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Scientist studies poisonous birds

Scientist Jack Dumbacher studies poisonous birds from New Guinea
Scientist Jack Dumbacher studies poisonous birds from New Guinea
Dave Boitano/photo

As head of the departments of Ornithology and Mammalogy at the California Academy of Sciences, Jack Dumbacher is involved in many scientific projects.

But his research into one type of animal never ceases to amaze an audience: poisonous birds.

“No matter where I give a seminar, people are always fascinated by poisonous birds,” he said.

His connection to the birds, known as Pitohuis, happened quite by chance.

While collecting Birds of Paradise in New Guinea in 1989, Dumbacher and other researchers had to release other birds which had become inadvertently tangled in their nets.

Dumbacher suffered a number of bird scratches during the releases which burned like crazy.

Not wanting to lose time, Dumbacher licked his wounds only to feel his mouth tingle and become numb. He checked with another researcher and found that he had the same symptoms.

Dumbacher surmised that they birds were poisonous and his scientific quest was on.

He asked the local guides who accompanied him on the expedition if that species was toxic.

“They said ‘you should be careful with those birds, they are rubbish birds, you can’t even eat those birds’”

With help from other scientists, who analyzed the toxins found in the birds wings, Dumbacher proved that Pitohuis were poisonous and published his findings in the scientific journal, Nature.

Over the next 25 years, Dumbacher would continue his research into the birds and their chemical properties; work that continues to this day.

Pitohuis are colorful tropical birds about the size of an oriole. One species is orange and black and is related to Old World Orioles, but not the Baltimore Oriole found in the United States.

Their poison is a form of defense against predators and their bright coloring warns a would-be diner that this potential meal may be his last.

It’s a potent neurotoxin of the kind found in poison dart frogs. The bird obtains the toxin by eating a certain kind of beetle. The chemical may be useful in helping waterproof a Pitohui’s wings with the chemical defense being a side effect, Dumbacher said.

Despite his dedication to ortithology, Dumbacher did not grow up in a household of scientists.

He became interested in science while visiting Baja California as a student of biologist Gary Polis of Vanderbilt University. The following year he returned with Polis and worked as a kind of teaching assistant training students in outdoor wilderness skills like rock climbing.

Watching the professors stay on and do research after the course gave Dumbacher the idea that he may have found a job he liked.

“I thought, I love camping, I love animals and I love going to exotic places. Maybe this is a career that could work for me,” he said.

When he is not doing research on birds, Dumbacher teaches a master birder course to members of the public along with instructors from the Audubon Society.

It’s designed for experienced birdwatchers or “birders” who want to delve deeper into the subject.

The intense course of study includes a series of lectures, field trips, mandatory volunteer time, lab work and a research paper covering a topic not discussed in class.

Programs that introduce people to wildlife are important because they encourage the protection of birds and other species, Dumbacher said.

“To the extent that we want to save nature and preserve nature..People are only going to do it if they love nature and they will love nature if they have some contact with nature,” he said.

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