Science and Medicine

Thousands of Dead Birds Picked up in Arkansas



A red-winged blackbird sings at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida. A flock of more than 1,000 blackbirds rained on the small town of Beebe, Arkansas, baffling wildlife officials who said on Sunday the birds would be tested.

BEEBE, Ark.—Environmental service workers finished picking up the carcasses on Sunday of about 2,000 red-winged blackbirds that fell dead from the sky in a central Arkansas town.

Mike Robertson, the mayor in Beebe, told The Associated Press the last dead bird was removed about 11 a.m. Sunday in the town about 40 miles northeast of Little Rock. He said 12 to 15 workers, hired by the city to do the cleanup, wore environmental-protection suits for the task.

The birds had fallen Friday night over a 1-mile area of Beebe, and an aerial survey indicated that no other dead birds were found outside of that area. The workers from U.S. Environmental Services started the cleanup Saturday.

Robertson said the workers wore the suits as a matter of routine and not out of fear that the birds might be contaminated. He said speculation on the cause is not focusing on disease or poisoning.

Several hundred thousand red-winged blackbirds have used a wooded area in the town as a roost for the past several years, he said. Robertson and other officials went to the roost area over the weekend and found no dead birds on the ground.

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Young Female Chimpanzees Treat Sticks as Dolls



Chimpanzee holding baby. Researchers have reported some of the first evidence that chimpanzee youngsters in the wild may tend to play differently depending on their sex, just as human children around the world do. (Credit: iStockphoto/Gabriela Schaufelberger)

Researchers have reported some of the first evidence that chimpanzee youngsters in the wild may tend to play differently depending on their sex, just as human children around the world do.

Scientists at Harvard University and Bates College say female chimpanzees appear to treat sticks as dolls, carrying them around until they have offspring of their own. Young males engage in such behavior much less frequently.

The new work by Sonya M. Kahlenberg and Richard W. Wrangham, described this week in the journal Current Biology, provides the first suggestive evidence of a wild nonhuman species playing with rudimentary dolls, as well as the first known sex difference in a wild animal’s choice of playthings.

The two researchers say their work adds to a growing body of evidence that human children are probably born with their own ideas of how they want to behave, rather than simply mirroring other girls who play with dolls and boys who play with trucks. Doll play among humans could have its origins in object-carrying by earlier apes, they say, suggesting that toy selection is probably not due entirely to socialization.

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Raccoon Toilets Sanitary for Critters, Deadly for Humans



“I think it’s important to not scare people, but to teach them how to clean up and make sure they keep their play area safe. It’s most dangerous for toddlers or kids who are putting things in their mouths,” Page said.

Raccoons create latrines, particular locations they visit repeatedly. While this practice may be sanitary for the animals, humans—particularly small children prone to putting strange objects in their mouths—can contract a deadly, parasitic roundworm when they encounter these animal outhouses.

However, recent research may have struck upon a prevention strategy. The study found that sterilizing these latrines and leaving out medicated bait for the raccoons—as is done to control rabies—can reduce the presence of the parasite.

There are only 18 known cases when the worm, Baylisascaris procyonis, has infected humans, and all occurred in North America. However, infection doesn’t become obvious until the worm’s larvae move into a victim’s eyes or central nervous system, where they cause blindness, permanent neurological damage, or death. As a result, it’s possible cases have escaped detection, according to Kristen Page, a disease ecologist at Wheaton College in Illinois and the lead author of a paper published in the January issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

There are multiple ideas as to why raccoons create latrines, which multiple animals use to defecate repeatedly, including as a means of communication or sanitation, she said.

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