With a Little Help from Humans, the Birds Are Back

May 11, 1994|By BRIAN JENDRYCKA

WASHINGTON — According to Roger Tory Peterson, the nation's dean of birding, there are perhaps 1 billion to 2 billion more songbirds in the United States today than at the time of the Pilgrims.

Likewise, the wild turkey, which dwindled to only 30,000 in the early 1900s, now numbers more than 4 million. Even our national bird, the bald eagle, has come back, from a nadir in 1963 of 417 pairs to 3,000 pairs today.

In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Breeding Bird Survey, a majority of the 254 species of birds tracked between 1966 and 1991 have increased in population, including the Eastern bluebird, loon, osprey, Canada goose and great blue heron.

Why the turnaround?

In the early part of the century, game regulations such as bag limits and hunting seasons contributed to the recovery of many species. The ban on DDT in the early 1970s saved the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and many others.

But the revival of many bird populations and the sustained health of others is a tribute to responsible environmental stewardship. Numerous species have been adopted by private bird-loving organizations, many of them made up of hunters, ranchers, farmers and other seemingly unlikely benefactors.

Take, for example, the National Wild Turkey Federation, which has 400 chapters in 46 states.

Turkey hunters constitute 90 percent of the group's 83,000 members. Why? Because turkey hunters -- there are 1.9 million in the U.S. -- don't want their favorite pastime to vanish. They work hard to maintain the current population, capturing wild turkeys in states with high turkey populations and moving them to states with low populations. There are now turkeys in every state of the union except Alaska.

By cooperating with state governments, corporations, farmers and individual landowners, Ducks Unlimited has restored and enhanced more than 6 million acres of habitat in the United States. As a result, the Canada goose, snow goose, tundra swan and gadwall populations all increased by at least one-third from 1973 to 1993.

Ducks Unlimited members also have helped build thousands of wood-duck boxes -- a project begun by wood-duck hunters in the 1930s. Building the boxes, which provide a home for ducks while protecting them from predators, is now a back-yard activity for many Americans. There are more than 3 million wood ducks in North America today, enough to support an annual harvest of more than 800,000.

Birdhouses have helped restore other species as well. In a movement begun by biologist Lawrence Zeleny and the North American Bluebird Society he founded, private citizens and organizations have built more than 100,000 bluebird houses in the last 15 years, with great results. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, the eastern bluebird population increased 9.5 percent from 1978 to 1987.

Private citizens are protecting bird habitats as well. In central Nebraska, Craig Faanes started ''Wings Over the Platte'' to protect 500,000 sandhill cranes and millions of ducks and geese during their two-month stopover in the Grand Island area every spring. Human visitors grew from 5,000 to more than 100,000 last year, generating $30 million in tourist revenue. ''All to look at a bunch of noisy birds,'' Mr. Faanes says.

For 20 years Stephen Kress, a biologist with the National Audubon Society, has been repopulating islands off the coast of Maine with puffins, murres and the endangered roseate tern. His Puffin Project lures the birds with hand-painted puffin decoys and recorded bird calls played on a solar-powered tape player. ++ This method is now luring terns away from airfields in California and Laysan albatrosses from airfields in Hawaii.

Nesting problems also have affected the population of the common loon, a water bird with a maniacal laugh and tuxedo-like coloring. In 1976, there were just 271 loons in New Hampshire. By 1993, the population had almost doubled, to 571.

Why? The Loon Preservation Committee's 300 ''loon rangers'' -- biologists and volunteers who work to protect loons and their habitat. The group monitors the state's loon population, recording weekly the status of every lake where the loons are nesting.

Volunteers also nest-sit on busy summer weekends, taking shifts to protect roped-off nests from human and boat traffic.

If the earth's health is measured by the status of its wildlife, even the Chicken Littles of big-government environmentalism have to admit the sky isn't falling. In fact, thanks to the private efforts of thousands of ordinary citizens, America's skies are swarming with health.

This essay by Brian Jendrycka, assistant editor of Policy Review, the quarterly journal of The Heritage Foundation, is adapted from his article in the spring issue.

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