You can't miss what you've never known

March 21, 2019

I hear them again before dawn, singing their familiar song. The American robins are back, ready for another nesting season. The messenger of spring and new life, they bring comfort.

I’ve come to expect them in large numbers each spring. And they don’t disappoint. The robin was chosen in 1931 to be Michigan’s state bird, described as the ‘best-known and best-loved of all the birds in the state.’ But in the era of pervasive DDT spraying in the 1950s and 1960s, robins—along with bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys, and any bird which ingested contaminated insects, fish, berries or seeds—were dying. This included the robins in Michigan.

 

DDT quickly became the wonder insecticide during WWII because of its effectiveness in killing both body lice and mosquitoes—the vectors of typhus and malaria. In 1945 DDT was released for general use, certified by government agencies for almost unrestricted agricultural and household use and quickly became the go-to insecticide to kill any insect deemed a ‘nuisance.’

 

All this was happening with little preliminary research on how DDT impacted animals interconnected in the food chain to insects and invertebrates—as so many birds like the American robin, whose diet is primarily earthworms.

 

Now the robins are thriving, again. But if they had not survived the DDT scourge—who would miss their spring song now? Who would know what we had lost?

 

Who will miss the Monarchs, now teetering on the edge of extinction, victims of pervasive agricultural chemicals and Monsanto’s Roundup? Just a few years ago I would see Monarchs flitting through my yard on most summer days, but now they’ve diminished to just a few over the entire summer.

 

How many kids today have ever seen a Monarch? Would they be able to recognize one if they did?

 

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out in 1962 amplifying the trail of fatalities linked to DDT: native birds, fish, mammals, and yes, even humans. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. The bald eagles have recovered, the peregrine falcons are slowly returning. And our American robin is thriving.

 

Sources:

 

Kenneth S. Davis. “The Deadly Dust: The Unhappy History of DDT,” 1971. American Heritage. https://www.americanheritage.com/deadly-dust-unhappy-history-ddt

 

Rachel Carson. Silent Spring, 1962. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

 

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