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Revelation from the Past—What Could Happen in the Future?

Specimens from Museum drawers show more soot on their bellies the older they are. The soot leaves their bellies gray. Red-headed Woodpeckers.

As an aspiring ornithologist I am choosing to research about pollution and how it affects the birds in our world. Pollution is, in general, terrible for our environment. However certain industrial pollutants can have surprising effects on birds. Around the Second Industrial Revolution, from around 1850-1970, factories were in mass production making the atmosphere heavy with pollutants. When an Ornithologist, Shane DuBay, and Art Historian, Carl Fudner, came to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, they came looking for specimens in the underground archives. “What they uncovered was not a joke. Instead they saw something that made them gasp: Horned Larks and Red-headed Woodpeckers with dirty, gray bellies” (Borgmann 22). Take a minute to step into their shoes, looking at these bird specimens that ordinarily have white bellies. What would you think if today you looked out at your bird feeders and saw a Red-headed Woodpecker with a gray belly? Think about how much pollution had to have been in the air inorder for the birds in the early 1900s to have completely gray bellies. This was a shocking discovery down in the underground archives of the Chicago Museum of Natural History. “(F)rom the late 1880s to the 1930s, coal consumption increased and the amount of soot found on specimens remained high. But specimens from the Great Depression, a period when manufacturing slowed, had less soot on their feathers. Another drop in soot appeared during the second half of the 20th century, when there was less black carbon in the air due to regulations limiting the domestic use of soft bituminous coal, and because cities shifted to cleaner-burning fuels and centralized power plants…(B)lack carbon emissions decreased as a result of shifting away from dirty coal, giving us clearer skies...Since then, the Clean Air Act, passed in 1963, has helped maintain clear skies” (Borgmann 22, 23). The birds today still have white bellies but “‘The birds in our study that are the dirtiest are from a period when there were limited regulations,’ says DuBay. ‘That, in and of itself, should say something’ (Borgmann 23). If we don’t find good, clean, safe fuels, then, the birds that are alive today might find themselves in, 100 years, a Natural History museum with dirty bellies.

Borgmann, Kathi. “From Museum Drawers, Scientists Uncover Our Sooty Past.” LivingBird,

Spring 2018, pp. 22-23.

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