Be Your Own Birder

The Last Straw

January is always the time for new resolutions, goals to live throughout the year. Many are predictable – lose weight, eat healthier, exercise more, save money, get organized, etc. – and nearly everyone has their own variations on those widespread ambitions (myself included!). But for 2018, I really want to do something to directly help birds. But what?

There are many options and popular choices – just ask any birder.

  • Volunteer at a local nature preserve or wildlife refuge
  • Donate to birding causes or conservation groups
  • Join birding organizations that promote conservation
  • Participate in bird-related citizen science programs
  • Choose only bird-friendly landscaping and gardening

I have made all of these efforts, at different times and with varying degrees of success. In many ways, however, these goals are so lofty that they’re difficult to maintain for an entire year, much less as a permanent lifestyle change, especially when life changes around us. In some instances, there may be problems with other facets of the goal – such as supporting an organization that, while it does great work for birds, may also have other politics on its agenda that I am uncomfortable supporting. Part of being your own birder is finding your own ways to enjoy birding – including supporting bird conservation – that you find personally rewarding. While I am not giving up on any of my bird-related efforts and I believe everyone should choose goals they feel comfortable with, I wanted something more measurable in 2018, something I could truly see making a difference.

It was during a Christmas Day walk on the beach that a vague idea took shape in my mind. There it was, sitting in the sand, representing so much that I find reprehensible – waste, self indulgence, laziness, litter and destruction. It was literally the last straw.

Straw on the Beach

The Last Straw – Photo by Melissa Mayntz

Whenever I visit the beach, I carry a used grocery bag to pick up litter, and rarely does a walk finish without a full bag to deposit in a nearby trash can. While I’ve picked up many different types of trash, one item is almost always in every bag – straws. These ubiquitous plastic tubes are the ultimate example of single-use plastic in a disposable lifestyle (more than 500 million plastic straws are used just in the United States EVERY SINGLE DAY). Because of their size, composition and structure, straws cannot be recycled, and they easily make their way into all manner of habitats. Once there, they are not only unsightly, but over time and with exposure to the elements they can break into smaller shards that can be swallowed by birds and other wildlife, causing internal injuries and intestinal blockages. Even whole straws are dangerous for larger birds, including seabirds and penguins, as well as marine life such as sea turtles.

And why do we need straws at all? Conventional excuses point to tooth decay and staining from contact with chemicals and acids in sodas, coffee, teas and juices, and using a straw directs those fluids further into the throat to limit tooth enamel contact. While there is certainly some truth in that statement (there are, after all, two sides to every story), straws do not 100 percent eliminate that tooth contact, and there are better alternatives. Drinking more water and less of these harsh fluids is ideal (another goal I have for 2018), and brushing one’s teeth more frequently is even better protection. Presumably we all learned to drink from a cup or glass many years ago, so there’s no inherent need for most of us to use a straw when drinking. And don’t try the cleanliness excuse – restaurants sterilize glassware just as much as plates and silverware, so putting your lips on the rim of a glass isn’t any less sanitary than eating with a restaurant’s fork or spoon.

So my goal is to go straw-free for 2018 (and beyond). Because of the busy-ness of life and hectic schedules, I use more restaurant and fast food straws than I’d care to admit, but no longer – already at a visit to a favorite local restaurant, I said “no straw, please” and happily explained to the server (who is used to our visits and asked about the change) why not. She was flummoxed and hadn’t thought about how wasteful and potentially harmful straws can be, which is doubly positive as far as I’m concerned – not only did I not use a straw, but hopefully the word may spread just a little further than my own glass.

You’ll notice a new tracker to the right – keep track with me all year long to total up how many straws I don’t use, and stay tuned for further posts about my progress and experiences. Let’s all say “Cheers!” to helping birds and wildlife in this simple, easily sustainable way!

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