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.