An illustration of a woman surrounded by animals as she nature watches
Fionna Fernandes

The Bird Saver

Our thought-provoking play follows scientist and nature writer Rachel Carson in her battle to expose the truth about the pesticide DDT.

By Based on the life of Rachel Carson
From the May / June 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify the theme of a biographical play about environmental writer and activist Rachel Carson.

Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50
Topics: Animals,


This play has a powerful message about how one person can change the world we live in. Look for it as you read.


Choose the character you will play. *Starred characters have large speaking roles.

*Narrators 1, 2 (N1, N2)

*Olga Huckins, a bird lover

Stuart Huckins, Olga’s husband

*Rachel Carson, a science writer

Miss Benson, a rancher

Mr. Murphy, a farmer

Actors 1, 2

Paul Brooks, Rachel’s editor

Executives 1, 2, 3 (E1, E2, E3)


Massachusetts, 1957

Fionna Fernandes

N1: Olga and Stuart Huckins sit on their front porch, sipping iced tea.

N2: A thick green forest surrounds their house.

N1: Birds chirp as a warm breeze blows through the trees.

N2: Suddenly, there is a loud whirring noise.

Olga: What is that?

Stuart (pointing): Look there.

N1: They watch a plane fly over their land. It releases a spray that settles over the woods.

Olga: That plane is spraying pesticide again!

Stuart: It’s just killing the mosquitoes.

N2: Olga and Stuart take a walk through the woods.

N1: All of a sudden, Olga gasps.

N2: Five songbirds lie on the ground—dead.

Olga: Something is terribly wrong.

N1: There is a thud.

N2: A robin drops from a tree branch above.

N1: Its beak hangs open. Its claws are twisted in pain.

Olga: What a horrible death.

Stuart: What can we do?

Olga: I’m going to write to my friend Rachel Carson.

Stuart: The nature writer?

Olga: Yes. She knows people in government. Maybe she can help us.

Rachel Carson’s home in Maryland

N2: Rachel sits at a small desk covered with open letters.

N1: She picks one up and reads it.

Olga (voice): Dear Rachel, I do not know what to do. The state of Massachusetts is spraying poison on our woods—without asking us. The birds are dying.

Rachel Carson (to herself): I bet it’s that pesticide DDT.

N2: She reads another letter.

Miss Benson (voice): My horse drank water after DDT was sprayed on our farm. She died hours later.

N1: Rachel picks up a third letter, frowning.

Mr. Murphy (voice): My ducklings are hatching with strange illnesses. Many do not hatch at all. And my piglets . . .

N2: Rachel dials the phone.

Rachel: Mr. Murphy, this is Rachel Carson. I’d like to come visit your farm.


Poison Everywhere

In places with insect problems, planes sprayed fields and crops with DDT. Trucks rolled through towns and filled the air with DDT spray.

Mr. Murphy’s farm in Pennsylvania

N1: Rachel stands outside a pigpen with Mr. Murphy.

Mr. Murphy: Thank you for coming, Miss Carson. I’ve read your magazine articles, and I thought you could help.

Rachel: I’m glad you wrote.

Mr. Murphy: What you are about to see will upset you.

N2: Mr. Murphy leads Rachel inside his pigpen.

N1: Seven newborn piglets lie still next to their mother.

Mr. Murphy: The entire litter was born dead.

Rachel: How long has this been happening?

Mr. Murphy: Nine months ago, our farm was sprayed with DDT. Since then, not one pig has been born alive.

N2: Rachel shakes her head sadly.

Rachel: I am going to do something about this.

Rachel’s hotel room, that night

N1: Rachel listens to the radio. A commercial comes on.

Actor 1: Are insects destroying your crops?

Actor 2: Are your farm animals bothered by flies?

Actor 1: Are your children being bitten by mosquitoes?

Actor 2: Now you can enjoy the insect-killing powers of DDT.

Actor 1: It’s healthy and safe!

Actor 2: Bigger vegetables, juicier fruits—all free from ugly worms.

Actor 1: Your cows will produce 20 percent more milk.

Actor 2: And your kids will be safe from disease when you get rid of pests with . . .

Actors 1 and 2: . . . DDT!

N2: Rachel turns off the radio.

Rachel: DDT is not safe. People need to know the truth.


Miracle Chemical?

Ads like this one from 1946 told families to spray their windows and walls with DDT products—and people listened.

Rachel’s home, 1960

N1: Three years later, Rachel sits at her desk with a tall stack of notes.

N2: The phone rings. It is Rachel’s editor.

Paul Brooks: Rachel, how is the book coming?

Rachel: I need more time.

Brooks: But you’ve already spent years talking to farmers, scientists, and doctors.

Rachel: Yes, but the story of pesticides is much worse than we thought. DDT is meant to kill pests, but it affects every living thing.

Brooks: How so?

Rachel: The chemicals contaminate our soil and our streams. They end up in the food we eat and the water we drink.

Brooks: You’ve always said that all of nature is connected.

Rachel: Paul, I had such a haunting nightmare last night.

Brooks: What was it?

Rachel: Picture an ordinary American town on the first day of spring— except there are no chirping birds, no flowers or bushes or trees.

N1: Rachel shivers.

Rachel: There are no people and no children. Nothing lives. The stores and playgrounds are empty. The streams and rivers have no fish. Everything is deadly quiet. A silent spring.

Brooks (quietly): Silent spring . . . I think you’ve got your book title.


A mother uses DDT to protect her child’s room from bugs and mosquitoes.

A meeting room, 1962

N2: Executives from chemical companies sit at a big table.

N1: Sunlight streams through the windows, but the mood in the room is dark.

N2: A book lies on the table. Executive 1 jabs his finger at it.

Executive 1: Did you read Rachel Carson’s book? She says we are poisoning Americans.

Executive 2: She’s not even a scientist.

Executive 3: Actually, she’s a marine biologist.

E1: She’s a nature-loving nut who wants to ban ALL pesticides.

E3: No she doesn’t. She says we should study the effects of pesticides more carefully before using them.

E2: Pesticides have saved the world.

E1: Without them, insects would eat all our crops.

E2: People would have no food.

E1: Bugs and disease would rule the Earth.

E3: But what if she’s right? What if our chemicals are harmful?

E2: Whose side are you on?

E3: I just . . .

E1: People will stop buying pesticides if they think the chemicals are dangerous.

E2: Our business will be ruined.

N1: Executive 1 pounds his fist on the table.

E1: We’ve got to convince the public not to trust her.

Rachel’s home, 1963

N2: The chemical companies say Rachel’s book Silent Spring is a hoax.

N1: But it becomes a best-seller.

N2: A television reporter comes to her house.

Reporter: Miss Carson, the chemical companies say their products are safe.

Rachel: These companies aren’t here to protect the public. They want to make money.

Reporter: About 900 million pounds of pesticides were used last year. Are they all dangerous?

Rachel: The problem is that pesticides don’t just kill bad insects.

Reporter: Please explain.

Rachel: Say bark beetles are spreading disease in elm trees. DDT is sprayed on these trees to kill the beetles.

Reporter: That’s good, right?

Rachel: But the leaves of these trees are now coated in poison. The leaves fall to the ground. Then earthworms eat them.

Reporter: I see.

Rachel: Birds eat the earthworms. Now the birds are poisoned.

Reporter: And how might DDT harm humans?

Rachel: Cows eat hay that has been sprayed with DDT.

N1: The reporter nods.

Rachel: DDT ends up in the milk and meat we get from those cows. This can make people sick—it may even cause cancer.

Reporter: Why did you write this book, Miss Carson?

Rachel: I hope it will inspire people to think differently about nature.

Reporter: What do you mean?

Rachel: Humans are a part of nature, so a war against nature is a war against ourselves.


Fionna Fernandes

N2: Characters speak directly to the audience.

Rachel: Chemical companies called me a liar.

E1: That only made Silent Spring more popular.

Stuart: Americans began making sure pesticides were used more carefully in their communities.

Olga: President John F. Kennedy read the book.

Miss Benson: Then he ordered a committee to investigate Rachel Carson’s claims.

Mr. Murphy: And in 1972, DDT was banned in the U.S.

N1: Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency—the EPA—was formed.

N2: Its mission is to protect human health . . .

N1: . . . and to keep our air, water, and land safe.

Rachel: To make sure that no spring is ever silent.

This play was originally published in the May / June 2018 issue.  

Activities (8)
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (2)
Answer Key (2)
Activities (8) Download All Activities
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (2)
Answer Key (2)

More About the Story


theme, fluency, vocabulary, mood, inference, character’s motivation, character, problem and solution, main idea, critical thinking, explanatory writing, theme

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

The play tells the true story of how environmental writer Rachel Carson exposed the dangers of the pesticide DDT. It illustrates an important idea: One determined person can make a big difference.


The play is written in chronological order and broken into seven scenes and an epilogue.


The play generally uses short sentences and simple words, but includes some challenging domain-specific vocabulary (pesticide, contaminate, marine biologist) and figurative language.

Knowledge Demands 

The text refers to former President John F. Kennedy, and to bugs as carriers of disease. Some familiarity with the science of ecosystems will be helpful.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (20 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • Direct students’ attention to the words “Based on the life of Rachel Carson” on page 21. Explain that Carson was a well-known American scientist and nature writer in the mid-1900s. 
  • Have students preview the play’s text features. Then read aloud the Up Close box on page 21, inviting them to predict how Carson might have changed the world. 
  • Distribute the vocabulary activity to preview challenging words. Highlighted terms: pesticide, litter, executives, marine biologist, hoax, investigate

2. Reading the Play

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes, activity sheet online)

Close-Reading Questions (20 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • In Scene 1, which words and phrases help create a dark mood? Why might the author have wanted to create this mood? (mood)
    Words and phrases such as “gasps,” “terribly wrong,” “twisted in pain,” and “horrible death” help create a dark mood. The author likely creates this mood to help readers understand that the problems caused by pesticides were very serious and frightening. 
  • According to Scenes 2 and 3, what effects does DDT have on animals? Why do you think people wrote letters to Rachel Carson describing these effects? (inference)
    DDT causes animals to get sick and even die. People probably wrote to Carson because she was a popular science writer, and they hoped she’d warn the public about DDT’s dangers. 
  • In Scene 4, what does the radio commercial say about DDT? How might this affect what Rachel does next? (character’s motivation)
    The commercial says that DDT controls pesky insects and is “healthy and safe.” But from the letters she has received, Rachel knows DDT is harmful. The ad’s lies make Rachel feel that “people need to know the truth,” which is likely what leads her to write a book. 
  • What do you learn about Rachel’s character from Scene 5? Answer using evidence from the scene. (character/theme)
    You learn that Rachel is extremely hardworking and thorough, and is determined to help the environment: She has spent years talking to farmers, scientists, and doctors to uncover the truth about DDT for her book. 
  • At the end of Scene 5, Rachel describes a nightmare she had about a “silent spring.” What can you infer about the cause of the nightmare? (inference)
    You can infer that Rachel’s nightmare was a result of her research on DDT’s terrible effects. She was dreaming about a world in which life on Earth had been destroyed by pesticides. 
  • Reread Scene 6. What problem is Rachel’s book creating for chemical company executives? How do they decide to solve this problem? (problem and solution)
    By exposing the dangers of pesticides, Rachel’s book could lead people to stop buying them; this could force the chemical companies to go out of business. The executives decide to solve this problem by telling people that Rachel is lying. 
  • What do you learn in Scene 7 about how DDT makes animals and humans sick? How does the infographic on page 24 add to your understanding? (main idea)
    In this scene, you learn that DDT makes animals and humans sick by moving up the food chain. For example, when DDT is sprayed on elm trees, earthworms eat the trees’ fallen leaves, and then birds eat the earthworms. The infographic explains that DDT builds up in birds’ bodies over time, poisoning them.

Critical-Thinking Questionss (activity sheet online)

  • Think about Rachel’s line at the end of Scene 7: “Humans are a part of nature, so a war against nature is a war against ourselves.” In your own words, explain what she means. Use examples from the play. (critical thinking)
    Rachel means that humans are deeply connected to the natural world, so any damage we inflict on nature will end up affecting us as well. For example, by trying to kill bothersome bugs with DDT, people accidentally poisoned creatures they loved and needed, like birds—and even themselves. 
  • A person’s legacy is the lasting effect they leave behind after they’ve died. What is Rachel Carson’s legacy? (theme)
    Rachel’s legacy is making Americans aware of the need to protect the environment. As a result of her best-selling book, people began demanding that pesticides be used more carefully, DDT was banned in the U.S., and the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Theme

  • Have students work in small groups to complete the theme activity. Then have them respond to the writing prompt on page 25.

  • Write a Skit In small groups, have students choose another famous environmental hero (e.g. John Muir, David Suzuki) to research online. They should use the information they gather to write a short biographical skit about the person, using this play as a model. Each group can then perform its skit for the others.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Have students read the play again in pairs. As they read, they should underline the actions Rachel took to help protect nature in America. They can then use their underlines to write a thank-you letter to Rachel Carson for her work. 

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to read our article “How America Beat Malaria” (the pairing for “The Deadliest Animal on Earth”) from January 2016. Then have them write a short essay on the history of DDT use in America, using details from both the article and the play. 

For ELL Students

ELLs might not recognize the names of the various creatures mentioned in the play (e.g., mosquito, songbird, duckling). Have them go online to determine the meaning of each one, then create an illustrated animal picture dictionary in a medium of their choice. 

For Guided Reading

Read this play with your guided reading groups, using our close-reading and critical-thinking questions to discuss the main theme of the play. Then have these students work independently on the theme activity sheet while you work with other groups.