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.”

20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins

iStock.com/Mlenny
iStock.com/Mlenny

Who is a penguin's favorite family member? Aunt Arctica! 

We kid! But seven of the 17 species of penguins can be found on the southernmost continent. Here are 20 more fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds. 

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

A group of penguins on an iceberg.
iStock/axily

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

Three emperor penguins
iStock/Fabiano_Teixeira

3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

A gentoo penguin swimming underwater
iStock/chameleonseye

4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

Penguins swimming in the ocean
iStock/USO

5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Emperor penguins with chicks
iStock/vladsilver

6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
iStock/Musat

7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

Gentoo penguin chick molting
iStock/ChristianWilkinson

8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to one thousand birds.

A colony of king penguins
iStock/DurkTalsma

9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

Two chinstrap penguins
iStock/Legacy-Images

10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

Magellanic penguin nesting in the ground
iStock/JeremyRichards

11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

Penguin eggs
iStock/Buenaventuramariano

12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

A group of emperor penguins and chick
iStock/vladsilver

13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

Penguin chick and parent on a nest
iStock/golnyk

14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

Three emperor penguin chicks
iStock/AntAntarctic

15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

Gentoo penguins
iStock/Goddard_Photography

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

A group of magellanic penguins on the seacoast
iStock/encrier

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

A cape penguin in South Africa
iStock/ziggy_mars

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

Man videotaping a penguin in Antarctica
iStock/Bkamprath

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
iStock/Musat

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

This story was first published in 2017.

Aspiring Eagle Scout Is Turning Old Fire Hoses Into Hammocks for Big Cats

iStock.com/tane-mahuta
iStock.com/tane-mahuta

Boy Scouts have to demonstrate skills in multiple areas to graduate to the rank of Eagle Scout. On his quest to reach the top rank in scouting, eighth-grader Payton Crawford is doing something that's unusual for the organization: Knitting hammocks for senior big cats out of old fire hoses, CBS Denver reports.

For his Eagle Scout project, the 11-year-old boy from Colorado wanted to help the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. The nonprofit rescues large carnivores from abusive situations and gives them a new home in a 10,000-acre wildlife refuge. There are more than 500 animals living at the site.

When they're not roaming the sanctuary, older big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards will be able to lounge on Crawford's supportive hammocks. He gathered old hoses from fire departments, cut them into the desired lengths, and wove them into hammocks big enough to accommodate a variety of animals. He can make one himself in about two hours, but he needs help carrying the final product.

“It’s just something different that I wanted to try out,” he told CBS. “Give them a better life because they don’t have the luxury we do.”

You can see how Crawford put them together in the video below.

[h/t CBS Denver]

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