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25 Conservation Tips To Benefit Birds

Looking to help wild birds? Try these 25 conservation tips to help backyard and wild birds at home and around the world.

Peter Stangel, Ph.D.
Posted: April 11, 2013, 4:15 p.m. PDT

Sometimes birders feel daunted when we consider the conservation challenges facing birds. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. We can make many day-to-day small decisions that cumulatively help birds find habitat and food around our homes and elsewhere. Read on, and consider which tip you’ll put into action this week.

1) Drink bird-friendly coffee.
Many of the same bird species that nest in or migrate through our yards and neighborhoods spend the winter in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Habitat conservation in those regions remains essential to the birds’ survival.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
Some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend the winter in Central American shade-coffee plantations. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says shade-coffee plantations offer wintering grounds for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Ovenbirds and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, among many other species.

In addition, we can aim to make agricultural areas even better for birds. Coffee, grown in the traditional way and in the shade of native canopy trees, provides good bird habitat.

Some coffee connoisseurs say shade-grown coffee tastes better, and — more importantly — it usually provides better income to farmers. For more info, visit Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign. Consider looking for shade-grown or bird-friendly coffee at wild bird retail centers and grocery stores.

2) Buy better bananas for the birds.
Banana farming typically involves more intensive work than coffee plantations do, but growers still can make their plantations better for birds and wildlife. For instance, they can reduce their use of pesticides and other chemicals, recycle the plastic bags used to protect growing bananas, and protect habitat corridors where possible.

Banana plantations that adhere to these practices can earn certification from programs such as Better Banana Project, launched in 1991 by New York-based Rainforest Alliance. Growers in Central America also can work with Rainforest Relief’s ForestBananas project, producing shade-grown and organic bananas. Ask your local grocers if they carry certified and shade-grown "smiles of nature.”

3) Use sustainable lumber.
Many birds live in forests, making it important to properly managing that resource. You can support responsible forest management by using wood and paper products that have been certified as sustainable.

Two programs work toward this goal: Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Look for their logos on paper and wood products before purchasing them.

4) Talk about bird-friendly cellphone towers.
While mobile phones help us tremendously, the towers that transmit signals for cell phones and other forms of communication pose hazards for birds. At night, the lights on towers attract migratory birds accustomed to navigating by the stars. Drawn to the lights, birds might collide with the towers and die or become injured.

American Bird Conservancy provides information about collisions, another threat to birds. You can send an email to the Federal Communication Commission through the ABC website and also work with your community’s planning department to express support about adding only bird-friendly towers to the landscape.

5) Shed light on nocturnal collisions.
Office buildings and skyscrapers that leave on lights at night pose a threat to nocturnally migrating birds. Cities in major migration corridors are a particular problem. With leadership from Fatal Light Awareness Program, the City of Toronto has become much more sensitive to bird conservation issues. It asks buildings to dim lights during peak migration periods and organizes teams of volunteers to rescue birds injured by collisions.

You can do the same. Talk with your local chamber of commerce and the property managers at large buildings, such as offices and hotels, to ask for their support in reducing bird fatalities.

6) Consider climate change.
Changing climates will affect birds. The ranges of some species will expand, while others will contract. 

If you think that humans’ actions contribute to climate change, shift to compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home, and ask local schools if they can accept CFL donations. You can find more ideas at National Audubon Society’s Birds & Climate Change section.

7) Choose safer seafood.
Sadly, hundreds of thousands of seabirds such as albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and fulmars drowned each year because of longline fishing gear. The birds snatch the baited hooks and are pulled underwater. In most cases, adjustments to the gear — such as bird-scaring streamer lines — can dramatically reduce or eliminate the problem.

You can participate in the solution by purchasing seafood caught with bird-friendly equipment. Consider downloading Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch regional pocket guide to safe seafood, and learn more about seabird bycatch at www.abcbirds.org

8) Discuss alternative energy.
Wind power seems like a wonderful, sustainable source of energy — except when the turbines kill birds. Solar, hydroelectric, wind and other alternative sources remain important to our energy future, and we need common-sense approaches to their development that consider birds and wildlife.

Encourage decision-makers to remember birds as plans for alternative energy develop. You’ll find information about renewable energy sources and their effects on birds from American Bird Conservancy.

9) Talk about birds at plant nurseries.
Most of the people who enjoy landscaping their yards also enjoy seeing birds. Sometimes, though, they inadvertently do things that harm birds. You can correct this situation by helping the staff at nurseries better understand birds’ needs.

We recently had an outbreak of army worms in our yard. I asked the nursery staff for help, and they directed me to a potent pesticide that might have harmed the birds in our yard. When I expressed concern, they directed me to a more natural type of control. I suggested that most of their customers probably would recoil at the thought of killing birds while controlling caterpillars. I might’ve seen a light bulb go off as they connected the two issues.

10) Buy a hunting license.
Birders should consider purchasing a hunting license. The revenue from license sales supports state wildlife management areas — important pieces of the fabric in the quilt of protected habitats that benefit birds and other wildlife.

States are eligible to receive matching funds from the federal government based on the number of licenses sold, which provides even more revenue for habitat management. Visit the website of your state’s department of natural resources or wildlife management program to learn more.

11) Encourage keeping cats indoors.
Cats live longer, healthier lives if kept indoors or in outdoor enclosures. Even well-fed, mostly indoor cats can take a toll on birds and other wildlife when they act on their hunting instincts. Scientists estimate that millions of wild birds die each year in the paws of housecats.

Even if you don’t share a home with a cat, you likely live near neighbors or have relatives who let their pets roam outdoors. Look at American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors program to download a brochure that offers ideas for keeping indoor cats happy, and work with your neighbors to spread the message.

12) Get the lead out.
Hunters and anglers always have been leaders in the conservation movement. We owe many of our most important laws and protected areas, such as national wildlife refuges, to their efforts.

Lead poisoning in waterfowl from shotshell pellets led to bans on this type of ammunition in wetland areas. Concern is growing now that lead fragments from bullets can poison scavengers such as California Condors while lead weights used by fishermen inadvertently poisons Common Loons that swallow them. Nonlead alternative are available, and you can ask local retailers to carry those products. Again, American Bird Conservancy provides details about toxins like lead.

13) Follow pesticide instructions.
If you have to use pesticides, carefully follow directions regarding dosage and environmental hazards. In many cases, natural or organic alternatives are available. You’ll find National Audubon Society has a good article on the topic with many helpful links.

14) Purchase a Duck Stamp.
The federal Duck Stamp excels as a habitat conservation program, due to the hunting community and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Hunters must purchase the $15 annual stamp, which features award-winning waterfowl art. Birders should purchase one.

Ninety-eight cents of every dollar from stamp sales goes into wetlands and grasslands conservation, affecting more than five million acres so far. As the number of hunters declines, however, fewer Duck Stamps are sold and less land is protected.

Birders can change that by buying the stamps at their local post offices or sporting goods stores or online. Display your stamp proudly, and encourage your birding partners to buy one.

15) Chat with the pest-control staff.
Here in the South, we have lots of bugs, so we periodically treat our house’s foundation to limit the number of insects that join us inside. The first time I saw the company squirting pesticides all over the yard, however, I nearly swallowed my gum. I now talk with the staff to understand what they are spraying and to alert them to my concerns about birds and other wildlife. They are very receptive to my concerns and now are much more targeted with their spraying. I hope that they carry over this approach to other homes.

16) Thank corporations that promote bird conservation.
Many large and small companies provide funding for conservation activities. In some cases, they provide financial or other support for the local chapter of National Audubon Society. Others might operate programs devoted to large-scale habitat protection. Walmart, for example, helps to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres for birds and other wildlife through its "Acres for America” programs.

We need to thank these companies. The competition for their funds remains fierce, and if they don’t hear from us, their support for birds and habitat conservation might waver. A short letter or sincere email from you can help the birds.

17) Create safer windows.
If you have heard a bird hit a window, you know what a sickening sound it makes. Many birds die upon impact; others fall stunned and become vulnerable to predators. Scientists estimate that tens of millions of birds die annually in collisions with windows.

Fortunately, you can reduce that number by reducing the windows’ reflectivity. Most homes have one or two problem windows where most of the collisions occur. Special films applied to the glass eliminate the problem without affecting visibility. Properly placed feeders and other devices, such as recordings that scare birds, also help. You can find more ideas about eliminating window collisions at Fatal Light Awareness Program.

Maybe you don’t have any problem windows in your home. Take a look around your employer’s office, your place of worship, a community center or a nearby nursing home to fix their windows.

18) Clean your feeders often.
Unless kept clean, birdfeeders might become hotbeds for disease transmission. Before you buy a feeder, make sure that you can wash it safely in the dishwasher or disassemble it for handwashing.

Periodically clean up seed waste under your feeders. Remove wet or mildewed food as quickly as possible. Regularly clean the feeders with a mild bleach solution, typically 1 part bleach to 9 parts hot water.

19) Learn more about birds.
When you know more about the personal lives of birds, you enjoy birding that much more. Books, home study courses — such as the bird biology course offered by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology — and time with local experts offer good starting points for increasing your knowledge. Right now, look at the calendar of your local bird club, find a field trip that appeals to you, and get ready to learn and have fun.

20) Prepare the proper menu at feeders.
All bird foods are not alike. Some seed mixes contain filler that your visitors won’t eat, so the unwanted seed will sit in the feeders and become moldy. Talk with your local wild bird retail store about the best foods for your area, and also visit National Bird-Feeding Society to learn more.

21) Ensure safe feeding stations.
When placing your feeders, locate them near brush or trees to provide birds with quick access to hiding places when hawks or other threats appear. If stray cats visit your yard, keep the space under the feeders clear so cats cannot hide nearby. Also position feeders either very close to windows — within 3 feet, so that startled birds cannot gain enough speed to injure themselves in a collision — or very far from windows.

22) Participate in citizen science.
Even while sitting inside our homes, we can contribute to everyone’s knowledge about birds. Citizen-science programs give us the chance to share data about the species and numbers of birds that visit our feeders, and that information adds to comprehensive databases that help scientists and ornithologists track bird populations’ health.

Woman with kitten
You can donate used binoculars to give others the chance to enjoy birding, too.
Interested in participating at home? Check out two programs from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Project FeederWatch, which runs from November through April, and Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place over a February weekend. Cornell offers other citizen-science programs, as does National Audubon Society.

23) Volunteer.
Every organization that is involved with bird and habitat conservation needs more volunteers. You can make a direct, appreciated contribution with your time and skills. Contact a local organization, and describe your talents and available time. You’ll meet like-minded souls, have a blast and make the future safer for birds.

24) Donate used optics, field guides and other materials.
Give new life to older equipment and books by putting them in the hands of teachers and conservationists who need these materials. American Birding Association’s Birder’s Exchange offers a great option for used digital cameras, tripods and even backpacks.

25) Share your passion for birds.
Never miss a chance to talk with someone about birds! Let a passerby look at a bird through your binocular or spotting scope. If you stop at a restaurant for lunch after a field trip, tell the wait staff about the cool wildlife in their community. Share a birdfeeder sighting with coworkers. In my experience, you almost always will elicit an enthusiastic response — and you might pique the interest of the next Roger Tory Peterson!

Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, January/February 2011 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.

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