The caged canary in the coal mine signaled danger to workers. When it died from carbon monoxide fumes, the miners knew their lives could end next if they didn't exit the nearest tunnel.
Today's mining threat to small birds: uncapped PVC pipe.
Used as claim markers, the inexpensive, bright lightweight pipes have been planted vertically in the ground by the millions across the West to show where minerals from mica to gold might be found below.
The problem is that a lot of birds see pipes as suitable hollows for nesting. They can't spread their wings and fly out, nor climb up the smooth pipe walls. They die a slow, stressful death of starvation and dehydration. In some cases, a couple dozen winged carcasses have been found in a single pipe.
Last month more than 100 conservation groups from the Alaska Wild Animal Recovery effort to the Yosemite Area Audubon Society sent a letter to federal officials asking them to step up efforts to end what an educational flier of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refers to as “Death by pipe: Birds in crisis.”
Meanwhile, over in the Midwest, conservationists concerned about bird fatalities have high hopes plastic will save the lives of birds migrating along the Mississippi River. The future stadium for the Minnesota Vikings will contain almost 200,000 square feet of glass panels so fans will see the Minneapolis skyline from their seats inside.
The problem is a lot of birds will see the world around them reflected in the glass walls. Some will fly at break-neck speed into the sports arena, adding to the estimated 988 million deadly bird-glass collisions that already occur every year. Unlike humans, who learn that a wall with a rectangular hole will probably contain glass, birds never grasp the concept of glass as an invisible barrier.
Politicians and conservation groups have turned to 3M with high hopes that researchers can find a plastic film solution. The goal is to develop a window film that has an ultraviolet signal that will alert birds to go around the structure while being invisible to humans.
Sure, other window film options exist to deter collisions — one has thin horizontal UV lines — but I guess a spectacular view of the cityscape outweighs the disturbing view of dead birds on the streetscape.
Anyway, the public outcry to protect bird lives in both these situations is yet another example of the problems and possibilities posed by plastics.
Some progress has been made over the years to remediate the bird casualties caused by PVC pipe on public lands. Federal foresters have covered open vent pipes on outhouses and the tops of open fence posts that were trapping birds. And, in some states, people can pull up pipes they come across on public land and leave them on the ground.
In addition, a flier endorsed by the American Bird Conservancy and the National Mining Association will be mailed to mine claim holders notifying — or reminding — them of the issue and urging them to replace the markers.
However, conservation groups say long-term policies are needed to prevent this form of bird mortality. They are calling for a national policy to remove existing open pipes and prevent their use on public lands in the future.
“Mining claimants need to be held responsible for their stakes through federal regulatory action that will require removal of hazardous markers. And to ensure the problem doesn't continue, standards can be set for bird-safe and environmentally friendly mining markers,” says the letter sent June 22 to the officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Oregon outlawed PVC pipe mine claim markers in the early 1990s and requires wooden posts or rock cairns instead.
Nevada made it illegal to use uncapped PVC pipe as mine markers in 1993 but the practice continued until 2009. In 2011 it became legal for people there to remove pipe on public lands. Through 2014, about 32,000 pipes containing the carcasses of 11,000 dead birds from 61 species had been knocked over, mostly in the southern part of that state, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Still, in 2014, there were about 3.5 million mining claims in the 11 contiguous western states and Alaska on record with the federal Bureau of Land Management with the most (1.1 million) in Nevada. It could take years, maybe a decade, to remove or remediate all the plastic pipes sticking up from the ground but people are acting alone and in groups.
In May, Jim Boone of Las Vegas, who runs birdhike.com, said he found 30 dead birds — mostly ash-throated flycatcher — in 20 pipes he knocked down near Mount Irish, Nev., which is the site of the proposed Basin and Range National Monument. He also counted 10 dead rodents and five dead lizards.
“It's a cruel and unusual death,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.