Last week I wrote about the strange and mysterious deaths of birds and fish that have taken place. But how many birds are killed every year due to human activity? I am not going to take into account the billion chickens that are killed at the rate of 1000 every minute, the turkeys, emus, ducks, quail that are slaughtered in the millions. I am talking about the birds you do not eat but kill anyway with deliberate malice or carelessness. Why are you ignorant of these? Because bird bodies are rarely found on the roads.  Night roaming scavengers finish them off very quickly. Here’s one estimate of numbers. A 2005 paper by Wallace Erickson, Gregory Johnson, and David Young (“A Summary and Comparison of Bird Mortality from Anthropogenic Causes with an Emphasis on Collisions“) estimates that 500 million-1 billion birds are killed each year in the U.S. alone from human-related causes. This includes: Collisions with buildings – 550 million (58.2%) Collisions with power lines – 130 million (13.7%) Cats – 100 million (10.6%) Cars, trucks, etc. – 80 million (8.5%) Pesticides – 67 million (7.1%) Communication towers – 4.5 million (0.5%) Wind turbines – 28.5 thousand (less than 0.01%) Airplanes – 25 thousand (less than 0.01%) Other sources (oil spills, fishing by-catch, etc) – did not estimate I would put the same number in India . Perhaps decrease the collision with buildings and increase the pesticide hit ones. While large mortality events make the news, the constant attrition, the constant killing has put one in six bird species worldwide in danger of extinction because of the factors listed above plus habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change. I was in Kolkata recently to start a campaign to save sparrows. It consisted of caps, drawings, speeches and the distribution of bird feeders. I hope it will work but this much I learnt – very few of the children in the school had even seen a sparrow. How many kinds of birds have you seen? Most cities now just have crows and kites and a few parakeets. Looking at this list, can you see a number of ways that people – from municipalities to individuals can work to prevent at least some of these deaths. Things like making windows and other structures more visible to birds, keeping cats indoors, and minimizing use of pesticides are all crucial to the survival of many species. The deaths are huge and quick but they are preventable if we just tweak our lifestyles. If I told you that you stood at the edge of a cliff and a little step forward would kill you but if you just sidestepped, you could reach safety, would you not?  Often the disappearance of a bird species alters entire human lifestyles, forcing them to change. With the disappearance of the vulture most villages have had to think of what to do with cow/bullock dead bodies. The carcass which would have been cleaned up in an hour by the vultures now becomes a threat to human life. No solutions have been found as yet. The Parsis will have to find another way to honour their dead as the towers of silence have no vultures so an entire religion has changed. China lost its sparrows (killed all of them) and then lost its grain because the insects proliferated. It finally had to import sparrows and start rebreeding them. Today it is losing them again – as we are. Animal mortality is actually a far larger problem than these numbers might suggest. Just one example: in the U.S. there are some 70 million house cats. Each year they kill off hundreds of millions of native birds and more than a billion small mammals such as rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels. The numbers are staggering. But they tend to go unnoticed, except by ecological researchers. Most people consider what these cats (which are non-native, invasive pets) are doing to be “natural.” While animals are killed by weather fluctuations, lightning generated fires, the impacts of volcanism, earthquakes or other natural threats, all these hazards pale in comparison to what humans do to them. We have become by far the most significant factor in the deaths of individual animals, or entire species over the past several centuries. There are many lethal artefacts of civilization. These range from agricultural toxins, to industrial pollution, to lawn care chemicals, to windows and glass buildings (which attract birds to collide with reflections), to predatory pets, to wires to loss of crucial habitats. So many birds have been killed by DDT alone – and it is still being used. When the Americans finally noticed that their national bird, the Bald Eagle, was disappearing due to DDT, they banned it. We have lost all our birds of prey because DDT does a lot more than just kill insects. It impacts birds of prey to such a degree that it causes their eggs to weaken so that they can’t hatch. Our consumption of fish is killing all the shore birds. With sonar fish finders and GPS technology, fish harvesters are decimating swordfish, tuna, and a host of other “food species” as our world population swells to 7 billion. Make a New Year resolution that goes beyond not smoking, drinking and being nice to your mother/daughter in law. Start by making your house less toxic and by eating organic wheat/dal/rice. Plant as many fruit trees as you can so that birds have somewhere to nest. Choose a village and see if you can help them clean up their water body.

Maneka Gandhi

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