Earth Day Hero: Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson. Photo from Rachel Carson The Writer at Work by Paul Brooks.


Pair of Brown Pelicans, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL

Rachel Carson changed the world when her book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. At the time of writing, agriculture was accelerating to new heights with the advancement of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides.


The pesticide DDT had been heralded during WWII for controlling malaria, typhus, body lice, and bubonic plague; Paul Herman Muller had been awarded a Nobel prize for it.


From the 1950s on, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane) was used extensively–40,000 tons a year, worldwide. Especially effective in eliminating mosquitoes, it was liberally sprayed from airplanes and trucks, on crops and neighborhoods.


Insect-borne diseases, they said, would be a thing of the past.

Mosquito control, Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, 1945. The sign says “DDT, Powerful Insecticide, Harmless to Humans.” Bettmann/Corbis


As a child in the 1960s, I clearly remember the excitement of the “spray truck” when it regularly came down our street in Wisconsin every summer. We lived near a marsh and mosquitoes were rampant.


All the little kids, including me, would go running out of their homes chasing after the spray truck, as if it was an ice cream truck.


We would run with delight into the billowing clouds of DDT.


Image result for spray truck mosquitoes 1960s

DDT truck, 1960s, from

This is difficult to imagine now, all these decades later; but is a good indication of the level of ignorance then toward chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides.

Osprey, Ding Darling NWR, FL

While many scientists and industrial chemical companies were earnestly manufacturing dozens of new chemical cocktails, Rachel Carson, along with other scientists in the minority, began addressing the potential dangers of these unknown concoctions.


In the book she described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides, like DDT, altered cellular structure in living beings.


The powerful chemical industry spent a quarter million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. Still, she continued to present her scientific findings and medical interviews, citing numerous cases of human illnesses and fatalities from DDT and its derivatives. Tumors in laboratory rats.

Double-crested Cormorant, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA

American Robin, CA


The publication of the book stirred the nation.


The title, Silent Spring, predicted the silencing of birds and wildlife under this insidious chemical barrage. Communities organized grassroots efforts demanding the discontinuance of the aerial spraying in their neighborhoods. Then-president John F. Kennedy responded to the book by launching federal and state investigations.


During this period, the bald eagle population, America’s symbol of strength and freedom, was rapidly declining. Other birds were also affected: pelicans, peregrine falcons, and more.

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

All the bird species shown in these photos had populations that were dwindling or troubled due to DDT and its derivatives. The residue was in the land and water, contaminating insects, fish, worms, prey. Calcium metabolism was interrupted by DDT, eggs were too thin to reproduce subsequent generations.


Rachel Carson’s prediction of a silent spring was manifesting.

American White Pelican flock cooperative feeding, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA


Peregrine Falcon, CA


Western Gull, Bodega Bay, CA


After a decade of much controversy, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Many other countries, like Canada and across Europe, discontinued its use, too.


During the writing of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer; then it metastasized. She managed to complete and publish the book, and motivate the country and the world into grasping the dangers arising from improper pesticide use and the need for better pesticide controls.


She died of breast cancer a year after this photo was taken, at the age of 56.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit United Press International courtesy New York Times.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit. United Press International courtesy New York Times


The story of DDT does not end here. But for today, let’s give Rachel Carson a bow for all the people and animals who survive, thanks to her.


Another of the many Earth Day heroes we can salute for their attentiveness, tenacity, and soulful work in making the earth a safer, sweeter place.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Bird photos by Athena Alexander.


American White Pelican, Las Gallinas, CA


The Glorious Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR

A pair of bald eagles were spending the day at the refuge last week, perfect timing for our visit. A mother and her immature. America’s national bird hasn’t always been visiting the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, nor has the population always been successfully reproducing.


Before venturing onto the refuge, I had asked the ranger about the bald eagles recently observed, as I had not seen any notes on the “Sightings” clipboard. She was happy to tell about the bald eagles.


“The mother perches on the outskirts, while the immature circles over the water.”


Soon after we started the tour, I spotted the mature adult, the mother. Just seeing her perched in this distant tree lifted my heart. The bird was nearing extinction in the 1950s with less than 500 pairs in the lower 48 states; today the population is close to 10,000. Bald eagle statistics. 

Raptor Tree

A flock of swifts were upset by her presence. I’m sure the merlin, with whom the eagle shared the treetop, was no great comfort either.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR


It’s an auto tour, the one I wrote about earlier this month. So getting closer to the tree was not possible. But it was the perfect time for tea; I parked and we pulled out the thermos. We waited for her to take off, hoping to catch the impressive six-foot wingspan (1.82 m).


About 15 minutes had passed and tea-time was over, and still she had not moved. So we moved on.


An hour later we spotted the immature bald eagle circling high over the water, just like the ranger had predicted.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature bald eagles have different coloring than the mature adults–they do not have the white head or white tail, not until their fourth or fifth year. But size-wise, the immature is as large as the adult.


All at once we heard the rumble of thousands of snow geese taking off. They were upset by the bald eagle. This sound fills me with awe. It reminds me of an avalanche or a calving glacier. Snow geese are big birds, they weigh about five pounds each (2.26 kg). Imagine three hundred of these heavy birds all lifting at once.


The immature bald eagle circled repeatedly, and stirred up the huge flocks of white geese sufficiently. The geese were squawking and honking and taking off, filling the sky, while the cool raptor continued circling, threatening. The eagle didn’t seem intent on hunting, I think he or she was just practicing fierceness.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR; they were all on the ground the minute before

The bald eagle’s diet includes fish and waterfowl, also small mammals, small birds, and even carrion. Wikipedia overview.


Throughout the day we saw ground squirrels and jackrabbits, and even a ‘possum sleeping in a tree hole. All of these would be tasty meals for the bald eagles.


But I was happy to just watch the mammals living through another beautiful day.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Ground Squirrel



Opossum in tree hole


Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle, Klamath Basin, California

Bald Eagle, Klamath Basin, California

Honoring the bald eagle as America’s national emblem is a tradition dating back to the Continental Congress.  Today we continue to celebrate this bird as the population experiences a resurgence.


In 1782 the bald eagle was selected as the new country’s official symbol, and the design of the Great Seal of the United States was created.


Seal of the President of the United States. Courtesy Wikipedia

As the national bird, the bald eagle appears on official U.S. seals, the presidential seal and flag, coins, currency, and more.


Native to North America, Haliaeetus leucocephalus has represented many ideals to United States citizens.


Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

The founding fathers chose the bald eagle as a symbol of supreme power and authority, at a time when this newly forged country had to demonstrate their ability to be strong and independent.


The only sea eagle endemic to this continent, they have a seven foot (2.13 m) wingspan and weigh approximately ten pounds (4 kg).  Fierce fliers, they can reach speeds of 35-43 mph (56-70 km/h).


A long-lived bird (30-35 years), the eagle also represents longevity.  Native Americans honor the bald eagle for courage, wisdom, and strength.


In the 18th century there were 300,000-500,000 bald eagles soaring above the 48 contiguous states.


Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

In the 19th century, as more Europeans settled in America, farming increased.


This opportunistic carnivore, hunting fish, birds, and mammals, unfortunately became known as a farming threat, and was frequently shot on sight.


Bald Eagle, Klamath Basin, California

Bald Eagle, Klamath Basin, California

In the 20th century, with the extensive use of pesticides, especially DDT, the decline of the bald eagle reached an all-time low.



Requiring 4-5 years to breed, in addition to persecution, poisoning, and declining habitat, the population severely declined:  412 pairs in the 1950s.  By 1967 the bald eagle had become endangered.


In 1940 the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was approved, and in 1972 DDT in the U.S. was banned.


Bald Eagle Range Map

Bald Eagle range map. Courtesy

A remarkable success story, today bald eagles can be found throughout the U.S. and Canada.


Click here for more bald eagle information.  National refuges with bald eagles here; and more viewing venues here.


The first time I ever saw a wild bald eagle, I was canoeing in Washington State.  In the distance I saw a white spot, the size of a pinhead, in the forest.  Since then I have seen numerous bald eagles, sometimes in refuges that previously did not have them.


My favorite bald eagle experience was in Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border.  It was frigid in January, and 5 a.m., as we waited for the sun to rise when the wintering population would leave their nighttime roosts.


A few early risers at a time, the bald eagles began to lift from the treetops, culminating to a count of 49.  We stood by the car, alone in the freezing morning, as bald eagles surrounded us and then disappeared into the day.


240 years after our country’s government and livelihood was established, we continue to embrace this powerful bird.


Happy Fourth!


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander