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February 2020

Vol. 48, No. 1

Musings from the Blind Birder: Helping Birds: What Can I Do?

Martha Steele

The recent and widely publicized news of a nearly 30 percent drop in the number of birds in the United States and Canada—or about three billion birds—since 1970 gave me great pause. Think about that: a drop of nearly 30 percent in the number of birds. The study, conducted by researchers at several institutions, including the American Bird Conservancy, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), examined Breeding Bird Atlas and Christmas Bird Count data, as well as international shorebird surveys and weather radar data, for 529 species. The authors did not evaluate reasons for their reported declines but hypothesized that habitat loss may be the primary culprit with other factors that could include pesticides and climate change.

The authors reported on the loss of birds across the broad spectrum of families, with only waterfowl and raptors showing gains, which the authors attributed to the ban of DDT as well as government programs that have conserved large wetland areas. Grassland birds have been particularly hard hit, with a 53 percent decline overall in the number of birds in this habitat.

Beyond giving me pause about the loss of so many birds, it made me focus squarely on my own habits and inclinations on a day to day basis. What can I, one person in a sea of one billion people in the Americas where our birds live, do better to help address such a staggering loss of birds? Or why should I care?

Helping birds is a highly personal issue for me. Simply put, I love birds. I love to bird. I love talking about birds. I love the challenge of identifying birds. I love listening to birds in whatever environment they happen to be. I love the ebb and flow of the seasons, the comings and goings throughout the year, and wishing them well on their journeys that have become increasingly perilous due to diminishing habitat availability.

And why do I love birds? This is sort of like asking why I love my husband, my mother, my brothers, my cousins, my friends. Beyond the profound enjoyment of being in the presence of birds, I am often awed by their beauty, their spectacular courtship displays, their bouncy, buzzy, mournful, or (add your adjective) songs, their diversity, and their otherworldly behaviors and abilities that include biannual migrations spanning thousands of miles.

Reductions in the number of birds—and make no mistake, reductions of nearly 30 percent are staggering—mean that my enjoyment of birds and birding is seriously threatened, and that matters to me. Wandering Mount Auburn Cemetery on a quiet May morning is not a lot of fun, as birders commiserate over the silence and then rush en masse to a single tree with a few migrant warblers. Similarly, my heart sinks if the woods around my Vermont home seem much quieter than usual, with fewer thrushes or White-throated Sparrows gracing the air with their melodious songs.

Fortunately, we are in a position to help reverse this trend. The Science article describing the study findings (Pennisi, E. 2019. Three billion North American birds have vanished since 1970, surveys show, Science, September 19, 2019) was accompanied by recommended policies or actions that can be supported by birders and other conservationists. On the macro scale, government support of such programs as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, funding programs that focus on habitat conservation, enacting the Recovering America's Wildlife Act, and advancing climate solutions would help bird conservation efforts. It is important to pay attention to policies and laws on the local, regional, national, and international level and be engaged and educated about supporting elected officials and policies that speak to our passion for birds and their habitats. Any legislative aide that I have ever spoken with stresses that it makes a difference when we call our elected representatives and advocate for laws and funding for whatever issue it is, and that most certainly can include habitat and bird conservation efforts.

On the micro level, there are well known steps that have long been encouraged, such as keeping your cats indoors, taking steps to prevent collisions with your windows, supporting Smithsonian Bird Friendly ® shade grown coffee, minimizing use of plastics that could be consumed by or entrap birds, or avoiding pesticide use on and managing your property for wildlife diversity. We can also financially support nonprofit organizations that focus specifically on habitat or bird conservation strategies here in North America and throughout the hemisphere.

Other steps that I have considered for myself are a little more uncomfortable. For example, I have often pondered the contradictions between my strong support of environmental protection policies and addressing climate change while also riding in vehicles far and wide, thereby leaving a significant carbon footprint, to see birds others have already reported to add to my year list of a county or state. The contradiction, of course, is the contribution I am making to greenhouse gases through my riding in gasoline-powered vehicles that do no favors to our environment, including our birds, all for what can arguably be considered my selfish desire to increase my species list for the year. Sure, my records of birds contribute to the database of bird sightings but chasing a bird that has already been recorded by one or more others in order to add it to my personal list does not add knowledge or particularly useful data. My birding talent, such as it is, may best help the subjects of my passion by a lower emphasis on compiling high species counts and a greater emphasis on documenting birds in my local areas.

While some may make a similar argument regarding our impact on the climate by flying throughout the globe in search of birds, we cannot ignore the fact that ecotourism is a major factor in helping to conserve habitat for flora and fauna. As noted in a recent New York Times editorial,

Among the most important conservation lessons to emerge in the past 25 years is this: When local communities benefit from tourism, they become partners and allies in saving nature. Without that support, conservation will forever be an uphill battle. If the job that feeds your family and sends your kids to school depends on international visitors paying to see a wild elephant or to experience a coral reef teeming with marine life, that builds a global constituency for saving biodiversity right now. (Christ, C. 2019. What if All that Flying is Good for the Planet? Opinion, New York Times, November 19, 2019)

I have for many years made a point of telling locals when I visit a restaurant, store, or lodging facility that I am visiting to see the birds in their community. It is a small but important action that I hope helps to educate local populations of the economic benefit of protecting the environment and its inhabitants.

For years now, we have been worried about negative bird population trends and this latest study just puts an exclamation point on these trends. As I dig deeper into my own actions, I urge anyone interested in birds to also think about what you might do at any macro or micro level beyond what you are doing now. Readers of this column are certainly already making enormous contributions to bird conservation by the simple act of birding and documenting what you see, as well as participating in annual bird surveys. Still, it is fair to ask ourselves if there is anything else we may do, however small it may seem to us. Serious birders are not alone in the potential impact we can make on bird conservation efforts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that about 43 million Americans watch birds around their homes or elsewhere. This means that many Americans could take simple but effective steps that together could make a significant impact on reversing the downward population trend. If the people who are most interested in birds do not help, then who will?

It matters that birds are protected because in so doing, we help protect ourselves. Birds are pollinators, they disperse seeds, they help control agricultural or other pests, and more. They inhabit just about every corner of the earth, including our vast oceans and the most inhospitable environments, perhaps more widely dispersed than any other life form short of microorganisms (Franzen, J. 2018. Why Birds Matter and Should be Protected, National Geographic, January 2018).

Despite everything we have thrown at them, birds still grace our daily lives. As Jonathan Franzen writes in "Why Birds Matter and Should be Protected:"

The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. They're the other world-dominating animals that evolution has produced, and their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we're not the measure of all things. The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without. Birds live squarely in the present. And at present, although our cats and our windows and our pesticides kill billions of them every year, and although some species, particularly on oceanic islands, have been lost forever, their world is still very much alive. In every corner of the globe, in nests as small as walnuts or as large as haystacks, chicks are pecking through their shells and into the light.

We should not take for granted what we can still enjoy. The birds deserve our help in seeing the light for many millennia into the future. And, I would argue, we humans would benefit not just economically but also in our souls. Think about the times where you have experienced pure joy as you watched or listened to a particularly memorable bird or birding experience. It did not matter what was going on with your life or around you, it only mattered that you too were living in the moment, oblivious to everything except your uplifted heart and soaring spirits. For me, these rare moments of all-consuming joy occur most often in the presence of birds. This is fundamentally why birds matter so much to me and why I hope I can help ensure these moments for the rest of my life and in the lives of others that follow me.


Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at <marthajs@verizon.net>


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