Save Birds, Save Ourselves

2018 is the Year of the Bird. Here’s what you can do with your coffee, your windows, your lights and your garden to help preserve our imperiled, feathered friends -- and ourselves.

Five Figures to Consider

50% loss in migratory songbirds since the 1970s
33% - 70% loss in North American grassland birds since 1970
$430 million annual economic impact of wetlands conservation on hunting and bird watching
10 times more chemicals on an acre of typical suburban lawn than on an acre of farmland
83% reduction in bird kills by turning out building lights

It’s the year of the president, playboy bunnies and porn stars. If you think such news is for the birds, consider this: 2018 IS the Year of the Bird. Really. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, legislation that saved from extinction the snowy egret, the wood duck, the sandhill crane and numerous other species that had been hunted for game, feathers or sport. Birds play an essential role in our environment as insect-eaters, seed-carriers, carrion consumers, markers of environmental health and entertainment for tourists, hunters and backyard birders. This year, bird is the word.

Of the 1,154 North American bird species,  427 need urgent conservation action. Looking for something you can do? Switch to bird-friendly coffee. Seventy-four species of North American birds, including Baltimore orioles, American redstarts, ruby-throated hummingbirds and black-throated blue warblers, winter in the canopies of native trees in Central and South American shade coffee farms, habitat that has been disappearing for decades as a result of clear-cutting for high-yield, full-sun coffee. Today, only 24% of the cultivated area for coffee is devoted to shade coffee. One result of the deforestation: a 50% population decline in migratory songbirds since the 1970s. Shade coffee not only provides superior pest control (birds eat insects), pollination (birds pollinate plants), climate regulation (trees store CO2) and soil health (less erosion, more nutrients), it tastes better. You can support biodiverse coffee farms, climate stabilization and your own backyard birds by buying shade-grown coffee. Look for beans certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center or the Rainforest Alliance.

Habitat that is healthy for birds benefits people, too. That’s the reasoning behind the bird protection programs in the Farm Bill, which is up for its five-year reauthorization in 2018. Given the current administration’s efforts to cut EPA environmental programs, it seems likely the Farm Bill will face new scrutiny, too. What has the Bill accomplished for birds and our environment? Its incentives to ranchers and farmers to restore habitat reversed decades of decline in the populations of wetland, forest and grassland birds, which had experienced losses between 33% and 70% since 1970. The Bill’s Sodsaver and Swampbuster programs have preserved thousands of acres of wetlands and grasslands, resulting in cleaner water, reduced flood risk and more insect-eating birds in croplands, which reduces the need for insecticides. Duck populations have increased by 4 million, a bounty for hunters, bird watchers and the travel industry. The annual economic impact of the improved hunting and birdwatching has been estimated at $430 million in the Upper Midwest Prairie Pothole Region alone.

If you don’t have spare acreage, you can still foster a bird habitat in your yard or even on your deck by growing native plants that supply birds with the food they need. A native oak tree, for example, supports 500 species of caterpillars – tasty treats for birds – compared with just five species in the common ginkgo tree, an Asian import. To find native plants appropriate for your zip code, use the Audubon Society native plants database. If you replace part of your lawn with native plants, you’ll be restoring a patch of the 40 million acres of U.S. habitat lost to suburban lawn, which, on average, has ten times more chemical pesticides per acre than farmland. Pat yourself on the back.

Finally, you may not know it, but your windows and lighting at home and work are probably bird traps. Between 365 million and 899 million birds die in window collisions in the U.S. each year; almost half at residences. Birds generally don’t see clear or reflective glass, so if a reflection of an inviting habitat appears in a window, a bird is likely to fly into it. The collision is usually deadly. Similarly, night-migrating birds can be attracted to artificial light shining from high-rise office towers, and, especially in bad weather, collide with building windows. Easy daytime solutions include closing window blinds, adding screens or patterning your glass with bird tape. If you are building or renovating, consider using bird-safe glass. At night, especially during spring and fall migration (mid-April through May and mid-August through mid-November) turn out lights you’re not using. Got more time? Consider lobbying your local government and office building manager to join the Audubon Society’s Lights Out program. When the Field Museum in Chicago turned out its lights, bird kills dropped by 83%.

Bird conservation is climate conservation with big benefits – cleaner water, reduced flood risk, less heat-intensifying carbon dioxide in the air, fewer insecticides in our food, and more entertainment for naturalists and hunters.


American Bird Conservancy, Audubon Society, BioScience Journal, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, New York City Audubon, North American Bird Conservation Initiative, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Texas News

Photo: Northern Flicker, courtesy of Simone Mailman