Tuesday night at the posters

By Hugh Powell
August 6, 2008
American Ornithologists' Union poster session, American Ornithologists' Union poster session, 2008.
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I spent Tuesday evening at the poster session, a sort of grown-up version of a science fair where people stand in front of shop-window-sized sheets of paper crammed with details of their most recent research. The posters were pinneded to rows of bulletin boards in a vast, low-ceilinged basement, and everyone piled in to eat vegetables and dip. There was a cash bar and – off in a side room, a bird-themed poetry reading.

Posters are places to discuss preliminary research and small projects – a Michigan rarity identified as the state’s first Tropical Kingbird by DNA analysis of its droppings; the indifference of Northern Cardinals to military training and tank traffic on Fort Hood, Texas.

But posters also have one huge advantage over the more formal scientific talks given during the day: you can talk to the researchers, interrupt them, admit that you don’t know what they’re talking about, ask them where they came up with their ideas, and generally brainstorm without having to limit yourself to a single polite question at the end of a talk.

I was intrigued by two posters about pollution. One by Catherine Engelman suggested it may be time to start testing Burrowing Owls for pesticide exposure. Owls that breed in the plains of Canada spend the winter in agricultural fields on the Texas-Mexico border, where they roost in culverts. Although the fields aren’t in cultivation, pesticide residues collect in the soil and then wash into the culverts. There, the owls could be exposed through breathing in the dust, absorbing chemicals through their skin, or by eating contaminated insects. Unfortunately, no one has yet done the required bloodwork, owing to funding constraints, Engelman said.

Around Yellowstone National Park, Bryan Bedrosian sampled lead levels in Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, and Common Ravens. If you’re not sure when elk hunting season starts in Wyoming, you can take a look at his results graphs: over the course of four years, lead levels spiked within a day of the start of hunting season. The birds get the lead by eating shot in carcass remains that hunters leave. Eagles seem hardest hit – perhaps because they dominate the carcasses and gorge themselves on the meat. Their lead levels occasionally hit double the lethal dose established in lab studies, according to Bedrosian, who is a hunter as well as a birder. It’s some of the clearest evidence yet in support of switching to nontoxic copper bullets.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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