Could it be, in this marvelous melting pot we call “The United States of America,” that one’s religion or ethnicity can make all the difference between being labeled a charismatic politician or a media celebrity versus, say, a domestic terrorist?
Defining the T-Word
To a layman, the definition seems fairly clear-cut. According to the U.S.A. Patriot Act of 2001, under Section 802, titled, “Definition of domestic terrorism”:
(5) the term `domestic terrorism’ means activities that–
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended–
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
NOTE: Regarding description (A) in the above, it is a violation of the U.S. Code to incite insurrection or to advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence.
From what little we know of Jared Loughner, it appears that he doesn’t fit the definition of a domestic terrorist. Nor does it appear that he was involved in inciting insurrection or advocating the overthrow of the government.
It appears that Jared Loughner is, indeed, a profoundly disturbed individual who acted alone. This finding no doubt elicited a huge (albeit private) sigh of relief among the other players in the headlines — Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann and the rest of the tea bag party, not to mention the bulk of the Republican Party, which has benefited so richly from the tea party rhetoric. Having figuratively dodged the bullet, these folk were then free to wage a campaign of self-righteous indignation against those who suggested that they may have served as conduits to the tragedy, given the climate of lawlessness, hatred and violence they’ve been promoting for the past two years.
In the immediate wake of the Tucson shootings, there was a call for civility. Given the enormity of the national pain and grieving from the tragedy, such a call seemed almost superfluous. After all, who could be so crass, so brazen, so callous and heartless that they needed reminding to stop the political theater and take a break from the ugly words. Still — for those who did need reminding — there was that verbal call for civility. Surely no one would breach this, much less commit more violence.
Yet, within just three weeks of the tragedy, Sarah Palin threw the words, “blood libel” onto the table; Glenn Beck accused progressive Democrats of trying to “destroy” God; Michele Bachmann compared the tea bag party’s battle against Obama to the “perilous” battle of the marines at Iwo Jima to “beat back a totalitarian aggressor”; and in Spokane, Washington, a bomb was planted at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade. I could easily site a dozen more.
While the media have floated the bombing attempt as a “possible hate crime,” the FBI has accurately termed it as a case of domestic terrorism, which makes the dearth of news coverage perplexing compared to, say, the Time Square incident, which received a full court media circus.
Less perplexing is the statement by Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who says that her department’s Central Intelligence Unit has reported an increase in hate literature and other white supremacist activity over the past two years. Two years? Interesting. This is the sort of information we should be scrutinizing, if we hope to prevent such attacks in the future. What is past is prologue.
It is at least a sign of progress that the Spokane bombing attempt — which was designed to inflict mass casualty of innocent men, women and children — has been labeled an act of domestic terrorism. True progress will come when the folk who incite such acts — no matter what their race, religion or ethnicity — are also called to task. Of course, after Sarah’s “blood libel” defense last week, it’s unlikely that the media or anyone else will be mentioning her name in the same sentence as the word “Spokane” any time soon.
No one ever accused Gov. George Wallace of throwing a bomb, but he was nonetheless widely blamed for creating the violent landscape in which the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham occurred in 1963, killing four innocent children and injured 22 others — and which occurred just one week after Wallace told the New York Times that, to stop integration, Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.”
Wallace was asked, 23 years later, to comment on the blame he’d been assigned by so many at the time — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d wired Wallace the day after the murders, “Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” To this, Wallace replied:
“I had never made any statement, and you can look at any statement I have made, I’ve always said that God made us all and he loves us all and anyone who attempts to harm the hair on another man’s head in this matter is not on our side. I did not ever use any provocative, a, talk about civil right, I never talked provocative about Dr. King or anyone of that sort…. I spoke my vehemently against the federal government, not against people. I talked about the, the government of the United States and the Supreme Court. I never expressed in any language that would upset anyone about a persons race…. I don’t believe in a big strong federal government, I don’t believe in taking too many rights away from the people, same thing I always said…” George Wallace, in a 1986 interview
In the wake of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, there was a nationwide call for civility, much like the call we’ve heard in the wake of the tragedy in Tuscon. One such call came from Wisconsin, where the editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote a piece titled, “Nation’s Shame,” which read, in part:
“For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should also serve to goad the conscience. The deaths [of the four children] in a sense are on the hands of each of us. They can only be atoned for by having everybody on all sides resolve to continue on in the search for human dignity.”
Two months later, George Wallace traveled to Dallas, Texas, arriving a few days before John F. Kennedy, about whom he’d recently said, “The President wants us to surrender this state [Alabama] to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-Communists who have instituted these demonstrations.”
Wallace’s agenda in Dallas during that fateful week in November 1963 was twofold: to reinforce his segregationist platform, in case anyone doubted it, and to announce his intention to challenge Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination in 1964.
Again, George Wallace was never accused of throwing a bomb or pulling a trigger, nor were Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle or Glenn Beck. By the same token, Osama bin Laden did not personally fly two jets full of passengers into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck
What if, instead of being white-skinned, Jared Loughner were an American of Arab descent? Or a Muslim? Would the first headlines after the Tucson tragedy have echoed the first headlines we saw after the Fort Hood tragedy, labeling the attacker — a man who was, like Jared, a profoundly disturbed individual who acted alone — a domestic terrorist, with some calling the Fort Hood tragedy America’s “mini 9-11”?
And what if the other players (e.g. Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh) were Muslims or Americans of Arab descent? More to the point, what is the net difference between this ilk of American politician/media celebrity versus, say, Islamic extremist, Anwar al-Awlaki, who officials quickly fingered as a conduit to the Fort Hood shootings, for preaching his “hateful ideology directed at inciting violence against the United States”?
We, as a country, seem to take comfort in the idea that bogeymen are a breed of people easily recognized by their color or religion. But history teaches us that the bad guys who’ve run amok on American soil promoting lawlessness, violence, terror and tyranny against the citizenry have nearly always been white and toted a King James under their arms.
At any point in this history, we, as a country, could have drawn enduring lessons from the most violent chapters in our past. But it doesn’t seem to be in our nature to do so, even when the lessons are spoon-fed to us, as they were in the Jim Crow lynching era, the McCarthy era, and in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing, which was followed just two months later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which was followed five years later by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was followed just two months later by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
We’ve come close a few times. In the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, civil rights legislation was finally passed to mandate an end to segregation — granting equal access to the ballot box, equal rights to housing and equal access to public places, among other things. And likely none of this would have taken place, had ordinary citizens not spent the previous decade taking to the streets in non-violent protest — laying their lives on the line as they were variously arrested, beaten, lynched, shot at and bombed by a concert of law enforcement, the KKK and ordinary citizens, whose vision of democracy paid respect to the bullet over the ballot.
But even after civil rights legislation was passed, it would be still be years of non-violent protest before these rights trickled down to all citizens in the South. Indeed, it was a full 15 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision before all school systems in the South were finally integrated. The lessons from these years, while they may be self-evident, were never really learned.
We came close to another teachable moment in the wake of 9-11, however, instead of serving to protect Americans from terrorists, the U.S.A. Patriot Act was used as a tool protect our leaders from accountability for the campaign of lawlessness, violence and tyranny they were about to undertake.
In the wake of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, national and international laws and treaties were broken; the Constitution and Bill of Rights were dismantled and, with them, went the constitutional rights of each and every American citizen. We were taken into two illegal wars that bled our national treasure dry and continue, still, to drive our economy into deeper destitution.
Nary a pip was heard from the fiscally conservative right, nor from the constitutional conservatives. And if the “taxed enough already” bag party noticed the alarming rise in the tab on their grandchildren’s futures, or the rising rates of unemployment and home foreclosures, they certainly didn’t think enough of it to take to the streets in armed protest until the fall of 2008.
Also in the wake of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, bogeymen around the world were herded up like cattle — based not on their actual words or deeds, but on the color of their skin, their religion their ethnicity — then tortured into making confessions and left to indefinitely rot in illegal prisons.
This was not our first trip to the proverbial rodeo. But my point here is not to take a trip down the Trail of Tears into our country’s history with ethnic cleansing, genocide, slavery, lynching, segregation, oppression, internment camps, torture and illegal detentions, even as the root causes for these are the same root causes that compel modern-day politicians, media celebrities and their followers to threaten assassinations, “second-amendment remedies” and other brands of terrorism against their political opponents.
Palling Around with Terrorists
Historically, assassinations and other second-amendment remedies do not occur without warning. The rhetoric during the Kennedy years was remarkably similar to the rhetoric 100 years earlier, in Lincoln’s day, which is remarkably similar to the rhetoric we heard in the years before Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, which is remarkably similar to the rhetoric we’ve been hearing ever since Obama became a serious contender for the presidency — and most especially since the fall of 2008, when Sarah Palin arrived on the scene.
It started out innocently enough, beginning with her first speech on the national stage:
“And a writer observed, ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity,’ and I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind…. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.“ — Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Sept. 3, 2008
The writer to whom Sarah referred was none other than Westbrook Pegler — the racist, anti-semitic, pseudo-populist journalist/writer who openly wished for the assassinations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
While many decried Sarah’s reference to Westwood Pegler, there were some whose ears perked up at the sound of that dog whistle. For those who missed that first, tentative bleat of the dog whistle, they caught it by the second or third try. Within a month of her first speech, Sarah Palin had escalated the rhetoric from labeling Obama as an ivory tower academic elitist to painting him as a socialist, Muslim, pro-terrorist, anti-American. Absent from the list was the n-word, which her crowds soon added to the list.
As the heat of her rhetoric grew, so did the size of her crowds. Palin’s response, or lack thereof, to the violent calls from her supporters left no doubt that it was safe to say outrageous things — even calling for the death of Obama — in her presence:
“Off with his head!”
“He’s an Arab!”
Such calls quickly became a staple item at McCain-Palin rallies, where neither candidate saw fit to moderate the language and, instead, allowed the rhetoric to escalate, without comment. For her part, Sarah kept raising the heat:
This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America. We see America as the greatest force for good in this world…. Our opponent, though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country. — Sarah Palin, October 4, 2008
Early into her campaign, she was called upon to tone down the incendiary rhetoric — just as she and others who have since joined the chorus have been called to do in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shootings. One particularly eloquent call for civility came from Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — a man who literally put his life on the line during the Civil Right era:
“As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.
During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.
As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.”
Rather than consider the weight of the congressman’s words, McCain & Palin took it as a personal attack. Rather than consider their responsibility in the tone that had overtaken our national dialogue, McCain-Palin used their response to Rep. Lewis as an opportunity to issue yet another bleat of their dog whistle. Herein, they gave a firm wink to the “thousands of hardworking Americans” to signal that the language they’d been using at McCain-Palin rallies was not only still welcome, but downright American.
Congressman John Lewis’ comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama’s record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign.
I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I’ve always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track.
And so the “debate” has continued for two years and counting. Whenever similar voices of reason have been raised to protest the violent rhetoric on the right, they’ve been drowned out with cries about liberal, socialist, communist democrats trying to stifle free speech and put their boot-heel on the neck of our democracy.
For their part, the media, in the interest of “balance,” has served as the bully pulpit for the violent rhetoric, while simultaneously parroting the talking point that the rhetoric on the left is just as violent as the rhetoric on the right.
In the wake of the violent campaign season of 2008, death threats were issued against the president, effigies were burned, and KKK membership soared to its highest numbers in decades.
But it was during the summer of 2009 health care wars when the rhetoric took a decidedly darker turn under the renewed leadership of Sarah — who had since resigned her governorship, so that she could begin laying the groundwork for her 2012 presidential run. By then, such rhetoric had become the native tongue of the Republican party, which now encompassed the tea bag party of citizens who took to the streets carrying guns — or photos and crude drawings of guns — their signs smattered with threats of violence against the entire Democratic party — all of whom were now accused of being socialists, communists and fascists with an agenda to install death panels.
The language continued from the summer of 2009, through the bill’s signing in March 2010, then into the campaign season in the fall of 2010, and into the present:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.” — Sarah warns her followers of Obama’s Nazi-style health care plan on her Facebook page on August 7, 2009. This statement earned her the “Lie of the Year,” award by the St. Petersburg Times, home of Politifact, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2009 for its work in political fact-checking.
Editor’s note: It’s interesting to compare the similarities between the above prediction and one made 46 years earlier by George Wallace — a prediction that never came true, even as many people fervently believed it would: “This civil rights bill will wind up putting a homeowner in jail because he doesn’t sell his home to someone that some bureaucrat thinks he ought to sell it to.“
This cannot pass. What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this doesn’t pass. — Rep. Michele Bachmann railing against the dangers of health care reform during an Independence Institute fundraiser in Denver on August 31, 2009
Well, I qualified for my CCW [permit to carry a concealed weapon] with a Dirty Harry cannon, so maybe that tells you a little bit. But, you know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies. They’re saying, ‘My goodness what can we do to turn this country around’ and I’ll tell ya, the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.” — Sharron Angle in a conservative talk radio interview, January 14, 2010
“Break their windows. Break them NOW. We can break their windows Before we have to resort to rifles to resist their “well-intentioned” tyranny. … The time has come to take your life, your liberty and that of your children and grandchildren into your own two hands and ACT. It is, after all, more human than shooting them in self-defense. And if we do a proper job, if we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary.” –Excerpt from Mike Vanderboegh’s missive to “All Modern Sons of Liberty,” to break the windows of Democrat headquarters and offices during the week the health care bill was due to be signed into law. In the wake, windows and doors were smashed across the country. Vanderboegh’s missive was posted on March 19, 2010, just two days before the door and window of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s Tucson office were smashed by vandals.
“We are 3 percent of American gun owners. That‘s the muzzles of 3 million rifles who can be, if required, pointed directly at the hearts of anyone who wants to be a tyrant in this country.” — A byline posted on the website of Mike Venderboegh — a man who, interestingly enough, lives off the government dole with his monthly SSI checks and also enjoys the “well-intentioned tyranny” of government-run Medicare.
Commonsense Conservatives and lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!” Pls see my Facebook page. — Sarah Palin’s twitter on March 23, 2010, the same day that Obama signed the health care bill into law. Fans who visited her Facebook page arrived to find a rifle-scope map (below), with Gabrielle Gifford’s district in the #4 slot on Sarah’s list.
Ya’ll don’t need to worry about getting re-elected on November. But you’d better be moving out of GA (whole and all) before November because ya’ll getting what’s coming for ya. SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS.” — Anonymous letter received by Rep. David Scott of Georgia, addressed to “David Scott & Family,” March 29, 2010 The phrase, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” was famously shouted by John Wilkes Booth as he assassinated President Lincoln. This phrase has more recently been adopted by some in the tea party movement. While these words are often translated as “death to the tyrant,” the literal translation is, “Thus always to tyrants.” Similar language was used in the threats issued to Democrats across the country in the wake of the health care bill.
David Scott, you’re nothing but a nigger. None of your colored constituents are going to be able to save you because we don’t want this socialized Obamacare you’re pushing because you Negroes are too lazy to take care of yourselves. — Another anonymous, March 2010 letter sent to Rep. David Scott of Georgia, the last words of which strike at the heart of the real reason citizens took to the streets in arms against health care reform.
It is a special irony that the racial component of health care reform was manufactured by the corporations and their paid political footmen, whose profit margins were threatened by health care reform. Like most tea baggers, the writers of the above letters were clueless to how easily and shamelessly their strings were pulled by corporate America, which spent many millions of dollars on a slick campaign to paint health care reform as the new welfare, to equate the Democratic Party with the Nazi Party, and to bankroll the necessary speakers to deliver these messages to America, to scare as many people as possible into believing that they were embroiled in a life-and-death struggle against the evil Democrats and their death panels.
And when the bill was finally signed, and the dire warning about death panels proved false, the health care bill was then morphed from being a baby-and-grandma killer to being a job killer. The talking points may have changed just a bit to suit the scenery, but the message is still the same: They’re trying to kill us!
The terror induced by these messages has been matched only by the urgency of the remedy proposed by the tea bag party that was spawned from this slick corporate campaign: Rise up, ye patriotic Americans! Take up arms to protect yourselves, your children and grandmaw from the communists! The socialists! The elitists! The scientists! The anti-Americans! The death panels! Get your guns and get your ammo before it too late! Save yourselves from the tyranny of your own government! Water that tree of liberty with the blood of the tyrant!
The tea bag party, like Timothy McVeigh, have presumed much by removing Jefferson’s quote out of context and then embracing it as the slogan for their cause — beginning with the presumption that they even remotely understand what Jefferson was talking about. Better the tea bag party should learn the history and politics surrounding Shay’s Rebellion, then return to Jefferson’s letter and actually read the thing — word for word, line by line — in its entirety. Only then might they glimpse the sublime irony that a group of people bereft of the historical facts would take Jefferson’s words out of context, make a lie of them, and then repeat the phrase ad nauseam to somehow legitimize their threats of assassination and insurrection.
This would all be silly if not for the fact that these folk genuinely believe they are standing on the shoulders of our country’s founders, and that these founders are somehow cheering them on in their cause. The Joe Wilson “You Lie” machine gun receiver offered for sale in January 2011, just before the Tucson massacre, is but one of many souvenirs we can add to the roster of blatant calls we’ve seen over the past two years to commit violence against the Democratic party, in general, and the president in particular.
Again, we’ve been to this rodeo before. We know that, once the bombs have been thrown, the guns fired and the innocents killed, folk like Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck and all those who flock to their message can always claim, the same way Gov. George Wallace did after his call for a “few first-class funerals”: “We never, ever, ever intended….”
Still further down the road, some 50 years, we can look back, shake our heads in disbelief and wonder: How did so many people become so deluded?
“Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!”
In both Kennedy’s and Lincoln’s day, patriotic, God-fearing Americans were called to take up arms against a federal government accused of overstepping its bounds with (take your pick) slavery/integration — issues that were fed by the existing hatred among certain swaths of whites for immigrants and other races, religions and ethnicities, all of whom were plotting, according to the fiery rhetoric of the day, to use these federal mandates to subjugate freedom-loving, white Christian Americans. For its part, the federal government was plotting — according to the fiery rhetoric of the day — to use these mandates as a ruse to funnel money out of the pockets of “hardworking Americans” as part of their tyrannical agenda to impose (take your pick) socialism/fascism/communism.
Today, patriotic, God-fearing Americans have been called to take up arms against a federal government accused of overstepping its bounds with (take your pick) immigration reform/health care reform/anything-reform under a black president — issues that are fed by the existing hatred among certain swaths of whites for immigrants and other races, religions and ethnicities, all of whom are plotting, according to the fiery rhetoric of today, to use these mandates to subjugate freedom-loving, white Christian Americans. For its part, the federal government (loosely defined as liberals, from Obama on down) is plotting — according to fiery rhetoric of today — to use these mandates as a ruse to funnel money out of the pockets of “hardworking Americans” as part of their tyrannical agenda to impose (take your pick) socialism/fascism/communism.
The call to RELOAD and repeat history has been implicit and relentless. If not Tucson, then where? If not now, then when? And if not Gabrielle Giffords, then who?
Rep. Frank Kratovil — who was hung in effigy?
Rep. Alan Grayson — who has received a file full of death threats, both overt and covert, with the latter including Sarah Palin’s advice to her fellow tea-baggers to “take him out”?
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz — whose opponent, Robert Lowry, held a rally at a target range, where he shot at a human silhouette with Rep. Wasserman-Shultz’s initials printed beside the head?
Rep. Ron Klein — whose Palin-endorsed opponent, Allen West, told his fellow tea-baggers, “You’ve got to make the fella scared to come out of his house,” and “If you’re here to stand up-to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, to charge into the ranks-you’re my brother and sister in this fight,” and “Nothing personal Ron, but I plan to beat you like you stole something dear to me…. Matter of fact you are, My Country!”?
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver — who was spat on and — along with several of his colleagues — called a nigger by tea bag party-goers within just minutes of a Michele Bachmann “Code Red” rally on Capitol Hill ?
Rep. Bart Stupak — who, like many of his colleagues during the health car wars, received death threats?
Rep. Russ Carnahan — who had a coffin left in front of his home?
Tom Perriello — who was hung in effigy?
Rep. Tom Perriello’s brother — whose gas line was cut?
Rep. Louise Slaughter – who not only received death threats against herself, but received a message that snipers were being deployed to kill children of those who voted for health care overhaul?
If not Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, then who?
Those in the media and political mainstreams, who have spent the past 2 years calling for such a tragedy, whether blatantly or by polite suggestion, can breathe a huge sigh of relief that it was a mentally ill man, and not one of their own, who ultimately pulled the trigger. As for the rest of the Democrats whose names — or whose children’s names — have been placed on the various hit lists issued by the radical political right, it may be a few years before they can breathe so easy.
The stage was similarly set in the before Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963. Days before his arrival in Dallas, the American Bible Society placed an anti-Kennedy advertisement in the local newspaper, urging the citizenry to be vigilant against the march of “Godless Communism.”
Faux FBI-style wanted-posters were circulated, accusing Kennedy of treason for, among other things, appointing “Anti-Christians [Jews]to Federal office” and for giving “support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots.”
White supremacists painted swastikas on Jewish stores, and Gov. George Wallace — whose contempt for the Kennedy family made him somewhat of a folk hero among segregationist southerners — arrived in Dallas that same week, his plane blazed with Confederate flags. While there, Wallace spoke on the issue of segregation, saying that, while he had nothing against “Negroes,” he was against the mixing of races and resented “Washington telling us how to run our schools.”
Texans engaged in a parlor game where folk deliberated over which Kennedy they hated the most: John? Jackie? Joseph? Bobby?
Bumper stickers throughout Dallas echoed the words flaunted on Confederate flag festooned billboards throughout the South: KO the Kennedys. Perhaps in retrospect — that is, after Kennedy had been shot in the head — some of the folk who flaunted those bumper stickers might have claimed, as Sarah Palin is now claiming, “We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights.”
Remarkably, there were those who actually applauded the assassination, while some even expressed regret that Jackie, too, had not been killed. Such was the heat generated from the political rhetoric of the day.
That said, history has yet to agree on the facts surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. This much is known: We had enough warning before the fall of 1963 to know that — among certain politicians and citizens who considered themselves patriotic, freedom-loving, hard-working Americans — the idea of murdering children and assassinating the president of the United States seemed like a good idea.
We can keep pretending that bombs and bullets are fired from a vacuum, independent of the cultural climate and the political rhetoric. Or we can acknowledge what we already know: no one is really surprised when the violent rhetoric of the day actually produces fruit.
Crafting the Perfect Storm
A friend of mine, who is no longer living, was a nuclear physicist who worked, for a time, with fault tree and root cause analyses, which are used to predict the likelihood of bad events. The idea is to prevent bad events by studying the various factors that either have either caused bad events in the past or which would, in theory, cause such an outcome. I found the topic fascinating: What would happen if this went wrong, then this went wrong or, alternately, that went wrong?
As much as scientific inquiry is eschewed in the current political climate, there is a science to how and why bad events — from nuclear accidents to failed car brakes — occur. To give an over-simplified, real-life scenario of such a fault-tree analysis: What would happen if, say, an earthquake of this particular magnitude occurred 120 miles away at the precise moment that a nuclear reactor was at this particular stage of operation while, simultaneously, this worker was distracted and/or this mechanism, this gauge, and/or this system failed?
In other words: How to create, on paper, the perfect storm? The fault tree analysis does this by studying theoretical disasters, whereas the root cause analysis studies real-life disasters that have already occurred.
William Duke, in discussing the root cause analysis of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, offered some interesting insights, which may be worth considering in the wake of the murders in Tucson:
Humans have a deep need to seek retribution against those that harm us. This is not irrational. Nor is the desire to seek justice for those harmed by disasters. But, this need often preoccupies and distracts us from the more compelling need to understand why such things happen. We cannot prevent what we do not understand. We can address an individual committing the same mistake by taking away their ability to do it. We can address an organization from repeating mistakes by punishing it or imposing tighter controls and oversight. But, in doing so we are not addressing the most fundamental “Why,” the true root causes of such disastrous events. We live in a complex world where small events can have colossal effects. We tend to think that in such a complex world there are an infinite, or nearly infinite, number of root causes. This is not true. Research over the past few decades demonstrates that root causes fall into a very few categories and that these root causes, unfortunately, recur frequently.
Interestingly, as Duke went on to explain, there has been much study and research into understanding how some complex organizations in “high-risk environments” (e.g. U.S. Navy aircraft carriers) have managed to operate for many years with very few bad events.
From these studies, the term “mindfulness” emerged. In a nutshell, mindfulness encompasses five basic characteristics which, combined, enable organizations to — among other things — study root causes and learn from failure, so as to prevent future bad events. Sounds simple enough. But how does an organization go about cultivating “mindfulness”? Duke addressed this in his paper:
The question remains, however, how does an organization actually develop these characteristics when mindfulness is, at heart, a cultural phenomenon? Organizational culture is very difficult to change. Weick and Sutcliffe offer some sage advice. They assert that, in order to change your culture, you should act your way into what you want to become. But, if it’s about acting, where’s the script?
One ubiquitous presence in nearly every violent chapter of our country’s history has been the rise to power by the lowest common denominator — the underbelly of our society.
The underbelly is distinguished by their words and deeds — not by color, religion, ethnicity, wealth or social station. Be they velvet-gloved racists, nativists, charismatic cult leaders or extemporaneous folk heroes, their rise to power is always generated by fear — fear of economic hardship, fear of attack, fear of the bogeyman. And the more fear they can generate, the more power they have to influence ordinary people to do the unthinkable.
This does not happen overnight. Sarah Palin did not introduce herself on the world stage in September 2008 by accusing her opponent of “palling around with terrorists.” That would have shocked the sensibilities of most Americans. Better to start small. Just a little bleat:
“‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity,’ …. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.”
Given the recent flag-pin flak that preceded that speech, who would dare find fault with the lovely portrait that Sarah painted of America, even if it was the work of Westwood Pegler?
In the days following that speech, Sarah expanded on this portrait by dividing the country into two different kinds of people: people who love America and people who don’t, with the Obamas falling into the latter category.
From here — and with the serendipitous arrival of Joe the plumber who, being just an average Joe, couldn’t be called to task for testing the waters with the word “socialist” — the staple rhetoric at team McCain-Palin quickly grew to encompass socialist, communist, Muslim, terrorist.
After the election, the rhetoric only escalated, with much of this coming from the folk at Fox News, who echoed Palin’s labels and added some of their own. By the summer of 2009, with the advent of the corporate-funded, Palin-led tea party, Obama had morphed into a Nazi tyrant dictator, intent on imposing fascist rule — complete with death panels to kill babies and old people.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2009, the tea bag party-goers — many of them scared shitless by this point — bought unprecedented number of guns and ammo. They began defiantly carried their guns to rallies, many of them also carrying signs with the Thomas Jefferson quote: The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
Somehow, and for reasons we have yet to agree on, a lot of ordinary people across the country — including the built-in statistic of mentally disturbed people that exist in any population — had come to believe that insurrection, overthrowing the government and assassinating the president were good ideas.
But it didn’t stop with the president. As the bill came closer to being signed, the rage and the threats came to encompass every politician in favor of health care reform, which included most of the Democrats on Capitol Hill. These folk, according to Sharron Angle, had gotten the American people, ” really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies,” a solution that was echoed in Sarah Palin’s gun sights map in the spring of 2010.
Where does one escalate the rhetoric from here? What is the next step, after successfully convincing a huge swath of American citizens that the president and over half of Congress are pro-terrorist, fascist, Nazis who are trying to kill us? Once you’ve championed the death of the president and half of Congress, what’s left to say?
The calls for civility, for toning down the rhetoric have been ongoing since the fall of 2008. But, rather than consider their responsibility in setting the violent tone, Palin, Angle, Limbaugh, Bachmann, Beck and the rest have not only ignored these calls, but have painted them as a plot by the tyrant and his minions to silence dissent. It was only after the bloody massacre in Tucson that any of them saw fit to respond to the calls for civility. And in the case of Sarah Palin, in particular, the focus of her response has been to deny culpability and express her own personal outrage at being victimized by the tragedy.
Addressing her new-found victimhood, Sarah Palin chose the incendiary term “blood libel.” This was a test balloon, to be sure, and was designed — just like her Westwood Pegler quote — to send out a signal, to test the temperature, to rally her base to her defense. Sarah’s “blood libel” strategy backfired in a really big way, indeed offending the sensibilities of most Americans. In response, Palin offered a second defense, phrased in milder terms, and has since been uncharacteristically silent.
But fellow teabagger, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, has since picked up the ball and released another test balloon. When asked to comment on the calls to tone down the rhetoric, Lee said:
“The shooter wins if we, who’ve been elected, change what we do just because of what he did.”
Even tho this was a direct rip-off from the Bush playbook (e.g. The terrorists win if Americans don’t go back to normalcy) it, too, failed to take flight.
But there will be more test balloons. We can be sure of that. And over time, as the visceral horror from Tucson massacre gradually recedes into the past, we can be equally sure that one of these test balloons will succeed.
Crafting the Perfect Storm
Lee Atwater has been given the lion’s share of credit for the art of honing old hatreds into a political movement, but it was the Jim Crow era, the McCarthy era, the integration era, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and the legacies of men like George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Westwood Pegler and Harry Dent that gave Atwater the tools for drafting the blueprint that was used by Reagan for making political hay out old ignorance, old fears and old hatreds.
By today’s standards, however, Atwater’s blueprint seems almost naive, having since been refined by men like Karl Rove, Steve Schmidt, Charles Black and Dick Cheney, who turned the science of fear into a commodity. Working in coalition with corporate titans, these guys bankroll the fear-peddlers, and they fill the coffers of the politicians. to and they tend to the coffers of receptive politicians, which includes . Political hay is little more than a petty-case expenditure in the real business influencing, exploiting and re-writing the laws of the land so that these corporations can bilk billions of corporate dollars from the American economy — sucking the marrow from the middle class and driving the poor into deeper destitution.
How to make such an agenda popular with the American people?
Convince them that it is their patriotic duty to be good capitalists. Convince them that everything from Social Security, to public schools, to Medicare, to police and fire departments & public works will be cheaper and more efficiently run once turned over to private, for-profit business. Convince them Medicare = socialism and Social Security = socialism. Convince them that there are only two alternatives to health care: Nazi death panels or the private, for-profit insurance industry.
Convince them that government regulation kills jobs. Convince them that, because the free market is self-adjusting, corporations will eventually put safety over the profit margin when it comes to our food supply, our water, our air, our health, worker rights and consumer protections. Convince them that, because the free market is self-adjusting, the titans will eventually using Wall Street as their private gambling parlor and will one day, or their own accord, stop plundering the American people to fill their pockets.
In other words, convince them that there is no such thing as moderation or bipartisanship or a middle ground. It’s all or nothing, folks. Kill or be killed. The titans know precisely when, where and how to set the tremor; how to sidestep the checks and balances; how to evade accountability, and how to raise the heat to dangerous levels.
The problem is that rational, respectful, civil human beings do not promote violence as a remedy to the democratic process. For this purpose — and this alone — Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Sharron Angle and the rest have been good investments.
As for that business in Tucson, we are reminded that, after all, Sarah’s finger was not on the trigger. Nor was Sharron’s, or Glenn’s or Michele’s or Rush’s or Bill’s or anyone else’s. The sole responsibility for the violence belongs to the person who pulled the trigger. But if we accept this, then we must also accept that the only persons responsible for 9-11 were the 19 hijackers on the planes.
And if we are unwilling to accept this, then we need to change our laws to reflect the reality on the ground. Change the wording in the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the U.S. Code to state, for the record, exactly which races and religions are allowed, under law, to engage in terrorism, insurrection and violent overthrow of the government. And while we’re at it, we should also re-write the Constitution to define treason as anything that is, on the say-so of anyone, treason. This way, patriotic Americans will have license to water the tree of liberty every time they disagree with the outcome of an election or any other contentious aspect of democracy.
At this point, we can then declare that — in this marvelous melting pot we call “The United States of America” — democracy is an antiquated ideal, a quaint relic from a bygone era that was sold to the highest bidder in the early 21st century and replaced with a plutocracy, where the dirty work of silencing dissent is subcontracted to violent mobs, rogue politicians and other madmen.
Of course there are — as there always have been — other tools at our disposal. After all, the same science that has been used to demonize politicians from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Gabrielle Giffords could be used to accomplish the opposite. We could choose to cultivate our political and cultural landscape from a place of strength instead of weakness. The same science that has been used to prevent another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island could be used to help prevent bloody massacres and political assassinations. William Duke spoke about when he wrote:
“… in order to change your culture, you should act your way into what you want to become.”
We’ve already seen what we become when we act from a place of weakness, where our best ideas are generated from fear, ignorance, rage and violence. But what might we become if, instead, we acted from a place of strength? What would happen if our best ideas were generated from a place of mutual tolerance, enlightenment, respect and human kindness — in a word: civility? Could it be that that if we chose to act as if we were this wonderful melting pot of people, all united under a civil democracy, that we might become just that?
by Ed Sparrow for the canarypapers
Remember the good old days — circa last month — when conscientious parents could shell out the extra bucks for organic fruit juices in the hope of reducing the number of pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins that their children — all of our children — eat, drink and breathe each and every day?
Turns out that — at least when it comes to apple juice, grape juice, canned peaches, canned pears, and baby foods that contain these fruits — it makes no difference where lead contamination is concerned. Which means that we can now safely add both organic and conventionally-grown fruit juices to the overlong list of drinks — a list that includes milk, water and soy — that are no longer safe for our children to drink.
According to the recently released results of a study by the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), out of the 146 juice and canned fruit samples they tested in an EPA lab (see the complete list below), 125 contained toxic levels of lead. In fact, a single serving of these juices or fruits is toxic enough that, by law in California, these products should carry warning labels. (For more info on lead exposure and children, read the foundation’s FAQ sheet).
Of course, the focus on the ELF study was lead — a heavy metal for which no safe level exists; a heavy metal that accumulates in the body with each exposure, beginning before birth (via their mother’s blood) and continuing into early childhood from myriad environmental and food exposures; a heavy metal that is especially dangerous to young children, whose bodies absorb it more quickly, and who are at the highest risk of brain damage, cancers and developmental/behavioral disorders from lead exposure. But what about the pesticide levels in those same fruit products — leaded and unleaded alike? For this information, you could look here, where you’d find that it makes little difference whether you buy U.S. or foreign-grown agricultural products. It’s a complete crap shoot, as both are likely to be tainted with heavy metals and pesticides.
Now for Some Good News
Once you weed out the fruit juices with lead contamination and the fruit juices likely to have pesticide contamination, there is (until we hear otherwise) a grand total of one “safe” juice on the Environmental Law Foundation’s list. Tentative kudos to R.W. Knudsen Organic Apple Juice for this precarious honor, which may be nothing more than dumb luck on their part because, come next week or next month or next year — depending on which supplier they buy their apples from — the story might be entirely different. As good news goes, we could aspire to better.
As anyone who’s been paying attention could tell you, the ELF study comes as no real surprise. Lead contamination is just the tip of the iceberg. The bad news about our food chain has been rolling out for years — especially over the past decade, as more and more of our food is sourced from China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and other countries that provide dirt-cheap produce, meats, seasonings, supplements and vitamins, courtesy of their lax-to-non-existent standards on food, environmental and worker safety.
Concurrent to this, the U.S. has eased its own standards — giving the green light to corporate American growers and manufacturers to do whatever they jolly well please with our food supply, while simultaneously putting up road blocks to smaller growers of integrity. The hope of the politicians who steer such policies is to kill what little competition remains to their corporate benefactors.
At the same time, the budgets have been slashed to the agencies empowered with protecting American consumers from eating foods tainted with pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic substances. As a consequence, there is little to no oversight on most of the food grown and produced in the U.S. The inspection process is equally lacking on imported foods, as a mere ½ of 1% of the food entering this country is ever tested for these contaminants, much less for pathogens, decay, filth, bacteria, odors, mystery additives, missing ingredients, unidentified objects and the myriad other findings that might prompt the FDA to refuse import into the U.S.
Lacking any real oversight, our ports wait with open arms and a blind eye turned to the roughly 50 million metric tons of food imported into the U.S. each year. It is only through a combination of dumb luck, the vigilance of other countries, and the research of independent food safety advocates — or, as is too often the case, by the trail of sick people and dead bodies — that we become enlightened to the existence of melamine-tainted chocolates, dog food and milk, drug-laced seafoods, and everything from vitamins to rice, garlic and tea contaminated with a mix of pesticides, lead, cadmium and arsenic. Add to this mix the myriad pathogens, such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli that have become staple contaminants in our food supply — both imported and domestically produced. Given our track record in recent years, we can hardly wag our finger at China.
The ConAgra Solution
One wonders: How the hell does this stuff get into the food chain? There are as many answers to that question as there are tainted products on the market. Here’s but one.
To speed up the drying process, they would lay the tea leaves out on a huge warehouse floor and drive trucks over them so that the exhaust would more rapidly dry the leaves out. And the problem there is that the Chinese use leaded gasoline, so they were essentially spewing the lead over all these leaves. — from a 2007 NPR interview with former FDA commissioner, William Hubbard.
Of course, tea is a single ingredient. Once somebody bothers to test it, the trail is easy enough to follow. But what if that tainted product happens to be a processed food containing, perhaps, dozens of ingredients from a dozen different countries? You’d think that, by testing each ingredient, the answer could be pieced together.
Problem is, the suppliers of those dozens of ingredients change from day to day, depending on which supplier from which country offers the cheapest flour, cheapest peanuts, cheapest garlic, cheapest beef, cheapest spinach, cheapest grapes, and so on. This was the conundrum faced last year by the frozen food industry giants (e.g. ConAgra, General Mills and Nestle, who peddle brands such as Healthy Foods, Swanson, Hungry Man and Banquet).
These manufacturers knew for a fact that their products were contaminated with salmonella and other food-borne pathogens, but they couldn’t pinpoint the source. Was it today’s ground pepper from China? Yesterday’s pepper from India? Last week’s pepper from Vietnam?
What to do? ConAgra took the lead and decided that, since they couldn’t find the source of the salmonella, much less get rid of it, they’d pass the buck to the consumer. Other companies followed suit. They accomplished this by adding an advisory to their pot pie packaging, which told the consumer, in so many words, how to go about killing those deadly pathogens: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots”.
Got that, American consumer? Keep your food thermometer handy, and should you fail to check several spots to make sure your food heats to a consistent 165° F, you’ll have no one but yourself to blame if you die from salmonella poisoning.
The Kellogg Solution
Problem is, some foods (e.g. spinach salad, breakfast cereal, granola, cookies, crackers, peanut butter) aren’t compatible with the ConAgra method and would taste downright awful if heated to an internal temperature of 165° before eating. To this end, some larger manufacturers, such as Kellogg, have hired private investigators to inspect their suppliers. But even that’s no guarantee.
A supplier unscrupulous enough to knowingly pass food contaminated with salmonella, E. coli and possible bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) pathogens onto consumers is certainly not above greasing the palms of these 3rd-party inspectors, as Kellogg discovered, when their products were drawn into the huge dragnet of recalled products in the wake of the Georgia peanut scandal. Such scandals are ongoing — both in our food supply and in the consumer products we use every day. But, unless we make a point to frequent the USDA and CPSC websites, along with consumer advocate and safety websites, we’re none the wiser.
But at least some of the peanut stories made the news. Usually such stories pass, like ships in the night, with little to no fanfare on the evening news.
The House of Cards
Our lawmakers, for their part, have largely been asleep at the wheel, most of them drunk on lobbyist dollars from the corporations who peddle these toxic products. This symbiotic relationship — with corporations funding political campaigns and careers, and with politicians creating loopholes, laws, subsidies and tax breaks to benefit their corporate benefactors (turning a blind eye to infractions and felonies alike, as needed) — has created a house of cards. Only, unlike our economy, this house of cards won’t fall all at once. It will fall little by little, child by child, and with little fanfare from our news or lawmakers until, perhaps, their own children or grandchildren succumb to illness or disease, putting the issue of food safety squarely into their own laps.
For now, these politicians and the corporations who fund their careers will stick to their battle cries of, “The free market is self-correcting!” and “Keep big government out of business!” To this end, the only way for U.S. growers and manufacturers to keep pace with China — who we now depend on to feed us — is to craft our environmental, worker and food safety standards to mirror theirs, then sell this corrupt bill of goods to the American consumer.So far, so good.
The good news for these politicians and their benefactors is that, over the past 10 years, U.S. standards indeed come to resemble those in China, so that today the average agricultural product (not to mention toys, dishes, clothing, furniture, household products and cleaners) produced in the U.S.A. is just as likely to be grown or manufactured with slave-wage labor and contaminated with pesticides, lead and other heavy metals as the average product from China. Fancy that.
But, again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve not even broached the topic of the genetically modified organisms (built-in pesticides and such) that have been contaminating our food supply, both domestic and foreign, for years. There’s more than arsenic and old lead lurking in that bowl of rice.
Choose Your Poison Wisely
Even as some of us have been watching this house of cards being erected year by year — all the while writing letters and protesting as these food safety standards have fallen one by one — it’s still alarming, dismaying and downright depressing to learn the results of the ELF study on lead. Of course, we can continue buying organic in the hope of avoiding — or at the very least reduce our children’s exposure to the carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone disruptors and developmental/reproductive toxicants already known by the USDA to exist in most of the conventionally-grown grape juices, apple juices, canned peaches and canned pears that the ELF tested for lead. But now we’re left with an impossible choice: pesticides or lead?
The choice is easier for those parents who rely on the evening news to enlighten them as to what they’re feeding their children: both.
Enlightened or not, the rule of thumb for children in the U.S. (not to mention adults) is this: nothing is safe. The old rules of thumb for travelers abroad now apply to us. When in the U.S., don’t drink the water, don’t eat the food, don’t use the dishes, don’t wear the clothes, don’t breathe the air, stay off the grass and, for god sakes, don’t play with the toys. Perhaps this is all right with you. As Thomas Gray famously said, “Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise.”
I can attest to the truth of Gray’s words, as I’m always happier before I learn that my grandchildren — despite their organic vegetarian diets and all the care that is taken to buy safe products — have nonetheless been eating, drinking and breathing arsenic, lead, cadmium, Cobalt 50, mercury, BPA, phthalates, formaldehyde, melamine, antibiotics, hormones, pathogens and the residuals of hundreds of pesticides lurking everywhere you look.
I’m always happier before learning that — despite all the care taken to ensure their safety and well-being — that the odds have just grown that my grandchildren’s number might be called to pay the price for exposure to these toxins: cancer, neurological disorders, endocrine & reproductive disorders, behavioral disorders, asthma, skin afflictions and countless other diseases.
Because, see, we don’t live in the good old days. In the good old days, businessmen like Mr. Potter were the bad guys in movies with titles like, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the good old days, politicians whose consciences could be bought and paid to turn a blind eye to poisoning children were fewer and far-between. In the good old days, you’d be hard-pressed to find any but the most ignorant of souls who would scoff at the most rudimentary commonsense knowledge (not to mention the mountains of scientifically drawn evidence) that feeding children arsenic, lead and poison is bad for their health.
Our entire food chain has been poisoned from start to finish: from the growers, to the processors, to the manufacturers, to the inspectors, to the laws that govern the ethics of these interests, to the food on our tables.
The problem, you see, is that no one’s minding the store. No one except for the scoundrels and you, if you so choose.
by Mantis Katz for the canarypapers
TO TAKE ACTION:
From What’s in My Food? website: a petition for Safe, Fair and Green Food
From the Make Our Food Safe Coalition website: Tell Your U.S. Senators: Make Our Food Safe NOW!
From the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families blog: Tired of Toxics? Give Congress a Jingle
From the Environmental Working Group website: Babies are born pre-polluted with hundreds of toxic chemicals. Sign this petition to demand that Congress take action to make chemicals in consumer products kid-safe.
From the Physicians for Social Responsibility website: a petition to support the Lautenberg Plan: Protect Americans from Toxic Chemical Exposure
FOR MORE READING:
Environmental Working Group website:
- EWG Supporters Push Chemicals Act Reform
- Kid-Safe Chemicals: The Cost of Inaction
- Page on Health/Toxics: Children’s Health
The Washington Post:
Physicians for Social Responsibility
- The Need for Chemical Reform in the United States (Excerpt: During the past 30 years the incidence of childhood cancer, asthma, autism, infertility, premature births, birth defects, and a range of other problems has increased. For example, from 1976 to 1994, there was a 30 percent increase in the incidence of all types of cancers for children under the age of one….)
The Providence Journal:
Report finds gaps in food safety, FDA powers (this article speaks on the difficulty of tracing the pinpointing the country-of-origin on salmonella-tainted ground pepper)
The Raleigh Telegram:
NOTE: The above two links illustrate but one angle being used by corporate growers and their political hacks to exploit the food safety bill to drive small farmers out of business.
THE LISTS FROM THE ENVIRONMENTAL LAW FOUNDATION LEAD STUDY:
Below are the lists of fruit product brands that were tested in the ELF’s lead study. To make the list more reader-friendly, I’ve highlighted the lead-tainted products in red, and the unleaded brands in green. The organic brands are in bold font. The original report can be seen in this pdf form on the ELF website. See also: Lead in Children’s Foods: Frequently Asked Questions
Apple JuiceFor the following products, one or more samples exceeded the Prop 65 limit of 0.5 micrograms of lead per serving:
- Beech Nut 100% Apple Juice
- Earth’s Best Organics Apple Juice
- First Street 100% Apple Cider from concentrate
- First Street Apple Juice from concentrate 100% juice
- Full Circle Organic Apple Juice
- Gerber 100% Juice Apple Juice
- Great Value 100% No Sugar Added Apple Juice
- Hansen’s Natural Apple Juice
- Kroger 100% Juice Apple Juice
- Langers Apple Juice 100% Juice
- Minute Maid Juice Apple – 100% Apple Juice
- Motts 100% Apple Juice
- O Organics Organic Unfiltered Apple Juice Not From Concentrate
- Old Orchard 100% Apple Juice
- Parade 100% Juice Apple
- Raley’s Premium 100% Apple Juice not from Concentrate
- Safeway 100% Juice Apple Cider
- Safeway 100% Juice Apple Juice
- Stater Bros. 100% Juice Apple Juice
- Sunny Select 100% Apple Juice
- Trader Joe’s Certified Organic Apple Juice, pasteurized
- Tree Top 100% Juice Apple Cider
- Walgreens Apple Juice from concentrate 100% juice
- Walnut Grove Market 100% Apple Juice
- Great Value 100% Apple Juice not from concentrate
- Harvest Day 100% Apple Juice from Concentrate
- Kirkland Fresh Pressed Apple Juice Pasteurized
- Martinelli’s Gold Medal Apple Juice 100% pure from US grown fresh apples
- R.W. Knudsen Organic Apple Juice unfiltered
- Raley’s Everyday 100% Apple Juice
- Sunny Select 100% Unfiltered Apple Juice
- Trader Joe’s Fresh Pressed Apple Juice all natural pasteurized, 100% juice
- Tree Top 100% Apple Juice
- Tree Top Three Apple Blend 100% Fresh Pressed Juice
Grape JuiceFor the following products, one or more samples exceeded the Prop 65 limit of 0.5 micrograms of lead per serving:
- 365 Everyday Value Organic 100% Juice Concord Grapes
- First Street Grape Juice from concentrate 100% juice
- Gerber 100% Juice – White Grape Juice
- Great Value 100% Grape Juice
- Kedem Concord Grape Juice 100% pure grape juice
- Kroger Grape Juice 100% Juice
- Langers Grape Juice (Concord)
- Langers Red Grape Juice
- O Organics Organic Grape Juice from concentrate
- R.W. Knudsen Just Concord Grape Juice
- R.W. Knudsen Organic Just Concord
- Raley’s 100% Grape Juice
- Safeway 100% Juice Grape Juice
- Safeway Organic Grape Juice
- Santa Cruz Organic Concord Grape Juice
- Stater Bros. 100% Juice Grape Juice
- Stater Bros. 100% Juice White Grape Juice
- Sunny Select 100% Grape Juice
- Trader Joe’s Concord Grape Juice made from fress pressed organic concord grapes
- Tree Top 100% Juice, Grape
- Valu Time Grape Drink from Concentrate
- Walgreens Grape Juice from concentrate 100% juice
- Walnut Acres Organic Concord Grape
- Walnut Grove Market Grape Juice
- Welch’s 100% Grape Juice (from Welch’s Concord Grapes)
- Welch’s 100% Red Grape Juice from Concentrate
- Old Orchard Healthy Balance Grape (Unfortunately, the only “safe” grape juice happens to be sweetened by Splenda).
Packaged PearsFor the following products, one or more samples exceeded the Prop 65 limit of 0.5 micrograms of lead per serving:
- Best Yet Bartlett Pear Halves in Heavy Syrup
- Del Monte Diced Pears in Light Syrup
- Del Monte Pear Halves in Heavy Syrup
- Del Monte Pear Halves, Bartlett Pears in 100% real fruit juice from concentrate
- Dole Pear Halves in Juice
- First Street Diced Pears
- First Street Sliced Bartlett
- Full Circle Organic Bartlett Pear Slices
- Gerber 3rd Foods Pears [Baby Food]
- Great Value Bartlett Pear Halves in 100% Juice
- Great Value Bartlett Sliced Pears in Heavy Syrup
- Market Pantry Diced Pears in Light syrup
- Maxx Value Pear Pieces in Light Syrup
- Polar Pear Halves in light syrup
- S&W Natural Style Pear Slices in Juice
- S&W Sun Pears Premium
- Safeway Lite Bartlett Pear Halves in Pear Juice
- Safeway Pear Halves in Light Juice
- Sunny Select Pear Halves in Pear Juice
- Trader Joe’s Pear Halves in white grape juice
- Truitt Brothers Pacific NorthWest Bartlett Pear Halves, in pear juice from concentrate
- Valu Time Irregular Bartlett Pear Slices
- Walnut Grove Market Natural Pear Halves in Heavy Syrup
- Eating Right Kids Diced Pears Fruit Cups
- Stater Bros. Diced Pears Snack Bowl
Packaged PeachesFor the following products, one or more samples exceeded the Prop 65 limit of 0.5 micrograms of lead per serving:
- Best Yet Yellow Cling Peach Halves in Heavy Syrup
- Del Monte Freestone Peach Slices in 100 % Juice
- Del Monte Sliced Yellow Cling Peaches in 100 % Juice
- Del Monte Sliced Yellow Cling Peaches in heavy syrup
- Dole Diced Peaches, Yellow Cling in light syrup
- First Street Yellow Cling Peaches in heavy syrup
- Gerber 3rd Foods Peaches [Baby Food]
- Golden Star Peach Halves in Heavy Syrup
- Great Value Yellow Cling Sliced Peaches
- Libby’s Yellow Cling Peach Slices No Sugar Added (Sweetened with Splenda)
- Market Pantry Diced Peaches in light syrup
- Polar Peach Slices
- Raley’s Sliced Yellow Cling Peaches in Heavy Syrup
- S&W Natural Style Yellow Cling Peach Slices in Lightly Sweetened Juice
- S&W Premium Peach Halves Yellow Cling Peaches in light syrup
- Safeway Diced Peaches in Light Syrup
- Safeway Yellow Cling Peach Slices in Pear Juice
- Simple Value Yellow Cling Peaches in light syrup
- Stater Bros. Yellow Cling Peach Halves
- Stater Bros. Yellow Cling Sliced Peaches in heavy syrup
- Sunny Select Yellow Cling Sliced Peaches in Pear Juice
- Trader Joe’s Yellow Cling Peach Halves in while grape juice
- Valu Time Yellow Cling Peach Slices
- Walnut Grove Market Natural Peaches Sliced Yellow Cling in Light Syrup
- Dole Diced Peaches, Cling in Light Syrup
- Dole Diced Peaches, Freestone in Light Syrup
- Dole Sliced Peaches
- Eating Right Kids Diced Peaches in Extra Light Syrup
- Stater Bros. Diced Peaches Snack Bowl
Fruit CocktailFor the following products, one or more samples exceeded the Prop 65 limit of 0.5 micrograms of lead per serving:
- Best Yet Chunky Mixed Fruit in Pear Juice
- Chef’s Review Fruit Cocktail
- Del Monte 100% Juice Fruit Cocktail
- Del Monte Chunky Mixed Fruit in 100 % Juice (peach, pear, grape, etc.)
- Del Monte Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup (peach, pear, grapes)
- Del Monte Fruit Cocktail No Sugar Added
- Del Monte Lite Fruit Cocktail in Extra Light Syrup
- Dole Mixed Fruit in Light Syrup
- Eating Right Fruit Cocktail packed in Sucralose
- Eating Right No Sugar Fruit Cocktail
- First Street Fruit Cocktail in heavy syrup
- Golden Star Mixed Fruit in Light Syrup (peach, pineapple, pears)
- Great Value No Sugar Added Fruit Cocktail
- Kroger Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup
- Kroger Lite Fruit Cocktail in Pear Juice
- Kroger Value Fruit Mix (Peaches, pears, grapes)
- Libby’s Fruit Cocktail No Sugar Added (Sweetened with Splenda)
- Market Pantry Mixed Fruit in light syrup
- Maxx Value Fruit Mix in Light Syrup (peach, pear, grape)
- Mrs. Brown’s Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup (peaches, pears, grapes)
- Polar Mixed Fruit
- Raley’s Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup
- S&W Natural Style Fruit Cocktail in Lightly Sweetened Juice
- Safeway Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup
- Safeway Light Sugar Fruit Cocktail
- Safeway Lite Fruit Cocktail in Pear Juice
- Stater Bros. Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup
- Sunny Select Fruit Cocktail in Juice
- Del Monte Mixed Fruit
And, hey, as long as we’re talking toxin, you may as well know which veggie burgers contain the neurotoxin, hexane, and which don’t:
Hexane burgersJust because a product is “made with organic ingredients” does not mean it is made with organic soy. And, chances are, if the soy in your soy milk, energy bar or soy burger came from China, Vietnam, Taiwan or Korea, that organic certification means absolutely nothing.
- Amy’s Kitchen
- Boca Burger, conventional
- Franklin Farms
- Garden Burger
- It’s All Good Lightlife
- Morningstar Farms
- President’s Choice
- Taste Above
- Trader Joe’s
- Yves Veggie Cuisine
Hexane-Free (yay!) BurgersAs a rule of thumb, USDA certified organic soy is not going to contain hexane. But, again, if that soy comes from China, it’s a crap shoot. As luck has it, there are still a few hexane-free burgers on the market:
- Boca Burgers “Made with organic soy”
- Helen’s Kitchen
- Morningstar “Made with organic”
- Superburgers by Turtle Island
While you’re chewing on the topic of soy, you may as well check out the complete Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Soy Report Scorecard on the various brand name soy products — from soymilk to veggie burgers to tofu to baby formula — to see which ones were (as of May 2009) still safe to consume. Also see the studies on Infant Formulas.
Like everything else, soy is a crap shoot. You never know from one week to the next which company’s been swallowed up by a conglomerate and/or succumbed to the China syndrome for sourcing their ingredients.
If so, chances are you’ve also “got” the pesticides Diphenylamine (DPA), DDE, Dieldrin, Cyhalothrin, Endosulfan sulfate, 3-hydroxycarbofuran, Permethrin, Bifenthrin, Cyfluthrin, Tetrachlorvinphos, Carbaryl and Dimethoate, plus a host of hormones, antibiotics, vaccine residues, pus and possible pathogens.
Think you can escape these hazards by buying organic? Think again. According to the Cornucopia Institute, which continually updates their Organic Dairy Brand Ratings Scorecard as part of their ongoing effort toward Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk, if you’ve been buying any of the following “organic” brands of milk, you may want to reconsider:
Alta Dena (Dean Foods)
Aurora Organic Dairy
Back to Nature
Good Heart Organics
- Back to Nature (Kraft)
- Good Heart Organics (Rockview)
- Hain Celestial (Earth’s Best)
- Horizon (Dean Foods)
- Organic Cow (Dean Foods)
- PMB Nutiritionals (private-label infant formula including Wal-Mart)
- Noris Dairy/Noris Organic Life
- Natural Prairie
- Shamrock Farms
- Rockview Farms
- Wholesome Valley (Galaxy Foods)
- Greenbank Farms/ Stonefelt Cheese Co.
LAST WORDS: Heck, I could keep writing on this post and, five years from now, I’d still be writing. I could link to a thousand web pages of dedicated individuals and groups who are working to restore some integrity to our food supply. Either you care about such things or you don’t.
If you do, please do something, even if it’s just to take a few moments to give a few clicks to the mouse to sign your name to a petition. Many hands make light work.
But it you don’t care, please don’t waste your time sending me impassioned comments about how poisons and heavy metals are our friends, or on how the human body has miraculously adapted to lead contamination, or on how tree hugging alarmists are exploiting these dangers to kill our economy. And while you’re at it, spare me the thinly-veiled racist missives on big government take overs. I’ll just delete them.
Granted, when Obama entered office, he inherited an all-but-irredeemable mess:
- a country being run into the ground by the greed, fraud and corruption of the financial, defense, oil & gas, pharmaceutical and insurance industries;
- the legislative and judicial branches of government, long ago bought and paid for by these industries;
- a country whose laws, regulations and standards had been written by these same industries;
- and a malcontent citizenry, mad as hell at… someone.
It was all but irredeemable. But there remained this tiny thread of possibility that, given the right leadership, we could restore piece by piece — the same way it was dismantled — our democracy. And, no, I’m not talking tea party slogans about guns, communist take-overs and other xenophobic agendas, all written by the invisible hands from the above industries. I’m talking about Democracy with a capital D.
I’m talking about the same Democracy that established the separation of church and state; the Democracy that, albeit centuries late, passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act; the Democracy that created the OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency; the Democracy that gave women the right to vote and passed Roe v. Wade. I’m talking about certain truths that are self-evident, even when — and especially when — its citizenry takes to the streets in arms, convinced that there is a communist behind every bush, or a religion, race, color or creed in need of subjugating.
By the fall of 2008, it was all but irredeemable. But, still, there was this hope, much like the hope that seemingly arrived out of the blue in 1933, when FDR — just one month after taking office — began an effort that pulled our country from the brink of collapse.
After all, the blueprint had already been drafted for Obama — a blueprint that took FDR only a month to draft and put into action. Millions of people were put to work restoring the millions upon millions of acres of forest and agricultural lands that been destroyed over the previous century and had culminated in the Dust Bowl. Millions were put to work improving our country by building our infrastructure, by building national parks, by building roads and improving flood and fire control. Millions more were saved from starvation. And millions more, still, continue to benefit from the Social Security Act, signed just 2-1/2 years after FDR took office.
And this says nothing of FDR’s swift action on financial and banking industry reforms and regulations, to rein in the fraud and corruption of the financial industry and the corporate giants who were feeding from this cesspool. FDR’s reforms not only helped deliver our economy from the grave, but they have endured as some of our most important checks and balances for ensuring the integrity of these industries. Or, at least, they endured until the Reagan era. Just long enough, perhaps, for some people to forget.
Perhaps FDR could have responded to the Dust Bowl the way Obama has with the Gulf oil disaster. He could have visited the devastated lands, given a few speeches and then, with the full weight of his office, orchestrated a show to force someone — say, the timber industry — to compensate the farmers for their lost lands. Had FDR been an unremarkable man, and an even less remarkable president, he could have taken a short-term view and slapped a few band-aids on the cancer. But he didn’t, and because of that, this country has spent the better part of the last 75 years reaping the fruits of FDR’s courage, conviction and foresight.
But Obama is no FDR. Only the most naive and uninformed of Democrats still see Obama as anything but a sham president — a man made impotent by his own lack of courage, conviction, foresight and moral compass.
All that campaign rhetoric about ending torture, illegal detentions, extraordinary renditions?
A shell game.
All the promises to restore habeas corpus, restore our Constitution to its pre-Bush Era integrity, to rein in Israel, to end our wars for oil and, with them, our farce of a war on terror?
Just a mirage.
All the soaring rhetoric about repairing our infrastructure, “growing” our economy and restoring our manufacturing sector by getting a jump-start on cutting-edge, green technologies?
All those vows to restore environmental laws and protections, to upgrade our educational standards, to restore out relationship with the sciences, to reform our sham of a health care system?
All lies. All of it, just for show.
So it comes as no surprise to those of us who have been paying attention that BP and the parasites (politicians, industry and businesses alike) who feed off the oil industry are running the show in the Gulf, the same way the oil and defense industries have been running the show in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Colombia…. . It comes as no surprise — as we watch sea gulls, pelicans, sharks, fish, turtles and myriad other life forms washing up on shore, or alternately suffocating unseen in the depths, or being incinerated alive in the sea water — that Obama’s concern is the small picture, the tiny, narrow-minded short-term view: How to keep the oil folk, the shrimpers & fishermen, and the tourist industry happy?
But let’s get real. No one — not Obama, not the legislative branch, not the judicial branch, and certainly not the industries who line their pockets — is ready, just yet, to end the age of oil. As such, it remains necessary to keep the focus of this disaster on money, jobs and the economy. There is a concert of industries and individuals — from Obama, to BP, to a judge in Louisiana — working night and day to conceal and distract our attention from the environmental armageddon that has been spawned from this disaster — just long enough to get the propaganda machine cranked up and running, to spin this whole disaster into yet another Democratic plot to thwart industry and jobs.
Yesterday’s ruling by the federal judge to overturn Obama’s *cough* moratorium on deep water drilling is just the impetus necessary to get the ball rolling. As of yesterday — lifeless oceans, suffocating pelicans, torched turtles and tar balls aside — unless someone can prove that deep water drilling is unsafe, it’s unfair for government to put its boot-heel on the neck of industry. Here, the judge (a shareholder, himself, in the oil industry) drew a line in the sand, so to speak. So tell us, Mr. President: Are you pro-American or anti-American?
It’s only a matter of time before industry provides the tea baggers with their slogans and scripts. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes not only acceptable, but laudable and almost mandatory for politicians to rally on behalf of BP, to save them from the evil liberals who would conspire to put them out of business.
I predicted this at the start and, from all signs, it appears to going according to plan. After all, the blueprint had already been drafted for Obama. Reagan drew up the first crude draft; Cheney finessed it. So long as there is one drop of oil left to be drilled, or one ounce of precious minerals left to be extracted from this good earth, we will drill baby drill and — if the ends so justify the means — kill baby kill.
Rev. Wright got it right. Obama’s just another politician. He says and does what politicians say and do. Which means that, so long as we sit dumbly watching from the sidelines, our chickens will continue to come home to roost on our putrid, corrupt shores. And, so long as the sun still rises, the show will go on.
Day Fourteen (Birdie’s approximate age: 4 weeks)
I removed the screen from the window at 7:00 this morning. By then, Birdie had started engaging in that behavior you often see in captive animals — pacing back and forth, flying from one window to another and pressing to get out of this giant human cage. Odd, she’d never done this before.
She had no frame of reference whatsoever for knowing what to do with an open window screen. I gave her about 15 minutes to discover it, then finally picked her up and set her on the chair inside the window. She flew back into the room. It took several tries — one of which involved my bending a gardenia branch into the open window — but she finally found her way out. She promptly hopped onto the ground and scurried behind the liriope grass bordering the house foundation. This grass forms a corridor of sorts — not unlike the alleyway behind the lumber on the sun porch. She then seemingly disappeared into thin air for 2 hours.
During this time, I went outside a few times and whistled to see if she’d answer back. Silence. It was a thin line to walk — trying to confirm her safety without intruding on her freedom to be a bird. I wanted to keep a healthy distance, but the longer her absence grew, the tighter the fist-hold grew around my heart. At one point, I even went down to the road (the traffic unusually busy for an early Sunday morning), to see if that had been her fate. Finally, I got on hands and knees and dug through the bushes to scrutinize the entire passageway behind the liriope. She wasn’t there. Here I should mention that there are two cats that occasionally visit our yard at sunrise and sunset. Domestics or strays? I don’t know.
By 9:00 a.m., I felt gravely, physically sick. Had I not gone about this the right way? Should I have let her discover the window on her own, rather than assisting her? Did she just take flight into that sky and, not knowing better, just keep flying until she’d flown so far she’d never find her way back?
Of course, the latter possibility would have fine, had she the resources to be completely self-sufficient, but she didn’t. Not yet. It had been a full two hours when I decided I’d just park myself in the yard and whistle until she came. Fifteen minutes and a half-dozen mosquito bites later, I heard her in the yard next door, to the right. Then I heard her overhead, high up in the trees. Then I heard her to the neighbor’s yard to the left. At last, she came sailing down and landed on the fence rail a short distance away.
At this point, the dam broke loose. From some wellspring deep inside — the existence of which was unknown to me until that very moment — I began crying, and I kept crying. Whatever is the human equivalent of a taproot, Birdie had somehow stumbled onto it and, despite her smallness, ripped it up screaming from the deepest reaches of the earth. I cried and I cried. I cried for every joy I’d ever known and for every loss I’d ever grieved. I cried for every soul under the sun that ever lived. I have no explanation for this. I only know that, for the rest of the day, the tears kept resurfacing without notice.
Despite her obvious hunger, it took Birdie a few moments to muster the courage to come down to my hand. She ate several crickets and meal worms, during which time I spilled the meal worms for the millionth time this week. She pecked about this for a few moments, procured and ate a meal worm, then hurried over to a patch of sun and began hunting.
Too wrung out to stand, just yet, I watched. After a while, she hopped back over to me, considered my knee for a moment, the hopped up. I was still too awash in relief to remove her. She then hopped back to the ground and looked straight up at my face. To look at the photo, you’d think she was pleading for food, but she wasn’t. It was like she was talking, making this tiny, but intensely sincere twittering sound from deep in the throat. I don’t know what this meant, but I’m here to tell you, she was saying something important.
After this, she abruptly flew off, landing on the nearby fence, where she perched for a good while before returning to the trees. Being in unknown territory, myself, I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again.
A while later, she called out, so I returned to the back porch. It took me some time, but I finally spotted her high in one of the oak trees. Usually, mockingbirds don’t perch quite so high, but there she was. She didn’t want to come down but, rather, seemed to just want to hear me whistle back, which I did. We whistled back and forth a few times until she stopped.
About an hour later, she whistled out for me again. I spotted her at the base of the wooden fence. A few more whistles and it became clear she was famished.
After eating, she lingered for a moment, then wandered over to the nearby gardenias and spent about 15 minutes pecking through the leaf litter before taking flight again for parts unknown. If I were to ascribe human emotions to her, it would be a mix of caution, curiosity, contentment and pure exuberance. A half-hour later, she called me back. By then, I’d remembered to put out one of her water dishes.
It took a few minutes of encouragement, flicking my fingers loudly through the water before it drew her attention. Silly me, it didn’t occur that she might also like a bath. She made do, getting little more than a spit bath.
About a half-hour later — after flights all over the yard, from tree to roof to tree and back — she returned. By then, I’d made better accommodations with a pie pan full of water. Again, it took some encouragement — much flickering of the water with my fingers — but she caught on and right into the spirit of bathing al fresco. I didn’t have my camera on hand to record this, but I did get a photo of her sunning on the fence afterward, looking quite pleased.
From this point onward, she continued to call for food about twice per hour. She visited the water dish unassisted. At around 3:00, it occurred to me that Birdie should learn about the “real” bird baths, where the wild birds gather, so I met her here for the next feeding.
She took a little sip, but was more interested in the tiny bugs crawing about the base of the bird bath, several of which she ate for dessert. This is something she’d been doing after each feeding — spending 10 or 15 minutes pecking around at this and that, occasionally catching a few small ants, and other times eating bits of leaf debris and dirt.
Watching her peck at the bugs around the bird bath, I felt good about her prospects for being a self-sufficient wild bird. At that moment — circa 3:00 in the afternoon — all was right with the world. But, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. From this point forward, she seemed to regress. No longer the fancy-free wild bird, sailing from tree to roof to fence and back, she suddenly became very needy and dependent, calling out for me every 10 or 15 minutes.
Here, I should mention that the entire day up until that point had been more exhausting than I can possibly begin to describe. Between the constant watching and listening for every little sound — not knowing from one feeding to the next if, for better or worse, it would be the last time I saw her. Too, there were those tears that kept arriving out of the blue.
When she suddenly began calling me more often, I didn’t know what to make of it. Had I only managed to teach her to be dependent on me, by arriving at her every beck and call? Should I have just stayed the hell away? I didn’t understand what was going on. And, by that point, I was so exhausted, I could barely think straight.
Finally, I figured it out. All she wanted was the assurance of my nearby presence while she pecked about on the ground. She didn’t need me close by, just in whistling distance. The minute I went inside the house, she flew back up to the fence and would resume calling until I returned and she could see me and hear me whistling back.
My brothers and I used to do something similar when we explored woods, fields and other unknown territories looking for old dumps and bottle-digging sites — an activity that necessitated splitting up and going in different directions. Our system was whistling bob-white back and forth, just to make sure we hadn’t lost each other. Maybe this is bird parents do with their fledglings.
All of this is to say that I spent the balance of the afternoon outside, either sitting on the back porch, occasionally whistling, or answering her hunger calls — which, I learned, were more urgent than her “are you here?” calls. While I initially deliberated over the wisdom of allowing this bob-white system, I decided that, ultimately, she was teaching herself an important skill, and if my presence helped, it was the right thing to do for her. Earlier in the week, she’d summoned me to watch as she took her first sip of water on the sun porch. This was really no different.
Things quieted down around 6:00. Birdie spent the next hour sitting on the fence, gazing into the woodland. I watched from inside the house to see where she would roost for the night. I was torn. On one hand, I didn’t want to interfere. On the other hand, she didn’t have a wise mockingbird parent to guide her to a safe roosting spot, wherever that might be.
Finally, she hopped down onto the ground and disappeared from sight. I waited until near twilight to check on her. Turns out, she was roosting on the ground at the base of a half-dead lantana, which was little more than a spray of bare twigs (visible in the photo, above, just to the right of the metal fence post). Call me an interventionist, but I can only tell you that between the possums, raccoon and cats, no way was I going to let her roost on the ground. I picked her up and took her back to the sun porch, feeling like I’d not only delivered her a grave injustice, but had utterly betrayed her trust.
I spent the next few hours before bedtime feeling just plain horrible. Problem was, I would have just as horrible if I’d left her under the lantana, only it would have been a thousand times worse if I’d woken to find she’d been hurt or killed — all for the sake of some arbitrary human decision based on insufficient information. Being in unknown territory, I erred on the side of keeping her safe.
Truth is, I don’t think a mockingbird mother would let her baby sleep on the ground. I think she’d urge her up into a shrub or small tree. But I don’t know. I’m only human. The best I could do was abduct Birdie from the wild, re-imprison her, then spend the next 10 hours feeling haunted by the look she gave me last thing before I went inside.
To my relief, all was forgiven by morning. She ate a generous breakfast of crickets, then flew over to her cage and gazed out the open window. I decided to not meddle, but to let her find her own way out. Problem was, the concept of the open window was still foreign to her. I gave it 30 minutes, then went outside and meddled away.
First I whistled and called, then I sat on the ground under the window and encouraged her. It was the crickets that finally did the trick, easing her step by step back into the wilds.
One thing I gave only brief mention to yesterday were the mosquito bites. Dozens of them. These new tiger mosquitoes, imported from Asia, don’t pay much attention to repellent, particularly the herbal, non-toxic stuff I use. I was covered daylong in miserable itching, burning welts.
This factored greatly into my decision to begin drawing Birdie to the porch, rather than meeting her in the yard. I began by staging the next two feedings on the ground outside the window. Then I moved operations to inside the porch. She caught onto this system quite easily, and began arriving at the open window whenever she got hungry — not unlike a drive-in window at a fast food joint.
Interestingly I think this system gave her a bit more independence, as the line between our two worlds was now more clearly drawn. She continued summoning me from time to time for our bob-white-style call and response, but not nearly as often as the day before.
The big fun arrived around noon. Earlier in the morning, a family of titmice had flurried around Birdie, the curiosity mutual between the fledglings. But around noon, when a family of brown thrashers descended into Birdie’s territory, the response was quite different. Just like an adult mockingbird, Birdie chased them away one by one, despite that they were easily twice her size. And for good measure, she also chased off a robin who got caught up in the fracas.The pictures are of especially poor quality, but you get the idea.
I kept tabs on Birdie throughout the day, to gauge how well she was faring on feeding herself and staying out of blatant danger (e.g. the road). I was dismayed at one point to find her gleefully eating perlite from a pile of old potting soil. I said out loud, “Aw, Birdie, don’t do that.” But like so many other things, I had to err on the side of self-discovery, hoping the experience wouldn’t kill her.
Mid-afternoon, I went out to do a head-count on the plate of meal worms I’d left for her on the sun porch. I’d been doing this since morning, only to find the original 12 just as I’d left them. But during my mid-afternoon check, I found the plate empty. This seemed another important milestone and also explained why I hadn’t heard from her in a while. When I checked a while later, I found the new batch of meal worms uneaten, but was surprised to look up and see Birdie nestled down on the windowsill — just resting and quietly watching me.
She stood up and began toying with the string I’d used to tether the gardenia branch inside the window. After a minute or two of this, she flew back out to the yard.
All-in-all, she seemed to be enjoying her second day of freedom. As for me, I began growing antsy as evening approached. What to do this time around? My plan was this: check on her last thing before dark and do my level best to leave her where I found her, hoping to God she’d pick a small tree.
Like most of my plans thus far, nothing went according to plan. I kept an ear out for her while I cooked dinner — an inedible mess that, because of my distraction, was missing two key ingredients. That, I could live with. But right before twilight, I heard her calling out near the sun porch. I went out and saw her clinging to the sill of the side wall, around the corner from the open window. She was crying pathetically. I called her over to the open window, but in the dim light, she was lost.
Time for an executive decision. I left her there for a few more minutes, to force her to be resourceful and find her own way in. It wasn’t happening. So I went out and, like the night before, brought her in for the night. She was very upset and panting open-beaked. It was clear she wanted me to stay with her, so I did. She began “talking” to me, just as she’d done the day before — looking intensely at my face and making that tiny twittering sound from deep in her throat. She was in such distress, and I was at a loss over what to do. The next thing I knew, she’d flown up onto my head.
I called my brother (the wisest armchair ornithologist I know) out to the porch for counsel. He, too, was at a loss to understand the state she was in, but agreed that she was clearly in distress. Just then, he looked up and said, “Holy shit!”
There — right below the windowsill where Birdie had just been desperately calling out to me only moments earlier — was a cat.
It was really just dumb luck that I brought her in when I did, instead of tough-loving her for a few more minutes, so that she could learn the hard way how to be a resourceful, self-sufficient bird. I slept better that night, grateful for this small gift from the gods of chance.
Birdie skipped breakfast and went straight out into the day. An hour later, she returned for a feeding, strictly business, and was then off again. I took her cue and made my presence as invisible as possible. Mid-morning, I went to the mailbox and, seeing me, she began calling. She was on the fence sunning herself. We whistled back and forth a few times, and that was that.
A while later I was out on the back porch talking on the phone. I happened to glance over and see the cat stalking something from across the lawn. I hissed it away and called out for Birdie. No response. I kept calling and, finally, she answered. She’d been preoccupied with the perlite and was happily pecking away it, oblivious to the cat that had just been stalking her from about 20 feet away. I had no choice but to go back inside and hope for some more dumb luck.
The good news is that, every time I did a head count on the meal worms, I’d find that she’d helped herself, emptying the dish without fanfare. Sometimes, however, nothing but a hand-feeding would do. On these occasions, I didn’t respond immediately to her calls, but waited her out to see if she’d feed herself. Apparently, she still needs to be hand-fed, which comes as no surprise. I see birds her age — and older — in the wild still being fed by their parents. But at least the number of hand-feedings was cut in half today, down to about 10 from 20-plus on all previous days.
Only once did she insist that I physically come outside, and this was to report that her water dish had gone dry. I suspect the thrashers had something to do with this. After I filled it, she stared suspiciously at the water for a few moments, then flew off without taking a drink.
During the hottest part of the day, she came inside to the porch for a brief siesta on top of her cage.
From this vantage point, she watched me as I left for the store to buy a 12-foot curtain rod plus some sheers to hang across the window-wall where she’d nearly met her fate with the cat the night before. My idea was to lessen the confusion, in dim light, as to the location of that open window.
It apparently worked, because she had no difficulty finding her way to the window shortly before twilight, when she called me out to the porch another feeding. Afterward, she settled down on top of her cage. I replaced the window screen and thought that was that.
A few minutes later, she flew to the dining room window and clung to screen, frantically calling out to me. When I opened the door, she flew over the ledge beside the door, putting her at face level with me. Oddly, she was longer frantic but, instead, began “talking” just like the night before, making that small twittering sound, while gazing intently at my face. Again, she hopped up onto my head. I bowed over and put her back, but stayed with her a bit longer, because it seemed important to her.
Before I left, I “talked” back, imitating her voice by making tiny, barely perceptible little kissing sounds. This seemed to be what she wanted because, upon hearing this, she settled down to roost on the ledge, which is where she slept for the night.
I suspect that, were we humans made privy to the secret lives of mockingbird parents and their young, we’d learn that, right at twilight, they talk — not unlike human parents reading bedtime stories to their children.
This was my first day in over a month that I could entertain the idea of resuming my old schedule — visiting my grandchildren every morning. The day seemed perfect for it. Birdie had been particularly aloof that morning, only calling out for one hand-feeding during the first 4 hours of the day. The rest of the time, she pecked about the lawn and made occasional trips to the porch to clean out the meal worm dish.
Before I left, I filled Birdie’s dish with 2 dozen meal worms. Two hours later — my heart pounding during the entire trip home — I was so relieved to hear her calling out to me as soon as I drove up. However, all was not well. She was very distressed. She met me on the porch, insistent on a hand-feeding. But, clearly, there was more going on than my protracted absence.
She was panting open-beaked, obviously frightened by something. I suspected it was the cat, so I went out in the yard and made the loud hissing sounds I use to frighten the cat away. Birdie followed me out, and it was then I saw the source of her distress. It was an adult mockingbird, who immediately swooped down and began scolding her, chikk-chikk.
I slipped back into the house and watched from the window, knowing that — barring an all-out bloody war — this was a life skill Birdie had to learn on her own. The adult mockingbird was an utter prince, his stature and feathering so perfect, that he looked like he was made from finely-carved marble. It struck me how small Birdie is, compared to a full grown mockingbird.
He lorded over Birdie from a dogwood branch. Birdie sat on the ground below, perched on the log pile. I suspect the prince knew I was watching (if there’s one thing Birdie’s taught me, it’s that mockingbirds have a remarkably keen sense of perception, owing to their finely tuned hearing and vision), because he left shortly thereafter.
Watching this broke my heart. And it didn’t seem to do much for her heart, either, as she spent the next hour quietly roosting in a white pine tree, her face cast downward in what looked like an awfully sad pose.
Later, Birdie called me out to the porch, and we had a stand-off, of sorts. For whatever reason, she wanted me to come outside to feed her. I refused. She plead with me, and I with her. She finally compromised by flying up onto the chair seat outside the window. I was game to reciprocate, but couldn’t quite reach her. She refused to budge one inch closer. And that was the end of that.
A later meal worm count told me that she’d eventually come in but, on principle I suspect, it was only for a small snack. Birds must not hold grudges for very long, because an hour later, she called me back and, this time, she flew to the chair top, as always.
Later that afternoon, she called me out into the yard, her cries persistent. I went out onto the back porch, wondering if the cat or mockingbird prince had returned. Once I arrived, she swooped from a tree and landed onto one of the bird baths. I suspect this was her first trip to that particular bird bath, and she just wanted the security of my presence.
That evening, she again returned to the porch shortly before twilight. A little while later, at dusk, she called me out for evening vespers. I took a few photographs of this. The image on the left has been lightened to show the expression on her face when she does her “talking.”
Looking at her the night before, she seemed awfully skinny, and I began to worry she wasn’t getting enough to eat or, specifically, enough fat. Perhaps I didn’t mention it earlier, but Birdie began refusing dog food, egg yolks, etc. a few days before her release. This was fine with me, since I’d already decided to put her on a live-bugs-only diet upon her release.
For the past several days, Birdie’s diet and feeding schedule have been about the same: 2 to 7 crickets or 5 to 10 mealworms per meal, plus an occasional berry. Sometimes a mix of the two. She feeds herself half of the time; I feed her the rest. Between snacks and full meals, she eats approximately 15 times per day, half of these being trips to the meal worm dish. In dollars and cents, her meals average 55-cents each, for a total of just over $8 per day.
Most people, if they knew my income or lack thereof, would call me a fool, and I wouldn’t blame them. In my current straits, it’s just as well that money’s never meant much to me, so long as the lack of it doesn’t make life too difficult. On the reality front, however, I don’t have the money to keep doing this. But every time I acknowledge this to myself, I feel like I’m daring fate to intervene too soon. No, I don’t want that. My family has pitched in toward Birdie’s feeding expenses, which is a huge help.
My hope and belief has been that her wild diet would gradually take over. And I suppose it is, just not quite as quickly as I’d thought. Aside from perlite, leaves and dirt, I’ve witnessed her eating ants, beetles, flies and other little bugs in the grass. Looking at her skinniness last night, I cursed the lack of wax worms and decided I’d have to break my “bugs-only” rule and concoct something to fatten her up. After brainstorming the better part of the day, my daughter offered a genius idea in late afternoon: cook up the suet recipe I make for the wild birds in winter (coconut oil, peanut butter, corn meal and seeds), only make hers without the seeds and perhaps mix in some vitamins.
But first, I needed to make a run for more crickets and meal worms. Like manna from heaven, the pet store had gotten in a shipment of wax worms. Problem solved, and a day of worrying for naught. Funny, you couldn’t have convinced me a month ago that buying wax worms would soon vie with seeing my grandchildren as being one of the highlights of my day.
When she brought herself in for the night, I put up the screen. Unlike the previous nights, however, she protested and began flying at the windows in panic. I decided then and there that this would be the last night I’d close the screen until utter dark.
Again, right at twilight, she called me out for evening vespers. I couldn’t help feeling sad that this might be our last. Here, I should admit that I’ve felt an immense wash of relief at closing that screen every night, knowing she’s safe. But I’ve not been 100% convinced that she really intended to stay. I’m not at all looking forward to tomorrow night.
During the first 4 hours of the day, Birdie called me out only once for a feeding. The rest of the time, she helped herself. This seemed promising. I left her a dozen wax worms before leaving to visit my grandchildren at 10:30. When I returned two hours later, she’d eaten all of the wax worms and wanted only a snack from me. So far, so so good. But then she disappeared for 5 hours. For the first two hours, I embraced the time span. After this, I began to worry.
To anyone unfamiliar with the give-and-take of our routines, my concern might seem a thinly veiled resistance to cutting the bonds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Five hours was too long without so much as a meal worm or a chikk-chikk. And the more time passed, the more I knew something was wrong. At three hours, I went out and called for her. Silence. At four hours, I searched for her, looking for the telltale signs of scattered mockingbird feathers. Nothing. For the next hour, I began the nauseating process of accepting that I might never know what happened to her.
But then, just like that, she called to me from the porch.
The fact remains that I’ll never know what happened to her, but my best guess is that she got lost. There had been some noxious yard machinery roaring and buzzing in the yard next door on and off throughout the day — leaf blowers, weed whackers and such. Maybe this frightened her away and/or disoriented her. But there was no doubt, from her behavior, that she was immensely relieved to be back and equally hesitant to leave again.
She spent the next hour on the porch, calling me back out — not to eat, but to be in the proximity as she explored the porch. This was out of character for her. Since her release, she’d had almost zero interest in the various fixtures, junk and debris on the porch. The porch was for feeding, roosting and an occasional siesta, period. But now, she was studying each speck and object as if she were seeing them for the first time. In-between, she scrutinized me and kept edging over to get closer to my feet.
After an hour of this, she flew up onto the red chair and began “talking.” I got several good photos of this, but the one below is my favorite.
I answered back for a few moments but then — out of concern for too much “humanizing” — I went back inside the house. She returned to the yard, but only briefly. She spent the balance of the day, until bedtime, lingering close to the house — back and forth from the porch to yard. This, too, was out of character. She ordinarily flits from tree to tree, mostly in neighboring yards, spending much of her time a good football-field length away.
She came in for good at little after 7:30, the same as she’s been doing. Our evening vespers were particularly lengthy. Every time I went inside, thinking we were done, she called me back out for an encore. Turns out, it really didn’t matter whether I put the screen on or not. She was there, by choice, for the night.
For the first half of the day, she stayed very close to the house — never leaving the yard. The latter half of the day, she resumed her far-flung journeys, happily flying from yard to yard, despite that it was 100-degrees outside. She returned for the night at 7:30, flying straight through the open window — without pausing at the chair as she usually did — and landed right on my shoulder, something she never does. Time for another executive decision.
When this whole endeavor began, I assumed the steadfast position that I would not handicap her by selfishly allow her to bond too closely. Over time, I’ve been compelled to moderate a bit on this stance. Regarding affection, while I think it’s important to avoid any more human dependence than is necessary in the give and take of rearing a wild bird, I’ve also come to see that, in the bird kingdom, there are transactions — community, affection, love, call it what you will — that are integral to their well-being.
Had I to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do things any differently. I would maintain a certain detachment, just as I’ve done. It would have been all too easy to cultivate a physical affection from the start. At this age, however — and based on her behavior and level of independence, plus my own intuition — I’ve chosen to presume that, for whatever reasons, she needs a certain level of camaraderie with her parent figure.
So I allowed her to stay on my shoulder. And, for several minutes, we “talked.” Whatever it is she needs, I am the only one she has who can provide it, inferior as it may be, coming from a human. Afterward, she flew over to her roost and settled down for the night, seemingly content.
Day Twenty-One (Birdie’s approximate age: 5 weeks old)
I spent the first half of the day wondering if my big theory about mockingbird community was nothing fancier than a bad idea. Birdie spent the first 6 hours of the day being exceedingly dependent, calling me out to be hand-fed every half-hour. Her appetite was voracious. The food supply quickly dwindled to nothing and, by mid-day, I was out to buy another $16 in crickets and meal worms to hopefully carry us over for the next two days.
In-between eating non-stop, she hung around the back porch — something she never does — dawdling about and exploring. Watching her assess the bird houses, she reminded me of a wren going house-hunting. By this point, I was certain I’d screwed everything up, my doting only managing to dissolve her spirit for independence.
But then, out of the blue, she surprised me and went 4 hours without a single request and, in fact, only visited the sun porch once, and that was to feed herself, then quickly depart.
From inside, I watched her flit from tree to tree; I watched her hunt through the leaf litter and procure a generous supply of bugs; I saw her visit the bird bath several times, even taking a few baths; I laughed as she chased off another brown thrasher. It was a grand afternoon, despite that our backyard thermometers registered a scorching 101-degrees.
I was surprised when she didn’t return to the sun porch at 7:30. She arrived fashionably late at 8:00 and ate a huge dinner of crickets. Then she did something she’s not done before. She flew onto the chair outside the window and perched for a few minutes, gazing out into the yard. Sensing that she was deliberating, I went inside and watched from the window. At one point, she turned back around, facing inside the porch. A minute or so later, she turned back and faced the outdoors. Finally she flew off, just like that, to join the rest of the bird kingdom roosting in the wild.
I had a 6:00 a.m. appointment and was unable to be home when the bird world awoke. When I returned at 7:00, Birdie did not greet me as she usually does on my arrival home, but the meal worm dish was empty, which told me she’d made it safely through the night. I refilled it, then went outside to hang clothes.
I heard her call me from quite a distance — perhaps as far as a block away. Again, that amazing mockingbird perception. How did she know I was outside? We called back and forth a few times, until she stopped.
When I left to visit my grandchildren at 10:00, the meal worm plate was still full. When I returned at 12:30, she was waiting for me in the bushes outside the sun porch, and had already polished off the dozen meal worms I’d left for her. She ate a large meal of crickets, then lingered about the porch, wanting my company. Much as I wanted hers, too, I went back inside the house. An hour later, she was ready for another huge meal.
I think that the heat today (103 degrees in the shade, according to our thermometers) was stressful on all the birds, most of whom spent the hottest part of the day panting open beaked as they traveled from bush to bird bath. I set up an extra bird bath and turned on the sprinkler, which drew the frolic of birds and squirrels alike. I could be wrong, but I think Birdie would have been more inclined to distance herself from me, if not for the disorienting discomfort of the heat.
She continued to return every hour or two until near 7:30, when she flew in for her last meal of the day. Afterward, she departed to roost in the wilds. I was so happy for her. Then I made a mistake. I went out into the yard with my brother, which must have stirred something, because she returned to the sun porch and called for me. And kept calling. I stayed inside the house, hoping she’d fly back outside. We heard a loud disturbance on the living room door and looked up. She was clinging to one of the windows at the top of the door, calling for me, so I went out for evening vespers.
From here on out, I will stay indoors during that precarious hour leading to dusk.
The responses to the Birdie endeavor have been mixed. Just last night, one well-intentioned person served me a compliment, seeded with the suggestion that there is an obsessive component to my caretaking. On one hand, I can see how a person on the outside, who hasn’t been listening to a word I’ve said, might wonder, “Heckfire, why not just turn the bird loose and be done with it?”
On the other hand, it’s not like I haven’t explained my dilemma in excruciating detail (e.g. my frustration over the lack of practical information — a blueprint, of sorts, to guide me step-by-step through this process; my concern over the lack of money to continue this endeavor indefinitely; and — above all — my commitment to preserving her wildness while also caring for her and protecting her until she’s able to take full care of herself).
It miffs me that my work, concern and conscientiousness to take proper care of Birdie — not to mention the built-in stresses attending this work — would be reduced to an endearing pathology.
For the record, in case anyone’s wondering, young mockingbirds in the wild reportedly become independent from their parents at about 5 weeks of age, which was Birdie’s estimated age when she spent her first night in the wild on her own. If Birdie and I somehow miss the mark by a week or two, and this causes the earth to fall off its axis, you’ll know who to blame.
Also, mockingbird parents reportedly feed a fledgling an average of 5 times her hour. I suppose you could call it “obsessive,” the parents’ fixation on feeding a hungry baby. The fact that I’ve been feeding Birdie “only” once or twice per hour is due to the fact that, unlike a mockingbird parent, I’ve had containers full of meal worms, wax worms and crickets at my fingertips, allowing me to consolidate several feedings into one.
I could almost understand a person interpreting this blog as an act of obsessiveness. However, I don’t believe that the person who diagnosed my obsessive behavior has even read the blog. For the record, I’m not holding a gun to anyone’s head to read this blog. In the same spirit as last summer’s obsessive praying mantis blog, I offer this mockingbird blog for anyone who might be interested in reading the day-by-day minutiae involved in raising a young mockingbird to self-sufficiency. But I also write it for myself because I imagine that one of these days, after the dust has settled, I’ll want to revisit this endeavor, which has thus far been been — despite whatever difficulties and challenges — one of the more enchanting experiences of my life.
Now that I’ve properly explained myself, I suppose I will be accused of being touchy or of being the sort of person who feels compelled to have the last word.
* * * * *
Something I’ve noticed about Birdie’s behavior at sunrise (6:00-ish in the morning) is her utter silence during feeding. The rest of the day, she cries with with reckless abandon both before and during feedings, but at sunrise it’s like watching a silent movie — the open beak and twittering wings accompanied by complete silence. I imagine this to be a built-in survival instinct, as birds are more vulnerable at this time of day due to their diminished vision in low light.
Birdie left the porch just before 6:30 a.m. and returned only once before I left at 10:00. When I returned a few hours later, she met me on the porch and was less concerned about eating than about an anole lizard that was busy feasting on her meal worms. After much wing-fanning, she managed to drive it off into a corner. She was up for a visit, but I thought it better to go inside. After a while, she flew off for parts unknown for another 4 hours.
I was dismayed to discover, upon her return, that she’d been injured. I thought it looked like a bird peck, but my brother diagnosed it as a scrape, perhaps from flying into a branch. Whatever the cause, it pained me to see her hurt in any way. It must have had some effect on her, too, because she returned to the interior of her cage (which, to my memory, she hasn’t visited in over a week) and spent a long spell perched on her old crape myrtle branch.
This seems like a good time to recount my earliest experience with a human-raised wild bird. When I was 4 or 5 years old, my older brothers raised an English sparrow fledgling. Having a natural affinity for birds, I was fascinated by the experience and, of course, fell deeply in love with the bird. I don’t know what criteria were used for timing the release, but I suspect it was probably based on the bird’s ability to fly. Within 20 minutes of releasing the bird, we heard a raucous mob of blue jays gathered outside, their jeers interspersed with the cries of the sparrow fledgling. By the time we arrived, the sparrow was clingling lifeless to the same branch where they’d left the bird, its head pecked to a bloody stump. This left a real impression on me. I wouldn’t realize for years that this wasn’t necessarily an indictment on blue jays — even as they are the biggest bullies in the bird world — but was more of an indictment on my brothers’ lack of knowledge, albeit kindly.
Seeing the peck-mark on Birdie’s head conjured this memory in vivid detail. Hopefully, Birdie’s injury resulted from a simple scrape with a branch. After all, she has become quite the accomplished flyer. Just within the past 24 hours, I can see a marked improvement in her speed and agility. No longer flutter-flying short distances from tree to tree (her aim more or less accurate) she has become a master at navigating — gliding at full speed through the landscape, making sharp, last-second turns.
In early evening, I heard her calling from a far, far distance. At least two football fields, I’d estimate. This was to be her 5th feeding of the day — down from 15 or so just a few days ago. She kept calling, so I called back and listened as she grew closer and closer. She glided down the porch floor, ate a dozen or so meal worms, then immediately zipped back out the window. I watched her as she flew away, zigzagging through the trees until she reached a clearing, then receded back into that far, far distance.
She arrived early, at 7:00, for her last feeding of the day then darted back out the window, without comment, to return to what I feel quite sure has become home to her. My dream is that she’s found a nice yard with lots of holly trees and bushes to lord over, come winter.
COMING SOON: Mockingbird Chronicles (Part III) >>>
UPDATE (Added 5/30/2011)
What to do if you find a baby bird?
Do nothing. Nearly 100% of the time, that is the answer. Do nothing, except maybe enjoy the privilege of seeing a fledgling in action. Watch from a far distance and resist the urge to “help” the bird in any way.
Nearly 100% of the time, the parents are nearby and are rushing around like mad to keep the food supply going. If the fledgling is in imminent danger — say, from a cat, dog, child, fire ants or autos — either remove the danger or remove the bird to a safer place, preferably as high as possible in a dense shrub. The parents will not “smell the human scent” and abandon their young. But they will stay away if you hover about. So, once you’ve secured the bird’s safety, go inside and don’t hover about. The parents instinctively stay away from their young when there is danger about, and humans = danger. Despite that you may have just saved their baby from a cat, the parent does not see you as anything but danger. So keep away.
Keep children away, too. And if there are cats or dogs about, put them indoors or in a pen. It is a kindness to the native animal kingdom, anyway, to keep cats indoors during baby bird season (which is also baby rabbit season), which runs from late March through late July. Once you’ve secured the bird’s safety, leave it alone.
This time of year, it’s not uncommon to see baby birds hopping and fluttering about. They’re not helpless. They’ve left the nest right on schedule and are hard at work, taking accelerated courses — under their parents’ expert tutelage — in learning to fly, learning to find food and learning to avoid enemies. Skills that are essential to their survival. Too often, well-meaning people intervene in the process and “rescue” these birds when, in fact, they are only kidnapping them from their parents.
If you suspect that you’ve found an orphaned or injured bird, don’t capture it. Instead, keep an eye on it while you place a call to a wildlife rehabilitator. These people are trained and uniquely qualified to advise you in these situations. Here are two websites where you can find the phone numbers of a wildlife rehabilitator in your area:
- This site has a 50-state search feature: Wildlife Rehabilitators Directory USA
- Search by country/state/province/town at this site: Wildlife International
The story below is from last year and is not the norm. Most times when the people attempt to raise a wild bird, there is no happy ending. Either the bird dies from improper care, or grows into a handicapped adult, incapable of being a free, independent, self-sufficient bird. Were last year’s situation to repeat itself, I would be on the phone, post haste, dialing a wildlife rehabilitator. I would never, ever again do this and don’t recommend that anyone else do it, either. Matter of fact, I feel so strongly about this, that I’m thinking about deleting the whole thing and very well may before long.
The first news arrived by phone shortly after noon. A baby bird was found in the middle of the road and had since been moved to safety just a short distance off the road. From the description, it sounded like a two-week old fledgling: partially feathered out, but still fuzzy here and there, with a noggin full of fuzz. What to do next? was the question posed to me. The answer: Leave it alone.
When I was young, I left home every summer morning and didn’t come home until dinner time. There was a world to explore — woods, fields, streams and neighborhood yards, where most anything was possible: box turtles, quicksand, fox squirrels, caterpillar nests, blackberry thickets, leopard frogs, black racers, red foxes, Tarzan vines, tiger swallowtails, arrowheads, crayfish, nursery web spiders…. Along the way, I found and raised my share of baby birds. I didn’t learn until much later that, in most cases, this is the stupid and wrong thing to do.
Just leave it alone, I explained to the voice on the other end of the phone. The parents are nearby and they’ll be back. They always come back. Give it a while, and you’ll see.
But, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. The field beside the road was filled with fire ant mounds. It would take only a minute for fire ants to swarm and sting a baby bird to death. While one person combed the area for mockingbird activity — nest, parents, siblings, anything — the other person moved the fledgling to a nearby crepe myrtle, but the bird was unable to hold on. Next, it was moved to a flat fence rail at the back edge of the yard, where the bird waited for three hours before falling to the ground. And so it went until late afternoon. Even in the shade, it was a hot afternoon, winding toward a hot dusk. By this time, the bird’s beak was splayed open toward the sky. Soon, it would be night.
Another phone call. What to do?
Although this parcel of land is only a few miles from town, it is a wild place. Just during the past year, and from the vantage point of that same living room window, they’ve seen coyotes, wild boars, wild turkeys and even a black bear — not to mention the myriad common species one sees in the country. The sun was growing low in the sky. Even under the best circumstances, the likelihood of that bird surviving the night was slim. Give it a little longer, I answered.
Then the rains came. The rest of the county, parched for water, didn’t see a drop of rain. But, of course, it couldn’t be that simple. The section of the county where the bird was situated got deluged, complete with winds high enough to swing the porch door open. By the time the rains arrived, it had been over six hours, if not longer, since the bird had seen its parents. The decision was made at the very last minute to bring the bird in before the rain hit. Within 20 minutes, the bird was delivered to my doorstep inside a US Priority Mail box. This is illegal. Using US Priority Mail box for anything but official postal mail can get you slapped with a fine. It is also illegal to keep wild birds unless you’re a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, which I’m not.
Long before the bird arrived, I knew that death was a distinct possibility. Three hours is a long time for a fledgling to go without food during daylight hours. Six hours is really pushing it. Over the years, I’ve undergone what you might call reverse-mellowing; I’ve grown brittle, rather than soft at the edges. I call it pragmatism, this business of respecting life and death and the natural order of things. My aversion to orchestrating or intervening in the fate of others has grown strong over the years. On top of this, when I received the phone calls about the fledgling, I was in the second week of a shingles outbreak and doing good to weather my own misery.
Problem was, I was the only knowledgeable person they knew, who had an unlimited number of hours to devote to caring for the bird. This is, I suppose, one perk to our flailing economy. The contraband arrived on my doorstep at dusk. Inside the telltale white, red & blue box was a beautifully fashioned nest, made of raffia. In the middle of the nest was a frail little bird. When I offered her food, she opened her eyes and looked weakly at the tiny bolus of baby food poised before her, then closed her eyes back.
I had already decided to handle her as little as possible, to avoid “humanizing” her. Rather than pick her up, I kept rousing her by gently tapping the edge of the box and doing my best baby-bird imitation, a kissing sound. She would wake up, then doze back off, her beak clamped tight. It took a few more tries and lots of kissing — plus a drop of worm juice trickling down her beak — but finally she ate. Mind you, there were no cries, no adorable, open-beaked pleas. There was no eager gobbling of food. She merely accepted it.
With just a little time left before dark, I fed her as much as she would eat: about 1/2 tsp. pureed baby food, one tiny worm, plus several pinched-off pieces of a larger worm, rinsed in water. Five feedings, in all. Still, she was so weak, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find her dead in the nest, come morning.
The last thing before I left her for the night, I warmed a small flax seed pillow in the microwave and put it beside her nest, for warmth. From here, her fate was out of my hands. You’ll notice, tho, that shortly into dusk, the bird was transformed from an it to she — proof positive that Emily Dickinson was right:Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune–without the words, And never stops at all…
I awoke, as always, before dawn. I peeked into the box and found her still sleeping. I had already decided the night before that, if she lived, I’d call a wildlife rehabilitator mid-morning.
In the meantime, I got right to work, hard-boiling, then pureeing an egg yolk, which I mixed with the baby food. She was eager to eat when she awoke, and we spent the next few hours following the Dr. Spock method: feed when hungry. I offered her food 2 to 3 times per hour. Sometimes she summoned me with the classic baby bird squeak, but more often she used a series of chikk-chikks, that resembles the sound of two rocks being struck together. As anyone who knows mockingbirds or brown thrashers could tell you, this is the sound adult birds make right at sunrise and sunset. The rest of day, depending on the season, they sing their hearts out.
The nearest wildlife rehabilitator was an hour away, with no contingencies for meeting halfway. While I considered this distance, I scanned the internet for the latest info on baby bird care. It’d been a good many years since I’d taken in a baby bird, and I was looking forward to learning the latest, best science available on the dietary needs of fledgling mockingbirds. Like most topics on the internet, there was a preponderance of misinformation to navigate around. What little I learned had to be gathered piecemeal from various sites.
Along the way, I learned that most people still believe that parents will reject their babies if they detect a human scent. False. The fact is, if a baby bird is in imminent danger, you should move it to a safe place nearby, then leave it alone. The parents will return within an hour or two and be oblivious to the human scent, since they cannot smell it. However, they can be scared away by human presence, which is why it’s important to not hover about.
I also read the many advisories against rescuing “abandoned” baby birds. All true. Baby birds are rarely abandoned, and judgment calls about this are best left to those qualified to make such decisions. Most often, when well-intentioned people think they’re rescuing a baby bird, they are, in reality, only kidnapping the bird from its parents, who are every bit in attendance, racing around like mad to care for this baby and its siblings, which are likely scattered about the near vicinity.
Of personal importance to me were the warnings about how it’s illegal to be in possession of native birds. One should always call a wildlife rehabilitator. And to make sure no one attempts to take care of a fledling, these rehabilitator websites divulge little to nothing in the way of practical information on the care of these birds. Problem was, neither I nor my car were physically up to driving two hours. Plus, I was still being under doctor’s orders to stay away from children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system. So I decided to stay home.
Again, I’d hoped to find cutting edge news on baby mockingbird care, but found mostly old news, beginning with the advice to feed the bird dog food.
Problem is, today’s dog food is not your grandmother’s dog food. Feeding your pet 21st century dog food — including the “top” brands often sold in vet offices — is little more than a game of Russian roulette. Will it make your dog just a little sick or really sick? Will your dog suffer from chronic health problems or rashes & allergies that can’t quite be traced to any one source? Will it one day get cancer? Or will that bag of food just kill your pet outright? It’s a game of chance.
Sure, I fed the stuff to birds 30 or 40 years ago, back before the days of China recalls and intense factory farming. The average bag of 21st century dog food contains mostly corn filler (denuded of any nutrition and which is, by the way, undigestible by fledgling songbirds) plus some sort of animal “meal” — a mystery ingredient variously made from processed feathers, hair, skin, bones, hooves, claws, animal excrement, tumors and whatever other “not fit for human consumption” by-products can be salvaged from the carcasses of chickens, cows, pigs, horses and shelter animals. Unless otherwise specified, these various “meal” ingredients can also be expected to contain the residues of the pesticides, vaccines and hormones used on factory-farmed animals — not to mention the residues of whatever drugs were used to euthanize the horses and shelter animals that are added to the mix of the meals and rendered fats used to make pet food. To make this garbage nutritious, the manufacturers throw in some vitamins and minerals. I wouldn’t feed that stuff to a dog, much less a fledgling mockingbird.
For the time being — until I had the green light to be out in public again and go on a label-reading tour in the pet food aisle — I drafted a temporary menu of pureed, hard-boiled egg yolk and chicken baby food, plus earthworms and whatever flies, lacewings, moths (wings removed) and crickets I could find.
* * * * *
We are fortunate to have a sun porch with three walls of windows. The windows are not glass, but some sort of thin acrylic. Until this week, I bemoaned the fake glass, but it turns out to be perfect for Birdie. Should she fly into them, they’d merely bend out. This stuff is so flexible, in fact, that I could probably push one of the panels out with my index finger if I really put my mind to it. This room is the next-closest thing to being outdoors. I leave a window on one side cracked or half-open, depending on time of day, so that she can have fresh air and hear the birds outside. When the time comes, this window will be her portal to home. She can come and go as she pleases until she longer pleases to come back.
By late afternoon on Day Two, the inside of her US Priority Mail box ws a poopy mess. For the first time since her arrival, I picked her up, so that I could move her to the bird cage, which I’d prepared the night before.
She was terrified of the sudden wide open space and looked lost inside that big cage. But terror didn’t explain why she had such difficulty standing up, and kept falling to her side when she tried to hop. It was then that I noticed her bum leg (visible in the photo), over which she had little control. It was limp, as if paralyzed all the way to the ends of her toes. I’d noticed the night before, and thought it odd, the way she kept throwing her right wing out to steady herself in the nest.
I called the people who’d found her, and they reported that, yes, she’d seemed to have trouble moving around — flailing off-kilter and using her wing like a third leg as she tried to get away from them when they first found her. Perhaps this is why she had trouble holding onto the tree branch. They also wondered if her wing might be hurt. I was beginning to wonder the same thing, because she sometimes held her wing at at a different angle. Plus, the feathers looked ratty on both her wing tip and tail.
I removed the raffia nest and replaced it with a nest of organic fabric trimmings that I’d been saving for the compost heap. Before bed that night, I partially covered her with a downy soft scrap of sherpa. I was pretty sure that, come morning, I would hear that familiar sound that mockingbirds make to greet a new day. I was right.
I never sleep past 5:00 a.m., except when I do. The day started off fast at 6:30. Quick, take the worms out the refrigerator, warm the baby food in the microwave, then cool it back to room temperature. Frantic gobbling. Brush teeth, start the coffee, warm the cold worms in my bare hands. Chikk chikk. Take shingles medicine, pour coffee, get my bearings. Chikk chikk. Turn on the computer, check email. Chikk chikk. Poopy box, time to do Birdie laundry. Chikk chikk. And so the morning went. Chikk chickk. Tiny wet rags spread over the porch railing to dry. Chikk chikk… chikk chikk… chikk chikk.
It was mid-morning by the time I did her laundry, which necessitated another move from her cozy box into the big scary cage. Only, this time her countenance brightened up the instant I set her down. She stood inside the new nest for a while, watching me work (cleaning and baby-proofing the sun porch), then settled down for a nap.
When I checked back awhile later, she’d left the cage and was busy flapping around the porch, giving her wings and bum leg a good exercising. The next time I looked, in, she was back in the cage. The next time, she was out again. By mid-afternoon, I could see a difference in her leg. It was stronger, with a noticeable improvement in coordination. By this time, I’d added a perch to her doorway, which became her favorite roost for the rest of the afternoon.
What really struck me, aside from her determination to get in and out of the cage (no easy task), so that she could flap around the porch, was her recognition of the cage as home base. When I checked on her near dusk, she was back in the doorway. Looking at her, I could envision her all grown up, perched on the highest post in the landscape, and just singing her heart out.
I was faced with two conundrums today, which I have to preface with a few things. First, this: The laws against taking in wild animals, including genuinely abandoned fledglings, are there for good reasons — not the least of which is that baby birds need qualified care and proper nutrition — specifically, a well-balanced diet appropriate to their species. It’s a huge responsibility that requires your constant presence from sunrise to sunset.
But beyond this, there’s a bigger picture. Baby birds are not cute little pets, free for the taking. They’re wild animals, and their wildness needs to be honored, respected and preserved.
On this note, I know all too well the heart-rending, gut-nauseating pain of walking into a pet store and seeing cages and aquarium tanks filled with garter snakes, corn snakes, black racers, snapping turtles, box turtles, yellow sliders and red-bellies, barking tree frogs, bullfrogs, leopard frogs and other native species. There’d be mockingbirds, bluebirds, goldfinches, owls and vultures in those cages, too, if it weren’t illegal.
Native species have become a special niche in the exotic pet trade — a market that caters to people inflicted with a sickness that compels them to collect animals the way some people collect shoes and jewelry, hot rods, sports cars, baseball cards and Beanie Babies. Even more sickening is that many of these native species are also being collected by the millions and sold to exotic food markets in Asia.
One country’s native is another country’s exotic. And vice-versa. While it’s nothing new — this business of sporting exotic pets, both native and foreign — it’s become a cult fever in recent years, a sickness fed by our country’s obsession with celebrity culture. It’s no longer enough to merely emulate the fashions, fads and hair styles of the stars; nowadays, we must also emulate their pet-of-the-month purchases. This year’s avant garde sugar glider will be passe come next year, replaced by a kinkjou or, perhaps, a Patagonian cavy.
It all depends on which animal Paris, Brittney and the gang are wearing to the latest photo ops. And because you can’t make a proper fashion statement without the proper accessories, these animals are dressed to the nines in cute little outfits, accented with ribbons and baubles to match their owners’ wardrobes. It’s all the better if the animal’s fur can be color-coordinated to compliment the owner’s pocketbook, which will then be carried about to display the creature for admiring fans, who will no doubt want one of their own.
Beyond their role as fashion accents, there’s also the matter of what an animal can convey about the owner’s personality and style, not to mention their mood of the day. Which pet will best express your fun spirit? Your geeky side? Your dangerous side? Your sexiness? Your very, very unique uniqueness?
What animal best reflects the largesse of your very special presence? A lion? A tiger? A 20-foot python? Or perhaps your bag is smaller game — prairie dogs, ferrets, coatimundi, armadillos and ring-tailed lemurs? Are you a Scarlet Macaw person or a Gray Amazon person? Or maybe you need a portable pet — something you can toss into your handbag or drape across your shoulder before you head out for the day. Chihuahua’s are so yesterday. How about a baby micro-pig, a sugar glider or a hedgehog?
I get it. I understand and utterly respect the laws and the reasons behind them. I only wish the laws were stronger. Now that I’ve properly explained myself, I can tell you this. I’ve decided to raise Birdie until she’s ready to be re-introduced to the wild. It’s going to be a few days yet until I’m no longer contagious, and I don’t know anyone who can take time off work to ferry her to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. This decision may change once I’m no longer contagious. I’ll just see how it goes. That was my first conundrum.
My second conundrum was over this business of preserving her wildness while she’s under my care. It’s very difficult to take care of an animal and cultivate the healthy detachment necessary to maintaining the animal’s innate identity. This is particularly hard when it’s a young animal that is dependent on you and, in its naivete, views you as its parent. Too, there’s something built into the human DNA that wants to nurture and love small, cute, needy beings. Here, Birdie caught me off guard on Day Four.
On Day Four, chikk chikk began to also mean, I’m not hungry right now, but I want you to come in here and be with me. I struggled with this several times, going out and pretending to clean up this or that. Birdie would hop over and stand at my feet, staring up at me, wanting…. something. Not food.
Forty years ago, I raised a baby cardinal. In the beginning, I fully intended to return Beatrice to the wild — just as I’d always done with the wild animals in my care — but something happened along the way. She bonded with me, and I with her, and I kept her longer than I should have. She was, through her young adulthood, a house bird, living indoors with free run of the house. My mother patiently endured the bird poop and the surprise of a cardinal landing on top of her head whenever she came home. While she generally left me to my own devices while I cared for the animals, both domestic and wild (e.g. a broken-winged pigeon, a box turtle with a broken shell, a black racer that had been hoed half to death by an ignorant groundskeeper, plus myriad baby birds and so on) that were brought to my doorstep, my mother finally drew the line over the utter wrongness of keeping this cardinal from the wild.
I still feel pangs of guilt whenever I think about Beatrice. I absolutely loved her. For her part, Beatrice was, by all appearances, quite happy to go on playing the role of bird daughter, living cooped up in this giant human cage called a house. Unweaving this bond and weaning her back into the wild was a sad process, but the wound I gave Beatrice went far deeper than mere human sadness. There’s no telling how she fared in the wild. I can only hope that she lived a reasonably normal life, even as I know that — by essentially holding her hostage — I only gifted her with a terrible handicap to becoming what she was born to be: a songbird with the wherewithal to take care of herself and, one day, her young.
One could argue: What’s the harm? It’s just one bird, there are plenty of cardinals in the world and, besides, she probably would have died if I hadn’t taken her in. Either you get it, or you don’t. I get it. I got it 40 years ago, and I’ll remember it until the day I die.
But this didn’t make it any easier when Birdie hopped up onto my foot midway through Day Four and promptly snuggled down to take a nap. I carefully lifted her off, put her onto a branch of the ligustrum shrub I’d “planted” beside her cage that morning, and left the room. For the rest of the day, I ignored the persistent chikk-chikks and timed her meals — every 20 to 30 minutes — by the clock. It wasn’t easy, I tell you. But then again, it was.
Watching her from the interior window that overlooks the sun porch, I watched her hop and hobble about the porch, tossing herself up onto chairs and tables to get a closer look outside. I watched as she grandly preened herself in the sun. I saw her flutter onto the crepe myrtle branch beside her nest, where she sat for the longest time, just staring into the outdoors.
I’m glad I had my camera with me, because this grainy photograph recorded a moment that I may need to refer to in the coming days. There she was, just quietly gazing up into the sky and trees. But then she opened her beak partway, and her throat vibrated slightly, as if she could feel the sensation of that song rising up into her throat and, though utterly silent, she sang her evening vespers. She knows the way home, and my job — my only job — is to feed her and keep her safe so that she’ll be ready when the time comes. And not one minute later.
It’s important to offer a varied diet, but I’m no mockingbird. I catch what flies, lacewings, moths and other soft-bodied insects I can, but the sheer volume needed is mind-boggling. Setting aside my discomfort with feeding chicken meat to a bird, I alternate earthworms with organic pureed chicken, brown rice and carrot baby food. The last two days, I’ve given her a few tiny bites of mulberry, to see how well she can tolerate them. Her poop is a little runnier after a mulberry, but otherwise seems fine.
Compared to the day before, Birdie was downright sedate on Day Five. She spent the entire day inside her cage, which started to worry me. I kept reminding myself of the advice I’ve often given to my daughter, when her children’s behavior changes out of the blue. It’s been my observation that longer naps and bigger appetites often accompany growth spurts — mental, physical and cognitive alike. In-between growth spurts, it’s all a happy, exhausting, confusing, maddening and, ultimately, soul-fulfilling whirlwind of busy-ness and mayhem that passes all too soon.
Still, I worried daylong about Birdie: Did I do something wrong? Was I feeding her the wrong things? Was there something else physically wrong with her, besides the bum leg? And how did she get the bum leg in the first place? Had she been injured internally, in the same accident that hurt her leg? Had a crow snatched her from the nest and then — with mockingbird father in hot pursuit — dropped Birdie from the sky into the middle of the road? Or was she born with something wrong? Was this the reason her parents never came back — because they sensed that there was something wrong from birth? Had I second-guessed nature when I shouldn’t have?
She spent most of day snuggled down in her nest, making only a few brief trips to the crepe myrtle branch beside her nest. At one point I meddled, taking her out of the cage and putting her on the ligustrum shrub. The next time I looked, she was back inside her nest.
Right before dusk, she came out of her cage and called chikk-chikk. I sat on the floor and began feeding her. In between bites, she stared intently toward my arm. I could feel it coming. Sure enough, she fluttered up onto my wrist. I let her stay there for a moment, then put her back down. She flew right back up. After being so worried during the day, I couldn’t bring myself to set her down. Not just yet. About 10 seconds into this, she began staring up at my face. I could see her wings quivering ever so slightly. I could feel it coming. This is how it started with Beatrice. And that’s all it would take, too. Just let her fly up and perch on top of my head one time, and there would be another bond — another terrible handicap for her to overcome. I set her back onto the floor and went inside, ignoring her persistent chikk-chikks.
When I returned for her last feeding, she was back inside her cage. Only, this time she wasn’t in the nest, but was roosting on the highest possible perch — her first trip to the upper territories of the cage.
I overslept again this morning (I’m blaming this on the shingles medicine) and had to hit the ground running. By 6:30 a.m., Birdie’s clock has already been chikk-chikk chikk-chikk chikking for a good 15 minutes. The fastest, easiest breakfast I could offer this very, very hungry baby bird was baby food. Now seems like a good time to talk about food.
Mockingbirds primarily eat bugs and berries. If you watch an adult mockingbird foraging for bugs on the lawn, you’ll see it run over to a particular spot, then fan out its wings out before pausing momentarily, as if listening for something. Occasionally, this is followed by a pounce of the beak as it procures a worm, a beetle, a grub. I’ve puzzled over this behavior and can only surmise that there’s something about the intermittent flash of light and shade that flushes the bugs out of hiding. Alternately, you’ll see a mockingbird take lordship over a holly tree or pyracantha, pokeberry, blueberry or mulberry, fending off any other bird that deigns to approach. Mockingbirds love a good berry.
Birdie eats, on average, 2 times per hour — sometimes more, sometimes less — beginning shortly after 6:00 a.m. and continuing until after 8:00 p.m. That’s about 20 to 30 meals per day. Sometimes she’ll eat 5 or 6 bites, sometimes just 1 or 2. I use the end of a wooden artist’s paintbrush to feed her the wet foods. The end has a nicely-rounded tip that’s safe for her delicate mouth. I use my fingers for everything else, occasionally using the paintbrush handle to poke a flailing bug deeper into her throat. Here’s a line-up of what I’ve fed her throughout the week, which alternates from meal to meal:
- Pureed chicken baby food + pureed hard-boiled egg yolk + a variable mix of brown rice, peas and applesauce. To some batches, I’ve added finely ground egg shell.
- Earthworms. Here, maybe you can learn from my mistake. I only learned last night that bait worms (night crawlers), which someone was kind enough to bring me, contain parasites, which are dangerous to most birds, except for robins. This holds true for the garden-variety earthworms I’ve also been feeding her this week. The latter come from our organic compost heaps, which are often visited by other birds. Out of sheer need and until I can get to the store, I will continue using these, only to a much lesser degree. I dig these in small batches and keep them in a tupperware container in the refrigerator.
- The various flies, lacewings, tiny wasps, spittle bugs, crickets (dismantled) and moths I snare and stun throughout the day, most of which are immediately hand-delivered to Birdie while they’re still alive.
- A few bites of mulberries and blackberries, which are at peak ripeness right now
Again, this may not be the ideal, but is very close to what the parents would be feeding a fledgling in terms of variety and protein content. Hopefully, I will be non-contagious tomorrow and can go to the store and fine-tune this menu.
To procure live food, I dig through the compost pile, leaf mold and under bricks and fallen branches looking for worms, crickets, ants and spiders. Slim pickings, few and far-between, due to the dry earth from this prolonged drought. So it takes a lot of hunting. I find flying insects flapping at the windows inside the sun porch, plus outside, fluttering and buzzing about compost heap or back porch. Mostly flies. For the record, I keep my hands scrupulously clean — both before and after feedings, for her sake as well as mine.
* * * * *
Birdie was more mobile today, hopping out of her cage first thing after breakfast. From here, she spent the entirety of her day outside the cage, never once returning. She was also more reserved, keeping a certain distance from me. Only once did I see the trembling wings, the urge to perch somewhere on my body. For the most part, tho, it was strictly business. I watched her from a distance, gauging her health and mood and felt much better about the prospects for her outcome. She’s grown so much since her arrival.
The fuzz on her head is almost entirely absent. Her leg is markedly improved. She can now clasp her toes around the various perches she commands on the porch, and has little difficulty navigating from post to post. In certain poses, she looks more like a sleek young mockingbird than a chubby fledgling. I’m fairly convinced that, whatever injured her leg also injured her right wing, as she’s tended to hold it lower than the other wing, and the feathers are a bit ratty looking on the ends. There may even be a few less feathers on that wing. Also, she tends to hold her right leg up much of the time, occasionally drawing it up sharply, as if in pain. On a brighter note, she made a new sound today, two notes that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to a mockingbird song.
If I were to ascribe any mood to her day, it would be sadness or wistfulness. Who knows what’s going through her mind? I only know that she spent most of her hours gazing outside the window, and her overall demeanor was not chipper, as it’s been most of the week, but seemed rather subdued. I wish it were time now to take the screen off the window, because it’s obvious that’s where she wants to be.
Notice how her leg is drawn up in this photo, a pose she often holds. Birdie returned to perch on the vacuum cleaner hose several times throughout the day. This is really the highest post on the porch which would, of course, be the first choice for a mockingbird. When I looked back in on her after dark, she hadn’t returned to her cage, but intended to spend the night roosting on the vacuum hose. For her own safety (e.g. doors opening and closing during the night; big human feet plodding across the dark porch floor) I had to put her back in the cage. Tomorrow, I’ll try to make better arrangements.
Day Seven (Birdie’s approximate age: 3 weeks old)
I opened her cage door shortly after 6:00 a.m. and, after a quick breakfast, she was out in a flash. Just like that. I was immediately struck by just how much she’s grown in less than a week. No longer hopping and heavily fluttering from post to post, she’s taken flight. Shortly thereafter, she discovered the upper sill on the windows, which are about 5 ft from the floor — even higher than the vacuum cleaner hose, to my surprise. This was her favorite post for the morning. She spent much of the morning gazing from that height, occasionally flying to a different post, then returning. From time to time she stretched her legs and wings. Does she remind you of a teenage child — all legs, growing like a weed?
She was on the sill when I left for the pet store late morning, and she was there when I returned. The waxworms and tiny crickets were a huge hit. The mealworms took a few tries for both of us. This was my first time handling live mealworms. I now have a much better understanding on the origin of the phrase, “He looked at me as if I’d handed him a plate of mealworms.”
It took a few minutes of comparing labels, but I found a dog food with a quality ingredient list. The Iams and Hill’s P/D — two brands that are often recommended for fledglings — both contain cornmeal among their first two ingredients, so I rejected these and opted for the Castor & Pollux Organix line of puppy food, which lists chicken and chicken meal as the first two ingredients, with the latter ingredient claiming to be free of meat-by-products (e.g. tumors and such). Much better.
As a bonus, the Organix puppy food contains no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones or bioengineered ingredients; no corn, wheat, feathers, ground-up claws or chicken doo, either. It is also made in the USA and is USDA certified organic. Having said that, I don’t trust any manufacturer’s word anymore — natural schmatural, organic schmorganic or not — most manufacturers eventually get caught lying about something. But the Castor & Pollux seems like the safest bet until Birdie’s just a little older, at which point, I’ll put her on an entirely live diet.
Anyway, as of noon today, Birdie was officially on a proper diet of quality dog food + a wax worms, mealworms and crickets + vitamins. I’ll continue to supplement this with snared flies, de-winged moths, pureed egg yolk, powdered egg shells and the occasional piece of mulberry. And, to be safe, no more earthworms.
I also added several shallow dishes of water, plus several mirrors to keep her company. In between feedings, I kept my distance — closing the door to the house, to lessen my presence. I limit my gawking to surreptitious peeks outside the dining room window that overlooks the porch. Of course, I flatter myself that I’m being surreptitious. Her sense of hearing is incredibly sensitive. No matter how slowly, carefully I tiptoe to the window, she hears me. By the time I look out, she’s already looking up toward the window, even tho she can’t physically see me behind the screen. Sometimes, I find her gazing upward with her beak wide open, ready to be fed.
But if I sit quietly for a moment, she resumes the business of being a bird — taking sun baths and leisurely stretches, preening her feathers and occasionally taking flight to a different post. The screened window overlooking the backyard became her favorite post for the afternoon, where she was treated to the sounds of occasional rain showers and a chorus of birdsong.
At dusk, she returned to the vacuum cleaner hose, which is where she roosted for the night, as the porch is now officially off-limits to human beings after dark.
Birdie had breakfast on the vacuum cleaner hose, then called me back a few minutes later for an encore. I found her waiting for me on the step right outside the door to the house. I sat down to feed her and there it was again — that intense gaze toward my face. She moved closer and oddly sort of picked at the hem of my shirt. I scooted over, and she followed. She was just about to hop onto my arm. I stood up to finish feeding her, then left her alone to get started on her day. When she summoned me back 30 minutes later, she was perched on the sill of the screened window. Next time, she was back in the door of her cage and, at that moment, it struck me just how much she’s actually grown. I had to crank up Photoshop to put together a comparison photo, the one on the left being taken just 5 days ago in that very same spot.
Which makes perfect sense. In 24 hours, she’d already eaten roughly 25 each of the wax worms, meal worms and crickets. But what also struck me was that her pecking at my hem might be an indication that she’s getting closer to being ready to feed herself. Over the past day or so, I’ve been placing wounded bugs on the floor before her. With one exception, they may as well have been invisible. That one time, however, she did take notice — cocking her head momentarily to consider the wriggling cricket. But that was it.
I spent the better part of the day worrying. Worrying about mites and lice after seeing her scratch several times in the morning. As could be predicted, there was a perfusion of disinformation on the internet. I’d believed all my life that bird lice are particular to birds and do not feed on humans, the same way that human lice do not feed on birds. And, despite the many horror stories on the internet, I still believe this. But I was worried about her well-being. So I decided right before dusk to pick her up — something I’d not done for three days — and examine her under a magnifier. I also ruffled her feathers over a piece of white paper to check for evidence of lice. None. But she was indignant at being picked up and let out a surprising series of angry squawks and scoldings that at least assured me I’m doing something right. She wants no part of close human contact beyond the feedings.
I put out some sand on the floor on a spread of newspapers in case she gets an inkling to take a dust bath, which is one way wild birds keep mites and lice in check. So far, I haven’t seen any Birdie footprints left in the sand. I also decided to start signaling the feedings with a whistle — something I should have been doing all along. This way, when she begins spending time outdoors, she’ll know to come to me for food, rather than expect me to climb trees to reach her for feedings. These efforts were an absolute failure, but it’s a start.
I also began posing the mirror in front of her before and during feedings. She absolutely noticed her image right away and, between bites, considered this new presence, cocking her head to the side and turning one beady eye toward the mirror. Quite an endearing sight.
My worries about her wing, leg, lice and mites have disappeared. She is so robust and healthy — her flight beautiful and becoming better and better calibrated for precision landings. The whistling continued to mean nothing to her throughout the day, but I kept doing it in the belief that the Pavlovian response would kick in.
The stores are out of wax worms, dammit all, which is her favorite food. I’ve researched prices on the internet and cannot afford the overnight shipping. This means I’ll need to do a wider sweep of of local bait stores in the next day or so.
Mid-afternoon, I looked out and saw her standing on the floor fanning her wings– just like adult mockingbirds do when searching for bugs on the lawn. It’s such an odd, robotic movement — the wings opening click-by-click to a full spread, then abruptly closing as she hops to another spot, then re-opens her wings. She repeated this for a few minutes, staring intently toward the floor, as if scanning it for bugs. This seems like a very promising development. Anymore, she moves and looks every bit like a full-grown mockingbird. The only time she looks like a baby is when she’s feeding and assumes the pose of a chubby fledgling, twittering her wings and crying for food.
Near day’s end, we had a minor breakthrough on the whistling. As luck would have it, I’d taken my camera to get a picture of her and ended up documenting what happened next. Rather than staying put on the chair for her feeding, she jumped to the arm when I whistled. So I stayed put and continued whistling while holding the food out to her.
It took her about 5 minutes, but she made the trip, taking a circuitous route down a dark corridor behind some lumber stacked against the wall. She frequently explores this little alleyway, which seems an odd thing for a bird to do.
But she found her way to the food and, after she ate, she turned tail and returned down the dark alley.
I’ve gained a brand new respect for the work a mother and father mockingbird do to bring their fledglings to adulthood. Along the way, I’ve been forced to shed a few layers of human dignity. I probably didn’t need them anyway. This afternoon, I felt something crawling in my shirt. Yep, a tiny cricket. Yesterday, it was cricket guts on my cheek and meal worm goo on my knee. Yuck. It’s not that I’m a slob. I’m fastidious about washing my hands and practically hosing down after the messier feedings. But this business of feeding a baby bird is not for sissies.
She eats upwards of 10 mealworms per feeding or 20 small crickets or a mix of the two. Add to this the occasional mayfly, housefly, moth or wasp. Most have to be maimed and/or partially dismantled. The sheer volume of bugs spent over the period of an hour is mind-boggling. Tidiness goes right out the window. My initial primness with handling crickets has turned into a gutfest. I maim them with my bare fingers, and then there’s always one or two escapees, which can’t be neatly caught, but must be slapped with the bare hand.
How do mockingbirds find so many bugs? And for 2 or 3 babies, at that? Multiply this times several bird families nesting on a 1 acre lot. In our own yard, we’ve had families of cardinals, wrens, red-bellied woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees, plus occasional visits from a bluebird who grabs a bug, then flies off for parts unknown. Utterly amazing.
A major development today: Birdie fed herself for the first time. It happened right near dusk. I put down a meal worm so that it could wriggle about her feet momentarily before being maimed and put into her mouth. Only, this time, she took acute notice and flickered her wings. Then she started doing the robotic wing fanning. I had a feeling something amazing was about to happen. I stayed utterly still and just watched. After about a minute of wing-fanning and circling the worm, she took her first peck. Then another, and another. It took perhaps three dozen tries — picking the worm up and dropping it — but she finally managed.
I had my camera with me, but didn’t dare disturb her concentration. By the second worm, her focus was consumed and she didn’t notice me at all, so I took a few photos. As with most of my photos, the quality is lousy, due in great part to the dim light in the room and the fact that I wouldn’t dream of using a flash.
The next photos are of her fanning her wings as she approaches another worm. Very grainy and blurred, but worth the view anyway.
After eating her fill, she had another burst of bravado and hopped onto the water dish, which up until that moment had also been invisible to her. She almost pecked at the water, but couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. But it’s a start.
From here, she returned to one of the mirrors, which she’s spent a good part of the day peering into. I gave her a little platform for easier viewing, but she prefers to stand at floor level and crane her neck, getting a little peek, then ducking back down. From this angle, it seems impossible that she could see into the mirror, but she can.
Afterward, she’ll often gingerly tap at the mirror frame with her beak. It seems like an act of affection, reminding me of the gentlest billing and cooing of courtship. Perhaps this is how mockingbird siblings greet one another.
Other times, after peering into the mirror, she’ll wave her wing at the image. I’m can’t guess what this gesture means but, like the gentle billing on the mirror frame, it leaves me feeling deeply sad that she’s living inside this human contraption and not in her true home, with her real family.
An ordinary day, with much gobbling of meal worms, until late afternoon when Birdie mysteriously stopped eating. She remained nestled in the corner on the floor and would have no part of food, period. I was sick with worry, certain that she’d eaten too many meal worms and that her crop was blocked. It was after-hours for the vet, and I was at a loss over what to do. Then, right before dark, she called out for me. I arrived with crickets and, on a lark, put one on the floor before her. She fanned her wings and pounced, just like a mockingbird. Then another and another. I must remember that advice I keep giving my daughter about how changes in behavior and appetite often precede a growth spurt.
Aside from the omnipresent vacuum cleaner, you wouldn’t know from looking at the photos on this page that, before Birdie’s arrival, I was in the process of spring cleaning — a house-wide project that encompassed the sun porch, which was slated to soon have blinds, curtains, an area rug and new furniture. My vision was to have a restful Florida room, complete with a breakfast nook, filtered light, palms and a comfy chaise lounge for dozing off while doing the Sunday crossword puzzle.
By Day 13, the porch was still frozen in time to the moment that Priority Post box arrived on the doorstep, only the piles of building supplies and household stuff — formerly enroute to the storage shed — were now splattered with bird doo, along with the floors, walls and windowsills, the latter of which were scheduled for a serious cleaning anyway. The floor was scattered with oatmeal flakes from the many spills of the meal worm containers, plus an assortment of bug appendages. As much as the sight of it made my skin crawl, I could live with it temporarily until Birdie’s release, however, it couldn’t be that simple.
Early this morning, for the first time, Birdie fed herself in my absence. I’d been leaving out a plate of meal worms for her, taking a head count before I leave, to see if she’s eaten any. Until this morning, we were batting zero. But when I peeked out shortly after breakfast, there were 8 less meal worms than when I’d left. She was also pecking at her plate of scrambled egg yolk. Wonderful. What a giant step toward self-sufficiency.
But there’s a downside. Now that Birdie has mastered the art of feeding herself, she views every little particle on the floor as potential food. Twice, I’ve gone out and found her with a piece of I-don’t-know-what in her beak. So Birdie & cage spent about 20 minutes indoors this morning while I quickly vacuumed and mucked-up some of the bird doo. Nothing fancy. But she was quite pleased with her new environs, her cage now elevated to a much more sensible spot for a bird.
It occurs to me that I may be painting too rosy a picture of the Birdie experience. Just in case, let me set the record straight on a few things. Since Birdie’s arrival, the inside of the house has undergone a transformation similar to the one on the sun porch.
Part of this is due to the fact that I fell into the rare 7% of the people who take shingles medicine (Valtrex) and suffer depression as a side-effect. I was initially relieved when I reached the end of my 7-day course of Valtrex without experiencing a single one of the mean side-effects (headaches, abdominal pain, bloating, racing heart, death, etc.). But on the eighth day (that was Day 6 for Birdie), I was suddenly besieged with overwhelming feelings of worthlessness. The tiniest effort was too much, too exhausting to contemplate. I couldn’t rub two thoughts together, and kept forgetting what I was doing from one moment to the next. It was all I could do to take care of Birdie, and I felt like a colossal failure.
Indeed, it became utterly clear to me that my whole life had been one long failure. I endured this for 5 days and was midway through asking myself one morning, “What the hell is going on with me?” when a little light bulb went *ding* inside my head. I suddenly remembered having read that depression could be a side effect of Valtrex. It helped a bit, knowing my mind wasn’t galloping out of control, but it made for a very difficult week. The depression receded after another day or so, however I got very little done during those 6 or 7 days, beyond Birdie chores.
Now, about those chores. If I decide to, say, start washing dishes, Birdie calls. If I want to take a shower, watch TV, read a book, sew, blog, take a nap, have a conversation, cook dinner or even eat dinner, Birdie calls. Some hours, she calls every 20 minutes — particularly during the evening. You’d be amazed at how fast 20 minutes passes. Also, consider this: I have been essentially chained to the house, my trips limited to 30 minute jaunts. And when I get back, she’s likely to be frantic for food. I’ve seen my grandchildren only once over the past month, between the shingles and the Birdie schedule. I used to see them almost daily. My life entirely revolves around caring for Birdie. Which is fine. I made this choice. But make no mistake, it’s an intense schedule to maintain.
But that’s not all. There’s also the matter of the food. So far, I’ve spent over $50 on Birdie food over the past week. Yes, it sounds impossible. And, had I known beforehand, I could have stocked up on bulk quantities of mail-order wax worms, meal worms and crickets. As-is, I buy them from the pet store every few days. With tax, the cost of meal worms is 7-cents each. The cost of crickets and the (no-longer-available) wax worms are a dime each. Depending on how much she eats, her meals range in price from 20-cents to $2 each. Multiply that times 20 to 30 feedings, and you get an idea of how this might add up to $8 per day.
Now, if I were a mockingbird parent, it’d be dirt cheap. I’d intuitively know where to find bugs, and my hearing would be so finely tuned, I could hear them burrowing and rustling in the sod. The grubs, flies and moths would be free for the taking, and I could produce a bounty for Birdie.
But wait, there’s more. I’ve mentioned the gutfests. But I haven’t mentioned the details on how the guts get there. Before Birdie, I had a deep and abiding respect for all creatures. Whenever I found a spider in the house, I didn’t squish it. I gently picked it with a tissue and carried it outside. Nowadays, my eyes are finely tuned to bugs. I see a spider in the house and, without mercy, I grab it and lightly squish it to maim it — pulling off a few legs if necessary before feeding it to Birdie.
When I’m outside, I’m constantly focused on the little things — a carpenter ant climbing a tree trunk, an errant lightning bug crawling across the porch rail. The slightest movement of a leaf on the ground — which would have gone unnoticed just a few weeks ago — is quickly noted, as it likely betrays the presence of beetle, whose exoskeleton I’ll have to crush before delivering it to Birdie. Store-bought bugs are no tidier. I’ve already described the crickets. The larger meal worms, I cut into pieces, saving the upper third of the body (the legged end) to crawl on the floor for Birdie’s edification.
Sure, I could go on feeding her dog food, baby food and scrambled eggs, but then what would she do once she’s on her own?
And while this bug business has been great for Birdie’s appetite, it’s completely ruined mine. Everything reminds me of squished bugs, and I constantly feel like I’m covered with squished bugs. And, as it turns out, sometimes I am.
Throughout all of this, the interior of the house has, as I already mentioned, undergone a transformation. There’s the table full of Birdie accoutrements — the little tubs of mealworms, the bag of crickets, the nauseating admixtures of dog food, egg and baby food, the rubber-tipped tweezers, the paint brush handle and the dedicated pair of scissors smeared with bug guts. I’ve had very little time, much less energy left over for cleaning, what with all the interruptions. And cooking dinner (something I do in-between Birdie-feedings) revolts me. The idea of eating it revolts me even more.
I’m not complaining. I’m just saying…. Just so you know.
Something I find odd is Birdie’s hesitancy to try anything new, except in my presence. She’s had water dishes set about her room for days and could have tried them anytime, but she didn’t. She waited until conditions were perfect. This is, until (a) she was ready and, (b) I was right there beside her. She’d just had a particularly fine meal of meal worms and crickets — the act of chasing crickets making her somehow more spirited and bold — and, just like that, she hopped onto the edge of her water dish. It took several tries to muster the courage to touch her beak to the water, but she finally did and then took several cool drinks. From here, she tried to take a bath, stepping into dish and lowering herself into the water. Problem was, it was too shallow and I know she was disappointed to do little more than wet a few feathers.
I brought out another dish, but by then the moment has passed. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon, after another spell of chasing crickets, that she finally took her first real bath. This deserves a page all its own, which you can see here. But you can see a preview, below.
I think she relished drying off as much as she did getting wet. After this, she apparently felt confident enough to go solo and took several more baths by day’s end, as evidenced by the newspaper splashes. She had also, by day’s end, graduated to larger crickets and taken her first lesson in scratching through leaves to find food.
As for myself…. It dawned on me by day’s end that this “happy, exhausting, confusing, maddening and, ultimately, soul-fulfilling whirlwind of busy-ness and mayhem that passes all too soon” was about to end. Birdie is now ready to be released, but the truth is… Well, I’ll just say that the suddenness somehow caught me off guard. Come tomorrow, if all goes well, I will be very busy outside. No matter what the outcome, I will post more when I can, but it will likely be a few days.
Although the quote has been attributed to Einstein, no one knows who said it first. But, whoever it was, their words were indeed genius:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Case in point: In the month of May, alone, nearly 25,850 defective children’s sweatshirts and jackets have been recalled, because their drawstrings created a strangulation hazard. In April, there were 24,300. In March, a staggering 50,295. But February wins the prize for insanity, with 227,200 of these sweatshirts and jackets recalled.
Actually, this goes beyond insanity. Consider this: In 1994, in response to 17 child deaths and 42 serious accidents, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) presented evidence to the garment industry that these drawstrings, “could kill children.” The neck drawstrings could — and had killed children by strangulation, when the drawstrings got caught on slides and fences where children played, or on their crib rails. The waist drawstrings could — and had killed children by getting unknowingly caught in school bus or car doors, then dragging the children until they fell under the wheels of the moving vehicle. These drawstrings could — and had killed children whose drawstrings got entangled and pulled them into death matches with escalators, farm machinery, ski lifts….
The garment industry “promised that garments without these drawstrings would be available to consumers beginning with the Spring or Fall 1995 clothing lines.” What they didn’t promise, however, was to stop making them entirely.
In 1996, the CPSC again presented their evidence to the garment industry, only this time, they provided written guidelines (see the hood/neck guideline, below), hoping that the garment industry would voluntarily comply and stop using drawstrings. The following year, in 1997, the ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials, in charge of testing children’s clothing for safety) adopted the CPSC guidelines as part of their “voluntary consensus standard” titled, ASTM 1816-97, for the clothing industry. Mind you, neither the CPSC or the ASTM ever breathed the words, “ban” or “mandatory” in their guidelines and standards. They left it to the discretion of the garment industry to stop making clothing that “could kill children.”
Nearly 10 years later, and in the wake of more deaths and serious injuries, the CPSC decided in 2006 to post a letter on its website “to the manufacturers, importers and retailers of children’s upper outerwear, citing the fatalities and urging them to comply with the industry standard, ASTM F 1816-97. The letter explained that the CPSC staff considers children’s upper outerwear with drawstrings at the hood or neck area to be defective and to present a substantial risk of injury under section 15(c) of the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA), 15 U.S.C. 1274(c).” To give teeth to their pleas, the CSPC also advised that they would slap these manufacturers, retailers and importers with civil fines if they continued making defective clothing. Of course, the CPSC has rarely followed through on this threat.
Is it any wonder, then, that in the year 2010, these drawstring garments continue to be manufactured by the billions and recalled by the millions each year? Is it any wonder that, since the CPSC issued its first warning in 1994, another dozen children — ages 2 through 14 — have been strangled or maimed or pulled into machinery or dragged under the wheels of moving vehicles in accidents caused by these drawstrings?
Here, it’s difficult to know who to blame. Do we blame the manufacturers (dozens of them in 2010, alone, hailing from all over the globe, from China to Mexico, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Peru, Pakistan, India and the U.S.) who have spent the past 16 years thumbing their nose at the evidence that their garments “could kill children”? Or should we blame the CPSC and the ASTM for their milquetoast response to these deaths? Or should we blame the retailers (e.g. various department stores & boutiques, but especially Burlington Coat Factory, which carries the bulk of these recalled garments) for repeatedly stocking their shelves with these sweatshirts, jackets and coats? Or do we blame the consumers, who keep the law of supply and demand alive by continually buying these defective clothes?
Whoever is to blame, the fact remains that — in 2010 alone — there have been 327,645 children’s garments recalled because they were made with built-in hangman’s nooses. Granted, the short-term remedy is simple enough. Remove the drawstrings or, if they’re sewn in, cut the strings off before allowing the child to wear the garment. But this really isn’t enough. After all, this same insanity has been playing out for years with other children’s products — from toys to jewelry to furniture & accessories.
During the first 5 months of 2010, for instance, there have been over 1.5 million cribs recalled due to suffocation and strangulation hazards. This is just a fraction of the 7 million that have been recalled over the past 5 years — a toll that doesn’t even take into account the number of recalled Simplicity brand cribs sold over the past decade or so, whose numbers are unknown and, according to the CSPC, can’t be counted. Since 2000, forty-six children have been killed in defective cribs. Many more have been injured, some suffering permanent brain damage.
Just this month, the CSPC again issued a “warning” to parents against using drop-side cribs (a warning that encompasses just about any crib brand or manufacturer you could name: Storkcraft, Graco, Simplicity and Fisher Price, along with a slew of “boutique” brands). The parents got a warning, while the manufacturers still have carte blanche to keep making them until the proposed ban on the sale of these cribs takes effect at year’s end.
In response, some, but not all crib manufacturers have promised to stop making drop-side cribs real soon, no kidding. Of course, drop-sides are not the only dangerous flaw to crib designs. The manufacturers know this, and so do the CPSC and ASTM. One design flaw, which I personally found present among the inventory of every single crib retailer I recently visited (from elite boutiques to department stores, and from $150 cribs to $1500 cribs) were corner posts and design elements on the upper crib rail that extended over 1/16″ in height — a potentially deadly flaw that is nothing short of criminal on the part of the crib manufacturers. They know better.
For their part, the ASTM has announced plans to introduce tougher guidelines on cribs by year’s end, which will hopefully be tougher than their existing standards and testing, which gave a green light to most of the 7 million cribs that have been recalled over the past 5 years. Not to mention the millions of drawstring garments that have been recalled since the ASTM issued their voluntary standards 13 years ago.
On a related note, the CPSC is still hard at work on those drawstrings. Sixteen years ago, the CPSC described their efforts to stop the sale of these garments as a “fiery determination and creativity to solve the problem.” Today, the CPSC is poised to make a rule that will “enhance understanding in the [garment] industry about how the Commission views such garments.” Reading that line, I can almost hear Scarlett O’Hara breathing those words into Rhett’s ear, using her sultriest southern accent. The CPSC’s goal is modest. They simply want to rephrase their earlier plea to the garment industry, changing the verbiage to reflect this truth: children’s clothing with drawstrings “constitutes substantial product hazards.”
Granted, the wording isn’t quite as strong as it was 16 years ago, when the CPSC advised the garment industry that such clothing “could kill children.” But, heck, maybe the CPSC is onto something. Maybe that’s the key: tone down the verbiage, and quit prattling on about dead children. Try that, and see if those manufacturers don’t stop making products that could kill children. If that doesn’t work, heck, ten years down the road, you can always consider a law to ban the things outright.
There’s a word for people who do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. It’s called insanity. But I wouldn’t necessarily accuse manufacturers of dangerous children’s clothing, cribs, jewelry and toys as being insane, just soulless. They’ve done the math. The payout in potential lawsuits for wrongful deaths and injuries pales in comparison to the killing they can make selling defective items. And apparently business is good enough that — even with billions of recalled products each year — there’s still big money in manufacturing dangerous products. The retailers, such as Burlington Coat Factory, have done the math, too. They know that — even with the occasional $600,000 civil penalty for selling hazardous products — there’s a killing to be made retailing defective goods. For their part, the CPSC and the ASTM are, at best, impotent to fulfill their roles as the vanguards of product safety; at worst, they’re in the pockets of industry, just like everyone else.
But the consumers who knowingly buy these defective products over and over and over — they’re the ones who sustain the demand for defective products. Whether it’s a hangman’s noose, a death trap disguised as a crib, a pretty trinket laced with cadmium and lead, or a toy with small parts that even a monkey could see would choke a child, the consumers keep buying them.
The sane thing would be to stop buying defective products. Stop buying drop-side cribs, clothing with drawstrings, cheap children’s jewelry from China, toys with small parts. Then, like magic, the manufacturers would stand up and do the right thing. They’d stop making them faster than you can say show me the bottom line. They might even roll out a campaign, patting themselves on the back for taking the initiative to stop selling dangerous products for children. Let them do this. The important thing is that the children — past, present and future — who are killed by these products do not die in vain.
For more information or to take action:
CLOTHING SAFETY: Read CPSC’s documentation and proposed new rule, dated May 17, 2010 and titled, “The Determination That Children’s Upper Outerwear in Sizes 2T to 12 With Neck or Hood Drawstrings and Children’s Upper Outerwear in Sizes 2T to 16 With Certain Waist or Bottom Drawstrings Are a Substantial Product Hazard.”
- From this same webpage, you can also access the Federal eRulemaking Portal, where you can submit your own comments on the CPSC’s proposed rule. To leave a comments, simply follow the link to the Federal eRulemaking Portal, then enter the CPSC document number CPSC-2010-0043 into the keyword/ID space on this page and click “search.” This will take you to a page where you can leave a comment. A sample comment might read: As a member of the American public, which your agency serves to protect from dangerous products, I would demand that the CPSC set aside this latest effort to urge voluntary compliance with the garment industry. I would ask that you put an immediate end to 16 years of ineffective CPSC guidelines and, instead, institute an outright mandatory ban on the types of drawstring garments you describe in your proposed rule. To do any less pays a grave disrespect to the painful lessons left by the children who were killed by these dangerous products.
PRODUCT RECALLS: To keep up to date on current product recalls, make regular visits to the CPSC Recall pages, where you can also observe an insane pattern, as the same types of dangerous products get recalled over and over and over again. While you’re at it, you may as well also visit the FDA Recalls pages, where you can see the latest food and drug recalls. Here, you will also observe a similarly insane pattern, as the same types of dangerous products get recalled over and over and over again.
The latest food recall, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), involves “140,000 pounds of fully cooked assorted meat products because they contain an undeclared allergen, wheat starch.” My gripe today isn’t so much with the “undeclared” ingredient, even as this could pose a serious health risk for someone with wheat allergies. I”ve pretty much come to accept that most of the food we eat comes with “undeclared” ingredients, with China winning the prize for frequency and the level of danger.
No, my gripe today is with the utter absence of mention in the official recall notice of the country of origin on these meat products:
- 14-ounce packages of “GIO LUA TAY HO PORK MEAT LOAF WRAPPED IN BANANA LEAVES FULLY COOKED.”
- 13-ounce packages of “BO VIEN TAY HO BEEF MEAT BALL FULLY COOKED.”
- 14-ounce packages of “DOI GIO HEO TAY HO CURED PORK HOCK SAUSAGE WITH ONION WRAPPED IN PORK SKIN FULLY COOKED.”
- 15-ounce packages of “CHA CHIIEN TAY HO FRIED PORK PATTIE FRIED IN VEGETABLE OIL FULLY COOKED.”
- 13-ounce packages of “BO VIEN GAN TAY HO BEEF MEAT BALL WITH BEEF TENDON FULLY COOKED,”
We know this much: this meat was distributed by Westlake Food Corporation, which is variously listed as being “based in” or an “establishment of” Santa Ana, California. But where in the hell were these 140,000 pounds of meat actually processed?
A little digging tells me that Westlake Food Corporation is actually called West Lake Food Corporation. A little more digging tells me that West Lake Food Corporation does not actually process this meat, but is merely an importer/buyer of meats and other meat-like products (including something called “artificial chicken flavor powder”) from Taiwan and China . A little more digging tells me absolutely nothing. My hunch is that, even I held one of these packages of meat in my hands, I’d still not know where it came from, even as I can pretty much bet the bank that the meat was raised and processed in China or Taiwan.
Usually, questions about country of origin can be resolved by contacting a company directly and asking them straight out, as this info is almost never given on their website. In the case of West Lake Foods, however, there is no website. I’ve written the USDA and asked that they begin noting the country-of-origin (who actually made the crap?) with their recall notices. That and a dollar will get me a cup of coffee.
My final gripe on the West Lake recall is that the USDA lists the West Lake meats as being “produced” between April 15 of last year and April 14, 2010. That could very well be true, but I doubt it. Chances are slim to none that the same meat frozen last Wednesday in China has already arrived in port, via a slow boat to USA, and been distributed in the course of 4 days. Would a little better accuracy be too much to ask from the USDA?
UPDATE 4/19/2010 (only 1 hour after writing this post): The USDA responded to my query and informed me that Westlake/West Lake Foods is, indeed, the official processor of these meets at their facility in Santa Ana. (I still beg to differ, as I’ll explain in a moment). This same USDA employee also advised me that the country-of-origin of any company can be found via this page on the USDA website by simply looking up the company’s name or their designated establishment number. Here, I found that Westlake is officially designated as THE processor of the recalled meats. I have yet to be convinced that West Lake/West Lake Foods (also doing business as Tay Ho Foods),an food importer, actually processes these meats, themselves, except to the extent they may buy tons of already-processed meat from China or Taiwan (such as “Cured Pork Ear and Snout” or “Beef Meat Balls with Beef Tendon,” or “Pork Meat Paste”) then RE-package these products at the Westlake/West Lake/Tay Ho facility in Santa Ana. If that’s the case, it seems there should be a distinction between processing and re-packing products that have already been processed. If it’s not the case, I’d love to be enlightened. Any takers?
With this in mind, I have 3 pieces of advice for the American consumer:
Find out where your food comes from. If you can’t find the information, chances are, it came from China.
- If it came from China, don’t buy it and don’t eat it. (I know, this really isn’t possible anymore, but it’s something to aspire to. At the very least, however, you should know where it came from.)
- By the same token, you can’t really trust stuff from anywhere, including the USA — especially meat. So it’s a really good idea to avoid all meat (Americans eat too much of it, anyway) and to keep yourself updated on the latest recalls, most of which we never hear about.
Keep in mind that less than 1/2 of one-percent of products entering this country (e.g. food, drugs, cosmetics, toys, dishes, furniture, electronics, appliances, fabrics, etc.) are inspected or tested before being passed onto the consumer. An equally miniscule number of products ever undergo testing by the USDA, FDA or CPSC. And — no matter what the country-of-origin — shoddy, dangerous or toxic products are not usually discovered until after the fact, once they’ve already been sold to and used by consumers. Here are two ordinary recalls from March/April of this year — a mere fraction of the contaminated items that may be on our store shelves at any given time:
- Salmonella in upwards of 20 million pounds of Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein made since September 2009, courtesy of Basic Food Flavors Inc in Las Vegas, Nevada. Although this recall took place in March, it’s not old news just yet, and won’t be for a while. If you’re a consumer of even an ounce of food that you didn’t grow yourself, you’ll want to take a closer look at this recall, which encompassed a slew of products. And don’t think you’re safe if you’re a vegan, vegetarian or organics-only consumer. This recall affects a complex chain of distributors, which will likely never be fully known. Here is but a tiny sampling of the known brands/retailers: Trader Joes, Kroger, Publix, McCormick, Durkee, French’s, Pringles, Safeway, Weber, T. Marzetti, National Pretzel Company. Have you bought any of these (or anything that contained any of these) in the past 6 months?
- Bouillon Products
- Dressing and Dressing Mix Products
- Flavoring Base and Seasoning Products
- Frozen Food Products
- Gravy Mix Products
- Prepared Salad Products
- Ready-to-Eat Meal Products
- Sauce and Marinade Mix Products
- Snack and Snack Mix Products
- Soup/Soup Mix and Dip/Dip Mix Products
- Spread Products
- Stuffing Products
If so, you’ll want to check out the official roster of brands, products and retailers. Because you might still have some of these products in your cabinets or freezer. That is, if you haven’t already eaten them and wondered, the next day, why your GI tract was all messed up. Perhaps you came down with fever, diarrhea (possibly with blood) nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Or maybe a mysterious heart infection. Or arthritis. Hopefully, this didn’t happen to any elderly people, young children or individuals with compromised immune systems, as it may have killed them. That Basic Food Flavors, Inc. knew about this salmonella contamination for several months before the actual recall seems criminal, but I’m no lawyer. Here’s another recall:
- Whole beef heads from North Dakota, which contain a “prohibited” ingredient. It seems that the good folk at North American Bison Co-Op forgot to remove the tonsils. And eating tonsils is as good a way as any to catch mad cow disease. According to the USDA, tonsils are considered a “specified risk material (SRM) and must be removed from cattle of all ages in accordance with FSIS regulations. SRMs are tissues that are known to contain the infective agent in cattle infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), as well as materials that are closely associated with these potentially infective tissues. Therefore, FSIS prohibits SRMs from use as human food to minimize potential human exposure to the BSE agent.” Note the word, ‘minimize.” The fact is, eating any beef from any country is the best way to date for playing Russian roulette with this disease, which will not hit you til years down the road, by which time, you’ll hard-pressed to guess which hamburger, which steak, which soup was the culprit. The only way to truly “minimize” your risk for catching mad cow disease is to not eat any beef at all, period.
But BSE isn’t the only danger lurking in meat. Even if you’re not savvy or particularly concerned about issues such as factory farming and the depletion/destruction of the earth’s resources, species and eco-systems, it’s a good idea, from the standpoint of personal safety, to cut out all meat — whether fish, fowl, pork or beast of burden. Either that, or keep your finger poised over the link to USDA recall bulletins as they arrive, because E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria (not to mention the various other unintentional or “undeclared” ingredients) are regular arrivals to the list. And with such a tiny percentage of contaminated products ever recalled, (and this, usually only once the meat has been distributed throughout the country) you are playing Russian roulette with any meat product you eat. Which is certainly your right, if that’s what you want.
Fool you once….
Here’s a list of recalled Current Recalls & Alerts from the USDA website. Includes all recalls from the past year that are still active.
Here’s the USDA’s list of Archived Recalls (recalls that have been officially completed) which is a kind of creepy list, if you compare the number of pounds that were recalled vs. the number of pounds actually recovered.
And while you’re at it, you may as well check out the April 2010 product recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for the list of products recalled due to various contaminations (e.g. lead) or to manufacuring flaws ranging from faulty manufacturing to insanely dangerous. May as well also check out March and February and January. If you’re the observant sort, you might detect a pattern on these lists, as the same products seem to get recalled over and over again.
Fool you twice, shame on you
On this note, EARTH TO PARENTS: Since manufacturers (particularly those in China) can’t seem to learn from the experiences of the many parents who have suffered the most painful heartbreak imaginable from the injury, poisoning or death of their child from dangerous and inferior products, it’s up to you to be the guardian of your children and avoid buying products that, over and over, have shown to be dangerous. Here are a few tips:
Quit buying jewelry from China for your children. Very little of it gets tested, and a ridiculous amont of it is tainted with lead, cadmium, radioactive waste and whatever else is in the waste dumps they melt down to make into cheap jewelry.
Don’t buy toys, books and clothes from China. They’re likely to include anything from lead to arsenic, cadmium, formaldehyde, phthalates, radioactive waste and a host of other dangerous things.
Use your noodle and don’t buy toys for younger children that have small parts (anything smaller than 1-3/4″, aka anything that would fit inside a cardboard toilet-paper tube). These are choking hazards, and there’s no glue, screw or bolt that you can trust with the life of your child.
Don’t buy toys, clothes or books with small magnets smaller than the above-mentioned dimensions.
Don’t buy cribs with drop down-sides. They’re death traps.
Don’t buy any of these new sleeping apparatuses for children that have hit the market, such as playpen-bassinet combos. These are also death traps. Use your noodle. Research cribs, playpens, bassinets and cradles. Buy something safe, and steer away from newly-designed contraptions, which have been inadequately tested for safety, with living children being the lab rats in these experimental designs.
Avoid like hell mini-blinds from China and Taiwan, which are nearly always contaminated with lead and other heavy metals, which are dispersed into the air as dust.
And, for godsakes, don’t leave mini-blind cords where a child can be hung by them. Cut the damned things off, if that’s what it takes.
If you must buy jackets, sweatshirts and hoodies with ties around the neck or waist, cut the cords/strings off before you allow your child to wear them. Do you know that this is an accident waiting to happen? In my own town, within the span of 10 seconds, a 4-year old child went down the slide at his preschool and had his neck snapped, just like that. Dead in 10 seconds, no saving him. Avoid waist cords, too, which can get caught in, say, a school bus door, and become a bizarre accident and a parent’s worst nightmare.