Archive for November, 2007

Where Are the Crows?

Monday, November 19th, 2007

The most obnoxious bird alive. Associated with brazen, loud noise from the treetops and power lines. Dozens disrupt the peace of an otherwise calm neighborhood. This can only be the crow; those big, ebony, ‘caw!, caw!’ animals that wake you up many mornings and seem to have no other purpose than to terrorize other birds and rattle human sensations.

Have you heard any lately? Think a minute.

If you’re like me, you listened one morning and said to your partner, “You know, I haven’t heard any crows. None. That’s odd.”

It’s not just odd; it turns out to be another startling example of how nature can be disrupted, a fragile environment shaken.

Shortly after wondering those crow thoughts, you might have come across this story that appeared, via The Associated Press, last May: “Birds that once flourished in suburban skies, including robins, bluebirds and crows, have been devastated by West Nile virus, a study found.”

Well, ok. That’s sad. Devastated? Surely that means they’ve been hit and they’ll be around again soon, not that I’m looking forward to their return.

Turns out the status of the crow is much more significant than you might have thought. Because this same article — based on research published in the scientific journal, Nature — offered this additional information: “In some places, such as Maryland, crow loss was at 45 percent, and around Baltimore and Washington, 90 percent was gone.”

What the…?

Gone? Ninety percent? What would wipe out almost all the crows around here?

Think back a few years when we first were alerted to troubles associated with dead crows. A new disease that can be fatal to humans was traveling slowly from the New York area and down the Eastern seaboard. West Nile virus.

It didn’t hit home until an April 2002 announcement by the Virginia Department of Health that “a dead crow found in Arlington has been confirmed to have West Nile virus.”

For a time we were told to call our County health department and report any dead crows that we might come across.

I didn’t think much about it until one morning, as I was approaching the Custis Trail for the walk to work, I saw a dead crow; a big dead crow, lying in our neighbor’s front yard. It sort of jolted me. One of those harbingers of an ecological concern lay right in front of me. So I called. By that time so many dead crows were found that the County would take note and collect the dead bird on its next general sweep of the area, rather than respond immediately.

In the meantime we’ve been told to be sure to turn over pots and lids and pans that collect standing water, so the West Nile mosquito would have less opportunity to breed.

Every once in awhile we’d hear reports of a death of a person, but it was always somewhere else: New York in 1999, New Jersey in 2000.

Closer to home first deaths came in D.C. on Sept. 9, 2002 and Northern Va. (not Arlington), Sept. 24, 2002. Then Florida in 2002; Iowa and Kansas in 2003; South Carolina 2005. And this year: South Dakota in July; New Mexico and California in August; Missouri in September; Idaho on October 3; Arizona on October 8.

Here in Arlington the health department recorded our first human case of West Nile in the Lyon Park neighborhood on August 31, followed up with spraying for West Nile mosquitoes in that area on September 13.

No one’s died in our little County yet, but the huge swath of the country reporting West Nile deaths makes that possibility much too likely here. This thing isn’t going away.

The important thing for us to remember is to keep standing water out of our yards. And, given this first human case, we need to take seriously the cautionary actions recommended by the County’s Environmental Health Bureau: wear long pants and long sleeves when you’re outdoors, try to stay indoors as much as possible around dawn and dusk, and use insect repellent.

Frost will kill the mosquitoes soon for this year. But we know West Nile will remain in incubation until next Spring.

This is all hauntingly similar to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The crows are gone and, but for few, not likely to come back. Deaths in humans are popping up all over. And now we know we’ve got at least one Arlington mosquito that’s infected one of us.

Beware, take care, and understand why the crows are gone. Those loud, obnoxious animals are mostly dead. It’s sad and scary; and, you know, I really do miss them.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

Do We Really Think, “Why Bother”?

Monday, November 19th, 2007

We’re about to embark on a hallowed mission that far too many of us appear to fail to take seriously. That mission is to vote next Tuesday, November 6, in the state and county elections.

According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, based in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy; just 59 percent of DC-Virginia-Maryland Metro-area voters over the age of 30 turned out to vote in the 2006 midterm elections. Further, a dismal 33 percent of voters 18-29 bothered to show up for what was, arguably, the most important national election in recent times.

With such issues at stake as U.S-backed torture, war, privacy in communications and the right to challenge one’s accusers when arrested by the federal government, less than six out of ten of us adults eligible to vote took the trouble to get to the polls. And, similarly, only one in three young people felt so moved to act. But am I unfairly tagging those who don’t make it to the polls?

Next Tuesday the issues will be more parochial, but no less important in our representative democracy. For we’ll be choosing the persons who will stand to defend our interests, consistent with the Constitution, while holding the offices of School Board and County Board, as well as the County Treasurer, Commonwealth’s Attorney (sometimes called the “D.A.” in television dramas), Commissioner of Revenue, Sheriff, and those who will represent us in the state Senate and House of Delegates in Richmond.

You know, we’re a fortunate lot here in Arlington. We’ve got this election coming up, and there’s not the slightest hint that anyone will try to ‘suppress’ your vote.

No behind-the-scenes activity by County government to give an electoral advantage to one candidate over the other. No confusing ‘butterfly’ ballots, no troopers hanging around schools and community centers to frighten less fortunate members of our community from visiting the polls, as was done in Florida in the tainted 2000 election. No deliberate shortage of voting machines — as was concocted by the GOP secretary of state in the 2004 swing state of Ohio — bringing long and time-consuming lines to folks who had to get to work in dense inner city precincts.

For a nation that crows over the fair and unfettered ‘purple thumb’ elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, what some cynical politicians have done to twist outcomes of elections in our democracy has become sinful, if not criminal.

Maybe that plays a role in turnout, do you think?

We don’t set aside an easily accessible day for voting, so that as many citizens as possible can vote. No, our ‘leaders’ have allowed the outdated ‘first Tuesday after the first Monday in November’ to be the not-to-be-tampered-with date for elections. And, unlike other elections that we so saintfully monitor in developing democracies, our election overseers in the U.S. choose a workday, in the middle of the week, as voting day; with polls open from the ridiculous 6am to 7pm timeframe.

Consequently, you have a mad rush at 6am for before-work voters who have to sneak in a time to vote amidst the morning chores of breakfast for the kids, school rides, early work deadlines, and stalled traffic. If the line’s too long or time is too tight, a potential voter can try to get back to the polling place by leaving early from work, if that’s possible, and racing (in creeping traffic?) to the election judge’s line before the end-of-polling lockup.

If you could stop by your neighborhood precinct station one election day and observe what the activity is like between, say, 10am and 4pm, you’d likely see some retirees and stay-at-home spouses trickle through the door, while poll workers would try to deal with the emptiness of the daytime hours.

Our across-the-river leaders crow about Iraq/Afghanistan voter participation in the 80 to 90 percent range, while here in the states politicians connive and maneuver to actually suppress the votes of minorities, who might be inclined to vote for the other party.

In past eras it might have been the likes of Tammany Hall and the Daley Machine that worked to ‘rig’ elections. These days we’ve watched, helplessly, while police and voting machine allocation, not to mention non-tamper-proof voting apparatuses, have been used to hold back what might have been Democratic votes.

The sick minds who have manufactured these scenarios work in the skulls of such notorious ‘win-at-any-cost’ perpetrators as Karl Rove, Katherine Harris, Lee Atwater (whose deathbed conversion admitted and asked forgiveness for his electoral sins) and Tom DeLay.

We in Virginia can take a step away from these evil and barely legal steps — designed to stop some segments of the population from voting — by declaring Election Day a state holiday, on which employers of every person in every occupation shall be required to give a free paid holiday so their workers can vote. And if you are an ‘essential’ employee who has to work to keep the electricity, traffic and water flowing, then your employer must provide absentee ballots and expedited presentation of those ballots to election authorities.

Why not? Oregon has made postcard voting work, cutting out the trip to the polls altogether. If we’re not ready for a step of that magnitude yet, at least our legislators and governor can take the next best step and demonstrate the absolute necessity of voting by making Election Day a paid state holiday. We’d be showing the federal government, just a stone’s throw away, that it can work; and maybe Congress will get the idea that the Nation deserves no less for our national elections.

So, what about it, Richmond? Is the birthplace of this nation’s once-enviable democracy ready to make the electoral process as easy for us as Washington has made it for segments of the Middle East? Think how uplifting that could be for people who feel marginalized in our showcase democracy. And maybe that Election Day turnout will show how many of us really do care.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” which originated in March 1989, appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.