As the holiday season nears, I wanted to share this bird watching story...
Here's an historic, hopefully interesting, bird watching anecdote with a HOLIDAY THEME, spanning the past forty years, and with roots tapping into the origins of America's environmental movement... Featured are TEDDY ROOSEVELT's bird list, the good timing of a dear friend of RACHEL CARSON, a U. S. Senator inspired by his family's history, this former Senate staffer (and life time birder) soon to have his "fifteen minutes" crafting the first EARTH DAY, and the allure of the WHITE HOUSE grounds for recording and reporting bird sightings...
Two related initiatives are underway:
-- "All the Birds At Sea" -- expanding and coordinating sea bird sightings (pelagics) from (all) the ships at sea, including NOAA, Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine ships...
-- In the spirit of "Greening the U. S. Capitol," conducting regular bird surveys on the Capitol grounds similar to those at the White House...
FYI: My Senate Oral History interviews, from which this anecdote was taken, are permanently on the U. S. Senate website -- first Earth Day and first Senate Science Subcommittee... All of my efforts on Capitol Hill and with state legislatures over the past fourteen years on a variety of issues -- health care, foreign policy, environment -- have been pro bono for the purpose of "issue advancing."
Keep up your fine work, extending its outreach as you can...
Best wishes for the Holidays and the Annual Christmas Bird Count...
Dennis W. Brezina
Chesapeake City, Maryland
WHITE HOUSE BIRD COUNT
A Holiday Affair
In the fall of 1969 during the intermission of a preview of "Ring of Bright Water," a nature film about frolicking otters that was a sequel to "Born Free," the poignant tale of Elsa, the lioness, I was in polite conversation with U.S. Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias of Maryland. The Senator commented on how unfortunate that Washington, D.C. had, except for perhaps Rock Creek Park, very little green left due to development and growth.
In one of those fortuitous moments when a lot can happen quickly, I responded, "You're right, Senator! Except for the White House and its 18 acres of green."
Then I mentioned a May 3, 1919 article from the "Washington Star" (offered to me one day by Shirley Briggs, good friend of Rachel Carson and the first Secretary of the Rachel Carson Trust) that gave historic context to and printed President Teddy Roosevelt's early 20th Century list of 94 species of birds sighted in and around the White House grounds when he wasn't either running the nation or keeping an eye on his highly-spirited daughter, Alice. (He admitted that he couldn't both govern and parent Alice [later Alice Roosevelt Longworth] at the same time.) The President's sightings on the White House grounds included many birds no longer likely to be seen in downtown Washington - saw whet owl, screech owl (nesting), sparrow hawk (wintering pair), bluebird ("Bring the Bluebird Back to the South Lawn?"), red-headed woodpecker (nesting), yellow-billed cuckoo, orchard oriole (nesting), tree sparrow, blue-winged warbler, black and white warbler (nesting), and warbling vireo (nesting). My impromptu pitch ended by saying how great if bird watching returned to the White House.
The Senator seemed intrigued, knew I was a legislative assistant to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin (for whom I was helping to craft the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970), and asked me to meet him in his office next week.
Later, when escorted into Senator Mathias' private office, I was motioned behind his desk where he pointed out a photograph of several dignified gentlemen in top hats and long coats riding in an open limosine. The Senator's grandfather sat right next to Teddy Roosevelt
when the former President, nominee of the Bull Moose Party, was challenging Woodrow Wilson and President William H. Taft in the 1912 election.
"My grandfather was one of the original members of the Bull Moose Party," Senator Mathias beamed proudly. Moreover, he liked the birdwatching idea, asking for a memo before contacting the White House.
That memo played up the Teddy Roosevelt precedent, the importance of recording and reporting bird sightings, and included recent wild animal stories from the White House. Rex Scouten, the long time head usher at the White House, reminisced about Ike's battle over squirrels planting nuts on his putting green, Jackie's yearning for deer on the South Lawn that was vetoed by JFK after the National Park Service insisted on an eleven foot fence, and LBJ's ordering of a screeching red-shouldered hawk recording to be played at sunset to keep starlings from roosting under the eaves.
Senator Mathias contacted the Nixon White House, a staffer was quickly assigned who brought the Department of Interior into the loop, and a decision was made to open the grounds to a single birdwatcher as part of the (National Audubon Society's) Annual Christmas Bird Count. Requests to make migratory and nesting surveys were eventually approved.
On December 27, 1969, more than sixty years after Teddy Roosevelt's sightings, Dr. Fred Evenden, Executive Director of the Wildlife Society, traipsed around the White House grounds. On that bitterly cold morning, more reporters than birds showed up, generating stories like "Fewer Birds Visiting White House," on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. Starlings and house sparrows topped the list with a crow, white-throated sparrow and a few other species completing the tally. Sadly, the White House staffer did not dress warmly, almost catching pneumonia, a fact that he later informed me of only half in jest.
POST SCRIPT: The White House Christmas Bird Count and, eventually, annual migratory and nesting surveys on the grounds have provided valuable trend data over the past forty years, interrupted only by security flaps from time to time. Subsequent winter counts included Sparrow Hawk, Hermit Thrush and Purple Finch. Springtime sightings featured Bewick's Wren, White-eyed Vireo, Louisiana Water Thrush, Canada Warbler, Evening Grosbeak and White-crowned Sparrow.
A CALL TO GREATER SERVICE: In this time of extraordinary challenge in American history, the millions of bird watchers and other environmentalists are encouraged to extend their outreach into crucial environmental and public health issues, with a generosity of spirit and creativity to make the 21st Century proud -- even "'TWEETING' and Texting (while not driving) Into the Wee Hours."
Dennis W. Brezina
U.S. Senate Oral History Project, August, 2005 (adapted from)
Chesapeake City, MD 21915
November 7, 2009