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Comment: Remember Silent Spring, and help protect the birds

A commentary by a retired journalist.

Sixty years ago this month, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was serialized in the New Yorkers.

Backed by science, her arguments kicked off a global environmental movement by bringing public awareness to a world that was threatened due to the destruction of the natural environment in the name of unbridled economic development.

Pressed by popular demand, democratic governments established agencies and regulations to protect nature and as a result linchpin species, such as the bald eagle, were literally dragged back from near extinction. It’s impossible to imagine our beautiful Island without these iconic birds.

But it would be naïve to consider Carson’s efforts a success when one considers the fate since 1962 of the songbirds represented in her title. A 2019 report published in the journal Science by Cornell University ornithologist Kenneth V. Rosenberg pointed out that our North American skies have three billion fewer birds waking us up with their songs compared with 1972. That’s almost a third of their total numbers, and many of us who are older than 50 can no longer see or hear birds that were common in our youth. Our grandchildren might never hear them.

These birds are, well, the canaries in the coal mines. Their decline is reflected in the loss of billions of other native species we like to dislike, such as reptiles, amphibians and small mammals such as bats.

But if Carson’s words are instructional, they teach us not all is lost until it’s lost. Individually, municipally and provincially we can still take steps to reestablish the natural order by establishing rules and regulations backed by science to protect our natural environment.

Building codes, bylaws and zoning laws can be adjusted to require the construction of bathouses, birdhouses and other sanctuaries can be built for pennies on the dollar at all new development sites, and local governments can give grants to establish these at existing homes. These would not only provide nesting places to make up for those destroyed by the new development, they would also increase awareness that we are partners with native species to maintain the natural beauty around us.

Window manufacturers can be required to design products that discourage bird strikes.

And perhaps most critically, the province could require all municipalities to control cats, require licensing, and keep them indoors or under controls, such as leashes or “catios” where they can be indoor/outdoor pets inside enclosures. In a 2012 study published in the journal NatureScott R. Loss and others pointed out North American free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3 to four billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually.

To be sure, just more than half that toll is taken by feral or barn cats, but that leaves billions of animals killed every year by our cute little pets who we feel it easier to put outside rather than spend the time satisfying their hunting needs ( about 20 per cent of their days) indoors.

Municipal governments and organizations such as the SPCA must impress on cat owners the need for responsible ownership and follow through with penalties for non-compliance, just as is done (hopefully) for dog owners.

That’s where licensing comes in. It not only provides a mechanism to keep track of animals, it provides a revenue stream to pay for control measures, including capturing and either domesticating or euthanizing feral cats.

Governments can also provide grants to enable people to construct proper enclosures and to ensure impoverished people have the ability to acquire and care for pets, because they do provide essential mental support for all people but particularly for those under stress.

Since 1962 there have been thousands of science-based studies pointing to a path to a better planet and the cost of ignoring that path. Unfortunately, unlike Carson, most of us are focused on the immediate and believe the natural world is too eminence to permanently harm.

The climate-change crisis has demonstrated to most of us that it is no longer the case. Unfortunately, the time between recognition of the problem and action by governments too often takes generations. We don’t have that time.

I hope there is someone in government with the courage and influence to carry this ball. Every day millions of tiny creatures pay the price of our collective inaction.

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