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  • January 10th, 2020

IT’S NOT EASY BEING A BIRD

By Joel M. Vance

 

A few million years ago at the dawn of civilization, when I was a callow youth in journalism school at the University of Missouri (as opposed to the callow old man I am today) we were assigned a “beat” which consisted of a square residential block in Columbia. The idea was we would timidly knock on doors and asked if the residents had any news to report.

 

One serendipitous day. I knocked on the door of a man who happened to be one of the wildlife professors at the University and he told me that a number of birds had been killed at the University’s television station, KOMU TV, the night before when a low cloud ceiling pushed the migrating birds into a collision course with the television station’s transmission tower. The story made the front page of the University newspaper, the Missourian, and I felt as puffed up with pride as if I had pulled off the scoop of the century.

 

Bird collisions with inanimate objects often result in avian mortality. In common with all other wild creatures, no bird dies in bed (unless, somehow, it happens to fly headlong into the headboard). We have a door leading onto our deck, with glass panes in it, where we have pasted the silhouette of a hawk. This is supposed to frighten small birds and discourage them from flying into the door with fatal results. Nevertheless, I have heard a small “bonk!”  And found a dazed bird lying outside the door, apparently unfazed by the hawk silhouette.

 

Ted Williams (not the ballplayer, but the major league environmental expose reporter) whose “Incite” column in “Audubon Magazine” for years has been the bête noire of those who would pollute or otherwise disgrace the world’s natural communities.  Ted often brings to light threats to the environment that are largely unknown or ignored.

 

One such is the threat to birds posed by the common house cat. Feral cats, those allowed to roam unchecked outdoors, kill more birds annually than nearly any other cause. We have two cats in our household— the operative word being “in”. Both are strictly confined to the house, never allowed out. They are members of the family, cherished and loved and, since our kids all are grown and on their own, the cats have become Marty’s and my de facto kids.

 

Except for Marty’s good graces, both today would be feral cats, intent on avian slaughter, rather than the coddled, cat chow munchingcreatures they are. Mama cat appeared one night at our back door (the one with the hawk silhouette pasted on it) underfed and overly pregnant. It was inevitable that Marty would feed this vagrant feline and that’s all it took for Mama Cat to settle herself in a convenient wicker basket on the deck and deliver five kittens. Ultimately, we kept one, a butterscotch colored female with more energy and curiosity than the other four. We found homes for two others and delivered two to the local animal shelter.

 

Mama and the long-haired kitten we named Fuzzy Butt have adapted well to in-house living and pose no threat to local birds. Not so, their uncounted millions of feral peers. Both are sexually defused so pose no risk of adding to the world’s puss population. They are, in short, cherished house pets, not threats to a bird population which, in many areas, is declining.

 

Why? He asked rhetorically. The reasons are several, with habitat loss the major one, but predation by feral cats ranks as the number one preventable cause of bird deaths. The Sibley bird guides are a standard reference for birdwatchers and also a good source of information on the causes of bird death. Habitat loss ranks number one but it’s not always the direct cause of avian fatality— think of it in human terms; when a tornado levels a neighborhood, many if not all the people simply move somewhere else. The same is true of birds, deprived of their habitat. That is, of course, if there is somewhere else for them to go. The sage grouse today is imperiled in the heart of its habitat, most of the state of Wyoming, by an exploding oil and gas exploration boom. Disruption of the bird’s nesting, feeding and roosting areas by oil and gas drilling is part of the problem, but also access roads and other disruption adds to it.

 

For a comprehensive discussion of the sage grouse situation, see Noppadol Paothong’s marvelous new book with wonderful and evocative writing by Kathy Love. The photographs will melt your heart and energize your mind toward helping to preserve this symbolic and direly threatened Western bird. (This beautiful book is $45 published by Laguna Wilderness Press, Box 5703, Laguna Beach, California 92652 – 0149–check it out@Lagunawildernesspress.com)

 

Sage grouse, as well as other avian species that are habitat specific, don’t have an alternative when their home turf is destroyed. My beloved bobwhite quail have been squeezed into tighter and tighter pockets of quail friendly habitat and their numbers have shrunk accordingly.  Mega-farms, fall plowing, intensive chemical drenching of the land with herbicides and pesticides all have conspired to make what was, in the glory years, a ten covey hunt into, if you’re lucky, maybe one covey– and you feel guilty about taking even one potential breeder out of that covey.

 

According to the Birdbrain in Chief, the alleged leader of the free world at least until he and his evil minions manage to eliminate freedom as we have known it for more than 200 years, a major culprit in bird mortality are wind turbines. Not even close. The aforementioned feral cats, according to Sibley, kill more than 500,000,000 birds annually. This compares with their estimate of 33,000 deaths by collision incidents involving the wind generators. My KOMU tower and its communication kinfolk account for at least 5,000,000 deaths and possibly as many as 50,000,000 annually. And, my hawk silhouette notwithstanding, collisions by birds with windows are estimated somewhere between 97 million to 976 million birds/year. 

 

“[Wind power] kills all the birds,” Trump told 2012 Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain (who is at least in the running for being every bit as crazy as Trump). “Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they’ve killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds.”

 

“There are places for wind but if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles,” Trump said. “You know if you shoot an eagle, if you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles… They’re killing them by the hundreds.” Trump singled out Palm Springs, California, saying it had been absolutely destroyed by what he called the world’s ugliest wind farm, presumably one that has killed, in his words, hundreds of eagles. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that in the last 22 years Palm Springs wind towers have accounted for exactly two bald eagle deaths.

 

Another estimate is that wind turbines account for the deaths of between 140,000 and 368,000 birds annually, a figure substantially higher than the Sibley estimate but certainly far lower than Trump’s implied wholesale mortality. One estimate is that the number of birds killed by cell towers is 6.8 million and the total done in by glass building collisions is up to one billion each year. The point here is that no matter who is doing the estimates they are far lower than the fantastic claims spouted by Donald Trump, designed only to disparage alternative forms of energy in favor of his cherished oil, gas, and coal industries.

 

Trump also told Cain that solar and wind are “very, very expensive” and “not working on a large-scale.” And he criticized the way wind turbines look, calling the windmills in Palm Springs, California a “junkyard.” Someone should tell Trump about the threat from feral cats— he’d probably go on some sort of insane rant against cats and thereby alienate yet another substantial bloc of otherwise uncommitted voters.

 

The unfortunate truth is that no form of energy is without its inherent risks and downside. Carbon-based fuels spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an obvious (at least to the bulk of science and thinking people) cause of global warming. So-called clean energy (i.e. wind, solar and hydro) each have a downside— wind, giving Trump a teensy bit of credit, does contribute minimally to bird death, but more to disruption of habitat.  And, Trump fantasy notwithstanding, wind turbines do not cause cancer.

 

Dams kill fish, either by turbulence, or by creating low oxygen problems, plus they often result in downstream flooding and there is the habitat lost by the creation of a lake.  Solar energy has the same inherent problem as wind energy–the installations  occupy space and inevitably upset associated habitat by roads and other disruptive intrusions.

 

Nuclear energy is scary stuff. Russia’s Chernobyl proved that dramatically, as did Japan’s Fukushima disaster and as Three Mile Island nearly did to the United States. And then there is that atom bomb thing in 1945 and how do you dispose of all that radioactive goo?

 

So we have a Great Oz in the White House, living in an alternate reality served by what the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts.” The simplest solution for today’s insatiable hunger for energy is to have fewer kids, keep more cats (indoors only), protect and encourage expanded wildlife habitat, and, in the words of an unknown political philosopher, “vote the bastards out.”

 

Werner and Lowe must have been anticipating future times when they wrote the lyrics to a song from the Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon” in 1959. The song was “They Call the Wind, Maria” and part of the lyrics graphically describes the Windbag in Chief:

 

I am a lost and lonely man/

without a star to guide me/

Maria blow my love to me/

I need my gal beside me.

 

Change Maria to Melania and need I say more?

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1 Comment

  1. Stephanie Lee

    January 24th, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    Reply

    As a fellow bird lover and cat fanatic – I run a nonprofit cat rescue – I appreciate your informative post, and especially appreciate Marty opening your home to the pregnant momma cat. Keeping cats indoors solves a host of problems, not the least of which is “fewer bird murders.” Cats left to survive on their own will do what any of us do or would do; whatever it takes. Having domesticated cats way back in the Egyptian reign, we humans have often failed in our responsibilities to them. Since I’m focusing on the more enlightened strategies for managing feral cat populations, I won’t mention all the terrible things people have done to cats, or to animals overall, which would take much more space and completely ruin my day. Instead, I’ll say that educating others about TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) programs, enlisting foster caregiver networks, and supporting the efforts of those dedicated to doing the best work in sheltering and re-homing cats would go a long way toward saving two species in my long list of beloved animals – cats and birds.
    How is it possible to love the brilliant cardinal with its resplendent red coloring, the goofy mohawk coiffed titmouse, and the many numerous birds guests at my feeders while still passionately defending the rights of those stealthy (hungry) feline predators we deem “feral?” If you’ve ever met a real feral cat, the meeting was brief and consisted of a deer-in-headlights look, followed by a mad dash. Many of the so-called feral cats we meet are “strays,” or cats who once had a human and were either lost, abandoned, neglected, or abused by them. I call these cats my “feral friendly cats,” as this group still has a connection to humans. Some may have learned to mistrust our kind, and others are more forgiving, or have decided survival demands compromise. They suspend their fear in favor of food. Feral cats who have either never interacted with people or those who were severely traumatized by the cruelest of our kind, will never acclimate to domestic digs. They will forever forage out a rough existence, living on the periphery, as wild creatures, despite their domesticated DNA. This means life will be harshest for them, and yes, it means they will directly interact as predators (and prey) in the circle of life. Small mammals and birds will fall victim to their hunger, just as they, in turn, will fall prey to coyotes and other larger predators. It’s not a life for the feint of heart, and many of my “friendly ferals” just aren’t cut out for it. They lose their lives to cars, hunger, cold, injury, illness, and yes, the continuance of human cruelty. Our rescue focuses on these friendly ferals, and having implemented a successful system of “domestic training” or “re integration,” we have successful homed close to 100 of them. It’s a drop in the bucket, I know, but we have also trapped, vaccinated, and spayed/neutered significant numbers of those who are truly feral. We have returned them to their habitat, assigned them a “feeder” (a neighbor who doesn’t mind setting out bowls of food for a bunch of ingrates who eat and run), and thereby eliminate the breeding population. We once did the math, and with just 3 years of TNR efforts, we prevented the births of hundreds of thousands of cats, who might have gone on to present threats to birds and to themselves, simply by trying to survive.
    I’m not saying my two passions haven’t clashed. I have bird feeders within 50 yards of the “feeding wall,” where the ferals can find a free meal, and there was one difficult former tomcat (neutered but still swaggering) who seemed content to put in the extra effort for a warm (flying) meal. After his 3rd kill, which caused great distress for me and the other TNR and rescue workers, we happened upon a possible solution. We warmed his free food. Using a warming tray and specially purchased glass bowls, we lured this cat away from the birds’ domain and somehow kept him confined to the feeding wall by virtue of ingenuity, perhaps a lost art these days. Had this failed, we’d have come up with another plan, one that didn’t involve killing the population of feral cats, most of whom are more than happy to take the free human provided food. If bird lovers and cat lovers (and those like me, who love both) can come together to protect as many of each as humanly possible, perhaps all is not lost to us as a species.
    I’ve never held to that old biblical gem of man having dominion over the animals, and instead, adhere fast to the evidence from whence we came – up through the food chain. Rather than dominion, we have a responsibility as stewards – of this planet and its countless treasures – and in this, we are being sorely tested. As you so eloquently wrote, we are forced to consider the crazy – that windmills kills eagles or cause cancer. Nevermind the evidence of coal’s cancer causing, eagle-and-other-living-creature killing mechanisms; my dearest hails from a small coal town in Pennsylvania, where the latest efforts to install windmills are being held up by local protestations of “they will be so ugly.” This is a region where coal miners litter the cemeteries and the death of coal in the area has completely stripped the land and the town of any financial toe hold. In its heyday, the town was flush with money, most of it now in the pockets of those who owned the mines, not the miners themselves, and once the resources were exhausted, the town was left to the asphyxia of its remains. It confuses and frustrates me that instead of embracing clean energy, people oppose it on the basis of inaccuracies. How to get real science into the lexicon is a topic for another time, but my point is that connective tissue exists between saving cats and saving the planet. As you wrote, the available energy sources all come with consequence – some worse than others – and that’s the salient point; deciding which of the consequences we can live with remains to be seen. If I can figure out how to harbor cats and birds on the same small piece of property, certainly greater thinkers than myself, of which there are many, can compromise some for the greater good of our planet.
    I hope by educating people and even by simply making others aware of the issues, we can advance just a bit in our strategies. Thanks for the well written piece. I’m sorry my comment is so lengthy, albeit a bit disjointed by my editing attempts, most of which have failed me. I am sending you an email by way of introduction, or rather reacquaintence I should say, as we met years ago in Birchwood, when my sisters and I took canoe rides with your gang. We were all just kids but I remember even then wanting to be a writer and feeling awed that you had successful managed it. My mom is Janet Beffa, and my great uncle Pat was your chum and cousin I believe. More to come in my email, but thanks for this great posting.



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