Monthly Archives: April 2006

Nesting Red-Tailed Hawks Cherished in Texas

Hey, there’s good news in the Dallas Morning News:

Hospital won’t evict family of hawks

Mesquite: Baylor’s got a new maternity wing

06:20 AM CDT on Thursday, April 27, 2006

By GRETEL C. KOVACH / The Dallas Morning News

Baylor Health Care System has gone to new heights to care for expectant mothers – specifically the ones with wings and sharp curved beaks.

[Click image for a larger version] NATHAN HUNSINGER/DMN
NATHAN HUNSINGER/DMN
A nest of red-tailed hawks is perched atop a billboard off Interstate 30 in Mesquite.

Forty feet above the traffic on Interstate 30 in Mesquite, a family of red-tailed hawks is roosting on a billboard, sheltered from the wind by a sign advertising a long-gone Baylor event.

Early this month, Impact Outdoor Advertising employees discovered an imposing mother hawk and her mate nestled on several eggs in a nest of leafy branches.

They needed to change the outdated sign but were given strict instructions not to disturb the outdoor maternity ward, said Christie Hansen, a Baylor marketing production coordinator who also works as an animal-rescue volunteer.

Contrast that with the awful disregard for raptor life shown by the USDA in Florida, where nesting red-shouldered hawks were shotgunned to provide full access to a country club for golfers.

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DFW, Here I Am

I flew Continental Airlines from Oakland to Dallas/FortWorth yesterday. Things went uneventfully, except perhaps for the spill somebody at the food court at Houston Intercontinental made that reached the bottom of my backpack before someone pointed out that it was getting wet. And so Marc and Chris picked me up from the airport and got me to Marc’s place.

I’m getting ready for some talks. There will be one on Tuesday evening at Southern Methodist University, where I will debate whether “intelligent design” should be taught in public schools. I will take the negative. The location is the theater of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center at SMU. The event will begin at 7PM. There is no admission charge and the event is open to the public. On Saturday, I will talk to the North Texas Skeptics on the outcome of the Kitzmiller case and what has happened since then. That will start at 2 PM at the Center for Community Cooperation in Dallas. That’s open to the public, too. There are a couple of additional bits that may work out; if so I will talk to a class at the University of Texas at Arlington on Thursday, and at a church in Arlington on Sunday.

So you may not hear much from me this week. We will see…

Update: The SMU debate was featured in the SMU Daily Campus.

Elsberry’s fifteen minute presentation was nothing but sheer rebuttal and refutation. Claming that ID “isn’t even a science,” the biologist stated that “anti-evolutionists have utilized political action to gain government support for teaching ID in public schools.”

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USDA and Better Golfing By Shooting Hawks

Remember the red-shouldered hawks gunned down in Florida to clear the way to and from the nineteenth hole for golfers? I sent email feedback to both USDA and the US F&WS, as I know several of you also did.

I don’t know about any of the rest of you, but I just received an email response from the USDA about the incident. The fumes of post-hoc rationalization are pretty strong here. More below the fold.

Continue reading

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Goodies in Nature

From the latest Nature email announcement:

Evolution: Spot on (and off)
The repeated appearance and loss of a spot on the wings of fruitflies during their evolution is caused by mutations in one gene. This finding provides an unprecedented window on the genetics of convergent evolution.
Gregory A. Wray

http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y3g0Eq

A Cretaceous terrestrial snake with robust hindlimbs and a sacrum A new species of fossil snake with robust hindlimbs and a sacral region is likely to be the most primitive snake yet known – its features indicating a terrestrial, perhaps burrowing origin of snakes, rather than the marine origin that is sometimes suggested.
Sebastian Apesteguia and Hussam Zaher
Abstract: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y3p0Ez
Article: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y3q0E1

Evolution of cooperative strategies from first principles
A computer model that lets notional organisms make their own rules as they go along results in a rich ecology of cooperative behaviour never before seen in such simulations, in which cooperative ‘starlings’ and ‘ravens’ are added to the expected ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ of game theory.
Mikhail Burtsev and Peter Turchin
Abstract: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y3r0E2
Article: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y3s0E3

Repeated morphological evolution through cis-regulatory changes in a pleiotropic gene
Male wing pigmentation pattern involved in courtship display has been gained and
lost multiple times in a Drosophila clade, each of the cases analysed (two gains
and two losses) involving regulatory changes at the pleiotropic pigmentation
gene yellow.
Benjamin Prud’homme et al.
Abstract: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y3v0E6
Article: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y3w0E7

Designed divergent evolution of enzyme function
Yasuo Yoshikuni et al.
Abstract: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y380E4
Article: http://info.nature.com/cgi-bin24/DM/y/eXqF0Bhsg80Ch0y4A0EF

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Transforming a Data Layout

Diane posed me a problem. She had a large spreadsheet filled with data items in three columns, like so:

LekID Year Number
Well 2001 1
Well 2002 2
Well 2003 3
Mill 2001 4
Mill 2002 5
Mill 2003 6
Plain 2001 7
Plain 2002 8
Plain 2003 9

But what she wanted was a table like this:

Year Mill Plain Well
2001 4 7 1
2002 5 8 2
2003 6 9 3

Now think of having about thirty sites and years going back to the 1960s. This is something tedious and error-prone to rearrange by hand.

Enter a Perl script to help the job along.

Continue reading

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PT and Nature Immunology

There’s an article in the latest Nature Immunology by three of my Panda’s Thumb colleagues:

Nature Immunology 7, 433 – 435 (2006)

doi:10.1038/ni0506-433

Immunology in the spotlight at the Dover ‘Intelligent Design’ trial

Andrea Bottaro, Matt A Inlay & Nicholas J Matzke

They lay out the role that immunology research had in the trial testimony and the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover. In six months, they will be able to post the plain HTML version. Until then, the article is only available by subscription of some sort.

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I’m Tall, and My Heart Beats Oddly

I’m six foot three inches tall. In 2002 and 2003, I had two instances of idiopathic atrial fibrillation. That last just means that the contractions of the atrial chambers of my heart got out of sync with the rest, and “idiopathic” means that they couldn’t figure out why that happened.

The first time was during a bad flare-up of the ulcerative colitis. My gastroenterologist did about three minutes of colonoscopy and declared me sick. I don’t think he believed me or my medical history until he saw for himself. I was really in a state, because I not only had the ulcerative colitis, but also had a Clostridium difficile infection on top of that. So I went from the usual maintenance drugs for colitis to higher doses of those, a strong antibiotic to deal with the C. difficile, and my first course of steroids, a high daily dose of prednisone. It was after a couple of weeks of that regimen that I was going about collecting the full list of side effects that they warn of in the prednisone patient data sheet (elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, water retention in the feet and lower legs, irritability, paranoia… I swore that if I discovered a “change in menstrual cycle” I was going off the stuff) that I got the first incident of atrial fibrillation. My heart rate went up to about 130 beats per minute and I felt woozy. We went into the emergency room, and after a few hours, they gave me some medication to convert me back to normal rhythm. After about twenty minutes, I synced up again, and my heart rate dropped to the prednisone “normal” of about 90 beats per minute. After that, they gave me a heart rate monitor that I wore for a day, to try to catch any short-term irregularities that would indicate the sort of problems that they knew about treating. Nothing happened. They did an echocardiogram, which showed only a small amount of mitral valve prolapse. Take an antibiotic before procedures like dental work, they said. But otherwise there was nothing that they knew to do about it, except to take a daily dose of aspirin to “thin” the blood a little, making it less likely that I should throw a clot if I were fibrillating and not aware of the fact for more than 24 hours or so.

The second incident was in 2003. Diane and I visited with our friend Janice B. in Albuquerque on the way back from my dissertation defense at Texas A&M. In the morning, we had stopped by a fast-food place and gotten a great big Coca-Cola soft drink for sipping as we drove there. We had dinner, then Janice took us to ride the tram to the observation platform near the peak of Sandia Mountain. As the doors on the tram were closing, I felt my heart doing something different. I told Diane and Janice that I was having another atrial fibrillation episode, then had a lie-down on the floor of the tram as we had about a fifteen minute ride up. It was another thirty minutes before the next tram went down. On the car ride back to Janice’s place, I converted back to normal rhythm on my own. When we got back home, I had another couple of rounds with the monitor, but nothing further was found. I have stayed away from caffeine since that incident, though. Later, my sister told me that, yes, she has that, too, and she’s known to avoid caffeine for years now.

So today I’m looking at ScienceDaily and find an article there titled, “Taller People More Likely To Develop Atrial Fibrillation”. A study at Emory University found that risk of atrial fibrillation increased with increasing height.

Analysis of data from a registry of patients with left ventricular dysfunction indicates that height is an independent risk factor for an arrhythmia of the upper chambers of the heart, according to a new study in the April 18, 2006, issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

“Tall stature is a potent risk for the development of atrial fibrillation and is independent of other clinical risk factors. Indeed, the male predominance of atrial fibrillation appears to be explained by the difference in height between men and women,” said Jonathan J. Langberg, M.D. from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common sustained cardiac arrhythmia. During an episode, the upper chambers of the heart flutter instead of pumping blood effectively. The incidence increases as people age, with a prevalence of more than 5 percent in patients over the age of 65 years.

[...]

“Tall patients may need more aggressive attempts to attenuate risk factors. Controlled trials should evaluate stature in treatment and control arms,” Dr. Langberg said.

[...]

“Although the paper supports previous evidence of a relationship between atrial size and atrial fibrillation, there is no therapeutically applicable outcome from the study, because you can’t alter your height as a risk factor for atrial fibrillation!” Prof. Feneley said.

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The Cost of What’s for Dinner

Earlier this evening, I went to the grocery store and picked up some things. Then I came home and found out that most of my grocery basket was just plain wrong for the planet. You know, except for the bread, salad, fruit, and bell pepper I bought, pretty much everything else had something to do with animal products: milk, cheese, meat, prepared frozen dinners with meat, etc. Researchers at the University of Chicago report that the closer a diet comes to that used by exclusive vegans, the better it is in terms of reduced greenhouse emissions and fossil fuel consumption.

The average American diet requires the production of an extra ton and a half of carbon dioxide-equivalent, in the form of actual carbon dioxide as well as methane and other greenhouse gases compared to a strictly vegetarian diet, according to Eshel and Martin. And with Earth Day approaching on April 22, cutting down on just a few eggs or hamburgers each week is an easy way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, they said. “We neither make a value judgment nor do we make a categorical statement,” said Eshel, an Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences.

“We say that however close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet. It doesn’t have to be all the way to the extreme end of vegan. If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you’ve already made a substantial difference.”

Well, I don’t know that I can go so far as a exclusive vegan diet myself. I did make a pretty big shift in diet as a result of the surgeries I had in 2004. I eat far less beef and more chicken, so far as meat is concerned. I don’t seem to do well even with a primarily vegetarian diet with cheese and milk included. But I can appreciate some of the message being sent by Eshel and Martin.

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Neurons and a Little Light Microscopy

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute are using a new technique in light microscopy to image individual synaptic vesicles of a neuron. Ordinary light microscopy doesn’t have the resolution to pick out individual vesicles, but what they call STED microscopy can do so.

Fig.1: [Stimulated Emission Depletion] STED microscopy: The excitation light beam (EXC beam, in blue) is steered by a mirror through the objective lens, and due to diffraction is focused to a spot ca. 200 nm in diameter on the sample. The excitation light excites fluorescent markers which tag molecules of interest (e.g. proteins) in the sample. The markers are excited to a higher energy state, from which they emit light of a longer wavelength (via fluorescence decay) when they return to the ground state. By scanning this blue excitation spot over the sample (the cell) and recording the emitted fluorescent light with a computer, one can form an image of the sample. The smaller the excitation spot is, the higher the resolution of the microscope. However, due to diffraction, the excitation spot cannot be made smaller than ~200 nm by focusing with a lens. The trick with STED microscopy is that one uses a second beam (STED beam, in orange) to quench the fluorescent markers before they fluoresce. Because the STED beam is doughnut-shaped and centered over the excitation spot, one is able to preferentially quench the markers at the outer edge of the excitation spot and not those in the center. The result is a smaller effective fluorescence spot (green), here reduced to a diameter of ~66 nm. By making the STED doughnut very intense, it is in principle possible to shrink the fluorescent spot to molecular size, thus attaining molecular resolution – an exciting goal for the near future.

This is obviously not a great way to go for moving subjects, but for a fixed preparation, this sounds like an exciting technique.

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Chinese “White Dolphin” Conservation

A BBC news report says that China has established a reserve area on its southern coast for the endangered white dolphin, Sousa Chinensis. Pollution is thought to be a major factor in current decline of the population.

The plight of the white dolphin was one of the projects Stephen Leatherwood was working on when he died of cancer in 1997. Stephen was a Ph.D. student at TAMU, and graduated from there in 1996. He already had a long list of publications on cetacean biology before going back to school to get what he called his “academic union card”.

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archy and mehitabel

I have a book, Archy and Mehitabel, by Don Marquis, that is a bit of cultural literacy. In Marquis’s columns for the New York Sun, “archy” was a cockroach imbued with the soul of a free verse poet who typed out messages to Marquis by a laborious process of climbing to the top of Marquis’s typewriter and diving down onto the next letter key. Many of archy’s notes to Marquis bemoan the fact that his writing lacks capital letters. You don’t have to buy the book to get a taste of archy’s view of the world, though; just head over to this page and look in the “Don Marquis corner” for six “archy” etexts (the first link is not an “archy” tale).

One of them may even have something relevant to the idea of “doomsday” that has been discussed here lately:

well well boss there is
something to be said
for the lyric and imperial
attitude
believe that everything is for
you until you discover
that you are for it
sing your faith in what you
get to eat right up to the
minute you are eaten
for you are going
to be eaten

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The Mammoths of Paris

I got an email asking me about my opinion of the field of cryptozoology. The following is the gist of my reply:

I haven’t gotten familiar with what gets published in cryptozoology, so it would be difficult — or inappropriate — for me to pronounce any sort of “authoritative” judgement on it. That said, I personally have not bothered to get acquainted because it does not seem likely to prove worth the time.

There is a point to the idea that we have not identified most of the species that inhabit the earth, therefore we should not be overly surprised to find new species. On the other hand, the sorts of animal populations most associated with cryptozoology are macroscopic, meso-scale organisms, not yet another beetle species.

It was through the inverse of the cryptozoological argument that Georges Cuvier convinced the scientific world that extinction of species was a real phenomenon, by demonstrating the existence of mammoth fossils in the Paris basin. If extinction were not a real phenomenon, asked Cuvier, then where are the present-day mammoths of Paris? The obvious conclusion was that extinction was real. Cryptozoology, it seems to me, relies on saying that the mammoths of Paris could still be there, and we cannot exclude their present-day existence with anything less than a completely exhaustive search. If there is some more subtle argument for cryptozoology, I don’t know about it. (But I suspect a reader will provide it for me shortly…)

There is something whimsically appealing to the notion of mammoths making themselves at home in Paris, as the mass of humanity remains completely oblivious of their presence. There’s no need to treat it as anything other than whimsy, though, that I see.

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Rusty and the Lure

Last evening, I took Rusty out in the backyard to do some lure-flying. The lure is a leather form vaguely shaped like a bird that is tethered to a leather-wrapped weight. The falconer swings the lure and — if all goes well — the falcon or hawk comes and tries to bind to the lure.

I weighed Rusty, and while she was much heavier than I would take her for a hunting outing, she seemed responsive to the lure, so out we went. We had about a dozen flights, and on about five of those I got her to swoop in, miss the lure on the first pass, but then turn in the air and catch it on the second pass. Diane and I would like to get Rusty to the point where we can reliably get her to actually still turn in the air and hit the lure after two consecutive misses.

The lure helps keep the bird fit, and also is useful in the field for bringing birds back quickly, as might be indicated in circumstances like the falconer spotting a owl in the area. Great horned owls are large predators that don’t mind taking hawks if they are convenient. Earlier this year, there was a point where Rusty was perched on a pole and I noticed a large bird headed our direction. I didn’t have the lure on me (Diane had it), but I did run over toward the pole waving my arms and yelling. Rusty looked at me like, “Crazy human,” but the great-horned owl broke off its approach and headed elsewhere.

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Other Science News

Oregon State University researchers report that DNA nucleic acid bases enter a “dark state” on exposure to ultraviolet radiation, wherein they are less stable. This can lead to mutations. They also demonstrate that this effect largely is mitigated by the presence of water. They conclude that the presence of water was necessary to the origin of life.

Another group of researchers at Oregon State have presented evidence that the population decline in white sturgeon of the Columbia River is tied to increasing amounts of pollutants, including PCBs and DDT.

At the University of Oslo, they have been looking at Crucian Carp, which they say can “live for months without oxygen”. They want to see if the carp’s means of dealing with anoxic conditions can be applied to humans. An anoxic-living vertebrate? That’s real news to me.

And at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, they are looking to the brittlestar as a model organism on regeneration of tissue, organs, and limbs using stem cells. Since brittlestars are invertebrates, pretty much no one gives a rip what researchers do to them or with them. The release explains that this will allow them “to do experiments that avoid the ethical issues associated with human and vertebrate research.”

Got a headache? Get lots of headaches? Get lots of headaches that the usual treatments don’t touch? The Mayo Clinic in Arizona is doing trials on an implanted neurostimulator that stimulates the occipital nerve. Of 16 patients in the test study, “Six patients had no change or less than 50 percent reduction in pain, eight reported 50 to 95 percent pain relief and two had complete relief.” You need two implants for this, to stimulate the occipital nerve on both the left and right.

In “Oh, no” news, UC San Diego researchers say that “‘Hands Free’ Isn’t Mind Free: Performing Even Easy Tasks Impairs Driving”, where they demonstrate that in their test group, use of a hands-free telephony device still results in 174 milliseconds delay in response time. “Participants were 174 milliseconds slower at braking when the two tasks occurred at the same time than when they were presented 350 milliseconds apart. While 174 milliseconds may sound tiny, it translates to 16 feet in a car going 65 mph.” Now, I’m going to have to say that I’m not liking the way that these results are reported on the ScienceDaily site. Response time studies have always shown a high degree of variability in response times both within the same subject and between subjects, and I suspect that this study is no exception. But we got nothing to indicate just how large the standard deviation was in the response time difference in the study group, just the impossibly precise figure of an additional 174 ms added to normal response time. What does that mean? If this study is like other RT studies, it means that it is likely that the range of RTs with the treatment substantially overlapped the RTs when stimuli were more than 350ms apart. And on the other end, that people will quite likely experience the occasional RT that is much longer than the 174 ms delay average. Deciding to drop back an additional 16 feet at 65 mph to compensate for using a hands-free device should not be thought of as a sure thing: the RT in some particular case could be longer than the average figure, leading to very bad outcomes.

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New Tire Life Cycle Proposed

Penn State University has received a grant for a demonstration project to turn automobile tires into road-building materials. They plan to bale tires from the Starr Tire Pile into blocks a few feet long on a side, then use the blocks to improve dirt roads that contribute to sediment pollution via runoff. Drainage structures can be built-in to the assemblage.

This is a pretty neat idea, in that tires that begin their usefulness in travelling over roadways may now have continued utility in being the roadways. The press release also notes that when the tires are used in this way, they also are unavailable as mosquito breeding grounds. I wish the Penn State researchers good luck with this demonstration project. I hope it works out and can be applied more generally.

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California Salmon Fishing To Be Restricted

An AP article relates that regulators in California have voted to restrict the salmon fishing season along 700 miles of coastline to help preserve the Klamath River salmon population. As usual, commercial fishermen as protesting, trying to convince regulators that exploitation should continue as usual.

Here’s a caption to an accompanying photo:

Bill Waterhouse joins more than 200 other sport and commercial fishermen and supporters, protesting the proposed closure of salmon fishing off the California coast, during a rally in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, April 4, 2006. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering closing 700 miles of coastline from salmon fishing in an effort to boost the chinook salmon populations on Klamath River. Opponents of the closure claim the shrinking salmon population is caused by poor water management and not over fishing. They also say the closure would hurt not only fishermen, but boat operators, bait shops, and tackle manufacturers. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In the photo, Waterhouse is holding up a sign that reads, “[pics of river with dead fish] The Klamath River Salmon Kills are caused by Low Water and In-River Conditions! [pic of dock being sealed] Why would anyone think that this is a solution?”

No, Mr. Waterhouse, restricting the fishing season is not a solution. I doubt anyone did think it was. That, though, is not the point. The Klamath River salmon population is in trouble. The river’s conditions are bad, therefore the productivity of the river is reduced. Other things that can make further reductions in productivity include, for example, fewer adult salmon making their way up the Klamath River to breed. What could possibly cause “fewer adult salmon”? For some odd reason, Mr. Waterhouse, the PFMC thinks that fishing means that adult salmon end up on a plate accompanied by garlic butter or maybe a pesto sauce, and some of those fish (who are making me hungry now) would actually be part of the Klamath River population, and therefore be unable to make their previously scheduled appointment for this year’s chance at a bit of dalliance way up the Klamath River*. Yes, it is disturbing that what happens elsewhere that you had no direct part in should cause economic hardship for you. That still doesn’t change the facts on the ground. You probably don’t like the increase in gasoline prices; are you protesting the government’s decisions on the grounds that what goes on in the Mideast should not affect you here?

* The steelhead salmon of the Klamath River are a bit different in that they are iteroparous, which means that they have more than one breeding season in their life. So adults try to make it back to the ocean after breeding, meaning that in the Klamath River they have to deal with the poor conditions on a two-way journey.

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Newspaper Articles and Transcripts

Usually, you just have to take what a newspaper decides to print and reach a decision about the content with no other source of information. Mike Dunford of the Questionable Authority has a post comparing and contrasting the 2 April Seguin Gazette-Enterprise article on a speech given by Eric Pianka against a transcript of the same speech released today. It’s a doozy. It shows an absolutely damning pattern of media bias on the part of the reporter, Jamie Mobley. Mike does the hard slogging of matching up what got in the newspaper with what was in the transcript. Also, Mike takes up audio sources to fill out more details. If you are looking for an instance of the mainstream media caught with its hand in the cookie jar, this is the one. Go read.

Update: The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise apparently also thought Mike’s piece was hard-hitting. They are now carefully scrubbing their website of any trace that they had ever said anything about Eric R. Pianka. Obviously, letting people compare the transcripts to what they had originally reported illuminated clearly the sort of bias that journalists supposedly don’t do. Like so many in the USA, they seem to interpret those sort of guidelines in terms of getting caught rather than in terms of doing the right thing. The right thing now would be to retract the claims of the earlier articles that were based upon a dishonest slanting of the material and issuing a formal apology, both to Dr. Pianka and to their readership. We’ll see whether the removal of the false material is a prelude to the appropriate course of action within a couple of days. The best place for it would be to put the apology in the Sunday paper, the one with the largest readership. If we get to Monday and there’s no apology, I think that the removal of the erroneous material will best be explained as the paper’s management taking up some tips from Orwell’s 1984.

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Idiocy With Guns

OK, I’m just about speechless. Look at this.

Bird experts and enthusiasts reacted with surprise and anger Thursday when they learned that two nesting hawks at an exclusive golf resort in Orange County were shot down by federal agents.

The red-shouldered hawks were killed Wednesday morning near the clubhouse of the Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort near Interstate 4 and south of the Dr. Phillips community. About a dozen guests had complained of being attacked.

[...]

The resort asked U.S. Department of Agriculture officials to remove the birds, which can have wing spans of nearly 4 feet and prey on snakes, frogs and insects. Although relatively common in Florida, red-shouldered hawks are federally protected.

After an agency biologist determined the birds were a threat to people, an agency technician killed them with a shotgun. Both hawks were perched in trees in an area cleared of employees and guests, Channell said.

Bernice Constantin, state director of wildlife services in Gainesville for the Agriculture Department, said the shooting of raptors is a rare event.

I’ll bet it is. Especially for the USDA, which is not the relevant authority. The US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior is the government agency charged with issuing permits under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They are the ones that the USDA gets permits from, and they should have been handed the problem immediately.

They might have had a few synapses more to put on the problem than did the USDA agents (“On *whose* side?”) who were obviously way beyond their cognitive capabililties on this one.

Addition: Hat tip to grrlscientist, who had this advice:

Okay, peeps, EVERYONE who cares about how wildlife-human conflicts are handled in this country should write STRONG complaints about this incident.

Huh. It may be that my friend and colleague from when I was at the University of Florida, Dr. Barbara Kohn, will end up fielding some of your complaints, as she works for USDA’s APHIS.

Update:

You know, I got to thinking about what good would come of writing to USDA to ask them to police themselves. What we have here is a pretty clear case of exceedingly poor judgement (at best) or a possible violation of the permit.

Write, email, or telephone US Fish and Wildlife Service and suggest that they rescind the USDA permit to deal with native bird species. As a poor second, ask that the USDA’s permit be revised to explicitly bar them from taking lethal measures in dealing with native bird species, or that lethal measures may only be applied with written approval of F&WS. At the very minimum, the two USDA idiot field agents responsible for this fiasco absolutely must be removed from the current permit. I think that complaints to the permitting agency are more likely to produce results than complaints to the perpetrating agency.

Here is US F&WS contact information for the relevant region:

REGION 4
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Migratory Bird Permit Office
P.O. Box 49208
Atlanta, GA 30359

Tel. (404) 679-7070
Fax (404) 679-4180
Email permitsR4MB@fws.gov
(Please include your telephone number in the text of your message so we may better serve you).

If you would be so kind, please enter a copy of what you send to either the USDA or US F&WS in a comment here, too.

Update: A comment on “Scientist Interrupted” site relates that the nest was left for two days. When the nest was finally examined, the chicks were dead. It also reports that the golf course management consulted with Florida Audubon, who told them about a successful relocation of hawks and their nest. The golf course management apparently decided that would take too long. So my previous willingness to give the golf course management the benefit of doubt (perhaps they just called a trigger-happy agency by chance) is fast fading. It isn’t just the idiots in the USDA who need taking down a notch or two. Word is that the birding community intersects and overlaps with the golf community, and a boycott of the course is being urged.

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Take an Evolutionary Biology Test!

Over on Dispatches from the Culture Wars, there is a discussion of having people submit answers to a test on evolutionary biology before accepting any claim to authority on the topic. One of the commenters points out a test that is online from an evolutionary biology college course. Allen MacNeill, who teaches evolutionary biology himself, relates that even he would likely have to open a book in order to make a perfect score on it, due to differences in emphasis between the course he teaches and the one this test comes from. That makes me feel somewhat better, because although I’m confident that I could score well (though very likely not perfectly), it would take some time and re-acquaintance with the concepts of some of the particular questions. I’ll cite the twenty-plus years since my undergraduate evolution and genetics courses in my defense.

There isn’t an answer key, but you can probably gauge your own preparedness for each question reasonably well.

There’s also a link to a much lighter test from an intro to biology for non-majors class that’s linked in the comments over there. If that one causes you trouble, it’s a bad sign.

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