Eagles! We reduced DDT, and the eagles recovered

January 28, 2013

Love this photo, from the great folks at Yellowstone National Park:

Chris Daniel photo of a bald eagle in Yellowstone National Park, in the snow

From the Yellowstone NP Facebook site: An adult bald eagle perched along the Firehole River on New Year’s Day, near a trumpeter swan that it had either killed or was scavenging. Adult bald eagles usually remain in or near their nest territory throughout winter provided they have access to sufficient prey. Photo courtesy of Chris Daniel. (kd)

It’s a reminder of progress we’ve made in environmental protection.

While bald eagles may not have been the most endangered animal protected under the Endangered Species Act, or any other law, they became the most famous.  In the late 18th century Congress voted to designate the bald eagle as our national symbol.  At the time, the continent was still lousy with the creatures.  But from the arrival of Europeans after 1492, eagles had been hunted mercilessly.  By the early 20th century it was clear the animal was bound for extinction, like the great auk and other species (see here for technical information on the auk).

Ben Franklin complained the eagle was a dirty carrion eater, in a smart and funny polemic favoring the American turkey as the national bird.  Franklin couldn’t know how hunting and in-breeding would suck the nobility out of even wild turkeys over the next 200 years, until species protection laws and hunters pushed governments to invigorate stocks of wild turkeys again.  Compared to the eagle’s troubles, though, the turkey’s genetic torpor and limited habitat was almost nothing.

Americans tried to save the eagle.  After 1890, and during the run on great bird feathers that excited the fashion world and led to the senseless slaughter of millions of America’s most spectacular birds, we passed a federal law against hunting and shooting eagles for sport or no reason.  It was a toothless law, and the decline of eagle populations begun in the early 16th century continued unabated. Migratory bird treaties, providing more legal heft to bird protection, didn’t help the eagles either — not enough of them crossed borders, at least not that hunters and law enforcement could see.  The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, kicking into action in 1941, provided teeth to eagle hunting restrictions, and hunters stopped shooting them so much.  Between 1940 and 1950, eagle populations stabilized, with a good bunch in Alaska, and a few nesting pairs spread from Oregon to Maine, Lake of the Woods to Florida Everglades.  There were so few eagles, and they were spread so far apart, that most Americans could not see one without major effort and travel.

Bird watchers noticed trouble in the 1950s.  Young eagles stopped showing up for the Audubon Christmas bird count, and at the Hawk Mountain migration counts.  Adults went through the motions, migrating, hunting, building nests, laying eggs for all anyone knew, and hatching young that had been seen, sometimes, to fledge — but then the young birds died.  Between leaving the nest, and returning to mate up and breed, the young birds simply disappeared.

Research showed deeper trouble.  On careful observation the birds were seen to be frustrated in hatching and raising chicks.  Sometimes the eggs wouldn’t hatch.  If they did hatch, the chicks died.  The few who lived to fly out, died soon after.

Rachel Carson called attention to the trouble in her 1962 claxon call on pesticide and chemical pollution, Silent Spring (50 years ago in 2012).

Doctor Science at Obsidian Wings wrote a paean to seeing bald eagles in the wild, with a brief and kind mention of this blog. You should go read it there.

Protecting birds?  The Steve Milloys, CEIs, AEIs, Heritage Foundations, CATO Institutes and other dens of smug cynicism and bad citizenship have it all wrong.  It’s not about power for environmentalists.  It’s nothing so cheap or mean.  Heck.  Often it’s not even about protecting the birds so much.

It’s about protecting our own dreams, and places we have to inspire those dreams.  Frederick Jackson Turner postulated that there is something mystical and magical in a frontier that helped form the American character and make us hard-working, smart, and noble.  He was right, of course.  Those frontiers are not simply frontiers of settlement in the wilderness anymore.  We have to work to find them, to declare Alaska the “Last Frontier,” or government reform and Cold War enterprise as the “New Frontier.”  But we still need frontiers.

Eagles still soar there.  Wherever eagles soar, in fact, we find those frontiers, those places to dream and inspire.  The Endangered Species Act isn’t about saving animals and plants.  It’s about saving our own souls.

More:


More misunderstanding of the case against DDT

December 21, 2011

Well-meaning but misinformed dog breeder Terrierman (a guy who goes by the handle PBurns, too)  is just the latest to fall victim to false and nearly false claims about DDT and its effects on birds.

One of the claims made by pro-DDT and anti-environmental protection, anti-science groups is that DDT is not the bad guy in bird deaths.  The late DDT-nut Gordon Edwards said DDT had nothing to do with eagle deaths, and pointed to the 300-year decline in eagle populations from the time European settlers began shooting at them.  This idea has been touted by the chief junk science purveyor, Steven Milloy, and by many others over the years.

So, in one of his several posts slamming eagle conservation efforts that include stopping the use of DDT, Terrierman said:

What’s the story? Simple: that Bald Eagles and Osprey were pushed to the edge of extinction by DDT.

Not True.

Actually, that is true.  Terrierman got it wrong.  DDT was, indeed, threatening the very existence of the bald eagle.  While it is true that there were other pressures, some long-standing, it is also true that once those problems were cleared, DDT still barred the recovery of the eagle, plus other species like osprey, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans.

What is the story?  The story is that eagles have been under assault since Europeans found America.  By 1900, eagle populations across North America were dramatically and drastically reduced.  A federal law in 1918 made it illegal to shoot eagles, but it had little effect.  A tougher law passed in 1940 finally got some traction.

But eagle recovery didn’t take off.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s bird watchers, and bird counters like those volunteers who contribute to the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, noticed that young eagles disappeared.  Simply, adult, breeding eagles were not able to produce young who survived to migrate, mature, and breed later.

The culprit was DDT.  DDT kills young eagles in three ways, known in the 1960s.  It poisons them so they cannot grow in the egg.  It poisons them so they die after a period of growth.  It poisons them so they are unable to eat and digest properly, so they die shortly after they hatch.

DDT can also screw up the sexual organs of young birds, so they are unable to breed — perhaps a fourth way DDT kills young, by simply preventing their creation.

Then, in the 1970s, we found another way DDT kills species:  DDT makes the eagle hens unable to form competent eggshells.  The young die because the eggs cannot survive incubation.

DDT also kills adult eagles, especially migrating birds.  DDT accumulates in fat tissues, those fats that migrating birds burn.  When the birds migrate, the DDT comes out, and it can literally stop the heart or brain of the bird in flight.  (It kills bats the same way.)  Birds lost in migration rarely get found for necropsy.   The bird count simply falls, the population sinks one individual closer to extinction.

Does the dog breeder know all of this?  I can’t tell — I tried to correct his errors at his blog site, but after I provided a link to an article that showed DDT appears to be harming California condors as well — in a post he has censored in moderation and which will never see the light of day at Terrierman, I predict — it’s clear he’s not up to gentle correction.

One more blog from which I am banned from telling the facts.

PBurns, if you’re bold enough to comment here, your comments won’t be censored (so long as not profane).  We need robust discussion, and I encourage it.

Below the fold — my final post to Terrierman, which he won’t allow through moderation.

Read the rest of this entry »


Tea Party symbols: Forgetting history and science

July 13, 2010

From the Los Angeles Times blogs, Opinion, from February 2010:

Tea Party footnotes

February 7, 2010 |  7:39 am

A couple of musings about the Tea Party convention in Tennessee:

I’m puzzled by the disgruntled reaction among Tea Partiers to the fact that the convention charged money to attend — about $550, it’s been reported — and that the convention organizer was a for-profit company. Yeah, it’s expensive, all right, but isn’t profit-making quintessentially American?

And I’ve seen photos of conventioneers wearing T-shirts with the image of a bald eagle on the back, the national bird, symbol of the nation. When the Founding Fathers were drawing up the blueprints for the United States, there were hundreds of thousands of bald eagles, coast to coast, clime to clime.

But then humans began crowding them out and shooting them down in such numbers that a law protecting them was put into place in 1940. But that was just about the time that DDT began to be used in vast quantities, and there went the bald eagle population again. DDT in the food chain rendered bald eagle shells too thin to incubate or hatch and perhaps rendered some adult birds infertile.

Rachel Carson’s seminal book ”Silent Spring” raised the public’s awareness of the risks of DDT. In 1967, bald eagles were ruled an endangered species in much of the U.S. — a status that was made national on the nation’s bicentennial, in 1976 — and they weren’t declared to be a thriving species once again until 2007.

Which means that, if it hadn’t been for all those tree-hugging pinko environmentalists, the bird of prey on all those T-shirts, the proud bald eagle, might very well have been a dead duck.

– Patt Morrison

Audubon watercolor of bald eagle - Library of Congress image

Audubon watercolor of bald eagle - Library of Congress image

Help save the bald eagle from Tea Party sniping:

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