Weather changes add to birds’ marital woes

Marriage, infidelity and divorce: These intimate matters are familiar to humans. But oddly enough, birds deal with them as well. Now researchers have found that avian infidelity is more common in severe or uncertain weather. “Environmental conditions help shape reproductive decisions that seem incredibly personal and idiosyncratic,” said Carlos A. Botero, a biologist at North Carolina State University and first author of a study of mating habits among birds published in the current issue of the journal PloS One.

The sweeping report looks at data on more than 80 bird species, including swallows, chickadees, bluebirds, falcons, gulls and geese.

In birds, infidelity is measured through paternity tests comparing DNA from parents sharing an offspring in the nest. Divorce is measured by how birds pair off. When two birds are paired one year but seek new partners the next, they are considered “divorced.”

Botero and his colleague Dustin R Rubenstein, a biologist at Columbia University, found that promiscuity increases when weather changes, because birds seek different traits in their mates as conditions change. For instance, in a climate where rain is abundant and there are many fruits, birds might rely on small, soft seeds for food. In this case, a female might be attracted to a male with a short, narrow bill capable of easily eating these seeds. But if conditions turn dry and only hard seeds are available, a bird with a stronger, bigger beak might be more capable – and more alluring as a mate.

The researchers believe that as the climate changes, birds may be reckoning with increased marital strife.

Sewage’s toxic smell, smothered by coffee

Coffee lovers around the world can rejoice: The piles of grounds they discard could help rid the world of the toxic smell of sewage. Writing in The Journal of Hazardous Materials, researchers at the City University of New York report that coffee grounds can absorb hydrogen sulfide gas, a big part of what makes sewage smell so terrible. Today, activated carbons or porous coals are used in treatment facilities to draw hydrogen sulfide from sewage. But the researchers found that when coffee grounds are transformed into activated carbon, they sop up sulfur particularly well. That’s because of a key ingredient in coffee: caffeine.

Caffeine contains nitrogen, which increases carbon’s ability to eliminate sulfur from the air, said Teresa J. Bandosz, a chemist and chemical engineer at CUNY and an author of the report. To carbonize the coffee grounds, she and her colleagues mixed the grounds with water and zinc, and then dried the mixture in an oven. Bandosz hopes that entrepreneurs might take the research and turn it into a business. A coffee drinker herself, Bandosz came up with the idea because she throws out piles of coffee grounds.

“Fresh coffee would work even better – it has more caffeine,” she said. “But it is not economical.”

Sindya N Bhanoo
New York Times News Service