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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beyond the Headlines

Air Date: Week of

Ravens are returning to Manhattan. (Photo: Doug Brown; Creative Commons BY-NC-SA Generic 2.0)

Canaries in coalmines aren’t the only birds to warn us of danger. In Beyond the Headlines this week, Peter Dykstra tells host Steve Curwood how sick birds can show signs of environmental hazards. He also discusses the return of ravens to New York City and remembers the very last known passenger pigeon.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. It’s time for us to check in with Peter Dykstra, the publisher of DailyClimate.org and Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org. He’s always checking out the world beyond the headlines and he’s on the line from Conyers, Georgia. Hi Peter, what do you have for us today?

DYKSTRA: Well, hi, Steve. I want to do a little bragging for the home folk. We’ll start beyond the headlines with some headlines of our own. Our team at Environmental Health News has put together a tremendous series on the perils faced by bird species large and small, we call it “Winged Warnings”, and we’re rolling out six weeks worth of stories on how environmental threats to birds are also threats to human health. It’s published in conjunction with National Geographic, with veteran journalists reporting on old threats like lead poisoning and DDT, they're still causing major problems, and there are newer chemicals like flame retardants and the pesticides known as neonicotinoids, they pose a threat to bees and other insects as well as to birds.

CURWOOD: So give a couple of examples.

DYKSTRA: Well, scientists studied wrens and sparrows – you know, common songbirds – near a mercury-contaminated site in Virginia and they found that the birds’ songs were being altered. Another one, lead contamination may be making some bird species dumber, altering their behavior, altering their flying patterns. We have other stories look at bacteria, climate change, and even artificial light, all have their disruptive impacts on birds.

Researchers have found mercury in Nelson’s sparrows, among other birds, at their wintering grounds in Virginia. (Photo: Dawn Beattie; Creative Commons Generic 2.0)

CURWOOD: Well, we know that lead seems to reduce IQ levels in people, so the same for birds huh? What do you have next?

DYKSTRA: Well, how about a little bit of happy bird news? Ravens have returned to New York City.

CURWOOD: I take it you’re not talking about the NFL team.

DYKSTRA: No, we’re not talking about the Baltimore Ravens, we're not talking about Edgar Allen Poe either, although Poe lived in a rural part of Manhattan Island when he wrote the poem "The Raven". Crows have always had a foothold in New York City, but ravens are being fairly regularly seen in places like the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

CURWOOD: So how can you tell the difference between a raven and a crow?

DYKSTRA: Well, here’s the simplest equation: Think of a crow as a dog, and think of a raven as a wolf. Ravens are bigger, they have bigger beaks, and lower caws. But when they’re flying and their tail feathers are spread, you’ll see that crow tails are shaped like a triangle, but ravens’ tails are more like an arrowhead.

CURWOOD: And according to Poe, the call of the raven is "Nevermore".

The last known passenger pigeon, named “Martha,” died in 1914. (Photo: Enno Meyer; Public Domain)

DYKSTRA: No, that was a crow. Try it a little lower.

CURWOOD: OK Lat me try it [IN A LOWER TONE] NEVERMORE. All right, Peter, how about something from the history vault for us.

DYKSTRA: One more bird story. A hundred years ago this week, Martha died. And there were no survivors.

CURWOOD: You mean Martha from the Cincinnati Zoo.

DYKSTRA: Yeah, Martha was a passenger pigeon, and when I say there were no survivors, I’m talking about her entire species. There were once billions of passenger pigeons in North America, and on September 1st, 1914, the last one went away, dying in the Cincinnati zoo at age 29. Passenger pigeons were bigger and faster than the pigeon species we know today, but what was their downfall? They flocked together by the thousands, and some of them were delicious. “Squab” was a hugely popular dish in the best restaurants in the eastern US; hunters bagged pigeons as fast as they could. The trade got bigger once there were railroads to ship the passenger pigeons and telegraphs to help hunters find where the huge flocks were.

CURWOOD: So just like today, poachers use night vision goggles and GPS to track down rhinos and elephants, 19th Century technology enabled pigeon-hunting, huh?

DYKSTRA: Absolutely right. Hopefully African rhinos and elephants still have a chance, but the demise of the passenger pigeon will be a lesson learned if we're able to save today's species, and hopefully not a lesson ignored.

CURWOOD: There are links to more info about Martha, Winged Warnings, and how to tell the difference between a raven and a crow, and more are at our website, LOE.org. Thanks, Peter.

DYSTRA: Thanks a lot, Steve, we'll talk to you soon.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is the publisher of Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org, and the DailyClimate.org.



Read the daily series, “Winged Warnings,” at Environmental Health News.

Listen to our interview with Joel Greenburg about the extinction of the passenger pigeon: “A Feathered River Across the Sky.”

More on how to tell the difference between corvids in our BirdNote, “Ravens and Crows.”


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