For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Woody

Original Air Date: Oct. 9, 1989

Woody Woodstock the baby Blue Jay who was poisoned by chemical lawn sprays, is dead at three months of age. (4:10) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Most of the mistakes we make from day to day can be erased. It may be difficult and time consuming to correct errors, but it’s generally at least within the realm of possibility. On the children’s PBS math program, Square One, kids are told in a Karl Mauldin voice, “An eraser. Don’t make a mistake without one.”

But every now and then a mistake comes along that no eraser can correct, and last week I made one of them. My baby Blue Jay, the one that had been poisoned by toxic lawn chemicals in early July, was doing so well, sitting up for several minutes at a stretch and squawking to take part in family activities, that I moved him out of his one-gallon ice cream bucket into a ten gallon aquarium where he could see everything going on around him. I set diapers all around to cushion him, but somehow the first night he managed to squeeze through the padding in one corner and fell asleep against the glass. This wouldn’t have mattered at all for a healthy bird, but poor Woody had been thrashing around for 11 weeks with neurological damage from the poisoning, and he’d completely worn off the feathers on the bend of his right wing. That bare patch of skin pressed against the glass all night, and even though the house didn’t get any colder than 68 degrees, it critically lowered his body temperature. He died of hypothermia in his sleep.

Most of the modern chemicals in lawn care products break down quite quickly. These products may well not be dangerous for dogs and cats, as long as their masters read the warning flags and keep their animals far from the affected area for at least 48 hours after application. Nonetheless, many of the herbicides in them are carcinogenic, a great many of the insecticides are known to be hazardous to the neurological systems of birds and mammals, and carcinogenic nitrates from fertilizers infiltrate lakes, streams, and groundwater supplies. Also, chemicals are indiscriminate in the invertebrates that they kill. For every cutworm that is destroyed, beneficial creatures die too, like ladybugs and earthworms. Not only is this an economic loss for humans, but its a serious food loss for insect-eating birds like robins and orioles.

The lawn care companies assure us that their products are safe—after all, they’ve been registered by the E.P.A. The problem is, the Environmental Protection Agency has a backlog of legally registered chemicals that haven’t been adequately tested, even by meager federal guidelines. Evaluating any chemical is a long process under the best of circumstances, and longer yet with a tight federal budget. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the E.P.A. operates under the exact opposite philosophy of the Food and Drug Administration. Where a drug is guilty until proven innocent, pesticides are innocent until proven guilty.

When a person’s life or freedom is at stake, it is morally and intellectually imperative to give him the benefit of the doubt. But in the case of lawn chemicals, the only thing at stake is a smattering of dandelions.

I can’t bring Woody Woodstock back—my mistake simply cannot be erased. In the same manner, when poisons enter the bloodstreams of other jays, or into our drinking water, no eraser is big enough to rub them out.

This is the first year I’ve lived in Duluth that every robin disappeared from my neighborhood in July—usually they re-nest in early August and can be seen with young through much of September. This is also the first year that over half a dozen lawns on my block were chemically treated. That circumstantial evidence is certainly not enough to convict a human being—but when will we realize that chemical compounds are not human beings? By bending over backwards to give lawn products the benefit of the doubt, we are sentencing to death those creatures unable to read little lawn warning signs—from baby blue jays to our own children.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”