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The Value of Dead Bird Watching

• June 15, 2010 • 5:00 AM

University of Washington researcher Julia Parrish founded COASST, a nonprofit that allows hundreds of citizens to serve science by cataloging dead birds on West Coast beaches.

In a truly free state, citizens do everything with their own hands…
— Rousseau, The Social Contract

The smell makes my eyes water, but that doesn’t stop Jane Dolliver from plopping down and digging the carcass out of the sand. She is not wearing gloves. Stefanie Porter, who is, stands off to the side, wincing a bit.

Slowly, a shape appears: a long bill, a billowy fleshy pouch, thin bedraggled wings, large webbed feet — a juvenile brown pelican. From the general decay and the size of the maggots and, of course, the stink, Dolliver guesses that it has been dead for several days. She hefts it out and gently spreads it across the sand. The wind is stiff and turns its feathers. “You want to measure it?” she asks.

She is talking to Porter, thank God, who says, “Sure,” and gamely squats down. She pulls from her coat a clipboard and a plastic bag, which holds a ruler, a drafting compass, a measuring tape, a disposable camera, several pencil nubs and pieces of chalk, and an abundance of colored zip-ties, among other things. She measures the pelican and calls out numbers, which Dolliver records. The upper mandible of the bill is 31 centimeters long, the wing cord is 50 centimeters, the tarsus, or foot, 88 millimeters. Once Porter has finished, she scribbles the date and “BRPE” (BRown PElican) on a small chalkboard and snaps a photo for the records — dead pelican, chalkboard, artfully arranged — while Dolliver fastens two zip-ties to the exposed bones of the pelican’s wing: orange and red, meaning that this is bird No. 21, found on the Klipsan section of the Long Beach Peninsula at the southwest corner of Washington.

We get up and start the mile or so slog back to the car. Dolliver, the project coordinator for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, and Porter, an undergraduate intern, push on, heads down, scanning to see whatever the sand and wrack might be hiding. The rain stings, my rain gear is no longer equal to the challenge, and I can’t feel my cheeks. I mutter a mild oath at the person who is presumably warm and dry back in Seattle, who is responsible for my being out here, whose idea this was in the first place: Julia Parrish.

Julia Parrish can squeeze you in for a few minutes, but that’s usually about it. Even when she does have a spare moment, tracking her down is like a game of three-card monte. The list of demands on her time is long and titled: She is the Lowell A. and Frankie L. Wakefield Professor of Ocean and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. She is the associate director of the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. She is the director of the Program on the Environment, one of the university’s largest interdisciplinary programs. She has a joint appointment in the biology department. And she is the founder and executive director of COASST. “It is,” she says, “a full life.”

July-August 2010After an early foray into art, Parrish graduated with degree in biochemistry and biophysics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. She spent a summer as an undergrad at the Duke Marine Lab and returned there for her doctorate, which she completed in 1988. Her thesis dealt with, as she says, “fish schooling” — ways that behaviors in aggregate are shaped by the constraints of a physical environment. After a brief turn at UCLA, she came to Washington in 1990. Although she still studied fish schools, she was interested in aggregations more broadly, so she went looking for some.

One nearby place with a few aggregations was Tatoosh, a small island about half a mile off the coast from Cape Flattery, in the northwesternmost corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, some four hours from Seattle. Once held by the U.S. government but owned since 1982 by the Makah tribe off of whose reservation it sits, Tatoosh is an unprepossessing spot, so wind- and wave-battered that it appears planed flat. But it has a distinguished place in the history of ecology. For almost 50 years, it has been the laboratory of Robert Paine, the field’s éminence grise and progenitor of some of its most important recent discoveries. As he watched a few sea stars keep masses of overweening mussels from covering the rocks, he developed the keystone species concept, or the idea that organisms can have influence far beyond what their numbers would seem to imply. Cousins to this were the spiritual bases of the modern environmental ethic, the food web and trophic cascade: In the elaborate weave that we call a community, these say, the linkages between species are many and subtle. Small changes can have effects that are significant, unintended, unanticipated.

Both the Makah and Paine are protective of Tatoosh; access to the island is possible only with written permission from the tribe. But Parrish finagled passage with one of Paine’s graduate students the summer she arrived in Seattle. Paine was in Germany at the time. “When I came back, here’s this woman I don’t know telling me that she’s set up a murre study on my island,” Paine says. “It’s the way she works. She’s an empire builder. Thankfully, she’s also a good cook.”

And so, with the blessing of the Makah and Paine, Parrish began to work with a colony of common murres on the Tatoosh cliffs. Common murres are black-and-white pigeon-sized seabirds. In dense colonies — aggregations — they lay their eggs on bare rock, unwilling to build what most birds would consider a proper nest; their eggs are especially pointy, so that when jostled, as they often are, they swivel in tight circles rather than tumbling into the sea. During the summer, Parrish and her graduate students sat in blinds built throughout the colony and recorded when the murres left to forage, when they returned, what they brought with them, how they interacted with their neighbors, and so on. Murres, Parrish saw, had rousing social lives, packed together as they are, squabbling and pecking at each other. “I spend every summer studying sex and violence,” she told a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in a story that called her the “murre-maid of Tatoosh.”

Still, even as she collected her own data, Parrish found herself frustrated. She was learning the rhythms of the murre colony, but what of other colonies along the coast? Were the patterns similar or different from what she was seeing at Tatoosh? Her colony was declining. What caused the increase in mortality? Was it normal, and what was normal in the first place? She felt that without some sense of what was happening in other colonies, all she could do was speculate. But how could she find those broader patterns? The resources she needed — time, money, personnel — were already stretched thin. She could only be in so many places at once.

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Julia Parrish

Julia Parrish with a juvenile glacous-winged gull. (Michael Hanson)


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For Parrish, these limitations highlighted a systemic problem with what she calls “science in the academy.” “The current system was overwhelmed in the last century,” she says. “It sits on one tiny piece of land and stares at it for a decade, which won’t cut it anymore. The environment is changing so fast now, at global scales, and we need to keep up.” It is a trenchant critique, since Tatoosh is one of the tiniest, most closely studied pieces of earth on Earth. But where Paine looked at sea stars and mussels and divined rules that governed the whole of the biosphere, Parrish watched murres and saw a chaos of local conditions. All the details particular to her system may or may not be relevant only a few miles away.

What she needed, Parrish thought, was a distributed network that could gather information from many places at once, information that was reliable and fairly inexpensive and would stand up to scrutiny. Dead birds would be good. “They were once alive,” she says. “They died for a reason and they’re fairly easy to identify.” Anyone could do it, after some training. Then, she could establish a baseline rate of mortality for the murres, something to which she could refer whenever something bad happened, be it natural or human-induced. Say there was an oil spill, as there was in 1991, when the normally heaving surf was stilled by the sludge from the fishing vessel Tenyo Maru, and oiled birds slapped at the water with their wings, trying but unable to lift off. Were that to happen again, she could quantify just how big of an impact it had on the population.

These ideas bounced around, took shape and were informally tested until 1998, when she received a grant from The David and Lucille Packard Foundation to develop a coastal seabird-monitoring program. Two years later, “after we’d noodled around to make it good,” she and a postdoctoral student, Todd Hass, started the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. At first, it was fairly modest. Parrish and Hass began with 12 volunteers and five beaches. They have since added to both, and now more than 500 volunteers visit roughly 400 beaches from Alaska to Northern California, once a month, in search of dead birds. With their data, Parrish found her baselines. She was able to quantify the annual post-breeding mortality not only for the Tatoosh murre colony, but also for colonies along the West Coast. She saw regular pulses of gull-like fulmars that wash up in the winter months. She found that seabirds die all the time and for all sorts of reasons. But at a time when scientists must confront changes on larger and larger scales, Parrish’s work has its most dramatic application when thousands of birds die suddenly, and no one knows why.

It is September 2009. Along the Washington coast, large sea ducks called scoters are appearing on the beaches. If they are not already dead, they soon will be. After the scoters come the loons, grebes and murres. The beaches are soon a mess of brownish sea foam and dead or dying birds. State agencies, federal agencies, wildlife rescue — everyone is in a tizzy.

“It was like being part of a crime lab, like CSI,” Parrish says. “But we were able to get on top of the event quickly because we could send volunteers out to the coast to see what was there.”

Combining COASST data with aerial footage of the near shore, Parrish and her colleagues were able to identify the cause of the wreck, as this phenomenon is called. A normally benign species of algae had, for some reason, bloomed. The bloom covered hundreds of square miles of ocean. Two large storms swept through earlier than they normally would have, whipping up the algae into a stiff foam. Then migrating flocks of scoters arrived. Normally content to ride out the winter swell, they were instead coated with the foam, which made their plumage worthless. Freezing, unable to feed, they sought refuge on the beaches. Unable to return to the water, they soon starved.

Even with an explanation, wrecks like this alarm the general public. They are out of season and so are unexpected. Pictures in the newspapers of moribund seabirds, listless under a dull gray sky, are depressing. Parrish and the COASST office field many calls. The callers ask what it all means, what larger forces are at work. Parrish usually can’t tell them much beyond the proximate cause, once that is figured out. “Oceans are big and complicated,” she says. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with 500 pieces. We only have 50 or so.”

The wreck of 2009 was not the first time Parrish had to assuage the fears of a discombobulated public. That had come in 2005, in the spring, during a much larger and more extensive wreck. Thousands of dead common murres and Brandt’s cormorants washed ashore up and down the West Coast. It was a bad year overall. At the Tatoosh murre colony, Parrish saw that nesting success was just 20 percent, down from its usual 90 percent. Elsewhere, reproductive success at a colony of Cassin’s auklets on Vancouver Island plummeted; at Protection Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a colony of glaucous-winged gulls that normally fledged more than 8,000 chicks produced only 88.

Oceanographers later determined that an annual upwelling in the Pacific known as the spring transition had been delayed by about 50 days. The influx of nutrient-rich waters on which the marine food web depended was thus unavailable. The birds, of course, didn’t know this, and so died. Afterward in a paper for Marine Ecology Progress Series, Parrish and several colleagues were able to compare data from the wreck against their beached birds numbers in search of broader patterns, or, as Parrish has called it, a “seabird signal.”

Discover magazine eventually highlighted the wreck, and Parrish’s efforts in helping to decipher its cause, as one of the most notable happenings of 2005. Still, wrecks exact a steep toll on volunteers. Shortly after the one in 2009, I met with Miriam Bobkoff, from Port Angeles, Wash. A volunteer for two years, she had seen all of six carcasses on her previous beach surveys. During the wreck, she measured 62 in a single day. “There were so many dead ducks,” she said, still shaken by the memory. “It’s not something you can prepare for.”

This, it seems, gets to the central mystery of Parrish’s method: Why would anyone want to join COASST? Most citizen science projects are pleasant, even if their implications are sobering. Take Project BudBurst, run out of Colorado: People record when they first see leaves or flowers, and then the project uses those data to look for effects of climate change on the timing of plant life-cycle stages. That the demands on the spirit of BudBurst and its ilk are benign makes sense. They ask people to extend themselves in ways that they might not otherwise. The payoff is typically bad news. Why go out of your way to make the task itself awful?

The first dead bird to be cataloged, perhaps?


One person who has thought a lot about ways to make citizen science projects appealing to actual citizens is Janis Dickinson, a professor at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the director of the lab’s extensive citizen science effort. In a 2009 paper in Ecology and Society, she framed the challenge with the work of Ernest Becker, an anthropologist who studied cultural responses to environmental crises. Broadly, Becker argued in his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, that, since thinking about mortality and its inevitability is depressing, we go to great lengths not to. This means avoiding things that remind us of it, such as news of an imperiled planet. Instead, we turn to symbols, myths — what are essentially proxies of immortality.

Dickinson noted that most citizen science projects are invariably linked to environmental crisis. The key, then, is to use symbolic vehicles that, while reinforcing a sense of deathlessness (and so not dismaying the populace), can still generate good data on the phenomenon being investigated. Birds, she wrote, are ideally suited for this. Cornell’s Project FeederWatch has its members monitor backyard feeders during the winter months and take note of who visits. FeederWatch staff then use these data to detect population declines. All the participant has had to do is watch the pleasing antics of chickadees, titmice, jays. Those birds — flitting and transcendent, of the Earth but not bound to it — ease existential dread. Minor demigods, the thinking goes, they have lessened the fear of death.

Parrish quite flagrantly flouts Dickinson’s advice. (“I didn’t have COASST in mind when I wrote that,” Dickinson laughs when I ask if she can square the two.) Rather than use birds to make a dreary truth oblique, she all but grinds it in your face: In a bird wreck, after all, death is no longer metaphor. Parrish isn’t sorry. “Reality is messy,” she says. “It’s disarticulated and gory and sometimes filled with maggots.” This, for her, is the point – to show people the mess so they can understand how complicated science is, but not be daunted by it. “I wanted to create a thing that could bring citizens and scientists closer together,” she says. There’s too much distance now, she argues, and that’s why we have problems with people thinking of science as some sort of cabal, with scientists as high priests who pronounce ominous, certain truths. But if citizens gather the data, they will trust it. More than that, they will understand that they have a stake in it, and in what it says. “Everybody has a place,” Parrish says, “a place where they live, or where they like to go. They look at it and see changes. From a curiosity point of view, from a fear point of view, they really want to know, to find out what is happening. That is what is most important.”

I think of this — of trust in science, of having a sense of where you are — the day after the dead pelican, a Sunday, at Don’s Portside Cafe in the small coastal town of Ilwaco, Wash. Jane Dolliver and Penelope Chilton, the COASST volunteer coordinators, are hosting a COASST Social — one of the occasional get-togethers, usually at a local pizza parlor, where volunteers can mingle and swap war stories and, more generally, find succor in the fact that more people are willing to walk the beaches and look for dead birds than you might think.

Dolliver expects 15 or 20 to attend. If Parrish is COASST’s maven and public face, Dolliver is its everyday zeal. She joined in 2003, as an undergraduate, after taking one of Parrish’s classes. (Parrish is a compelling and demonstrative lecturer, imitating with relish flamboyant murre behaviors.) When she graduated a year later, Dolliver stayed on. She enjoyed the time in the field and that she wasn’t shut away from people. Her work has taken her to Alaska, to Tatoosh, to Chile — places, Dolliver says, that are remote, that she wouldn’t have been able to get to on her own. For her, COASST makes the abstract real. “It gives me a chance to be right there,” she says. “I see things up close that few people do.” Among those things: the foot of a surf scoter, a tufted puffin’s tufts. They are no longer pictures in a guide or specks in a spotting scope. They are on the beach, in front of her, tangible and immediate, if a little smelly.

People trickle in. I sit with two couples, John and Joyce Epler, and George Power and his wife, Rose, who is originally from New Zealand. All four of them have volunteered with COASST for several years. John tells us how he found a brown pelican wing while walking down the beach the other day. Just a wing, spread out on the sand, stripped nearly to the bone. “Too bad I didn’t have my camera,” he says. “It was quite a sight.” When he went back later that day, camera in hand, the wing was gone. “Probably taken by a dog,” he grumbles.

Near the beginning of the lunch, Dolliver stands up and tells the assembled how much COASST values their efforts, how they’re keeping a vital watch of the shore. She reminds them to send in their data sheets after every survey. Then she thanks them for all their hard work. Everyone cheers.

“No, thank you!” Rose calls out. “I love it! We get to feel all scientific!”

Afterward, talk runs to the morning’s earthquake off the Chilean coast. There’s a tsunami alert for Washington beaches — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration models predict that the waves from the quake will arrive around 3 p.m., and, according to the warnings, they could be pretty big. No one takes this seriously. “Those NOAA folks can be pretty Chicken Little,” someone says. People bandy about tales of previous hand-wringings, when homes were supposed to get swept away but nothing happened. The waves, they decide, might be a little larger than normal, but given the storm surge already pounding the coast, probably nothing out of the ordinary. This will turn out to be the case. The people here know their homes.

Eric Wagner
Eric Wagner writes about science and nature from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared in High Country News, Orion and Smithsonian, among other publications.

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