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Our witch’s brew comes home to roost
By Derrick Z. Jackson GLOBE COLUMNIST
SEPTEMBER 24, 2011
THE AMERICAN kestrel may be the bald eagle of the 21st century, the new icon for our continued poisoning and denuding of habitat in the name of progress. The male kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America, beautifully adorns many a utility wire with its spotted body, striped head, reddish brown back, and steel-blue shoulders.
But a groundbreaking and heartbreaking Mass Audubon report says the kestrel is now “among the most precipitously declining birds in the Commonwealth.’’ Today, it is found in less than half of the places it was seen in the 1970s.
“The difference is that with the bald eagle, the problem was clearly identified as DDT,’’ said Mass Audubon naturalist Chris Leahy. “Rachel Carson publicized it in ‘Silent Spring.’ We got rid of it. The birds rebounded beautifully. The situation with the kestrel and quite a lot of our common birds may be even more alarming. They are having a more subtle winking out. It’s not like banning DDT, washing our hands, and say we did a great thing. This is looking like a lot of sleeper things we’ve been putting out there for decades.’’
The Mass Audubon report compared birds seen in 9-square-mile areas in the 1970s to those seen in the same squares today. Several species of birds have exploded, such as wild turkeys, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, ruby-throated hummingbirds, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, and Cooper’s hawks.
But a quarter of breeding bird species in Massachusetts disappeared from parts of the state, especially grassland and shrub birds such as the kestrel, the Eastern meadowlark, the Northern bobwhite, the purple finch, the Eastern Whip-poor-will, the brown thrasher, the American black duck, and the ring-necked pheasant.
The most publicized modern culprits for general bird decline are development and climate change. But ornithologists are also vexed about a brew of modern consumer product chemicals that continues to work its way into the environment.
The chemicals include flame retardants for the plastics and foams in consumer electronics, computers, furniture, draperies, upholstery, wire insulation, and small appliances.
They also include stain and water repellants, coolants and perchlorates for blasting agents, fireworks, safety flares, and airbag inflators.
And then there are the pharmaceuticals and personal care products in our medicine cabinets.
Federal research has found the presence of antidepressants in fish downstream from sewage treatment plants.
State governments and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued tougher regulations and phase-outs on some chemicals out of concern for human health. But the chemicals are so thoroughly in the bird world that a 2008 study by the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine found harmful contaminants in the eggs of all 23 bird species studied. The total number of contaminants topped 100 found in birds ranging from inland loons to island puffins.
“I personally came away from this saying, ‘My goodness, if these chemicals are in the birds like this, they are certainly in me,’’’ said Wing Goodale, Biodiversity’s deputy director. “Maybe that’s a way to get people’s attention. Some of these chemicals can combine to cause a broad range of problems in reproductive systems, thyroid and organ function, and the nervous system. We have to look at the synergy of how these chemicals interact. We know some of these contaminants cause rats to be hyperactive. It makes you think about ADD and behavioral things in kids.’’
That is not the end of it for grassland birds like the kestrel. If it isn’t toxins inside a bird’s body, Leahy said, it might be the pesticides in modern corporate agriculture that so thoroughly sterilize the fields, birds find it hard to find insects for their young. “Planting season is virtually the same as breeding season,’’ Leahy said. “We’ve learned to kill everything in agriculture without poisoning people and that’s where most people stop.’’
We cannot stop there if we want birds. A half-century after “Silent Spring’’ and the collapse of eagles, the kestrel is warning us of a new silence. Yesterday it was DDT. Today it is our world of plastics and fields of perfect food.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.
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