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Watch out for 'blind eye' to threatened birds

Last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald and golden eagles from the federal Endangered Species List.

While eagle populations have grown in every state, we also learned last month that five species of common birds in Pennsylvania are declining at an alarming rate.

According to Audubon Pennsylvania, the golden-winged warbler population has declined an astounding 98 percent since 1967, followed by the Eastern meadowlark (86 percent), wood thrush (62 percent), American bittern (59 percent) and ruffed grouse (22 percent).

Three of the species depend on forest habitats, one lives in wetlands and the fifth resides in agricultural areas.

Five different birds, three different habitats and they are all suffering. That’s not good.

The golden-winged warbler lives in successional forests – areas thick with saplings and shrubs. Maturing forests and development are to blame for its demise.

The two other species of the forest – the wood thrush and ruffed grouse, are being impacted by the fragmentation of large tracts of forest, parasites, development and, according to Audubon, overbrowsing from deer.

Development is also a factor in the decline of the American bittern, a unique, solitary bird that uses its long, spear-like bill to stab prey. The bittern inhabits wetlands, making it extremely susceptible to poor water quality.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the five species is the Eastern meadowlark, a diminutive bird that thrives in grassy, farmland habitat. Considering the fact that Pennsylvania leads the nation with more than 156,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), you would think the enormous amount of idle grassland would bode well for the bird.

But like the other habitats, development is a major threat to this species as acres of farmland are gobbled up every year.

Interestingly, Audubon claims the rise of ethanol could put the meadowlark at greater risk. He surmises that more acres of CREP land will be converted into corn fields to meet the biofuel demand.

Dr. Timothy Schaeffer, executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania, said the three biggest threats to the species are habitat fragmentation, suburban development and an “out of balance” deer herd.

I agree with the first two, but I’m not convinced on the third culprit. Schaeffer also mentions wind turbine facilities may have an impact on bird species.

Unfortunately, many of these threats are prevalent in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Roads have fragmented our forests like a cracked pane of glass; development and urban sprawl continues at an unabated pace; and it seems like new wind turbine facilities are being proposed or discussed for almost all of our scenic, pristine ridgetops.

More than 430 species of birds reside in Pennsylvania for all or part of the year. That’s a lot of birds, so why should we be concerned about a measly five?

Simple. Their decline tells us something is wrong, something isn’t working. Threats to our environment often first impact plant or animal species that most people overlook.

The warbler, meadowlark, thrush and bittern may not be high-profile, glamorous species of birds, and that’s why they are easily overlooked or forgotten.

And that “blind eye” is what allows the threats mentioned by Schaeffer to bloom into something extensive and persevering. All because we didn’t pay attention to species we didn’t feel were important.

By Tom Venesky


15 July 2007