Friday, December 3, 2010

Tapeworm Makes the Big Time

(Today's For the Birds script)

Back when I was rehabbing injured birds, I specialized in the care of Common Nighthawks. They were far more abundant in the 1980s and early 90s than they are now, and frequently were struck by cars or collided with transmission lines and guy wires. Of the dozens of nighthawks I cared for, a few had tapeworms. These intestinal parasites didn’t seem to weaken the birds—successful parasites often cause no ill effects—but I was fascinated. The perfectly rectangular, pearly cestode fragments glistened in a bird’s droppings. And in 1994, when humor columnist Dave Barry mentioned a factoid about duck tapeworms in a blurb he wrote for my first book, I was so grateful that I sent him a tapeworm in a tiny vial of alcohol, inside a velvet jewelry box. He sent me a postcard saying “Thanks. It was delicious,” and signed, Dave “Nighthawk” Barry.
Months later, when I was working on the computer, my son tapped me on the shoulder. I took off my headphones and he said, “Mom, there’s a man on the phone and he says he’s Dave Barry.”
Sure enough, Dave Barry was on the phone, wanting to know more about this particular tapeworm and the bird it came from, for his 1994 Holiday Gift Guide. And the following November, there was a photograph of the little tapeworm in its vial in newspapers all over the world. Dave Barry wrote:
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.”