How Will You Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day?

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Image: Bob Petty, 2010 International Migratory Bird Day artist.

Hooray, it's the Eighth of May, it's International Migratory Bird Day!

According to the conservation group BirdLife International, almost 200 bird species are critically endangered. Nearly 80% of migratory bird species are negatively affected by what is identified by BirdLife International as two key pressures: agriculture, which causes habitat destruction and pollution of watersheds, and "biological resource use," which includes a suite of threats such as deforestation, drought, overfishing, construction on vital wetlands and coastal areas, introduction of exotic species and environmentally unsustainable hunting practices.

Originally the brainchild of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in 1990, International Migratory Bird Day was first officially observed in 1993 with a formal event at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. After the event gained some momentum, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation stepped in and have coordinated this event for more than one decade. The Environment for the Americas, a nonprofit organization, was then started in 2007 for the purpose of organizing and promoting this holiday internationally.

Events to celebrate migratory birds are held throughout the U.S. and Canada during the month of May, while migratory bird day celebrations are held in October in Mexico, Central America and most of South America and the Caribbean, because May isn't an ideal time to view migrating birds there. (Apparently, International Migratory Bird Day is not observed anywhere in Europe or Asia -- yet?? Although, do check out the World Migratory Bird Day site)

What can you can do to help birds?

Around your home:

  1. Purchase shade-grown "bird-friendly" coffee. Shade-grown coffee plantations support dramatically higher numbers of bird species than do full sun (deforested) coffee plantations. Forested, shade-grown coffee plantations also benefit other wildlife and the people who live there.
  2. I know this is difficult, but avoid purchasing or using plastics. For example, carry a canvas or cloth bag with you and use that for shopping instead of plastic grocery bags. Be sure to place all plastic waste into the trash. Cut the plastic "rings" used to hold six-packs together. Recycle whenever possible.
  3. Place stickers onto your windows or cover them with an outdoor curtain to prevent birds from flying into the windows and injuring or killing themselves. At night, turn off the lights or close the blinds of your high-rise offices or apartment buildings, and spread the word to your co-workers. Thousands of migratory songbirds, which are attracted by lights, are killed each year by colliding with lighted buildings at night.
  4. Construct bird feeders and nectar feeders and provide appropriate foods for "your" birds year-round. The best seeds are suet, flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and peanut pieces (avoid seed mixes that contain large seeds such as dried peas, since only large birds can eat them, and avoid seed mixes with artificially colored lumps since those can be made of anything, from chunks of dyed seeds to bits of dog food). Place these feeders at proper distances from windows or in places where birds can't be ambushed by predators. In addition to making up for the loss of habitat, feeding birds has the added benefit of providing you and your family with a "birds eye view" of wild and migratory birds as they go about their daily lives. Bird feeders should be cleaned once per week with a stiff brush.
  5. Construct nest boxes for birds and either place them on your property or in a local park or wild area. As more and more habitat disappears every year (and because people remove tall trees and snags from their property), birds have fewer places to nest each spring.
  6. Do not use pesticides and avoid or severely limit your use of fertilizers. These destroy insects that birds feed on, poison birds, fish and other wildlife and pets, and also damage the long-term health of humans.
  7. Create a backyard habitat for wild birds by planting native plants, with a special emphasis on fruit and berry-bearing bushes and trees that are favored by migratory birds. Besides being easier to care for, native plants provide shelter, places to raise young, and food sources for wild and migratory birds. Talk to your local garden center to learn which plants are native to your area.
  8. Provide fresh water in your yard, preferably a small fountain since the sound of running water attracts birds. Bird baths need only be 3-6 centimeters (an inch or two) deep and have a shallow slope. It's best to mount the bath on a pedestal so birds can see approaching danger (roaming cats in particular). Bird baths should be cleaned once a week with a stiff brush to prevent birds from getting diseases. If your bird bath is located in a part of the world that experiences cold weather in winter, you can provide a heater to prevent it from freezing.

Out and about:

  1. Keep your dogs on a leash when in a park, beach or other wild area and keep your cats indoors. This prevents your pets from harassing or killing ground-nesting birds and migratory birds that have limited time to rest and refuel before continuing their journeys.
  2. Do not feed bread to birds. Bread molds quickly and is "birdy junk food" -- "filling birds up" without meeting their nutritional needs. Instead, provide wild and migratory birds with fresh seed, grains and fruits.
  3. If you are a hunter or fisherman, do not use lead shot or lead sinkers. Lead causes acute or chronic lead poisoning of thousands of birds each year. Use non-toxic alternatives instead.
  4. Get involved in local and backyard bird monitoring projects and clubs.
  5. Learn to identify the common birds of your neighborhood, learn about the value of birds and other local wildlife, and share your knowledge with others.
  6. Learn more about the local pressures that wild and migratory birds face and take steps to protect these birds and their vanishing habitats. Other wildlife will also benefit.

Contribute to scientific research and participate in citizen activism projects:

  1. If you are along the coast of the southern United States, you can enter counts of birds sighted in the Gulf Coast region in the eBird Gulf Coast Oil Spill Tracker database. By entering your information, you will help scientists track hundreds of species that could be affected as the oil spreads toward land. [More information about how to help oiled birds]
  2. Maybe you live near the Pacific Northwest coastline of the United States and Canada? If so, you may wish to join the work being done by COASST -- a citizen science project that monitors marine ecosystem health by surveying beached birds.
  3. Do you live in a city that has tall buildings? If so, you can lobby your local city authorities to institute a "lights out" program for all tall buildings to save the lives of migratory birds. The bright city lights blind migratory birds and in a single night, hundreds or even thousands of birds can be killed after flying into the windows of skyscrapers. Here is a "tool kit" that you can use to get a lights out program started in your city.

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Check out the full length film "The Great Migration".