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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 3, 2004

Air Date: December 3, 2004



Avian Flu

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A virus common in birds could have widespread and fatal consequences for humans. That’s according to the World Health Organization which recently announced an avian flu pandemic would be “very, very likely” in the next few years. Recent reports have found that the virus has jumped from birds to humans. Scientists worry that if the virus takes on a form that can be communicated between humans, a pandemic on the order of the deadly 1918 outbreak could be close at hand. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health about how the U.S. might protect against an impending pandemic. (10:45)

Emerging Science Note/Think Less, Learn More / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a study that suggests concentration isn’t always an advantage when performing simple tasks. (01:45)

Pay As You Go

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Imagine your odometer determining how much you pay at the pump, and you’d be close to the proposal some California and Oregon officials are testing out. Their goal is to ultimately reduce auto emissions by charging drivers a fee for every mile they drive. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet talks with host Steve Curwood about just how this might work. (04:30)

Looking for the Grey Ghost / Allan Coukell

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Producer Allan Coukell takes us to New Zealand in search of the mysterious and elusive songbird, the South Island Kokako, whose haunting call is unlike any other sound in the animal kingdom (30:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Anthony FauciREPORTERS: Ingrid LobetPRODUCER: Allan CoukellNOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Public health officials now say the big outbreak of influenza among birds in Asia could become a major human health concern. If the bird virus mutates into a form that can easily spread among humans, it could set off a health crisis not seen since the great flu outbreak of 1918.

FAUCI: When you get a pandemic flu, in this case one that’s fundamentally a bird flu that jumps species into humans, that you’re gonna have a serious problem worldwide because the level of immunity against a flu that civilization has not ever experienced before can be catastrophic.

CURWOOD: And there would be few places to hide.

THOMPSON: This virus would travel by jet. It would likely break out and circle the globe within six months.

CURWOOD: The risk of avian flu - and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Avian Flu


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The flu might have physicians and patients scrambling for shots here in the states, but there’s another, more deadly form of the disease that’s grabbing the attention of health officials here and overseas. Thirty-two people in Southeast Asia have so far died from a strain of avian flu called H5N1, and these recent cases are the first signs that the virus has crossed over from infected birds to humans.

Poultry farmers are particularly susceptible to the virus since they are in close contact with birds that could be flu carriers. In Asia, millions of birds have been infected with the H5N1 virus. And scientists worry that if the virus takes a form that could be easily transmitted among humans, it could set off a public health calamity like the influenza pandemic in 1918 that killed 20 million people worldwide.

Officials at the World Health Organization recently declared that a bird flu pandemic is, quote, “very, very likely,” and could kill two to seven million people or more and quickly infect up to one-third of the world’s population. Dick Thompson is a spokesman for WHO.

THOMPSON: This virus would travel by jet. It would likely break out and circle the globe within six months.

CURWOOD: Joining me now to talk about efforts underway in the U.S. to protect against the virus is Dr. Anthony Fauci. He directs the National Institutes of Allergy and infectious Disease in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Fauci, welcome to Living on Earth.

FAUCI: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

CURWOOD: We’ve just heard how the World Health Organization is estimating as many as two to seven million people around the world could die from this disease, and some of their folks are saying as many as 100 million. What’s your take on the accuracy of those numbers?

FAUCI: Well, I think they’re very soft. It’s very difficult to predict. I think it’s important rather than to get involved in the analysis of mathematical models for numbers, to know that when you get a pandemic flu, namely the emergence of an influenza, in this case, one that’s fundamentally a bird flu that jumps species into humans, that you’re gonna have a serious problem worldwide, because the level of immunity against a flu that civilization has not ever experienced before can be catastrophic. It can be millions and millions and millions; seven, ten, 15, 20, it’s difficult to predict, because all flus are difficult to predict. But the one thing you do know, that if it is a bird flu that gets into humans as opposed to the normal, cyclic, every seasonal flu, which in and of itself causes significant problems – 36,000 deaths per year in the United States and 200,000 hospitalizations – that’s on a regular year, if you get a situation with the bird flu, it can then go into a very large number of people worldwide.

CURWOOD: Okay, now how does the biology work here, Tony? How does an influenza that goes in birds, how does that get into people?

FAUCI: Well, it gets into people by the agricultural conditions of people and birds very closely together in farming agricultural communities, particularly in Asia. That there are flocks of chickens, people take care of the chickens, the chickens get sick, the workers are exposed to their respiratory secretions, they get infected, and then, ultimately, they can infect other humans. It’s that step from human to human which has not yet matured to be very efficient. But what we are seeing is that the people who are around the chickens, particularly in the flocks in the market, they are the ones from whom this virus and this ultimate epidemic will emerge.

CURWOOD: Yeah, and how does that work, that it can then shift to become something that transfers from one human to another?

FAUCI: It becomes just a genetic mutation where just some of the genes just normally mutate. Or one type of influenza that’s not amenable to spreading from human to human infects someone who also is infected simultaneously with a virus that can spread from human to human, and you have exchange of genes of those two viruses, and that’s called re-assortment. So you could re-assort genetically and then get a less efficient virulent virus to become a more efficient spreading virulent virus.

CURWOOD: And that’s the fear that you have in this case.

FAUCI: Exactly.

CURWOOD: If this disease comes to the United States, what are the ways it can get here?

FAUCI: Well, it’s very easy. It’s jet travel. What will happen is someone will be in Asia, in China, in Hong Kong, in Indonesia, or wherever, Vietnam, Thailand, they’ll get on a plane and start coughing and sneezing and someone will wind up getting infected and that’s how it’s spread. Particularly in the age of jet travel when you can be in Asia one day, and then 13-15, 18 hours later, you’re in New York City or Washington or Boston.

CURWOOD: Who’s mostly at risk from this?

FAUCI: Well, anyone’s at risk from getting infected. But the people who are at risk for the complications are young infants from the age of six months to 23 months, elderly individuals greater than 65 years of age, people with chronic diseases like asthma, heart disease, lung disease, people who are taking drugs that suppress their immune system, as well as people like myself who are healthcare people, people who are physicians who take care of patients ‘cause you continually get exposed.

CURWOOD: That’s right, and in the big 1918 pandemic, one of the problems was all the healthcare workers were sick, right?

FAUCI: Well, not only healthcare workers. The problem with 1918 is that young people died very rapidly from that also because it was a very virulent form of the infection. So when you get a pandemic flu, there’s certainly no guarantee that just the people at high risk for complications will get complications. We lost a lot of young, healthy people during the 1918 pandemic.

CURWOOD: Okay, so what are the measures that we should take? You run the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease. What are you saying that we should do as a society in your role in government, to protect the public, assuming that this flu will be coming at us sometime in the next year?

FAUCI: Well, there are a couple of major general categories. There’s general public health measures like keen surveillance both in Asia and here so that you can detect it early and implement the public health measures. And that might be, for example, keeping people from crowded places, taking a look at the possibility of school closures, restrictions of activities, quarantines, isolations and things like that. Hopefully, it would never come to that. That’s a public health measure.

If you look at the research measure, the things that we do at the NIH, what we’ve done several months ago was to isolate the H5N1 and start to develop what we call a seed or a reference virus for a vaccine. That vaccine is now being made in pilot lots that will be ready…one group will be ready at the end of December and the other group will be ready at the end of March or early April, at which point we’ll do a clinical trial to determine the safety and what kind of dosage you would use. And we also are already jumping ahead in contracting with a company to make at least two million doses of vaccine against the H5N1 flu. So that, in fact, if it does emerge to the point of spreading from person to person, we’ll have a very big head start on the development of a vaccine that will give us that immunity that will ultimately reduce our vulnerability.

CURWOOD: Now, what about quantity? You say the government is planning to have, perhaps, a couple million doses of this available. We’re close to three hundred million people in this country.

FAUCI: Right. There are two types of vaccine doses that you make. There are the pilot lots that I mentioned early on which are about 8,000 to 10,000 per lot to use in a clinical trial, and then when you commercially scale up the ability to make the virus vaccine. And in this case, if you go to two million, the mechanics that go into allowing you to make two million doses automatically scales you up so that you can surge that to tens of millions of doses much more readily than if you just were aiming at a few thousand doses.

CURWOOD: Who’s going to do this? I mean, we’ve just looked at a flu vaccine disaster this fall, really. What, it got outsourced to a company to Britain and much of the batch was contaminated, and now…

FAUCI: Right, the company that is making the two million doses is Aventis Pasteur, the company that is now successfully getting us the vaccine that we’re using this year, the company that did not have a problem.

CURWOOD: What about the government doing this? As I understand it, there’s not much money in vaccine production. This is a public health service.

FAUCI: Well, the government needs to partner with industry, but we know from a number of experiences that you really don’t want to disassociate yourself completely from industry. The expertise is there, the capabilites is there. We need to incentivize the industry to get involved seriously in vaccine development and vaccine production. Because the government just is not good at making these kinds of quantities of countermeasures for viruses. It’s a marriage between and a partnership between government, industry and academia that will get us there in a very effective way.

CURWOOD: Now, how does this situation compare with the way past pandemics have spread?

FAUCI: Well, again, in the twentieth century, there have been three major pandemics. One totally catastrophic in 1918 in which 20 to 40 million people worldwide died and a half a million people died in the United States. The next one was in 1957 which was much less dramatic in its effect; and then there was another one in 1968. So, every few decades, you can get a pandemic flu in which there’s no immunity in the community, be it in the United States or worldwide. When experts say that it is inevitable that sooner or later we’re gonna get another one, that, I believe, is true.

CURWOOD: And this year is your highest level of concern?

FAUCI: Well, I’m not saying that anything’s going to happen this year. I think we’re getting closer to what we all consider the inevitability of having a pandemic flu. You know, the chances of it happening this year are small. But the fact that there are so many flocks of birds infected in Asia, whereas a couple of years ago there wasn’t that widespread exposure that we’re seeing, we’re getting closer to it. It’s impossible to predict. The one thing about influenza, you know, you just can’t predict.

CURWOOD: Uh-huh…

FAUCI: But given the number of birds, and given the fact that each year the virus learns, as it were, how to be more efficient, we’re not going in the right direction with the bird flu.

CURWOOD: And if you win with this, the public will never know, right?

FAUCI: Exactly, if you don’t get it and we do the right things, they’ll never know. That’s the nature of the job.

CURWOOD: Dr. Anthony Fauci is director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Dr. Fauci, thanks for taking this time with me today.

FAUCI: You’re quite welcome. It’s good to be here.

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Emerging Science Note/Think Less, Learn More

CURWOOD: Just ahead: metering mileage to collect a road tax. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Modern neuroscience confirms what ancient wisdom has long known: that the secret to mastering a new task may be to think less about it while you’re doing it.

In a recent study, researchers in the United Kingdom found that too much concentration can actually inhibit the learning process, making simple tasks unnecessarily complicated for an integral part of the brain.

Volunteers in the study participated in a six-minute test during which they were asked to press a series of buttons that flashed on a screen in a repetitive pattern. One group of test subjects was encouraged to pick out and remember the pattern, while the other group simply had to relax and not worry about finding a pattern. Researchers monitored the brain activity of both groups during the test using MRI scans. After completing the task, the group that wasn’t consciously looking for the pattern finished 40 milliseconds faster than the group that was trying to discern it.

The findings suggest that those who weren’t concentrating as hard actually learned the pattern more effectively. Researchers explain that this is due to the fact that concentration increases frontal lobe activity. And while the frontal lobe aids in the process of making quick decisions, it may, in fact, hinder certain types of automatic learning such as the ability to determine patterns or sequences. Scientists note, however, that level of concentration needed to learn is entirely dependent on the complexity of the task at hand.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Earl Klugh “Waltz for Debby” BALLADS (Manhattan – 1993)]

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Pay As You Go

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

With gas prices so high, it’s even more difficult for governments to raise gas taxes that support road maintenance. So, editorial pages in California and elsewhere have been, well, if not exactly aflame, they’ve been "akindle" over a proposal to pay for wear and tear on the roads by electronically tracking just how many miles people drive, and then charging them a fee, per mile, at the gas pump. And with me to explain this idea a bit further is Living on Earth’s Western Bureau Chief Ingrid Lobet. Hi there, Ingrid.

LOBET: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: So, tell us more about this. Folks could be taxed by the mile? I think we’ve always been taxed by the mile, haven’t we?

LOBET: That’s one way to look at it because there is kind of a hefty fee that every state charges on each gallon of gas: 18 cents a gallon in California, and another 18 cents by the federal government. And that money goes, or it's supposed to go, to keep up with road wear. And back when cars all got similar miles per gallon, that worked out to be roughly equivalent to a tax per mile. But the people whose job it is to worry about roads in the future say that since that per gallon charge is not indexed to inflation – and has not increased since 1994, and we're all driving more miles all the time – states just aren't taking in enough money to cover costs.

CURWOOD: And now, with hybrid cars beginning to sell, I suppose since they require less gas – and in fact, there are even some, what, no-gas cars on the horizon – states must be looking down the road, so to speak, and thinking, Hmm. If our income is going to be linked to gas sales, we'll never be able to pay for our roads.

LOBET: Right, exactly. So, they're looking for a way to change the way we fund public transportation and roads.

CURWOOD: Now, we’ve always had toll roads, but where did the idea of charging people for all the miles they drive come from?

LOBET: Well, apparently it's been around for many years, but the technology to make it work hasn't. But now, with electronic toll booth reading and transponders, a lot of places are experimenting. In fact, one researcher, Brian Taylor of UCLA, has found 88 cases or places where there’s some form of charging by the mile or road use already underway.

And in Oregon, two researchers at Oregon State University came up with a way to get the GPS in a new car to communicate with an odometer to record how many miles a car travels in Oregon. And that’s going to allow Oregon to begin a pilot program next month that will charge people for their Oregon miles instead of taxing gallons of gas.

CURWOOD: And then how do you get charged for the miles?

LOBET: Well, apparently there’s more than one way you could be charged. But in Oregon it looks like you’ll be at the gas pump, and the odometer miles will be sent to the pump via a small radio transmitter. So you fill up, and the regular gas tax that people usually pay will be subtracted, and a fee per mile will be rung up instead.

CURWOOD: And California might try something similar?

LOBET: Yeah, that’s right. People are talking about here right now because Governor Schwarzenegger has chosen a new chief of the Department of Motor Vehicles and she likes this kind of idea. And it’s also part of the big new state reorganization plan that we have. But it’s not even anywhere near the Legislature yet.

CURWOOD: So Ingrid, tell me, under these scenarios does everyone pay the same mileage charge or tax regardless of the kind of vehicle that they drive?

LOBET: Well, that’s really a key question and it hasn’t been decided yet. Some experts believe that the rate should vary by vehicle weight or by whether you're using a road at a peak time. London is experimenting with a system like that and has seen some real benefits in traffic and in air pollution. The idea that transportation experts have at least is that they’d really like to see people pay for their real use in a way that the payment naturally increases as use increases.

CURWOOD: What about privacy here, Ingrid? I mean, if there’s a mileage system or a peak hour system, and especially under a system where something is tracking which roads you’re driving on, I mean, wouldn't the government end up knowing an awful lot about where we're going?

LOBET: That is definitely a concern for some people. In Oregon they're very careful to say that their system is not going to know where you drive. But it will know when you cross the Oregon border, and it's not hard to imagine a judge giving law enforcement access to that information to investigate a crime and, perhaps, the information could end up somewhere else.

CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s Western Bureau Chief. Thanks, Ingrid.

LOBET: You’re welcome.

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Looking for the Grey Ghost

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. New Zealand was once a paradise of bird species found nowhere else in the world. Some, such as the hairy-feathered nocturnal Kiwi, still exist. Others, such as the seven-foot tall flightless Moa have become extinct. And a few species hover somewhere on the margin.

One of these is the South Island Kokako, which New Zealander Rhys Buckingham calls "the most beautiful songbird in the world." Many experts believe that the South Island Kokako is gone, but Mr. Buckingham has devoted many years of his life to proving them wrong. Allan Coukell produced this audio diary of Mr. Buckingham’s quest of hope and obsession, “Looking for the Grey Ghost.”

(editor’s note: There may be some inaccuracies in the following transcription as the names and voices were not verified.)


BUCKINGHAM: It’s the resonance. The thing about the calls of South Island Kokako, unlike any other bird call I’ve heard in the world, is they seem to be able to produce a natural resonance.

The South Island Kokako (Photo: Courtesy of The Natural History Museum, London)


BUCKINGHAM: The first time I heard it calling for such a long time in the Caples Valley’s Stream, which is a tributary of Caples Valley in Fiordan.

[AUDIO DIARY: Twenty-fifth of the eleventh ’83 (inaudible)]

BUCKINGHAM: It called for two minutes …


BUCKINGHAM: …and I couldn’t believe it. I was virtually – I was hypnotized on the spot, and I said to myself, hey, wait a minute, mate, you’ve got to find this bird. So I raced towards where this incredible call was coming from, and across a river.


BUCKINGHAM: There was quite a flow of water that day. It was after a lot of rain, so the river was as noisy as anything. But these bongs were as clear as a bell above the noise of the river. And then it stopped. It stopped just as I crossed the river.

BUCKINGHAM: Hi, this is Rhys Buckingham, a freelance ornithologist from Mapua, Nelson, introducing the search for the rare, endemic New Zealand bird, the South Island Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: Today, the 17th of October 2000, we are beginning the expedition which will cover a period of about three months and extend from the northern part of the South Island right through to the southwest corner, the bottom corner, of Stewart Island.

We are beginning here in the Oparara Valley because of reports in the past five or so years. Quite close to this area I heard calls which I believed were from South Island Kokako. And, importantly, these calls were in answer to tape-recorded calls of North Island Kokako.


MALE: You get this call when you’ve got the bird in the hand and you’re swinging it upside down. (LAUGHS). It’s a degree more I think than the last in terms of alarm.

BUCKINGHAM: This beautiful bird is a bluey-gray color, larger than a Tui with a distinctly longish tail. But its main feature, if one’s close enough to see it, is a pair of fleshy wattles. To the early New Zealanders, the pioneers of ornithology, this bird was called the Orange-wattled Crow.


BUCKINGHAM: This is really the basis now of South Island Kokako survey. We try and do something just similar to what they’re doing to survey areas with North Island Kokako. They’re called “walk through” surveys, where you just walk on a route, just playing tapes or whatever, and luring a Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: As you can see, nothing wants to answer it here so we better move on.


BUCKINGHAM: The first incidents where I thought, wow, Kokako may exist, I had spent so much time tramping through Fiordland I was skeptical when people spoke of South Island Kokako, and any other rare bird for that matter, because I had spent lots of years of just tramping around and I’d heard nothing. And then at the head of Lake Monowai, and I think it was 1977, I heard this call. Last thing, just before nightfall, coming from the head of Lake Monowai. A beautiful, ringing call, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was like a cathedral bell endlessly tolling. I don’t know how long the call went on, but it was a long time. And my immediate thought then – that must be Kokako.

MALE: What I could possibly do is look somewhere, I’ll have the original tape. Really valuable tapes…original (inaudible) cables. Whether it will still play or not, it’s pretty old. Let’s try.


BUCKINGHAM: We’ve actually got another recording, ah, report, at exactly the same site three years ago. Ohh, beautiful long-tailed Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: It’s not that loud. There it is.


BUCKINGHAM: It should be followed by an unusual double note. That’s it. Both of those. That is the very original. And that particular note is the one we want. You can string them together with a space between them if you like to make them sound as they normally do in the field. This one note. It does this sometimes.


BUCKINGHAM: Copy of alleged South Island Kokako calls. One:


BUCKINGHAM: 18th of October 2000. Glenroy River. This is where an intensive search for South Island Kokako has been carried out in the last five or six years. The main thrust of our effort was in setting up six automatic surveillance cameras. Unfortunately, we failed to get a photograph of the South Island Kokako. Never mind. We heard some very interesting calls. Probably the most interesting was a single, hollow kind of note; it was very deep sounding and quite ghostly, really.

BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO TAPE): Alleged South Island Kokako. Two:

BUCKINGHAM: So, it was extremely mysterious. That, after all – we’re searching for a very, very mysterious bird.


BUCKINGHAM: The first sighting was in Fraser’s Stream, and that was in 1983. I was a wee way off. The bird ran up this log – I’ve never seen a bird before or since run that way. It wasn’t like anything else, it just ran, didn’t hop, just ran. And then it paused. It was a large bird, and I got out my binoculars. And then it just hopped away, disappeared. But it called shortly after it disappeared and I was fairly confident that was a Kokako.

BUCKINGHAM: Single tong note, Kako Basin, dusk, 1st of December 1986.


BUCKINGHAM: 22nd of October. I took off quite early by myself today, and headed to Moria Gate, and from there up ridges southeast. Pretty wild, steep country. Not a iota of a sign of Kokako today.

The draining times, the really psychologically draining times, are simply those times of long periods of time when nothing much happens. You’re playing tapes and nothing responds. You’re giving up, you’re feeling, am I wrong, even?

BUCKINGHAM: Click, call. Recorded at dawn, 3rd of December 1984.


BUCKINGHAM: Did another sequence coming up, this sequence here. Very close to the bird.


BUCKINGHAM: Notice no coughs and splutters.


BUCKINGHAM: At last, call there’s a local dialect to an area northwest Nelson where there were many records of South Island Kokako. And, in fact, one of them should have been accepted – two observers saw the orange wattles, heard the calls, described the calls exactly as we know them now. Confirmed sighting, in my opinion, 1972. So that’s where, if people ask me what’s the last confirmed record of South Island Kokako. I think it’s 1972, 1971 anyway.


BUCKINGHAM: Somewhere in Southland someone had taken a photograph of this bird. And it was taken at a picnic table, the bird was on a picnic table, but there was no question or doubt that bird was – because Robert Fallow wouldn’t make a mistake like that, he’s one of our prestigious and well-known ornithologists. Because he himself had seen the slide; in fact the slide showed clearly the orange wattles. But this slide disappeared. We know the photographer was called Blanchard, because Robert Fallow referred it as the “Blanchard slide.” And he said it completely disappeared. I think this guy Blanchard died and he was trying to get a hold of it from the estate. But it was never found.


BUCKINGHAM: It was probably the 1950s we’re looking at now, but it would be the most recent photograph of South Island Kokako. (LAUGHS) Maybe it’s actually the only photograph!

BUCKINGHAM: November 2000. Yesterday at 5:30 I decided to go for a wander up the valley, and then up a ridge. It was on this ridge I played a tape of juvenile North Island Kokako and then heard, to my amazement, the most beautiful of all calls that Kokako can make. It’s a series of cathedral-life bongs with an ambience and a resonance. It’s quite startling. Ethereal is probably the best way of describing these calls. And this bird was quite a long way away, probably 600-800 meters away. But the ringing nature of the call was staggering and it kept calling constantly, about the rhythm of a cathedral bell tolling. The Tuis and the Bellbirds around were just going berserk. They had been quite quiet, everything had been very ordinary, but after this bird called in the distance the Tuis and the Bellbirds started making alarm calls and general chattering. It was quite staggering. I tried to get recordings of all this but the wind was just a bit too high and the microphone was too sensitive. So then, of course, after – well probably the call lasted for three, four minutes, five minutes, it was a very long sequence – I got a compass bearing and headed off in that direction. But that was it, the bird had run out of steam. And I thought, well, this is big country in here. What chance have I of seeing a bird? There’s probably only one or two left here in this area. So it’s going to be a matter of patience, just persevere, keep coming back. And one day, surely, our luck must change.

CURWOOD: Our search for the South Island Kokako bird of New Zealand continues in just a minute. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Ford, maker of the Escape Hybrid. A full hybrid SUV able to run on electric power alone at certain speeds. Ford vehicles dot com back slash environment; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org. This is NPR -- National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Stephan Micus “The Monk’s Answer” LIFE (ECM – 2004)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The major parts of New Zealand are its South and North Islands, and the North Island Kokako, commonly known as the Blue-wattled Crow, is considered highly endangered, but it is seen from time to time. But its close relative, the South Island Kokako, or Orange-wattled Crow, hasn’t had a fully confirmed sighting since 1972, but it may well have been heard. We continue now with our audio diary, “Looking for the Grey Ghost,” by ornithologist Rhys Buckingham and his companions who have been searching for the South Island Kokako in the jungles of New Zealand for almost two decades.

BUCKINGHAM: Thank goodness for John Kendrick in many respects; otherwise perhaps I wouldn’t be still going now. Wildlife Service sent him in as the consultant just to check how crazy I was. (LAUGHS) They said basically this guy is straight ahead of nearly everyone else in the country on bird calls, bush bird calls, in particular. (LAUGHS) It ended up they didn’t even believe John Kendrick.


KENDRICK: I’d just flown in with Bill Bleck on the helicopter in the Little Anglem branch of the Freshwater river on Stewart Island.

BUCKINGHAM: We called this particular one around camp we call ghost bird. When John flew in by helicopter it was raining quite heavily, so he went inside the tent. He was very eager to hear the recordings I’d made.

KENDRICK: We were playing these tape recordings back in our tent. Rhys, Young Adams and myself, the three of us making up the party.

BUCKINGHAM: And as I was playing him the recordings in the tent…

KENDRICK: …these interesting calls were pealing out from the recorder when all of a sudden –

BUCKINGHAM: The bird outside responded right above the tent…

KENDRICK: An exact replica of what we were playing on the tape.

BUCKINGHAM: John disappeared out of that tent so quickly –

KENDRICK: -- burst through the tent, there was a ripping noise…

BUCKINGHAM: …right through our mosquito netting.

KENDRICK: and we looked up in the Remu -

BUCKINGHAM: We looked…

KENDRICK: We walked round the Remu tree…

BUCKINGHAM: And strained….

KENDRICK: We spend half an hour looking in the tree…without sight or sound of this damn bird.


KENDRICK: That absolutely epitomizes the difficulty of finding the birds. You hear them, but you don’t see them.

BUCKINGHAM: This is one interesting thing about Kokako, you can actually identify it from the single feature that it can call loudly very close but you don’t see it.


BUCKINGHAM: Often a good way of attracting little birds in, just –


BUCKINGHAM: These squeaky noises. There’s a little Tomtit. So we’ve got Brown Creepers, got to be six to eight Brown Creepers, Silvereyes, Tomtits, Chaffinch, Bellbird, Tui, a Blackbird singing, and a Grey Warbler. It’s a great spot.

KENDRICK: I started getting interested in birds before, a little bit, yeah, I think before, I became convinced about Kokako.

BUCKINGHAM: Oh, “ka-ka”…

KENDRICK: Oh, “too-too.” I can hear “too.”

BUCKINGHAM: That time ago I was perhaps a wee bit cautious myself and wondering, well, is the evidence strong enough? Are these birds really here? And about, say, 18 years…18 years ago I was totally convinced, and nothing’s changed since then.


BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO DIARY): 0500 hours, 3/12/84. (inaudible).

BUCKINGHAM: When that bird is calling, when that bird starts calling out there, that bird is there. There’s the excitement, the challenge begins. It’s just when that bird is vocally active, searching for South Island Kokako becomes a real obsession.

BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO DIARY): Five deer bark or buck call, 2nd of December 1984.


BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO DIARY): Six bubble call recorded on the same evening.


BUCKINGHAM: And then I set up my best stereo record system, carried up the tree with my camera. If you can visualize it all, this is the setup, Gary was just up there, and I went away about 100 meters. Now, two of the calls I heard were unmistakable. Unequivocal. They were the organ-like calls, definitely Kokako. All the rest of them, and the ones happened to be around the main record tape-recorder, were oddities such as the Steerback, such as a loud CLACK! And I think there were some other odd calls that night, too. But I heard these beautiful Kokako-like calls which didn’t get recorded, as well as one very hollow note right above my bed. Really loud. It was about three times louder than the loudest Tui call I’ve ever heard. And yet Carrie, whose not very far away, didn’t hear a single thing and it wasn’t recording. So one can assume only one thing: these calls were incredibly directional and, probably, those particular ones that weren’t recorded were aimed at me.


BUCKINGHAM: The Kokako has quite short, rounded wings. (FOUR QUICK BREATH EXHALES). Three, mew, and wing beats. Little Mound Anglem branch of Freshwater, November 1984.





MALE: That stew is divine.

MALE: Perfectly done.

MALE: How would you score it? Ten out of ten?

BUCKINGHAM: (AUDIO DIARY): Granville State Forest. 20th of November 2000. Arrived two days ago. Already in camp were Ron Nolsen and his son, Kit.

“I think it’s time to look for feathers,” he said, and he looked down instead of listening and looking up for a bid. He just looked down and suddenly this feather appears (LAUGHS). And he brought it back. Ron Nolsen was here…

KENDRICK: Kokako, because they’re very ancient birds – they’ve been in New Zealand about 60 million years – and their feather structure is just a little different from other birds. So, John Darby, who is with the Tagi Museum, took this feather and compared it with other feathers. And back came the reply that it looks as though that it’s South Island Kokako. And much later that particular feather went Holland…

BUCKINGHAM: Possibly for DNA sequencing, I’m not sure.

KENDRICK: And was lost. So we can’t even prove to this day that a feather was found on Stewart Island in 1997.


BUCKINGHAM: I think if I add up, I would say three that I’ve got a high degree of certainty. Three that were Kokako. Probably about another six other sightings which possibly were Kokako. Probably my best, most certain sighting was on a very wet day. It was raining constantly – not very heavy rain, but just medium rain – and so I was wandering around. And I carried a pair of binoculars but nothing else. And I heard what I thought was the first Tui I’d heard in this valley. Normally I’d hear this Tui and walk on, but something made me go to below where it was calling, looked up, and then I saw the bird. And I was absolutely astonished was when I looked up it wasn’t a Tui. It was a large bird. It was grey in color; in fact, where the light was shining on it, it was a silvery-grey in color. It took off with slow wing beats and flew in a labored flight out of sight. And as soon as it started singing again I actually thought, I must have been mistaken. I couldn’t have seen anything but a Tui because again, it was singing…I was just trying to think, that wasn’t Kokako, it was a Tui! And then it flew again right above my head and it was then there was no question. On the instant of the sighting I knew it wasn’t a Tui; as soon as it started singing, it has to be a Tui. That’s how the mind works. But when it flew above my head there was no question it was a Kokako. But every note was a mixture of Tui and Bellbird. If I’d recorded that call, no one would have believed me. No one.


BUCKINGHAM: I had a really enjoyable job working with North Island Kokako, which was, I think in the end, ongoing for a couple of years or three years. And it was South Island Kokako season so I just left that job and went voluntary looking for South Island Kokako. I considered really essential to try and save that bird from extinction. So yes, I’ve missed out economically, but in other ways I don’t think I’ve missed out anything. I’ve been privileged to be working with a bird that’s just so remarkable. So I don’t think I’ve missed out on anything.


BUCKINGHAM: There’s various ways of finding it. You can be idiots like me who wander in the bush playing tapes for 21 years and still haven’t found the unequivocal evidence. Or you can go and talk to a number of different people in the hopes that one of them actually already has that unequivocal evidence.

MALE: The first time I seen them I went back a couple times before I actually seen them again. And then after that I kept going back because I was working in that area.

BUCKINGHAM: So now and then you get really good reports that you have to follow up.

MALE: They were there late September ’98. Looked and seen a bird I hadn’t seen before way up in the tops of the tree.

BUCKINGHAM: We get hundreds of reports. I try to interview when I’ve got time.

MALE: Quite a large bird, bluey-grey color, and the Bush where it is, is quite dark. It was hard to pick out the first couple of times.

BUCKINGHAM: Quite often, I listen to the reports, or even hear their evidence if they’ve got tape recordings, video. And it turns out to be a Tui or something common, but that’s fine. But sometimes you get one that’s different, and kind of staggeringly different!

MALE: But the noise that it made was like nothing I ever heard before. To me, it’s like sort of a scary noise, a ghosty noise.

BUCKINGHAM: He was giving the descriptions of the birds he had seen and the calls he had heard. I thought, ah yes, it sounded like it was probably Tui or Kaka.

MALE: So, I just took it from there and kept going back until I managed to catch the noise and tape record it.

BUCKINGHAM: During the interview he brought this recording out and played it, and I just about fell off the chair. There was just no question. It was unequivocal Kokako organ song. And not just one minute of it; there’d be two or three minutes of full song, full loud song! Absolutely definite.

MALE: When I tape-recorded it and had people listen to the tape recorder, and no way was it a Tui.

BUCKINGHAM: That call just mesmerized me, I thought, wow, I hope he gives me a copy of this call.

MALE: I’d copied it to give Rhys a copy, and…

BUCKINGHAM: And what happens?

MALE: I lost the house.

BUCKINGHAM: Poor guy’s house burns down.

MALE: We’d lost everything, and the tapes actually went with it.

BUCKINGHAM: (LAUGHS) That was the unequivocal evidence of the presence of South Island Kokako after 21 years! (LAUGHS) End of story.

MALE: But, they’ve got to still be there somewhere.


BUCKINGHAM: There’s a lot of skepticism and a lot of people here who don’t believe us. But they haven’t really been involved!


BUCKINGHAM: Well, I’ve just got back from Westland, and Kokako 2000 will have to become Kokako 2001 now. I need a little bit of a rest.


BUCKINGHAM: Twenty-two years ago, we really didn’t have very much more than we’ve got now. We haven’t come up with a photograph. We haven’t come up with a really good recording. And it’s understandable a lot of people are going to be skeptical and think that I’m just on a wild goose chase, a tangent.

This feeling that I’ve spent a lot of time on South Island Kokako, and I am getting weary. It’s getting tiring. It’s psychologically very demanding.

But you just sort of keep going, thinking, well, your luck’s got to get better.


BUCKINGHAM: Good morning, we’re walking up Alexander River in the Grey Valley West Coast Bolla Region, and it’s the 13th of April 2002. And we’re having a search for South Island Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: So, okay, do I believe in ghosts? I could say I believe Kokako. They’re out there all right.


CURWOOD: Our documentary “Looking for the Grey Ghost,” was produced by Allan Coukell.

[MUSIC: Tracy Scott Silverman “Fugue en Groove” TRIP TO THE SUN (Windham Hill – 1999)]

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MALE CALLER: A few years ago, I was in Baxter State Park. I took a nap before climbing up Mt. Katahdin. I left my camp moccasins outside the cabin. When I woke up a squirrel had stolen my shoes.

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[MUSIC: Earl Klugh “Nature Boy” BALLADS (Manhattan – 1993)]

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Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our website. You can find is at Living on Earth dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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