By Kate Crowley
If you read this column then I know you enjoy seeing wild birds wherever they may be, but especially those you can see close to your home, through your windows. You probably have one or more bird feeders set up around your yard and spend your hard earned money keeping them filled, at least during the winter months. We derive so much pleasure from this simple hobby that it is easy to assume everyone would feel and do the same, but we in the U.S. are the exception, not the norm.
In 1996 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did a study that showed watching birds at feeders is the most popular form of enjoying wildlife in this country. At that time there were more than 50 million Amercans feeding wild birds each year, spending over 2.7 Billion dollars in the process, and that doesn’t include the millions spent on feeders, birdhouses and nest boxes! I have not been able to find a more recent accounting of this national pastime, but I have to believe it has only grown in popularity.
Having traveled extensively in Europe, the Caribbean, South and Central America in the past 27 years, I have never seen anything like the feeding stations we Americans have established in our yards. One of the reasons I believe we are so different from the rest of the world is because of the way we live – in individual homes, with green space around us. The vast majority of the people in the world today live in urban areas, with housing concentrated in high rise buildings. Even if people are lucky enough to have a balcony, they are very unlikely to see or be able to attract songbirds. And we all know what kinds of birds are most commonly found in cities – pigeons (rock doves) and English sparrows – two types of songbirds best known for the messes they create when they gather on buildings.
I did my own informal survey last week when we had five international high school students at our house for dinner. They hailed from China, South Korea, Thailand, Mexico and Brazil. We enjoy meeting young people who have decided to make the leap to study abroad for a year. It is something I greatly admire and wish I’d had the courage to do the same thing as a teen. We enjoy getting to know them and asking what life is like in their countries. We also like to find out if nature is as important in their lives and cultures as it is in ours, so when I asked the kids gathered around the table, “Do people watch birds in your country?” there was a noticeable and somewhat embarrassing silence and shaking of heads. Then Ernesto from Mexico spoke up and said, “People mostly shoot them”. I didn’t want to put them on the spot and make them feel more uncomfortable, so we let that topic slide and moved on to others.
Later, in the kitchen, Min from South Korea stood next to me and said, “In my country it is illegal to feed birds.” I looked surprised and she quickly explained that there are problems with pigeons and I understood why there would be a ban.
We are so fortunate in this country to have an abundance of space and wealth that allows us to bring wildlife close to our homes, where we might be entertained by and learn from them. I feel sorry for all the billions of people in the world who never have the opportunity to witness nature in this simple and daily manner, but what concerns me even more is their appreciation and understanding of our connectedness to nature. It is well understood that you cannot care for that which you do not know.
Americans having developed a fondness for our birds are more likely to read and study the habits and habitats of these animals, both those that remain with us year around and those that will be returning north in the coming months. We begin to comprehend the need for diverse habitats all along their migratory routes and in their winter homes. And though we cannot be in those places to protect the birds, we support conservation and environmental organizations that do. This involves financial investment and sacrifice, but we do it, with a vested interest in having the birds return each year to our forests, fields and lakes.
If people never see any birds besides pigeons and sparrows how can they be expected to ever think about the necessity of healthy wetlands and standing forests? It is a question that haunts me, because it is so large and complicated. All I know for sure is that as we care about and feed the birds through the winter months, we must be proactive whenever possible to threats in other parts of the bird’s range – here in the U.S., in our own state, as well as beyond our borders. So welcome the robins, and bluebirds, and red-winged blackbirds, and loons, and great blue herons when they return this month, but then keep them in your thoughts and actions even when they leave once again.