Q. Based on the most comprehensive inventory of North American birds ever done, their population is A. increasing slightly B. remaining steady C. declining by millions D. declining by billions.
A. The answer is D (billions). “Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline,” reports Elizabeth Pennisi in “Science” magazine. U.S. and Canadian researchers studied 529 species, 90% of the entire bird population, and found that most groups have declined, though ducks and geese have flourished, as have raptors since the 1972 ban on DDT. The birds’ habitats — grasslands, forests, shorelines, and others — have also declined; only wetlands have grown slightly. Grassland birds such as meadowlarks and northern bobwhites are down by one-half, while shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by one-third.
Probable causes include climate change, habitat loss and shifts in food webs, plus more subtle ones such as the use of a common pesticide that even in low doses “made migratory sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurt their chances of surviving and reproducing.” But the study’s lead author Ken Rosenberg says, as with the recovery of eagles and other raptors, once the cause of the decline is removed, “the birds come back like gangbusters.”
Q. How did toilet paper — or the lack thereof — prove pivotal to what was considered one of the most successful intelligence missions of the Cold War?
A. At the end of World War II, when Germany was divided into West and East, “the allied forces were instructed not to share their toilet paper with their Russian counterparts,” says Dan Lewis in his book, “The Soviets Invaded Wisconsin?!” The thinking was that the opposing military officials would end up wiping themselves with official documents that were sitting idly by. Not being water soluble, the documents also weren’t flushable, and when they were tossed into a garbage can, the Western spies sprang into action.
In their search, the agents found “secret documents (covered in unpleasant ‘stuff,’ of course), detailing the covert operations of the Soviet military-industrial complex.” And more. When the agents found amputated limbs, they were ordered to dig further to determine the type of shrapnel the Soviets were using.
Concludes Lewis, “Luckily, despite the gore and overall grossness of the mission, it was successful.”