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Professors’ discovery of sick birds leads to research funding

The quarantines and telecommuting culture of the COVID-19 pandemic brought many back to nature. People were spending more time in their backyards or local parks and this lifestyle change led to a reported increase in the market for bird feeders.

While feeding birds and connecting with wildlife seems like a good thing, it can actually prove harmful to the animal population, according to Fresno State faculty. So when Fresno State biology professor Dr. Tricia Van Laar, discovered a sick bird that had died in her backyard, she and her colleague Professor Dr. Joel Slade set to work uncovering a trend that is endangering wildlife – and possibly humans.

The well-intentioned back-to-nature movement of the pandemic has brought more bird feeders into the local environment. But bird feeders attract large numbers of birds and bring them into close contact with each other. Feeders can act as a breeding ground for the spread of germs and disease from sick birds and dirty feeders. Diseases can spread between birds at feeders, leading to more serious outbreaks of harmful pathogens.

People who handle dirty bird feeders or sick birds run the risk of infection themselves. That’s on top of an already growing issue of urbanization, which causes bird habitat fragmentation and disrupts gene flow that can lead to greater disease risks, Slade said.

Changing landscapes, new health concerns

By 2050, it is estimated that over 66% of humans will live in urban environments, highlighting the need to study the impact of urbanization on animal adaptability and survival. “How animals will cope with this shift and how disease will spread in both non-human and human populations are essential to understand as we continue to develop land,” Slade said.

This work is led by Fresno State’s Slade and Van Laar, who received funding through the University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB) for their proposal entitled “Salmonella in the City: Disease and Immunology in an Urban Songbird’.

They plan to study the differences in urban and rural finches to discover the effect of urbanization on disease and immunity in city animals. The biggest impact of this study is that “ultimately the data will help unravel the complex relationship between urbanization, disease and immunity in urban animals that has implications for conservation and human health” for the future, Slade said.

A backyard mystery sparks discovery

After the bird died in Van Laar’s backyard, she took it to her lab to do some testing. He found out he had salmonella. “With the [avian] The salmonellosis epidemic hitting the US and Canada, Dr. Joel Slade’s work is very timely,” he said. “Especially since we now know that salmonellosis occurs in wild birds in Fresno, after I found a pine bark in my own yard that was suffering from this infection. Unfortunately, it was fatal and I am now worried about the local bird feeder populations. I am excited about the results of this study and look forward to continuing our strong collaborations.”

Salmonella can lead to one of the many diseases that birds can catch from dirty bird feeders. Many scientists look to birds for signs of ecosystem health or as harbingers of disease. In fact, birds are powerful biological indicators of environmental health.

“The finches’ innate immune system is good at fighting salmonella, but pines are not good at it,” Slade said. “They are indicators of the state of the environment. There can be pollution or disease if there are problems with the birds.’

Slade knows birds. He studied field ornithology as an undergraduate and regularly conducts bird research. Western bluebirds still use the nest boxes he installed with students in the past.

Fresno State research in action

For this study, Slade and Van Laar will work with three Fresno State students. Two will be graduate students either enrolled in the biotechnology or biology graduate program. They will engage in experimental design, field and laboratory work, and bioinformatic analysis. The third student will be an undergraduate student who will assist with bird data collection in the field and laboratory work. All three students will contribute to the manuscript and co-present the study findings at conferences.

“As a first-generation Latinx graduate student at Fresno State, I know firsthand the tremendous stress and strain that comes with juggling grad school, family, and working multiple part-time jobs to stay afloat,” she said. graduate student Ramon Lomeli; “With the funding received from this CSUPERB grant, I will be given the opportunity to focus and consolidate more time and effort on the project.”

Students will acquire practical skills in genetics, statistical analysis, field biology, microbiology, basic research skills and eco-immunology.

“Investigating how salmonella interacts in urban environments, and the ability of birds to fight bacteria is essential to maintaining local populations of bacteria-susceptible birds,” said graduate student Lindsey Biehler.

The study will include monitoring bird feeding stations on the Fresno State campus and the San Joaquin Experimental Range. Scientists will regularly draw blood and collect bacterial swabs and stool tests from birds at the stations to compare in vitro measurement data bactericidal capacity against Salmonella among urban and rural finch populations.

DNA from the blood samples will be used to characterize immune genes that may differ between rural and urban populations, which may help explain the finches’ bacteria-killing ability.

“Being able to experience work outside of a lab has been the most enjoyable experience in my three years at Fresno State,” said student Parmeet Kaur.

The data gathered will also be used for externally funded studies in the future on how humans might affect the evolution of the birds’ immune systems, Slade said.

Slade offers seven safety tips for feeding and interacting with birds:

  • If you have a bird feeder, be sure to clean it regularly. The CDC recommends cleaning feeders at least monthly, if not more often if bird droppings are present.
  • Wear protective gloves when cleaning.
  • Use a bleach solution and rinse thoroughly, leaving no bleach residue.
  • Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the bird feeder – even if you were wearing gloves.
  • Do not personally handle sick or dead birds.
  • Contact the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center if you see a bird that is sick or dead: https://www.fresnowildlife.org/ the https://www.crittercreek.org/.
  • Be aware of local outbreaks.
    • Take down your bird feeders if there is an outbreak.
    • Check your local health department website for updates on West Nile virus, salmonella, etc.

Professors’ discovery of sick birds leads to research funding Source link Professors’ discovery of sick birds leads to research funding

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