Aflockalypse Now – what the birds and the bees are telling us (1/21/11)
The Birds and the Bees
Love, romance, sex. That’s what the “birds and the bees” are supposed to be about. Yet recently the birds and the bees have been providing us different lessons about regeneration, the rapid process which keeps us and all the other living things alive. Many of these lessons affect our survival.
It Only Takes a Pigeon…
The mathematician and humorist Tom Lehrer, singing in 1960’s about how little it took to poison pigeons, probably did not expect one of the world’s great nature filmmakers to subject his least favorite avians to eight hours of television. Yet that’s what David Attenborough did. Pigeons were forced to watch eight hours of his documentary “The Life of Birds.” The trick was they only got to watch with one eye, and were kept awake through their afternoon nap.
The experiment was on sleep and the brain. Later that night the pigeons, whose slow wave sleep is similar to humans, were found to have much more intense sleep in the parts of their visual cortex that were stimulated through the day.
The brain took the information and reworked it. That’s just one important thing sleep does – it rewires the brain. Information in combined with all the old information in memory, makes newer information – and a different set of brain paradigms that regenerate the body.
How much did the pigeons learn about other birds? I hope they gleaned more than humans usually do from television. Yet other lessons from today’s birds are more ominous.
Jackdaws dying in the hundreds in Sweden; starlings dead in the streets of Constanta, Bulgaria; blackbirds “falling from the sky” in Arkansas. The new forms of rapid bird demise has brought international attention to the latest “aflockalypse,” as humans try to find a common cause for avian destruction.
Such causes are elusive. The Swedish jackdaws apparently were run over by motorists, while the Bulgarian starlings drank themselves to death through “grape merc,” the leavings of wine making.
The case of the Arkansas blackbirds, including the hated agricultural pest the red winged blackbird, is perhaps more telling. The most current theory is that they were killed by New Year’s Celebrations – the fireworks did it. Pathologists have found numerous hard injuries as birds, apparently trying to escape the noise and noisome chemical of holiday revelers, smashed into buildings and trees.
Government statistics are that between approximately 100 million and a billion birds smash into buildings and die in America alone.
Birds around the world are very stressed out. And they’re not alone.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Honeybees pollinate one third of human food, making them critical to our survival. Yet they have been dying of late “like flies” throughout the world.
Recently the New York Times reported that a University of Montana researcher, working with sophisticated IT techniques developed by the US military, had potentially found “the cause” – that a combination of virus and fungus might be killing the bees, aided by mites.
Except it turned out that the same researcher, Jeremy Bromenshenk, had first proposed that pesticides were killing the bees. Later he changed his mind and received major grants from Bayer Agriculture, which makes some of the most popular pesticides.
There is very good evidence that agricultural pesticides weaken and kill bees while making them act as if drunk. The active agents are neonicotinoids.
Yes, that’s right – the agents which give smokers their high are in slightly varied form killing off agricultural pests by the trillions – and may also be killing off animals that directly feed $15 billion to the US economy and act as a linchpin to our food supply. Weakened bees may be prime game for viruses and fungi that ultimately kill them – just as pneumocystis carinii and other “rare” pathogens kill off humans weakened by AIDS.
The Linear Delusion
People tend to see change as occurring gradually. We grow from infants to adults. We progress from elementary school to secondary school to university. We mature, generally get married and have children, and start on the slow, encroaching chronic diseases that eventually kill us. We tend to see things moving up and down in relatively straight lines.
Yet this modern picture of human development is false. Human history has sharply changed through epidemics, which frequently begin or follow wars. Our history is punctuated by sharp changes and accelerated events.
Nowadays people think of “Black Swan” as a ballet horror movie, but the term also means statistically “unlikely” events that are nonetheless sufficiently common to cause frequent havoc. Financial crises and infectious epidemics show that “linear causality” may work most days, ut the feedback loops deeply intertwined n the human and natural worlds also provoke sudden and accelerating shifts.
Things can blow up quickly, and that is what we face today. The common sense models we use to get through each morning, where the weather is a bit colder or a bit wetter, and the traffic heavier or less intense, do not prepare for major volatility. Yet such volatility is ever present. Right now our climate changes appear gradual. However the history of the planet is replete with extreme climate change of the sort that would upend normal human life. And we are destroying habitats and species with a speed only previously seen through catastrophic events like huge asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions.
The truth is that individually and collectively we live closer to the tipping point that many of us think. That’s one thing the birds and bees are telling us – they are very stressed out, struggling to survive. That is also true of us individually, as we face aging, heart disease and cancer, unknown chemicals and rapidly evolving infectious agents.
Fortunately AIDS and other epidemics tell us what humans have known for a long time – chance favors the prepared mind and body. AIDS killed far more quickly in Africa where people had many intercurrent infections and weaker immunity. The healthier you are, the better you adapt to sudden and unexpected change. The more you lead a life that helps regenerate body and mind the better you can resist disease. Preparation and planning matter.
That’s another lesson the birds and the bees are giving us – if we’ll listen.
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