On Earth Day, Birds Tell Us It’s Time To Act Again

Andrew Hutson is the Executive Director of Audubon NC and Vice President of the National Audubon Society.

Few birds are as recognizable along the North Carolina coast as the Osprey. These graceful fish hawks soar above our rivers and sounds in search of fish, wings cocked in preparation for a talon-first dive into the water. But this scene wasn’t always so common.

Fifty years ago, during the time of the first Earth Day, Osprey were difficult to find in North Carolina.

Years of pesticide use, especially DDT, laid siege to the species. Once in the ecosystem, the chemicals caused Ospreys to lay eggs with shells so thin they would literally crack under the weight of an attendant mother.

With this history in mind, I delighted when I saw an Osprey pair recently building a nest on the roof of the century-old hunt lodge at Audubon’s Pine Island Sanctuary on the Outer Banks. The lodge serves as the sanctuary headquarters, and as an organization dedicated to bird conservation, we at Audubon welcomed our new feathered office mates.

Watching the pair provided daily amusement, but they also served as a reminder of how far we’ve come in protecting birds. A half century ago, advocates responded to the DDT crisis by banding together and pushing for change as part of the first Earth Day, when one-tenth of the U.S. population took to the streets. In the following years, President Richard Nixon signed numerous landmark environmental laws and created the Environmental Protection Agency, which banned DDT and was tasked with protecting public and environmental health.

As a direct result of the activism born out of the first Earth Day, Ospreys can today be found from Currituck Sound to the Cape Fear River and across the Piedmont.

But the success of the Osprey should also serve as a warning. Like canaries that once alerted miners to dangerous gases in mines, birds are our early warning signals, tipping us off to deeper problems in our shared environments. Our fates are intertwined, and birds are telling us something again.

Last fall, two studies laid out the past and present threats birds face. The first study, published in the journal Science, found that North America lost 3 billion birds since 1970, due to a combination of habitat loss, pesticides, and the disappearance of other links in the food chain, like insects.

The study was followed by a National Audubon Society report that pivoted forward, looking at what changes in our climate will mean for birds in the future. Called “Survival by Degrees”, the report found that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction due to climate change, including more than 200 species in North Carolina.

Already, increasing temperatures are altering the distribution of plants and other animals that birds need for nesting, protection, and food. Rising seas and more extreme weather will inundate critical bird habitat along our coast, threatening many of the iconic species we associate with North Carolina’s waterways, birds like Brown Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, and Ospreys.

In North Carolina’s forests, birds are facing hotter spring temperatures, which can lead to fewer insects for birds to eat and more heat stress that is dangerous for chicks.

Combined, these threats endanger birds and North Carolina communities alike.

But the end of the story hasn’t been written. Audubon’s report gives us reason for hope. We mapped two different scenarios for future warming, and the science shows us that if we hold future temperature increases, we can save three-fourths of vulnerable bird species.

Doing this requires immediate action. It means taking steps at home, like growing native plants in our backyards and making choices that reduce our own carbon footprints. But it also requires broader collective action, inspired by the first Earth Day, to push for clean energy solutions on an economy-wide scale.

Thinking about such big change might seem daunting in these politically divisive times – even more so as we face an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s remember what’s possible when we work together to protect the things we love. Let’s remember to look to the birds.

We have an opportunity to channel the spirit of that first Earth Day to ensure birds and people have a bright future in North Carolina, and Ospreys continue soaring above our waters.

Andrew Hutson Executive Director, Audubon NC & VP, NAS