Mystery Bird Deaths, Flood Recovery And A Hidden History Of Eugenics In Appalachia


This week on Inside Appalachia, we’ve got an eclectic mix of stories from across central Appalachia. We check in with residents in Kentucky who are struggling with the aftermath of devastating floods there five months ago. We also learn about the dark history of Eugenics in Virginia. We’ll talk with author Elizabeth Catte. You might remember her as the author of “What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia.”

We’ll hear about her new book, “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia.” And we talk with biologists who are trying to figure out what’s causing a mysterious illness that’s killing birds across the region. And on a lighter note, we travel to an artist retreat center outside Asheville, North Carolina, where writers come to enjoy nature and focus on writing.

In This Episode:

Mysterious Illness Killing Songbirds

Sick and dying songbirds are being reported across the mid-Atlantic — including here in Appalachia. Some wildlife officials are asking people to take down their bird feeders and birdbaths this summer to potentially stop the spread of the mysterious illness. The Allegheny Front’s Andy Kubis reports from Pennsylvania.

While many officials are recommended people stop feeding birds until this illness slows down, others say there’s room for more flexibility. Ethan Barton is a wildlife disease specialist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He recently spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Eric Douglas about the possible causes of bird deaths throughout the region.

Experts are encouraging the public to follow these five precautionary measures until more is known:

  • Cease feeding birds and providing water in birdbaths until this wildlife mortality event has concluded to prevent potential spread between birds and to other wildlife.
  • Clean feeders and birdbaths with a 10% bleach solution.
  • Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it’s necessary to handle a bird.
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.
  • To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard them with household trash. This will prevent disease transmission to other birds and wildlife.

You can report sick or dead birds online to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources District Office that serves your area. Pennsylvania residents can report sightings to the Wildlife Futures Program.

Artist Residency Offers Peaceful Oasis

People from across the U.S. come to Appalachia every year to find serenity in the mountains. In western North Carolina, a program offers that opportunity to artists looking for a peaceful place to write. Marjorie Dial, a ceramic artist, has converted the former home of a pottery studio into Township 10, a retreat for artists to get away and focus on their craft.


Courtesy Matt Peiken/Blue Ridge Public Radio
Marjorie Dial has converted the former home of East Fork Pottery into Township 10, as a retreat to honor artists’ creative processes.

“Artists are asked to do so much to make their work, explain their work, promote their work, sell their work,” she said. “This idea started to germinate in me of creating a place where artists felt supported and valued and a sense of affection around making work and going deeply into it.”

Blue Ridge Public Radio’s Matt Peiken reports from outside Asheville, North Carolina.

Nancy Smith Interviews Loulu Judd

In the early 20th century, the government forcibly removed hundreds of families from the land that would soon become Shenandoah National Park. Loulu Judd was one of those whose families were displaced. She was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1903, the oldest of 11 children. In 1975, Judd spoke with Nancy Smith about growing up in the mountains in an area called Big Meadows. Their conversation is part of the Shenandoah National Park oral history collection, which is housed at James Madison University. Loula Judd’s story was edited and produced by With Good Reason which is a program of Virginia Humanities.


New Book Tells Dark History Of Eugenics

The story of people being pushed aside to make way for the Shenandoah National Park is part of a dark history that is rarely told. The park’s early advocates portrayed mountain people that lived there as backwards to help justify removing them from the land. A similar idea helped drive a global movement around the same time called eugenics. Eugenicists used the “backwards” justification and took it a step further: They argued that certain people were unfit to produce — and so should be forcibly sterilized so they could never have children.

Author Elizabeth Carre wrote about the campaign to push people out of Shenandoah National Park in her first book, “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.” Her new book, called “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia” expands upon that history and ties it to the eugenics movement. Western State Hospital, in Catte’s town of Staunton, Virginia, was just one place where patients were sterilized against their will. Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams recently interviewed Catte about the book.

Flood Victims Still Struggling Five Months Later

It’s been almost five months since floods devastated multiple counties in Eastern Kentucky. Deadlines to receive federal aid have been extended twice, but affected communities are still struggling to get help.


Courtesy Corinne Boyer/Ohio Valley ReSource
Jon Allen points out damage on Blaines Branch Road

As the region recovers from the floods, subsequent summer rains have disrupted the efforts. Some people there are even questioning whether staying is a viable option — could these floods become a recurring reality? This week on the show, we hear a two-part story from The Ohio Valley ReSource’s Katie Myers and Corinne Boyer on recovery efforts in the area.

Federal Grant Program Aims To Address Learning Loss

In the fall of 2020, one-third of K-12 students in the Mountain State failed at least one core subject, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. The state responded with a program called “Summer Student Opportunities for Learning and Engagement,” or ‘SOLE.’ It’s funded by a $32 million federal grant that paid for programs across the state. As June Leffler reports, school districts had the flexibility to develop customized programs to address learning loss and social needs.

Farm Aims To Teach Children Mindfulness

Southwest of Charleston in Wayne County, West Virginia, a farm called, “Out Wayne” is offering outdoor opportunities to children. This summer, children who attended the program went there to pick herbs, feed chickens and learn about mindfulness. Reporter Kyle Vass visited the farm as part of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting series “Closing the COVID Gap.”


We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from Blue Ridge Public Radio in Asheville, North Carolina, With Good Reason, in Charlottesville, Virginia, The Allegheny Front in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and WEKU in Richmond, Kentucky, and WMMT in Whitesburg.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, from a 2016 Mountain Stage Performance at the Byham Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We also heard music by Anna and Elizabeth, Dinosaur Burps and Wes Swing.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to