What Are You Doing Here?
At eye level, the bird of prey flew by my office window. I was walking toward my desk and stopped cold. My gaze followed the majestic raptor as its massive wings propelled it forward. Had the flier been a common red tail hawk or turkey vulture, I would have stopped to gawk, but this rarity captivated me; an American Bald Eagle passed right outside my window.
I’ve seen eagles from a distance before — most often in lightly populated, northern Wisconsin. I’ve peeked at nest cams and watched raptor shows at the zoo, but last week’s encounter was a treat that I couldn’t let pass unreported.
In grade school, I learned about the plight of America’s national symbol — endangered.
A species with an estimated population near 100,000 in the lower 48 during Revolutionary times had dropped to 487 nesting pairs by 1963. As settlers moved west across the continent, eagle habitat was disrupted and destroyed. The raptors were viewed as a threat to small livestock and as competition for wild game — an unnecessary nuisance. Thomas Jefferson wrote in response to the bird’s selection as an American symbol, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country; he is a Bird of bad moral Character.”
American Bald Eagles were routinely shot by hunters, farmers and fisherman.
What I remember learning in school was that the synthetic pesticide DDT was largely responsible for the decrease in eagle population. Environmentalist groups found that DDT made its way through the food chain, entering waterways, tainting fish and causing eagle’s egg shells to thin. Thin egg shells did not support fledgling eagles.
DDT was used in the United States from the 1950s until 1972 when it was banned by the EPA. It’s purpose was to control pests affecting crops, livestock, homes and gardens. Completing a very unscientific survey, I asked several family members what caused the population collapse of the American Bald Eagle — all replied DDT.
My original title for this essay was We Screwed Up — Then We Fixed It — We’re Meant to Learn.
Wouldn’t you know there’s more to the story than I originally thought?
First, while researching DDT, I tripped across Mimi Foster’s blog. In her post titled Running Behind the DDT Truck, I learned about Dr. Paul Muller. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1948 for his discovery of DDT’s insect control properties. The chemical proved to be a worthy opponent against the spread of typhus and malaria during WWII. In the 1950s, trucks spraying DDT cruised American neighborhood streets, trailing a fog of DDT. Mimi recalls children chasing the trucks on foot, bike and skates.
The general gist of Mimi’s story is that DDT was wrongly singled out by environmentalists and that to this day, the chemical could be saving many lives from malaria in developing countries. As you might imagine, her view is controversial. There are 69 comments — for and against — following her story.
Next I came across Bald Eagle-DDT Myth Still Flying High, published by scientist Steven Milloy in 2006. He supports his dissenting position by referencing numerous scientific experiments and studies that vindicate DDT.
Doesn’t every scientific study for something have an opposing study against?
Finding the above references sent my story in an unintended direction. I don’t know enough to vilify or support DDT. What I do have now is an alternative viewpoint to the one I’d held my whole life. Maybe DDT wasn’t the bad guy it was framed as?
I was unaware that Dr. Paul Muller won a Nobel Prize for his work with DDT — or that the chemical effectively combated malaria and typhus. Did you know? Or like me, did you only associate DDT with endangered species?
It’s certainly something worth thinking about.
Writing this story has reminded me that:
Everything can be this; everything can be that. ~Chang Tsu
The graceful bald eagle most likely didn’t know it was delivering me a message. It said: Keep your mind open. Do not follow blindly. Use your ability to think and discern.
In this age of information, we have unlimited access to differing views. Our challenge lies in casting aside confirmation bias. Do we have the fortitude to look beyond what we think we know?
A Challenge — No Doubt