The century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act was weakened in December and is now meeting challenges in Congress. The MBTA outlaws the un-permitted killing or possession of most native birds; it also protects their feathers, eggs and nests. It’s impossible to know how many birds this law has saved, but it has certainly led many businesses to bird-friendly practices. That’s because, until December, even “incidental” bird deaths, including those caused by electric towers and oil spills, were held to account. For example, in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed more than a million birds, BP faced criminal charges and hefty fines. No more: The new interpretation of the law limits its scope to deliberate acts.
Just as it’s impossible to know how beneficial the law has been, so too it’s impossible to know (yet) how detrimental this change will be. We can, however, consider the number of “incidental” bird deaths that have occurred in recent years. The Audubon Society estimates that power lines cause 64 million bird deaths a year, and communications towers another 7 million. Up to a million birds die in oil waste pits, and it’s estimated that wind turbines kill another quarter-million. These are emotionally inconceivable numbers, so let me put them into a relatable context: In the five minutes it will take you to read this article, nearly 700 birds will have been electrocuted, suffocated or pulverized – and that’s using data from when the MBTA was intact. With no legal incentive for businesses to minimize bird fatalities, we can assume they will rise.
It’s easy for us to feel helpless when confronted with such news. We can vote and join organizations, we can be slacktivists who sign petitions and fume on Facebook – but what can we do that makes a difference? Nothing, we might lament, that approaches the impact of the MBTA in its prime. True, but that doesn’t let us off the hook. No more bystander environmentalism: Anger and despair won’t save a single bird.
There are easy things we can do around our homes to make our neighborhoods more beneficial to birds. After a few minutes of web-searching, you’ll be flush with ideas. Install a bird house, provide clean water and put up UV window decals to prevent bird strikes; the list goes on. This is easy stuff, but it really matters and can help to sustain those birds fortunate enough to avoid “incidental” deaths.
More controversial is the matter of cats. It’s been estimated that we have as many as 120 million outdoor cats roaming America and that these charming little predators kill as many as 3.7 billion birds annually. We should question these speculative figures, but even if they’re off by as much as 70 percent, they signal an alarming trend 15 times more deadly than all of the industrial causes cited above. Before I get nasty emails from cat lovers, let me say: I am one of you. But I question the logic of having an outdoor cat. I realize that some cats just can’t stand to be cooped up, but I’d argue that they need to be. For one thing, outdoor cats are easy targets for larger predators, including raptors, and are exposed to other risks, such as disease, poisoning, cars and inclement weather; allowing your cat to roam free is, arguably, a cruel thing to do to the cat. For another, domestic cats are not indigenous here, so the havoc they wreak on native fauna should trouble us like any other human-introduced “incident.” I’m not advocating for mass felicide, but we should keep our cats indoors and collect, spay or neuter, and shelter as many strays as we can find.
We can also spread our awareness and love of wildlife. We might want to focus such efforts on our children, and that’s wise, but it is just as critical to reach older generations. According to a 2017 survey by the World Economic Forum, millennials already believe that environmental issues are our most significant problems. Baby boomers offer an urgent contrast, being less environmentally conscious and, as homeowners, voters and charitable givers, a more immediately consequential demographic to reach. No need to lecture; friendly advocacy, encouragement and leading by example can go a long way.
Five minutes – 700 birds. Actually, if we add my conservative estimate about outdoor cats, then the number is closer to 11,000. Something tells me we’ll rehabilitate the MBTA eventually, but, in the meantime, let’s soften the blow.
Noah Comet is a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, a conservationist, wildlife photographer and avid hiker.
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