Down to Earth | The free advice of birds
- Published: June 7, 2022
By Bethany Gray
“The ability of the birds to show us the consequences of our own actions is among their most important but least appreciated attributes. Despite the free advice of the birds, we do not pay attention.” — Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, 1947
The month of May annually hosts a return of birds migrating from their southern wintering grounds to breeding grounds farther north. Millions of birds are either passing through and stopping for a spell to refuel, or settling down in Ohio for the nesting season. The second Saturdays of May and October are formally recognized as International Migratory Bird Days. The birds’ journeys and their reproduction, however, are juxtaposed with harsh, lethal challenges.
Since 1970, North America has lost three billion individual birds, nearly 30% of its total (abcbirds.org/3-billion-birds), suffering the heaviest losses among 12 bird families that include sparrows, warblers, finches and swallows. Habitat loss and degradation are the top two reasons, followed by outdoor cats, window collisions and exposure to pesticides and toxins.
Outdoor cats kill billions of birds, small mammals and pollinators, including butterflies, each year, and even if birds don’t die immediately, a cat bite carries bacteria that often leads to their death.
Introduced to the U.S. by European colonists, domestic cat numbers have tripled in the last 40 years. In addition to the recommendation that cats be spayed/neutered to reduce overpopulation, the American Bird Conservancy website provides practical strategies to pet owners making the transition to either containing/limiting the free-roaming of cats outdoors or keeping cats indoors.
The American Veterinary Medical Association describes subsequent benefits to the cats and their humans — an increase in lifespan and reduction in human cruelty, injury and spread of disease.
Eighty percent of birds that migrate do so at night when there is calmer air space and fewer predators, using the moon and stars to navigate. Artificial light is increasing by 2% per year globally, and light pollution disorients birds and causes them to land in vulnerable areas and be prone to collisions; it’s also harming moth populations. During migration, residences and businesses can help by turning off or down-shielding decorative lighting or any big lights that turn upward, eliminating horizontal glare, installing motion-sensing lights wherever possible and turning off unnecessary interior lighting on higher stories.
“Turning off bright lights helps birds move on within minutes, as discovered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and New York City Audubon during the annual 9/11 memorial in New York City.
Hundreds of birds are caught in the memorial’s beams every year but turning them off for just 20 to 30 minutes at a time greatly reduces the density of birds in the area.” (audubon.org/lights-out-program)
Audubon reports that 55–75% of bird-window strikes are lethal. The recently released book “Solid Air: Invisible Killer, Saving Billions of Birds from Windows” describes bird behavior “as if sheet glass is invisible to them.” They often see reflections of vegetation or are drawn to lights in the room at night. Screens, blinds and/or shutters will reduce this. Other options are using clear anti-strike decorative decals or anti-strike film or tape. Keeping bird feeders and birdbaths further away from windows is also helpful. Although some birds may be temporarily stunned after an impact and then resume flying, others may not, or they may be visibly injured. Upon witnessing a bird injury, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and keep the bird in a dark box with air holes and in a quiet area for transport. In this region, contact Brukner Nature Center for songbirds; Glen Helen Raptor Center treats larger birds of prey.
When doing landscape work, if tree or shrub removal or similar work can wait until the fall, it just might save an entire nest of birds either inside cavities or on branches. Keeping partially dead trees and branches — snags — where it is safe offers nesting and food source opportunities where they otherwise would be completely removed. For more information on how to start introducing more sustainable landscape practices, visit nwf.org/CERTIFY.
When we pay attention to the birds, we in turn help ourselves.
For more information, see “101 Ways to Help Birds,” by Laura Erickson.
*The author is a local naturalist and a certified habitat ambassador and educator for the National Wildlife Federation.