Friday: Evacuate Portland, My Mind Is Going to Explode

By Hugh Powell

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5:45 p.m. The final talk has just ended, and the feeling rippling through the Portland Hilton Tower is not unlike the last day of eighth grade. Professors, postdocs, and grad students spill into the hallways, bumping into old friends they hadn’t run into yet, even though it’s the last day.

A tremendous burbling winds up the escalators and into the atrium, where everyone talks at once about incubation strategies, single nucleotide polymorphisms, and where they’re going for dinner. The hotel’s weekend arrivals are already here, organizing their luggage in the lobby – a wedding party in khaki shorts; vacationers in business casual. They see the horde of sun-weathered biologists ascending the stairs, and head for the elevators.

Hugs are exchanged; reunions planned. People recap their favorite talks and float ideas for collaboration, or flop in leather armchairs looking worn out. More than one distinguished professor eyes the cash bar.

Graduate students in plaid shirts and grimy caps, t-shirts and technical sandals, make resolutions about setting up a long-term research project like Rosemary Grant’s, in the Galapagos, or Peter Arcese’s, off Vancouver Island. Everyone has that intent look that comes from keeping a lot of new information in their minds for just a little longer than they thought they were capable of. Then they head off to the banquet, and let the ideas fall where they may.

Just in the last nine hours, I’ve witnessed murder by cowbird; discovered that mosquitoes breeding in gas-well ponds are making sage-grouse sick with West Nile virus; learned about mercury contamination in Tree Swallows and Red-eyed Vireos; heard that songbirds carry surprising amounts of bird flu (don’t worry, not the virulent kind); watched the results of Project FeederWatch in tracking West Nile virus in Illinois and Michigan; met some feather mites with a sweet tooth for preening oil, and been persuaded by Lab director John Fitzpatrick that we have better things to do with our time than worry about the exact definition of a subspecies.

That was before lunch. The afternoon brought discussions of wind-power turbines’ effect on birds, followed by how to count birds using radar and night-vision goggles. The Lab’s Fuller Evolutionary Biology professor, Irby Lovette, delivered some bad news about using small regions of DNA to estimate something called “heterozygosity.” Cheryl Sesler, of the University of Tennessee at Martin, announced that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers seem to have wood-digesting bacteria in their guts, much like termites, cows, and ostriches, except none of those species fly across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year. And then Ken Dial, of the University of Montana, gave some closure to the meeting by explaining how he thinks flight evolved in the first place.

Perhaps I’m just light-headed from blood loss (I joined some 200 attendees who gave blood in a UCLA study to examine whether people who handle birds show any exposure to bird flu) but I think that’s enough new ideas for one week. Did I mention that next week, in Ithaca, is the meeting of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology?

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. I’ve had a blast.

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