Rachel Carson wrote of a “silent spring” in which no birds would sing in her classic, paradigm-shifting 1962 book, predicting by several years what biologists found on Anacapa Island in 1969: hundreds of pelican nests with crushed eggshells, all due to DDT. Adult pelicans had eaten DDT-laced fish, which interfered with calcium production, making shells so thin that when parents tried to incubate them, they crushed them instead.
These iconic Channel Islands images helped launch the environmental movement, and led to the banning of DDT in 1972. Brown pelicans were declared “endangered” even before there was an Endangered Species Act. Last summer, in a garage in Grant’s Pass, Oregon, we retrieved 16mm footage of the Anacapa discovery, thanks to the son of the filmmaker, Dave Siddon. Here is a still from that footage, which we recently had transferred to HD files. The same DDT, on the ocean floor near LA, is now interfering with the nesting success of California condors, and the same scientist, Bob Risebrough, who discovered the problem in 1969 is now working on the condor issue, making history contemporary, and showing us how long-lived these contaminants actually are.
People who love pelicans in Morro Bay have started a new program called the “Fish to Farm Compost Project,” providing special garbage cans to charter fishing boats, so that when deckhands filet fish they throw the heads and skeletons in the can, rather than over the side. A composter picks up the cans free of charge, and makes fish compost that he sells to gardeners. This project solves a common cause of pelican mortality: Many die with large fish heads and bony skeletons stuck in their necks. In this image you can see the birds still hoping for freebies, and me filming from the dock. This simple, innovative project deserves to spread all along the Pacific coast.
This fall we again visited Morro, who now sports his full adult plumage. I have to say, not only is he a handsome bird, but Morro is fast becoming the star of this movie. Not quite free, because of his injured wing, but not captive either, because he can leave the yard if he so chooses, Morro has maximum freedom of choice. One of his choices is to perch on top of the chaise lounge. I’d wanted to film this, and finally got there at the right time. Morro is so comfortable in the yard that he has started getting curious about the buildings, too. More on that in the movie. I don’t want to give everything away!