Delaware welcomes birds, people from Central America Dawn Ratcliffe, born in Silver Spring, takes no prisoners in her cause

August 16, 1998|By Mary Otto | Mary Otto,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

GEORGETOWN, Del. - The birds of Central America have returned to the green depths of Delaware's largest forest The flocks are up from such places as the Maya Forest of Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, a death-defying journey.

In the forest, the bird known as the black-and-white warbler has a cry like a tiny wheel, squeaking round and round and round. The ground-nesting ovenbirds, stirring unseen in the underbrush, cry "teacher teacher teacher teacher." Above, two prothonotary warblers burst into view, two flashes of yellow, one male fending another from a nesting place.

Not all birds migrate. Not every bird has the compass, wing or heart for the job.

"You run out of options," says Roberto Roca, deputy director of the Nature Conservancy's Wings of the Americas Program, in his office in Virginia. "You don't see a clear future for yourself or your family. You prefer to gamble with your life."

The migrants' venture is a high-stakes one. "Where they do land, they don't know whether they'll be secure or safe," Roca says. "Many don't make it."

He speaks with quiet passion. "You could," he says, "be talking about birds or people."

Human migration, too

Indeed, the migration of people from Central America is also bringing asylum seekers from Guatemala and Mexico into the region.

With the new human arrivals, sleepy places that had changed little since Delaware was the nation's first state have become suddenly, sometimes startlingly, Latinized.

Take quaint Georgetown, founded in 1792. It claimed 4,300 souls in the last census, but now has 4,000 new residents. "The 4,000 are all immigrants from Guatemala," Steve Pepper, former mayor, says in a tone of mild wonder. "They want to stay in town so they can walk to the chicken plant."

A wave of immigration is affecting rural communities along the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest and West, drawn often by jobs in food processing. Philip Martin, a professor at the University of California, Davis, calls it the Latinization of rural America.

The broiler-chicken industry began on the Delmarva Peninsula 75 years ago, local officials say. The area still anchors the nation's poultry belt, and celebrates with an annual festival featuring a 650-pound skillet that fries 200 chickens at a time.

Production has soared in the past 20 years, and the number of workers has more than doubled, from 108,000 to 240,000, the federal government says. "We have jobs for anybody who's qualified, " said Richard Auletta, a spokesman for Perdue, which has five processing plants in the Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) area. "One-hundred-year residents, five-day residents, anybody who comes to our door."

Work can be difficult

The work can be difficult and dangerous. Floors slippery with water and poultry fat have been blamed for back injuries, strains and falls. Repetitive-motion injuries are suffered by workers who swiftly cut and debone chickens.

"A lot of people are getting the surgeries," says Maria Martinez, who works at the Mountaire poultry plant in Selbyville. Her plant is one of the minority that are unionized, and Martinez is the shop steward. "People tell me their problems," she said. Some are basic, like the need for bathroom breaks.

To biologists, Delaware is the merging place for north and south, says H. Lloyd Alexander, state wildlife administrator. "We're the southern extreme for cranberries," he said, "the northern extreme for cypress."

The forest where the migratory songbirds come is known as Cypress Swamp, though the giant cypresses were cut down generations ago. It's a triumph that the birds are here at all, said Kitt Heckscher of the Nature Conservancy. They are threatened north and south by deforestation and pollution, fires, pesticides and predators.

But the birds who make it have a chance to succeed.

The food is plentiful. Dragonflies dance in every mote of sunlight, and mosquitoes swarm up from the dark water of the swamp. Green inchworms dangle from long threads of silk. The leaves on the forest floor are alive with beetles and fat baby spiders.

Georgetown is up the road from the forest. On one side of the railroad tracks, the streets are lined with genteel, picturesque old houses. The other side of the tracks is the world of the new residents. The Perdue plant is there, and houses where people sleep in shifts, sharing mattresses.

"I wish every American could go to Georgetown," says one University of Delaware professor. "It tells a big story, a regional story, a national story, even an international story. "

In a big weary yellow house in Georgetown, you go down a quiet corridor and through a door and into Guatemala. There is crackly guitar music from another world, and a woman with a braid of black hair down to her knees patting out tortillas. Other women carry stacks of hot tortillas in their bare hands, serving men who sit quietly around long oilcloth-covered tables eating black beans and rice and chicken.

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