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.”

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

Fish Tube: How the 'Salmon Cannon' Works and Why It's Important

PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images
PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past week, you’ve certainly come across footage of wildlife conservationists stuffing salmon into a giant plastic tube and shuttling them over obstacles. It’s so bizarre—even by the already loose standards of the web—that it briefly ignited discussions over fish welfare, its purpose, and the seeming desire of people to be similarly transported through a pneumatic tunnel into a new life.

Naturally, the “salmon cannon” has a mission beyond amusing the internet. The system was created by Whooshh Innovations, a company that essentially adopted the same kind of transportation system featuring pressurized tubing that's used in banking. Initially, the system was intended to transport fruit over long distances without bruising. At some point, engineers figured they could do the same for fish.

The fish payload is secured at the entrance of the tube—acceptable species can weigh up to 34 pounds—and moves through a smooth, soft plastic tube that conforms to their body shape. Air pressure behind them keeps them moving. The fish are jettisoned between 16 and 26 feet per second to a new location, where they emerge relatively unscathed. Because there’s no need for a water column, the tubing can cover most terrain at virtually any height.

The tubing solution is a human answer to a human problem: dams. With fish largely confined to still bodies of water thanks to dams and facing obstacles swimming upstream to migrate and spawn, fish need some kind of assistance. In the past, “fish ladders” have helped fish move upstream by providing ascending steps they can flop on, but not all fish can navigate such terrain. Another system, trapping and hauling fish like cargo, results in disoriented fish who can even forget how to swim. The Whooshh system, which has been in used in Washington state for at least five years, allows for expedient fish export with an injury rate as little as 3 percent, although study results have varied.

The video features manual insertion of the fish. In the wild, Whooshh counts on fish making semi-voluntary entries into the tubing. Once they swim into an enclosure, they’re curious enough about the tube to go inside.

If all goes well, the system could help salmon be reintroduced to the Upper Columbia River in Washington, where the population has been depleted by dams. Testing of the device there is awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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