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As toxic wildfire smoke chokes West Coast, bird populations have gone missing

Bird lovers in California are realizing that many birds are simply disappearing or worse, turning up dead.

Elias Marat



As the West Coast faces an unprecedented wave of fires across multiple states, bird lovers in California are realizing that many birds are simply disappearing or worse, turning up dead.

In the Birding California group on Facebook, bird watchers discussed the total silence that has come to their backyards, where the sounds of birds chirping and singing used to greet them in the morning.

“I live in Folsom—have not seen a bird or heard a bird chirp this morning,” said Jodi Root.

“We live in northern Nevada and have noticed the same thing,” added Gardnerville resident Karen Holden.

“Same here in Napa,” said Tammy Saunders, who said that things had become “very quiet which just adds to the eeriness of the orange colored dark sky.”

Almost 100 seasoned birdwatchers gave similar responses to the survey, with most noting that they saw a marked decline in birds visiting their feeders and birdbaths, as well as a clear thinning-out of the variety of species.

Like the insects that many birds rely on for food, wild bird populations have been in a state of major decline over recent years. However, the record-shattering heatwave and smokey, toxic air conditions in California and other western states haven’t only impacted human populations. Tragically, the ash that is falling across West Coast cities isn’t only comprised of trees and brush, but also includes the incinerated remains of birds and other creatures caught in the wildfires.

And as Deborah Pertersen of Inside Climate News reports, birds – with their highly sensitive respiratory systems that are instantly responsive to changes in environmental conditions – are acting as the global equivalent to the canary in a coal mine, at a time when seemingly the entire planet is on fire.

While much still remains unknown about how smoke impacts bird populations, doctoral candidate Andrew Stillman of the University of Connecticut notes that birds perpetually live on the edge, and extreme changes can have dire consequences for bird species.

“One thing that is important to point out is we do know high levels of smoke exposure can be harmful to birds,” Stillman told Inside Climate News. And unlike humans, birds “cannot escape like humans by going indoors.”

Veterinarians and bird scientists have also found that smoke can leave a damaging impact on the lung tissue of captive birds, leaving them susceptible to deadly respiratory infections, notes the Audubon Society.

 “We do know that exposure to particulate matter, which of course is of great concern for human health, can affect birds as well,” said Olivia Sanderfoot, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington Seattle who studies the impact of air pollution on birds.

And while the still-raging fires haven’t given researchers much of a chance to survey the population of birds along the west coast, the anecdotal evidence stacking up is clearly showing that the health effects of the massive plumes of smoke coming from over 85 fires raging in western states is hitting bird populations hard.

“Overall, it seems like the anecdotes suggest that there is a decline in bird activity during smoke events,” said Olivia Sanderfoot, a researcher at the University of Washington.

In a 2017 paper, Sanderfoot and Tracey Holloway wrote that “Birds have long been recognized as sentinel species for environmental change.” 

The literature review concluded that “Exposure to air pollution clearly causes respiratory distress in birds and increases their susceptibility to respiratory infection,” in addition to causing complications to bird reproduction.

However, the science of wildfire smoke’s impact on birds remains largely undeveloped.

“We know pretty much nothing about the long-term impact of smoke on birds,” Sanderfoot said.

Indeed, most of the research on birds only covers a handful of species, and most of it focuses on air pollution rather than wildfire smoke.

“Of the roughly 10 000 species of birds known worldwide, only a few have been studied to characterize avian responses to air pollution, and the animals used in laboratory experiments may not be representative of the wild bird species most at risk from air pollution,” Sanderfoot and Holloway wrote.

Sanderfoot and her fellow researchers are now conducting studies in Washington, a state which saw some of the most hazardous air pollution ever recorded over the past week. Sanderfoot and her team are planting microphones and cameras in smokey areas to register whether bird songs decrease in high-smoke areas.

Tara Sears Lee, a nursery volunteer in Los Alto, California, has also observed the terrible impact of smoke on birds in recent days.

“Outside for 6 hours yesterday and no jays, crows, ravens, quail, turkeys, or hawks – all usual and very vocal visitors,” she wrote on Facebook. “Only hummingbirds, juncos, towhees and titmice. Worst of all was a dead hummingbird just lying on the ground – had heard they are being overcome by heat and smoke and just drop dead.”

Birders across the state are also posting photos on their Facebook accounts of dead hummingbirds in their backyards or, inversely, boosted numbers of birds at their backyard feeders – a result of the forced migration caused by fires.

“I think all the birds came to my house south of San Jose. Sometimes there will be more than 40-50 out there,” wrote Charlotte Trethway Noriega on Facebook.

As Petersen explains in her article, bird populations in North America have plummeted by 29 percent – or three billion birds – since 1970. And according to a 2019 study, rampant high temperatures resulting from climate change are likely to drastically alter the migration patterns of bird species. With pastures and grasslands being converted to crops, nesting places have dwindled along with the mass die-offs of insects eliminated by pesticides.

However, Stillman is finding some small traces of hope in his research of birds that have thrived in areas hit by wildfires. Black-backed woodpeckers are quickly returning to burned-out areas to feed on the larvae of wood-boring beetles that thrive on dying trees burned in fires.

However, Stillman notes “a very big caveat”: the new generation of “mega fires” like the one the West Coast is currently undergoing is far more destructive than those of the past, and the question of “how are the birds responding to this new normal” remains open.

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Pigs Have the Smarts to Play Video Games and Use Joysticks, Study Shows

Elias Marat



For those of us who belong to the millennial or “zoomer” generations – basically anyone from teens to those in their early 40s – it’s safe to assume that we’ve had at least some experience with videogames, whether it was jumping on turtles in the original Super Mario Bros, grinding rails in Tony Hawk Pro Skater, capping zombies in Resident Evil, or dancing with mates in Fortnite.

Indeed, there’s a certain joy and sense of satisfaction we get after clearing a particularly tough level, opponent, or obstacle –  which, in some cases, can make us feel pretty smart.

However, as it turns out, even a pig can play video games – and may actually enjoy them. (Although we can assume that pigs may wince at the sight of Angry Birds inflicting wanton destruction on the bad piggies and their fortresses.)

We’ve long known that swine are quite intelligent creatures. But as BBC reports, a scientific study has found that pigs do possess the mental capacity to play video games, and just a bit of training can equip them with the skills to do so.

In the new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by researchers from Purdue University and Comparitive Cognition Project, four hogs – Ebony, Hamlet, Ivory and Omelette – were trained to manipulate an arcade-style joystick to steer an on-screen cursor into walls with only their snouts.

Each time the pigs beat a “level,” they were then given a snack as a reward.

The paper notes that prior studies had already discovered that pigs “could solve multiple choice problems.” However, the discovery that the pigs understood the connection between the stick and the game “is no small feat” – especially because pigs are far-sighted and don’t have hands or thumbs.

Impressively, the pigs were even happy to play the game even when the food reward dispenser broke – largely because they enjoyed the social contact and encouraging words from the researchers.

The competency of the gaming pigs varied, with one pig proving to be a much keener gamer than the others.

While we can’t expect that the pigs will be able to beat the epic “A Quiet Exit” mission in Metal Gear Solid V or the infamous train scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the fact remains that pigs can play video games.

The findings weren’t a surprise to Kate Daniels of Willow Farms in Worcestershire, who told BBC: “I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone that works with pigs”.

“They’re not playing Minecraft – but that they can manipulate a situation to get a reward is no surprise at all,” she added.

“Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you, and pigs look you right in the eye,” she noted, paraphrasing a Winston Churchill quote. “When you look a pig right in the eye, you can tell there’s intelligence there.”

Indeed, past studies have shown that pigs are intelligent enough to use mirrors to locate hidden food in an enclosure and can even be taught like dogs to “come” and “sit” using verbal commands.

“This sort of study is important because, as with any sentient beings, how we interact with pigs and what we do to them impacts and matters to them,” lead author and Purdue Center for Animal Welfare Science director Candace Croney said.

“We therefore have an ethical obligation to understand how pigs acquire information, and what they are capable of learning and remembering, because it ultimately has implications for how they perceive their interactions with us and their environments,” she added.

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Scientists Shocked After Discovering ‘Strange Creatures’ Nearly a Mile Under Antarctic Ice Shelf

Elias Marat



The perplexing community of alien-like creatures wasn’t supposed to be there.

Roughly a mile beneath the icy surface of Antarctica in a remote region 160 miles from sunlight, scientists have accidentally discovered a perplexing set of bizarre creatures, perplexing the researchers who believed the area to be a wasteland wholly devoid of life.

Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey had drilled through 3,000 ft. of ice after melting 20 tons of snow to scoop up seafloor sediment before dropping a camera into the frigid ocean below. However, they soon realized that their tunnel had been dug right above a boulder at the bottom of the ocean, rendering it impossible to gather any sediment.

However, to the shock of the researchers, their camera was able to discover an ecosystem of life that left them confounded with what Wired described as “strange creatures” – two types of filter feeding sea sponges that had never been encountered, dwelling in the – 28.04°F (-2.2°C) water where researchers had believed that no life was possible.

The strange species dwelling in the pitch black waters are living over 200 miles from any known food source, but the creatures still appear to be prospering in spite of the treacherous conditions of the Antarctic sea floor.

The discovery of the strange sea sponges shows just how little we still know about one of the only unexplored regions of the world – and the forms of life that thrive there – where gigantic ice shelves that often rival the size of entire countries have prevented researchers from studying what lies below.

The team’s study laying out the jaw-dropping discovery was published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

“It’s not the most exciting-looking rock—if you don’t know where it is,” British Antarctic Survey biologist Dr. Huw Griffiths told Wired.

Indeed, on close inspection the rock wasn’t only home to the bizarre alien-like sponges – including some shaped like cylinders – but also a film of bacteria known as a microbial mat and a range of stalked organism. Their source of sustenance is what left the scientists befuddled.

Animals that live sessile (or stationary) lives typically rely on a stable supply of food known as “marine snow” – the detritus and remains, sometimes as small as particles, of decomposed sea creatures that sink to the depths of the ocean. Anyone with their own aquarium can imagine what this marine snow looks like.

However, while the source of food might not be apparent, the scientists are guessing that underwater currents are washing in miniscule bits of organic matter from ecosystems that could be as distant as 390 to 930 miles away.

This all still remains a matter of speculation until the next expedition can study this mysterious underwater community much closer. Yet the scientists are eager to find out what these bizarre creatures are and how they ended up in the region in such an inhospitable region in the first place.

“Are they all eating the same food source?” Griffiths asked. “Or are some of them kind of getting nutrients from each other? Or are there more mobile animals around somehow providing food for this community?”

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“Tiger King” Joe Exotic, With Limo Waiting Outside Federal Prison, Fails to Receive Trump Pardon

Elias Marat



Donald Trump ended his scandal tinged presidency by pardoning 73 criminals and commuting the sentences of 70 others at 1:00 a.m. ET Wednesday, but he failed to pardon Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic.”

Before the pandemic stole the limelight last year, the eccentric and openly gay Joe Exotic dominated the public consciousness as the star of Netflix’s “Tiger King” documentary, which enthralled U.S. audiences with its zany reality-TV tales of “murder, mayhem and madness.”

Exotic is currently serving a 22-year sentence in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, on 17 counts of animal abuse and a murder-for-hire plot against his mortal enemy, the big-cats rights activist Carole Baskin.

Stating the obvious, one Twitter user joked that it should be common knowledge that Exotic would blame Baskin for the omission from Trump’s pardon list.

“You already know who Joe Exotic gonna blame for not getting pardoned,” the user posted alongside a photo of Exotic carrying the subtitle “Carole F*ckin’ Baskin.”

“It is the President’s Constitutional right to Pardon and we have to accept and respect his use of discretion. Our mission is just and continues,” Exotic’s attorney, Francisco Hernandez, said in a Facebook post Wednesday.

“Score remains 0:0 at the end of the first quarter. After an aggressive first quarter Hail Mary, team tiger didn’t score. Three quarters to go. #freejoeexotic,” Hernandez added.  

In September, Joe Exotic submitted a handwritten letter to then-President Trump, calling the former reality television-star-turned-head-of-state his hero while echoing Trump’s scathing criticism of the feds.

“I have seen what they do to you,” he wrote at the time to Mr. Trump, adding that he had voted for the former Apprentice host in 2016 despite also briefly launching his own longshot presidential run that same year.

Continuing, the Netflix superstar argued that the legal basis for such a pardon was that he was “just some gay, gun-toting redneck in Oklahoma” rather than a flagrant abuser of federal wildlife protections who had an obsession with taking down his rival, Baskin.

“My parents and my life and everything we ever worked for was stolen by criminals who got everything,” the letter added, in reference to the fact that his infamous Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, eventually ended up in the hands of his rivals, Jeffery and Lauren Lowe.

The campaign to liberate Joe Exotic was spearheaded by private investigator Eric Love, who had been on standby outside of the Fort Worth Federal Medical Facility all day Tuesday in a stretch Dodge limousine while dozens of supporters also eagerly awaited the release of the eccentric big-cat afficionado.

“I’m out here, I’m excited,” Beatrice Salazar told CBS DFW. “My daughter wants to get his autograph. I don’t think that’s going to happen. We’re just out here watching and waiting.”

Trump’s failure to pardon the notorious zookeeper comes after the new owners of the Oklahoma zoo were ordered by a federal judge to hand over all lion and tiger cubs in their possession, along with their respective mothers, to federal authorities.

Last week, U.S. District Judge John F. Heil III ordered that the Lowes cede their big cats to the government based on persistent violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act.

“The Lowes have showed a shocking disregard for both the health and welfare of their animals, as well as the law,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Former President Trump also left supporters of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden disappointed after he failed to pardon the WikiLeaks founder and NSA whistleblower prior to exiting office, in spite of broadly misplaced hopes that the far-right president would do so in a final act of defiance against the Beltway establishment and so-called “deep state.”

However, political associates Steve Bannon and high-profile Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy were included in the eclectic list, which also included rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black.

Christine Assange, the Wikileaks founder’s mother, noted that she was “not shocked, just disappointed” by Trump’s decision.

“My private prediction was right,” she tweeted. “Courage is not always contagious.”

Joe Exotic’s fan’s were similarly disappointed, with some expressing emotions ranging from lividity to annoyance over the failure to pardon him.

“Absolutely livid that I’ve woken up to find Donald Trump didn’t pardon Joe Exotic on his last day,” one user said. 

“Well annoyed trump didn’t pardon Joe Exotic,” another noted. 

While a different account observed: “Sad that Joe Exotic didn’t get a pardon, just because I wanted to be able to tell my kids about it someday, but Lil Wayne is almost as good.”

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