Like the canary in the coal mine, “[b]irds in the wild function as a roaming, natural detection system” for environmental pollution and may themselves spread potentially dangerous viruses, writes Nobel laureate Doherty (Microbiology and Immunology/Univ. of Melbourne; The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize: Advice for Young Scientists, 2006, etc.).
The author makes a strong case for the need for more citizen scientists to help monitor bird migration. Much of his professional work as a microbiologist has focused on the spread of influenza viruses and the threat of potential deadly epidemics such as the one following World War I that felled more people than the combined war casualties. The author explains that “influenza is generally a relatively mild infection of the avian gastrointestinal tract (rather than respiratory tract”). A large number of wild fowl are mildly infected, but their droppings can contaminate chicken feed. If the chickens are kept in overcrowded coops, then conditions can become favorable for mutations and the transformation of the mild form of intestinal virus to a virulent one that can infect domestic animals. Doherty suggests that bird watchers collaborating with trained ornithologists already play a critical role in helping to prevent pandemics by creating an early warning system—e.g., monitoring changes in annual migratory patterns and noting unusual deaths. More citizen scientists are needed, however, to ensure that new, dangerous viruses are identified in a timely fashion and new vaccines can be produced and public health measures put in place. Doherty gives special mention to the activity of the Audubon Society, which organizes a global network of volunteers who monitor local bird populations and share information internationally.
The author, an enthusiastic bird-watcher, combines bird lore and cutting-edge science in an attractive mix that should inspire citizen scientists to pursue their hobby with renewed vigor and convince others to join in.