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Bird Migrations, Avian Flu, and Powdermill

Situated in the middle of two North American bird migration routes, Powdermill is an authority on the migratory patterns of birds—and a natural fit to help the country monitor for bird-related disease.

After collecting bird facts for the past 45 years, Powdermill’s researchers know incredible things about these incredible animals. A sampling:

Most song birds fly an average of 300-500 miles per night when they are migrating. Their average speed: 20-30 miles per hour. “These birds commit to a night’s migration, which lasts 12 hours in the fall and spring,” Bob Mulvihill notes. “They take off at dark with a full fat load for the journey.”

Birds stopping at Powdermill tend to migrate to and from the same place every year—such as between Canada and Mexico—but often in different routes. “Just how they accomplish that and how they prospect their course, that’s still something of a mystery,” says Mulvihill.

Powdermill’s most common visitors? The junko. The goldfinch comes in second.

The oldest bird in Powdermill’s records is a 16-year-old blue jay. “In general, a bird’s lifespan is scaled to its body size,” Mulvihill says, with the smallest birds having the shortest lives. A chickadee might live to a maximum of 10 years, while an eagle can live as long as 30 years. An exception to the rule: the ruby-throated hummingbird, which can live 10 years.


Avian flu pandemic. We never heard of such a thing a few short years ago. But today, the daily news is rife with predictions about when the epidemic of avian flu might occur.

What the U.S. news accounts don’t mention is that western Pennsylvania could be instrumental in gauging the possible spread of this relatively new global health threat here in the United States. That’s because Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s biological field station in the Laurel Highlands, is participating in a national program to test migratory birds for signs of the Avian influenza, also known as the “bird flu.” The project adds another proverbial feather to the cap of Powdermill, which is already recognized for having one of the nation’s best databases on migratory birds.

Each year, Powdermill’s 2,200 rolling acres are the stop over for thousands of migrating birds coming and going from as far away as Asia. And between the spring and fall of 2006, at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Powdermill’s researchers will test about 200 of its visitors for avian flu.

The disease has made well-publicized inroads into parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa, killing more than 100 people and killing or forcing the slaughter of more than 200 million chickens, ducks, and other types of domestic fowl. The global fear is that the avian flu, which is only transmitted to humans from contact with infected fowl, will mutate into another virus that could be transmitted from human to human. Could it become a problem here in the United States?

Bob Mulvihill, Powdermill’s chief ornithologist, is quick to point out that Avian flu has not been found in North America, and that it affects waterfowl almost exclusively. And that’s one of the important roles Powdermill can play at such a moment in time: assuring the public they’re safe.

“ There is no health concern associated with continuing to enjoy wild birds, even around one's home and garden,” Mulvihill notes. “So you can continue to run bird feeders, attract birds with bird houses, and even let birds nest on your house without any fear whatsoever.”

Migration Fact and Mystery
While Powdermill is one of hundreds of bird-banding and monitoring stations across the country asked to participate in the monitoring project, it stands out from the pack.

In a recent email to Bob Mulvihill, C. J. Ralph, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, wrote, “How important are any data from Powdermill? Your big power is that you have the best past and present data…at a single station of anybody in North America.” Ralph, who works at the USDA’s Pacific Southwest Research Station in California, has been corresponding with Mulvihill about the Avian flu monitoring project for months.

To get their test samples, Mulvihill and his team will swab the inside of each bird’s cloacal opening, which has both excretory and reproductive functions, and then send the samples to a lab for processing. And while this sounds like a lot of trouble, it isn’t at Powdermill, where researchers band as many as 300 birds on a typical day.

Begun in 1961, Powdermill’s banding program is the longest running of its kind in the United States. Its avian researchers catch about 10,000 birds a year in soft nets strategically hung in a limited section of the reserve—where they quickly retrieve them and, one-by-one, record the age, sex, species, weight, body fat, and wing measurements of each bird (the nets are only up for a limited period each day). They then put a tiny metal band around one leg before releasing them again; or, if the bird is already banded, they update their current records.

The banding takes all of one minute but the cumulative data it produces gives evidence of anything but a fly-by-night operation. Part of Powdermill’s power, in fact, is that it sits between two major North American migration routes. The statistical beauty
of its database is the perspective it gives researchers on a host of issues, ranging from the effects of global warming to deforestation of the world’s tropical rain forests to global pollution. And, now, avian flu.

As Mulvihill puts it: “Unless you have real data, everything else is conjecture.”

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