Graeme Wood

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On Wings of Amateurs

The splendid Effect Measure, a relentless tracker of avian influenza news, explains the paper’s relevance to public health. If diseases are human-borne, we have to watch human movement patterns (spraying planes before they touch down in New Zealand, vaccinating pilgrims before they join the scrums in Mecca); if they are bird-borne, we have to figure out where these ailing avians are going, and why. The birds in question here are leaf-warblers and thrushes who start off in Siberia and head toward South Asia. Some end up confused and end up in Europe, instead, where they die. The paper suggests that a longtime hypothesis — that birds end up in the wrong place because they get blown off-course — isn’t right. According to decades of reports by birdwatchers across Europe, the fat birds go off-course just as regularly as the skinny ones (who would presumably be more affected by winds). The paper says the lost birds have a genetically warped sense of direction: it tells them how far to go, but steers them wrong.

Migratory birds might not be spreading the virus, anyway. (Shipped poultry are the more likely vector.) But the paper does point to a promising trajectory for research in biology and public health. The data points in this study include those in the Handbuch der Voegel Mitteleuropas, a comprehensive guide compiled under Swiss birdman Urs N. Glutz von Blotzheim, who has been laboring over the fourteen-volume series since 1966.

Many of the rest of the data, though, are from bird-obsessives — and God bless them. We must harness the zeal of the diligent amateurs. The decades-long toil of collation that produced Glutz von Blotzheim’s magisterial volume will soon, one hopes, be supplemented by new technology that will allow them to contribute even more. Imagine if every birdwatching-otaku (not just ones who, like Glutz von Blotzheim, get paid for it), had a Web- and GPS-enabled camera, capable of instantly uploading a bird-image, tagged with time and precise geographic coordinates, and perhaps with a species label. Data like these could be available in real-time. Maps rich with tagged images would allow graphics that demonstrated trends like the one in this paper. Since this possibility has me, a nonbirdwatcher, giddy with excitement, I can only assume the real birdwatching buffs are already on the case, and a flood of even more fascinating papers is forthcoming.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

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