Here’s a bit of a natural history mystery that I found yesterday: this green flower in a bed of White Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum); something that I had never seen before.
The few initial web references I found suggested this is caused by a bacterium or a virus; further detective work unearthed a 46-year old paper (Hooper, Case & Myers, 1971) that suggests this greening is caused by “mycoplasma organisms”—a kind of bacteria and will cause the plant (eventually) to die.
It sounds like in the ensuing 40+ years since Hooper, Case & Myers published their (3 page!) paper, these “mycoplasma organisms” pathogens have come to be called phytoplasma—see Bertaccini et al., (1999), a paper that references Hooper, Case & Myers (1971).
And with that little discovery, a new world opens: a 2016 paper by Arocha-Rosete et al. that links the disease to a specific strain of phytoplasm: Candidatus Phytoplasma pruni, closely related (like 99% similar) to a phytoplasm called Milkweed yellows phytoplasma.
Because I’m a geek, here’s the reference to the 1971 article: Hooper, G. R., Case, F. W. and Myers, R. 1971. Mycoplasma-like bodies associated with a flower greening disorder of a wild flower, Trillium grandflorium. Plant Disease Reporter, 55: 1108–1110.
Here are the rest of the references I unearthed:
Bertaccini, A., Fránová, J., Paltrinieri, S. et al. European Journal of Plant Pathology (1999) 105: 487. doi:10.1023/A:1008745206438
Arocha-Rosete Y, Morales-Lizcano NP, Hasan A, Yoshioka K, Moeder W, Michelutti R, Satta E, Bertaccini A, Scott J (2016) First report of the identification of a ‘Candidatus Phytoplasma pruni’-related strain in Trillium species in Canada. New Disease Reports 34, 19. doi: 10.5197/j.2044-0588.2016.034.019
In my dissertation, I take some time to talk about the use and adoption of recently-available technologies (specifically digital cameras to take pictures of birds, nexrad radar to predict migration and the Internet to share bird sightings) by birders. I call the products of these technologies (so, the digital pictures, radar images & postings) “digital objects” that mingle with us (thanks to the recent proliferation of Smart Phones, for example) in more and more places. This movement to digital objects promises to change (and already has) how birding is done.
I enjoy the interpretation of New Jersey radar images that David La Puma does at Woodcreeper during the spring and fall migration. It was his website that really got me thinking about how birders might use these images in their practice. David recently posted that this work is, at best, interpretive after (it appears) some birders on the New Jersey birding listserv suggested that his forecasts were imperfect.
This back-and-forth neatly illustrates my concerns with the forecasts. As I write in the dissertation, field birders try hard to predict the unpredictable nature of birds. In my work, this meant that many field birders that I chatted with often spoke about winds from the north and cold-fronts associated with migrating birds. In this regard, birding connects the humans doing it to the world beyond the simple presence / absence of a bird. In short, its a kind of ecological knowledge. But it’s not perfect. And birders can go out and see nothing, or go out expecting nothing and stumble into some migratory bird biodiversity bonanza. The unexpected nature of the activity, birders reported to me, was part of the appeal of birding.
I, however, write:
Access to these radar images subtly re-frames the field birding experience. Now that birds’ presence can be predicted, there can be less motivation to go out birding on a morning that the radar shows has had little migration activity. While radar is not a discrete enough tool, if you will, to identify the species of birds that are migrating, it is one step towards removing the unexpected. Radar’s use as a prediction tool is an attempt to domesticate—bring further under human control—part of the act of watching birds. Figure 5, the radar image posted at Point Pelee [National Park, located in Southern Ontario and a migratory hotspot], is [hand]-titled “Image of the BIRDS”. That emphasis on birds (underlined and in caps) gives the impression that somehow these images are offering an objective truth about migrating birds.
And this is where the New Jersey birders appear to have got confused. As David writes in the post, “you begin to understand that predicting birding conditions based on weather and radar is both an art AND a science (with art trumping science under conditions where the predictive properties of weather or radar decline).”
I would further David’s caution about the interpretive nature of nexrad images by encouraging birders, if they are interested in using this tool, to learn to make interpretations of the imagery themselves. Again, from my diss:
While interpreting radar images is not beyond the ability of any birder with an interest, it requires cultivating something of an expertise in reading these radar images to discern just what is being seen. Thus, birders unfamiliar with these details can turn to websites, like Woodcreeper, to get that forecast. This moves the responsibility of interpretation elsewhere, erasing what is involved—cognitively, technically—with making the forecast. This recognition of interpretation and technological limitations can foreground that these images are not a new vision of BIRDS but a mediated version of the more-than-human, filtered through microwaves, antennae, websites and our own judgement about what is out there. While rendering something that previously was mostly invisible to us, it cannot provide, as promised, a whole version, or perfect vision, of the phenomena.
And that’s the kicker. Often it is understood that these technologies give us access to a better truth (i.e. Nexrad will tell me if there are birds present or absent, better than my own experience). The truth, however, is something different. While birders, prior to the deployment of Nexrad radar, couldn’t “see” migratory birds on the move, it isn’t the whole picture. The danger here, and here’s where I get somewhat philosophical, is what gets lost if we decide not to go birding on a particular day or we begin to ignore our first-hand experience of what predicts a “whizzer day” for birding.
I’m back from Buffalo, having attended a two day research symposium organized by the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE). Held before the annual NAAEE conference, the research symposium is meant, as I understand it, to be an opportunity to talk meaningfully about “meaty” research issues and meet with a cross-section of researchers in the field. I had a good time, intellectually, academically and personally.
Some thoughts from the symposium:
Quantitative vs. Qualitative…
From the presentations and posters I attended, a high percentage of the quantitative work was being conducted by researcher working at US universities, while the opposite was true of those working at Canadian institutions.
I’m a qualitative researcher, so clearly I have something of a vested interest in the framework. I also know, living with an health researcher steeped in quantitative methods, that done well they are powerful tools for making knowledge claims.
So both paradigms have their place. I was struck, however, by the number of times I looked at completed work and thought to myself, “Boy, this project, conducted under a qualitative framework, would have really improved its quality.” In some cases, I saw work that seemed to cling to a quantitative method for the sake of clinging (e.g. the impression that quantitative methods will give you a “better” truth—less ambiguous, more objective, perhaps easier or faster to collect).
…often maps to U.S. vs. the rest of the world.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that researchers objectively match the “best” inquiry method to the question they’re trying to answer. Given that I noticed, however, something of a cultural difference between researchers in the US and other countries, I wonder if this dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative has less to do with “best” method for the inquiry and more to do with inertia behind long-standing research trajectories.
I’m not arguing that these approaches are wrong or misguided. I am, however, fascinated by my observation of the quantitative work being driven by US-based scholars. Incidentally, I just did the quickest of lit reviews looking to see if there is work that has been done on how researchers choose their methodologies. Lots of “how to choose your methodology” type work, but nothing (not much?) on why researchers choose a particular framework.
Perhaps its worth looking at environmental education researchers to ask them how they came to choose their particular methods. I suspect that it has a lot more to do with the culture of their institution, former supervisor or impression of funding bodies than we might acknowledge. Which might be why, in part, I see such a dichotomy between the way work is done in the US and the rest of the world.
Etymology: Greek misanthrōpos hating humankind, from misein to hate + anthrōpos human being
Date: 1683 : a person who hates or distrusts humankind
Would you consider yourself a misanthrope? I suspect that most, if asked if they hated or distrusted humanity, would say no. Take ethical consideration, for example. We, who are interested in the more-than-human, often argue that it is the human that sits at the zenith of consideration. And this isn’t strictly an intellectual argument. One has to look at how our culture has chosen to treat, a proxy for consideration, the non-human for confirmation. I have a hypothesis, though. I think that we’re suffering, culturally, from an undiagnosed case of misanthropy.
Instead of protest, culture jamming, confrontation, and direct action the environmental sporting practices of traveling the state by automobile and competitively searching for vast numbers of birds is what the World Series of Birding constructs as environmentalist. Driving in search of birds in polluted New Jersey is, in this formulation, a great way to protect birds. (p.214)
Returning, however, to this idea that birding is not the same as bird conservation, Schaffner writes:
The brand of environmentalism promoted by mainstream environmental organizations is made in ways palatable, conservative, and legitimate through a relationship with the accepted sport practice of birding. Unlike the growing environmental movement to end global warming, for instance, which threatens to radically change entrenched aspects of industrial capitalism, protecting wild birds has only involved relatively undisruptive changes such as the establishment of trade and hunting laws, small-scale nature preserves, and pesticide regulation. (p. 212)
And this is what I want to discuss in this post: I have yet to see a cogent reply from the birding community to address this critique. In fact, its an argument that could be made from my own work: when asking birders what kind of rules they follow when out watching birds, I was amazed at the human-centred (avoid trespassing on private property, follow the rules of the road when birding in a car) or instrumental (don’t drop trash) nature of the responses. True, there were thoughtful multicentric-centred responses, but when birds were mentioned in most birder’s ethical approach to birding, it is often along the lines of this participant’s response:
I don’t want to try and get too close, but I will approach one quietly and sort of let the bird – their instinct for self-preservation, you know, rule that. If you make too much noise, it’s just going to fly away. But I don’t want to disturb the bird. I want to get a good look at it but beyond that some move away.
Getting that good look is still at the heart of the activity with little self-regulation or questioning about what might be in the best interest for the bird. In this case, the birder is leaving it to the bird to make the decision that he’s too close—by flying away. While this may not be the practice of everyone, I have seen enough similar behaviour to this (which I call “birders behaving badly”) that I know its not an isolated practice.
Birding as sport or birding as conservation
Which returns us to the larger question that Schaffner raises: is birding an act of leisure (sport) or is it an act of conservation? And if it is more than leisure, how does the birding community address critiques that birding is an activity that does little more than promoting the status quo—appearances as an activity that appears to be doing little to address larger environmental concerns or, as I suggest, the personal well-being of birds watched?
I know that birders feel when they participate in citizen science programs (such as the Christmas Bird Count) that they are participating in the monitoring and conservation of bird populations. I know that birders feel that when they join a group (such as Field Naturalists) that purchases and protects habitat for birds that they are participating in habitat conservation. What is enough?
It is clear that people don’t like to hear that what they are currently doing isn’t enough—we all like to feel like we’re competent and illuminated. It is also clear that bird populations are continuing to decrease. We know this, ironically, through bird population monitoring. What I think articles like Schaffner’s raise is that uncomfortable feeling, an inner psychological state of angst, that what we do in the name of birds, on the whole, isn’t enough. There are at least two responses: dismiss these claims outright (as I heard from birders as the paper was published) or reflect on the larger claims of the paper and make an effort to do a bit more.
And in my research, I’ve heard from birders who are starting to make connections between their larger lives and the act of birding. Take this conversation, for example:
Gavan: Would you say that, or do you have any examples of times where you have made – whether you have made behavioural changes or even purchasing changes based on the lives of birds?
Gavan: Can you explain to me maybe some of those things?
Male: Also, we are much more conscious of where a product comes from now. For example, we’re a little more sensitive about buying products in the winter that comes from South Americas. We worry about the practices.
I have even thought – I mean I haven’t acted on this, but I have thought of going up to the produce manager of the local supermarket and say “I’m not going to buy these asparagus from Peru because I don’t know what’s on it, for one, and I don’t know if there’s something on it, what impact that has had on something that I care about, birds.” So I have not done that, but it has crossed my mind, I should. I probably don’t do it because I’m generally not a confrontational and I just figure he’s going to look at me and say “what’s this jerk talking about anyway”.
It’s not a question of knowledge, it’s a question of action. And the risk of looking like a jerk.
The following post includes ruminations and ideas emerging as I analyze the data collected for my PhD dissertation focusing on the act of birding. It doesn’t represent a final thought or particular endpoint: these are ideas in progress. I would be interested in hearing your opinion of my ideas, too.
Many birding technologies appear to serve the function of augmenting the process ofÂ identification of observed birds. These ID technologies seem to serve two broad functions to augment limitations birders face: the first is the the distance between themselves and observed birds and the second is the ability to identify a bird during the (unpredictable) length of time they have watching it. Putting the second another way, it’s the speed with which a birder can make an identification that they think is correct.
Birders attempt to correct the first by using technologies that collapse spaceÂ and seem to correct the second by using technologies that change the nature of time. Let me expand a bit because while I think collapsing space is easy to understand if you’ve birded, freezing time might be a bit more oblique.
Thanks to Flickr member mikebaird for sharing the DCC photo with a creative commons license.
A just-published paper suggests that Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) in the Great Lakes may swallow stones to reduce the number of parasitic nematodes–and in so doing, are self-medicating. Many birds ingest stones to help with the digestion of physically hard objects, but fish, the primary meal of the DCC are soft-bodied and don’t need the kind of mechanical assistance. So why are DCCs found with ingested stones?
Researchers found that:
At a Lake Ontario site, females more often had small stones in their stomachs and were less parasitized by nematodes than were males, and males with small stones had fewer nematodes than males without small stones. We did not find similar patterns in small stone presence or parasitism at a Lake Erie site; however, Lake Erie birds had fewer parasites and lower proportions of birds with small stones.
Which, in turn lead to the conclusion that since the birds that had stones were less likely to have nematodes, then the stones are the bird-equivalent of some anti-worm medication. Smart birds.
Interestingly, the Lake Ontario site was located at Presqu’ile Provincial Park and the Lake Erie site was located at Middle Island, Ontario. These are two sites where DCC culls have taken place in the recent past, with websites reporting a May 2008 cull on Middle Island that matches with the date in the paper’s method section. I can’t find any mention in the paper to the “source” of the birds or how the birds were “collected”.
Some may say there is no space for politics in scientific research and regardless about your feelings about recent DCC culls, I think that because the article makes no specific mention of how and where the researchers got their DCC gastrointestinal tracts, it does nothing but reduce the transparancy and therefore, the quality of the work.
The past two days in Toronto have been warmer than normal, leading to a large snow melt and the promise of spring (and I know it’s a tease, but it’s a nice break from what has felt like an especially cold winter). With spring comes the return of migratory birds, so this research seems relevant.
First, some background. Feathers, unlike our bones, lack an ability for self-repair. They can be attacked by feather-loving bacteria1 and suffer from UVB damage (and sunblock doesn’t really help out). So birds moult, or replace feathers, up to twice a year. According to my Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behaviour, most North American birds replace feathers in a complete moult in the late summer or early fall. Some birds undergo a second moult in the spring, before the breeding season.
Birders out there have experienced these two moults when faced with confusing fall warblers: males no longer are in their colourful, easy-to-identify plumage (which appeared during the spring moult) and we humans suffer under the burden of having to learn, what could easily be described in some cases, as a whole new bird.
Why there is a difference in moults is the subject of this research by Thomas P. Weber, Johan Borgudd, Anders Hedenstram, Kent Persson & Garan Sandberg. Comparing the mechanical strength of flight feathers from two species of similar birds that have different moulting strategies, researchers found that the bird species that moults twice2 have comparatively weaker (more prone to fatigue) feathers than the species that moults once. Since the authors suggest that “the species with feathers that fatigue faster moults twice annually and not once” it would seem the willow warblers moult out of a form of necessity: they would suffer from the consequences of weakened feathers as they migrated to or from their breeding territory.
Now, if this feather weakness is a similar case for birds of the Americas that moult twice, it’s interesting to note that Wood Warblers (Family Parulidae) also change the colour of their plumage with the two moults. Because of this breeding plumage / winter plumage dichotomy, it would seem that feather weakness isn’t the only reason why a bird would moult twice. The interesting question would be if the adaptation to two moults a year “allowed” wood warblers to have a colourful breeding plumage–the ability for males to “change” their appearance for the breeding season and visually demonstrate just how fit they are.
Better described as bacteria that degrades the Keratin, the protein that makes up the feather. [↩]
In this case, the willow warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus, which is a small European insectivore. [↩]
If you’ve ever spent time watching House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), you might have noticed just how, well, squabbly they can be. Just today, I was out walking the dog, and a group of three came screaming (in flight and in sound) out from a pruned cedar shrub, flew across the sidewalk and screamed back into another shrub. They’re social little birds and use that sociality to their advantage–often relying on others to find food to eat. Fights between birds erupt over a number of different reasons (just like us, really) and food is often a source of conflict.
A recently-published paper in the journal Animal Behaviour1 reports the results of a study that looked at the effect of how being related to another House Sparrow might effect reactions over food.
The study suggests that the more closely related an individual House Sparrow was to another, the less likely there would be conflict (called “Aggressive Joining”) over food. If there was conflict with a close relative over food, less food would be taken from that relative.
Interestingly, there was a sex difference reported that was possibly attributed to the fact that female House Sparrows spread out over a greater distance from their original flock. If a male was to take food without conflict from another bird, it was always from a non-relative bird. Females, however, showed no discrimination when they were taking food (without conflict) from others. Since it is females that spread out, they’re less likely to have close relatives in their new flocks–hence they show no preference for taking food from close relatives or non-relatives.
Perhaps most interestingly, but not surprising, was the acknowledgement that House Sparrow have to be able to recognize and know close relatives:
Since we found differences between several aspects of scrounging behaviour towards close kin and nonkin birds, sparrows are likely to be able to distinguish between genetically closely related and unrelated flockmates.
Since House Sparrows neither breed co-operatively or form family groups, their ability to recognize close relatives is seen as significant.
So, now, while you’re sitting on a patio this summer and see House Sparrows at your feet, spend some time watching them and their reactions over food. You might be able to decide if they’re close relatives or simply strangers.
Source Details: Zoltán Tótha, Veronika Bókonya, Ádám Z. Lendvaib, Krisztián Szabóc, Zsolt Pénzesc,and András Liker (2009). Effects of relatedness on social-foraging tactic use in house sparrows. Animal Behaviour,77(2), 337. [↩]
Hosted in Montreal next spring, this congress is kind of like the Olympics of the environmental education world: held biennially, it draws together academics and practitioners from around the world. I just submitted an abstract for a paper that is largely based on my dissertation research. Here’s the 250 words-or-less abstract:
Bird-watching remains one of the few ways that people continue to have direct experiences with wild animals; animals which are increasingly recognized as indicators for the overall health of ecosystems worldwide. Birders, as a community of practice, offer an opportunity to investigate how adults engage with non-formal environmental learning about the more-than-human world. With little more than an interest in birds and the right kind of technology, a motivated person has the opportunity to participate in citizen-science projects, the likes of which have been recognized as a source of â€œgoodâ€ scientific information about bird populations. Yet, birders are not a heterogeneous group and birding is not a heterogeneous act. Echoing Harawayâ€™s notion of partial perspectives, local knowledge about birds is created within a mediating web of relations. This paper describes the preliminary findings of a qualitative research project, using a modified approach based on grounded theory, which investigates the multiple practices of birding. Looking behind official accounts of birdwatching, the project describes the multiple ways that birds, places, practices and knowledges are produced. Meaningful bird conservation and by extension, a sustainable relationship with the more-than-human will require the committed attention and action of a wide variety of human stakeholders. The results of this research offer an opportunity to examine the varied motivations and behaviours that citizens of our Western society engage with bird life.