Elsa Banks was horrified. In January she was walking her dogs near her south-side Madison home when she spied something in a snow bank. She got closer and saw it was "a big, beautiful bird" - dead, with both legs and part of its lower body burned off.
"It was just heartbreaking," says Banks, a teacher at McFarland High School. "Obviously, he suffered. Can you imagine what it was like trying to fly with his legs on fire?" She wondered if the bird had been burned by electric wires.
Banks notified one of her neighbors, Laurie Fike, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources, but heavy snowfall prevented the bird's removal until the recent thaw. Fike recognized the bird as a red-tailed hawk and suspected what had caused its demise.
"I thought right away it was burned on methane pipes at landfills," says the 20-year DNR veteran. "I just couldn't imagine how else the bird could have suffered that kind of injury."
Fike, with the DNR's wildlife damage abatement and claims program, brought the bird into work. She showed it to avian ecologist Sumner Matteson, who agreed it was quite likely the victim of methane burnoff.
"That was my preliminary assessment," confirms Matteson. "It sure looked to me like that's what it was." Nancy Businga, a DNR wildlife health lab manager who also saw the hawk, doubts it traveled far after being burned: "I would think it would go into shock and have blood loss fairly quickly."
Indeed, the hawk was so badly burned its sex could not be determined. A necropsy planned for this week may answer that and other questions.
Gene Mitchell, the DNR's landfill overseer, says most municipal landfills divert methane, a byproduct of decomposing garbage, to engines or turbines to produce energy. Relatively few have open-stick flares that ignite intermittently, and it's unclear how often birds get burned: "We don't know if this is a big problem, but we can't say that it isn't, so we're letting landfill operators know about it."
An article in the February issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources, the DNR's magazine, says the percentage of burned raptors that are "noticed, recovered or rescued" is probably small, since landfills tend to be in remote areas. But several singed birds have been found near the city of Janesville's landfill, and article author Dianne Moller, a wildlife rehabilitator, got authorities there to put spikes on the burners to prevent birds from perching.
To Fike, the message is clear: "This can be prevented. People who need methane flames can take steps to prevent birds from being killed like this." But you can't make a fix until you find a culprit, and Fike's quest to do so has been met with a chorus of "It Ain't Me Babe."
Madison city engineer Larry Nelson says that no active or retired Madison landfills use methane burners. Jon Schellpfeffer of Madison's sewage treatment plant says its methane flare has been used "very seldom," and not at all since last June.
Topf Wells, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk's chief of staff, confirms that three county landfills (Rodefeld, Badger Prairie and Truax) use intermittent flares to burn off methane. But "all three are manually operated, not automatic. Our operators have very clear instructions to look [for perched birds] before they turn the flame on."
Fike has been told that some manufacturers use methane flares. She hopes people will help identify the potential source of the injuries that killed the hawk Banks found.
"I'm not going to give up on this," she vows. "The community can help us. That bird didn't have to die that way."
Dave makes waves on lake levels
Last November, the state Department of Natural Resources issued a "How can we not help you?" response (PDF) to the city's request for a review of Madison lake levels. The DNR, among other things, demanded that the city seek a specific desired reduction, after having rejected an earlier request that did so (see "DNR on Lake Levels: Hurry Up and Wait," 11/14/08).
Madison Ald. Michael Schumacher, the author of the city resolution calling for this review, was peeved by this reply, believing that Madison's artificially high lake levels pose a threat of catastrophic flooding. But he says Mayor Dave Cieslewicz put him at ease, saying something to the effect of "We're going to call their bluff."
Cieslewicz is about to send a reply letter to DNR Secretary Matthew Frank. A draft version provided to Isthmus says the city "would be pleased to initiate this important work" and set out steps to do so.
But the mayor takes issue with the DNR's suggestion that the city overstated its concern about Cherokee Marsh erosion (see "Lake-Level Letter: The Untold Story," 11/27/08), suggesting the city intends to prove its point.
The draft letter also quibbles with the DNR's insistence that the city take the lead in getting a huge number of players to agree on the need for change. He maintains that the local lakes "have been operated higher than prudence would suggest for a number of years," to where even one of the most recalcitrant interest groups, boaters, have been negatively affected.
And if the feared catastrophic flooding (can you say Lake Delton?) does occur, Schumacher says both he and the mayor have made it known which state agency they'll blame.
Long municipal nightmare is over
The citizens of Madison, and throughout the rest of the planet, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Connie Phair, Mayor Dave's executive assistant. Phair, prodded by a certain local weekly newspaper columnist (see "Madison Seeks Mo-Better [Music]," 8/22/08 and "Send in Your Songs," 10/3/08), has succeeded at long last in replacing the godawful hold music on the city's phone system with an array of delightful ditties by local musicians.
Callers now hear a continuously playing loop of 18 songs, some about Madison. The new system went live a week ago, shortly after Phair relates that the mayor "cracked the whip on me" to complete the project. But lacking time to listen to music at work, she says, "I sequestered myself at home over the weekend to get it done." Bless her heart.
For a list of songs and artists, see here (PDF). Phair says the city is "always accepting new songs."
The UW Addiction Research Lab is now probing the effect of marijuana use on the performance of a visual task. It seeks research subjects ranging from those who smoke pot not at all to those who inhale at Cheech and Chong levels.
The study involves two lab visits for a total time commitment of three or four hours; participants will be compensated at the rate of $30 an hour at the end of the second visit. All information given is kept "strictly confidential." Email Rebecca Gloria at email@example.com for more information.
Two downsides: Supplies are not provided, and user participants may be asked to refrain from smoking pot for three days prior to their second visit. Er, is that a deal-breaker? Bummer.
Don't you just hate it when...?
A recent Associated Press story tells of a farm couple in Eau Claire who want the state to let them keep the carcass of a bear that was shot by their neighbor, then purportedly killed when they ran over it with farm equipment. The farm matron expressed her frustration: "You let [neighbors] hunt your land, then they shoot a bear and leave it in the dark for you to hit with a combine."