Charlie came home from school and found Leo sitting on the front step. Leo was Charlie’s favorite grown-up.
“Hey, dudito, how’s it going?”
“Hey, dudissimo, not bad. What are you doing?”
“Just going to take a walk through the trees over by the soccer fields. Want to come?”
Charlie unlocked the door, put away his backpack and came out to join Leo. They headed along the unpaved footpath beside the house, towards the woods that stood between their street of houses and the long row of soccer fields at the edge of town.
“So, what happened at school?”
“We read a poem called ‘Chicken Soup With Rice’. It’s by Maurice Sendak, who wrote In the Night Kitchen. Do you know that poem?”
“Yes, I do. ‘Happy once, happy twice, happy chicken soup with rice’.”
“Anyway, the teacher said we should each of us write a line to add to the poem. It could be about a time of the year, or a particular day of the year, or a time of day. Preston diMallea wrote, ‘At supper time, it’s so nice to eat supper’, and got mad when everybody laughed. Patti Schulz wrote, ‘On Saturday it’s so nice to visit my Grandpa’. And then Tori Garcia said, ‘At dinner time, it’s so nice to have dinner with my Dad’, and Preston diMallea got mad again and said that’s what he meant.”
“Yeah, sounds like a lot went on in that class. So what did you write?”
Charlie gave an embarrassed smile and said, “’In the spring it’s so nice to see the birds come back.’”
Leo stopped walking, staring at the sky between the trees.
“Oh, man, Charlie, you don’t know just how nice that is.”
Charlie put his hand on Leo’s arm. He could tell that Leo was thinking about something that was making him feel funny.
“What do you mean?”
Just then a big bird flew overhead, looking big and black against the blue sky.
“Look at that one. It’s a turkey vulture.”
Charlie made a face.
“Turkey vultures have ugly heads.”
“They have the kind of heads they need for the way they live. And don’t they look beautiful in flight?”
“Yeah. I like how their feathers spread out like fingers.”
They saw a crow on the ground, picking up and eating some piece of garbage. Charlie remembered the story Leo had told about how the Rainbow Bird got blackened into a crow by carrying a smokey torch.
“It is nice, Charlie, to see the birds come back. And not just in the spring. There are more birds every year now.”
“Why is that?”
“Because for a long time, the birds were dying away, and nobody knew why. One day, a woman was walking in the trees in the springtime like we are doing right now, and she noticed that she could hardly hear any birds. And she said to herself, ‘If the birds keep going away, one day there will be no birds at all singing in the springtime. It will be a…silent spring.”
Charlie shuddered at the way Leo said those last words.
They walked along, and it seemed to Charlie as though there were birds everywhere he looked: crows and robins on the ground, big turkey vultures high in the sky, tiny sparrows and meadowlarks in the tree branches.
“So what was happening to the birds?”
“Well, that woman wanted to know, so she studied birds carefully, to find out what was going wrong. Were hunters killing them? Were the birds catching new diseases? Were humans cutting down too many trees, so birds had no place to build their nests? She found out all of those things were happening, but none of them explained why the birds were going away so fast.
“And then she found out that when birds laid their eggs, the shells were too thin, and the eggs broke before the baby birds could grow inside them. Sometimes the eggs broke when the big birds sat on them to keep them warm.”
“So then she wanted to find out what was making the eggshells so thin, and she found out that it was being caused by DDT, a poison that farmers were using to kill the bugs that were eating their crops. See, the bugs breathed in the DDT, and got sick and died, but there were a few bugs that could live with DDT in them, so those few bugs had lots of babies, and soon all the bugs were safe from DDT, but the farmers kept on using more and more DDT, and the birds were eating those bugs that were full of DDT.
“The thing is, DDT gets into your body and it stays for your whole life. And when a bird ate a hundred bugs, it got a hundred bugs’ worth of DDT inside it, and it stayed. And when that bird ate more bugs the next day, it got even more DDT in it.”
“But not all birds eat bugs, do they?”
“Some birds eat leaves and seeds, but the plants were all full of DDT too. And the birds that ate mice, like owls, or that ate other birds, like hawks, got even more DDT, because they got all the DDT from all the bugs that those mice and birds ate. So the big birds, like turkey vultures and bald eagles, suffered the most of all.”
Charlie shook his head.
“It was terrible, Charlie. And year after year, there were fewer birds in the sky.”
“But then people stopped using DDT, right?”
“Not at first. They didn’t want to. They said they couldn’t keep growing food unless they used DDT. They said things like, ‘Do you care more about bird babies, or human babies?’
“It took a long time, and lots of work. And the woman who had been worried about the birds had to go all over the world telling people they had to stop using DDT, and to be careful about all of the chemicals they used, for growing food and for other reasons. It was a huge amount of work, because people were stubborn and didn’t want to admit that there was a problem. There was a man who went on TV and ate a spoonful of DDT to show that it wouldn’t kill him, but that was a trick, because one spoonful of DDT won’t do a human a lot of harm – it’s the damage that lots of DDT over a long time can do to all the animals that is the big problem.
“So that woman spent years giving lectures, and writing books, and talking with important people, trying to get them to stop using DDT. And she went right on working so hard, even after her doctor told her that she was very sick, and was going to die soon. She decided she would rather spend her last days trying to save the birds, even though being sick made her very tired all the time and all she wanted to do was rest. And on the day she died, there were still people saying they didn’t want to stop using DDT. But finally, many years later, they finally did stop. And many years after that, the DDT began to go out of the world – slowly, slowly. And the birds started to come back.”
“But she was already dead.”
“Yes, and I think that’s the saddest thing about that woman’s story: not that she died young, but that she died before she could know whether she had saved the birds or not.”
“The birds coming back was her reward, but she didn’t get to see it.”
“No. So I guess it is our job to watch the birds come back for her, and to remember that the birds wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t done all that hard work.”
They came out of the trees at the far end of the long row of soccer fields. There was one big bird flying very high up. Charlie pointed it out. Leo looked for a moment and then squeezed Charlie’s hand.
“That’s not a turkey vulture. Look at its head. It’s bigger than a buzzard’s.”
“And it looks like it’s all white.”
“Charlie, that’s a bald eagle.”
“It’s our country’s bird,” Charlie whispered.
“When I was your age, there were only a few eagles left. I thought that by the time I grew up, they would be gone. I thought I would never see a bald eagle flying free like that one is.”
“But they’re coming back, too, right?”
Leo stroked Charlie’s head.
“I’m glad you got to see an eagle, Leo.”
“I’m glad you got to see it, too, Charlie.”
They watched the eagle until it was out of sight.