If Protestors are Hanging Snakes and Toads on Nuclear Missile Silos, What Will They Do Next?

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A loggerhead shrike, about to impale its prey. Photo by Andy Morffew.

“Katherine,” said Ray, my husband, trying to keep a neutral tone, “a lieutenant in the U. S.  Air Force Office of Special Investigations from Minot just called to speak to you!”

“What?? Why?”

“I have no idea, he said he needed to ask you some questions. You are to return his call ASAP.”

My heart froze. It was 2001. I was doing research all around Solen, North Dakota.  While I had permission from some of the people whose land I was on, in other places, I wasn’t sure who the land belonged to so I was trespassing. What had I done wrong? The Air Force in Minot wants to talk to me?

I researched Minot Air Force Base and learned that North Dakota – this beautiful, pastoral land covered with lush prairie and rolling hills – housed a formidable destructive force under ground. If the state seceded from the U.S., it would be one of the world’s largest nuclear powers. The Air Force Base has 15 nuclear missile silos, each with ten nuclear-tipped missiles buried 70 feet below ground. If launched they could destroy a large chunk of the world’s population. One sees nothing but concrete on the surface, with a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Military security officers regularly check to make certain the facilities are secure from trespassers, terrorists, and environmental activists.

From the surface, you would not know this area contains nuclear silos. Photo from pbs.org.

When I returned the phone call, the Lieutenant’s calm manner reassured me that I was not in any trouble. He explained why I was called.

Early in July, security officers found snakes, toads, and mice dangling from the barbed wire, still alive and wriggling. Immediately, men were deployed to check all the silos. They were startled to find creepy creatures hanging on thirteen of the silo fences. The Air Force commander was shaken: Are the activists up to something new now? Was this a sign of an impending attack?

The commander ordered men to watch the areas, arrest any intruders and look out for suspicious characters. Zealous security details observed clandestinely and wrote down license numbers of cars that drove past the silos.  They interrogated youngsters who bicycled past. They took detailed notes of anything unusual, but found nothing. Still more critters appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on top of the silo fences.

One morning, a farmer sat chatting with the security officers parked at one of a missile silos. A bird flew over and pulled off a snake. The farmer remarked, “Yep, that’s a shrike. They put the snake there for their nestlings and now they’re taking it back to the nest.”

“Ridiculous,” thought the security officers. But they had to report any information, no matter how off-the-wall it seemed. To verify the farmer’s comment, the administration phoned the Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

“Is there a bird called a shrike capable of impaling snakes, voles, and other small animals onto barbed wire?”

“Yes indeed, the birds are called loggerhead shrikes. The primary expert in North Dakota at the moment is Katherine Haas, conducting research in Solen.”

The commander wanted me to go to the nuclear missile sites and help identify the shrikes. I told him that I was not an expert, my daughter Carola Haas is. However, I was continuing the bird research she had begun with her doctoral thesis and was capable of locating and identifying the shrike nests. So we agreed that Ray and I would go to Minot.

To trap birds for banding, Katherine sets up 10-meter mist nets across the birds’ flight path. Photo by Ray Haas.

The commander also asked for a video tape of shrikes to visually verify the shrikes’ strange behavior.  I said I would bring a 10 minute film by the Game and Fish folks of my daughter Carola’s research project on shrikes. In the film, one could see us banding these beautiful robin-sized birds with sharp curved bills, and one could see shrikes flying and piercing their prey on thorns and barbed wire.

Early in the morning the following week, a two officers arrived in a Jeep Cherokee to pick us up. They had guns and handcuffs strapped to their sides and the Cherokee was equipped with hidden sirens and lights. Ray and I were dressed in slightly torn clothes because we knew we’d be climbing trees where shrikes nested.

On the way to Minot, we stopped by the video department of the Department of Game and Fish in Bismarck to pick up the tape. The videographer asked , “Could I come along to tape this story of how foolish the Minot folks were to think that it was protestors who were impaling the creatures?”

The officers got quite upset, “How did you find out? It was top secret! Mr. and Mrs. Haas, you are not to tell anyone about this when we arrive in Minot. If the folks at the motel ask why you guys are here, just say you are visiting.”

We took the videotape and left.  About noon, we stopped at a café for lunch.  Ray finished lunch earlier than the rest of us and stepped outside to smoke his cigarette.  A customer, who had noticed the guns and handcuffs on the officers, ran to the officers and shouted, “He’s getting away!!!” I guess he thought Ray and I, in our grungy clothes, were prisoners being transported.

Later, in Minot, we went to about half the sites, where we identified the shrikes and climbed trees to find their nests. The next day we finished surveying the rest of the sites where shrikes had impaled their catch to feed their young.  It was an interesting adventure for us.

Now, as I think back on the events of 2001, and consider the frequent threat of nuclear attack and world annihilation, I can rest assured that at least we are safe from attacks of the dangerous shrikes.

Katherine, with her mom, holds a bird for banding. Photo by Ray Haas.

Katherine Haas taught at Key School in Annapolis for 42 years. She now spends her time enjoying the arts with her husband, learning Spanish while her Arabic teacher is in China, teaching Chinese, working part-time at Key as Scientist in Residence and engaging in progressive activism.

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