Peregrine falcons — ‘100 things about DDT #77’

December 8, 2007

Another in an occasional series that analyzes “100 Things You Need to Know About DDT,” a junk science publication by former tobacco lobbyist Steven Milloy.

Here’s a note from Audubon a while ago (August 2004) (emphasis added):

Winged Tonic

For those dispirited by the notion that humanity has doomed itself to a lonely, sterile future in a world increasingly bereft of wild creatures, there is no tonic more curative than the peregrine falcon. Today, on cliffs, bridges, and city buildings nationwide, young peregrines are strengthening their wings. Within a few weeks, those wings will propel them at speeds near 250 mph, enabling them to kill birds as large as great blue herons, mostly by impact. City aeries are frequently monitored by TV cameras, and you can watch the progress of the hatchlings on your computer or television. (Do an Internet search to find the monitored aerie nearest you.) Before World War II the peregrine was among the planet’s most successful species, breeding on every continent and many mid-ocean islands, from the Arctic to as far south as Cape Horn. When University of Wisconsin biologist Joseph Hickey surveyed eastern peregrines in 1942, he found 350 breeding pairs. In 1963, after two decades of DDT use, he found none. But in 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT, and soon an alliance of federal agencies, conservationists, and private groups was sponsoring captive breeding and the “hacking” of young peregrines into the wild. The recovery goal had been 631 breeding pairs in the United States and Canada. By 1999, when the peregrine was taken off the Endangered Species List, there were at least 1,650.

Compare this with Milloy’s claim #77:

The decline in the U.S. peregrine falcon population occurred long before the DDT years.

[Hickey JJ. 1942. (Only 170 pairs of peregrines in eastern U.S. in 1940) Auk 59:176; Hickey JJ. 1971 Testimony at DDT hearings before EPA hearing examiner. (350 pre- DDT peregrines claimed in eastern U.S., with 28 of the females sterile); and Beebe FL. 1971. The Myth of the Vanishing Peregrine Falcon: A study in manipulation of public and official attitudes. Canadian Raptor Society Publication, 31 pages]

Here are some potential problems:

Eggs of peregrine falcon, crushed by parent due to thin shells caused by DDT. Photo copyright Steve Hopkin,

Eggs of peregrine falcon, crushed by parent due to thin shells caused by DDT. Photo copyright Steve Hopkin,

1. Milloy offers no real citation to Hickey in 1942. The quote would be impossible to track down. Why is Milloy hiding sources, being so coy?

2. While Milloy doesn’t quote Hickey directly, Milloy’s citation of Hickey implies that Hickey’s work supports Milloy’s point. But when we read what Hickey found, according to Audubon, it contradicts Milloy’s point. If Hickey found only 170 nesting peregrines in 1940, and 350 in 1942, clearly that suggests the peregrines were doing very well, more than doubling their nests in two years. Milloy claims peregrines were on the decline, but from what little we have, it looks like their populations were rocketing up prior to DDT. Hickey developed a great reputation for his work revealing the bad effects of DDT; how is it that Milloy has found the only instant ever recorded where Hickey discovers no harm? I suspect Milloy has doctored the data, and not that he’s made a grand discovery of a missing Hickey manuscript.

3. A general decline of raptors prior to DDT does not refute the evidence that DDT killed embryoes, killed hatchlings before they could fledge, and killed fledglings before they could mature. DDT wasn’t the sole cause of the decline of peregrines, nor eagles, nor brown pelicans, but DDT was the major barrier to their recovery. The history of the war against eagles, for example, is rather well documented, as is the development of the wild lands eagles use as habitat. Eagle populations started to decline at the latest when Europeans started to settle North America. Those pressures have never gone away. But after the eagle was protected from hunting in 1918, and then with a tougher law in 1940, the decline was not ended. After 1950, eagles essentially stopped reproducing. This made recovery impossible, and this was the problem DDT caused. When DDT spraying stopped, peregrine falcon populations started to rise, and so did eagle and brown pelican populations, among others.

I have been unable to find a single study that does not corroborate the claim that DDT and its daughter products were hammering the reproduction of predator birds in North America — nor have I found a single study that says the damage has ended. Where does Milloy find any evidence to support his implied claim that DDT was not responsible? It’s not in the citations he offers.

There may be more on this issue coming. So far, nothing Milloy has said against a DDT ban, or in favor of DDT, has checked out to be truthful from the citations he gives, nor from any other source. There are 109 points in his diatribe; I’ve only researched fewer than 20 in any depth.

Other posts pointing out Milloy’s errors:

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcon – “Mr. Milloy, you wouldn’t tell fibs about what’s killing my babies, would you?”

Quote of the moment: Ted Williams (the conservationist)

December 8, 2007

It’s a long passage, but worth the read. Go to the Audubon site for the full essay; it’s longer, and worth more. (Photo: Bald eagle, from the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bald Eagle, USFWS photo

This is from an essay the great conservation curmudgeon Ted Williams published in Audubon in December 2004.

I envy young environmentalists of the 21st century, but I feel bad for them, too. They don’t know what it feels like to win big against seemingly impossible odds. When I started out, America and the world were environmentally lawless. There was no Endangered Species Act, no Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act, no National Environmental Policy Act, no National Forest Management Act. In 1970 I remember standing on the steps of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife field headquarters and arguing with a colleague, Joe, about the banning of DDT. “It will never happen,” he told me. When DDT was banned two years later, he said, “It won’t make any difference.”

For a while it didn’t. The March 1976 Audubon reported “considerable gloomy speculation” about the plight of endangered bald eagles in the Lower 48—more birds dying than hatching, fewer than a thousand nesting pairs. Today there are an estimated 7,000 nesting pairs. The September 1975 Audubon reported that 300 brown pelicans transplanted from Florida to Louisiana—”the Pelican State”—had died from lethal doses of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons. Today Louisiana has more than 13,000 nesting pairs. In 1972 I was assigned by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to write an article on the peregrine falcon in the East—a history piece, because the species had been extirpated from the region. By 1999 peregrines had fully recovered, and they were removed from the Endangered Species List.

The hopelessness I felt about DDT in 1970 was nothing compared with what Rachel Carson felt when she started her campaign against this World War II hero. Writing a book about DDT seemed impossible; she was a nature writer, not an investigative reporter. Barely had she taken pen to paper when she was assailed by arthritis, flu, intestinal virus, sinus infections, staph infections, ulcers, phlebitis, and breast cancer. She didn’t get discouraged; she got mad. Her ulcers, she told her editor, “might have waited till the book was done.” Radiation treatments were “a serious diversion of time.” She found the phlebitis that prevented her from walking “quite trying””not for herself but for “poor Roger,” her adopted son.

When Silent Spring appeared in 1962, Chemical World News condemned it as “science fiction.” Time magazine dismissed it as an “emotional and inaccurate outburst.” Reader’s Digest canceled a contract for a 20,000-word condensation and ran the Time piece instead. But only seven years later Time used a photo of Carson to illustrate its new Environment section. Silent Spring was not a prediction, as anti-environmentalists profess; it was a warning, full of hope. “No,” Carson wrote her friend Lois Crisler, “I myself never thought the ugly facts would dominate. . . . The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind.” If Rachel Carson could find hope in the face of what and who were closing in on her, no environmentalist has the right to feel discouraged in 2004.

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