Our place has been a veritable bird sanctuary for over half a century. Last
July we all remarked, 'There are more birds than ever.' Then, suddenly, in the second week of August, they all disappeared. I was accustomed to rising early to care for my favourite mare that had a young filly. There was not a sound of the song of a bird. It was eerie, terrifying. What was man doing to our perfect and beautiful world? Finally, five months later a blue jay appeared and a wren.
The autumn months to which she referred brought other sombre reports from the deep South, where in Mississippi, Louisiana, and .S Alabama the Field Notes published quarterly by the National Audubon ¡2 Society and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service noted the striking phenomenon of 'blank spots weirdly empty of virtually all bird life'. The Field Notes are a compilation of the reports of seasoned observers who have spent many years afield in their particular areas and have unparalleled knowledge of the normal bird life of the region. One such observer reported that in driving about southern Mississippi that autumn she saw 'no land birds at all for long distances'. Another in Baton Rouge reported that the contents of her feeders had lain untouched 'for weeks on end', while fruiting shrubs in her yard, that ordinarily would be stripped clean by that time, still were laden with berries. Still another reported that his picture window, 'which often used to frame a scene splashed with the reel of forty or fifty cardinals and crowded with other species, seldom permitted a view of as many as a bird or two at a time'. Professor Maurice Brooks of the University of West Virginia, an authority on the birds of the Appalachian region, reported that the West Virginia bird population had undergone 'an incredible reduction'.
One story might serve as the tragic symbol of the fate of the birds - a fate that has already overtaken some species, and that threatens all. It is the story of the robin, the bird known to everyone. To millions of Americans, the season's first robin means that the grip of winter is broken. Its coming is an event reported in newspapers and told eagerly at the breakfast table. And as the number of migrants grows and the first mists of green appear in the woodlands, thousands of people listen for the first dawn chorus of the robins throbbing in the early morning light. But now all is changed, and not even the return of the birds may be taken for granted.
The survival of the robin, and indeed of many other species as well, seems fatefully linked with the American elm, a tree that is part of the history of thousands of towns from the Atlantic to the Rockies, gracing their streets and their village squares and college campuses with majestic archways of green. Now the elms are stricken with a disease that afflicts them throughout their range, a disease so serious that many experts believe all efforts to save the elms will in the end be futile. It would be tragic to lose the elms, but it would be doubly tragic if, in vain efforts to save them, we plunge vast segments of our bird populations into the night of extinction. Yet this is precisely what is threatened.
The so-called Dutch elm disease entered the United States from Europe about 1930 in elm burl logs imported for the veneer industry. It is a fungus disease; the organism invades the water-conducting vessels of the tree, spreads by spores carried in the flow of sap, and by its poisonous secretions as well as by mechanical clogging causes the branches to wilt and the tree to die. The disease is spread from diseased to healthy trees by elm bark beetles. The galleries which the insects have tunnelled out under the bark of dead trees become contaminated with spores of the invading fungus, and the spores adhere to the insect body and are carried wherever the beetle flies. Efforts to control the fungus disease of the elms have been directed largely towards control of the carrier insect. In community after community, especially throughout the strongholds of the American elm, the Midwest and New England, intensive spraying has become a routine procedure.
What this spraying could mean to bird life, and especially to the robin, was first made clear by the work of two ornithologists at Michigan State University, Professor George Wallace and one of his graduate students, John Mehner. When Mr Mehner began work for the doctorate in 1954, he chose a research project that had to do with robin populations. This was quite by chance, for at that time no one suspected that the robins were in danger. But even as he undertook the work, events occurred that were to change its character and indeed to deprive him of his material.
Spraying for Dutch elm disease began in a small way on the university campus in 1954. The following year the city of East Lansing (where the university is located) joined in, spraying on the campus was expanded, and, with local programmes for gypsy moth and mosquito control also under way, the rain of chemicals increased to a downpour.
During 1954, the year of the first light spraying, all seemed well. The following spring the migrating robins began to return to the campus as usual. Like the bluebells in Tomlinson's haunting essay 'The Lost Wood', they were 'expecting no evil' as they reoccupied their familiar territories. But soon it became evident that something was wrong. Dead a and dying robins began to appear on the campus. Few birds were seen e in their normal foraging activities or assembling in their usual roosts. c
Few nests were built; few young appeared. The pattern was repeated s
with monotonous regularity in succeeding springs. The sprayed area had 3
^ become a lethal trap in which each wave of migrating robins would be
¡2 eliminated in about a week. Then new arrivals would come in, only to o x add to the numbers of doomed birds seen on the campus in the agonized
"o tremors that precede death.
'The campus is serving as a graveyard for most of the robins that a attempt to take up residence in the spring,' said Dr Wallace. But why?
"5 At first he suspected some disease of the nervous system, but soon it
■g became evident that
in spite of the assurances of the insecticide people that their sprays were 'harmless to birds' the robins were really dying of insecticidal poisoning;
uu they exhibited the well-known symptoms of loss of balance, followed by tremors, convulsions, and death. (Wallace 1959)
Several facts suggested that the robins were being poisoned, not so much by direct contact with the insecticides as indirectly, by eating earthworms. Campus earthworms had been fed inadvertently to crayfish in a research project and all the crayfish had promptly died. A snake kept in a laboratory cage had gone into violent tremors after being fed such worms. And earthworms are the principal food of robins in the spring.
A key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the doomed robins was soon to be supplied by Dr Ray Barker of the Illinois Natural History Survey at Urbana. Dr Barker's work, published in 1958, traced the intricate cycle of events by which the robins' fate is linked to the elm trees by way of the earthworms. The trees are sprayed in the spring (usually at the rate of 2 to 6 pounds of DDT per 50-foot tree, which may be the equivalent of as much as 23 pounds per acre where elms are numerous) and often again in July, at about half this concentration. Powerful sprayers direct a stream of poison to all parts of the tallest trees, killing directly not only the target organism, the bark beetle, but other insects, including pollinating species and predatory spiders and beetles. The poison forms a tenacious film over the leaves and bark. Rains do not wash it away. In the autumn the leaves fall to the ground, accumulate in sodden layers, and begin the slow process of becoming one with the soil. In this they are aided by the toil of the earthworms, who feed in the leaf litter, for elm leaves are among their favourite foods. In feeding on the leaves the worms always swallow the insecticide, accumulating and concentrating it in their bodies. Dr Barker found deposits of DDT throughout the digestive tracts of the worms, their blood vessels, nerves, and body wall. Undoubtedly some of the earthworms themselves succumb, but others survive to become 'biological magnifiers' of the poison. In the spring the robins return to provide another link in the cycle. As few as eleven large earthworms can transfer a lethal dose of DDT to a robin. And eleven worms form a small part of a day's rations to a bird that eats ten to twelve earthworms in as many minutes.
Not all robins receive a lethal dose, but another consequence may lead to the extinction of their kind as surely as fatal poisoning. The shadow of sterility lies over all the bird studies and indeed lengthens to include all living things within its potential range. There are now only two or three dozen robins to be found each spring on the entire 185-acre campus of Michigan State University, compared with a conservatively estimated 370 adults in this area before spraying. In 1954 every robin nest under observation by Mehner produced young. Towards the end of June, 1957, when at least 370 young birds (the normal replacement of the adult population) would have been foraging over the campus in the years before spraying began, Mehner could find only one young robin. A year later Dr Wallace was to report:
At no time during the spring or summer [of 1958] did I see a fledgling robin anywhere on the main campus, and so far I have failed to find anyone else who has seen one there. (Wallace 1959)
Part of this failure to produce young is due, of course, to the fact that one or more of a pair of robins dies before the nesting cycle is completed. But Wallace has significant records which point to something more sinister - the actual destruction of the birds' capacity to reproduce. He has, for example, records of robins and other birds building nests but laying no eggs, and others laying eggs and incubating them but not hatching them. We have one record of a robin that sat on its eggs faithfully for twenty-one days and they did not hatch. The normal incubation period is thirteen days ... Our analyses are showing high concentrations of DDT in the testes and ovaries of breeding birds [he told a congressional committee in 1960]. Ten males had amounts ranging from 30 to 109 parts per million in the testes, and two females had 151 and 211 parts per million respectively in the egg follicles in their ovaries. (Wallace 1960)
Soon studies in other areas began to develop findings equally dismal. Professor Joseph Hickey and his students at the University of Wisconsin, after careful comparative studies of sprayed and unsprayed areas, a c reported the robin mortality to be at least 86 to 88 per cent. The Cran- e brook Institute of Science at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in an effort n
to assess the extent of bird loss caused by the spraying of the elms, s
asked in 1956 that all birds thought to be victims of DDT poisoning be 3
^ turned in to the institute for examination. The request had a response
¡2 beyond all expectations. Within a few weeks the deep-freeze facilities of o x the institute were taxed to capacity, so that other specimens had to be "o refused. By 1959 a thousand poisoned birds from this single community had been turned in or reported. Although the robin was the chief victim a (one woman calling the institute reported twelve robins lying dead on "5 her lawn as she spoke), sixty-three different species were included among the specimens examined at the institute.
The robins, then, are only one part of the chain of devastation linked to the spraying of the elms, even as the elm programme is only one of the multitudinous spray programmes that cover our land with poisons. Heavy mortality has occurred among about ninety species of birds, including those most familiar to suburbanites and amateur naturalists. The populations of nesting birds in general have declined as much as 90 per cent in some of the sprayed towns. As we shall see, all the various types of birds are affected - ground feeders, tree-top feeders, bark feeders, predators.
It is only reasonable to suppose that all birds and mammals heavily dependent on earthworms or other soil organisms for food are threatened by the robins' fate. Some forty-five species of birds include earthworms in their diet. Among them is the woodcock, a species that winters in southern areas recently heavily sprayed with heptachlor. Two significant discoveries have now been made about the woodcock. Production of young birds on the New Brunswick breeding grounds is definitely reduced, and adult birds that have been analysed contain large residues of DDT and heptachlor.
Already there are disturbing records of heavy mortality among more than twenty other species of ground-feeding birds whose food - worms, ants, grubs, or other soil organisms - has been poisoned. These include three of the thrushes whose songs are among the most exquisite of bird voices, the olive-backed, the wood, and the hermit. And the sparrows that flit through the shrubby understory of the woodlands and forage with rustling sounds amid the fallen leaves - the song sparrow and the whitethroat - these, too, have been found among the victims of the elm sprays.
Mammals, also, may easily be involved in the cycle, directly or indirectly. Earthworms are important among the various foods of the raccoon, and are eaten in the spring and autumn by opossums. Such subterranean tunnellers as shrews and moles capture them in some numbers, and then perhaps pass on the poison to predators such as screech owls and barn owls. Several dying screech owls were picked up in Wisconsin following heavy rains in spring, perhaps poisoned by feeding on earthworms. Hawks and owls have been found in convulsions - great horned owls, screech owls, red-shouldered hawks, sparrowhawks, marsh hawks. These may be cases of secondary poisoning, caused by eating birds or mice that have accumulated insecticides in their livers or other organs.
Nor is it only the creatures that forage on the ground or those who prey on them that are endangered by the foliar spraying of the elms. All of the tree-top feeders, the birds that glean their insect food from the leaves, have disappeared from heavily sprayed areas, among them those woodland sprites the kinglets, both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned, the tiny gnatcatchers, and many of the warblers, whose migrating hordes flow through the trees in spring in a multi-coloured tide of life. In 1956, a late spring delayed spraying so that it coincided with the arrival of an exceptionally heavy wave of warbler migration. Nearly all species of warblers present in the area were represented in the heavy kill that followed. In Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, at least a thousand myrtle warblers could be seen in migration during former years; in 1958, after the spraying of the elms, observers could find only two. So, with additions from other communities, the list grows, and the warblers killed by the spray include those that most charm and fascinate all who are aware of them: the black-and-white, the yellow, the magnolia, and the Cape May; the ovenbird, whose call throbs in the May-time woods; the Blackburnian, whose wings are touched with flame; the chestnut-sided, the Canadian, and the black-throated green. These tree-top feeders are affected either directly by eating poisoned insects or indirectly by a shortage of food.
The loss of food has also struck hard at the swallows that cruise the skies, straining out the aerial insects as herring strain the plankton of the sea. A Wisconsin naturalist reported:
Swallows have been hard hit. Everyone complains of how few they have compared to four or five years ago. Our sky overhead was full of them only four years ago. Now we seldom see any ... This could be both lack of insects because of spray, or poisoned insects.
Of other birds this same observer wrote:
Another striking loss is the phoebe. Flycatchers are scarce everywhere but the early hardy common phoebe is no more. I've seen one this spring and only one last spring. Other birders in Wisconsin make the same complaint. I have had five or six pair of cardinals in the past, none now. Wrens, robins, catbirds and screech owls have nested each year in our l garden. There are none now. Summer mornings are without bird song. Only pest birds, pigeons, starlings and English sparrows remain. It is tragic and I can't bear it. (Coordination of Pesticides Programs 1960)
The dormant sprays applied to the elms in the autumn, sending the
¡2 poison into every little crevice in the bark, are probably responsible for o x the severe reduction observed in the number of chickadees, nuthatches, "o titmice, woodpeckers, and brown creepers. During the winter of 1957-8, Dr Wallace saw no chickadees or nuthatches at his home feeding station a for the first time in many years. Three nuthatches he found later provided "5 a sorry little step-by-step lesson in cause and effect: one was feeding on ■g an elm, another was found dying of typical DDT symptoms, the third was dead. The dying nuthatch was later found to have 226 parts per million .1 of DDT in its tissues (Wallace 1959). [...]
Various scientific studies have established the critical role of birds in insect control in various situations. Thus, woodpeckers are the primary control of the Engelmann spruce beetle, reducing its populations from 45 to 98 per cent, and are important in the control of the codling moth in apple orchards. Chickadees and other winter-resident birds can protect orchards against the cankerworm.
But what happens in nature is not allowed to happen in the modern, chemical-drenched world, where spraying destroys not only the insects but their principal enemy, the birds. When later there is a resurgence of the insect population, as almost always happens, the birds are not there to keep their numbers in check. As the Curator of Birds at the Milwaukee Public Museum, Owen J. Gromme, wrote to the Milwaukee Journal:
The greatest enemy of insect life is other predatory insects, birds, and some small mammals, but DDT kills indiscriminately, including nature's own safeguards or policemen ... In the name of progress are we to become victims of our own diabolical means of insect control to provide temporary comfort, only to lose out to destroying insects later on? By what means will we control new pests, which will attack remaining tree species after the elms are gone, when nature's safeguards (the birds) have been wiped out by poison?
[...] In each of these situations, one turns away to ponder the question: Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? Who has placed in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons? Who has decided - who has the right to decide - for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.
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