Sharpening Our Vision

Toshiba Digital Camera

It’s just a little unsettling that as we get older, before we invest in updating any body part, we consider its life expectancy. I have a friend who is “making do” with a temporary crown on a tooth.

“Holy moly!” she says, “I’m 75 years old! How much longer am I going to live? I’m chewing just fine with the temporary–I think it will last!”

I was unprepared, however, when I drove the Potter to his eye appointment, where, after his exam, he scheduled appointments to have cataracts on both eyes removed. He was a little quiet in the car riding home.

“You know,” he finally said, “I have a decision to make. I can simply have the cataracts removed and Medicare and my insurance will cover it. Or, if I pay extra, the doctor can correct my vision. I wouldn’t have to wear glasses anymore.”

Another long silence. “I really don’t mind wearing glasses–I’ve worn them most of my life. That would just be a vanity thing and I don’t care about that. The real issue is that I’m 81 years old–if I knew how much longer I was going to live, it would really help to make this decision. It’s not worth it if…..” And his voice trailed off.

That evening when he called, he said, “Well, I’ve made the decision! I’m going to go for the complete fix! You know what helped me decide? I can see through binoculars a lot easier when I’m bird watching–I can get the binoculars right up to my eyes if I’m not wearing glasses!” He was joking, but I know how important those binoculars and birds are to him.

There is a delicious irony here. You know about birds’ eyesight, right? Birds have the biggest eyes, relative to their size, of all animals. So yes, they have much sharper vision than we do. Raptors, especially, have keen eyesight. I have read that if we traded eyes with an eagle, we could see an ant crawling on the ground from the roof of a 10-story building. And, birds see certain light frequencies, including ultraviolet, that we can’t see.

Will I remind the Potter of this? Probably not. He’s been in a foul mood lately–he might not even chuckle at that pun. In this Year of the Bird, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the most important conservation laws in the world, is turning 100 years old this year. A reason to celebrate, right?

Wrong.

This law prohibits the unauthorized killing of migratory birds. Viiolations are criminal offenses. The Interior Department has just issued a memorandum ruling that corporations and businesses that accidentally kill migratory birds during their operations are no longer in violation of the act. Under this new ruling (or Rep. Liz Cheney’s similar House bill), BP Oil would not have been legally responsible for the one million birds that were killed in the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf.

So we are gutting one of our most important environmental laws in this Year of the Bird.

It’s another attack, and another reminder to all of us. We renew our support for local and state conservation efforts, we continue to support those national organizations that fight for birds and science (Audubon, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Union of Concerned Scientists, Nature Conservancy, etc.). And we continue to send letters and make phonecalls, and make sure our families and friends are all registered to vote.

We need to demand our lawmakers sharpen their vision. This is not a time to be short-sighted.

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2018–The Year of the Bird

I never really saw the hummingbirds in the abelia bush until some New Zealand visitors stayed in my house for a week one summer. I have a beautiful water view and an interesting house with nooks and crannies that was built in 1908, but all they could talk about were the hummingbirds out the front window.

2018 is a year to celebrate–it’s the Year of the Bird, a plan by Audubon and National Geographic, and supported by more than 40 organizations. Perhaps this is the year that we all can stop and take a second look at our birds, learn a few new names, and then focus on the canary in the coal mine.

You know, of course, about the coal miners who carried cages of canaries into the mines to use as a warning signal for dangerous gases. They could beat a hasty exit if a canary died.

The Winter 2017 issue of Audubon has an amazing research photo of 10 Red-headed Woodpecker specimens and 10 Horned Lark specimens from the Chicago Field Museum. In the photo, they’re laid out on their backs in two neat rows, their white bellies all showing.

A study was conducted on over a thousand specimens collected over the years from 1880 until 2015. Researchers found that the soot on the specimens’ white bellies corresponded to estimates of black carbon in the Rust Belt cities during those years they were collected. They noted that a dramatic change happened in the 1950’s when the environmental movement pushed for the Air Pollution Control Act and the Clean Air Act.

The photo of those bird specimens is dramatic. The bellies of the specimens at the left end of the line are a dirty gray, but they get progressively whiter as you look down the line to the right. The whiter ones are from years when environmental protections were enacted.

The lungs of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren? What will happen as Congress and our President focus on dismantling laws that have protected our air and environment for generations?

In this Year of the Bird, it’s time to go beyond watching birds to speaking for them. Check the statistics of the “canary cages” (populations, migration route changes, etc.) and then start joining and supporting environmental groups, marching, writing letters, phoning legislators–especially at the local and state level. Research on climate change by respected scientists shows a significant impact on birds, our canaries.

No, one voice perhaps won’t make a difference, but joining with a flock? It can!