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Abreast of the West


We may be intelligent, but we're hardly in the same league as the Clark's nutcracker, a member of the keen Corvidae family. They cache "up to 100,000 nuts in dozens of different spots at the end of spring, and can find them all again up to nine months later," says And the birds dig up those nuts when snow covers their hiding places. Given birds this clever, wildlife biologist John Marzluff wondered whether crows, also corvids, could be taught to work for the U.S. military, distinguishing between human faces and searching for -- you guessed it -- Osama bin Laden himself, at that time still at large. Marzluff won some military funding to test his theory and discovered that, yes, the crows he studied could learn who's who, and remember it. If you were the mean guy wearing a caveman mask who trapped the birds once, those birds would recognize you in the same mask several months later. What's more, the crows also passed down that knowledge to their young, so that anybody wearing the caveman mask -- even if it was worn upside down -- would be scolded and mobbed. Readers were amused and horrified at the notion of birdbrains put to military use; one said, "None of my crow friends would ever participate in such nonsense; they just cawed their heads off." Yet animals have been shanghaied for military purposes before: Bats were studied for their bomb-delivery smarts during World War II, and pigeons were trained to steer guided missiles.


Alumni magazines can sometimes knock your socks off. In the recent issue of the University of Montana's Montanan, Chad Dundas profiles Megan Fisher, a 2006 graduate who says modestly that she's really just a "five-foot-nothing, one-legged girl." More accurately she's a super-athlete who's turned herself into a more-or-less "four-legged girl." It's all due to her steely resolve to come back stronger than ever after a horrific car accident maimed her left foot, leading to an amputation. Afterward, Fisher could walk only a short distance before experiencing excruciating pain, so she opted for a second amputation just below the knee "because that's where the (prosthetic) technology is." Now, her left leg sports one of four specialized prosthetics that allow her to walk, bicycle, rollerblade or run, all of which she can do fast: The first time she tried running with her elegant new racing leg, she clocked a mile in six minutes, 30 seconds. Since then, Fisher has won several world paratriathlon championships sponsored by the international Triathlon Union and hopes to compete in the Paralympic Games. "I think I'm a positive person because I'm stubborn," she says. "I refused to let this beat me; being sad stinks ... I mean, it stinks to be disabled. Shoot, it stinks to be abled. We all get happy and we all get sad. I choose to be happy."

From our friends

HCN in the outhouses of the West

From my Alaska trip: I flew into a small town that is not reachable by road, then hopped on a motorboat and drove across lakes and rivers for 2.5 hours to reach the scientists' camp way out in the boondocks -- out there they have a few rough cabins and a generator that makes electricity only in the evening and two outhouses -- and lo and behold, for reading material in the outhouses they have issues of the Economist magazines and HCN -- amazing to discover HCN readers way out there!

Ray Ring, HCN Senior Editor

Dinosaur fans

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-- Brad and Zita Hosmer