GBBC. Get outside and make a difference

Valentines, shmalentines! Do something that really matters – take part in the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

The count dates are February 15–18, as in this upcoming Friday through Monday.

Anybody can do it. You don’t have to be an expert, you can do it by yourself or locate a group in your area to hang with, and it doesn’t have to to take much time — you only need a minimum of 15 minutes, and you can record your observations online.

Here are the hows and whens.

cormorant

Why do it? What difference can you make anyway?

Bird populations are constantly changing. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to keep track of the complicated patterns of movement of so many species over an entire continent. The information from GBBC participants even more valuable as scientists try to learn how birds are affected by environmental changes.

The information you send in can provide the first sign that individual species may be increasing or declining from year to year. It shows how a species’ range expands or shrinks over time. A big change, noted consistently over a period of years, is an indication that something is happening in the environment that is affecting the birds and that should be followed up on. GBBC information also allows us to look at what kinds of birds inhabit different areas, such as cities versus suburban.

All the information from the GBBC and other surveys goes into a massive bird database called the Avian Knowledge Network. AKN now holds 36 million records of bird observations which are used by scientists around the world.

It’s been my experience and observation that a lot of us liberals talk a big line about science and the environment but too often, we don’t put our asses where our mouths are, even when something as easy and as important as this presents itself.

Now, go outside!

Every bone shall rest in honor there…

A University of Arizona research team has tracked the entry of HIV into the US, discovering it arrived far earlier than originally suspected, and possibly via a different route.

Now, however, scientists reconstructing the genetic evolution of the deadly virus say they have traced its true path — concluding that the insidious pathogen used Haiti as a steppingstone from Africa to the United States and arrived much earlier than had been thought. It then simmered silently here for more than a decade before it was detected, beginning its global spread along the way.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to bring together the geographical picture with the timing picture to show with a pretty high degree of certainty where the virus went from Africa, and when,” said Michael Worobey, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who led the research.

This is a fascinating breakthrough, and yes, it’s got the makings of a great detective story. It is an exciting victory for research, that much is certain.

In addition to writing a key chapter in the history of the AIDS pandemic, the new insights into the genetic variability of the virus could aid the long-frustrated efforts to develop an effective vaccine.

“What this might tell us is how the virus might evolve molecularly,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “That might have an impact on the virus that you put in your vaccines. So this not only has historical value but practical implications for vaccine design.”

Reading the several versions of it I’ve gone through this week however, my response has been a growing overwhelming sadness, over the sheer numbers of lives lost, the despicable prejudices suffered by the early victims along with the hateful scapegoating leveled at both gays and Haitians, the evil black hole of the Reagan era, and finally, the inadequacy of funding today for this and so much other much-needed research. The steadily increasing dismantling of US federal funding streams for all manner of vital biomedical research is a staggering thing to contemplate.

It’s a hushed sobering feeling, like walking across a battlefield where there’s been a great victory in a long, bloody war that is far from being over.

UPDATED: An interesting exchange here between veteran activist Larry Kramer and Michael Worobey, the leader of the UA research team.