As Earth Day approaches each year – this year, it’s on April 22 – I devote a column to ways we can conserve nature and birds in particular. Habitat preservation and protection is critically important, so charitable giving to organizations with broad reach – The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and the Xerces Society – money well spent. In Maine, the Natural Research Council of Maine and dozens of conservation land trusts work on more local scales. They need our support as well.

Today, I want to concentrate on what we as individuals can do to protect birds. This topic was inspired by reading the sprawling novel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The novel ends memorably for me. A father is chastising his son for deciding to make a particular career choice. The father tells the son that his life will amount to nothing more than a drop in a limitless ocean. The son responds, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Here are some drops we can adopt that can collectively make a difference:

Cats are the biggest threat to birds and owners are encouraged to keep them indoors. If they must go out, add a bell to their collar. Frank Eltman/Associated Press

• Keep your cats indoors. Avian mortality from cats is staggering. A recent study in China found that between 2.7 and 5.5 billion birds are killed by cats each year. A worldwide study in which cats were fitted with video cameras showed a cat kills 3.5 birds a month. In the U.S., the cat population is about 96 million.

If you must let your cats go outside, avoid the early morning and later in the day during the breeding season when birds are most active, particularly younger birds that are not accomplished fliers. Put a bell on your cat.

Even if you keep your cats indoors, other cats likely roam into your yard. Make sure your bird feeders are high enough  to prevent a leaping cat from snagging a bird. Likewise, keep your feeder away from trees or other objects that a cat could climb.

Of course you might need to travel for some of the best bird watching, but do something to offset that carbon expenditure – for example, plant some trees. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

• Pay the carbon price. Most of us drive to go bird-watching. Some will resume flying as well in the not too distant future to more far-flung birding sites. Carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the combustion of petroleum contribute to global warming. You can impose a carbon tax on yourself to lower the carbon footprint of your travel. These carbon offsets might be supporting a tree planting project or renewable energy projects. Just Google “carbon offsets” to find ways you can try to make your travel carbon-neutral.

• Drink bird-friendly coffee. Most coffee plantations are based in areas that have been clear-cut and hence are essentially monocultures. These plantations produce what is called sun-grown coffee. These areas are deserts for birds. However, shade-grown coffee is an alternative. Coffee bushes are grown beneath a canopy of trees and support far more birds than open plantations. Look for the Bird Friendly logo, indicating approval of the shade-grown coffee by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Use your browser to find stores in Maine and online retailers where this coffee is sold.

• Avoid the use of pesticides in your yard. Of particular concern is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These insecticides kill many insects other than the target species. We have strong evidence that these compounds are reducing bird abundance, particularly in insectivorous birds.

• Plant native shrubs and trees on your lawn. Over the past 40 years, millions of acres of natural habitat have been lost to development projects. Help to restore some of this habitat by converting some of your lawn to patches of woody vegetation. You provide nesting habitat and food for birds and you reduce carbon emissions from your lawn mower as you have less lawn to mow. It’s a win-win situation.

Finally, keep in mind this quotation (a bit sexist) from John James Audubon: “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at [email protected]

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