Broley the first to link declining eagle population to DDT

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A couple of weeks ago I had a visit from Jon Gerrard, who was visiting the Elora area. He is a medical doctor and researcher associated with the University of Manitoba. His hobby is ornithology, particularly bald eagles, and he was seeking information on Charles Broley, a pioneering ornithologist with Elora roots.

The Broleys have a long association with Elora. Rev. James Broley, a Methodist minister, served at Elora in 1885 and 1886. His wife was a daughter of Abram Matthews, and a granddaughter of Roswell Matthews, the first settler in the Elora area.

The Broleys had four children. Although Rev. Broley was here only two years, his four children all returned to Elora. One daughter married R.D. Norris, an Elora druggist.

Warner E. Broley, the elder son, was born in Watford in 1870 while his father was preaching there. Warner Broley married Henrietta Potter, a daughter of David Potter, who spent almost a half century in the foundry business in Elora.

Warner Broley sold insurance, eventually becoming district manager for Manufacturers Life. The Broleys lived in the old Potter house, located near the old Kiddie Kar factory, and recently demolished.

An active community member, Warner Broley was involved with the Lawn Bowling Club and the Masons. He died in May 1939; his wife 18 months later.

Less well known locally, but of far greater importance historically, was Warner’s younger brother Charles. He was born in Gorrie in 1879, and would have been six years old when his parents came to Elora.

Unfortunately, neither Jon Gerrard nor I have been able to turn up much about his childhood. Charles Broley trained as a telegraph operator, but in 1899 secured a job in the Merchants Bank’s new Elora branch.

This was a time of rapid expansion of the branch banking system, and in 1905, at 26, Charles Broley was promoted to manager at the Delta, in Leeds County. Already he was interested in birds, and noted some eagle nests on his arrival in the village.

Broley married Ruby Stevens in 1908. She was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis, and died in 1921. Seeking a dryer climate, the couple had moved to Winnipeg in 1918. Charles was still a branch manager with the Merchants Bank, and stayed after the merger with the Bank of Montreal in 1922, serving in several Winnipeg branches.

In 1923 Charles Broley began serious data collection on birds, recording species, dates and locations. He contributed to an ornithological column in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Also in 1923 he remarried. His second wife, Myrtle McCarthy, was a part-time writer, and both became involved with the Manitoba Natural History Society.

In 1934 he raised a furor over the decimation of a gull colony as a result of the birds eating poisoned grasshoppers. Charles Broley was among the first to see a link between pesticides and harmful environmental effects. This incident foreshadowed the work he would do later in life.

In 1938 Charles Broley retired from banking at 59. By this time he was far more interested in ornithology than in ledgers. Charles and Myrtle were sufficiently secure financially to pursue their interest.

In the summer of 1938 they toured Europe, doing a great deal of bird watching. On their return they dropped in at a meeting of the American Ornithologists Union. At this meeting a prominent American ornithologist asked Broley to investigate the bald eagles in Florida. There was an apparent decline in their numbers, and virtually nothing was known about their life cycle or migratory patterns.

Charles Broley began his work that year in Florida, in the Tampa Bay area. The work was difficult: he began by using a slingshot to shoot a lead weight and attached line over a limb which was used to erect a rope ladder allowing him to climb to the nests often a hundred feet above the ground.

In a few months he banded 44 eagles, and soon six of the bands were returned, all but one as a result of birds being shot. The locations were something of a surprise: one was shot in Virginia, and another in New York. This confirmed suspicions that bald eagles ranged widely up and down the east coast. Birds raised in Florida went as far as Prince Edward Island.

By 1946 Broley had banded 814 eagles. The following year he published his first article on his work, in The Wilson Bulletin, a scientific paper. He noted that he was finding a number of infertile eggs in eagle nests.

Charles Broley’s work with eagles attracted widespread notice in the late 1940s. There was an article about him in Liberty magazine in 1945, and another by Roger Tory Peterson in the Audubon Magazine in 1948.

Broley’s concern over declining eagle numbers heightened over the next two years. It was obvious that the Florida eagle population was in the midst of a disaster, and that hunting was not the only cause. He raised the alarm through an article in the Audubon Magazine. The eagle population continued to decline, some 80% between 1946 and 1951 in the area he was studying. No one was certain of the cause.

In 1957 Charles Broley became convinced he knew the answer: DDT. This pesticide was being applied widely to crops in Florida. DDT residue accumulated in fat cells. Being at the top of the food chain, the impact was greatest on eagles.

Broley by this time had become well known in ornithological circles, and a frequent speaker on birds and environmental matters. His talks passed the 300 mark in 1953. Most were to small audiences, but he had drawn as many as 1,600 to a talk.

Though in his 70s, Charles Broley continued his studies of Florida eagles through the 1950s, and some around his cabin at Delta, Ontario, as well. In remarkably good physical condition, he continued to climb trees and rope ladders. He published more articles, as did his wife Myrtle.

His linking of DDT to major environmental problems was picked up by other scientists. Rachel Carson used his studies and conclusions in her book Silent Spring, published in 1962. A best seller, this book alerted the general public to the dangers of DDT residues, and led to the banning of DDT in 1970.

Myrtle Broley died in 1958. Charles continued his work without her. In 1959, while attempting to extinguish a fire at his Delta cabin, he died of a heart attack at 79.

Charles and Myrtle Broley spent their retirement years shuttling between Delta, Ontario and Florida. I do not know if he ever came to Elora after the death of his brother Warner. It would be useful to know if he did any bird watching while he was with the Elora branch of the Merchants Bank.

There is a more intriguing question: Was Charles Broley’s interest in birds indirectly inspired by David Boyle, the Elora Public School principal? Boyle had been gone for five years when Broley enrolled in the Elora school, but his stuffed bird specimens were still there, as were teachers inspired by his methods and his emphasis on nature and the environment.

Perhaps there is a thread that leads from David Boyle and the old Elora school, through Charles Broley to Rachel Carson and the general awakening of environmentalism in North America.

Jon Gerrard has written a short book, entitled Charles Broley: An Extraordinary Naturalist. A copy is at the Wellington County Museum.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on July 16, 1997.

Thorning Revisited