2005-02-25 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken Negative Indications Of Environmental Health

By Elisa Hinken
Negative Indications Of Environmental Health

Bird populations in parts of Monroe County in upstate New York are starting to decline, a negative indicator of environmental health.

The decline may be linked to the area’s widening suburban sprawl. Volunteer surveyors working in cooperation with the New York State Department of Environment Conservation uncovered a troubling pattern in the last 20 years: an 11.5 percent decline in nesting species in areas immediately surrounding Rochester, east to Webster, south to Fairport, west to Chili and north to Braddock Bay.

Sprawl chews up bird-breeding habitat: woodlots, wetlands and grasslands. Vacant land in the Rochester area is being developed, while vacant buildings get abandoned. Some experts agree that sprawl is the major factor in declines, when they occur. Others say the atlas data just shows shifts in populations, and not numerical declines. Or that such changes are too complex to blame simply on sprawl.

Kenneth Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said, “there’s no question that outright sprawl causes outright loss of habitat for birds.” He’s part of a consortium of researchers and agencies, Partners in Flight, which this year released a North American land bird conservation plan. Among threats in the Northeast, sprawl topped the list.

Now imagine, an rural setting such as Monroe County, where it is dubbed “more cows than people” as far as population is concerned, THEY’RE worried about suburban sprawl! Here in the Rockaway community, more than 400 acres are being developed for housing where there has been little or no development for over thirty years. Wildlife, especially birds have settled in to areas of brush and have been their habitat for all that time. We’re going from no development to over-development in one fell swoop. How will our populations of species be affected?

There are many reasons why we need to protect our bird population for practical purposes.

Among those I am concerned with are health related. Birds are more sensitive to the air quality in our communities than humans. They are most often the earliest detectors of foul air, unsuitable for humans as well. I have heard dozens of stories where families couldn’t keep parakeets alive in their homes for more than a month, just to find out later that carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other chemical levels in their homes and apartments were the source, yet undetectable to the human occupants.

Birds also eat insects that are bothersome to humans. They eat mosquitoes and ticks. Snakes (yes, Rockaway has snakes, although they are harmless) and rodents as well. Birds also assist in the proliferation of plantings when they leave their “droppings” behind. For instance, did you ever plant a tomato plant, leave some on the vine at the end of the growing season and find another one growing on the other side of the house the next year?

We’re not talking about threatened or endangered species here. We also have those in the Rockaway community but that is not the focus of this article today. But there is a global context here.

Further analysis of the statewide data is under way and will occupy conservation researchers and municipalities for years to come, said DEC wildlife biologist Kimberley Corwin. She’s managing the atlas project, in which more than 1,000 volunteers statewide gathered breeding-pattern data on 252 species. But for the record, said Corwin, the preliminary data indicates that sprawl is “absolutely” behind breeding bird declines statewide. There seem to be troublesome declines in the breeding populations of warblers, whip-poor-wills and grassland species like the Henslow’s sparrow, said Corwin. William Lee, past president of the New York State Ornithological Association, said birds are good indicators of the overall health of ecosystems, but understanding declines, where they occur, “is very complex.”

There are larger forces at work — but sprawl is something that citizens and local government can do something about. Rosenberg, the Cornell scientist, agreed that sprawl “needs to be fought at a county level” by supporting smart-growth legislation and the conservation efforts of local land trusts. “We’re not going to stop growth,” he said. “We have to contain it and prioritize the (open) space that’s left.”

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