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April 1, 2013

Darrell Peterson searches for sneaky songbirds

From the sound of a Cardinal welcoming spring with a gentle melody to the unforgettable shriek of the Amazonian jungle’s Screaming Piha, birds and their songs are a source of mystery and magic for millions of Americans.

Bird watching is such a popular pastime around the world that an entire website — www.xeno-canto.org — is dedicated to sharing the recordings of bird songs and sounds captured by casual birders and dedicated ornithologists alike.

Darrell L. Peterson, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, was the first to record and share the sound of the elusive Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii). Uploaded to Xeno-Canto in 2002, his file includes a sonogram as well as a sound recording of this nearly undetected North American bird.

“They’re sneaky,” says Peterson, who has been a bird enthusiast since 1966. “The Great Dismal Swamp is one of the greatest places in the United States to see one and I’ve taken people from all over the world there.”

Peterson credits his youth in Lexington, Mo., for his interest in biology. “I spent my formative years with my grandparents on a farm. Outdoor stuff is what you did back then — you played outside.”

As a biologist, he considers himself a “lab person” but he says an interest in fieldwork has always been with him. “I’ve always liked biology in general, but to tell you the truth, what triggered the bird thing, I guess, is that they’re relatively easy to see unlike fish where you have to go underwater. Reptiles are kind of sneaky, but everybody can see birds.”

In October 2012 Peterson was recognized with VCU’s Billy R. Martin Award for Innovation, for inventing a test for equine infectious anemia (EIA) that delivers rapid results for the contagious disease, which is caused by a virus similar to HIV in humans and for which there is no treatment.

“Receiving an award named after Billy Martin, and thereby being in some way compared to him, is a great compliment,” Peterson said. Martin, who died in 2008, was the former chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the School of Medicine.

Peterson’s research interests are in the structure and function of viral proteins with current major emphasis on proteins of the hepatitis B virus, several retroviruses and influenza viruses.

Combining personal interests with professional work may be a dream for some, but for Peterson, the two are a natural fit.

Machu Picchu

Darrell Peterson’s fascination with birds took him to Peru in 2011. He was accompanied by his daughter, an archaelogist who had worked on a pre-Inca site for her master’s thesis. That, Peterson said, made her an especially good guide for the area.

“I work on hepatitis viruses and we’re using some bird proteins for vaccine development,” he said. “Sera from birds is used to screen for hepatitis viruses. Say, if I wanted to go to Iceland, I could screen samples from colonial nesting birds or eggs from their colonies and possibly find some useful bird hepatitis viruses for our research.”

Peterson’s travels have taken him all over the world to capture the songs of birds. “I started recording them in the early 1970s. Back then I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder with a parabolic microphone shaped like a satellite dish, then I went to minidisk recordings.”

Today’s digital devices make it easy to move around, edit and store large amounts of recordings, he explains. And with 450 species of birds in Virginia alone, Peterson needs plenty of space for his recordings and notes.

Peterson draws a clear correlation between his hobby and profession. “Research is about identifying things and collecting data,” he says. The same can be said of traveling the world in search of a sneaky songbird.