By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer
The National Audubon Society has put in writing what Ned Keller has been seeing for years: The population of birds in North America is in serious decline.
In its first national "The State of the Birds" study, released last week, researchers say 30 percent of the country's bird populations are in significant decline because of man.
Keller, a member of the Cincinnati Bird Club since the early 1980s, said there was precious little to document the decline that he and other bird watchers were witnessing before the report.
"It's both alarming and not surprising," Keller said. "A general perception of birders is we don't see as many as we used to. That's something that has been going on for decades - the people a generation before me were saying the same thing."
In its first comprehensive study of the nation's entire bird population, the National Audubon Society concludes there are fewer birds because there are fewer places for them to live. A loss of grassland and wetlands, poor forest management, pollution and sprawl contribute to the problem, it says.
Greg Butcher, author of the report and director of conservation at the Audubon Society, said people should care about birds for at least two reasons: Birding and related activities generate huge sums of money for the local, state and federal governments, and bird health says a lot about the overall health of our environment.
Nearly 3 million people watch birds and other wildlife in Ohio every year, with 898,000 of them coming from out-of-state. In 2001, more than $623 million was spent in Ohio on birding and related activities, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the second reason to care about birds is more important, Butcher said.
"They need the same things we do - clean air, clean water and a good place to live," Butcher said.
The report, which used national Breeding Bird Survey data compiled from 1966 through 2003, says many of the 654 species studied aren't getting those things.
Hardest hit are grassland species of birds, such as the upland sandpiper, which lives throughout Southwestern Ohio. The report says 70 percent of all grassland species are in significant decline. But all species are having trouble - 36 percent of all shrubland birds; 25 percent of all forest birds; 13 percent of wetland birds; and 23 percent of urban birds have taken statistically significant population nosedives in the past 37 years.
Ohio's most important bird areas are along Lake Erie, but the Ohio River corridor is also vital habitat.
"Ohio is a stopover area for a major portion of the Mississippi flyway (migration route)," said John Ritzenthaler, director of habitat conservation for Audubon Ohio. "We have grassland and wetland species that are under assault by basic human activities. So we have to make good open-space decisions, and we have to promote the idea that environmental choices are as valuable as economic choices. In the end, they are economic choices."
Birds contribute to the economy in subtle ways, such as providing free weed and pest control, distributing seeds and pollinating flowers and crops. The report makes a case for strengthening environmental protections in the law and stepping up enforcement. Partnerships with farmers and other private land owners, along with back-yard habitat programs are also suggested.
"Like a canary in the coal mine, birds are an indicator of environmental and human health," National Audubon president John Flicker said, pointing out that huge population losses of bald eagles and brown pelicans warned us about the toxicity of DDT, and led to its ban in the early 1970s. "We simply cannot afford to ignore the state of the birds."
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