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The Wanderer

Earth is overwhelmingly resilient, yet needs to remain well tuned and balanced. Like an arrow cutting a branch, this slight perturbation in direction will increase in severity as the arrow flies. Just as the smallest change in the balance of our earth sets off a chain reaction far greater than we can ever expect.

When Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948 for the development of DDT as an insecticide, no one realized that DDT was a “branch”. Once Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, suspicions grew that DDT was killing more creatures than the bugs it was intended to kill.

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, as it is scientifically referred to, quickly contaminated wildlife as small predators fed on the poisoned insects, then fell prey to larger predators, causing DDT to work its way up the food chain until the top predators accumulated the highest concentrations of the poson . Most animals showed no visible effects from DDT, but one creature could not be ignored: the peregrine falcon. It is the classic case that demonstrates the negative effects of human disturbance on the ecosystem.

By the early 1950s, the peregrine falcon was extinct east of the Mississippi River, and 85% of its western population was gone. Research showed that widespread use of DDT was the culprit. Peregrines suffered from the poison in several ways. In some cases it killed them outright, while other falcons developed warped minds losing all ability to care for their young. But the most damaging

the result was the poison’s attack on the bird’s calcium production. DDT thinned their eggshells so much that when the mother incubated the eggs, they broke. Tragically, the very action that had brought life to each peregrine was now sending him on a rapid course toward extinction.

When scientists and falconers discovered this, they began implementing captive breeding programs. Falcons retrieved from cliff slopes in western Canada, where DDT had not left a scar, were placed in breeding chambers. Successfully breeding after several years, the falcon chicks were hand-fed by a mother-like puppet in order to retain their instinctive fear of humans which is vital for any animal released into the wild. The main goal of the project was to “hack” the young chicks in the hope of restoring a wild population.

“Hacking” is an ancient method of falconry that allows the falcon to learn to hunt on its own. The falcon is placed on a protected platform high on a pole or building called a hack site. Several times a day they pass food to the platform in a way that gives the hawk no idea that a human is feeding it. As the bird grows, it jumps around the platform flapping its wings to boost its strength. Eventually the falcon will jump off the platform and up into the sky. As time passes, the hawk improves at flying and gradually learns to hunt on its own. On days of unsuccessful hunts, the hawk can count on returning to the hack site for a free meal. Soon the hawk will become more skilled at hunting and visit the hack site less and less. At this time, a falconer was capturing the bird and training it to be a falconer. But in this case, the hawks were fed until they became self-sufficient and stopped returning to the hack site.

A very important question had to be answered. Where should they put their hack sites? When you release any animal into the wild, there must be a suitable habitat with plenty of food. Of all the areas where the falcons would thrive, the scientists decided to release them in New York.

To most people this seemed like an outrageous idea. Why release wild animals in one of the busiest cities in the world? But, it was a brilliant decision. It met both release criteria: prime habitat, since peregrines nest on cliffs and consider skyscrapers and bridges perfect cliffs. and the supply of food could not have been better because a peregrine’s favorite food is pigeons.

The town became a very successful hunting ground, more than a field. Buildings provide perfect cover when hawks fly into the street chasing prey. If they miss, the buildings hide the bird’s presence from potential prey in neighboring blocks. The hawk can then fly to the next road and try again. In a large open field where wild peregrines naturally hunt, the prey has a chance to see the hawk coming from a distance and will hide until the coast is clear.

The project was so successful that New York City now has one of the highest concentrations of peregrine falcons in the country. Year after year, the young radiate outward in search of new territories in Connecticut, New Jersey and upstate New York, occupying old rock nest sites that have been abandoned for nearly 50 years. Also, the bridges spanning the Hudson River from New York City to Albany now have peregrine falcons nesting on them each spring.

In 1972 the United States banned the use of DDT, as did many other countries. Unfortunately, many Third World countries did not, and peregrines continue to run the risk of ingesting poisons as they migrate out of US territory. The word peregrine means “the wanderer” and they are known to fly thousands of miles during migration entering lands where there are no laws against DDT.

However, after the oil project was implemented many major cities across North America followed suit. And after being the first animal ever to enter the United States’ Endangered Species List in 1973, the falcon was removed from it on August 25, 1999.

This recovery has become one of the greatest human success stories for a creature we have pushed to the brink of extinction. Realizing our mistakes, we triumphed in the recovery of the population. That doesn’t give us the right to rest on our laurels and think it will always be that easy.

In the peregrine’s case, there was an element of dumb luck. What are the chances of you ever helping another endangered species thrive in a city? I doubt I’ll ever see cheetahs running the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa.

But DDT didn’t just affect the peregrine falcon. Another disaster occurred on the island of Borneo in the 1960s. In an effort to eradicate malaria, the World Health Organization launched a major campaign to rid the tropics of the mosquitoes that carry the disease. Borneo was the target and DDT spraying began in all the worst affected areas. Initially, the program appeared to be highly successful and the mosquito population dropped dramatically.

Again, the mosquito was not DDT’s only prey. A tiny wasp disappeared with the spray. this wasp hunted caterpillars that lived on the thatched roofs of local houses. With the disappearance of the wasp, the caterpillar population exploded to plague proportions and began devouring all the roofs causing them to retreat.

While the spraying campaign continued, a second chain of events took place. The poisoned mosquitoes were consumed by gecko lizards, which quickly became ill and fell easily prey to the local cats. As a result, the cats accumulated large concentrated amounts of poison and began to die by the thousands, which caused the rat population to explode in numbers. The great masses of rats devoured the local crops and then brought something far greater to the island than malaria, the bubonic plague. In utter desperation, the Borneo government called for cats to be parachuted into the affected areas.

As of today, malaria has returned to the island along with mosquitoes that have developed resistance to many of the pesticides. As with the peregrine falcon, we got more than we bargained for. Evidence that mass spraying is never an appropriate response and other options must be explored.

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