- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003

The birds don’t get frisked, cuffed, investigated, fined or incarcerated. No one reads them their Miranda rights. But they must take a “Breathalyzer” test.

A bird “Breathalyzer” test, that is.

University of Rhode Island biologist David Podlesak uses a miniature device — tiny beak mask and all — that literally measures the “signature” of songbird breath, revealing the contents of the bird’s latest meal.

Fat bugs and plump bayberries or corn and vibernum? It’s all in the breath.

“This is all in the name of conservation of habitats,” Mr. Podlesak said. “We find out what plants and fruits the birds use to fatten up on when they are southbound, then make sure these resources will continue to be available.”

Yellow-rumped warblers, white-throated sparrows, ruby crowned kinglets, golden crowned kinglets and gray catbirds have no secrets from Mr. Podlesak, who received funding for his research from the National Science Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, among other organizations.

But it is no easy task.

Mr. Podlesak must first trek to Block Island — about an hour ferry ride into the Atlantic off the Rhode Island coast. With scrubby brush and pristine sand dunes, the site boasts 350 freshwater ponds and 17 miles of beach.

But the island is a fast-food stop for migratory birds along the East Coast: Regulars stop in to feed on their journey south.

For days on end, Mr. Podlesak minds 10- by 30-foot “mist” nets set up to snare a flying bird. Then the fun stuff begins.

The birds are retrieved from the net.

“They’re just so tiny we don’t use gloves,” Mr. Podlesak said.

With the delicate touch of a surgeon, Mr. Podlesak calmly places the bird’s beak inside the breath analyzer’s tiny mask, handmade from plastic tubing and wax and attached to a balloon full of oxygen.

The bird in question breathes in the oxygen for 30 to 60 seconds and exhales carbon dioxide, which then is analyzed for “its carbon signature,” Mr. Podlesak said.

“We measure the ratio of the isotopes of carbon 12 to carbon 13, and this carbon signature in their breath can tell us what the bird ate earlier in the day,” he explained.

Mr. Podlesak also takes blood and feather samples from the bird, then releases it.

“But we can’t take credit for inventing” the bird breath analyzer, Mr. Podlesak said. “It was developed at Brigham Young University a few years back for use with pigeons.”

There have been a few unsolved mysteries, such as the case of the yellow rumped warbler that normally scarfs down bayberries during its flight south. Mr. Podelsak’s breath analyzer turned up something else in the warbler’s diet, which has yet to be identified.

“It’s a mystery meal. Are these warblers deviating from their route?” Mr. Podlesak asked. “We still haven’t figured it out yet.”

Then there are the greater implications.

“I just exchanged photos with a guy who is using this same method on polar bears, looking to preserve habitat. His [bear breath analyzers] are a lot bigger, though,” Mr. Podlesak said.

British scientists at the University of Warwick, meanwhile, have developed a cow breath analyzer, which samples acetone levels in the bovine’s breath. The level can determine if a cow has ketosis — a potentially fatal condition from too much dietary protein.


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