I pulled over off the seldom-used gravel road, then walked back to check on a bird lying belly up on the gravel. There was no mistaking the pretty Blue breast of a male Indigo bunting. I checked him for a leg band, and found there was none. Then I gently laid him in the grass next to an old wooden fence post. It always takes a little wind out of my sails when I see a beautiful wild bird meet his demise.
The untimely death of hundreds of millions of birds annually is a hard thing to let go of. I've been keeping track of road-killed birds for over 40 years, and there are fewer birds being hit than there were 30 to 40 years ago. But how could that be, when we have more highways, more cars, and we drive faster? You'd think there would be more. The truth is there just aren't as many birds, overall.
Where I live, some time ago, a road-killed Red-winged blackbird was a common sight in the summer. Now I rarely see a dead blackbird in the road because there are so few live ones around anymore. For the past several decades the pressure put on wild bird populations by humans has been nearly devastating.
When you figure in the seemingly endless ways people are responsible for the demise of wild bird populations, this becomes evident. We all have, and love, our windowsóbut without them, millions more birds would survive each year. Signal towers, the same; power lines and guy wires, the same; pesticidesómuch more of the same. Oil spills, indiscriminate shootings, domestic and feral cats, and progressive destruction of habitat, altogether, account for hundreds of millions, if not billions of birds.
Personally, I think we should allow our children to learn about the birds as part of their daily learning. From the time a child can see and hear, then each day in school, every child should have the opportunity to learn from nature. How about an hour each day in every grade K-12, devoted to learning how to build respect and compassion for all the natural world? Imagine all of those young adults entering society with an Earth-aware attitude, ready to make changes. I think it's the only way to save what wildlife remains for generations to come.
Now for some good news. I thought I'd give you a little update on the swallows that use the bridges where I live. Last years flooding came at a time when the Cliff swallows had hatched their young and were feeding them. Their gourd-shaped mud nests lined the supports under the bridges that cross over the Kickapoo River.
In the valley, the flooding was responsible for the deaths of nearly all the young swallows who were living under the lower bridges. When the DOT began construction of a new bridge on Hwy 56 just outside of the small river town of Viola, I immediately thought of the swallows. The old bridge didn't have many places for the cliff swallows to attach their nests so I thought it would be a good time to ask that the underside of the new bridge would look like. I told the foreman about the plight of the sparrows and asked them if there would be a shallow ledge that they could build their mud nests on. He said he understood and would look into it.
Yesterday I walked down under that new bridge and was amazed at what I saw. A small ledge had been left under the cement supports, and the cliff swallows had taken full advantage of them. I can't tell you how good it felt to see several hundred new nests lined up under the bridge supports.
The sky was alive with the adult swallows as they flew up to their new nests with insects to feed their hungry young. I counted nearly 300 new mud nests that wouldn't have been there if the bridge wasn't to their liking. Each nest may contain 4 - 5 young birds for a possible total of around 1500 young swallows that could fledge from under the bridge in the next two weeks. Not all of the stories of birds and highways end tragically. In this case, the highway provided a way to bridge the gap between man and nature.
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