After over eighteeen months of pandemic, I’m sure most people have read a book or two about pandemics, disease outbreaks, or even just viruses. Most of these books probably don’t leave the reader feeling very relaxed.
Sentinel Chickens: What Birds Tell Us About Our Health and the World, is not like that. Full of amicable ancedotes about birds, diseases and their relations with regards to humans, this books was such a gentle read that I felt that I could take it to the beach and have a nice relax.
The first chapter opens with a cute story about going to see some puffins, for goodness sake. I don’t think I’ll be suffereing from anxiety spikes from that
Peter Doherty is a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne who started out as a veterinary pathologist before switching to infection and immunity research, with a strong focus on influenza. Eventually he wound up winning a Nobel Prize for Medicine, alongside Rolf Zinkernage, for his work on how T cells recognise their target antigens. The Professor has written a number of popular science books—including one specifically about pandemics, But thi was the that one stood out to me on the MUP publishing site because it had a toucan on the cover. I was going on holiday and I wanted something nice and the toucan looked non threatening!
So why would a immunoloist be interested in birds? It’s not just the vet science background; avian-human relations are actually really important in the context of a number of diseases. For example, water birds and their environment play a role in influenza outbreaks. While Influenza A and B viruses can both infect humans, A also infects aquatic birds and can easily survive in fresh water, making these birds a maintainance population for the different varieties of the virus. Unlike humans, where the ‘flu is a respiratory disease, the ‘flu is in birds often manifiests as mild infection of the gastrointestinal tract. But sometimes a muation occurs and the virus becomes much more nasty, ripping though flocks—and potentially making the jump into humans.
The Sentinel Chickens of the title involve another interesting human-avian interaction—a more delibrate one. It descibes our use of birds as a monitoring system for certain viruses. Some viral diseases—such as the mosquito borne aboraviruses—are spreading their range, and we need a warning system for detecting these viruses bfore they become a problem. While these viruses are zoonotic and can infect a number of species, it’s quite easy for us to place cages of chickes around the countryside and draw the odd blood sample every now and then. They’re first mentioned with regards to West Nile Virus, but such systems can also be used to detect the Ross River and Murray Valley encephalitis viruses, which are already present in Australia; as well as other viral diseases that don’t yet present a problem but could in the future thanks to climate change
Climate change also features in another bird-diease story in Hawaii, involving an avian-only version of malaria thats wrecking havoc on entire species of birds who have had to change their habitats due to heat-induced food shortages. The mosquitoes—who had gotten there first—were more than happy to feed on the fresh blood (Yes, mozzies can bite birds—feathers offer little protection here), but the unfortunate honeycreepers had no prior immunity to the disease and were decimated.
While the subjects that I have mentioned here might sound a little heady, they are not told that way. There is a stong human touch throughout the book that keeps things grounded and makes for a friendly, amicable tone. This tone is easy for the author to maintain becasue half of the time when he’s explaining someone’s research into a subject, it’s a someone that he knows personally. The story of the sentinal chickens starts of with an immunologist golfing buddy remarking: “Hitting into the rough, I came face to face with a cage full of chickens! Chickens on a golf course! What’s that about?’ He then follows up with some reseach from his cousin Ralph, who was involved in the study of Ross River and other aboroviruses. It’s all very genial.
Theres a lot for food for thought in this book too. From pandemics, to climate change, genetics and cancer, everything shares a little bit of the limelight. But the common thread throughout is that we better take care of our natural environment—for our own sake, as much as the birds—as the loss of birds species could prove perilous to our own.
But really, I insist that Sentinel Chickens makes a good holiday read.
For bingo, this is my Pandemic Book! Yay! It only mentions Coronaviruses twice!