It is that time of year again. Those who know me may think I am talking about the arrival of spring migrant birds; the welcome calls of songbirds wafting through the dewy morning air, the aerobatic contest of swallows catching mosquitoes around the yard or the plaintiff calls of loons as they court on that small pond down the road.
This is my annual opportunity to remind you of the growing problem of roadside trash. The accumulation of months of garbage has been hidden from view by snow berms. Unfortunately, this topic was not spurred by some overwhelming sense of civic responsibility to make our roadsides attractive. I am like many of you.
On most days, I wish I were out hitting a golf ball or coaxing a fresh Kasilof king to shore hoping for a clipped adipose fin rather than working. My plea actually originated last week as I was driving to the store to get some lunch.
Passing through one of the busiest intersections in town, I spotted an immature Glaucous-winged gull lying in the road. The poor bird was alive, but could not fly. As car after car drove by, it leaned over as far as it could. A broken wing, broken leg and likely many other internal injuries prevented it from moving out of the way.
I stopped and scooped the bird from the pavement. Shortly after I returned to the refuge with the bird to assess its injuries, it died. While the death of a gull is a natural process and occurs frequently, the death of this gull was far from natural. Swooping down to scavenge some fre-nch fries that were escaping from a carelessly discarded bag of trash, the bird was struck by a car.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. I often stop to remove carcasses of plastered birds from our roadways. In some cases, the carcass of one attracts the next victim. It is impossible and unrealistic to think we can eliminate bird-vehicle collisions, but picking up the accumulation of trash from our roadways can reduce this mortality.
Gulls, ravens, eagles, gray jays and magpies are the most susceptible to this fate, but many other species are attracted to bits of trash that fall or are tossed from our vehicles. As the snow melts and ditches begin to dry, it is absolutely astounding to see how much can amass over the winter.
As a group, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has picked a day this Friday when almost all employees from the top on down can go out to various areas of the refuge and pick up trash along the roads. We will be working along Swanson River and Swan Lake Roads, Skilak Loop Road, parts of the Sterling Highway and Funny River Road within the refuge and Ski Hill Road.
We invite you to come out and join us, or to pick your own favorite stretch of road to work on. Trash pickup is an important activity, and an even more important tradition to pass on to younger family members.
I am reminded of a time a few years ago while traveling in Costa Rica on a bird-watching trip. We were on a bus and had stopped at one of the popular rest stops, where the bus driver let us buy sodas from the street vendors.
As we drove away I watched a little boy next to me hand his garbage to his mom. She promptly opened the window and pushed the trash out.
I was dumbfounded, and it all became clear why the roadsides were so dirty and cluttered with garbage. Being in a foreign country, I was trying to be respectful of the customs, but that was just lazy. The worst of it was this young boy learned that the window is a proper place to dispose of his garbage.
Rather than teaching kids this less than attractive habit, take a drive out to your favorite picnic site this weekend with the family. Bring a few extra trash bags and teach the kids the rewarding activity of picking up after ourselves. Every quarter or half mile you clean up will make a difference for all of us, and the birds, as well.
Todd Eskelin is a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, who specializes in birds.
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