The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (2)

The following essay by Jeffrey K. McCrary was published in the Shawnee Trails Sierra Club Quarterly Newsletter, March-May 2021.

The Prothonotary Warbler is protected in the United States only by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo with permission by Jeffrey McCrary.

I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.” Charles A. Lindbergh

One of the pillars of the legal framework of protection of the environment in the US is also one of the oldest: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). This law has an enormous reach in the protection of birds and their habitats throughout the country, but its application has varied throughout its long history, and is currently facing a dramatic reduction in its scope, which obliges all of us to offer our public comments regarding the proposed changes, as will be addressed below.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, wildlife hunting was already voracious in America. It was not only a sport; it was a lifestyle and a livelihood for many. Even Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle wrote an influential guide to hunting shorebirds, an activity that would irk most hunters today. The Great Auk, a penguin-like species ranging throughout the North Atlantic, had already been wiped from the planet half a century before, to provide down for bedding.

Even the birds of Illinois were dramatically affected. A rapidly growing country with ever-increasing demands for food brought the Passenger Pigeon to extinction by the second decade of the twentieth century; even the unpalatable Carolina Parakeet was extirpated from the planet, by a combination of hunting to protect crops from predation, and by habitat loss as forests were cut to grow crops. Both species, once found throughout the state, were doomed before legislation could control hunting and other activities on a nationwide basis.

Birds were also targeted by the hunters of the day to supply bird feathers for women’s attire. The targeted birds included ducks, gulls, terns, sandpipers, egrets, and herons. The fashion frenzy captured New York and London milliners. Feathers, and even body parts such as wings were incorporated into hats and other clothing. Even hummingbird beaks were used in earrings! Among the most affected birds was the Snowy Egret; its feathers sold for 34 dollars an ounce. This elegant species continues to nest in the wetlands in southern Illinois, but its numbers still have not recovered to levels noted before the impacts of feather hunting more than a century ago. Another migrating visitor to Illinois, the Eskimo Curlew, never recovered from the hunting of this period, and has since been declared extinct.

The evolution of activism and legal wrangling within the US that led to the MBTA is itself a worthy read, which can be found in several sites, such as here. A fundamental issue with the inadequacy of the first attempts at restricting the mass slaughter of birds was that the great majority of the birds targeted for the fashion industry were migratory, so state-level, and even country-wide, laws were not sufficient to stop or regulate the trade in birds. The MBTA became a law that is backed by four international treaties with four countries⸺ Russia, Japan, Canada, and Mexico ⸺to protect all migratory birds in each respective country.

This legislation likely would have never come about without a groundswell of activism to propel the issue into the governmental consciousness across the continent and into Europe and Asia. The principal actors in bringing the plight of birds to protection were women. Some names must be mentioned: Florence Merriam Bailey composed a book entitled Birds through an Opera-Glass and other ornithological books to promote the cause of appreciating birds in their natural habitat; Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall organized among socialite circles in Boston against the slaughter of birds for the millinery trade.

The impact of the MBTA on hunting over its first years was direct, with measurable success noted on several birds, including the Snowy Egret, Wood Duck, and the Sandhill Crane, all of which migrate along the Mississippi Flyway through southern Illinois. This flyway is basically the path of the Mississippi River, a straight route, uninterrupted by mountains, connecting Canada to the southern US, and where many birds fly onward to Central and South America. This flyway is occupied by as many as 40 per cent of the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds in the United States. As birdwatchers know, the complex of protected areas along bottomland the Mississippi River and its tributaries make for great viewing of migrating birds. Along this route are areas protected by a range of municipal, state, and federal laws. It merits mentioning the names of some of these wonderful natural places that have been made public lands for conservation purposes: Shawnee National Forest; Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge; Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge; Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge; Cache River State Natural Area.

The scope of land management strategies that have been implemented to benefit migratory birds is immense, incorporating public and private lands throughout the state. But, regardless of the regulatory or management status or ownership of the land in question, the MBTA applies. Its text bears repeating: “it shall be unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to barter, barter, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, export, import, cause to be shipped, exported, or imported, deliver for transportation, transport or cause to be transported, carry or cause to be carried, or receive for shipment, transportation, carriage, or export, any migratory bird, any part, nest, or egg of any such bird, or any product”.

Migratory bird species in the US today, recognized and defended by this law, number 1093 strong today. Two other substantive laws currently protect birds in a similar way: the Endangered Species Act which protects some 35-40 bird species today, about half of which inhabit only Alaska or Hawaii; and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. As a result, the MBTA is monumental, as only a few of the migratory birds protected under it would receive relief otherwise. All of these three laws which protect specific bird species in the US differ from laws and regulations concerning protected areas and conservation easements, because they protect birds on all US territory, regardless of the ownership or disposition of the land. Exceptions and/or permits are provided in MBTA for certain activities, however, such as for hunting of traditional game birds, eagle feathers for certain Native American uses, some military activities, and for certain special purposes such as relocation of animals in a property undergoing development and control of threats to airplanes by birds such as geese.

As could be imagined, this law has found plenty of use and has encountered fierce objection since its inception. The MBTA decisively took the rights of legal interpretation and enforcement on migratory birds away from states and into the hands of the federal government under the Treaty Clause of the US Constitution. Decades after its implementation, its reach advanced from hunting to other activities that incidentally kill birds, as well.

Industrialization of the country had created numerous death-traps for birds. Beginning in the 1970’s, this law was used to penalize companies for activities such as pesticide spraying where birds were killed even though the killing was unintentional and ancillary to the activity penalized. Indescribably horrible oil spills such as the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 were prosecuted using the MBTA, resulting in huge penalties.

Birds are killed in enormous numbers today by such monuments to modernity as power lines, oil tanks and ponds, shrimp and fish farms, wind farms, solar energy farms, farms, glass-and-steel buildings, air traffic, and pet cats. Some of these activities have become regulated, with guidelines being developed in consensus between the respective sectors and government (for example, this guideline exists for wind energy). However, we all know that industry does not implement even an inexpensive fix to save birds just because birds are nice to save. The guidelines and participation are the direct outcome of liability to companies and individuals for their behavior. When millions of dollars are at stake, one can only expect a company to act against the greater good of the public interest, unless forced otherwise. In the interest of a proper environment in which more migratory birds do not end up on the Endangered Species Act rolls, or worse, we need good laws to protect them.

And many companies have challenged the MBTA, with considerable success, on the issue of intent. As stated above, companies and individuals whose behavior kills birds must be found to include one or more of the verbs, “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill,” with respect to migratory birds to be prosecuted under the MBTA. Several defendants have argued that the MBTA does not hold them responsible because they never aimed a gun at a bird; they simply conducted an activity whose objectives did not include killing birds, and hence, none of the verbs mentioned above applied to them.

Sometimes, courts have sided with the accused that their actions which prejudiced birds were not intentional toward the birds, but rather that the bird deaths were incidental and thus, not within the purview of the MBTA. Numerous law analyses have been made on this complex issue, dating back at least into the 1970’s, some of which can be found here, here, here, and here. It is interesting that several defendants over the years escaped liability under this law, but not the two Big Oil violators mentioned above, perhaps because of the overwhelming environmental consequences and other kinds of liabilities that limited their capacity to argue this angle sufficiently. However, until the previous presidential administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service maintained consistently that industrial and commercial activities lay within the purview of MBTA, in spite of disagreements in the courts.

The recently concluded presidential administration maneuvered to stop all MBTA-related prosecutions for incidental impacts on birds in 2018; the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to change the regulations on MBTA implementation during its last week in office in 2021 to exclude incidental impacts on birds. Your Sierra Club has worked hard to oppose the dismantling of this law. This seemingly dismal turn of events, however, could be regarded as a black cloud with a silver lining. The current presidential administration has temporarily blocked the implementation of this suspension, which was to begin February 8, and has lengthened the call for public comments until March 1, 2021.

Please submit your online comments by March 1st, and consider an online webinar hearing! Go online to the Federal Registrar: Enter into the Docket Search space (or just click on the link): FWS-HQ-MB-2018-0090.

Victorian fashion featured feathers of wild birds. Reproduced by permission Wikimedia Commons.

Click Comment Now! Enter your pre-written, original, signed, letter, with the following heading/address:
Public Comments Processing
Attention: FWS-HQ-MB-2018-0090
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: JAO/3W
5257 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, Virginia 22041-3803

  1. Request the withdrawal of the proposed rule to limit the effects of the MBTA to bear only on “intentional” takes of migratory birds.

2. State the importance to you that the MBTA has provided protection of birds from “unintentional” takes.

3. Request that the law be strengthened to include language that unequivocally ensures accountability for all actions that harm migratory birds, whether for sport or commercial activity, without regard to the primary intention of the action.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916 (1)

The following article was published first in The Progressive and then in several newspapers throughout the United States through syndication.

A century ago, bird feathers were all the rage in fashion. Hats and other adornments used feathers of all sorts. In London, snowy egret feathers brought twice the price, by weight, of gold. Hunters nearly wiped out this bird to meet the millinery demand. 

But hunting for the feather trade and the use of wild bird game in commercial food markets ended in the United States with the passage, in 1918, of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). It replaced an inadequate patchwork of state laws, to protect over-hunted species uniformly across state and national boundaries. 

The MBTA is one of three laws that protect birds in the United States. The other two — the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act — together protect only a few dozen species; the only legal recourse for more than 1,000 bird species is the MBTA.

But now the MBTA is itself threatened. In the dying days of the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scheduled a rule change to reduce the act’s scope to categorically exclude “unintentional” impacts on birds, effective January 7. If enacted as proposed, the MBTA would no longer regulate actions, other than hunting, which harm migratory birds. Thankfully, implementation of the Trump rule change was delayed by the Biden administration, and the rule is currently being reviewed. 

As a scientist who works with industry to achieve sustainability through environmental compliance, I find this proposal untenable. It would leave a thousand bird species from mundane sparrows to more glorious hawks without recourse from the principal sources of human-caused bird mortality.

Ever greater and more prosperous human populations demanding ever-more advanced gadgets fueled by electricity and petroleum have developed far more effective tools for killing birds than a shotgun. Electric wires, communications towers, oil industry facilities, buildings, wind turbines, and even cats account for far more deaths of migratory birds than hunting today.

Beginning in the 1970s, the MBTA was used to prosecute bird kills in farm industry activities, and later other industries, with mixed results. Some courts have interpreted the five golden words of this act, “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill,” as requiring intent, releasing the accused from responsibility from “unintentional” bird kills. Other courts have sided with the birds.

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred just off the Alaska shore. More than 1,000 miles of shoreline were contaminated by oil; at least 250,000 seabirds died. On April 20, 2010, an explosion and fire occurred on the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil slicks coated more than 1,000 miles of shoreline. More than 8,000 oil-drenched birds were retrieved from the ocean, perhaps only a tenth of those that perished undetected. 

Both companies were fined more than $100 million each — under the MBTA.

Without the act’s reach to “unintentional” impacts on birds, even inexpensive, simple industry standards would not be implemented to protect birds against oil pits, electric lines and communication towers, pesticide applications, wastewater management and wind turbines. Even bird-friendly glass standards for buildings, adopted in Canada and under consideration in the United States, might be abandoned, sacrificing a billion birds per year. 

We need sound legislation that makes industry act responsibly, and your opinion can be heard. Public comment is being accepted by the U.S. Government through March 1 (see, docket number FWS-HQ-MB-2018-0090). 

Imagine a world where thousands of birds can be killed with impunity: A sad world. We need birds and we need the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to help serve as their protectors.

The Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) nests in North America, in Canada and the United States, and spends winters in Central and South America. Photo Jeffrey K. McCrary.

Tilapia aquaculture affects wildlife

Something is changing the sex of Costa Rican crocodiles

The following article appeared in Science Magazine internet version, 30 August, 2017.

By Mitch LeslieAug. 30, 2017 , 9:00 AM

If you want to know whether a crocodile is a male or a female, you have to catch it. Don’t bring your good shoes. “It’s a muddy, wet mess,” says Chris Murray, who spent three dry seasons in and near Palo Verde National Park in Costa Rica, capturing American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) and determining their sex with a revolving team of helpers.

Even at night the heat is smothering, and a halo of bugs swirls around headlamps as the team motorboats down waterways or stalks the animals from shore. When Murray and his colleagues spot a croc, often half-submerged, they wade in after it or pursue it in the boat. In a typical catch, his friend Mike Easter uses a noose on a pole to snare the animal, which can be 2 meters long or more. As the croc thrashes and spins, Murray says, “everyone yells a bunch of stuff.” Once it calms down a bit, they cover its eyes with a towel to reduce stress, close its jaw with tape, and lug it to the bank, stumbling through shoe-stealing mud.

With the animal restrained, telling its sex is straightforward, says Murray, who is a physiological ecologist at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. “You have to put a finger in its cloaca,” the cavity at the base of the tail. “If there’s a structure there, it’s a boy. If there isn’t a structure, it’s a girl.” Catching baby crocs is easier, but sexing them is trickier, so the researchers bring the animals back to the park’s research station. Both sexes sport a tiny, red nub in the cloaca, but in males it tends to be longer, redder, and more complex, with an extra lobe.

After probing and peering at the genitalia of nearly 500 crocodiles in Palo Verde, Murray and his colleagues found something odd: The sex ratio was way out of whack, with males outnumbering females four to one among hatchling crocs. What’s more, the animals’ tissues were tainted with a synthetic steroid, which the researchers suspect was causing them to switch sex.

The hormone, 17α-methyltestosterone (MT), is sometimes prescribed for men with testosterone deficiencies and older women with breast cancer. Bodybuilders have been known to abuse it to bulk up. How could it end up in crocodiles from rural Costa Rica? A possible clue: Fish farms around the park raise tilapia on food laced with the hormone, which transforms females into faster-growing and more profitable males. Murray and his colleagues are now investigating whether MT from the farms has somehow contaminated the crocs.

An American crocodile in Costa Rica’s Tárcoles River, where a sex-altering pollutant has been detected. ROBERT BLANKEN

The finding “has implications for the population and the broader ecological community,” says physiologist Matthew Milnes of Mars Hill University in North Carolina, who was not connected to the research. Besides skewing the sex ratio, the hormone could be disrupting the animals’ reproduction, a concern because American crocodiles are already listed as vulnerable, and this part of Costa Rica is a stronghold for the species. The contamination could also be altering the crocs’ behavior, perhaps making them more belligerent. If so, conflict with humans—which Murray says is already a sore spot in Costa Rica—could increase. The substance could harm turtles, birds, fish, and other aquatic creatures as well. And because fish farms throughout the tropics are feeding chow that contains MT to their tilapia, the hormone may be causing problems elsewhere.

For more than 20 years, researchers have fretted about the effects of endocrine disruptors, molecules that meddle with the body’s hormones. Crocodilians—the group that includes crocs and alligators—have furnished some of the most dramatic examples. In the 1990s, for instance, scientists reported that male alligators from Florida’s Lake Apopka, which was fouled by a brew of hormone-mimicking chemicals, had shrunken genitalia and reduced testosterone levels.

Like many endocrine disruptors, those chemicals triggered the same effects as estrogens, or female sex hormones. Researchers have uncovered only a few cases of the opposite problem, masculinization caused by male hormones, or androgens. Molecular biologist Elizabeth Wilson of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill says that whereas “there are lots and lots of compounds that will activate the estrogen receptor,” the cellular receptors that respond to androgens are choosy.

Of the few known environmental androgens, trenbolone acetate, a synthetic steroid implanted into cattle to speed their growth, has sparked the most concern. Studies found that a derivative excreted by juiced cattle reduces minnows’ fertility, transforms female zebrafish into males, and induces other masculinizing effects. MT, however, “was not on the radar as an endocrine disruptor,” says Christopher Martyniuk, an endocrinologist and toxicologist at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville.

When Murray arrived in Palo Verde in 2012 as a graduate student from Auburn University in Alabama, he was scouting for a juicy dissertation project. “You will work on crocodiles,” said Mahmood Sasa of the University of Costa Rica, head of the research station in the park. He offered a topic ripe for further investigation: a recent study that claimed a three-to-one male-to-female sex ratio among the crocodiles in the area.

To test the claim, Murray teamed up with Easter, Sasa, and others to nab as many of the animals as possible and figure out what was going on. After identifying the sex of 474 crocs from seven sites, they discovered that the population was even more male biased than the previous study had indicated, with about 3.5 males for every female. The disparity held across ages. Males constituted almost 80% of hatchlings and 60% of the adults, the researchers reported in 2015.


The numbers are even more startling because a warming climate should be pushing croc sex ratios in the other direction. Unlike humans, crocodiles and alligators don’t have sex chromosomes. Instead, whether an embryo becomes a male or a female depends on the nest temperature during incubation. The mean low temperature in Palo Verde has risen about 2.5°C in less than 20 years. To gauge what impact the increase should have had, Murray and his co-workers stashed temperature recorders inside plastic eggs and buried them in 25 croc nests. The team estimated, based on nest temperatures, that female hatchlings should outnumber males by nearly two to one, they reported last year. Something must be overriding the temperature effect, they concluded.

The researchers had heard that several tilapia farms around the park used MT, and they wondered whether it could bias the animals’ sexual development. To test the idea, they dabbed three different concentrations of the hormone on American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) eggs, which served as stand-ins for crocodile eggs. They then incubated the eggs at temperatures that should yield only females. About 60% of the eggs dosed with the two highest MT levels developed into males. “MT does have a masculinizing effect” on crocodilians, Murray says.

In April, another piece of the puzzle fell into place. The group reported finding the chemical in samples of blood and egg yolk from the Palo Verde crocs, confirming that they had been exposed to it. Contrary to earlier assumptions, “the hormone is not biodegrading under some field conditions,” says Jeffrey McCrary, an environmental scientist at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua.

Tilapia raised on MT-containing chow are safe for people to eat, regulatory agencies have concluded based on other studies. But Wilson says the evidence that MT is loose in the environment is worrying. “I can’t tell you it’s a human hazard,” she says, but “low levels of androgens can be detrimental” in pregnant women.

The source of the hormone remains the big question. “MT does not occur normally in the environment,” says reproductive toxicologist L. Earl Gray of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who is currently an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University (NC State) in Raleigh. “It can only occur in the environment from human activity.” Nearby tilapia farms are a natural suspect, Murray says, because they could provide an aquatic source of the hormone, although just how it might reach the crocs isn’t clear. The animals occasionally slip into the farms and help themselves to a meal. But all of the crocs tested in the Palo Verde area harbored MT, and “they couldn’t have all been to a fish farm,” Murray says. Instead, he and his colleagues suspect that tilapia escape from the farms and get eaten by crocs, which absorb the MT and store it in fat. When females produce eggs, they pass the hormone on to their offspring.

Frank Chapman, an ecologist at UF who has worked with the tilapia industry in Latin America, calls the suggestion that MT originates on the farms “plausible.” Kevin Fitzsimmons, a fisheries biologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has consulted with tilapia farms around the world, says it’s unlikely but possible, “especially if [MT] was mishandled or accidentally released.”

Murray acknowledges that he and his colleagues don’t have any direct evidence implicating the farms, and they are investigating other potential sources. The compound has turned up far from Palo Verde, in blood and yolk from a croc population more than 100 kilometers away in the Tárcoles River, part of a different river system. Contaminated crocs from Palo Verde may be migrating to the Tárcoles area, Murray says. But MT could also be entering the environment through other routes, possibly in pollution that originates upstream in the country’s capital, San José. Because people are taking the hormone, whether legally or illegally, it could enter the city’s sewage. Fitzsimmons says that bodybuilders use so much MT that they are more likely than tilapia farms to be causing the contamination there and in the park.

If the farms are the source, however, he and Chapman say the problem is solvable. Fitzsimmons suggests that the farms may not be properly disposing of containers that held MT—an easy fix. Chapman notes that the finely ground feed prevalent in Latin America tends to accumulate at the bottom of tilapia ponds, where it can get swept into surrounding waterways or accidentally swallowed by crocs or other animals that enter the ponds. Producing larger pellets like those available in the United States could increase the chances that the food will be eaten before the hormone leaks into the environment, he says. Chapman predicts that if the farms are at fault, the industry will be willing to take steps to protect the crocs. “This kind of thing gives aquaculture a black eye.”

Tilapia farming has boomed in Central America as demand has surged in the United States and elsewhere. Farmers provide feed containing 17α-methyltestosterone because it yields more males, which are faster growing and more profitable. MERIDITH KOHUT/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Not all scientists think the case against MT adds up. Environmental and endocrine toxicologist Gerald LeBlanc of NC State notes that female and male crocs harbor the same levels of MT, suggesting it may not be the cause of the male excess. “The information is just too weak at this time to say, ‘Yes, this is the cause,’” he says.

But other researchers think Murray and colleagues are on to something, and are eager for data on just how MT affects the crocs. A key question, says Milnes, is, “are they fully functional males?” A population overburdened with males isn’t necessarily at risk, Martyniuk says, but the animals’ numbers could dwindle if MT hinders their reproduction. Murray’s lab is now studying alligators to find out whether early exposure to MT changes the number of androgen receptors in their brains and makes them more aggressive. He and his colleagues also hope to examine troublemaker crocs that have been euthanized near the park to find out whether the animals are fertile.

In future work, the team wants to determine whether MT is having an impact on crocodilians elsewhere. In the United States, where use of the hormone-laced tilapia food is limited, “We see no evidence of MT-related problems,” Murray says. But tilapia are raised in more than 80 countries, and in many of them, crocodilians live alongside farms that dole out MT-containing chow. He and his colleagues have already collected blood samples from other sites in Costa Rica, and they plan to check for altered sex ratios and MT contamination among crocs in Indonesia and South Africa as well.

For Murray, more croc-wrangling lies ahead.

The Paris Disagreement

The Paris Disagreement

The kinds of governments and national attitudes in the United States of America and Nicaragua rarely coincide, lately. In fact, it would be unusual and even surprising that Nicaragua and the United States of America would find themselves united against the rest of the nations of the world on any particular world policy or political stance. Even more bizarre would be that the two countries would find themselves formally differing from all of the countries of all the continents in the world, save Syria. Nonetheless, this is what appears to have happened, recently.

At the Paris summit on climate change, held in 2016, a collection of environmental objectives were established, with commitments made by the respective nations for compliance. Most countries have formally signed on, and virtually all the nations in the world participated and agreed on the formal outcome of the summit. The countries which did not, were Syria, a failed state, and Nicaragua, which argued that poor nations are obliged to shoulder an incommensurate burden regarding carbon dioxide, especially when considering that most wealthy nations developed their infrastructure and economies by destroying their forests, centuries ago in most cases.

It merits mention that Nicaragua, which openly opposed the final version of the consensus 2016 agreement, is among the very poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Its carbon footprint, however, is exceedingly low: close to half its electricity is generated by renewable energy sources, and there are far fewer automobiles than in other, more prosperous countries. Furthermore, air travel through the country is a fraction of comparable countries such as Costa Rica. Even the proposed Nicaragua Canal is billed as providing a huge greenhouse gas dividend to the world, if and when it is built.

The USA position, on the other hand, has recently changed dramatically. A guiding force in the agreement just a year ago, the government, now under the control of President Donald Trump, has summarily discounted the agreement as bad for US interests, and has already begun pulling away from the commitments made by the country to comply with the agreement.

Stranger bedfellows were never known than these: Nicaragua, Syria, and the United States, all found outside the Paris Agreement.

Follow the link to an essay in Spanish by Jeffrey McCrary on this subject, published 15 June, 2017, in El Nuevo Diario.

Remembering Benjamin Linder

Remembering Benjamin Linder

A version of this essay appeared first in El Nuevo Diario, 28 April 2007, the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of two Nicaraguans, Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales, and a US citizen, Benjamin Linder, in San José de Bocay, Nicaragua.

From the first moment I was aware of Nicaragua, decades ago, he was in my consciousness, although until much later would I recognize its importance and the repercussions that would result. That day in which Benjamin Linder, a young North American, engineer, clown complete with a big, red nose, makeup and unicycle, died, assassinated in San José de Bocay, Nicaragua, 28 April, 1987.

I didn’t even know that this marvelous young man existed until weeks after his murder, when his parents visited my then-home city, Houston, Texas. His parents narrated to a small group of people, in simple and direct terms, a brief history of Ben’s life in Nicaragua. An engineer by training, he served as a volunteer in sustainable energy projects that brought electricity to remote towns for the first time. Through the efforts of Ben and a small team of Nicaraguan engineers, the town of El Cuá had already been connected, and a second hydroelectric project had begun further down the road, in San José de Bocay. I felt moved when they described his efforts to bring progress to people living under the immense oppression of poverty, ignorance and injustice, and how his life had been cut short when he was targeted by one side fighting against another, in a savage war that consumed innocent and guilty with equal ferocity. He lost his life by a gunshot at short range, after falling wounded from the impact of a mortar; with his death, other brave souls had to resume the work to bring electricity to San José.

For a lot of US citizens such as myself, Nicaragua was a crucible of ideas and ideologies, of strategies of resistance and of combat, of peaceful protests interrupted by the flow of human blood. Ben, and many others on both sides in this decade of conflict, were converted into heroes, their images touted to promote their respective sacred causes. But the story of Ben, who was not a soldier and never intended to die or kill, called to my own, private sentiments. Like another Jew centuries before who turned water to wine, Ben used water to bring light to dark and backward villages. I was enthralled that Ben used his skills to serve others, as much as I was angered and dismayed at the bittersweet results of his efforts.

Although I knew almost nothing of Nicaragua before the moment of Ben’s death, his parents gave me the first step into a world that has occupied the majority of the intervening years. I have accumulated many experiences upon which I can refer to reflect on Ben’s life. Among the many elements of being Nicaraguan I have learned to respect and admire is the great capacity to forgive. It is almost impossible to conceive that so many of those same men and women that I know, could have ordered and executed, or fallen victim to, barbarous actions during a decade of war, just a couple of decades ago. I am astonished each time I contemplate the capacity to heal the old wounds among people who suffered enormous loss, and my astonishment is multiplied when I see people who were once divided by so much loss, join hands in common cause today. Resolving the suffering of campesinos has now become a banner under which all Nicaraguans are more united than ever. The partisan connotations of the work of Ben Linder have faded with time and with the development of an agenda which unites people more than divides them today. Ben, once considered the enemy by some groups here, today unites the great majority with his mission.

Another element of being Nicaraguan that is so attractive is the sense of cause that drove the revolution and continues to motivate so many people toward vocations that compensate the spirit much more than the pocketbook. An entire lifestyle can be noted among Nicaraguans who work in not-for-profit enterprises, teach in classrooms, and serve the medical needs of people, often in abysmal conditions. Many of these people spend uncountable hours in constant struggle to make Nicaragua a decent country for everyone, and in their daily lives can be seen the dignity of every man and woman. Compassion toward oppressed and suffering people is so invariably manifested by Nicaraguans in so many dimensions in their lives, from their job preferences to their treatment of the children begging at streetlights.

Benjamin Linder was not the first, nor will he be the last, person to work selflessly for less fortunate people, but he was the one who awakened in me the idea that I could do something, however small, for others in this country. Ben’s time in Nicaragua, however short, has inspired many people who, like myself, admire his story. Maybe I would never make children laugh as he did, nonetheless, I am grateful for taking the path which began with Ben, accompanying this country and its people all these years. You never knew me, but your brought me here, and I thank you, Ben.

Ben Linder

Reflections on Fidel

This article by Jeffrey McCrary originally appeared in El Nuevo Diario, Managua, 27 November 2016, in Spanish. Here is an English fidel_castro_washington_1959version, followed by the Spanish text.

I had the good fortune to be in the company of Fidel Castro on a half-dozen occasions, more than twenty years ago, always accompanying one or both of two Baptist ministers Raúl Suárez from Cuba, and Lucius Walker, from the United States. Upon meeting each other in Nicaragua, Lucius and Raúl decided to launch an interchange between Christians in the two countries. This meant, in reality, that the US counterparts would conduct a kind of pilgrimage to Cuba. I was part of the first delegations they organized.

I saw Fidel up close, for the first time, during a church service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, where Raúl Suárez was pastor. In a country where and at a moment when being a Christian by confession and attending a church of any denomination was not looked upon well by the neighbors, I was impressed by the way Fidel entered, greeted those present, and even preached, in a way that was very much Fidel. He utilized the articles of faith, to make a brief overview of the history of the role of the church in oppression of man against man, of the injustices that were never denounced, and the silence of the church in the face of evil. From the pulpit, Fidel called on the congregation, and on us few visitors from the US, to use the church to make the world more just and not to justify what is wrong in the world.

I never forgot the things Fidel said that night, because not often are clergy so forthright before the faithful. But I remember more clearly two impressions that I gathered that first encounter with Fidel, both of which were further demonstrated during other encounters. Fidel was not afraid. That is, the things that made other people afraid did not affect him. Surely, he was conscious that at any moment some agent or tool of the empire would end his life. One evening, the anniversary of his arrival in the Granma, Fidel recounted his adventures, enthusiastically and in detail, among a small group of persons. During his retelling of this event, it was clear that Fidel knew his life had entered, in the terms of soccer matches, sudden death overtime. Fidel lived with violent death, or worse disgraces, always just beyond any door.

My other impression was that Fidel firmly believed in what he was doing. Among the principal topics for Fidel was the US embargo against Cuba, in all its diverse dimensions. At one moment, it meant, for him, a geopolitical puzzle, a gambit that required precise, astute strategy to remain viable. At another, it was a sin against the common Cuban who suffered from the lack of access to medicines under the control of US companies. At yet another moment, it was a call to vigilance to forestall the threats of terrorism conducted by people from the US and their lackeys such as Luis Posada Carriles. And eventually, Fidel understood, thanks in part to the influence of Raúl Suárez, the pain and moral pressure that families face when a member departs from Cuba to the US.

Foreign relations are complex, and life for a Cuban is complicated. Nonetheless, as everyone who has visited the island knows, Cuba has something that is missing in other countries. In part that “something” that accompanies being Cuban is measurable, and in part, not. There is something mystical about being Cuban, thanks to the Revolution which in great measure is connected to Fidel, who shines brightly in contrast to the cheap politicians in Miami who have bartered in hate.

Certainly, all Cubans have paid a price for having the name of their country written in all the history books. If the world were really fair, this price would be shared by the people of other nations, both great and small, for learning the lesson that in real life, Goliath does not always beat David. Thanks to Fidel, openings within and among nations are greater and more equitable, particularly in self-determination, in social issues, and in the rejection of fascism and all its ideological offspring. After so many years of isolation between Cuba and practically the entire continent, the countries have, one by one, accepted Cuba’s right to make its own path, over the imposition of the United States. And now, the US has also begun to recognize that the Cubans, and not the government of the US, must determine the destiny of this country.

Jeffrey McCrary

Tuve la buena fortuna de estar en la compañía de Fidel Castro en una media docena de ocasiones, hace más de veinte años, acompañando siempre a uno u otro de dos pastores bautistas, el cubano Raúl Suárez o el norteamericano Lucius Walker. Al conocerse en Nicaragua, Lucius y Raúl habían decidido lanzar una campaña de intercambio entre los cristianos norteamericanos y los cubanos, lo que significaba organizar un tipo de peregrinaje a Cuba de parte de norteamericanos. Fui parte de los primeros viajes organizados por ellos.

Vi por primera vez a Fidel de cerca, durante un culto de la iglesia Bautista Ebenezer, en la Habana. En un país y en un momento en los cuales ser cristiano de confesión e asistir a la iglesia, de cualquier religión o denominación, no era bien visto entre los vecinos, me impresionaba como Fidel hizo su entrada, saludó y hasta predicó en su manera que era muy de Fidel. Él ocupaba de los elementos de fe cristiana, para dar un resumen abreviado de la historia de la Iglesia en la opresión de algunos hombres sobre los otros, de las injusticias no reclamadas y silencio de la Iglesia frente al mal. Desde el púlpito, Fidel llamó a la congregación a usar la Iglesia para hacer el mundo más justo y no para justificar lo injustificable en el mundo.

Las cosas que Fidel dijo aquella noche, nunca olvidé, porque pocas veces es tan franco un clérigo ante sus devotos. Pero mejor recuerdo dos impresiones de esta primera vez de estar cerca de él, las que fueron confirmadas durante otros encuentros. Fidel no tuvo ningún miedo. Es decir, los miedos de nosotros demás no le afectaban. Sin duda, él vivía con la expectativa que un agente o tonto útil del imperio, en cualquier momento, le fulmine. Una noche, el aniversario de su llegada a Cuba en el Granma, por ejemplo, vi a Fidel recordar en voz alta sus hazañas, con detalles y lleno de fulgor, toda la noche, con un pequeño grupo de personas. En ese recuento, se anotó que Fidel supo que el su saldo de vida ya entró, en términos de futbolista, en el período de muerte súbita. Fidel vivía con la muerte violenta, o peores desgracias, siempre al otro lado de la puerta.

La otra impresión es que Fidel creía firmemente en lo que hacía. Entre sus temas principales siempre estuvo el embargo de Estados Unidos contra Cuba, en todas las dimensiones. En turno, el embargo significaba para él, una jugada geopolítica; en otro, un pecado contra el cubano común y corriente que sufre por falta de acceso a medicina bajo el control de empresas norteamericanas; más tarde, una necesidad de vigilar contra actos terroristas cometidas por los norteamericanos y sus servidores como Luis Posada Carriles; y luego, Fidel apreció, en parte por la influencia de Raúl Suárez, el dolor de y presión moral sobre la familia que sucede cuando un cubano migra a Estados Unidos.

La política internacional es compleja y que la vida del cubano común y corriente es complicada. Sin embargo, como todos que han visitado a la isla saben, Cuba tiene algo por la revolución que falta en otros países, en algunos aspectos medibles, en otros no. La mística de ser cubano es palpable y es producto de la revolución que es en gran parte de Fidel, quien ha brillado siempre ante los politiqueros que mercadean el odio desde Miami.

Por cierto, los cubanos han pagado cierto precio para ver a su país escrito en todos los libros de historia. Este precio, si el mundo fuera realmente justo, debe ser costeado por los demás ciudadanos de países grandes y pequeños, por haber aprendido de Fidel y de Cuba que Goliat no siempre gana a David en la vida real. Gracias a Fidel, las aperturas internas dentro de y entre los países son más amplias, particularmente hacia la autodeterminación, los temas sociales y el rechazo al fascismo y todos sus hijos ideológicos. Después de tantos años de aislamiento entre Cuba y prácticamente toda América, uno por uno los países han aceptado el derecho de Cuba de tomar su camino, sobre la imposición del Gobierno de Estados Unidos. Y ahora, el Gobierno de Estados Unidos también ha comenzado a reconocer que los cubanos y no ellos deben determinar el camino de Cuba.

The GAIA Program Wild Nature Conservation Projects

The GAIA Program Wild Nature Conservation Projects

Calocitta formosa Jeffrey McCraryProtecting the environment requires a lot more than just hugging trees. As director of the GAIA program in the Nicaraguan not-for-profit foundation, FUNDECI., Jeffrey McCrary works on technical issues to protect the environment in Nicaragua. How Nicaragua manages its environmental issues in the face of a rapidly growing economy and a deep transformation is key to the sustainability of its success as a nation, and in particular, its wild natural resources are issues of international importance.

The GAIA program works to unify efforts between local people, national and international volunteers, scientists and professionals, the international cooperation and donor communities, and the Nicaraguan government, to promote prosperity among rural Nicaraguans while protecting and improving conditions for wildlife and their habitat.

GAIA has worked on a variety of issues of importance to the conservation of natural resources in Nicaragua, such as:

Jeffrey McCrary

Blue-crowned Motmot, in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, Nicaragua. Photo Jen Moran.

The hydroelectric project TUMARIN

Wind energy in Nicaragua: Covensa, Blue Power, Eolo

The Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal

Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve Management Plan

Chiltepe Peninsula Nature Reserve Management Plan

Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo

Wild animal rescue and advocacy

Protection of the Natural Heritage of Nicaragua

Birdwatching in Nicaragua

Birdwatching in Nicaragua

Nicaragua lies in the middle of the Mesoamerican isthmus, with year-round warm weather. Substantial numbers of migratory birds winter here; some of them just pass through Nicaragua during their extensive migrations in each direction, and a few species of birds nest here and then migrate southward during the non-breeding period. A few reproduce in Nicaragua, then migrate further south!

Jeffrey McCrary bird

Other birds, such as the pictured Chestnut-capped Warbler (Basileuterus delattrii), are strictly resident species. That means that they never move particularly far from the area where they were born, possibly only excepting what is called dispersal, which occurs as birds mature and depart from parental assistance. Of the more than seven hundred bird species documented in Nicaragua, about a third of them are found in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. One of the more commonly seen bird species there is the Chestnut-capped Warbler.

Birds from this location and several other points important for bird diversity have been reported in a pair of scholarly articles on new and novel reports of birds in Nicaragua. In the first of the two new bird species reports, co-authored by Wayne J. Arendt, Salvadora Morales, Joseph T. Arengi and Lorenzo J. Lopez, first documentations in the scientific literature for ten species were given, including: Fulvous Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor), Nazca Booby (Sula granti), Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus), Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus), Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia), Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa), Sanderling (Calidris alba), Baird’s Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii). Obviously, a birdwatching excursion only rarely turns up a rare bird. But even the more common birds in Nicaragua can provide a lot to consider for a birdwatcher, with up to 749 species documented in the country to date. 

Introduced Predator Elicits Deficient Brood Defence Behaviour in a Crater Lake Fish

A little more than twenty years ago, a new fish species was introduced into Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua. The bigmouth sleeper, Gobiomorus dormitor,  is found in the Nicaraguan Great Lakes and rivers throughout the Caribbean slope of Nicaragua, but did not inhabit Laguna de Apoyo in recorded time. How the Midas cichlids present in this lake respond to the new, voracious predator is the topic of this article, co-authored by Topi Lehtonen, Axel Meyer and Jeffrey McCrarypublished in PLoS One.

In this study, the responses of two fish to predators at the nest were compared: Amphilophus zaliosus from Laguna de Apoyo, where the bigmouth sleeper is a recent invader to its habitat, and Amphilophus sagittae from Laguna de Xiloá, where the bigmouth sleeper has been present, apparently, for thousands of years. The two cichlid fish species studied are superficially very similar, but the milenia of exposure to the devastating predatory capacity of the bigmouth sleeper has honed its skills at recognizing the threat of its presence at a greater distance and to respond defensively at a greater distance than the evolutionarily naive Amphilophus zaliosus.

The results of this study have immediate relevance to conservation biology as a science and to the protection of wild nature in Nicaragua. The victim of evolutionary naivete in this study is the arrow cichlid (A. zaliosus), which was discovered by George Barlow and Jeffrey Munsey at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1976. This species is now known to occupy only Lake Apoyo,