American Birding Podcast



First, Do No Harm

The earth is a globe; we live on its surface. Continue walking in any direction and eventually you will return to where your started. One person’s “away” is another’s “here and now.”

Let’s live like it.

Shoal Creek after rain

Spring, not winter, is for thunder and lightning. Winter rains are lethargic, more drip than pour. Winter in Austin is for fog, drizzle, and mist. Spring is for the firecracker displays and air raid sirens.

Last night winter and spring traded places for a few hours. Low pressure transiting to the north sucked moisture into central Texas. This resulted in a meteorological train wreck. For several hours we were treated to a pyrotechnical display of spectacular proportions. Rapid-fire lightning careened through the bedroom, and thunder slammed the windows into their frames and pitched our cats under the beds.

Austin’s Shoal Creek jumped up from its bed, pissed. This boney finger of a watershed morphs into a raging cataract when flooded by storm water of this magnitude. The flooding creek, a latte-tinted rapid by early morning, carted plastic shopping bags, yard fertilizers, flower bed mulch, motor oil, miscellaneous yard debris and equipment, dog poop, soiled diapers, Starbucks coffee cups, breakfast taco wrappers, and a well-stirred cocktail of chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, detergents) to the Colorado River and Lady Bird Lake. From there many of these household pollutants seeped south in the Colorado River to Matagorda Bay. There fish will consume polluted prey; birds (and humans) will then consume polluted fish.

The Clean Water Act, introduced during the Nixon administration, has served as an important tool in controlling point-source pollution. But nonpoint-source pollution is another matter. Nonpoint-source pollution is death to the environment by a thousand cuts. The EPA offers guidance to homeowners in controlling nonpoint sources around their homes. How many make even the feeblest attempt to curb the garbage and poisons that course into the creek with each downpour? How many people walk their dogs each day along the creek, and how many tons of dog feces wash into the creek with a torrential rain such as last night?

Shoal Creek is hardly the only tributary dumping its waters into the Colorado River. The Colorado River is but one tributary emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. If you want to see major league pollution, check out the Mississippi. But Shoal Creek, like Waller Creek to the east, drains a densely populated American city and therefore contributes a unique mélange of trash and pollution.

Virtually all of this can be controlled, given a will and a commitment. Any urban stream, creek, or river carries a similar toxic blend, and any urban waterway can be cleaned. We simply need to care enough to invest the minuscule amount and time and effort that it takes to keep the crap out of the creek. We need to clean up our own messes.

Whooping cranes, Aransas NWR, 28 Dec 2010

The major Texas river immediately south of the Colorado is the Guadalupe. The Guadalupe stretches through New Braunfels and Victoria, eventually emptying into San Antonio Bay. Most of the whooping cranes in the world live around San Antonio Bay, which includes the Aransas NWR and Matagorda Island. Immediately upriver from San Antonio Bay is the Coleto Creek Power Plant, a coal-fired facility. Add mercury to the Guadalupe River concoction.

A recent article in the NY Times reported on a study by the Biodiversity Research Institute about the relationship between mercury and the decline of certain northeastern songbirds. According to this article,

Methylmercury, the most toxic form of the heavy metal, was found to be widespread throughout the Northeast — not just in lakes and rivers, as had already been known, but also in forests, on mountaintops and in bogs and marshes that are home to birds long thought to be at minimal risk.”

The new study found dangerously high levels of mercury in several Northeastern bird species, including rusty blackbirds, saltmarsh sparrows and wood thrushes…”

I know where the trash in my creek originates – me and my neighbors. But what about mercury? According to this article,

Mercury, which occurs naturally in the earth, is released into the air when coal is burned in power plants. The gaseous mercury can drift hundreds of miles before settling back to earth, sometimes along with rain. The mercury can be absorbed by tree leaves; when they fall to the ground they are swarmed by bacteria and other organisms that convert the mercury to its organic form. The organic form, methylmercury, is a neurotoxin that can enter the food chain. Small insects, worms and snails that feed on forest litter absorb the mercury. In turn, they are eaten by birds and other small animals, and so on through the food chain.

It’s incredibly important that someone is following what is happening to these birds,” said Joanna Burger, a behavioral ecologist at Rutgers University who has studied mercury contamination in animals. “The birds not only act as sentinels to what is happening in nature, but the results of these studies propose hypotheses for effects that have not yet been identified for people.”

Straight from the Old Testament, isn’t it? Coal begets mercury begets methylmercury begets sick birds. In Austin we won’t keep our crap out of the creek. In the northeastern U.S., the power plants and coal companies won’t keep their poisons out of our birds. We won’t at home because we do not believe that the effort is worth the price we would pay. We would rather leave the dog poop for some other fool to deal with. The power companies would rather pass their mercury on to us for disposal (in this case, in the fat stores of birds). Yes, straight from the Old Testament, but without the wrathful God part.

Red-winged Blackbird

A report on Maine Public Radio Network said that this study showed a diversity of birds impacted, not just those that eat fish. The article reported,

Dave Evers of the Biodiversity Research Institute and a team of scientists were trying to determine the effects of mercury contamination on kingfishers, fish-eating birds that were thought to be at risk.

By accident they also netted several Red wing blackbirds, which typically don’t eat fish but consume mostly insects and spiders.

“And so the field team, at the time, they were taking the Red wing blackbirds out of the net and were planning to just let them go,” Evers says. “But instead I happened to be there and I said let’s make sure we get some blood samples and feather samples and just check to see what they’re like. And lo and behold we found that they were, on average, seven times higher in their blood and mercury concentrations versus the kingfishers that are eating fish.”

Mercury is part of the Austin potage as well. Austin’s Fayetteville Power Plant is 49th out of 450 plants nationwide in pounds of mercury released into the atmosphere. In 2010, the Fayetteville plant, owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority and Austin Energy, reported spewing 360 pounds of mercury out of the smokestacks. Fayetteville belches more carbon into the atmostphere than all of the cars in Austin combined.
The nation’s worst polluting plant is in Texas as well. Luminant’s Big Brown coal plant, located about halfway between Houston and Dallas, pumped 1,610.1 pounds of mercury into the air in 2010. In fact, of the top 10 biggest mercury-polluting power plants in the country, six are located in Texas. No doubt a portion of this mercury fell into the waters of Shoal Creek, the Colorado River, and the Guadalupe River, just one more ingredient in the toxic soup we spoon feed the Gulf and its inhabitants.

As I noted earlier, however, our little creek is a piker compared to the Mississippi. A recent study found that 55,100 pounds of mercury per year are deposited from the atmosphere to the surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico in rainfall and dry deposition; an additional 48,500 pounds of mercury per year flow into the Gulf from the Mississippi River.

Perhaps there is a dim light on the blighted horizon. The EPA has finally issued strong limits on mercury emissions from smokestacks. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the current rule has been more than 20 years in the making, stymied repeatedly by objections from coal-burning utilities — the biggest source of mercury and other acid gases — about the cost of installing pollution-control equipment.”

Recently I learned that the National Wildlife Federation, once buddies with BP, has now teamed with Monsanto’s Scotts division and its Miracle-Gro line of products. According to the NWF, this new partnership is intended to help songbirds. Help? Doesn’t Scotts manufacture Roundup, and Ortho’s Weed-B-Gon, and Bug-B-Gon? Isn’t this the company laboring in Florida to overturn bans on nitrogen in fertilizer, thought to be a major contributor to red tide there (click here for an interactive map and photo gallery of slimed waterways in Florida)?

According to Larry Schweiger, NWF’s CEO, “they want to change. They want to be a better company.” Sure, Larry, just like your old partner wanted to be “Beyond Petroleum.”

*Here is an interesting twist to Scotts’ desire for redemption. According to an article dated 26 January 2012 in the Columbus Dispatch,

Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has agreed to plead guilty to charges in federal court and pay $4.5 million in fines in two incidents that date to 2008. That year, the company recalled packages of wild birdseed coated with pesticides that were toxic to birds.

Court documents state that, from November 2005 to March 2008, Scotts distributed 73 million units of birdseed coated with insecticides called Storcide II and Actellic 5E. This was done to keep insects from eating the seeds during storage.

Storcide’s label says the pesticide is “extremely toxic to fish and toxic to birds and other wildlife.” Documents state that Scotts continued to sell the products despite warnings in the summer and fall of 2007 from a pesticide chemist and an ornithologist, both of whom worked for the company.

Schweiger is treading familiar ground. In 2001 the National Wildlife Federation formed a “partnership” with BP/Amoco. NWF’s Vice President of Communications, Philip B. Kavits, defended the partnering because it helped NWF “reach a new audience,” the same argument used by Schweiger to defend the Scotts marriage.

Hermit Thrush (web)

Remember that toxic brew seeping into my creek and into our Gulf? Scotts manufactured a few of those chemicals. Now a NWF Backyard Habitat should be fed with Miracle-Gro, edged with Roundup, and debugged by Ortho? Are we now “saving our songbirds” through the miracle of chemistry?

And there is always the Richard Louv trump card to play. It’s all about the kids (key the violins)! Here is a quote from the Scotts Miracle-Gro press release,

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and ScottsMiracle-Gro are announcing a new partnership to advance NWF’s nationwide Be Out There initiative to connect children with nature. As the national presenting sponsor, ScottsMiracle-Gro will enhance NWF’s programs to create green spaces and attract wildlife to backyards and communities across the country. Experts agree that today’s children spend too little time outdoors, changing the nature of childhood, and agree that time outside improves children’s physical, mental and emotional health as well as classroom performance.

National Wildlife Federation and Scotts are committed to getting millions more children to play outdoors on a regular basis. This relationship is a win for American childhood, because together we will help families raise healthier and happier children who have a lifelong commitment to protecting wildlife and the natural world,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of NWF. “Through this new partnership, ScottsMiracle-Gro will help NWF’s Be Out There initiative create events, tools and resources that inspire parents to make nature a part of their family’s everyday lives.

This relationship is a win for American childhood? No offense, NWF, but what a crock. Do you sincerely care about getting kids outdoors? Do you want them to have a lifelong commitment to protecting wildlife? Then make sure that they have wildlife to protect. Make sure that there is a vibrant, fecund environment for them to inherit. Every few years there is a revised grim tale, spouted by a new Pied Piper, fluting the children and their parents to a better world. Ignore them. Remember that in the original, the children (not rats) never came back.

This isn’t hard. Conservation is embarrassingly simple to understand.

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land…Aldo Leopold

Harmony. I love that word. Harmony between men and land is a willingness to accept a few mosquito bites when tending the barbeque in the backyard. Harmony is a tolerance of those “pesky” insects that do little more that make us feel creepy. Harmony is an understanding that you can live with a lawn that does not compete with Fenway Park. Harmony is acknowledging that you do not have to subordinate the expanse of nature to your own peculiar pleasures and phobias. Harmony is a willingness to be woven into the fabric of life, to be nothing more than one of the threads in this masterful tapestry we call nature.

To cap this madness, I recently learned that restored wetlands are only rarely as effective as the natural wetlands they replace (who would have thought?). According to David Moreno-Mateos, a University of California, Berkeley, postdoctoral fellow, “even after 100 years, the restored wetland is still different from what was there before, and it may never recover.”

Moreno-Mateos finishes with this clincher:

Wetlands accumulate a lot of carbon, so when you dry up a wetland for agricultural use or to build houses, you are just pouring this carbon into the atmosphere. …If we keep degrading or destroying wetlands, for example through the use of mitigation banks, it is going to take centuries to recover the carbon we are losing.

Acid mine runoff, Sproul SF, PA; 16 May 2001

Power plants belch carbon and mercury into the atmosphere, impacting birds hundreds of miles away. Destroyed wetlands, even when mitigated, will not sequester their original carbon for a century. Pesticides and fertilizers wash their way into the most elemental strata. The mysterious fracking fluids used in Marcellus Shale exploration and development are disposed in public waterways, much like the acid mine drainage from the countless abandoned coal mines that still pollute thousands of miles of Pennsylvania creeks and streams. Get the drift?

Enough doom and gloom for one sitting. The list is endless; the frustrations are too many to enumerate. The remedy, perhaps the only practical solution, has been in our midst for over a century.

Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it…Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt didn’t always live by his own words. No president contributed more to conservation than Roosevelt; no president altered the American landscape more, through his western reclamation projects, than Roosevelt. But in their intent his words define a basic template by which we can measure our own actions.

But what if human nature is such that this standard, this ethic, has no meaning? What if I don’t care about “the ages?” This is often the case with the American public. This is usually the case with American corporations. A corporation, particularly one that is public, complies with a different set of standards, a different template. For a corporation the impetus is to maximize profits while minimizing risk for the longest time. The result may be best for the investors, but not necessarily the best for the general public or the environment. As Keynes (hardly an enemy of capitalism) said,

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.

The job of business is not to protect the greater good. In a democracy, that job is freely given to government. Government establishes the rules that protect the greater good, and then frees business to maximize its profits and minimize its risk. Of course business always demands more freedoms. But the larger public, the greater citizenry, depends of government to insure that business is contained and does no harm.

Who else but government should establish the rules for mercury emmissions that will protect the greater good? Who else but government can insure that our waterways are safe and clean? Who else but government should insist that manufacturers keep their pesticides and poisons out of the environment? If you believe the latest campaign rhetoric that “our plans protect freedom and opportunity, and our blueprint is the Constitution of the United States,” then begin with the Declaration of Independence. Start with the first sentence of the second paragraph,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Please pay particular attention to the term “all men.” The rights enumerated in this sentence are the rights of “all men.” Among these rights is the “pursuit of happiness.” I have little doubt that Jefferson did not consider corporations to be included in “all men,” Citizens United notwithstanding.


A number of years ago I spent time in Maine working on the state’s nature tourism strategy. I loved the project; I love the state. A Mainer term that I came to appreciate is “away.” For a Mainer, you are either from Maine or from “away.”

In conservation, there is no “away.” When the Ortho product (manufactured by Monsanto’s Scotts) leaches from your garden, it doesn’t go away. The poison is simply passed on, in some form, to somewhere and someone else. When the mercury lifts from the power plant smokestack, it doesn’t go away. The pollutant floats for hundreds of miles, eventually falling to earth only to worm its way into the life below. When a wetland is drained, the loss is more catastrophic than the simple destruction of wetland life. The carbon sequestered in the muck is released, eventually joining the carbon and mercury from your local power plant and the pesticides and herbicides from your garden.

Primum non nocere. First, do no harm. No medical student escapes this maxim. To first do no harm (nonmaleficence) is a fundimental principle of medical ethics. But why not extend this Hippocratic principle to conservation, or banking, or politics? Why not extend primum non nocere to our everyday lives, or our daily relationships, or our view of the world?

For conservation, primum non nocere would require that our actions be measured by risk to the environment, not just risk to ourselves or to our financial security (risk as defined by Wall Street). To properly assess risk to the environment, we must accept that there is no “away.” Each of us, individually, must be willing to accept ownership of and responsibility for all that we produce, consume, and cast away.

The earth is a globe; we live on its surface. Continue walking in any direction and eventually you will return to where your started. One person’s “away” is another’s “here and now.”

Let’s live like it.