By Hilary Turner
I was recently reminded of the importance of taking small, individual, and conservation-minded actions. John Norton and Kathy O’Neil, Nature Mappers with the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, reached out to me with some questions about how to make their windows safer for birds. With the multitude of issues facing wildlife and the environment, it is easy to become jaded when it comes to our own actions, but John and Kathy’s conscientious approach to solving the window problem at their house reminded me that taking these small actions can be the difference between life and death for our fellow denizens of the planet.
Indeed, many of us read the shocking report published in 2019, by Kenneth Rosenberg, et al. indicating that there are approximately 3 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in the 1970’s. This equates to an almost 30% decline in bird abundance across species. The authors used data from multiple monitoring networks (including citizen science efforts like the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count) to determine this number.
Declines are being seen across many species and are not only limited to rare and specialist species such as the Black Rosy-Finch, but also include habitat generalists, such as the Brewer’s Blackbird, and introduced species such as the House Sparrow. The causes of these declines are broad and often interacting. For instance, urbanization and industrial agriculture converts native habitat which in turn impacts insect populations. Not only are the birds losing their homes; they are also losing their food resources.
Bird declines due to land use change are exacerbated by direct mortality. In 2014, Scott Loss and his coauthors estimated the annual anthropogenic mortality of North American birds. They found that behind domestic cats, windows are the second leading source of human-caused mortality of birds. Automobile collisions are third. In North America, between cats, windows, and cars, billions of birds are killed annually.
Automobile collisions are difficult. Roadkill is a widely recognized byproduct of our transportation system, and while collisions with many mammals can be mitigated with the implementation of crossing structures and funnel fencing, among other measures, it is difficult to keep cars from hitting birds. Speed reduction and carpooling can help, but ultimately, bird-vehicle collisions are likely here to stay.
Fortunately, the other two direct impacts can be mitigated.
Cats are a controversial topic, yet the answer is quite simple. Keep your cat under your control. There are many ways to do this. You can keep your cat safely indoors, where it is also less likely to get killed by a car, maimed in a fight, or preyed upon by wildlife. Just be sure to provide plenty of enrichment for your beloved pet inside your home. You can even walk your cat on a leash, like you would a dog, to get it the exercise it needs and the outdoor experience it may crave. If your cat loves to lounge in the sun, you can create a “catio,” which is a contained extension of your house where your cat can roam, but birds and other potential prey items remain safe.
Bells and brightly colored collars are not sufficient to keep birds safe, especially during fledgling season when young birds are not savvy enough to escape predation by these skilled hunters. Even if you do not have a cat, there are still ways you can become involved in this issue.Visit the American Bird Conservancy’s cat page for more information.
Windows are a relatively easy fix, as well. You may have heard of the mass mortalities that occur as birds are migrating over large cities at night and become disoriented by light. Like moths, nocturnal migrants are drawn to lights and exhaust themselves as they fly around high-rise buildings in large cities or die when they collide with the glass. The National Audubon Society and other groups have formed “Lights Out” initiatives to decrease avian mortality during spring and fall migration. Here in Jackson, birds and other wildlife can benefit from turning the lights off at night, not to mention the energy savings to humans and contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But the problem is not only in large cities. Residential windows, like many of ours, are also fatal. Although individual residences and other low-rise buildings are not likely to see localized mass mortality events, there are more of these types of structures on the planet and the cumulative impact of these buildings is actually greater than the impact of the fewer lit up skyscrapers. Birds see their habitat reflected in the windows of low rise and residential buildings and collide with windows when they attempt to fly into the reflection of trees and other habitat features. Even if you see a bird appear to recover and fly away, many window strike victims die later from internal injuries. Fear not!
There are many simple solutions that will make your windows bird-safe. Most solutions involve using something to break up the reflection of the habitat. You can do this with tempera paint, window marking pens, tape, or paracord. Just make sure the markings on the exterior of your windows are at least 1/8-inch-wide and no more than 4 inches apart (2 inches is best, especially if you are thinking of little ones, like hummingbirds).
Decals, such as raptor stickers, are not effective, unless you place many of them on your windows, such that the maximum spacing between them is about 2-4 inches. You may think the markings on the windows will be obnoxious, but when I installed DIY Zen wind curtains on my home, it was only a matter of time before I did not even notice the paracord anymore; and window strikes declined remarkably and immediately! Even when I did notice the addition to my home early on, it reminded me that I was proud and happy to think of the lives I had saved. Similar to my experience, John reports that since installing his bird-saving window markings, he has noticed a reduction in strikes; however, the real test will be this winter, once his feeders are back up.
I hope you are inspired by John and Kathy, your fellow citizens who have chosen to take a small personal action in their lives to help birds. I hope you choose to make a small change in your own life that is beneficial to the other creatures with which we share this lovely world.