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From Silent Spring (I’d remind you that these irrigation projects were courtesy of the US Government):

Such poisoning of waters set aside for conservation purposes could have consequences felt by every western duck hunter and by everyone to whom the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky are precious. These particular refuges occupy critical positions in the conservation of western waterfowl. They lie at a point corresponding to the narrow neck of a funnel, into which all the migratory paths composing what is known as the Pacific Flyway converge. During the fall migration they receive many millions of ducks and geese from nesting grounds extending from the shores of Bering Sea east to Hudson Bay — fully three fourths of all the waterfowl that move south into the Pacific Coast states in autumn. In summer they provide nesting areas for waterfowl, especially for two endangered species, the redhead and the ruddy duck. If the lakes and pools of these refuges become seriously contaminated, the damage to the waterfowl populations of the Far West could be irreparable.

Ruddy Duck

What has become of the redhead and the ruddy ducks?

Redhead Duck

Here is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s assessment of the Ruddy’s prospects today. Here is the Cornell Lab’s assessment of the Redhead Duck’s prospects.  A fun research project for someone interested in the environment is to go through the book, now 50 years since publication, and revisit the passages like the ones above. That one was from p.46. Here is one from p. 48:

Meanwhile, the nesting colonies of the grebes dwindled — from more than 1000 pairs before the first insecticide treatment to about 30 pairs in 1960. And even the thirty seem to have nested in vain, for no young grebes have been observed on the lake since the last DDD application

Extra points to those of you who know who authorized the spraying.

Grebes on Lake Clear, CA

From this NOAA report it looks like there are around 470 nesting pairs in Clear Lake, even as the report indicates that such an estimate is likely an underestimate of the number of nests. I have no way to verify the 1000 number or the 30 number Carson cited above.

One Response to “Rachel Carson on the Redhead and Ruddy Ducks”

  1. Rod says:

    I don’t object to the notion that mankind ought to be careful not to pollute the environment in order to avoid the needless death or extinction of wildlife, but that’s not what’s in play so many times among self-appointed environmental groups who have strong tendencies toward authoritarian government. And it takes more than the loosey goosey science of environmentalism to justify any loss of personal liberty, something that’s becoming extinct itself.

    When I was a kid, I was a nature nut — my brother and I hiked and hung out in the woods and were very alert to which species of birds and animals were present on our farm. Red tailed hawks, which now populate our farm in large numbers (you can go out for a walk and see one without looking too hard) were scarce, and so were other birds of prey. Now, if I were Rachel Carson, I’d attribute that to DDT and say that the hawks have come back because their eggshells are thicker. But what about other birds that are now very scarce, like pheasants? We used to have so many pheasants on our farm that there would be hundreds of them strutting around in the field the morning of the first day of hunting season. Now, the only pheasants around are the ones that are raised by the Game Commission or by a local gun club. What happened?

    First of all, farmers in our part of Pennsylvania were mostly dairy or feed crop farmers, not vegetable farmers, so it’s unlikely that the relative scarcity of birds of prey in the fifties was caused by the over-use of DDT. Also, red-tailed hawks and owls might be carnivores, but the food chain for their diet is short: mice, rabbits, pigeons and other short-lived animals that don’t have a lot of built-up toxins in their bodies. It could be that they’re thriving now because so much farmland has been abandoned for farm use and is now wooded or covered with weeds.

    As for the pheasants, they might have succumbed to the avian flu that wiped out so many chickens in the 1980’s. It can’t be that their habitat has been shrinking because there is actually more cover and less intensive farming than we had thirty or forty years ago. My guess is that now that so few people trap animals for fur, there is an army of raccoons and skunks out there that ate every pheasant egg they could find.

    My point here is that it’s hard to predict which animals will thrive or disappear in any given habitat, and that the Ruddy Duck’s sorry fate could be due to something that had nothing to do with industrialization or capitalism. And, as you point out, sometimes it’s the government that goes after mosquitoes with DDT.

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