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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 23, 1996

Air Date: August 23, 1996

SEGMENTS

Antarctica Series: Part 3 - Is Global Warming Affecting Polar Ice Shelves? / Terry FitzPatrick

Terry FitzPatrick reports on the latest research into what is causing large masses of ice to break off the world's frozen continent. If uncontrolled global warming is in fact the cause, predictions forecast a significantly more watery world. (10:20)

Cooling Down the Summer Garden: An Organic Gardening Segment

Late summer is the perfect time to plan ahead for the next few seasons harvest. While the tomatoes are ripening on the vine, it's a great time to purchase and plant winter vegetable seeds. Living on Earth's organic gardening advisor Evelyn Tully Costa explains. (06:00)

Six Year Six-Pack Ring / Sy Montgomery

Six years ago, a concerned citizen invented an environmentally sound beverage six pack ring. After licensing, the invention is still sitting on the shelf. Commentator Sy Montgomery wonders why. (02:32)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... vampire bats. (01:15)

In Search Of: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker / Brenda Tremblay

Despite the accepted belief among scientists that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct, avid bird enthusiasts continue to search for the species among southern U.S. swamps and bogs. In this documentary report produced by Brenda Tremblay, we visit with hopeful birdwatchers searching for their aviary Holy Grail. (22:00)

Listeners Who Walk Their Walk

Steve Curwood talks with a listener in northern California who goes out of his way to put his environmental values to the test by living off the electricity grid and supplying his own lower impact power. (03:38)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Kelley Griffin, Stephanie O'Neill, Terry FitzPatrick, Brenda Tremblay
GUESTS: Evelyn Tully Costa, Bill Battigen
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Parts of the Antarctic ice pack are melting, and some scientists worry that in the worst case global climate change could cause a catastrophic rise in sea levels.

ALLEY: It would not be Water World. There'd still be land sticking out. But the coastline would look enough different that you wouldn't immediately recognize it. You'd look for that finger of Florida pointing down there and it wouldn't be there.

CURWOOD: Also, the story of one woman's quest to protect wildlife by changing the way America does business.

MONTGOMERY: And now should come the happy ending. All American ingenuity solves the problem. But that's not what happened.

CURWOOD: Also, we go out to the green garden spot to find out what to plant as summer nears its end. It's more than you might think. That and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Women whose work exposes them to strong magnetic fields may be at greater risk of developing breast cancer. That's according to a study published in the September issue of the journal Epidemiology. Researchers from Boston University Medical School found that electrical engineers, mainframe computer operators, and other women with high occupational exposure to magnetic fields, had a 43% greater chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The scientists speculate that exposure to electromagnetic fields lowers a woman's melatonin level. Melatonin helps keep estrogen levels in check and excess estrogen has been tied to breast cancer. The report says personal computers do not expose women to the high levels of electromagnetic radiation found to increase breast cancer risk.

The Pentagon has admitted that soldiers may have been exposed to harmful chemicals during the Persian Gulf War, but says the exposure is not linked to Gulf War Syndrome. The Defense Department confirmed reports by Czech and French investigators that nerve agents were detected in 7 locations in Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon maintains those chemicals are not the source of the headaches, rashes, and gastrointestinal ailments reported by over 60,000 returning veterans.

Buffalo that roam outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park will be hauled away and slaughtered under a controversial plan to protect cattle from an infection carried by the buffalo. Kelley Griffin of Colorado Public Radio has this report.

GRIFFIN: The plan is a switch from recent policy where buffalo were shot on site. Last winter, Montana officials shot nearly 500 buffalo, fearing they were infected with the disease bruselosis. If it spreads to cattle it causes cows to abort and can taint their milk. Last year the state sued Yellowstone officials to force the Park Service to help manage the buffalo herd. The plan is a settlement of that lawsuit. Under the plan, Yellowstone officials will slaughter all buffalo on the northern side of the park that are moving toward private property. Montana officials will capture buffalo that leave the park and conduct cursory blood tests. Animals believed to be infected will be slaughtered. Officials expect more than half the animals will test positive. Yellowstone biologist John Mack stresses the plan is temporary until a full review can be completed next spring, but he acknowledges little is known about whether the disease can spread to cattle, or even how many buffalo are infected. In one case, where 270 slaughtered buffalo were tested, only about 30 actually had the disease. That's why the Intertribal Bison Cooperative opposes the plan. Director Mark Heckert says there's no reason to kill most of the buffalo that leave the park. Heckert says the Cooperative wants to quarantine the wandering buffalo, and once they're determined to be disease-free, distribute them to Indian reservations and public lands around the West. While Yellowstone officials say they'll still consider that option for the final plan, Heckert believes the tribes are being shut out of the process. For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin.

NUNLEY: Forty-two percent of Americans say they consider the environment to be one of the most important issues in the presidential race. According to a recent Newsweek poll, the environment ranks behind economic issues, crime, and the drug problem, but those polled felt more strongly about the environment than hot button issues such as abortion and immigration. Of those who consider the environment a top priority, 50% said they would vote for President Clinton and 34% for Republican nominee Bob Dole.

A suspected bacterial outbreak is killing hundreds of pelicans in the Southern California desert. The area is an important stopover point for birds migrating along the Pacific flyway. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: More than 2,000 pelicans, among them endangered brown pelicans, have been found dead in the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. US Fish and Wildlife officials suspect avian botulism has killed the birds. The bacterial illness, which cannot infect people, is common among migrating birds in the west. Even so, scientists are calling the size of the outbreak unusual. The Salton Sea annually hosts about a million migrating birds and is a major stopover on the Pacific flyway. The sea, which spans 30 miles by 10 miles, has no outlet and is surrounded by farmland. The water of the Salton Sea has become increasingly polluted in recent years, from fertilizer and selenium wastewater that flows into the lake from surrounding farms. Since 1989, it's estimated that such pollution has killed off 200,000 migratory birds. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: The British government has unveiled plans to rid England of smog within the next 10 years. The announcement came during a week when record high temperatures sent London's pollution levels soaring. Under the new measures local officials will be given the power to close off parts of their cities to automobile traffic and to stop cars suspected of exceeding emissions standards. Environmentalists criticize the plans as mere rhetoric and pointed out that there is no money to help cities implement those measures.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Antarctica Series: Part 3 - Is Global Warming Affecting Polar Ice Shelves?

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. The dramatic hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and blizzards we've had in recent years have focused attention on some of the predicted effects of global warming. There is another consequence of climate change, though, that in the long run could cause even greater problems worldwide. If a lot of polar ice melts in Antarctica, global sea level could rise dramatically, forcing millions of people to flee their homes. For the past 50 years, sections of Antarctica have been melting, but researchers aren't sure if it's part of a natural cycle or the result of greenhouse gas pollution from humans. Either way, the future of the ice cap is in question, as Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick discovered while accompanying research teams to Antarctica earlier this year.

(Winds whipping)

FITZPATRICK: No place on Earth is as cold and forbidding as the windswept interior of Antarctica, a region one and a half times the size of the United States that is draped by glaciers up to 3 miles thick.

(Wind continues)

FITZPATRICK: This frigid landscape makes a lasting impression on people who come here, even seasoned researchers like Kerry Peterson.

PETERSON: It's just you and the raw force of nature. There's the sky and there's the snow and that's it. And the horizon is just so broad, you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. I like it because you have the sense that you're really on a planet hurling through space.

FITZPATRICK: A fragile planet, which Antarctica keeps livable. Think of Antarctica as a giant ice cube in a glass of water, cooling the world's oceans. As well, Antarctica's vast expanse of snow reflects sunlight back into space, cooling the Earth's surface. The snow fields and glaciers are also like a giant reservoir, locking up 70% of the world's fresh water and keeping global sea level in check.

(A clang; a motor runs)

FITZPATRICK: Because Antarctica plays a crucial role in shaping the world's environment, researchers are eager to learn if global warming could cause the ice cap to melt. To find out, they're drilling to the very bottom of the ice to look for clues.

PETERSON: We got -- oh, yes! Yes!

MAN: That's nice.

PETERSON: All right.

FITZPATRICK: Ms. Peterson and her colleagues from the California Institute of Technology are pulling up an ice core.

PETERSON: Oh, beautiful.

MAN: That's perfect.

FITZPATRICK: Three feet long and 3 inches around, this core contains a unique kind of ice formed by intense pressure inside the ice cap. The core starts to crackle as air bubbles begin to escape.

(Crackling sounds, feet on snow)

PETERSON: Oh, look at the clear ice! God, it's beautiful.

ENGLEHART: This whole thing is one single crystal. Huge single crystals.

FITZPATRICK: Researcher Erman Englehardt hopes these crystals can explain why parts of the ice cap are breaking loose from Antarctica's bedrock and surging toward the ocean at the rate of 4 feet per day. Known as fast flowing streams, several of these massive rivers of ice have been discovered in western Antarctica. They have the potential to drain the entire West Antarctic ice sheet into the sea.

ENGLEHARDT: These ice streams can carry away large quantities of ice in a relatively short time. And if their movement changes, for instance, if they widen or they speed up, they can change the balance of the ice sheet dramatically. So we need to understand what controls the speed of these ice streams.

FITZPATRICK: This is where global warming might be involved. It might change how rapidly the streams empty into the ocean. Right now, the streams are kept in check by floating ice shelves that line the Antarctic coast. The floating shelves act like giant dams, holding back the streams. If global warming causes the ice shelves to melt, the ice streams would be free to race unchecked into the sea. The West Antarctic ice sheet could collapse.

ENGLEHARDT: And that could happen in a short time span like 50, 100 years, maybe 500 years. This we don't know exactly.

FITZPATRICK: In the past 50 years, 5 minor ice shelves have disappeared, the result of a 5-degree rise in temperature along the Antarctic coast. But the most important ice shelves seem stable for now. It's unclear how warm it must get before they could be in danger of melting.

(Indoor fans running)

FITZPATRICK: To find out if the West Antarctic ice sheet is likely to collapse in the future, researchers are trying to determine how it's responded to warming in the past.

(The fan continues, now with cellophane crackling)

FITZPATRICK: In a refrigerated lab, Richard Alley of Penn State University examines Antarctic ice cores beneath a microscope.

(Crackling continues)

FITZPATRICK: Just as rings in a tree reveal its age, the layers of an ice core are a window to the past.

ALLEY: And so you can say well, 10,000 years ago it snowed this much, and someone else will measure the dust and somebody will measure the composition of the gas bubbles that are trapped in the air. And we pretty soon start to draw a picture of the past climate. And so we're working very hard on reading that: what happened in the world's climate, what did that do to the ice sheets?

FITZPATRICK: Dr. Alley says the West Antarctic ice sheet has probably collapsed before and could collapse again. If it does, the massive melting of ice would raise global sea level by 20 feet. Twenty feet might not sound like much, but it's enough to inundate several small islands in the Pacific, and low-lying coastal regions in Southeast Asia, western Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern US. More than 200 million people could be forced to move. Millions of acres of farmland would be lost. Some communities would have to build extensive sea walls to protect against hurricanes and storms. However, it's not time to sell the beach house yet.

ALLEY: I wish to emphasize that this is not a prediction, this is the worst thing that could happen. And we have not yet been able to prove that it can't happen.

FITZPATRICK: Actually, there is one worse scenario which involves the eastern part of Antarctica melting along with the west. The east contains the bulk of Antarctica's ice, and if it goes, sea level could rise more than 200 feet. That would be a flood of Biblical proportions.

ALLEY: It would not be Water World, there would still be land sticking out. But the coastline would look enough different that you wouldn't immediately recognize it. You'd look for that finger of Florida pointing down there and it wouldn't be there.

(A helicopter chops)

FITZPATRICK: From the air, Eastern Antarctica looks just as frozen and desolate as the west. But there are major differences, which have sparked a scientific debate about whether it's possible for this part of the continent to melt. The eastern ice sheet is firmly fixed on high ground, and it's been that way, according to some researchers, for 15 million years. If these researchers are right, the eastern ice cap has survived several periods of global warming.

(Digging sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Other scientists, though, have uncovered evidence that East Antarctica has melted as recently as 3 million years ago.

HARWOOD: I'm trying to dig down as far as I can and see what's been accumulating here.

FITZPATRICK: David Harwood from the University of Nebraska has discovered plankton, leaves, and twigs in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, one of the few ice-free regions of the continent. The only way they could get here, contends Dr. Harwood, is for the eastern ice to have melted, raising sea level and turning much of inland Antarctica into a beach.

HARWOOD: And the evidence that we're debating now would suggest that once those ice sheets formed, that they didn't stay, that they came and went and came and went.

(Digging sounds continue)

FITZPATRICK: Some researchers think Dr. Harwood is wrong. They believe the plankton and leaves were blown here by the wind. The debate has touched off a feud between rival camps of geologists over whose version of Antarctic history is correct. But the critical question is whether East Antarctica might melt in the future. On that point, Dr. Harwood isn't sure.

HARWOOD: The East Antarctic ice sheet in the past has been a key player. Whether or not future warming will, you know, bring Eastern Antarctica back into the game, I don't know.

FITZPATRICK: This uncertainty underscores how difficult it is to predict the future of the Antarctic ice cap. Various research panels have published widely differing views about what's likely to happen here in the next 100 years. Some scientists even think global warming could cause the ice to grow, by increasing snowfall throughout the continent. However, researchers do agree on this: Antarctica is isolated from the rest of the world but it's not immune to global environmental change. And just as importantly, we're not immune from what happens at the bottom of the Earth. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

Back to top

(High winds continue. Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We'll head out to the Green Garden Spot in just a moment here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Cooling Down the Summer Garden: An Organic Gardening Segment

CURWOOD: It's high summer across most of the United States. The blend of sun, heat, and water gives rise to lush, ripe fruits and vegetables. So as we sit back in the humid haze under a shady tree with our mint-flavored ice tea, the last thing we're thinking about is winter. But then there's Evelyn Tully Costa, and she's here, back in the Green Garden Spot, to explain why colder weather should be foremost in our minds. Hi there, Evelyn.

TULLY COSTA: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, it's hot, everything's green. I like to hang out in the shade and in fact something cool and frosty isn't totally out of the question, but that's not what you're talking about, is it?

TULLY COSTA: What I'm thinking about is forgotten gardens. I'm thinking about gardens that are simply overlooked once the summer starts winding down and people start to forget about their gardens. I'm talking about fall, winter, and spring crops, which can be planted now. Remember what I said about gardening being like a big circle?

CURWOOD: Mm hm.

TULLY COSTA: A circle that is surrounded by the seasons and one that can be jumped into at any point. So with a little extra seeding right now, many food crops can be started in August, September, and October, for harvesting throughout the fall, the winter, and even into the early spring.

CURWOOD: Hmm. So in other words, you're saying that the growing season never has to stop, and we're going to get fresh organic food in season all year long, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Right. If you think of this type of gardening as being 4 overlapping crops that more or less echo the seasons depending on where you live. So I thought we would start with the crops that most people are familiar with, the summer warm-season crops. These are the most common and they include corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, and these last until the first frosts.

CURWOOD: Right, they're dead finished when it gets cold.

TULLY COSTA: Yeah, it polishes them off. So the next season is the fall season, and these vegetables include kale, turnips, mustard, broccoli, lettuce, and cabbage. They do really well during cool fall days, and they can withstand light frosts.

CURWOOD: Really? The lettuce can handle some frost?

TULLY COSTA: Yep. In fact, some of the sugar content of certain vegetables is enhanced by the frost. Now, over-wintering crops are kale, spinach, onions, parsley, beets, turnips, carrots, and cold frame-grown lettuce that can be dug or picked as you need them. And then this brings us kind of to full circle, to the most common cold season crops that most people are familiar with and that's early spring. And a winter garden -- you're going to love this part, Steve -- is very easy to take care of. There are no bugs and there are no weeds to deal with.

CURWOOD: No weeds? Does that mean I don't have to mulch anything, either?

TULLY COSTA: No, it doesn't mean that, Steven (laughs). It's not that carefree.

CURWOOD: Okay.

TULLY COSTA: Mulching actually helps you -- actually, mulching actually does a great job of blanketing the ground during the cold winter months, and that stabilizes the soil temperature. Now this helps prevent damage from frost and freezing.

CURWOOD: All right. Now, let's say I want to go ahead with this, this fall crop. I could get a few seeds out shortly, if I could think that really in October I'd have a fresh salad, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Okay. Well, do you like arugula?

CURWOOD: Yeah, it's pretty spicy but it really makes a salad jump around.

TULLY COSTA: Okay. You should plant arugula seeds into the soil at weekly intervals starting in August and continue this right through September.

CURWOOD: Weekly intervals, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Well that's so you can harvest it on a weekly basis and so it doesn't grow, so you don't have 200 heads of fully-grown arugula. You can stagger the growth. Now you can do this and harvest it fall, winter, and even spring, depending on the severity of your winters. And you might have to cover these crops with a cold frame or a tent, which is a really easy way to keep fresh salads going all year long.

CURWOOD: Now, can you describe for me what will be a good cold frame? I've seen some sort of elaborate ones, but I don't want to do that.

TULLY COSTA: Okay. Well, first of all, let's just talk about what a cold frame does. A cold frame is like a miniature greenhouse. Now in this case, let's keep it simple, you can put a clear piece of plastic, like a plastic tent, directly over the rows of your lettuce or whatever it is you're growing, and this absorbs sunlight during the day and it holds in heat at night. Now, this type of extending the seasons is becoming increasingly popular among kitchen gardeners. It's also really important to adhere that buying your own seeds is about the surest way of getting these so-called off-season gardens going. Most nurseries don't carry seedlings or seeds for fall gardening, for fall and winter gardening, but that might change, too, if you mention what you're interested in to your local garden shop.

CURWOOD: Huh. But it doesn't sound all that hard to do. I'm just wondering, though, are there any resources I can get with, you know, some charts and some tips on the various vegetables that might work in this off-season, as you call it?

TULLY COSTA: Well, one catalogue that I thought was really amazing and packed with information was the Territorial Seed Company's catalogue. And they're in Cottage Grove, Oregon. They just put out their winter seed catalogue and it's got really handy charts and it's filled with cultivation hints and tips. Now, another resource would be Solar Gardening, by Leandra Poisson, and that's put out by Chelsea Green Publishing. So those are just some of the resources that you can get your hands on.

CURWOOD: And can save a little money here, because have you seen the price of organic lettuce in the middle of winter?

TULLY COSTA: (Laughs) Well, yeah. I mean, if you're willing to do the work, it's worth it.

CURWOOD: (Laugh) Okay, so what you're telling me is that the gardening never stops. I guess I have to put down my mint ice tea and get back to work putting in some seeds here. Thanks a million, Evelyn. Next time, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Right. Well, good luck, Steve, and bye bye.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Now, if you have any questions for Evelyn Tully Costa, you can write her. Just write to the Green Garden Spot, that's Post Office Box 639 in Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That address again: the Green Garden Spot, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.

(Music up and under)

Six Year Six-Pack Ring

CURWOOD: Environmentally sound innovations don't always get enthusiastic receptions from the world of business. So says Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery, who has a story about how one person tried but failed to put a lid on an environmentally destructive plastic practice.

MONTGOMERY: Joan Gordon, a former geologist from Chicago, was reading an article on plastic trash in the ocean. The picture showed a seagull with a 6-pack ring stuck in its beak, twisted around it head, slowly strangling. She just couldn't look. She flipped the page, and saw the sidebar to the story: what you can do. Cut the loops of 6-pack carriers before throwing them into the trash, it said; but she realized almost no one would bother.

So that minute, she put down the magazine, went into her kitchen, and began to build a design that would automatically break the ring of the 6-pack yoke when you pulled out the can. Within a few days she completed the first prototype. In the weeks that followed, she invented and patented about a dozen variations. In each, the yoke is designed with perforations and attaches to the can so that the act of pulling the can out makes it impossible for that ring to strangle an animal. She trademarked her invention "the freedom ring."

Joan Gordon contacted the major bottling companies. They were enthusiastic. She got in touch with the plastic yoke manufacturers. They were receptive. They invited her in to show her design, and were so impressed they licensed her patent. And now should come the happy ending: all-American ingenuity solves the problem. But that's not what happened.

It's now 6 years later. Nothing like the freedom ring is available. Plastics manufacturers have published ads touting their commitment to environmental responsibility. The problem has been solved, they tell us, because the rings, when exposed to direct sunlight, will eventually disintegrate. That's nothing new, and has been the case for well over a decade. Not every environmental problem has a technological fix, but this one does. A fix that one woman, moved by the plight of a strangling seagull, saw in one evening in her Chicago kitchen. It's now 6 years later and animals are still needlessly strangling.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery writes in New Hampshire and lives with her pet pig, Christopher Hogwood.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Special thanks to KPLU, Seattle. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our comment line is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or try our e-mail address, LOE@NPR. ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: The last of North America's largest woodpeckers are thought to have disappeared from the United States and Cuba during the 1980s. But amateur and professional ornithologists continue to scour the South in hopes of catching a glimpse. The hunt for the ivory-billed woodpecker coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Summer is here. The time is nigh to huddle around the old campfire and tell some scary stories. One of the best, Bram Stoker's Dracula, was published 99 years ago. While it's a wonderful yarn, the tale of the undead Transylvanian prince permanently and unjustly ruined the reputation of bats in general, and vampire bats in particular. Vampire bats actually pose no danger to human health. In fact, an anticoagulant from their saliva may soon be used in human medicine. We might all do well to emulate the vampires, which adopt orphans of their species and have been known to risk their lives to share foods with less fortunate roost-mates. Bats also play important roles as pollinators in desert and tropical ecosystems. While not a major factor in decreasing the number of insects, a single brown bat can catch 600 mosquitoes in an hour. Bats are at risk of extinction, in part because of their slow rate of reproduction. Most produce only one offspring a year. Nearly 40% of all American bat species are in severe decline, and many are already listed as endangered. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

In Search Of: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

CURWOOD: For most ornithologists the book is closed on the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last of North America's largest woodpeckers are thought to have disappeared from the United States and Cuba during the 1980s, and this year the conservation group The Nature Conservancy declared the bird extinct. But the ivory bill specter haunts hundreds of professional and amateur bird watchers. They refuse to give up hope that an isolated population of the pterodactyl-like birds with 3-foot wingspans might be hanging onto life deep in some Southern swamp. Driven by her own fascination with the woodpecker, producer Brenda Tremblay traveled to Mississippi's Delta National Forest to search for the ivory bill, and to explore the culture of those who've made it their holy grail.

(Water trickling. Cellos and double basses play, then a bird call.)

TREMBLAY: I hardly know where to begin this story, a story that's part fable, part science lesson, and part obsession. I suppose it began when I first saw a picture of a bird in a book. The picture got into my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I even dreamed about it. Months went by and I was still fixed by its image. Finally, I decided to drive to Mississippi to look for it.

ALEXANDER: Pelicans. Were there any pelicans in Mississippi?

HEYEN: I cannot find my daily bread for sale in this beribboned mall thronged with the polymer sound of generic birds on plastic limbs in plastic trees. I need to fathom what I'll need to buy.

JAMES: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered like the whooping crane, the largest crane; the trumpeter swan, the largest swan the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker.

BUDNEY: The ivory billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat.

TURCOTT: Well, you know what the Holy Grail is, don't you? It's when you go out seeking something that's maybe not possible or not there, but you still go out to see if it's possible (laughs).

(Music continues, followed by the whoosh of traffic)

TREMBLAY: Highway 82 passes by the fast food joints, cheap motels, and corrugated metal buildings of Greenville, Mississippi, and through the fertile cotton and soybean fields of the Mississippi Delta. It's another 20 miles to the Delta National Forest. Here I met Jerry Jackson, a professor of biological sciences at Mississippi State University. For years, Jackson has been searching the southeastern United States for what he and others call the Lord God bird.

JACKSON: And it's the Lord God bird I'm sure, because when people would see the woodpecker they would say, "Lord God, what a woodpecker!" And it's referring to its size; it's an incredibly large bird. It's a woodpecker with a 3-foot wingspan, the size of a crow or slightly larger.

TREMBLAY: The ivory-billed woodpecker is, or perhaps was, a magnificent bird. But not in the same way that a large hawk or eagle is magnificent. The ivory bill has a prehistoric aspect. It's pterodactyl shaped, otherworldly, with a stark color combination of red, black and white and light colored eyes. It is an unforgettable image that keeps people searching despite the odds.

JACKSON: There are some real fanatics out there that are really so, so anxious to find an ivory-billed woodpecker. There is a young doctor who is now stationed in Hawaii who came to my office and spent some time with me, who has all of the literature on ivory-billed woodpeckers, who knows everything there is to know about them, and who's continually looking for them. There's a lawyer in Texas who put up a bounty of $1,000 and plastered placards advertising his willingness to pay $1,000 for evidence that there are ivory-billed woodpeckers. There are people out there who are very serious in their intent to find ivory bills and who are very serious when they say that they think that they exist.

ALEXANDER: Okay, let's start the tally. Now what I'm going to do, I'm going to call out the species, and if the people in Mississippi saw the bird, I'm going to write it down. If we have some birds that were seen in Arkansas and not in Mississippi I would like to put an asterisk by the species.

TREMBLAY: The Mississippi Ornithological Society meets every few months to look for birds and commune over catfish dinner. The ivory-billed woodpecker was crossed off their lists a long time ago, but there are some old timers in the group who remember the days of rare sightings, and still tell stories of tantalizing encounters. Bill Turcott used to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

(A room full of people talking)

TURCOTT: The place was teeming with woodpeckers, a lot of pileateds in there. Of course we never saw anything we considered an ivory bill. But on the last day of the second trip that we made up there, I pulled out off of this road that borders the lower part of the bluff, at a little overlook, overlooking the swamp out there, and I got out and played the ivory bill tape one more time. Well I was sitting there, you know, with my feet on the ground and the car door open, and Al was up behind me up here, and I swear I heard twice the ivory bill call. Twice, just as plain as day. Then I stood up and looked back and hear this barn owl that I called out of this big cottonwood there on the bluff, and across there were 3 bluejays behind it. A bluejay can imitate just about anything he wants to imitate, and I heard what I consider to be bluejays making that call, because there was no possibility for an ivory bill on the other side. Because at the top of the bluff it was open pasture.

(A man's intro: "Ivory-billed woodpecker, Cornell catalogue, cut one." The ivory-billed woodpecker's call follows, on a scratchy tape recording.)

TREMBLAY: There is only one recording of the ivory-billed woodpecker, made in the 1930s. It was made in the Singer tract, an 80,000-acre tract of hardwood forest in north central Louisiana. Greg Budney is the curator of the Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

BUDNEY: They realized in 1935 that the ivory-billed woodpecker was likely to become extinct. That the numbers of birds were very low and they wanted to make sure that its voice was documented. It was a joint expedition between Cornell and the American Museum, and I believe it was funded by the National Geographic Society.

(The bird call continues)

BUDNEY: I would just say how lucky they were that Arthur Allen, James Tanner, Peter Paul Kellogg had the foresight to record this animal, to go to the lengths that they went to, to record the ivory-billed woodpecker. What a great thing to be able to hear. For me, nothing like sound takes you back to a place or time. It's essentially unreduced in dimension; we're listening to what they listened to, and that's exciting and helps communicate to us what the loss of a creature like an ivory-billed woodpecker is, as we sit and listen to that recording and think that if we walk through the swamps of the South, we're not going to hear that again in all likelihood.

(The bird call continues, followed by a locomotive engine)

BUDNEY: Following the Civil War, much of the lands of the Southeast reverted to Federal ownership, simply because the people of the South were so poor that they couldn't afford to pay the taxes on the lands. And by the late 1870s, early 1880s, this had grown to crisis proportions and Southern senators and representatives were lobbying in Congress trying to get those Federal lands sold so the lands could go back on the tax base. So the lands were sold, and they went to the lumber companies of the North. Special railroads were built going out of Chicago, coming to the South to bring land buyers to the South. And the virgin pine forests of the Southeast sold for a dollar and a quarter an acre.

(Locomotive engine continues)

TREMBLAY: Nobody knows all the reasons why the bird has disappeared. By the time scientists began to study causes of its decline, there were hardly enough birds left to research.

(March music plays)

TREMBLAY: In 1935, ornithologist James Tanner began a study of the few ivory bills left in the Singer tract.

BUDNY: But then World War II broke out, and during the war, if something is being done in our national interest then it has to be okay. And we needed timber. We needed wood for pallets to put the shells on that were being shipped overseas. And the Singer tract in Louisiana, owned by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, was a tract of forest that as far as those lumber men were concerned needed to be cut for the war effort. It was the patriotic thing to do. Unfortunately, that was where the last of the ivory-billed woodpeckers lived. But we couldn't be concerned about them; there was a war going on.

TREMBLAY: For more than 30 years after the war, people searched for and fantasized about finding the ivory-billed woodpecker in the remote swamps of the United States. In 1969, 2 amateur naturalists claimed to have seen ivory bills in central Florida. Ornithologists who investigated their claim found nothing. On March 14, 1971, a member of the Audubon Society played the tape recording of ivory-billed woodpeckers and heard a response in the Santee Swamp of South Carolina. No one saw the bird there, either. Six months later, Dr. George Lowry, Jr., a well-respected ornithologist, reported that a bird watcher in Louisiana had photographed ivory-billed woodpeckers in May of 1971. Lowry believed the photographs were authentic, but no birds were ever found. The latest sightings were reported in the 1980s in Cuba. Lured by the possibility of photographing the last ivory bills left, the National Geographic Society hired Jerry Jackson to lead an expedition there.

JACKSON: Well I can tell you the minute. It was 9:32 AM on the morning of March 4th, 1988. How's that for being excited about it. I had spotted this place on the first day that I was there, that I could overlook and see some dead trees that looked like they had woodpecker work, and that's where we're going to see them. And I went back to that spot. That was about 3 weeks later. I was sitting there early in the morning, and this woodpecker -- I had my 400 millimeter lens focused on the dead trees about 300 feet in front of me, and this woodpecker, or what I believe was the ivory bill flew past 30 feet in front of me. And it was zip, right by. It was gone.

TREMBLAY: Jerry Jackson may well have been one of the last people to see an ivory-billed woodpecker, but he didn't get a picture. Intense surveys of Cuban forests in 1991 and 1993 proved fruitless. A few years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service called a meeting of 3 ornithologists: Lester Short, James Tanner, and Jerry Jackson. They sought their endorsement of the Service's decision to declare the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct.

JACKSON: I don't really know why, except that I think they just wanted to be able to cross it off their list and not have to worry about it any more. I guess I was the fly in the ointment of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and in response they decided that yeah, they really might look bad if they declared it extinct and someone found the birds. And so the Fish and Wildlife Service funded a one-year study to examine those areas in the Southeast that offered the best hope for there still being ivory bills. And I was given the contract to spend a year looking for ivory bills. Well, I stretched that amount of money; I got no more money but I stretched it into 2 years. And actually it's been many years, because I've continued to go back and go back and go back.

(The ivory bill call plays)

TREMBLAY: Jackson plays the same tape made in the Singer tract in the 1930s, hoping for a response and hearing only echoes, mimics, and phantoms.

(The call continues. The tape is turned off. A woman and child speak to Jackson. )

WOMAN: So then you would wait?

JACKSON: Yeah, we play it for -- that's a red belly responding to the red belly on the tape. See, the birds do respond. There's another red belly. (Speaking to Tremblay) We were in an area, in fact not very far from here. It's only about 5 miles from here. And we had been doing surveys, transects, through the forest, playing this recording of an ivory-billed woodpecker for 45 seconds and listening for 3 minutes and then moving 15 minutes and doing it again. And I came to a place where the trees were incredibly large. And I played the tape; I told my graduate student, "This is by far the best habitat I've seen anywhere." And no response. And so we started to move on, and my graduate student says, "Wait, there it is! There it is!" And I said, "I don't hear anything." He said, "No, it's coming closer. It's coming closer!" And we just stood there. And finally I heard it, and it was a bird repeating what we had just played about 3 minutes before on the tape. And it kept coming closer and closer and closer until it got about maybe 100 yards from us. And then it stopped where it was, but it called repeatedly from there for several minutes. And it wasn't coming closer, and so I said, "On three, we're just going to have to rush toward it and hope we can get a photo." And we did, we ran, and didn't see a thing.

(The birdcall tape plays)

JACKSON: Everything in me that's a scientist says it's not at all likely that there are any ivory-bills left. But as a human being and as an individual that likes to think positive, I'd like to hope that maybe, just maybe out there, there is a pocket of ivory bills still left.

SHORT: I think he's mistaken about it. I think he's an incurable optimist, I'll say that about Jerry, which is great. But I'm too much of a realist.

TREMBLAY: Lester Short is the Lamont Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He's one of the world's leading experts on woodpeckers. Like Jackson, Short caught fleeting glimpses of ivory bills in Cuba in the late 1980s, but he thinks the birds he saw were part of a doomed population, and he's convinced there are none left in the United States.

SHORT: When you think of the mobility of the bird watchers in the United States and the terrific number of them, and the many people who've become interested in birds, hunters and others who go into the back country, and the fact that the birds need to have a place to breed, if they produce young the young have to move away from the parents. And these are big birds that are conspicuous. So I don't think that any place, you know, that can be so remote from people that they could be hanging on and not be seen over the years.

TREMBLAY: But is the ivory-billed woodpecker really extinct? Could there be an undiscovered pair in some deep Southern swamp, in the remote forests of South Carolina, or in the Florida panhandle?

JAMES: Hope springs eternal; sometimes you have to face reality. (Laughs)

TREMBLAY: Douglas James is a professor of biology and ornithologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in the upper regions of the ivory bill's former habitat. Though he believes the ivory bill's demise was hastened by man's interference, James says its extinction may have been fated from the very beginning.

JAMES: And like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered. Like the whooping crane, the largest crane; the trumpeter swan, the largest swan; the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker. And this has been going on for millions of years since Pleistocene age and geological age. I see it as sort of a continuation of a process that's been going on for several million years

TREMBLAY: Greg Budney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology disagrees.

BUDNEY: The ivory-billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat. The loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker is an indication that something has changed in a substantial way in the environment. So it was an indicator, an indicator of the integrity of a habitat and when you lose that, it's a signal, it's a sign that should direct our attention to look at what impacts, what pressures are occurring in this particular habitat to cause this animal to disappear.

(The ivory-billed woodpecker call on tape plays)

HEYEN: I don't know where I saw it first, maybe in a Peterson's or maybe in some other bird book, a picture of the ivory bill and it's a sharp, vivid image in my mind, and of course representative of so much now that we've lost.

TREMBLAY: William Heyen is a poet and professor at the State University of New York in Brockport. In his collection of poems Pterodactyl Rose, Heyen wrote about endangered and extinct species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker.

HEYEN: But when I ate the dodo, I could not ingest its gentleness and trust. Genes lost voyages ago, sometimes seem to snag in my human heart. Eidolons of Easters past. But passenger pigeons' eggs wink in a vanished series. And the ivory-billed cries in the vacuum of its skies not at all.

(The bird call continues)

HEYEN: You know, I was brought up on Long Island, and in the center of the island when my boyhood was all ponds and woods. And now I return and I see what has happened to the places where I once had my imagination and I had my being. And all of us have this story in us; I mean this is an American story.

(Cello and double bass music continues)

TREMBLAY: We don't want the story to be true. Jerry Jackson and the others who still search want this story to end differently.

JACKSON: Sometimes I'm looked at a little bit askance: hey, you're crazy, fella. Or with a little bit of disbelief that, you believe there might still be ivory-billed woodpeckers; how about the trolls under the bridge, too?

TREMBLAY: Do you doubt yourself sometimes?

JACKSON: No. I guess that's part of being successful and part of being a scientist. If I doubted myself I wouldn't be out here looking for them, wading through the chiggers and the ticks and the snakes in the water.

Back to top

(Orchestral music continues)

CURWOOD: The search for the ivory-billed woodpecker was written and produced by Brenda Tremblay. Technical producer was Dave Sluberski. Recordings of the ivory-billed woodpecker are used with the permission of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. And thanks to member station WXXI in Rochester, New York.

(Music up and under)

Listeners Who Walk Their Walk

CURWOOD: It's easy to turn off the light when you leave the room, lower the heat in your house, take other transportation aside from your car to work, all simple ways to save energy. But some people are willing and able to go further. On the line with me now is Bill Battigen; he lives just outside of Taylorsville, that's a tiny town in northeast California. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Battigen had the local power company come to his house and disconnect the power supply. Did they just come in and clip the wires from your house, Mr. Battigen?

BATTIGEN: Well, yeah, they did. They came in and climbed up the tower, disconnected the wires up there and then snipped the wires at the house and they were gone.

CURWOOD: But that hasn't left you in the dark.

BATTIGEN: Not at all. We have plenty of power here at the house. We have a lot of solar electric panels here and batteries to store up the power.

CURWOOD: Well how many panels do you have now?

BATTIGEN: We have 13 panels here.

CURWOOD: And how long ago did you start with that first one?

BATTIGEN: That was about 10 years ago.

CURWOOD: So why did it take so long for you to disconnect yourself from the grid?

BATTIGEN: Partly I wasn't sure just how far I wanted to get into this myself, and also monetary reasons. Each panel costs very approximately $350 to $400. And to do that all at one time, especially back then, would have been unheard of for my income.

CURWOOD: How about your neighbors? Do they mind if your house looks a little bit like Ice Station Zebra or Moon Station or something?

BATTIGEN: Well, we live in an area where the trees are 50 to 100 feet tall, so none of the solar electric panels are on the house. Three of them are on the tree and the rest of them are on a tower that is just about even with the treetops around here. If you were, say, on the order of 200 or 300 feet away from the house, it's very hard to spot them because of the trees.

CURWOOD: How has this changed your lifestyle, living off the grid?

BATTIGEN: Well, the first thought that comes to my mind is the word appreciation.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

BATTIGEN: You sure as heck know where your power comes from, watching the meter go up as the sun shines brighter, or a cloud goes in front of it watch the meter drop. You really get a sense of direct connection there, you know. It doesn't bother me to have a limit to my consumption.

CURWOOD: So, for instance, what do you do that's a little different from those of us who are connected to the grid?

BATTIGEN: Oh, things like you want to use power mostly when it's available. In other words, if we waited until the sun set and then immediately fired up the vacuum cleaner and washing machine and whatever else in the house that we could have done during the day, then we wouldn't have, you know, been able to take advantage of that power. Whereas if we did those chores that consumed electricity at say 10 or 11 in the morning, then we would still get recharged by the end of the day and not have to draw the batteries down that night as much.

CURWOOD: Do you recommend this to other people?

BATTIGEN: Well, sure, if other people think that this is a nice planet to live on. I recommend it to everybody.

CURWOOD: Well, Mr. Battigen, thank you so much for taking this time with us.

BATTIGEN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Bill Battigen lives near Taylorsville, California.

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: And if you or someone you know has an interesting way to deal with environmental change, give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. And our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Of course if you want to mail us a letter, the address is Living on Earth, Post Office Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our senior editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Jennifer Senkler, Heather Kaplan, and Paul Masari. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Walter Dickson and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

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