Sometimes I encounter a bird during the week and I can’t get it out of my mind.  This blog post is the result of that experience. I always prefer to write about their beauty and success stories, but occasionally I am confronted with the result of deadly challenges they face day in and day out. I feel it’s important to talk about these challenges and what we can do to help the birds to overcome them and survive.

I was done with my 30 minutes of exercise at the Fitness Center and as I walked along the sidewalk back to my car, my eyes were drawn to a small, lifeless, feathered body stuck in the plastic grill of a sporty red car.  I couldn’t tell at first what species it was, but its feathers were a gorgeous, bright yellow.  When I bent down to remove the poor creature from its trap, I found that its head was caught tight. I pulled up slightly to separate the bars of the grill and then I could see this was a male Common Yellowthroat warbler. He wears a broad Male Common Yellowthroat warblerdistinctive black mask over his eyes.  It was sad enough that he was dead, but when he was hit, he was carrying a beak full of tiny caterpillars and they were still clamped in his bill. This means he was on his way back to a nest to feed his young.

I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but I imagine his mate wondering and growing worried when he didn’t return.  In my mind I see that nest with little beaks open and begging for food and now there is just one very exhausted mother bird trying to keep up the feeding schedule.  It’s unlikely all of those chicks will survive with only one parent left to feed them.

In the very best of times, 50% of all birds will die in their first year.  There are so many hazards out there; both natural and human made.  We can’t do much when it comes to weather or most predators, which birds have evolved to cope with over the eons, but we can have a significant impact on other threats they face.

If I were to make a list of causes of bird mortality it would include in this order; loss of habitat, glass windows (the most recent estimates say 360 to 980 million birds die each year from window collisions), free roaming cats (it’s a toss-up between windows and cats as to which is worse), cars, wind generators, cell towers, pesticides and Climate Change.

Loss of habitat includes both North and South America since so many of ‘our’ birds spend part of their lives each year in each hemisphere.  Development for housing, roads, and shopping centers eat up millions of acres of habitat yearly.  Then there is unsustainable, clear cut logging, as well as mining and oil exploration.  As each grassland, wetland and forest disappears, birds will ultimately decline and this is something we can’t see on a day to day basis. It is over the years that we start to notice that some of our favorite singers are fewer in number or altogether absent.  And then it is too late.

Since we know what birds are up against, what can we do to protect them and reverse their decline?  Many things actually – both on the personal, backyard level, as well as on a greater scale.  Here are my suggestions:

  1. Keep your cat indoors!! These domestic creatures we love to snuggle with are deadly killers when it comes to birds. It is instinctual. While it is impossible to know the exact numbers of birds killed by cats each year, the classic study done in Wisconsin estimated a minimum of 7.8 million and possibly upward of 219 million. That’s ONE state in ONE year.  You do the extrapolation to 50 states.
    Screens on the outside of the windows help prevent bird strikes.

    Screens on the outside of the windows help prevent bird strikes.

  2. Put screens on the outside of your windows, or a variety of decals or film, or netting of some sort. Or drop the shades. Anything to let birds ‘know’ that the window is there. Check out for ideas.
  3. Put up bird houses, with varying size openings. Many birds need cavities for their nests and they no longer have access to lots of hollow, dead trees or fence posts.
  4. Bird feeding is always important.  Keep your feeders filled with a variety of bird food.  Place the feeders closer than three feet or further than 30 feet from your house. That way birds are either too close to build up speed or far enough away to veer in other directions if spooked.
  5. Create a water source – a small pond or even a commercial bird bath. (You will be delighted by the antics of bathing birds)
  6. Buy ‘Shade grown’ coffee. Yes, there is such a thing and it helps preserve rain forests in South and Central America.
  7. Plant native trees and shrubs – as many as your yard can reasonably accommodate.

On a bigger national and world scale there are very important steps to take.

  1. Join any organizations that are fighting to preserve habitat. They need our support now more than ever.
  2. Write or call your legislators frequently to let them know you are concerned about actions that threaten wildlife (and ultimately us). Right now we have an administration that is ready to roll back decades worth of protections set up for our land, air and water.
  3. Buy a Duck Stamp, whether you’re a hunter or not. A high percentage of these funds go create and protect bird habitat.

You get the general idea.  Bird watching is what we enjoy, but we cannot just sit passively as the birds come to our yards, we must actively work on their behalf.  I realize removing that little warbler from the grill of the sports car was not what most people would do, but I strongly believe that all living creatures deserve our respect. I cannot bring that life back but I will continue to speak out on its behalf.  I hope you will too.

By Kate Crowley