the person and then help them review their own identification. Its a lot of work sometimes, but worth it if it helps people out and teaches them something.

3) This issue also highlights the importance of having local reviewers to go through the records in a timely fashion and spot the errors. We're better off this year than last...with only a couple Canadian provinces and Maine without local reviewers of their own. So, as we grow our network of reviewers, the data quality will get better and better.

4) And finally, it emphasizes how much we really need skilled birders to go out and count the birds, so that well-identified birds are included, reducing the statistical weight of problematic identifications.

But, really, its mostly just a lot of fun to see the strange things that sometimes get reported, and to see what common identification challenges are out there. Its very educational to see how people identify birds they are unfamiliar with, and personally, it helps me better understand the challenges that new birders face. Its been almost three decades since I first started identifying birds...and while it is still a challenge when I visit far-off places with lots of new birds, my day-to-day birding provides very few identification challenges. So, its fun to see people struggling and to be able to enter the process from their perspective.

The flip side, is that once you see just how easy it is for people to misidentify birds, it is tempting to question the value of this whole GBBC endevour. But I choose to take the perspective that it is a learning process for all...and that as we go along, we'll find better ways to improve the quality of the reports, and ways to analyze the results.

So, its all good! Just go out and count some birds, and help others do the same. Then, come inside, get warm, and enter your sightings online!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #4

OK, you can go to to see how we are doing half way through the Great Backyard Bird Count. But what you can't find is right here--the top 5 states reporting by percent of expected species. And the winners, so far, are:

1. West Virginia (57/65) --88%
2. Tennessee (103/120) --86%
3. Pennsylvania (96/123) --78%
4. Mississippi (103/134) --77%
5. Texas (275/358) --77%

There's still lots of time to head out and find more birds, or to just count them in your yard. So far, we've counted over 1 million individuals of 489 species.

As of 7pm tonight, here are the states that have submitted the most checklists:
1. New York --584
2. Pennsylvania --502
3. North Carolina --501
4. Virginia --470
5. Texas --469

Most of the technical problems seem to have been cleared up today, and I didn't get m any complaints.

One thing that has been amazing this year, has been all the bird photos submitted to the GBBC. Literally thousands are pouring in...more than we can use, but we've selected some great ones to look at here.

So, get a good night's sleep, and if the weather permits (don't hurt yourself), go out and help us find more birds tomorrow.

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #3

After a morning of stripping floors in my new house, I'm back on the job...answering GBBC emails and keeping my finger on the pulse of the continent's bird life. Its pretty heady stuff!

Cornell folks worked hard yesterday to fix the server caching problems that were giving us trouble, so everything seems to be working better now on the GBBC website. As of an hour ago, we had 6413 checklists submitted--up 6% from this time last year, but only 78% of the number reported by this time in 2000. So, we're doing OK, but would love to see more checklists coming in.

Getting reports of bad weather across the country. Texans are complaining about a little cold and rain. Good thing they aren't in Wisconsin, where temperatures are below zero and people are being urged to stay indoors. Good thing temperatures in the Upper Midwest are supposed to climb up above zero tomorrow!

As of 3pm today, here are the states and provinces submitting the most checklists:
1 New York --397
2 North Carolina --365
3 Pennsylvania --354
3 Texas --354
5 Virginia --346

Here are the states reporting the most species:
1 Texas --269
2 California --219
3 Florida --189
4 Arizona --166
5 Georgia --153

And here are the localities reporting the most checklists:
1 Charlotte, North Carolina --46
2 Richmond, Virginia --34
3 Raleigh, North Carolina --33
4 Ithaca, New York --24
5 Santa Fe, New Mexico --23

But you don't have to be in the Belly of the GBBC to get this info, just check out the current status reports online here.

Now that I'm caught up on answering emails, its about time to start crunching some numbers, and to start rounding up reports of species not reported yet. We've got a long way to go to get all the species we need, and the number of checklists we want. So, go out and see some birds, and report them to the GBBC here!

Friday, February 17, 2006

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #2

A couple hours later and things are getting interesting here at GBBC Central. Numbers of submissions seem way down from last year. Some people are reporting problems viewing the site with AOL and other browsers. A few emails have suggested that the server is slow. We're waiting to hear from our tech folks. Its been a quiet day. Maybe too quiet. Hopefully, any potential IT problems will be worked out tonight, and tomorrow will dawn bright with lots of people out birding and reporting their sightings online.

Meanwhile, here is an

Unofficial GBBC FAQ
Dealing with some of the most common concerns people have (besides browser problems)

What do I do if I make a mistake on my checklist submission?
While we can delete an erroneous sighting, we can't add anything to your original count. If you want to add the correct species, you can just enter a new record. You don't have to submit your whole list again, just submit a checklist with the correct info. Then send us an email telling us which species to delete from your record. Make sure you tell us which state you are in, and give us the submission number if at all possible. We'll then be able to go in and delete the mistake.

How come the GBBC didn't accept my great sighting of (name of cool bird here)?
Out of range species or large flocks of some species are flagged by our database for review by a local reviewer before the sighting is added to the database. If the reviewer has any questions about your sighting, he or she will contact you. This is how we try to ensure the highest possible accuracy in the database.

I think you the GBBC is counting the same birds twice. I reported the same bird two times, and now it says there are two of them in my town.
Its OK. This count helps us know how common birds are in each area, and we figure that out by dividing the number of birds seen by the number of checklists submitted for the area. So, your two reports of fabulous bird X, divided by your two checklists, still just equals one fabulous bird X. The report for your area may appear a little bit misleading if you take it to indicate the actual number of birds present--but now that you know this little GBBC secret, it isn't too confusing, right?

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #1

The first morning of the GBBC has come and gone with minimal difficulty. When the sightings submission form went live, we took down the links to the downloadable checklists for each state, so that caused a bit of a flurry from observers looking for the checklists. So we had to get links up on the site to those checklists again.

Other than that, just the typical questions we get all the time. Tonight I'll put up an unofficial GBBC FAQ page--that will give details on the most frequent questions I'm getting from out there.

So, at 1pm EST on Friday, the GBBC is up to 249 species reported across North America. Its only just begun, but we're off to the races.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Twas the Night Before the GBBC

Tomorrow is the big day. We've got our team of regional reviewers ready to verify unusual sightings in each state and province before they are added to the database. Last minute emails are answered, and hopefully, everyone is getting to bed early and anxiously waiting for the stroke of midnight, so they can run out and start counting birds!

OK, its not Super Bowl Sunday or New Years, but it is pretty exciting. I'll be at the office all weekend, answering emails and phone calls, mostly trying to help out the computer and bird ID challenged. Even more than a bird census, the GBBC is an educational tool! And I love helping people figure out what birds are actually in their yard.

Make sure to check out the GBBC website for the latest real-time species totals for your state and hometown. And make sure to add your own bird sightings this weekend. Even if its only a few birds coming to your backyard feeder. Every sighting counts, and helps us better understand the distribution of birds across the continent.

Yes, its going to be a busy weekend for me. And as if it wasn't going to be busy enough, I closed on a house this afternoon, and have friends and family coming into town to start getting it ready for us to move into later next week! Nothing like painting and home repairs to keep you from going insane after a long day at the office.

Stay tuned here for daily reports from the Belly of the GBBC Beast, and go out and count some birds!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cold Duck

This morning I noticed some Common Mergansers on the creek as I drove to work, so paid particular attention as I crossed the bridge at the edge of our property at work. Sure enough, a couple ducks were down there, so I walked back down after parking the car and found 15 Black Ducks and 5 Mallard--firsts for the office list this year. After days of trying to keep up with the latest avian influenza news online and elsewhere, good to spend a few moments with some real ducks.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

H5N1 Bird Flu in Germany

Tests on infected swans in Germany just announced here. Tests to be released tomorrow are also likely to confirm H5N1 avian influenza in Austria. It is probably just a matter of time before this bird flu strain becomes widespread in the EU. Swans are more likely victims than carriers of this virus--it is quite probable that by the time we see Mute Swans dying of the disease, it has already been present in local poultry flocks long enough to infect the swans.


Calvin and Hobbes saved my life as an undergrad. This one here is my favorite bird strip, from February 16, 1987 (Do you remember where you were that day, I do!). Thanks to the Calvin and Hobbes Searchable Database, we can all enjoy these classics and easily search for our favorites. Bill Watterson, you're my hero!

Here's another bird classic, from Valentines Day 1987.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Snow Birds

Nothing like a good snowstorm to bring the birds flocking to the feeders. Today at work, when I finally got in there after they plowed the parking lot, there was a nice Field Sparrow feeding with the more common White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. There are usually a few of these guys around, but they've been scarce lately, and this is the first one I've seen this year--making it 2006 yard bird #38.

Great Backyard Bird Count

One of the fun things about my job at Audubon is that I get to help with the Great Backyard Bird Count every February. The count is geared towards birders and birdwatchers of all levels. All you have to do, is count the birds you see any day between February 17-20, and report them online here. Despite its name, you don't have to limit yourself to counting birds in your yard. If you are a birder, you can go anywhere in North America and report the birds you see.

In fact, one of my missions is to try and drum up reports of every bird found in North America this weekend. I'm hitting the state email lists, and emailing contacts around the country to encourage them to go find and report the less commonly observed species. Last year we got reports of 612 species--including, at the last minute, a Greater Sage Grouse sighting by a researcher in Wyoming that took me a long time to scrounge up. There were some very rare birds reported last year, including quite a few Mexican species that had wandered north into the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. This year, we'll see if we can top our total species number, and increase the number of people reporting.

So, by all means, report your birds this weekend! Especially if you see the Pink-footed Geese in CT, the Slaty-backed Gull in NY, or a Lesser Prairie Chicken, or Gunnison Sage Grouse, or any other local and hard-to see species. But perhaps even more important than finding good birds, is to have a good time. Take a friend birding, especially someone new to the adventure. Then, go online, report your sightings, and see how they fit into the larger picture of bird sightings all across the country--in real time.

And when you're out birding, think of me holed up in my office, answering emails, reviewing unusual sightings, and keeping my finger on the pulse of bird populations across the country. Check in here, and I'll have daily postings with behind the scenes details from the belly of the bird count. Its going to be a lot of fun this weekend, so see you there!

Birdchaser at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

On Saturday, February 25, I'll be giving a presentation on urban birds and bird habitats at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The talk will be part of their annual Native Plant Spring Symposium. The Wildflower Center has fantastic programs, and is in a beautiful setting on the edge of the Texas Hill Country in sw Austin. So, if you're in Austin that weekend...stop on by.

Geese in the Snow

We got 13 inches of snow overnight on Saturday. Sunday afternoon as I was digging out the driveway, I heard high-pitched honking and looked up to see a couple flocks of 1500+ Snow Goose going over high, heading south. With so much snow, the fields these birds had been feeding on must have been covered, so they were probably heading out to find open foraging areas. Since it snowed all the way to the coast, who knows how far these birds would have to go to find open fields.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Latest Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sightings

Cornell is reporting that there have been possibly six brief ivory-billed sightings this year by searchers in Arkansas, but none have been more than brief glimpses revealing only one possible field mark--so not considered confirmatory. They are hopeful that there will be more sightings as the season progresses, but it is frustrating that there haven't been any confirmed sightings yet this year.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

H5N1 Bird Flu Spreads to EU

This week Greece, Italy, and Azerbaijan join the list of nations with incidents of H5N1 avian influenza in wild birds. Mute Swans continue to be the wild birds most impacted in Europe so far. We still don't know where these birds are coming from, or how they are contracting the virus. In many areas, Mute Swans associate with feral or free-ranging domestic waterfowl--perhaps picking up the virus from these birds, which have been shown to be able to carry and spread H5N1 without showing signs of infection. We need more testing of both wild waterfowl, and especially of otherwise healthy-looking domestic ducks. If we just wait until we see dead swans or poultry, we may well miss the spread of this virus in shipments or movements of the main bird shown to carry the virus without showing signs of infection--domestic ducks.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Today I had a Sharp-shinned Hawk wing through the trees as I walked the woods at work. Then this afternoon, a nice adult Cooper's Hawk came and sat for a long time on the platform feeder at the office. Great to see these amazing bird-eating hawks up close. Some people don't like them to come to their bird feeders, because they eat their favorite birds. But its all part of nature. This morning I saw a House Finch that was pretty much blind from eye disease, and thought it was just a matter of time before it gets snagged by a hawk. Maybe today is the day.

The Skinny on the Latest PNAS Bird Flu Article

OK, I was finally able to get a copy of the PNAS bird flu article that has been reported on here and in the media this week. It isn't available online yet, but apparently only as a proof distributed to the media. Here's the basics:

Establishment of multiple sublineages of H5N1 influenza virus in Asia: Implications for pandemic control

H. Chen, G. J. D. Smith, K. S. Li, J. Wang, X. F. Fan, J. M. Rayner, D. Vijaykrishna, J. X. Zhang, L. J. Zhang, C. T. Guo, C. L. Cheung, K. M. Xu, L. Duan, K. Huang, K. Qin, Y. H. C. Leung, W. L. Wu, H. R. Lu, Y. Chen, N. S. Xia, T. S. P. Naipospos, K. Y. Yuen, S. S. Hassan, S. Bahri, T. D. Nguyen, R. G. Webster, J. S. M. Peiris,and Y. Guan

Abstract: Preparedness for a possible influenza pandemic caused by highly pathogenic avian influenza A subtype H5N1 has become a global priority. The spread of the virus to Europe and continued human infection in Southeast Asia have heightened pandemic concern. It remains unknown from where the pandemic strain may emerge; current attention is directed at Vietnam, Thailand, and, more recently, Indonesia and China. Here, we report that genetically and antigenically distinct sublineages of H5N1 virus have become established in poultry in different geographical regions of Southeast Asia, indicating the long-term endemicity of the virus and the isolation of H5N1 virus from apparently healthy migratory birds in southern China. Our data show that H5N1 influenza virus has continued to spread from its established source in southern China to other regions through transport of poultry and bird migration. The identification of regionally distinct sublineages contributes to the understanding of the mechanism for the perpetuation and spread of H5N1, providing information that is directly relevant to control of the source of infection in poultry. It points to the necessity of surveillance that is geographically broader than previously supposed and that includes H5N1 viruses of greater genetic and antigenic diversity.

OK so far...but here's where it gets tricky. This article is getting cited as evidence that wild birds are spreading H5N1 avian influenza from southern China, to Qinghai Lake in western China, Russia, and then this fall to Turkey and eastern Europe. Here's the new evidence given here:

1) Six wild ducks, apparently healthy Mallards, Spot-billed Ducks, and Falcated Teal, were found to have H5N1 in the wild in southern China in January and March 2005--indicating that some wild ducks may have the virus and appear healthy.

2) The exact strain of H5N1 that these ducks had is very similar to the strain found at Qinghai Lake and in Turkey.

That's it. Some wild birds have it (actually, we already knew this from reports in Russia this summer), but only very few individuals (six of 4,674 samples in this study). And the kind they have is similar to that found later in the year in Qinhai and eastern Europe.

It is slightly troubling that this article would seek to implicate wild birds in the recent outbreaks, even though it states that "the likely source of [the Qinghai] infection was thought to be from poultry in southern China" and that "the source of infection for these new outbreaks, including the initial Qinghai outbreak, has not been fully determined. Whether or not migratory birds could survive infection and carry H5N1 over long distances also remains unanswered."

As the only support for the wild bird transmission hypothesis, the paper cites a World Animal Health Organization report of Russian H5N1 viruses similar to those at Qinghai in several domestic ducks and geese and one wild duck last summer, and a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations bulletin that only suggests in passing that wild birds may be transmitting the virus. None of this constitutes real evidence of wild birds spreading H5N1 during migration, and it seems irresponsible for the authors of this paper to base their claim of wild bird transmission of H5N1 on these weak sources.

So, while it remains possible that wild ducks may be able to spread H5N1 during migration, the case is far from proven and should remain a hypothesis for further testing. Meanwhile, there is lots of negative evidence showing that H5N1 must be rare in wild birds--even in this paper's study sites in southern China where the disease is thought to have originated and remained in poultry for the past 10 years.

Eagle Antics

Yesterday on the way to work, I stopped by Peace Valley and scoped out the flocks of Canada Geese and Common Mergansers. But most of the time I spent watching a young Bald Eagle (photo source here) circle, swoop, and dive on the merganser flock. For over 10 minutes it harried the ducks, causing them to dive as it swooped low. Once a Canada Goose even dove under the water as the eagle swooped low. The whole time, the eagle was being chased and dive-bombed by Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls. While magestic to watch, it seemed obvious why eagles spend more time feasting on carrion than hunting ducks--with those huge wings, the bird wasn't the fastest or most agile aerial hunter. Quite a spectacle to take in before a day at the office.

Garganeys and Nigerian Bird Flu

While I've highlighted the possibility of Garganey potentially carrying H5N1 bird flu to Africa, both here and in this National Geographic News article, this possibility remains mostly hypothetical. A recent article in the New Scientist seeks to tie the recent bird flu outbreak in Nigeria to wintering Garganey and Northern Pintail. However, no wild ducks with H5N1 have yet been found anywhere in Africa, so linking the current Nigerian outbreak to migratory waterfowl is premature. We also don't know exactly where the waterfowl wintering in West Africa spend the breeding season, so it is premature to claim that they have brought HPAI H5N1 to Africa from Russia. African countries also import poultry from many countries in Asia, so it is even more likely that the Nigerian outbreak can be linked to either legal or illicit trade in poultry or other birds. Nigerian Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello has suggested illegal poultry imports may be behind the outbreak.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

H5N1 Bird Flu in Nigeria

Latest news accounts describe an H5N1 avian influenza outbreak in poultry in Nigeria--a first for Africa. Despite predictions that wild birds could carry the virus to Africa this year, these news accounts are quick to blame wild birds for bringing the virus to West Africa without direct evidence actually confirming this possibility. The official OIE account of this outbreak is here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Response to Latest Wild Birds and Bird Flu News

I don't normally have long posts here, but wanted to share the latest thoughts on wild birds and avian influenza from Nial Moores of Birds Korea. This was posted to BirdLife's aiwatch email list this morning, and is a good summary of what we know, and don't know, about the relationship between wild birds and the spread of avian influenza:

It is increasingly apparent that H5N1 avian influenza has now become one of the most immediate threats to wild birds and their conservation in Eurasia. This is not because wild birds yet threaten human health (apparently there is still no case where a wild bird has even been suggested to infect a human with the disease, and more surprisingly it seems there is still not yet a single case where wild birds have even been proven unambiguously to have infected poultry...?). It is rather because of all of the suspicion and villification of wild birds, and because wild birds can be killed by Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1: both directly, and through culls.

Very recent so-called response strategies to claims that wild birds are spreading HPAI H5N1 include calls for a massive cull of wild bird in parts of Siberia (including the destruction of nesting habitat), and the callous slaughter of some wild birds left exhausted by severe cold in Romania (they were, according to a January 31st Reuters report, beheaded or used as live footballs by a gang of local men). This in addition to the extraordinarily cruel treatment of poultry in many areas, bagged and burnt to protect our health.

The role of wild birds in the active long-range spread of HPAI H5N1 has been sensationalised and stated as fact ad nauseam for a number of years now it seems, and although the New Scientist article is yet another to suggest such a so-called revelation, it seems appropriate to note its use of the word CAN (rather than the word DO) when suggesting long range spread by wild birds.

Note too, quote:
The researchers analysed samples taken from 13,000 migratory birds and 50,000 market poultry in southeast China between January 2004 and June 2005, when the Chinese government banned independent sampling. In the markets, they found H5N1 in about 2% of apparently healthy ducks and geese, and some chickens, in all but two of the months in the sampling period.
End of quote

The 2% level of infection of apparently healthy poultry was found in markets. Only 6 apparently healthy wild birds out of 13 000 were found infected with H5N1 (though even here the details are left very sparse: which species of waterbird, and at what stage of infection they were at). The short New Scientist article then appears to take two huge leaps in logic, the first in assuming that infected wild birds can migrate long distances just because infected captive juvenile mallards (freed from other stresses) can recover and fly, and second in suggesting that just because the genetic make-up of the virus is similar between infected ducks in Poyang, birds at Qinghai and chickens in Turkey, that this somehow proves the method of spread. This seems especially important when the thrust of the research reveals how widespread the virus has become in poultry in China, and even more significantly how many asymptomatic infected poultry can carry and shed the virus.

Omitted from this and many other similar articles too is a still huge amount of negative data, and numerous unanswered questions, re the spread of HPAI H5N1 by wild birds.

The listserver group AI Watch (orginally set up by some staff in Birdlife, an excellent initiative for which they are to be warmly congratulated) contains as its members many bird conservationists (including those working in areas with outbreaks), and a range of others with H5N1 relevant expertise. Its members have been trying honestly and openly to look at the available evidence - through researching background information to areas with outbreaks, and through applying existing understanding of wild birds and their migrations to the discussion (something by and large sorely lacking so far: really, which wild bird species have a migration route that takes them from southeast China to Qinghai and then onto Europe?).

The following is a personalised summary of a few of the causes so-far suggested by members of the AI watch group as potential/already implicated in the spread of HPAI H5N1 (what a very few of us still stubbornly call Poultry Flu!):

1) Spread by the legal and illegal caged bird trade. Known examples of diseased captive birds with HPAI H5N1 include the parrot in the UK, Hawk-eagles found in baggage in Belgium, mesias in Taiwan, and a captive Flamingo in Kuwait. The first three were detected in customs, preventing further spread of the disease. The last, like several others, was immediately identified by some media as carried by a migratory wild bird - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (the flamingo was in a collection on private property apparently). The recent discovery of infected falcons at a falcon centre in Saudi Arabia is yet one more example of this form of spread.

2) The related Merit Release: the purposeful release of once-captive birds into the wild in order to gain spiritual merit. Any increase in reports of infected wild birds after such ceremonies?

3) The movement of poultry and eggs, legal and illegal, and the movement of vehicles and personnel that might also have been contaminated by virus (infected excrement carried on shoes, tires or crates etc). The poultry industry is an enormous industry, legal and illegal, that rears billions of birds annually, moving them both within and beyond national borders: across the width of China, from Thailand to Russia etc. This poultry is of course used for human consumption, and in some cases (as in western China) for control of locust outbreaks, with the potential to infect natural wild bird habitats. Note that this virus can be maintained in the environment for significant periods: apparently for up to two or three weeks in cold water or in droppings.

H5N1 outbreaks in South Korea and Japan a couple of years back were traced back to infected poultry meat imported from China. The outbreaks in both countries were stamped out quickly by controls on imports and culls of infected poultry. Testing of wild birds in both countries at that time and subsequently revealed none (apart from a few dead ones: see below) were infected with H5N1. How could this have been so if large numbers of healthy yet infected wild birds were carrying the virus around, infecting poultry as they went, as apparently suggested by the New Scientist note below?

4) Secondary spread to wild birds by infected poultry, including contamination by such poultry of local environments. The HPAI H5N1 virus killed several non-migratory species like Large-billed Crows in Japan and Eurasian Magpie in Korea - species that scavenge around poultry farms (among other places). This, as well as point 5 below, also seems relevant to discoveries of dead H5N1-infected waterbirds like Chinese Pond Heron, Little Egret and Grey Heron, that often feed in polluted fish-rich waterways (e.g as found in many areas near poultry farms, where waterbodies can be enriched by agricultural run-off).

5) Spread though use of poultry manure as fertiliser in fish-farms. Requiring further investigation, is it not striking that fish-farms using poultry manure enrichment were apparently set up in Qinghai shortly before the massive outbreak there that wiped out several thousand Bar-headed Geese in spring 2005? That species like the Mute Swan, migrating from countries without H5N1 outbreaks, have been found infected at fish-farms in countries with outbreaks?

6) Spread by infected wild birds. The limited, perhaps inter-connected, outbreaks in wild birds in Mongolia in the summer of 2005 seem to suggest that such medium-range spread by wild birds is possible. Considering the rapid spread of outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry in southern Siberia just before, it seems at least possible that a few ducks infected by sick poultry (or their environs) would be able to fly several hundred kms south to Mongolian wetlands where they could then infect a small number of local nesting waterbirds like Whooper Swans before succumbing to the disease. What is equally or even more important (and too rarely mentioned) is that such outbreaks appear to be extremely rare indeed; that in Mongolia they were very limited in scale; and that they petered out quickly. The virus was not maintained in a highly pathogenic state in wild birds in Mongolia; the outbreaks did not lead to known outbreaks in wild birds in neighboring countries; and they did not involve known infection of poultry or humans by wild birds.

While considering the above points, the need to review more of the negative data becomes even clearer:

1) Why have there never been HPAI H5N1 outbreaks in several countries in East Asia that maintain very strict import controls (on poultry and caged birds), even though the same countries receive many wild migrant birds from infected regions annually?

2) IF wild birds are responsible for spreading the virus from Qinghai to Russia and eastern Europe, why have the same species been unable even to reinfect poultry or wild birds in South Korea and Japan (we have well over a million waterbirds coming from Siberia and China to Korea in winter, yet no outbreaks of HPAI H5N1 here for a couple of years)?

3) Why have many species of geese and other waterbird species that breed in genuinely remote areas of northern Siberia etc to winter in infected regions (where they mix with species like Mallard and Pochard, both implicated by some as H5N1 carriers), not yet been infected?

4) Why has the disease not yet spread though Siberian-nesting waterbirds from Asia into the Americas or into Australia or New Zealand (it has now had 10 years in which to do so, while it apparently managed to move from China or SE Asia to western Asia and eastern Europe in only the past 8 months)?

5) Why no outbreaks in India this winter (it was after all infected Bar-headed Geese, that winter in India, that were for a while blamed for spreading the disease north from Qinghai last summer)?

6) Why too do the infected wild bird species seem to keep falling into the same several categories, namely: (a) scavengers around human habitations and poultry farms (crows etc), (b) species popular in capivity (from falcons, to laughing thrushes and Oriental Magpie Robins), and (c) waterbirds that need to use human-modified wetlands?

The pattern of outbreaks, to me at least, seems to vary little. Typically, it involves sick poultry and quick accusations that wild birds infected them; it includes calls for controls on wildlife reservoirs by either media, decision-makers or the general public; and each time it includes papers, notes or skewed media articles revealing that finally there is now overwhelming evidence that wild birds and not people and their poultry are really to blame.

It would be really wonderful if more such questions were asked repeatedly to media and certain leading organisations (like FAO) that have been always been so quick to blame wild birds for outbreaks of the disease.

Contrary to widespread reports, it is not bird conservationists that are burying their heads in the sand...

Many questions (and sadly still far too few people asking them).

With best wishes and birding,

Nial Moores
Birds Korea, South Korea

Bird Flu and Wild Birds

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is linking transmission of H5N1 avian influenza to the migration of wild birds wintering in China. According to a story about the study in the New Scientist,

"The team found H5N1 in six apparently-healthy migratory ducks at Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province, which borders Guangdong and Hunan, in January and March 2005, before the northward migration. The isolates had all the genes, and certain specific mutations, later found in geese at Qinghai Lake, 1700 kilometres northwest. And this virus, notes Peiris, is very like H5N1 in Turkey.

The team also tested whether the Poyang viruses would make ducks too sick to fly by infecting young mallards. “Most got a bit sick then recovered,” says Webster, and all shed virus for up to a week. “The evidence is now overwhelming that migrating birds can move H5N1 over long distances,” says Peiris. “But they are not the scapegoats for maintaining H5N1 within poultry. There the cause and solution lies within the poultry industry."

The Canadian Press also carries this story. Curiously, the PNAS study that these articles discuss is not found on the PNAS website, so I can't comment on it directly. But these news articles do seem to indicate that the authors, while noting that wild birds may carry the virus, claim that the bigger problem is containing its spread once it gets into the poultry population.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bird Flu in Perspective

While there is a potential risk that the current H5N1 bird flu could become pandemic, the reality is that according to the latest report by the World Health Organization, only 88 people have died from this illness since 203. In comparison, each year 35,000-50,000 people are killed by snake bites in India. And lighting kills 73 people each year in the United States alone. With millions shelled out to lottery winners in the U.S. each week, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than you do of contracting avian influenza. So, while pandemic flu is a threat worth watching and preparing for, automobiles are currently a much bigger threat than avian influenza (killing 42,443 people in the US in 2001).

Bobby Harrison--No 2006 Ivory-billed Sightings

Ivory-billed Woodpecker searcher Bobby Harrison has posted that he hasn't found any Ivory-billed Woodpeckers yet this year, despite some heavy searching in Arkansas. The next couple months will be crucial for the search teams, as tensions mount.

Texas Owl Prowl

This weekend I gave an owl workshop at the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory in Austin. Friday night, we discussed the ecology of the local owls, and then we went on an owl prowl. We were able to get close looks at a couple of Barred Owls that came in and landed nearby in response to our owl calls. Its always a treat to see these birds. In addition to the 40 workshop participants, we were joined on the prowl by 11 teenage girls who work for the Austin Youth River Watch Program--a program that employs at-risk kids in monitoring water quality in the local creeks and river. This was their first owling adventure, and it was great to see them get excited. Sometimes I forget how incredible it is that owls will call back and come in to check you out if you call to them--but for these girls, it was as if a whole new world had opened up. Very cool. (photo credit: Friends of Sherwood Island)

Saturday morning I led another owl prowl at 5:30 am and the birds replied again. Unfortunately, we weren't able to locate any of the Great Horned Owls that nest on the property--but at one point I did hear a distant Barn Owl call. Hornsby Bend is a magic place during the day, and perhaps even more enchanted at night. Nothing beats an owl prowl for mystery and birding excitement. People came from as far away as Houston and the Rio Grande Valley for this workshop, and besides the great Texas BBQ lunch, these responsive Barred Owls made the workshop a great success, and I look forward to running the workshop again next winter.

Next month I'll be down in Austin again for a Purple Martin workshop--another fun exploration of the world we share with birds. And more Texas BBQ!

Back In Austin

A couple days in Austin, Texas last week were good for the soul. Sitting at a light on Airport Blvd, a Red-shouldered Hawk scared up a flock of grackles sitting in a tree behind a fast-food restaurant. Flying around in the flock were two Monk Parakeets (see photo). These green gems are all over Austin, nesting in huge nests on power poles and business signs, and may well be the most popular birds in the city. Monk Parakeets were first found in Austin during the early 1980s, and have bred here for over 20 years. They are originally from Argentina and Brazil, and were introduced into Austin, and other cities across the country, probably by pet owners who tired of caring for the loud and long-lived green and gray birds. Now, they are a part of the local scene, giving a tropical air to Austin as they fly over the city.

At a small pond in front of the Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility on MLK Blvd in East Austin, I was surprised to find 235 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. These birds are regular breeders in Austin, but I've never seen more than maybe 50 of them in one place before, so it was quite a shock to see this many standing together on the edge of a small pond just off the road. Whistling Ducks (see USFWS photo) used to be rare in the Austin area, but have expanded their range over the last few decades, and are now--as indicated by this sighting--fairly common in some areas, and a couple years ago we decided to feature one on the logo of the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory.

At a Bend in a Texas River

Spent a couple of days last week at Hornsby Bend in Austin, Texas. Hornsby Bend is a biosolids management facility run by the City of Austin, where they compost the sewage waste from Austin. The property includes 200 acres of wastewater ponds and 1200 acres of fields and riparian forest along the Colorado River. In just a couple hours of birding over a couple days there, I found 76 species, including some South Texas specialties including Ringed Kingfisher (see TPWD photo) and Least Grebe--two species that probably nest on the property. Over almost 50 years of birding here, people have found over 370 bird species on the property (see a slighly outdated checklist I compiled here)--including Black Scoter and Rock Wren found here for the first time this fall.

Hornsby Bend is the best birding spot in the Austin area, and home to the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory, which conducts bird counts and citizen science bird workshops. I started the bird observatory with other members of the Austin birding community after finishing my masters research on the birds there in 1999. I've spent many, many days wondering around the property there, and it was nice to be back. Like a migratory bird, I may not have any one place to call home, but I do feel at home whenever I can be at Hornsby Bend.
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