I recently did something I never imagined I would do. I went to bird camp. Last month, I spent a week studying fall migration at Hog Island Audubon bird camp on the coast of Maine. Led by renowned naturalist and writer Scott Weidensaul, the week in Maine made me rethink my relationship with birds.
I could write at length about the birds I added to my life list – the elusive parasitic jaeger graced my line of vision – but that isn’t the most important thing I took away from bird camp. As my fellow campers and I witnessed and discussed the miracle of migration, I began to think of it as a perilous journey. Arctic terns, for instance, travel 53,000 miles every year. This epic trip is not a choice but an inherited directive. Their eggs have genetically coded instructions that drive them to particular locales in search of food and habitat. It is a matter of survival, and it is risky business. In many ways, humans are making it more risky.
Talking to Weidensaul and his fellow leaders, Peter Vickery, Tom Johnson and Benjamin Clock, it dawned on me that my relationship with birds should move beyond passive observation and wonder. The more I learned about migration, the more I felt that I had a responsibility to become more involved in conservation.
So what can birders do to protect birds?
Here is a list, to which I welcome additions:
Drink coffee from farms that keep crucial bird habitat intact and that employ organic methods. Look for related certification stamps on coffee packages. My favorite coffee comes from Birds and Beans, a great café near the Etobicoke waterfront.
Keep cats indoors, especially during bird breeding season and at dawn and dusk. Feral and outdoor cats are serious bird predators.
Forgo pesticides in your garden and on your lawn. We often forget that pesticides kill indiscriminately – killing insects that provide vital nourishment for birds. Native trees and shrubs are adapted to use by native insects that feed birds. So plant natives and tolerate – even celebrate – insect activity.
Buy organic food when you can. This shows your support for organic farming which is kinder to birds than chemical farming.
If birds collide with your windows at home or work, apply foils (masking tape, screens, branches, bird silhouettes – anything to break up the window’s reflection) and check-out FLAP, an organization dedicated to reducing the senseless bird deaths caused by window collisions.
And finally, why not participate in a bird count in your area to help collect bird population data? The Christmas Bird Count is just around the corner…
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.