SciSun: The Bald Truth   Leave a comment

We all know the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) isn’t really bald but just displays a head of white feathers. Maybe because there are already a lot of other birds that use the names ‘white’ and ‘snowy’ and ‘ivory’ and even ‘silvery’, and vultures, which actually are bald, didn’t want to be know as the only follicly-challenged avians. Or maybe it all goes back to the eagle and turkey contentions of Ben Franklin who was, himself, bald. In any case, the thought of a bald bird is a little extreme – or it was until recently, when a disturbing and possibly disastrous discovery literally reared it’s ugly head in the forests of California and Nevada.

Three Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), a less sensational – although more widespread throughout North America – species of raptor, were found in the later half of 2013 suffering from severe infestation of mites. While one of the birds was strong enough to be rehabilitated and after eight months of care returned to the wild, another was so infected it had to be euthanized. The third was so sick it had become weak, disoriented and was hit by a car. Additional eagles have been sighted that show signs of infestation, but don’t yet appear to be in distress. While it’s not unusual that wild animals sometimes contract diseases spread by these microscopic creatures, or even vast colonies of the parasite living on the animal, itself (what we often call ‘mange’ on feral dogs and cats is actually the results of a mite infestation) what is strange has rarely an outbreak become so severe that the host animal dies; and that this mite has been identified as a type that has been seen only once before, 40 years ago, in Africa and not heard from since.

Mites are generally bad news to most everyone (although they are probably quite fond of themselves). Related to ticks and spiders (Archnida) and numbering at approximately 50,000 individual species that find their homes in almost every environment, ecology, region, and habitat, these Invertebrate arthropods make their living by scavenging on the left-overs of others: Dead bodies; body parts; waste; and other un-wanted natural by-products (someone’s got to do it!); by creating colonies that feast on blood, plant fluids, and fungus; and even live on the inside of animals: Acarapis woodi are found inside the tracheae (throat) of honeybees – but are only one type, of hundreds, associated with bees and ants. Which is something to think of the next time you reach for that jar of honey. And if this doesn’t have you itching for more information, be aware that millions (or more) of these little guys live in our homes, schools, businesses and most everywhere we visit. While most are harmless to humans, some, like chiggers and scabies (and probably cooties!) can, and do, live on people (and should be checked out by a doctor immediately); others can cause allergic reactions or act as vectors to serious diseases. But just because they are always there is no excuse for not trying to keep things as clean as possible.

Hair club for Birds.  An idea that sounded promising, but ultimately was before its time.

Hair club for Birds. An idea that sounded promising, but ultimately was before its time.

It’s rather common for birds – both wild and domestic – to have mites; but these almost always affect the non-feathered areas like the bill, legs, and areas around the eyes. Micnemidocoptes derooi, the mite that appears to be targeting the Golden Eagle, are attacking feathered areas resulting in skin lesions and causing feathers to die and drop away, leaving the bird unable to fly, hunt for food, maintain body temperature and unprotected from the weather. It’s very rare for a mite infestation to become so severe on any bird, as the animals’ natural immune system (and personal feather-cleaning) will fight off the invaders before they become uncontrollable. But the biggest mystery – and possibly why the eagles might be loosing the battle – is the exotic rarity of the mite, and how it appeared in the Western US in the first place. It may have been transferred by other birds; or inside cargo containers and packaging from overseas; or even carried in the wind. Little is known about this, until now, undistinguished and overlooked mite species, so no one knows if the infestation could be passed to other birds or even other types of animals (although that type of cross-species transfer is rather rare). This could be an isolated incident; or the beginning of an ecological emergency. While some may say ‘bald is beautiful’, actually going bald – particularly to unseen parasites – is no fun at all.


Michonne Says: I don’t like this at all. There are little tiny things that you can’t see and can make birds sick? And maybe other animals too? And they are even more tiny than beetlebugs and busyants so you can’t find them even if you look everywhere? Then how do you know where to hide?

Posted January 25, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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