Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for January include: (1/5) Jennifer J. Chow, (1/12) Amy Pershing, (1/19) Heather Weidner, (1/26) Marilyn Levinson.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Year of the Bird

By James M Jackson

Northern Gannetts
National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, and a hundred other organizations have joined together to proclaim 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” It’s the one hundredth anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the participating organizations are calling on us to recommit to protecting birds, not only for today, but for the next one hundred years.

I have been a birder for more than forty years. As you read this blog, I’ll be on a birding tour traveling to Antarctica. Over the decades, I’ve gone from inveterate list-keeper (maintaining records of birds seen by year, state, county, backyard, etc.) to someone who now only keeps a single life list of the birds I’ve seen. For several years I banded birds in conjunction with the National Audubon Society. Nowadays, I enjoy photographing them.

It’s natural that I should be interested in The Year of the Bird, but why should nonbirders?

The expression “canary in the coal mine” came about because birds were brought into the deep mines to act as an early warning against methane and carbon monoxide. Birds, being smaller and perhaps processing more air per ounce of weight, would suffocate before the carbon monoxide killed humans or the methane exploded. If the canary fell off its perch, miners needed to get out in a hurry.

Birds serve the same purpose for humans in the world at large. The title for Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, referred to the massive songbird die-offs in our gardens and woods caused by indiscriminate use of DDT. Birds (like humans) are high on the food chain. Chemicals that don’t naturally break down (DDT is one) accumulate in bodies of those who eat infected prey. Not only could DDT kill outright, in larger species that could survive the direct damage, DDT caused egg shells to thin. Thin shells broke during incubation, and populations of birds such as bald eagles and osprey declined rapidly.

Smoggy Manhattan 1963
It became clear to the public that big business was more interested in profit than in the health of the world. The people (finally) rebelled and politicians (finally) listened.

The Clean Air Act passed in 1963. In 1970 President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. During Republican presidencies, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Many other bills passed before and after these that were designed to improve the environment.

In 1963, there were only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower forty-eight states. After DDT was banned, their population expanded to more than 8,000 pairs.[i]

The birds benefited and humans benefited.

And big business bided its time, creating myriads of new wonder-chemicals whose properties are not fully understood. Much of the environmental battle today is being fought over the issue of global warming. Rising global temperatures and shrinking ice packs affect many bird populations, but here birds are not an early warning; rather, like the natives of the Maldives, they are casualties of the changes.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The less known and potentially more devastating situation is that many songbird populations are plunging. AND WE DON’T KNOW WHY. These species are the canaries of our today’s world. We know some species are losing both breeding and wintering grounds habitat. We know feral cats and human edifices kill larger numbers of birds each year. In some cases, introduced species out compete native species (in the East, the house finch continues to take territory away from endemic purple finches). These are human-caused, but not entirely environmentally based.

However, as a class, insect-eating birds seem to be in significant decline. That leads scientists to wonder if current levels and types of insecticide use have led to significant declines in many insect species that are not the primary targets of the chemicals but are a major food source for birds—and pollinators of plants we need to survive.

I write crime novels and so far have touched only indirectly on these environmental issues. However, the protagonist of my Seamus McCree novels is a birder. He may not have a clue about how to cook, or whether that thing on the arm of a couch is a doily or an antimacassar, but he notices birds wherever he is. When birds go silent in the woods, he knows something is amiss. In Empty Promises (April 2018), it’s because other humans are in the woods. Perhaps in another story, the focus will be about the wider environment.

Seamus and I ask you to consider how in this Year of the Bird you can support our bird friends, which as a bonus might just turn out to be our own species’ salvation.

* * *
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is available for pre-order. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at



KM Rockwood said...

I'm always amazed by how much we don't know about things we do to the environment, yet we continue full-force ahead with so many new chemicals, procedures and methods. Dump that plastic waste into the sea! The sea is big; what can it hurt?

Sometimes we stop and take stock of problems we've created (like with DDT) but we continue to maintain that what we do will have minimal impact. We are just beginning to admit that fracking may cause earthquakes and groundwater contamination, yet we continue to expand it.

If you look at some very old National Geographics, the chemical companies are advertising toxic chemicals, proclaiming "Better Living by Chemistry!" When I was a kid, many of us played in the insecticide spray from trucks dispatched to spray for mosquitos. After all, it only killed bugs, and didn't hurt people at all. Or so we thought.

Grace Topping said...

I hope you get to see wonderful birds in your travels to the ends of the earth, Jim.

I so enjoy watching birds, especially the humming birds that come to our feeder. The surprising thing is that if we haven't put the feeder out for the season, they fly around looking for it. I particularly love watching sea birds while at sea. They never cease to amaze me that they can survive so far from land.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

We're responsible for continued survival of birds, bees, and butterflies. I plant milkweed and other plants for butterflies, provide seed and water for birds, and leave underbrush for winter protection.

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, I'm not as big a birder as you are, but I always keep three or more bird feeders filled and I put suet out in a suet container hung out of reach of anything other than birds. I also visited the Cornell ornithology lab some years ago, too. I leave my dead flower heads up all fall and winter long for those birds who feast on flower seeds. I also keep up two hummingbird feeders. I don't use Roundup or any chemical for killing weeds, either. If I see some poison ivy popping up in my gardens from seeds dropped by birds, I put my hand in an empty bread bag, pull it up and toss it in my garbage can. And as you may already know, I have a canary named Pavarotti who loves broccoli, and two old male African ring neck doves given to me years and years ago by a friend of my sisters for my classroom. Three days later the principal said they had to go, and they've lived on for fifteen to twenty years now in my laundry room. I love the different sounds they make - sometimes cooing and sometimes a laughing sound.

I hope you have a wonderful time on your trip