Birdemic: The Great American Parrot Fever Panic of 1930

iStock.com/LuckyBusiness
iStock.com/LuckyBusiness

In late January 1930, President Herbert Hoover placed an embargo on parrots, banning all of the colorful birds from America’s ports of entry. The reason? Disease prevention.

For weeks, cases of a deadly disease called “parrot fever” had made headlines across the United States. One of the first reported victims was a woman named Lillian Martin, who had received a pet parrot from her husband over the holidays. Shortly after, the bird fell ill and died—and Mrs. Martin (as well as two members of her family, who had helped care for the ailing bird) began showing symptoms of a mysterious illness that resembled typhoid.

As a doctor examined the family, he recalled reading about parrot fever in a newspaper and immediately suspected Martin might have the rare disease. He sent a telegram to the U.S. Public Heath Service asking if they had a serum to treat it. They did not.

This was a serious problem. Parrot fever is a very real disease—and an unpleasant one at that. Caused by the bacteria Chlamydia psittaci, parrot fever (or psittacosis) can be contracted after coming into close contact with infected parrots, pigeons, ducks, gulls, chickens, turkeys, and dozens of other bird species. The symptoms resemble pneumonia or typhoid fever, with victims suffering from extremely low white blood cell counts, high fevers, pounding headaches, and respiratory problems. Today the disease can be treated with antibiotics, but in 1930, 20 percent of victims were expected to die.

The story of parrot fever, however, would prove to spread much faster than the disease itself. Only a few days into January, four people became gravely ill at the same Baltimore pet shop from which Martin's bird had been purchased, and parrot fever was immediately suspected as the cause. The U.S. Public Health Service tasked a pathologist named Charles Armstrong with finding a cure.

According to an NPR interview with The New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, “Armstrong decide[d] that the way to gather information about this outbreak is to cable all the public health departments in every American state and in cities where they are now cropping up suspected cases. What he needs to do to solve the mystery is to spread the word.”

Armstrong's effort to stop the disease, however, had consequences: It sowed panic. On January 8, The Washington Post wrote: "'Parrot' Disease Baffles Experts."

Newspapers went nuts. As Lepore explained in The New Yorker, parrot fever had all the makings of a viral story: It was unheard of, foreign, exotic, and invisible—and, if real, it threatened to harm the whole country. The AP forebodingly called it a “new and mysterious enemy.” Doctors across the country, who were told to be on the lookout for signs of the disease, seemed to start blaming every unusual cough on possible psittacosis. By mid-January, more than 50 cases of parrot fever—including eight deaths—had been reported.

By January 18, California had enacted a 60-day embargo, banning parrots from the port of San Pedro. (Any bird that managed to cross the border in time was placed under quarantine.) One week later, President Herbert Hoover followed suit, issuing an executive order stating that “No parrot may be introduced into the United States or any of its possessions or dependencies from any foreign port.”

Many newspapers took the embargo as validation. “If you have a darling pet parrot, do not bury your nose or mouth in its pretty feathers, or stroke the parrot and afterward put your hand to your mouth,” warned Arthur Brisbane in his nationally syndicated editorial column. But many experts also argued that the embargo was reactionary and that fears were widely overblown. (Some went so far to wrongly claim that parrot fever didn’t exist at all.)

The Surgeon General, Hugh S. Cummings, landed squarely in the middle of the debate. In a full-page column, he tried to calm the public’s fears: “The present outbreak of the disease among human beings is not at all likely to assume the proportions of a widespread epidemic,” he wrote. Unfortunately, he didn’t succeed in calming anyone down. (In the same article, Cummings managed to call parrots “a dealer of death,” which didn't really help his case.)

Naturally, some people refused to take any risks. Lepore wrote:

“Before it was over, an admiral in the U.S. Navy ordered sailors at sea to cast their pet parrots into the ocean. One city health commissioner urged everyone who owned a parrot to wring its neck. People abandoned their pet parrots on the streets.”

By November of 1930, the number of parrot fever cases had dwindled and the ban was finally lifted. To this day, there’s still controversy over how many reported cases of parrot fever were genuine and how many were merely the result of mass suggestion.

“There has always been a doubt in the mind of the public as to whether or not the parrot was guilty; but a parrot was an acceptable ‘goat,’ and he bore the brunt of the accusation," The Montana Standard reported the day after the ban was lifted. “We may import all the parrots we please, and Polly can now screech her desire for a cracker, with no fear of any official demanding her naturalization papers.”

Hundreds of Kangaroos Roam the Green at This Australian Golf Course

burroblando/iStock via Getty Images
burroblando/iStock via Getty Images

Anglesea Golf Club has all the makings of a regular golf club: an 18-hole golf course, a mini golf course, a driving range, a clubhouse, and a bistro. But the kangaroo mobs that hop around the holes add an element of surprise to your otherwise leisurely round of one of the slowest games in sports.

Person takes photo of a kangaroo
Anglesea Golf Club

According to Thrillist, the kangaroos have been a mainstay for years, and the club started giving tours a few years ago to ensure visitors could observe them in the safest way possible. For about 25 minutes, a volunteer tour guide will drive a golf cart with up to 14 passengers around the course, sharing fun facts about kangaroos and stopping at opportune locations for people to snap a few photos of the marsupials, which are most active in late afternoon and early morning. Kangaroos are friendly creatures, but Anglesea’s website reminds visitors that “they can also be quite aggressive if they feel threatened.”

Post-graduate students and academic staff from Melbourne University’s zoology department have been researching Anglesea’s kangaroo population since 2004, and some of the animals are marked with collar and ear tags so the researchers can track movement, growth, survival, and reproduction patterns throughout their life cycle.

One of the reasons kangaroos have continued to dwell on land so highly trafficked by people is because of the quality of the land itself, National Geographic reports. The golf course staff regularly sprinkles nitrogen fertilizer all over the green, which makes the grass especially healthy.

Kangaroos graze on Anglesea Golf Course
Anglesea Golf Club

If you decide to plan a trip to Anglesea Golf Club, you can book a kangaroo tour here—adult tickets are $8.50, and children under 12 can come along for just $3.50 each.

[h/t Thrillist]

10 Surprising Facts About Shoebill Storks

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

Shoebill storks have been called the world’s most terrifying bird (though the cassowary might disagree). These stately wading birds stalk the marshes of South Sudan, Uganda, and elsewhere in tropical East Africa, snatching up prey with their unique, immediately recognizable bills. But there are a lot of misconceptions about shoebill storks—the first being that they're not actually storks. Here are some more surprising facts.

1. Shoebill storks could win staring contests.

Shoebills live in the vast wetlands of the Nile watershed in eastern Africa. You really can’t mistake them for any other bird: They grow 4 to 5 feet tall, have bluish-gray plumage and an 8-plus-foot wingspan, and their bill, which takes up a majority of their face, looks like a huge Dutch wooden clog. Shoebills can stand virtually motionless for hours with their bills held down against their necks. Complemented by their golden eyes, the posture affects a very convincing death stare.

2. Shoebills may be more closely related to pelicans than storks.

Shoebill stork looking at the camera
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Over the past couple of centuries, naturalists have debated where shoebills should appear on the Tree of Life. Some taxonomists said that the shoebill's syrinx, or vocal organ, resembled those of herons belonging to the family Pelecaniformes, which also includes ibises, pelicans, and boobies. Others countered that herons have specialized feathers than release a powdery down to help with preening, but shoebills didn’t have these feathers, so they must be storks belonging to the family Ciconiiformes. “There is, in fact, not the shadow of a doubt that it is either a heron or a stork; but the question is, which?” zoologist Frank Evers Beddard wrote in 1905. More recent studies on the shoebill's eggshell structure and DNA have supported its place among the Pelecaniformes.

3. Shoebills poop on themselves.

Shoebills practice urohydrosis, the effective—if revolting—habit of defecating on their legs to lower their body temperature. In fact, this characteristic confused taxonomists: In the past, some felt that the shoebill’s habit placed it within the family of true storks, since all true storks also use their own droppings to cool off.

4. European naturalists were introduced to shoebills in the 1840s.

Shoebill stork
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

A German diplomat and explorer named Ferdinand Werne was the first European to hear about the shoebill. On his expedition in Africa to find the source of the White Nile in 1840, Werne camped at Lake No, part of a 12,000-square-mile wetland called the Sudd in what is now South Sudan. Werne’s indigenous guides told him “that they had seen an extraordinary bird, as big as a big camel, with a bill like a pelican’s, though wanting a pouch,” according to a 1908 edition of The Avicultural Magazine.

About 10 years later, a collector named Mansfield Parkyns brought two shoebill skins to England, giving British zoologists their first look at the weird bird. At an 1851 meeting of the British Zoological Society, naturalist John Gould presented a description of the shoebill based on Parkyns’s specimens and gave it the scientific name Balaeniceps rex.

5. Shoebills are also called whale-headed storks.

Balaeniceps rex means “whale-head king,” evidently a reference to its bill shape resembling the head of a baleen whale (as well as a shoe). Other names for the shoebill include the boat-bill, bog-bird, lesser lechwe-eater (referring to the shoebill’s alleged taste for lechwe, or aquatic antelope), and abu markub, or “father of a slipper” in Arabic.

6. Shoebills love lungfish.

Yum, lungfish! These air-breathing, eel-like fish grow to more than 6 feet long and comprise the shoebill’s favorite food. Shoebills also chow down on actual eels, catfish, lizards, snakes, and baby crocodiles. To catch their prey, shoebills stand still in the water and wait for an unsuspecting fish to appear. Then, the bird swiftly “collapses” on its target, spreading its wings and diving down bill-first to ambush the fish. Then, with the fish in its mouth, it decapitates it by grinding the sharp edges of its bill together.

7. Shoebills really earned their fierce reputation.

Victorian photographers learned the hard way that shoebills could be as mean as they looked. “The shoebill is capable of inflicting a very powerful bite,” 19th-century zoologist Stanley S. Flower wrote, “and is by no means a safe bird for a stranger ignorant of its ways to approach, a fact which we often have to impress on amateur photographers anxious to obtain ‘snap-shots’ of Balaeniceps at close quarters. It has been amusing to see how rapidly in some cases their enthusiasm has waned, when (as requested) confronted with the great bird screaming shrill defiance and crouching as if were about to spring, with gaping bill and half-spread wings.”

8. Shoebills have always been a rare curiosity at zoos.

Shoebill stork with its mouth open
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

In the 19th century, the Sudanese government made the shoebill a protected species, but that did not stop collectors from attempting to transport shoebills to zoos. Flower, then director of the Zoological Gardens in Giza, Egypt, brought three shoebills (along with four giraffes, nine antelopes, a lion, a leopard, three servals, two ostriches, two porcupines, an aardvark, five tortoises, a crocodile, and several other animals) on a train north from Khartoum to the gardens. The temperature rose to 118°F and the irritated shoebills barfed up their dinners. Their diet of fresh fish that Flower had ordered never materialized, so he resorted to feeding the birds canned shrimp. Miraculously, the birds arrived at the Zoological Gardens in one piece and survived in captivity for at least five years. Today, only a handful of zoos open to the public have shoebills, including the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic, Pairi Daiza in Belgium, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the Dallas World Aquarium.

9. Shoebills are worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

Shoebills rarely breed in captivity: In the last hundred years at least, only two chicks have hatched. In today’s zoos, all shoebills were either born there or were legally collected from the wild. Unfortunately, their scarcity and mystique have also made shoebills a sought-after bird for poachers in the illegal wildlife trade. According to Audubon magazine, private collectors in Dubai and Saudi Arabia will pay $10,000 or more for a live shoebill.

10. Shoebills are at risk of extinction.

The IUCN Redlist estimates between 3300 and 5300 mature shoebills live in the world today, and that number is decreasing. The iconic birds are threatened by a number of anthropogenic forces, including loss of their marshland habitat from farming, livestock ranching, oil and gas exploration, fires, pollution, and more. International wildlife groups and local conservationists are monitoring shoebill habitats in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia and patrolling the sites for poaching, but much more attention is needed to protect shoebills.

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