7 Dec

Tails of the Quick and the Dead

A "find" in the world of a SEANET volunteer.

A “find” in the world of a SEANET volunteer.

“I like long walks on the beach, reading poetry, and poking dead things with a stick.” – Source unknown

Picture this: you are enjoying a leisurely stroll along one of our magnificent shorelines. Your gaze drifts unhurriedly from the water’s edge to the wrack line, the line of accumulated seaweed that the waves toss up as they roll against the beach. Suddenly, your eyes spot what seems to be a random pair of feathers tipped up from the seaweed. As your ramble brings you closer, you realize that the feathers are attached to a wing. And the wing is attached to a bird. And the bird is very, very dead. Do you (a) look away and pick up your pace, as if whistling past a graveyard?; (b) kick sand on it, to spare others from the macabre sight?; or (c) say something like “Ooh!”, and immediately move in for a closer look?

Yes, there are some people who would answer letter “c” to that scenario. No, you have not stumbled onto a leftover Halloween story. And no, they are not people who take their role in the TV zombie show “The Walking Dead” too seriously. They are part of a citizen science network known as SEANET.

SEANET is a part of Tufts University, and their website says the organization “brings together interdisciplinary researchers and members of the public in a long-term collaborative effort to identify and mitigate threats to marine birds.” The acronym stands for Seabird Ecological Assessment Network, and the network has spread from a Massachusetts-based organization originating in 2002 to a system of scientists and volunteers that covers much of the east coast from Georgia through Rhode Island and into the rest of New England. (http://seanetters.wordpress.com/)

Their mission is to record incidents of sea bird mortality as a way of tracking environmental dangers to both people and wildlife. In other words, finding the odd bird carcass on a beach is not necessarily a big deal. Finding several carcasses over a short span of time in the same area may be a sign of trouble.

An example was a spike in deaths of common eiders two years ago, observed from Massachusetts to Maine. The SEANET blog noted that eiders, the largest duck in the northern hemisphere, were being tested to determine the cause of the current die off. The original notice of the bird deaths came from a volunteer, and the case was being investigated by scientists and veterinarians in several states. At the time, there was some discussion of a virus being spread by ticks (a rare occurrence among ducks).

Birds found must have several measurements taken.

Birds found must have several measurements taken.

SEANET, as the name implies, uses a network of volunteers who agree to spend an hour or so every couple of weeks strolling along a designated area looking for, ahem, “beached birds” (which is their term; I suppose it works better than “dead ducks”). When the bird is found, volunteers attempt to identify the species. This can present a range in level of difficulty, depending on how long it has been there and whether predators have gotten to it. To aid in identification, volunteers use calipers to measure the size of the beak and yellow and black rulers to establish both the species and size. The bird is measured and photographed. The date and location of each bird is later transmitted to a database housed within Tufts University, the well known veterinary college. From there, the data is analyzed to determine any patterns in bird mortality, which may arise from a disease outbreak, an oil spill, or other phenomena.

The form a volunteer completes is almost comical in their grisly details; there are notations to indicate whether the carcass is anywhere from “fresh dead” to “mummified skeleton”. Another section requests the participant indicate “body parts found”. All this, while being necessary to establishing a complete understanding of the bird and its surroundings, produces a bit of a dark sense of humor, as evidenced in this poem excerpt by volunteer Jerry Golub:

“I returned to my beach today,
To the sand and sky and ocean spray,
I hoped to find a bird expired,
That is all that I desired…

But there’s a lifeless mound ahead,
Could it be a bird lying dead?
I admire the late Laughing Gull,
Whose fate has made my long day full.”

Hugh Markey is a naturalist, teacher, and freelance writer living in Richmond, RI.

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