Mercury Rising

For years scientists have documented the alarming amounts of mercury polluting American rivers and lakes. Until now research on wildlife and mercury emissions from coal-burning plants has focused primarily on fish and fish-eating birds like loons and eagles. But now the toxic metal is showing up in unexpected places, including the blood and feathers of the Bicknell's thrush, a migrant songbird that breeds almost exclusively in the mountain forests of the Northeast. The study—the first of mercury in a terrestrial songbird—was published in the March issue of the journal Ecotoxicology.

The Bicknell's thrush—a species of the highest conservation concern on the Audubon WatchList—is already handicapped by its limited breeding range, its small global population, and its dwindling winter habitat in the Caribbean. “Mercury is one more potential stressor on these birds. Who knows what the cumulative effects are of all these,” says Christopher Rimmer, a lead author of the study and a biologist at the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences.

Finding mercury in a terrestrial species like the Bicknell's thrush surprised scientists. “This research suggests that airborne mercury is pervasive and its impacts are not limited to surface waters and the wildlife that use them,” says study coauthor David Evers, a biologist at the BioDiversity Research Institute in Maine.

One-third of U.S. mercury emissions come from coal-burning electric-utility plants, most of which are in the Midwest. Pollutant-laced clouds, carried by the wind to the Northeast, are captured by the Appalachian and Adirondack mountains. The pollutants are then unleashed in rain that falls on the region's forests.

Humans are exposed to mercury primarily by eating fish, which is why 48 states have issued freshwater-fish advisories limiting consumption. As mercury builds up in the body's tissues, it can affect the heart, brain, and nervous system. Pregnant and nursing women in particular must be careful, because mercury can be passed on to their children, and an estimated 600,000 children born each year are at risk. In 2004 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that one in six women of childbearing age has unsafe mercury levels.

The new information about mercury in wildlife comes just as the EPA is being criticized for ignoring established scientific practices when drafting a proposal to control mercury emissions from power plants. In February the EPA inspector general found that top agency officials used standards set by the electric-utilities industry to determine mercury emissions standards; understated how much emissions could be reduced; and failed to completely assess the health costs, especially to children. Meanwhile, the Bush administration recently proposed new regulations that would reduce overall mercury pollution by allowing utilities to trade emission credits. Under the scheme, a cap on emissions set by each state would permit companies to trade pollution allowances. But critics charge that such a practice would lead to locally polluted “hot spots,” where the poison will be concentrated.

Whatever the final solution, time is running out, says Susan Gallo, a wildlife biologist with Maine Audubon. Gallo coordinates Maine Audubon's annual loon count, which has recorded increasing numbers of adults but a stagnant number of chicks. “If we don't fix our mercury problem,” she warns, “the long-term implications for the loon could be grave.”

—Catherine Schmitt


The Big Chill

Last February, 62 distinguished scientists, 20 Nobel laureates among them, charged the Bush administration with “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions.” To discover the extent of the abuse, the Union of Concerned Scientists teamed up with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to survey 1,600 scientists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nearly 30 percent responded, despite agency directives not to. They spoke of a “climate of fear” at the USFWS—fear of the loss of jobs or of program funding. At a subsequent Congressional hearing, Representative Norman Dicks (D-WA) excoriated departed USFWS director Steve Williams: “You are letting political appointees beat up on biologists, so they are intimidated and can't do their job for habitat and species.” Nine of 10 managers cited cases where political appointees and members of Congress injected themselves into scientific determinations. Half knew of cases in which commercial interests caused the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions. ¶ Many called for the removal of Julia MacDonald, an Interior Department appointee who recently claimed that historical records of millions of sage grouse (top) were “simply a fairy tale” and that the birds did not depend on sagebrush for survival. “They will eat other stuff if it is available,” she said. As a result, this endangered bird has been denied protection under the Endangered Species Act, while its habitat continues to be destroyed by commercial interests—gas drilling, mining, and development. For the full report, go to .

Survey of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Scientists
Scientific findings:
Commercial Interference 56%
Interior Department Interference 70%
Resources and morale: 
Insufficient Resources 92%
Inadequate Funding 85%
Effect on scientific candor:  
Fear of Retaliation 42%
Ordered to Mislead Public 19%

—Sydney Horton


Chapter Spotlight
Sowing the Grassroots

Bill McQuilkin Jr. of Florida, who joined National Audubon's board of directors in 2001, has been an active volunteer at Audubon's local, state, and national levels. His grasp of grassroots issues made him the obvious choice to head the board's Ad Hoc Chapter Committee and to work on other collaborative programs. Audubon recently caught up with him.

Question: How long have you been involved with Audubon?

McQuilkin: I became president of the St. Johns County Audubon chapter in the 1990s. Florida Audubon was a separate organization then. When the proposal came up to merge the state and national organizations, I pushed hard for it. After that the chapters in the seven southeastern states elected me to the national board.

Q: You're a strong believer in the value of grassroots and the role chapters play in it.

A: Chapters and volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization. They do the citizen science, such as Christmas Bird Counts and Great Backyard Bird Counts.

Q: How do the strengths of the national staff and the chapters complement each other?

A: The board, with national and state staffs, provides the vision, creating large-scale programs for, let's say, the Everglades or the Mississippi River system. Chapter volunteers help implement the strategies.

Q: Can you give us an example of these partnerships from your travels?

A: In Mississippi we asked the state office to develop the Great Backyard Bird Count. The office helped organize the campaign and raised funds for public awareness, while the chapters pitched in with enthusiasm. Together they provided school programs with a CD for kids.

Q: As chair of the board's Ad Hoc Chapter Committee, what do you see as its primary accomplishment?

A: The opening of a dialogue between the chapters and the state and national offices. Phone calls and e-mails are all right, but they can't replace sitting around a table. I was on the road many weekends; so was Lynn Tennefoss of Chapter Services. State executive directors like David Miller in New York, Dave Henderson in New Mexico, and Jerry Tinianow in Ohio were invaluable in facilitating our meetings with chapter leaders. As Audubon president John Flicker said, “In the end, the process became as important as the product.”

Q: What opportunities lie ahead?

A: Chapters will forge relationships with each other, as well as the state and national offices and local government agencies and land trusts. Historically, our grassroots have been a powerful movement for conservation. We want to build on them in the 21st century.

—Frank Graham Jr.

Bird Conservation
Staying on Course

The epic migrations of albatrosses have long led poets to wonder at the birds' restlessness—and scientists to ponder exactly where albatrosses go during their months-long oceanic wanderings, which can cover thousands of miles. When adult albatrosses breed, they spend roughly six months on their island or coastal breeding grounds (18 of the world's 21 albatross species live in the Southern Hemisphere). They then spend 6 to 18 months cruising the open oceans. Almost nothing is known about the routes these wanderings take. However romantic, this mystery has crippled efforts to save albatrosses from deaths caused by longline fishing—for tuna, in particular—that make them among the earth's most threatened bird families. Now, though, a new tagging study has begun to solve the mystery.

In April 1999 a team of zoologists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) placed leg-mounted light-level loggers (a new, long-lasting photosensitive device that each dawn and dusk records the bird's location on a microchip) on 47 grey-headed albatrosses that nested on South Georgia Island, east of Tierra del Fuego. Eighteen months later 35 of the birds returned to South Georgia, 22 of them carrying functioning loggers packed with 18 months of information—11,034 bird days altogether. When the BAS scientists downloaded and charted the data, says team leader John Croxall, “the results were as clear and robust as we could have hoped for.”

All the birds used one of three winter migration strategies: They stuck close to their southwest Atlantic breeding area; they flew to a part of the Indian Ocean used by other albatrosses; or they took fairly regular circumpolar navigational routes that included the locations used in the first two strategies, as well as other areas of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The consistency of the migrations, says Croxall, will greatly aid conservation efforts. The main routes, for instance, take the albatrosses to the southwest Indian Ocean at the same time tuna fishing occurs there. Conservationists must make a concerted effort to have the tuna industry use the most effective, up-to-date techniques to avoid bycatch of albatrosses, says Croxall. Simple measures such as placing properly designed lines of streamers behind the boats to block the birds from getting too close, and using more weight on fishing lines so hooks sink before the albatrosses reach them, would make all the difference.

—David Dobbs



© 2005 National Audubon Society

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Hot Blog

Political pundits, novelists, and movie junkies have all caught the Internet blogging bug. Nine internationally recognized climate scientists have now joined the fun and launched, a site that seeks to set the record straight on all things related to global warming. Michael Mann, who teaches environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and is a cofounder of the group, describes the site as “a way for scientists to fight back against the disinformation promoted by climate contrarians.” In regular posts, volunteer contributors use their scientific knowledge to point out media missteps, including recent errors in Fox News broadcasts, a George Will column, and the Michael Crichton novel State of Fear (see “Pulp Fiction”). Although it's unusual for scientists to participate so directly in the public debate about global warming, Mann says his colleagues' response to the blog has been overwhelmingly positive. “We're just trying to educate the public about the actual science,” he says. The site, which began in December, got nearly 200,000 hits in its first three months and has received plaudits in the scientific journals Nature and Science.

—Michelle Nijhuis


The Big Green Apple

In 1992, when designer Wendy Brawer first made a map of environmental resources—and toxic zones—in New York City, it was pretty spare. “I highlighted spots that needed cleaning and sites of environmental interest,” she says. “But the idea caught on. I printed 10,000, then ran out completely.” Next Brawer set out to help other communities map the green resources around them. In the years since, she has helped design a flexible system of icons to mark resources as varied as dumps and economic development zones; there's even a ladybug-shape icon identifying spots for insect watching. For the past decade, groups in more than 200 cities worldwide have used Brawer's Green Map System ( The maps differ widely: Urban planners in Hiroshima, Japan, created a digital Eco-Peace Map, while children in Tororo, Uganda, used crayons and stickers to mark local green zones. As communities map, they often uncover hidden richness around them for everything from birdwatching to community gardens. “There's this idea that the environment is something out there,” Brawer says. “But really, it's working in your own backyard.”

—Tess Taylor

Junior Ecologists

Dissecting frogs may still be a time-honored exercise in biology class, but these days there's much more to a school's science curriculum. In Santa Barbara, California, for instance, Annemari Goldsmith's fifth graders wanted to compare the eating habits of large and small sea stars. So they set up seawater aquariums, put a large sea star in one and a small sea star in another, added mussels, and observed. Such hands-on experiments are part of the Kids Do Ecology program, created by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a research and educational think tank based in Santa Barbara. The center matches ecologists with participating fifth- grade classes to help students develop and test a scientific question. Before school lets out for the summer, the students prepare a poster explaining their hypothesis, experimental method, results, and conclusions. They then present their findings to their peers, parents, and the center's community. Ten classrooms participated in 2004, and Goldsmith will join again this spring. “I've never seen [the students] sit that quietly,” she says, referring to the sea star experiment. The only drawback is that “there was a mess in the room.”.

—Jessica Ebert


Cupid's Arrow

President George W. Bush's biggest valentine last February 14 probably wasn't his favorite. With the romantic celebration coming only two days before the Kyoto Protocol took effect, the Montana-based National Global Warming Coalition presented the White House with a 10-foot card. The coalition, which includes 33 member groups, from the Wyoming Outdoor Council to the Massachusetts-based Religious Witness for Earth, addressed the valentine to humanity and urged the President to join the 141 nations that ratified the global warming pact. “When the treaty went into force, it was a tremendous morale booster,” says David Merrill, the group's executive director. Merrill says he made the valentine, which pictured an arrow piercing both a large heart and the earth, to draw more attention to global warming.

—Jesse Greenspan

Bravo, Rio!

Debbie Smith was on a foxhunt, although not in the traditional English way. Instead of tracking down the endangered San Joaquin kit fox for sport, Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, spent four years with her dog, Rio, traversing the San Joaquin Valley in California, looking for kit fox scat. She then used the fecal DNA to gather information about trends in kit fox populations. Rio, a German shepherd, has the same play and hunt traits as police narcotics dogs. He was 100 percent accurate at distinguishing kit fox scat during testing, says Smith, a founding member of Working Dogs for Conservation, in Bozeman, Montana, which trains dogs in noninvasive research. Similar programs are under way to locate the scat of grizzly bears, mountain lions, lynx, and black-footed ferrets. Other dogs are trained to find not just scat but specific animals as well. In California's Mojave Desert, where the U.S. military is expected to expand one of its bases into prime desert tortoise habitat by 2007, wildlife biologists Mary Cablk and Jill Heaton hope to use dogs to find an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 endangered tortoises and relocate them to protected areas. “People are not that good at finding tortoises,” Cablk says. “Dogs can find anything.”

—Jesse Greenspan

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