Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


(Transcript of For the Birds for January 17, 2012, sponsored by Vickie and Barry Wyatt. Thanks so much!)

Gulf of Mexico Oil Rig

Last week, researchers from Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama released their findings from a two-year study focusing on the diets of Tiger Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Their report made national news because it said the sharks are feeding in part on land-based birds such as woodpeckers, tanagers, meadowlarks, catbirds, kingbirds, and swallows. I wasn’t surprised—there are many records of birds in the stomachs of tiger sharks, and a great many of the millions of birds that migrate over the Gulf in spring and fall are killed in storms and, perhaps more than any other cause, by becoming disoriented by the lights on oil rigs and colliding with the rigs and with one another. Somehow people are so good at closing our eyes to what we don’t want to see that few had even considered how the lights on oil rigs set right in the midst of the largest swath of bird migration in North America would naturally be drawing large numbers of birds to their doom and the sharks’ delight.

Of course, this report will in no way affect the presence of the Gulf’s oil rigs. The best we could hope for would be that the oil companies would employ already existing radar technology to turn lights on when aircraft or ships are in the vicinity, but otherwise keep outside lighting off during nocturnal migration, ensuring human safety while conserving energy and protecting birds. But I have no expectation that the oil companies would ever consider such expensive technology without legal and public pressure, and no expectation in today’s political climate of that happening.

I find myself growing increasingly pessimistic about issues like this. But then I realize that I’ve seen many impossible dreams achieved in my lifetime. Lake Erie, pronounced dead in the early 1970s because its levels of eutrophication and pollution were thought to be beyond the point of no return, now teems with life. Rivers that were literally afire then now have nesting Bald Eagles along their shores. Every California Condor in existence was taken into captivity in 1987, most hving dangerous levels of lead in their blood and body tissues. At that time the world’s entire population of condors numbered in the 20s; now there are almost 400, over 180 flying wild and free. Snorts of derision from naysayers even greeted a young president’s dream that we would one day send a man to the moon and bring him home safely.

California Condor

If optimism must be tempered with realism in order to make dreams achievable, pessimism must be tempered with realism to dream at all. Working together, optimists and pessimist accomplish the impossible. Rick Bayan defined the word “cynic” in The Cynic’s Dictionary as “an idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision.” An optimist’s rose-colored glasses do indeed cast a pretty haze over the hard brilliance of reality. A pessimist’s glasses cast a dull gray haze over everything. But only a cynic would stomp either of those glasses to the ground, relegating himself to the dark exile of self-imposed blindness. Cynicism is fundamentally lazy. If one decides that it’s pointless to screw in a light bulb, one remains in the dark forever.

So I’ll keep plugging away, trying to make people aware of the plight of birds migrating over the Gulf and trying to get optimists and pessimists to work together to find realistic solutions. My rose-colored glasses may sometimes dim to gray, but succumbing to cynicism would take away hope—that thing with feathers that perches in my soul and keeps my eyes and heart open to beauty and my responsibilities toward the birds I love.


Production of today’s For the Birds was made possible in part by a generous grant from Vickie and Barry Wyatt.


  1. Based on the results of the experiment presented here, it can be suggested that changing the color (spectral composition) of artificial lights for public roads and on human-built structures will significantly decrease the number of casualties among nocturnally migrating birds. Therefore, as a follow-up, the electronics company Philips experimentally developed bird-friendly light sources, low in red. It was not possible to include only blue light, even though this would seem optimal from the point of view of the birds. The problem is that humans cannot work safely under blue light. Therefore, the newly developed light source includes the green spectrum and appears greenish to human observers. We replaced the lights of the offshore gas-production platform L15 with these new bird-friendly light sources in autumn 2007. Figure 6 shows that the platform is sufficiently visible from a distance with the new lighting and so far the crew of the platform has not filed complaints about the new working conditions. In fact, an unexpected added bonus of the newly developed bird-friendly lamps is that the platform crew stated that they were less blinding and increased contrast vision during crane operations. Preliminary observations also suggest that far fewer birds are attracted to the platform (van de Laar 2007). Just how strong the reduction is remains to be determined.


    Perhaps, if all the data is in, and there are no effects of this new lighting on other animals, we could petition the USFWS to require such lighting on rigs, to minimize take of migratory birds.

  2. Good news about the Canyon!

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