By James M Jackson
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.
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.
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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 https://jamesmjackson.com