Every fall night, as we settle down to read the newspaper or tune in to find out who was just voted off Dancing with the Stars, millions of birds stream south through the dark sky. After nesting and raising their young in Canada's boreal forest, they are headed to their wintering grounds in the United States, the Caribbean, or Central or South America.
When we wake to our toast and coffee, these birds are feeding in our backyards or resting in our hedges. We pause to enjoy them, often not realizing that these creatures, some no larger than our thumbs, have just traveled thousands of miles and, amazingly, may continue thousands more before their journey is done.
About 80 million Americans identify themselves as bird enthusiasts, perhaps you among them. Birding is growing faster than any other outdoor recreation. Today, more Americans watch birds than hike or play team sports.
So, given that tens of millions of us love birds, how is it that so many bird species are in trouble?
Increasingly more science-based reports show that many birds are experiencing major population declines. The stories of highly endangered birds such as the California condor and the whooping crane are familiar, but many of us don't know that some well-known backyard birds show serious signs of trouble. The dark-eyed junco for example, a bird that is flooding Philadelphia backyards and parks right now, has declined nearly 40 percent since the 1960s. Evening grosbeaks have dropped nearly 80 percent and rusty blackbirds more than 95 percent.
One answer to the "more birders, less birds" paradox is that consumer choices are hurting the birds we love.
Much of the junk mail and catalogues, for example, is printed on paper made from virgin timber from Canada's boreal forest. Millions of forest acres - the nursery for some three billion birds - is destroyed annually because Americans buy Cottonelle and Kleenex, instead of brands like Marcal and Seventh Generation, which are made of recycled fiber.
More Americans might "buy for birds" or ask the other brands to change their ways, if they knew.
Do you know from which country the United States imports the most oil and gas? Most Americans - including many of the 80 million bird enthusiasts - would say Saudi Arabia. The answer is Canada. The world's second-largest oil deposit, the Alberta tar sands, also supports tens of millions of acres of boreal forests and wetlands - and millions of birds. It's slated to be strip-mined for oil.
Right now, less than 10 percent of Canada's boreal forest is protected. Conservation would protect not only birds, but also the world's largest remaining populations of wolves and caribou, and the world's largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon - a shield that protects against global warming.
Many of the U.S.-based corporations that had been the largest buyers of products from the Canadian boreal have switched to more sustainable products and practices. A consortium of conservation groups, indigenous tribes, businesses, and more than 1,500 internationally respected scientists have joined to urge Canada to permanently set aside more of the Canadian boreal.
Americans - especially the 80 million birdwatchers - should stop buying products that harm the birds that we love. We should share what we've learned with family, friends and neighbors. And finally, we should give voice to our values. Let Canadian government leaders know that we care about the future of the boreal and the millions of migrating birds that are a part of our collective heritage.
Then maybe, just maybe, in a hundred years, a great-grandson or -granddaughter will step out on the porch some dark fall night and hear the soft calls of migrating birds.