Happy Bird Day!
That’s right, today is the thirteenth annual National Bird Day, a time to reflect on the riches birds bring into our lives—their beautiful song and color, the marvel of flight, and a connection to our wilder past. As I turn my attention to the birds outside my window I think about simple things we can all do to enhance their lives and the habitats they depend upon. Here is a quick look at five actions that scientists recommend we do on birds’ behalf.
1.Step outside and marvel at the birds around your home. Connecting with nature reduces stress, enhances our ability to focus and concentrate, and shows us our role in the ecosystem to which we belong. You might be surprised at how many different species share your yard; I’ve recorded more than sixty types of birds in mine. A mixed flock of more than a dozen chickadees brighten a clear winter day with their seemingly endless energy and cherry calls. Juncos, sparrow, towhees, and varied thrush scratch among the leaf litter for seeds, berries, and bugs. Shy birds such as Pacific wrens and Hutton’s vireos skulk about the dense underbrush as they seek a dinner of insects. Every half hour or so I spy a delicate Anna’s hummingbird enduring winter to feed upon the nectar of winter blooming plants and hunt spiders. Her activities provide the crucial service of plant pollination. As I watch, suddenly a Cooper’s hawk streaks in to catch a thrush. The food chain is alive and well in my Pacific forest abode. I am motivated to do more.
2. So, I provide food and shelter. I stock a variety of feeders to bolster the population of birds that adapt to my daily commotion. Sunflower seeds fuel most birds, but I also provide thistle for goldfinches and pine siskins, and nectar for my wintering hummers. Sawyers are busy today working to create snags—standing dead trees—for woodpeckers and chickadees to nest within. Bird boxes would do for some species, but woodpeckers need dead branches and trees to drill within. Attracting birds to my land causes me to improve its safety.
3. I have made my windows more visible by screening them and applying ultraviolet-reflective stickers seen by birds but not by people. I emphasize plants just outside the windows rather than just inside them. Collision with windows is the second-leading source of mortality for birds. The average house kills 2 or 3 birds each year, which adds up to a quarter of a billion deaths annually in the U.S. alone.
4.If I had one, I would keep my cat inside. Outdoor cats kill more birds each year than all other human actions, combined. Recent estimates suggest that house cats kill 2-3 billion birds each year—in the U.S. alone. Keeping cats inside or on a leash outside increases the longevity of the feline and the birds.
5. Each year I reduce the extent and mowing of my turf lawn. By using an electric mower, I also reduce the spillage of gas and oil. Americans annually spill some 17 million gallons of gas while filling up mowers each year! My small “freedom” lawn has emancipated me from a noisy task and provided me with unexpected blooms as well as a place for finches to feast and juncos to nest. The native shrubs and ground cover that replace turf provide cover for sparrows, towhees, and sensitive warblers and wrens.
I hope you will join me in celebrating National Bird Day and using it as an occasion to consider what joy birds bring and what you can do to repay the favor. The actions I suggest above will enliven your winter and bring you a chorus of song throughout the spring and summer. By learning about your avian neighbors you will increase your understanding of the ecological web that entwines all of life, we included. An awareness of our dependency on a healthy environment and why we must sacrifice to maintain it is perhaps the greatest gift birds can give us.
John M. Marzluff is James W. Ridgeway Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington. The author or co-author of more than 130 scientific papers and five books, he is a renowned ornithologist and urban ecologist. His latest book is Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife.