Close encounters of the bird kind

Last Saturday started out as a low key weekend adventure: just a little local beach without having to fight too much weekend traffic. So we crossed the Verrazano bridge to Staten Island. In Great Kills Park, we spotted plenty of your expected birds– plovers and gulls of varying shapes and sizes. But then my husband, the eagle-eyed birdwatcher in our household, looks over to find this little bird.

The baby cockatiel we rescued from a Staten Island beach on Saturday

An unbanded baby cockatiel? (Insert rant: How could anyone abandon a baby bird, bred as a pet, to fend for itself like that? He  (or she) had been battered and pecked.). We took him to the nearest animal shelter and hope that “Sandy” finds a good home.

Back on the beach boardwalk, we can confirm– in case you were wondering– there are real wild turkeys in New York City.

gobble, gobble in Staten Island
a wild turkey perched on the Staten Island beach boardwalk

Count-em, three, quirky animal stories


Quirky animal stories are big fun, but three in a month is a new record for me.

The most recent one, hot off the presses in C&EN’s Environmental SCENE, looks at how arctic seabirds provide a convenient way to track persistent pollutants in marine environments.The researchers measure the chemicals in stomach oils, a concentrate of fish oils from their food that collect in an upper part of their stomach. Chicks are exposed to higher levels of pollutants when they’re fed stomach oils than from whole fish or crustaceans. Fun factoid: the smelly mess is super-easy to collect because the birds also spew it on intruders. Yes, that includes your friendly neighborhood field scientist.

At the end of July, I went to the 47th Annual Animal Behavior Society meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Here’s what came out of that trip for ScienceNOW:

First, a look at unusual beluga whale behavior: except for during mating season, male whales at a Canadian aquarium prefer to hump other males rather than females. Is this hanky-panky an assertion of dominance? A form of play? In the wild, male whales tend to live in groups on their own for most of the year and under the Arctic ice.

Finally, a new chapter in the story of duck penises: Male ducks have unusual, spiraling penises that grow for mating season. Now, researchers have shown in two different species that social competition shapes either how long a duck’s penis will grow or how long it will stay elongated. It’s as if the ducks walked into a quacking singles bar and their sexual prowess changed based on the other guys in the room.


The Origin of this Science Writer

Last week, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science started a post that’s collecting the stories of how science writers came to this particular career. I finally got around to adding my contribution, which I’m reposting with relevant links.

At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News,, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here.