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Bird Watching

December 02, 2013 – WASHINGTON, D.C. The annual BirdWatch Conference at the nation’s capital ended on Wednesday with a climatic speech from Dr. Bob Reinser, a bird anatomist at the University of Pennsylvania. This year has been a remarkable year for ornithology and Dr. Reinser had presented one of the most exciting discoveries. The conference began with a special dinner on Monday night at the Rosen Center, where the scientists, sitting at round dinner tables, talked about their projects late into the night. “I had a fascinating conversation,” reflected Dr. A., “with Dr. C. about the plumage of the Trichoglossus moluccanus, the rainbow lokikeet. Apparently, its color predominately comes from expression of the DH-9 allele in chromosome 3A, which is very close to the blood cell gene on locus 32. She believes that genetic linkage between plumage color and blood cell type might explain the close correlation between rainbow color and type OB blood in the species. Amazing stuff. I don’t think I can look at the feathers of the rainbow lorikeet in the same way again.”

The following day was full of speaker presentations. Ornithologists presented research in everything from bird diet to bird sleep. Dr. G. from Harvard University talked about his fieldwork in the Peru rainforests and the possible adaptive advantages of toucan beak shape. Dr. D. and E. presented their research on mercury levels in the Great Lakes in hopes of demystifying the unexplained decline of the Euphagus carolinus.

The final speech was the much-anticipated talk by Dr. B. Reinser on his study of wing structure. At the mention of his name, the crowd was instantly in standing ovation. The slightly tired Dr. Reinser alighted the stage floor with a smile. “Fellow scientists,” he began after the applause subsided, “it has been a long journey for me in the study of bird flight. For twenty years, I have traveled the world to study the relation between wing anatomy and flight. In total, I have observed the flight of over one hundred birds and analyzed more than two thousand wing specimens. What led me to this research and here today is a childhood rapture with the idea of flight.” Here, he paused. “When I was seven or eight, I would often think to myself, wouldn’t it be so amazing if I could fly like a bird? How wonderful it would feel to rise high above the earth and see the land stretch for miles all around me. How wonderful it would be to soar through the air, feeling the fresh wind against my face. Untethered, unlike riding on rollercoaster. Unshielded, unlike riding in a car.” The audience grew quiet. “When I saw a bird, my heart would lift. Here was the embodiment of freedom and boundlessness. Its ability to break free from every limitation, even gravity, was beautiful to me.” Suddenly, his voice died and a mocking smile spread across his lips. He sharply barked in laughter. “Enough of this daydreaming! In short, my childhood fantasies inspired me to become an ornithologist and to study wing structures. Since then, my research has taught me so much and taken me so far. My childhood fancies were wrong. Flight is not magic; it is not free from mechanical or gravitational influences. Like everything, it operates according to the laws of nature. The laws of nature are everything! This simple statement would be my mantra if I had one. My friends, flight would be impossible without gravity.”

Dr. Reisen went on to discuss his discoveries about wing bone density, the important aspect ratio between wing length to body width, and the aerodynamic qualities of bird feathers. He stressed repeatedly, “The wing bone density of the average backyard pigeon can be as little as a tenth of the human arm bone density. One-tenth!” The audience was captivated and, when Dr. Reisen finally concluded, it was once again in standing ovation. “Thank you, thank you!” said Dr. Reisen. He raised his hand for silence. “Thank you all. I hope my talk has illuminated the beautiful science behind bird flight. May science always light up your path and banish the evil darkness of ignorance. Thank you for listening and good night!”

The conference ended Friday evening just as the sun began to set. The sky was cast in shades of orange and yellow. In the distance, between two rows of tall apartment buildings, the pitch-black shadow of a crow against the yellow sun streaked along the horizon.

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