House Sparrow (© Brenda Clark, some rights reserved CC BY-NC 4.0)
Written By Ian Seamans
Making your home or apartment more bird-friendly is one of the most rewarding ways to be a conservationist. Watching a cardinal nibble from your bird feeder or watching a couple of mockingbirds dance from your kitchen window is a beautiful experience. When you implement some of these tips, you’ll not only have more experiences like that, but you’ll also be combating the rapid decline of birds.
In the last 50 years, North America has lost more than 25% of its birds. This decline is due to a number of factors caused by humans, including habitat loss, a rapid decline in insect populations, climate change, and direct human impacts like cats and tall glass buildings. However, some species of birds have started recovering in the last 50 years. These exceptions to the rule show us a path towards reversing the population decline.
Waterfowl and raptors like hawks and bald eagles have grown their populations in the last 50 years. This is due to a combination of federal intervention and non-governmental efforts. The federal government took steps like banning DDT, protecting more wetlands, and increasing wildlife management efforts among many others. Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations and individuals worked to restore habitat, assist breeding programs, and advocate for these species. We know what worked for these species, so now it’s time to apply these efforts more broadly. Here are some actions that you can take to be more bird-friendly in your daily life!
1. Become an Advocate
The most important work you can do for any environmental issue is to advocate and vote for changes to laws and policy. While your efforts at home or a conservation site are important and may help thousands of birds every year, state and federal laws affect many millions of birds, and often in ways that any one project could not change alone. A few examples of important advocacy issues are action on climate change, funding federal conservation programs, banning dangerous pesticides and over-fishing, as well as strengthening laws and policies that protect birds. You can advocate for issues like these at the federal, state, and even city level. One of the best ways to get started is by joining a conservation organization like the National Audubon Society or the Sierra Club.
2. Keep Your Cat Indoors
While every cat owner loves their cat, they may not be aware of the dangers of letting their cat roam outdoors. Cats kill more than 2.4 billion birds in the United States every year, making them the leading cause of bird death after habitat loss. Cats have a strong prey drive and will kill birds and other small animals, only to leave the dead bodies uneaten.
Additionally, cats that are allowed outdoors have a dramatically reduced lifespan. The average lifespan of an outdoor cat is 4 years, while an indoor cat lives an average of more than 16 years. Outdoor cats are much more likely to be killed by cars, diseases, and other animals. So for your cat’s safety, and wildlife, keep your cat indoors. If you are concerned about enriching your cat’s indoor space, check out these tips!
3. Add Native Plants
Habitat destruction is one of the leading causes of the decline of birds. North Texas is located in a grassland ecoregion, and grassland birds have declined more than any other type of bird in the last 50 years. As individuals, we have a role to play in both habitat restoration and conservation education.
When you are working to create bird habitat, think about providing shelter, food, and nesting habitat. In North Texas, we live in an area that, before European colonization, was rolling tall-grass prairies, with creeks bordered by trees. Trees were prevented from growing across the grassland by the grazing of massive buffalo herds and regular grass fires. These disturbances benefitted the grasses and wildflowers, which would spring back from rhizomes and seeds, while the trees wouldn’t survive.
To recreate this type of habitat, you’ll want to use native plants, especially grasses and wildflowers. This guide from Green Source DFW covers many of the basics of how to get started, and this Audubon Society database shows which birds like which plants.
4. Leave the Leaves
When leaves fall or when you mow, be sure to leave the leaves and clippings. The dead plant matter provides a nesting ground for grassland birds and for the native insects that birds eat, as well as a place for birds to forage for those insects. If you have the ability to leave a dead tree standing rather than chopping it down, do so. Dead stands are also a great place for birds to nest, shelter, and hunt for insects.
5. Remove Invasive Plants
Some non-native plants will aggressively outcompete native plants, reducing the amount of food and shelter available for native birds. Some of these invasive plants are also toxic to native birds. A common decorative plant across the United States is Nandina domestica, commonly called Dwarf Nandina, Heavenly Bamboo, or Sacred Bamboo. In addition to easily escaping flowerbeds and invading areas along creeks and lowlands, its famous red berries contain cyanide. When birds are desperate in winter, they may turn to these berries and become sick or die due to cyanide poisoning. It is best to remove and replace these bushes with native plants, but if you can’t stand to see your Nandina go, at least prune them when they begin producing berries.
For a “Dirty Dozen” list of the 12 most problematic and common invasive plants in North Texas, visit the Native Plant Society of Texas’s Collin County Chapter website.
6. Stop Using Harmful Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides
Pesticides, especially synthetic pesticides, are not as targeted as we would like to think. First, pesticides aimed at specific types of insects are actually highly toxic to all types of insects — meaning that fogging your back yard for mosquitos will not only kill them, but also all of the butterflies, bees, and moths that are also in the vicinity. Additionally, pesticides bioaccumulate. That means that while each insect only receives a tiny portion of the toxic chemical, a bird that eats thousands of insects will end up accumulating a large amount of toxicity from the total number of insects. Pesticides and poisons aimed at small animals like rats and mice will bioaccumulate in predators even faster, due to their increased size relative to birds.
Synthetic herbicides and fungicides also often have significantly negative environmental effects, like killing insects and birds and contaminating water sources. That same bioaccumulation can occur as insects and birds eat the plants that have been sprayed. Most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are also water soluble, meaning they will dissolve in water. This makes them highly susceptible to being washed into creeks and ponds, where they can kill marine animals and the animals that feed on them.
The best approach to pests is to use integrated pest management and avoid using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. You can read the EPA’s integrated pest management principles here.
7. Prevent Bird Collisions
More than 600 million birds die in the United States every year from colliding with buildings. This is typically due to one of two reasons. Birds are either unable to see a glass window in their way, or are attracted to lit buildings at night and fly into them. Both of these issues can be easily solved, especially at home.
To prevent window collisions, add decals to your windows. You can either make your own, or you can purchase some very unobtrusive ones from Feather Friendly.
To prevent building collisions, turn out exterior lights at night, especially ones that are facing upwards to illuminate an object or building. Also be sure to close blinds or curtains, or turn off unused interior lights to make sure that birds are not attracted to lit windows. The most important time to take these measures is during the spring and fall bird migration seasons. During this time, birds fly in flocks of hundreds or thousands across the United States, and it can be devastating when a large group of birds is attracted to a building, which is what happened in Galveston in 2017.
For a more in-depth guide and migration dates, see the Texas Audubon Society’s website about the Lights Out Texas program.
8. Provide Food and Water
Last but not least, a bird feeder and a water source are great additions for both birds and bird watchers. Seed from bird feeders provides only a small portion of a songbird’s diet, but it can be especially important during winter. Meanwhile, bird baths are an important water source for birds all year long, but especially during hot Texas summers. The Texas Audubon Society has a great guide that goes over feeder placement, what seeds to buy, and how to maintain a bird bath.
As the saying goes, the best way to eat an elephant is one piece at a time, so don’t worry if you can’t implement all of the recommendations on this list. Instead, think of this list as ideas to try and to promote. Small steps, education, and advocacy are how we can make a difference.
If you would like to learn more about birds, try joining the local Audubon society, or volunteering at the Blackland Prairie Raptor Center. You can also volunteer to help restore Blackland Prairie and wetlands habitat just north of campus at the Canyon Creek Wetlands and Wildscape, which has work days every third Saturday. Contact the program coordinator, Julia Koch, at JuliaKoch@live.com if you are interested in volunteering.