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.”

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]

10 Colorful Facts About Cassowaries

iStock/BirdImages
iStock/BirdImages

All birds are living dinosaurs, but the dagger-clawed cassowary especially looks the part. Even wildlife biologists call cassowaries the world's most dangerous bird—and yes, it has been known to kill people. Here’s everything you need to know about the majestic and terrifying beast.

1. The southern cassowary is Earth's second-heaviest bird.

Scientists recognize three living species of cassowary—all of which live in New Guinea, northeastern Australia, and nearby islands. The dwarf cassowary is the smallest, with an average height of around 3 feet. The northern cassowary, an orange-throated behemoth, can stand nearly 5 feet tall. The southern cassowary is bigger than both at 5 foot 6 inches tall. The only two birds that grow taller are ostriches and emus. Adult southern cassowary females can weigh up to 157 pounds, and males 121 pounds, making them the second-heaviest birds on the planet behind ostriches.

2. Cassowaries have dangerous feet.

In the southern cassowary's Australian range, you might come across warning signs that read “Be Cass-o-wary.” Heed this advice. Normally, cassowaries are shy and reclusive, but they can become aggressive when threatened and strike back with powerful head-butts and pecks. Their most dangerous weapon is the razor-sharp claw on the middle toe of each foot, which, in southern cassowaries, grows to be 5 inches long. The birds deliver a series of downward kicks that have been known to break bones and cause fatal lacerations. 

3. Rearing cassowary chicks is the father's job.

Female cassowaries breed with several partners. After laying her eggs, she abandons them, at which point the males take over and incubates the eggs for at least 50 days. The fathers never leave the nest, not even to eat or drink. Once the eggs hatch, males spend the next nine months raising and defending the chicks. Males also teach the chicks how to forage so they can fend for themselves.

4. Cassowaries are surprisingly good jumpers.

What’s scarier than a 150-pound modern dinosaur with killer claws? One that can leap 7 feet off the ground. To get the most out of those toe daggers, cassowaries will sometimes jump feet-first at an attacker, with the claws slashing downward in midair. They’re also great swimmers and sprinters with a top running speed of 30 miles per hour.

5. Cassowaries have a spike hidden on each wing.

Cassowaries are closely related to emus and more distantly related to ostriches, rheas, and kiwis. All of these birds, known as ratites, are flightless. Cassowaries have small vestigial wings tipped with a small claw that probably serves no purpose.

6. Cassowaries are frugivores that also eat their own poop.

Wild cassowaries dine mainly on fruits and berries that fall to the ground in the rainforests they call home. A typical southern cassowary can eat up to 11 pounds of fruit a day, along with plenty of fungi and the occasional dead animal for some extra protein.

Cassowaries also hunt rodents, snails, and lizards. Poop is yet another item on the menu. Cassowary poop usually contains half-digested fruit, which still has plenty of nutritional value, so the birds devour each other’s droppings as well as their own. 

7. The function of their odd crests, or casques, is a mystery. 

Cassowaries sport royal-blue necks and shaggy black feathers, but their most distinctive feature is the helmet-like casque that sits above the eyes. The bony protrusion is covered with a sheath of keratin (the material that makes up your fingernails), and it begins to develop when the bird is around 2 years old. Scientists have long speculated, sometimes wildly, about its purpose. One theory is that casques help cassowaries push aside forest underbrush. The casques might also be used to attract the opposite sex.

A more interesting hypothesis involves how these birds communicate. Cassowaries emit very deep bellows—the lowest bird calls known to humans. Perhaps their casques amplify and broadcast these sounds by acting as a resonance chamber. Certain crested dinosaurs (like Parasaurolophus of Jurassic Park fame) may have produced calls the same way.

8. Cassowaries can live for decades (at least in zoos).

Naturalists don’t know how long a wild cassowary can expect to live. A few southern cassowaries have reached their 40th birthdays in captivity. In zoos, northern cassowaries can top that figure—one reached the age of 48 and another may have been as old as 61. The average lifespan for captive dwarf cassowaries is about 26 years.

9. Cassowaries have strange genitalia.

Both sexes have a pseudo-penis that isn’t connected to any of their internal reproductive organs. When cassowaries mate, the male ejaculates through his cloaca, an orifice at the base of the pseudo-penis. When they aren’t mating, males' pseudo-penis is turned inside out and retracted.

Such peculiar anatomy has given the cassowary a unique place in New Guinean culture and folklore. For example, the native Mianmin people tell stories about a human woman with a penis who somehow transformed into a cassowary. Another indigenous group, the Umeda, put on a regular ceremony called “ida.” A big event that lasts for two days and nights, the ritual involves a fertility dance which calls for two male dancers who represent a pair of cassowaries. Each player is given a heavy mask and is coated with charcoal from head to toe.

10. At least two unfortunate humans have been killed by cassowaries. 

To date, there have been only two verified reports of a cassowary taking human life. In April 1926, a cassowary fatally charged 16-year-old farmer Phillip McLean in north Queensland, Australia. More recently, a 75-year-old Florida man was killed by a cassowary he had kept as a pet at his exotic bird farm.

In 1999, Queensland Parks and Wildlife ranger Christopher P. Kofron analyzed 150 documented cassowary-on-human attacks. Twenty-two percent of attacks resulted from the bird defending itself, its eggs, or its chicks, 5 percent were triggered by somebody getting too close to the cassowary’s food, and 73 percent involved a cassowary that associated people with free meals. Many cassowaries in Australia had lost their natural shyness around humans thanks to people feeding them bananas and watermelon. Today, feeding a wild one is against the law, but the practice continues.

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