Audubon Christmas Bird Count issue: Eagles did not prosper during the ‘time of DDT’

August 26, 2015

Still photo captured from the film,

Still photo captured from the film, “Christmas Bird Count,” by Chan Robbins; photo shows a group counting birds, probably in the 1940s or 1950s. Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count got its start in 1900.

In the notoriously wrong and misleading “100 things you should know about DDT” posted by pro-DDT, anti-wildlife Steven Milloy of “Competitive Enterprise Institute” and Fox News fame, based on the foggy rant of Dr. Gordon Edwards, we get these two misleading claims:

69. After 15 years of heavy and widespread usage of DDT, Audubon Society ornithologists counted 25 percent more eagles per observer in 1960 than during the pre-DDT 1941 bird census. [Marvin, PH. 1964 Birds on the rise. Bull Entomol Soc Amer 10(3):184-186; Wurster, CF. 1969 Congressional Record S4599, May 5, 1969; Anon. 1942. The 42nd Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Magazine 44:1-75 (Jan/Feb 1942; Cruickshank, AD (Editor). 1961. The 61st Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Field Notes 15(2):84-300; White-Stevens, R.. 1972. Statistical analyses of Audubon Christmas Bird censuses. Letter to New York Times, August 15, 1972]

99. The Audubon Society’s annual bird census in 1960 reported that at least 26 kinds of birds became more numerous during 1941 – 1960. [See Anon. 1942. The 42nd annual Christmas bird census.” Audubon Magazine 44;1-75 (Jan/Feb 1942), and Cruicjshank, AD (editor) 1961. The 61st annual Christmas bird census. Audubon Field Notes 15(2); 84-300]

100. Statistical analysis of the Audubon data bore out the perceived increases. [White-Stevens, R. 1972. Statistical analyses of Audubon Christmas bird censuses. Letter to New York Times, August 15, 1972]

Those claims are false with regard to bald eagles.

The careful citations offered by Milloy and Edwards simply do not exist; if the source exists, the source does not say what is claimed by these guys.  (Don’t take my word for it; go see for yourself.)

Audubon never suggested, in any forum, that their famous Christmas Bird Count had shown increases in eagles. Most other species showed no increases, either. I spent a couple of days at the library of Southern Methodist University reviewing every issue of Audubon Magazine from 1941 through 1974, and found not a single article suggesting anything other than declining eagle populations in the lower 48 states (Alaska eagles were not untouched by DDT, but were not so seriously affected; and as you will see below, the first counts of Alaska’s eagles did not occur until after 1950, so the addition of numbers from Alaska counts do not indicate an increase in U.S. population of eagles.)

I also reviewed each bird count, usually published in a separate booklet with the March issue of Audubon in that time. While raw numbers increased, that was clearly due to increases in people observing. At no point did any ornithologist or Audubon member suggest eagles were in recovery, from 1941 through 1972.

That’s a long explanation, unsuitable for quick discussion on blogs, and wholly too much for a 140-character Tweet. My experience with Milloy and his followers is that they will say my analysis somehow errs, though they cannot offer any real analysis from any other source that isn’t just a misreading of the raw bird count.

I wrote the Audubon Society, and asked them to respond to the claim. At first the press office thought the claims so bizarre that they didn’t think a reply necessary.  I sent them a half-dozen links to other documents that cited Milloy and Edwards.  Delta Willis at Audubon took the claims to officials of the bird count.

Geoff LeBaron, Director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count sent the following reply (posted without correction).

See also the footnote from Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham appended to the end of the e-mail.

LeBaron, Geoff
Sent: Friday, May 10, 2013 10:21 AM
To: Willis, Delta; Langham, Gary; Dale, Kathy
Subject: RE: DDT and effects on birds, and Audubon Christmas bird count

Hello Delta,

From the 1930s through 1970s there was a tremendous growth in the number of Christmas Bird Counts, from 203 total counts in the 30th CBC to 1320 counts in 80th CBC.  The number of observers on those counts rose from 679 in 30th to 32,322 in the 80th Count.  That is a tremendous increase in effort as well as geographic coverage, and more people in more areas are going to count more Bald Eagles, even if the populations are [were] declining.

A second major factor is that during that period many CBCs were started with the specific goal of censusing wintering Bald Eagles.  Thus we were targeting the areas where eagles were wintering, and thus tallying a much greater percentage of the total population.

Thirdly, there were only two individual CBCs conducted in Alaska prior to the late 1950s.  Bald Eagle populations never suffered dramatically in Alaska [from DDT?], and their numbers were always much higher there.  Since the late 1950s there has been a tremendous growth in the number of counts in Alaska—again, with some of these counts targeting areas where wintering eagles congregate even in the thousands.  These counts added in Alaska can contribute greatly to the total number of Bald Eagles in each season’s CBC.

Thus even while Bald Eagle populations were plummeting in the lower 48 states (outside of Florida) CBC [Citizen Science] efforts were greatly increasing, and in fact targeting monitoring Bald Eagles.  That is why both the raw number of eagles and the numbers when weighted for observer effort went up when you pull CBC data for Bald Eagle during the decades of heavy DDT use.

It’s still educational to look at raptor numbers in CBC data in the years following the banning of the use of DDT in the US.  Many species of raptors show a rapid rebound in numbers after the mid-1970s…and Bald Eagles also dramatically increased.

Per Dr. Gary Langham, Audubon Chief Scientist:   Audubon scientists are careful to include levels of participation and geographic coverage in all analyses. Fortunately, we have tracked both of these aspects since the CBC was started and so it is straightforward to adjust for their impacts.

Bird counts do not show that eagles were out of trouble during DDT years, roughly 1946 through 1972; especially they do not show that bald eagle populations increased.


Explanation of the Christmas Bird Count in four minutes, by Chan Robbins.

Chandler Robbins, founder of the Audubon Christimas Bird Count, screen capture from Audubon film

Chandler Robbins, founder of the Audubon Christimas Bird Count, screen capture from Audubon film “Christmas Bird Count.”

Nota bene: Yes, this has sat in my “to be published” box for too long. It was scheduled for publication, but it appears I had not hit the “publish at scheduled time” button. My apologies to readers, and especially to Audubon’s scientists and press people.

Another conservation success: Bearded vulture returns to the Alps

May 31, 2014

Do conservation efforts pay off?  Yes, they do.

Film comes from the European-based Vulture Conservation Foundation.

Since the film, more of these majestic animals have been released.  Here are photos from the release on Friday, May 30:

Workers and volunteers from the Vulture Conservation Foundation, climbing the Alps to release to the wild another captive-raised bearded vulture.

Workers and volunteers from the Vulture Conservation Foundation, climbing the Alps to release to the wild another captive-raised bearded vulture. (We might assume the vulture is in the box.)

One must respect these volunteers, climbing such tors simply to watch a bird fly away.

The line of hiking Vulture Conservation Foundation volunteers stretched across an alpine mountain for a release on May 30, 2014.

The line of hiking Vulture Conservation Foundation volunteers stretched across an alpine mountain for a release on May 30, 2014.

You can tell

Not ready for his (her?) close up, this bearded vulture may be wildly happy, or sad to leave those who raised it.  Vultures, it may be said, are often inscrutable.  Vulture Conservation Foundation photos.

Not ready for his (her?) close up, this bearded vulture may be wildly happy, or sad to leave those who raised it. Vultures, it may be said, are often inscrutable. Vulture Conservation Foundation photos.

Tip of the old scrub brush to bird conservationist Amanda Holland.

Signs of life: Endangered squirrels

May 13, 2014

From jbendery (Jennifer Bendery) --  I learned today that there are endangered squirrels, and apparently they have ginormous tails. (h/t @kate_sheppard)

From jbendery (Jennifer Bendery) — I learned today that there are endangered squirrels, and apparently they have ginormous tails. (h/t @kate_sheppard)

A lot of punchlines possible, e.g., ‘if the squirrels weren’t slow, maybe they wouldn’t be endangered.’

Still a rather unique sign, no?

I wonder where it is?  This sign marks habitat in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge  in Maryland for the Delmarva fox squirrel.

Update:  Well, maybe not wholly unique; World Wildlife Fund has this one — again, without a note about location.

Slow - squirrel crossing sign © Michael Mallet

© Michael Mallet

Insta-Millard: Look alive, kids, Fuego is lurking!

May 12, 2014

One way to get the kids out of their sleeping bags in the morning, no?  Just alert them to the passing California condor, looking for something that doesn’t move, to eat.

USFWS PacificSouthwest:

USFWS PacificSouthwest: “Now that is up close and personal! Melissa Galieti snapped this picture of #Condor 470 ‘Fuego,’ May 5 in Big Sur, California.

Only way to get closer to these majestic birds is to do what our cousin Amanda Holland did, and work with the Condor recovery project.

Might be a life’s work in there somewhere.


Sen. Cruz and Sen. Lee, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, poke fun at dead tigers

April 28, 2014

Ted Cruz, demonstrating that he is of the Not Ready For Honorable Service Club, posted this photo on his Facebook page, ridiculing the Endangered Species Act and the plight of tigers everywhere (I’m not a good enough Panthera tigris expert to identify which subspecies* this one is; they are all threatened, and trade in the skins of tigers is proscribed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)).

Cruz said:  “Did a little shopping for the office with United States Senator Mike Lee in Houston today.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said: "Did a little shopping for the office with United States Senator Mike Lee in Houston today."

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said: “Did a little shopping for the office with United States Senator Mike Lee in Houston today.” [This is a replacement copy of the photo, which Sen. Cruz, perhaps wisely, seems to have taken down from his Facebook site. 01/28/2015]

I posted this on Facebook with little comment — it’s just disgusting that public officials would be so cavalier about U.S. law and responsible citizenship like this.  Oddly, someone took offense claiming that we shouldn’t impinge on the First Amendment rights of conservatives.

Shooting threatened and endangered species is not covered by the First Amendment. (YIAAL).

In discussions on my Facebook timeline, I wrote this to those taking offense at criticisms of these two yahoos:

We cannot hope to know the anguish in the hearts of Ted Cruz and Mike Lee that this majestic, endangered, animal was slaughtered.

But we can note that this photo was a genuine lapse in judgment, and we should question whether either of these men is fit to serve you coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, let alone fit to sit in Congress and wreak destruction in our names.

Our national policy is to protect endangered species. Partly that’s done out of respect for creation and our inability to recreated such magnificent things once they are gone. Partly it is done out of the real understanding that as endangered species go, so go we. We do not know, cannot know, which species are the critical ones that make it possible for us to survive on this planet. We shouldn’t be in the business of experimenting with the wiping out of the human race the penalty paid if we goof.

Protecting endangered species produces huge benefits. Not only did we bring back from the brink of extinction the bald eagle, osprey, peregrine falcon and brown pelican when we banned DDT use on crops, we discovered that we’d endangered several species of bats that, now they’ve recovered from DDT, keep our cities free from disease carrying mosquitoes — much cheaper than even DDT at the acme of its cheapness.

And then there are the other benefits. Digitalis to treat heart disease came from a threatened species in tropical climes. Because we’d protected habitat for the spotted owl, when the National Institutes of Health put out the call for massive amounts of Pacific yew, from which to extract a chemical that had shown promise to cure cancers, we had enough of the trees to answer the call right away — and tamoxifen was tested and found very useful, and is today out there fighting cancers.

So what if these two clowns want to jab at environmentalists? Isn’t that allowed, even when they have to urinate on our national symbols to do it?

Sure, it’s allowed. But people who do that? They’re not qualified to be called leaders. Such a lapse in judgment is enough that, in a just world, they’d be asked to resign immediately.

Martin Luther King, Jr., promised that someday the words of the prophet Amos would come true, and justice will roll like a mighty river.

That day is not today. Today we have Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, proving true the words of the prophet Jagger: “Let’s think of the wavering millions// Who need leaders but get gamblers instead.”

Gambling like that does dishonor to this establishment we call the USA.


They make Anthony Weiner look chaste and noble.

If you’re on Facebook, perhaps you’d like to join in discussion there; I’d like to have your thoughts here.


Interesting update: Meanwhile, back in Sane America, which is far away from these two guys, The National Zoo/Smithsonian teamed up with Portugal. The Man to release a very rare piece of music, to raise money to help rescue the Sumatran tiger, of which only 400 remain alive.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and Conservation Biology Institute teamed with agency DDB New York to put the dwindling tiger population in perspective on Earth Day. They enlisted Portugal. The Man to record an exclusive song, then pressed 400 copies on degradable vinyl, so that with each play the record would diminish until the song disappeared, not unlike the dire situation facing our striped feline friends from Sumatra.

Can you get a copy to listen to?  Though there are only 400 copies, I’ll wager it’s easier to listen to this song than it is to get a straight answer about endangered tigers from the Senate offices of these two senators pictured above.

Update #2: Here’s an infographic that suggests why it’s important to keep tigers alive.  They are canaries in our coal mine we call Earth.  Lee and Cruz appear to be cheering on the destruction of all humanity.

Thanks to Lars for pointing out that all tigers are one species, and the different populations are subspecies.

Nene, once again more than just a crossword answer

March 26, 2014

Caption:  USFWS Refuge System ‏@USFWSRefuges -   Nene hatchings on Jas Campbell #Refuge are 1st in Hawaii in centuries

Caption: USFWS Refuge System ‏@USFWSRefuges – Nene hatchings on James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge are first in [Oahu] Hawaii in centuries (this photo taken on Kaui, at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge). Photograph by Brenda Zaun/USFWS/Flickr Creative Commons

These great looking geese, known as Nene,  are thought to have descended from Canada geese blown off course; once they were common on many of the Hawaiian Islands, but by 1952 there were only 30 left.

Bones found on Oahu show they once thrived there.  A few birds — blown off course again, or looking for more territory? — moved to Oahu a few months ago, and have raised young.  Scientists are watching to see how it works out.

With short name featuring only two different letters, “Nene” is a popular crossword answer, and clue.  Some ornithologists half-joke that the familiarity among crossword enthusiasts was a huge aid in getting aid for the wild populations of the bird, and in getting the Endangered Species Act passed into law.



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.



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