Boyhood Birds: Memorial Day, Roosevelt, Rosalie, and Rachel
As a boy growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, Memorial Day always had a wonderful feel to it. We children did not share the sorrow that the day can bring. It meant a chance to watch our fathers and mothers march with the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary in the town parade. After the parade and the gun salute at the town war memorial there were games, events and rides on the municipal fire engines. Free ice cream from nearby Ridgewood’s Tewilliger & Wakefield, and our bikes all wrapped up in red, white, and blue crepe paper with playing cards clothes-pinned to the wheels for full sound rounded out the experience. It was the beginning of summer.
One Memorial Day, an old man being pushed in a wheelchair and wearing what looked like a cowboy hat led the parade. He was a veteran of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. I was fascinated. In the school library I found a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. What a hero. Besides leading the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war, TR had been a rancher, an explorer, a collector, and, most wonderfully to me, our “Conservation President.” I learned what a conservationist is and what courage it takes for the president of the United States to be one. President Theodore Roosevelt, defying his political party and the privileged elite class he was born into, and fighting corrupt politicians, industrial titans, and lobbyists, probably did more to protect the natural beauty, resources, and the birds of the U.S. than all the other 20th century presidents combined.
From the Theodore Roosevelt Association: As president, Roosevelt provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land, an area equivalent to the entire eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida. He set aside 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks, the first 18 national monuments, the first four national game preserves and the first 24 reclamation or federal irrigation projects, designations that were bitterly opposed by commercial interests. (Learn more at TheodoreRoosevelt.org.). Without Roosevelt’s brave and unprecedented action to stop market hunting and to set aside bird reserves, who knows how many bird species would have followed the passenger pigeon to extinction in the early 1900s.
A moment of pure serendipity—seeing the old Rough Rider one boyhood summer—led to me understanding that individuals can help save birds. The birds we know and love do not need to disappear.
Early that summer, another person who had also defied the status quo to make an enormous contribution to bird conservation came to my attention. I found the February 1935 issue of Nature Magazine in our attic more than 20 years after publication and was introduced to Rosalie Edge and the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. What a great story.
Until well into the 1950s it was normal that farmers, hunters, fishermen, and even bird lovers would shoot, trap, and poison hawks, harriers, falcons, eagles, and osprey. Misguided “sport” justified by wrong information that raptors threatened poultry, livestock, game birds, and fish stocks. As the editorial in Nature Magazine put it, “Year after year we have seen organized hawk-killing campaigns born of ignorance, or, worse, fostered by merchants and manufacturers dealing in arms and ammunition.”
The February 1935 issue editorial, “For Our Hawks,” underscores how misguided the persecution of raptors is and lets readers know that, “…we are reiterating our plea for hawks here in order that we may record the establishment of the first hawk sanctuary and paying tribute to Mrs. C.N. Edge and the Emergency Conservation Committee for carrying its establishment through to its present point.”
The unlikely heroine of raptor conservation in the United States was Rosalie Barrow Edge, born in 1877 in New York City to a wealthy family. She married British-born Charles Edge and enjoyed family life dividing time between New York and Europe. In passage to New York she became acquainted with leading right-to-vote campaigner and English aristocrat Margaret Mackworth, the Viscountess Rhondda. Edge jumped into the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S., playing a key role in getting women the vote.
A growing passion for birding evolved into a fierce advocacy for bird conservation, and by the early 1930s, Edge was heading up the newly formed Emergency Conservation Committee. The ECC reformed the leadership of the National Association of Audubon Societies. Her crowning achievement, in 1935, was to personally purchase a lease on property in Kempton, Pennsylvania, to stop mass annual slaughter of hawks . After failing to get the reformed Audubon Society to acquire the mountain where hawk shooting killed thousands of birds each year, Mrs. Edge and her colleagues acted decisively and quickly. Vested interests tried to nullify her lease but Rosalie Edge fought them off and led the campaign to fully acquire the property. The result of her courageous mission is Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Thriving more than 80 years later, Hawk Mountain is a wonderful place for people to witness massive fall migrations, a home for conservation education and an important raptor research center. Without Rosalie Edge’s focus, perseverance, and personal investment, this never would have happened.
During my boyhood raptors were scarce, and the prejudice against birds of prey that Mrs. Edge railed against was one of the reasons we saw too few of these wonderful birds. Today the boys and girls of Bergen County see many more hawks and eagles than we ever dreamed of because of conservation heroes like Rosalie Edge, determination and hard work.
Another major reason for the decline of my boyhood birds, including raptors, in the post World War II era was DDT. But it it was not until the publication of Rachel Carson’s famed Silent Spring in 1962 that the idea of bird populations suffering from indiscriminate pesticide use was brought to the attention of the general public.
Born in 1907 on a small family farm in rural Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, Rachel Carson sailed through local schools and found a love of nature and writing along the way. She faced real challenges as she progressed with her education and early career. Family hardship meant she had to help financially and then support a widowed mother, later taking in two daughters when her sister died, and then adopting the orphaned son of one of her nieces.
Carson moved from a temporary job at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to become the second woman hired for a full-time professional position at the Bureau. By 1949 she was chief editor of USFWS publications. By the early 1950s, after nearly 15 years as a government employee, Carson was able to focus solely on writing factual articles and books. By late 1957, at 50 years of age Carson was closely following government proposals for widespread pesticide spraying. The fight against chemicals that cripple our environment, destroying beneficial ecosystems, became Carson’s mission for the rest of her life.
Silent Spring truly changed the world. It was published by Houghton Mifflin on September 27, 1962. Prepublication serialization The New Yorker, endorsement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, wide peer review, a positive editorial in the New York Times, and excerpts published in Audubon created a stir. The selection of Silent Spring by the massively popular Book-of-the-Month Club for October delivery put the topic of harmful chemical use for agriculture and pest control firmly into the public eye—and hands. Rachel Carson’s book was met with strong and organized opposition by the chemical industry. She was portrayed as “…a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature,” and “…probably a Communist.” But like Theodore Roosevelt and Rosalie Edge, she had both the courage of her convictions and the facts on her side.
The moment of truth in the campaign by vested interests to disavow Silent Springcame on April 3, 1963, with the broadcast of CBS Reports TV special “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” Seen by an estimated 10 to 15 million Americans, an engaging, strong and factual Carson stood in stark contract to bullying hack scientists declaring no danger from the heavy pesticide use manufacturers recommended.
From this turning point, Carson went on to live in infamy and is considered by many to be largely responsible for motivating the modern environmental protection movement. Sadly this true hero, even before the publication of Silent Spring, was fighting cancer, a fight she lost in April 1964.
Bluebirds and DDT
We rarely saw bluebirds in Bergen County during my boyhood. This beautiful bird had a difficult time co-existing with humans during most of the first 75 years of the 20th Century. In our area, probably never prime bluebird territory, they could be seen occasionally. But three factors had taken local populations to very low levels. The abundance of house sparrows made it difficult for bluebirds to hold nesting sites; the change in landscape had eliminated habitat; and the indiscriminate use of pesticides, particularly DDT, hit both bluebirds and the insects they live on.
The good news is that from a probable all time low population in 1963 the eastern bluebird population across the country has rebounded very well. My friend Don Torino, president of Bergen County Audubon, tells me, “Although much of the bluebird habitat in Bergen County is gone to development, you can probably see more bluebirds now than years back. The Mahwah area along the Ramapo River still has fields that the bluebirds love. Nearby Passaic County does very well with bluebirds in Ringwood and the West Milford area. Bluebird nest boxes have helped save the eastern bluebird. We have been getting bluebirds in Teaneck pretty steadily in the fall, although not nesting there yet. The attached photo is of bluebirds at Teaneck Creek Conservancy last fall, something that you would never have seen not too many years ago.”
Bird reserves, hawks in migration, and bluebirds in the spring
Thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, Rosalie Edge, and Rachel Carson, the boys and girls of today can enjoy the birds we know and love. It remains up to us to keep up unrelenting defense of bird habitat and using fact-based action to make our hometowns and our planet bird friendly, so the boys and girls of generations in the future can find the joy and beauty I find with my boyhood birds.