10 Things You Can Do For Birds

Plant a garden. Be a citizen scientist. Join “Lights Out.” Your steps can make a difference.

1. Make your yard a bird oasis

Start by providing the five basics: clean water, plants with flowers for nectar and insects (songbirds feed insects to their young), fruit-bearing plants to provide fuel for migration and winter, layers of plants for cover and thermal protection, and nesting habitat and materials. Native plants are key—their architecture, flowers, fruits, and scents are ideal for restoring the communities and relationships birds depend on. Yards that mimic surrounding natural plant communities not only attract more kinds of birds, they could help reverse the loss of urban biodiversity, according to new research.

2. Become a scientist 

Everyday bird observations provide crucial data for scientists studying the big and small questions about bird lives, from migration to the effects of global climate change. You can help by becoming a citizen scientist, observing and noting the kinds of birds you see. Join the Great Backyard Bird Count—in 2012 it tallied 17.4 million observations and 623 species, including an influx of snowy owls from the Arctic—sign up for a local Christmas Bird Count, or enlist in a new effort to track hummingbirds. Visit audubon.org/citizenscience for more. Track your sightings on eBird, a website developed by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

3. Create communities 

Share your passion for birds with family and friends. And expand your patch of bird habitat into a larger urban oasis by working with neighbors and managers of nearby parks, golf courses, and farms. You will help restore habitat in linked corridors, multiplying the effectiveness of each patch. Restoring bird habitat can also help mitigate a city’s “heat island effect,” absorb stormwater runoff, and combat the spread of invasive plants. Consider starting or joining a program like Bird CityWisconsin, which Milwaukee Audubon helped launch and that’s modeled, in part, on the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program. Sixty Wisconsin communities have been recognized as “Bird Cities” so far for habitat protection and forest management.

4. Forgo pesticides 

Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published five decades ago, pesticide use in North America has grown to exceed 1.1 billion pounds annually. Roughly eight percent of that is applied to yards and gardens. One particular lawn-care pesticide, diazinon, has been implicated in more than 150 mass bird die-offs. At the same time, U.S. researchers estimate that agricultural use kills 67 million birds each year. Pesticides also cause longer-term, potentially lethal effects ranging from eggshell thinning to neurological damage, and may be linked to human food allergies.

5. Shop for the birds 

Buy grassland-bird-friendly hamburgers. Conventionally produced beef comes from animals fed corn and soybeans, crops grown on what used to be the great American prairie. Buying grass-fed meat supports grassland birds, which, because of habitat loss, are showing the most sustained declines of any bird group in the United States. Switch to shade-grown coffee. Each cup preserves roughly two square feet of rainforest. Even lumber can be bird-friendly; woodlands certified by the Forest Stewardship Council aim to conserve biological diversity by protecting old-growth stands, monitoring clear-cutting, and limiting pesticide use.

6. Join “Lights Out” 

Glass-fronted buildings with bright nighttime lighting may be architecturally pleasing, but they’re deadly. Up to a billion birds—mostly migrants—are killed in building collisions in North America each year. The U.S. Lights Out movement began in Chicago, where bird deaths at one building dropped by roughly 83 percent after the lights were turned off. Researchers estimate Chicago’s program saves 10,000 birds each year. Audubon began a Lights Out New York program in 2005, and now many of the city’s towers, including the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, turn off their lights from midnight to dawn during peak migration season, September 1 to November 1.

7. Save energy, cut carbon emissions

The coal that fuels many power plants in the eastern United States comes from Appalachia, where mountaintop removal mining has obliterated more than 750,000 acres of forests, destroying habitat in an area larger than Rhode Island. The United States is still one of the biggest contributors to global warming: The average American is responsible for 22 tons of carbon dioxide each year, more than six times that of the average person globally. Leaving your car at home twice a week—and walking or biking instead—can reduce your emissions by two tons a year (and it’s healthy for you, too). Make conservation a family challenge. Keep a journal and award points for conservation activities, including miles walked, biked, or covered on mass transit instead of driving; each time lights are turned off when leaving the room; and unplugging electronic devices overnight. 

8. Part with plastics

The first plastic bags were produced in 1957, according to Worldwatch Institute, and we now throw away 100 billion a year. Many eventually wash into the ocean to join oceanic garbage patches, drifting gyres of trash that spread over huge sea areas. Every year the floating “bladders” of these bags kill hundreds of thousands of seabirds—along with sea turtles and marine mammals—which mistake them for jellyfish and squid, and then starve to death after filling their guts with plastic. Using less plastic also saves energy and, thus, bird habitat. Plastic is made from petroleum and requires energy—more fossil fuels—to go from oil to consumer good.

9. Curb your cats

Keep your felines inside or in outdoor “kitty condos.” America’s estimated 150 million outdoor cats kill serious numbers of birds—up to 3.7 billion a year, according to a new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center. Tiny radio transmitters affixed to gray catbird nestlings in the Washington, D.C., suburbs by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and Towson University showed that predators killed about 80 percent of those birds after they fledged (more than was sustainable) and that cats were responsible for nearly half those deaths. House cats in the so-called “kittycam” study by University of Georgia and National Geographic Society researchers carried tiny videocameras. The footage shocked the cats’ owners, revealing 44 percent of their pets were cutthroats; those cats averaged one kill every 17 hours outdoors.

10. Adopt-a-species 

Pick a bird species from your flyway (choose from a list at audm.ag/AudPlan). Become an advocate for that species: work to protect and restore its habitat, educate your community, talk with schoolkids, or volunteer at a preserve or nature center. Learning about “your” species will enrich your connection with nature and give you a new understanding of the region where you live.