Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Slow down, dammit!

Yesterday when I took Photon for our late afternoon walk down to the marsh and back, we came upon yet another dead bird. So far since I moved here, I've picked up one freshly-dead chickadee and found, smashed, one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Mourning Dove, and American Robin on this stretch alone, and crows are so common in my neck of the woods that I bet most birds are picked up by them before I find them. Now this--my poor Yellow-throated Vireo, who was usually singing when we walked past the spot where the stream hits the marsh. These little birds weigh only 17-18 grams (just over half an ounce), and drivers seem so oblivious here that I bet the one who killed this bird didn't even notice.

The speed limit on Ellis Hollow Road is 45 miles per hour, which is way too fast for a narrow, winding, hilly road with lots of houses and apartments along it, some quite close to the road, and no sidewalks and, in most places, no shoulder. And the road slices through quality habitat--forested wetlands. Because it's so hilly, a bird taking off from mid- or upper-canopy on one side of the road can be at windshield height at the other.

Right now the estimate is that cars kill 60 million birds a year, and based on my little sample, over five months on a single quarter-mile stretch (1/2 a "lane-mile") of what adds up to 8 million lane-miles of highway in the U.S., I would bet cars kill even more than that. When I picked up this poor Yellow-throated Vireo, in the prime of his life, a bird that flew all the way down to Central or South America and returned at least once, and probably at least twice, and who was in the middle of a nesting season, I was shaking with sorrow and outrage. I mean, this is a bird I knew--one who was singing every time I walked past, from the same spot. I watched him and his mate in a couple of quick but romantic chases a few weeks ago. Nest-building can begin within hours of pair formation in this species, so I'd bet, based on my observations, that this male was busy feeding nestlings by now. If the female can't raise them all herself, she doesn't get another shot--renesting is extremely rare in Yellow-throated Vireos.

Everyone is griping about the cost of gasoline now, but it's as if Americans have a complete disconnect between how much they pay at the pump and how fast they drive. Slowing down measurably improves mileage--even on highways, most cars would do their best mileage-wise going in the lower 40s, and efficiency drops really fast above 60. (That's why Richard Nixon, of all people, lowered the speed limit to 55 on interstate highways during the oil crisis of the 70s.) My car's optimum speed seems to be 42 miles per hour--that's when I average better than 60 mpg. But some of the cars on Ellis Hollow exceed the limit by at least 10 mph--essentially going 55 on a residential street! When we drive fast, we put birds at risk plus we squander natural resources which hurts us and birds both. As #60 of my 101 Ways to Help Birds says, "Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient."

But that "courteous" is the sticking point. I'm getting sick and tired of cars barreling up behind me and flashing their lights when I'm already at or close to the speed limit, expecting me to speed up to accommodate them. Is it any fairer for the slow drivers to have to accommodate the fast ones than the reverse? In America, bullies prevail and then get royally pissed if the meek grow the least bit insistent about doing things our way. Well, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.


  1. (From Laura) It's not just birds that benefit from more careful driving. Ellis Hollow Road is also important for salamanders. A former Ithaca College professor is working to help get breeding salamanders safely across the road during their spring breeding season. Read the story linked where my name should be.

  2. Dead birds make me sad.

    We redid our deck railing a few years back, from wood to wood and glass. Pretty, right?

    Didn't think much of it year one. Year two, we refinished it and got stain all over the glass and Linnea was born and I got sick and and and... the stain never got cleaned off, it caught dust and the pretty clear glass wasn't anymore.

    Then last year I made it my mission to get the glass clean and worked and worked and worked on two panels.

    Sucess! Clean and shiny.

    And the poor birds can't see 'em. After our dead bird on the deck count went up to several that first week,(from one or two a summer) we taped the panes to make them more visible, and I didn't clean any more panels, leaving them grubby and opaque. I'll find a solution at some point, but it made me so sad that the birdies who were coming to eat at my feeders would get killed.


  3. My tips for helping birds at windows are here:

  4. Very cool, thank you, I've bookmarked!

  5. Well stated.
    You tell’em sista!!

  6. I don't know about you, but it seems to me like there are fewer and fewer people who care about our Wild Life. I am from Ohio and I work at Gap Inc Direct in Groveport Ohio. And every year like clockwork the geese gather around the many pawns that were made by building the warehouses around the area. And every year like clockwork the geese cross the road with their youngs and time after time I have seen people plow straight through them. Killing the parent and a few of the yearlings. It's sad that people can do that and not have a conscience about it. I stopped for them and even a couple of times I have had to get out of my car and hurry them across the street before they got run over. Eyewitness the car in front of me plow through a mama goose and her yearlings and never even hit the brakes. As the father was left at the side of the road with a couple of the yearlings and never left her side. When I left for work that evening he was still standing there. I have heard that geese mate for life so I can't imagine what he must have felt like. I just don't know what is wrong with people anymore.