Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 23, 2007

From the archives: Bird Tapeworms

I'm trying to locate some old "birderblog" posts about my cat, "Cat," which a couple of people have asked me to repost. So far no luck finding them, but I did come across this old post which I thought was worth reposting:

Back when I was rehabbing and studying nighthawks, several of my birds had tapeworms. I could pick out the perfectly rectangular, pearly cestode fragments in the droppings, and naturally I made a pair of earrings out of them, though since I was no longer teaching junior high science, I didn't have too many opportunities to wear them. I sent one tapeworm in a little vial of formalin solution to humor columnist Dave Barry, who put it in his Holiday Gift Guide for 1994. I hope I won't get in trouble for violating copyright, but this isn't on the net elsewhere that I can see, so I'll quote it here:
Bird Tapeworm

This is the perfect gift for the person--such as your immediate supervisor--to whom you would really like to give an intestinal parasite.

This is an actual tapeworm. It came from a bird, and it was sent in for reasons that we still do not totally comprehend by Laura Erickson, who wrote a book entitled For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide (published by Pfeifer-Hamilton). This book contains a lot of amazing information about birds, including the fact that they get tapeworms. In fact, according to Erickson's book, a single duck can contain as many as 1,600 tapeworms, which explains why ducks always seem so cranky.

Erickson told us that the tapeworm she sent us came from a nighthawk named Bullwinkle. She didn't tell us the tapeworm's name, so we've been calling it Roger. Roger is only about the size of a grain of rice, but he has a lot of personality considering that he's dead and floating around in some kind of chemical solution. We talk to him a lot about things that are on our mind.

"Roger," we say, "can you believe some guy wants $100 million a year just to play basketball?"

Roger doesn't say much--he's not a big sports fan--but he's a good listener, which is more than you can say for a lot of people. Plus you can put Roger in your pocket and carry him anywhere, which means that not only do you always have company, but you also have protection against assault by violent criminals. ("Get back! I have a tapeworm!")

Unfortunately, nighthawk tapeworms are not available in stores. If you want one for yourself or that special someone on your holiday gift list, you'll have to use the technique that Erickson used to obtain Roger: "You sit around and wait for the nighthawk to go to the bathroom."

You will do this if you really care.
Please don't copy/paste this and send it to people you think want to read about intestinal parasites because I already feel bad ripping it off from Dave Barry, who after all wrote it and deserves full credit. (Well, just send them the URL for this post--that way I'm the one who accepts full blame for ripping off his writing.) I hope he won't get mad that I've quoted it here, but his accepting the tapeworm in the first place, naming it Roger, and then writing about it is one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me.

The only thing that could possibly happen that would be cooler would be if some parasitologist one day were to name a cestode that infects nighthawks after me. Gary Duke, my advisor on my doomed Ph.D. project, and I tried to identify the tapeworms infecting my nighthawks, and I sent him some that he was going to get analyzed, but unbeknownst to either of us, he was already starting to suffer from early-onset Alzheimer's and I don't know what happened to the samples. The only tapeworms infecting Common Nighthawks that I could find in the literature were Hydropsalis climacocereus and Metadilepis caprimulgorum, though I found records of others in other nightjars. Wouldn't it be lovely to one day read in the literature about Hyropsalis ericksonius or, even better, Metadilepis laurai?
This is the postcard that started the whole thing. It was his endorsement of my first book.

This is the postcard he sent when the tapeworm arrived.
This is the endorsement he sent for Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids.

These postcards represent 30% of my Dave Barry Postcard Collection,but 100% of The Tapeworm Collection.