Field Notes Poisonings

Bye-Bye Blackbirds

Each spring vast flocks of red-winged blackbirds descend on the plains of South Dakota, gathering among the cattails and reeds in roosts that can be 500,000 strong. Their morning flights create rippling black clouds as the flocks set off in search of food. Unfortunately, farmers complain that in the fall the redwings devour a significant amount of the region's sunflower crop. In Minnesota and the Dakotas, they say, the birds cost them between $4 million and $11 million a year. 

George Linz, a biologist with the federal National Wildlife Research Center, maintains that by reducing redwing breeding populations in South Dakota in the spring, the agency may limit the damage the birds inflict on the sunflower crop when they migrate north in the fall.

To that end, Wildlife Services--formerly known as Animal Damage Control--has poisoned nearly a million redwings since 1994. This year the agency had intended to kill 2 million redwings by baiting small plots near their roosts with rice laced with DRC 1339, a poison that causes kidney and heart damage. 

But the program has been halted, at least for this year, thanks in part to the National Audubon Society's efforts to publicize the issue. For the first time in six years, a poisoning permit was denied. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not shown that piles of dead blackbirds increase the farmers' prosperity," says Perry Plumart, a senior policy adviser in Audubon's Washington, D.C., office. "Is the goal to poison blackbirds just to poison blackbirds?"

Plumart also warns that the program could poison species that are causing no problems, and that many of them are on Audubon's watch lists. Kevin Johnson, an environmental contaminant specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adds that any grain eaters, including sparrows and finches, are susceptible. Linz counters that according to his research, there is very little danger to nontarget species, in part because many of them do not migrate to the areas as early as the blackbirds do. 

Although this year's poisonings have been stopped, Wildlife Services wants to poison 2 million birds a year from 2001 through 2004. --Dan Whipple


Woody's High on Hemp

At last year's Golden Globe Awards, movie star and environmental activist Woody Harrelson made an unusual fashion statement by attending the event wearing a white Giorgio Armani tuxedo. But it wasn't the designer that was notable, or the cut of the suit. 

What was remarkable was what Harrelson's tux was made of: hemp. 

Harrelson is on a crusade for the legalization of industrial hemp, which has only minuscule amounts of the psychoactive ingredient of its cousin marijuana. Hemp fiber is used to make thousands of goods, including paper, cloth, and woodlike products (see "Legalize It!" November-December 1999). In 1996 Harrelson, in a challenge to the legal system, planted four hemp seeds in Kentucky, daring state officials to arrest him (which they did). In March the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled there is no distinction between hemp and marijuana, and declared that Harrelson must be tried for possession. Said Harrelson, "The country shouldn't let the government propaganda machine make us so paranoid that it denies a potential miracle crop because it bears a physical resemblance to a plant that makes you euphoric." --Chris Chang

Fly Swatters Save Lives

The next time your trigger finger itches to spray a fly into oblivion or your aesthetic sense prompts you to give your lawn a chemical bath, consider a recent study at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Researchers there compared 496 newly diagnosed Parkinson's disease patients with 541 people who did not have the disease. Their main conclusion was that exposure to home and garden pesticides significantly increases the chance of contracting this debilitating and incurable neurological disease, which afflicts more than 500,000 Americans, including Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox. 

According to the study, people exposed to insecticides in the home are 70 percent more likely to develop Parkinson's than those who have not been exposed; exposure to garden insecticides increases the risk of contracting the disease by 50 percent. Among herbicide users, the odds rise according to the number of days the products have been used. In the study, fungicides posed no hazard. "At this time, no specific guidelines regarding avoidance of pesticides can be given," says Dr. Lorene Nelson, a neuroepidemiologist and the leader of the research team. "But this is an area of public health importance that needs to be pursued with additional studies." --Sydney Horton

I'll Have a Hot Dog With Mustard and . . . Mosquito Legs? 

According to a recent study, the sizzling flash of a bug zapper may do more than kill bugs. James Urban, a microbiologist at Kansas State University, has found that zappers placed near food may spread bacteria from the insects to the tasty treats nearby. Urban and Alberto Broce, a Kansas State entomologist, sprayed flies with bacteria, then released them in a room with a bug zapper. They determined that when bugs are zapped, parts of their bodies can land at least six feet from the zapper. Says Urban, "I think our study shows that a reasonable and prudent person should not feel comfortable with a bug zapper hanging over a condiment table, a take-out window, a barbecue grill, or even where baby toys are stored." --Amy Erikson

Illustrations by Gary Hvland

© 2000  NASI

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