Monday, September 24, 2007

Cars and Birds

I saw my first Hermit Thrush of fall migration on Saturday at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Nearly 70 bird species were observed in 5 hours and 2 miles of walking. An impressive diversity of wood warblers was seen, including Palms and Yellow-rumps. Additionally, more sparrows from the boreal forest were present on the north side of the conservancy.

The reasoning behind my decision to drastically reduce driving trips to watch or photograph birds is multifaceted. There is consideration for our environment. There's the expense of gasoline. There's also the element of valuable ways in which to spend my time. In other words, if a rare bird is two hours away for a four-hour roundtrip, what else might I have been able to do with those four hours? Digiscoping at Pheasant Branch? Photographing wildflowers? Reading a good book? Biking? The rare-bird carrot may be tantalizingly irresistible and delicious, but wouldn't broccoli have sufficed? Well, perhaps I'm just a broccoli and beets kind of guy.

But there's another reason...

My Trek 330 was stolen many years ago, long before I was an avid bird watcher. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I purchased a new road bike and started biking two or three long-distance rides every week. Perhaps I didn't notice, all those years ago, but I saw something this summer typically undetected when driving down a rural road or highway – lots of dead birds. Dead birds, that now, I can identify. I saw dead Indigo Buntings, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, Gray Catbirds, Savannah Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Horned Larks, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Killdeer, lots of Tree and Barn Swallows and more. Our routes typically take us along roads west of Waunakee, 20 to 40 miles an outing. Every mile there were a few to several dead birds – multiply those miles by all the roads in Wisconsin, and then the United States. It adds up to a pretty staggering figure. According to a graph and information on David Allen Sibley's website, it is estimated as many as 60 million birds die annually from collisions with automobiles:

"Cars may kill 60 million birds per year. Of over 8 million lane miles of roads in the US, 6.3 million, or over ¾, are in rural areas where most birds are presumably killed. There's not much we can do about this source of bird mortality short of changing our driving habits, but landscaping the roadside to discourage birds from congregating there is helpful. My own sense is that small cars with more aerodynamic designs hit fewer birds, while large boxy vans and trucks hit more birds, but I don't think this has been studied. By the way, 100 years ago there were fewer than 250 miles of paved roads in North America, all in urban centers."

I own a car. I drive to work and my commute is 11.5 miles each way, though I try to ride my bike (to work) at least once or twice a week. As with bird mortality via window collision, it's fairly easy to ethically absorb the vastly smaller personal tally to justify an action or non-action. If only a few birds have ever collided into windows at my house, should I really bother spending the time and money putting up birdscreen? If I go chase a rare bird and inadvertently kill a Blue Jay along the way, is it anything I should worry about? Oh well, it's only one Blue Jay. Or was it? An adult carrying food to nestlings, perhaps?

By reducing unnecessary trips by automobile, perhaps only a few birds will benefit over the course of my driving lifetime. By putting up birdscreen, a few more birds may benefit. I don't think this issue is so easily dismissed by criticizing me for having an over abundance of so-called "liberal guilt"...I think of it more along the lines of good stewardship. Clearly, no matter how much any of us do individually, wild birds will continue to die at our hand – we're competing with them. In most cases, birds lose ground. I'm not asking, nor do I expect any of you to necessarily adopt my personal views and behaviors regarding any of the above, but I hope you at least think about the dead bird before you make a trip to see a life bird.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

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