For the Birds Radio Program: Save Gas to Save Birds

Original Air Date: May 29, 2008 Rerun Dates: May 15, 2009

No matter why we try to economize on gas, we’ll help birds. Laura explains why, and suggests ways we can improve our gas mileage.

Duration: 4′28″


Now that gas is running over $4 a gallon in many places, a critical mass of people are finally concerned about squandering petroleum. Well, some are conserving not because of natural resources but simply to protect their pocketbooks, but in the final analysis, the reason is less important than the result. No matter why we do it, when we save gas, we help birds. Acid rain has a deadly effect on Wood Thrushes and other birds that feed on soil invertebrates, since so much calcium leaches out of the soil by acidic rain and snow melt. Acid rain results from burning fossil fuels, whether in cars or in smokestacks.

Drilling for oil in the first place damages habitat, and in the far north exacerbates overall climate warming by hastening the melting of the permafrost. And driving contributes directly to carbon in the atmosphere, the main greenhouse gas influencing climate change. Also, there are a surprising number of oil spills—when I set up google to email me an alert every time “oil spill” turned up in the news, I started hearing about at least several every week.

When we slow down, we save a lot of gas. My car is a Prius, with a fuel consumption screen so I always know exactly what my mileage is. The optimal speed for my car seems to hover right around 42—which is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Mileage drops significantly speeding up from 55 to 65, and even more from 65 to 75. That was why the Nixon administration lowered the national speed limit to 55 during the oil crisis of the 70s.

So slowing down helps birds indirectly by reducing the many effects of squandering oil. But slowing down also helps birds directly. We’re much more likely to hit birds when driving fast. The Ithaca road my apartment is on is in the woods, and cars often exceed the speed limit of 45, which is itself too high for such a narrow, winding road with houses and many bikers and pedestrians and no sidewalks. I take a quarter mile walk with my dog Photon two or three times a day, and in recent weeks have found a dead chickadee, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Mourning Dove, and robin on this short stretch, all of which had been hit by cars. It is ever so much easier to avoid animals, and to allow them to avoid us, when we drive slow. I always say to drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient.

We also improve our mileage significantly by taking excess weight out of our cars, keeping the tires properly inflated, and using cruise control. Gentle driving also helps—accelerating gently and anticipating stops to brake gently whenever possible. People who buy Priuses are primed to save gas, but that screen showing how good our mileage is at every step becomes like a video game that we want to “win” by improving our mileage score. It’s sobering to realize how much control we have over our mileage no matter what kind of car, so I wish these screens were installed on every model.

Using public transportation or biking when possible saves the most energy, but taking more control of the gas mileage of our cars when we do drive is one easy thing that helps birds and people both. It’s the right thing to do.