A spring without voices

June 24, 2007

The bicentennial of Rachel Carson's birth is barely a month past and her shocking fantasy of a world without birds seems to be coming true.

It's not pesticides that are at fault; Ms. Carson was very effective in banning their use. In this case, what's killing some of the most common birds in the state and the nation is thoughtless development that robs these homebodies of the meadows, pastures and forests they need to thrive.

If there is any doubt about the critical need to carefully manage growth in a way that protects wildlife habitat, promotes agricultural conservation, preserves wetlands and diminishes the impact of global warming, it should quickly be resolved by the prospect of songbirds going silent.

According to a recent study by the Audubon Society, the northern bobwhite population in Maryland has dropped by 87 percent over the past four decades and remains only on the Eastern Shore. Eastern meadowlarks have seen a similar decline, prompted by conversion of meadows to row crops. More emphasis on cornfields for ethanol will speed the meadowlark's disappearance.

Whip-poor-wills, whose numbers have declined by three-fourths in Maryland because their habitat is segmented by roads, now find sanctuary in the Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County, near where the outsized Terrapin Run development is planned.

Field sparrows and grasshopper sparrows have declined by 81 percent and 91 percent, respectively, suffering from such seemingly innocent acts as early mowing of grasslands, which now takes place before young birds have grown their feathers.

These five birds are not among Maryland's dozen most endangered bird species; they simply aren't good at adapting to urban and suburban life. Robins, cardinals, blue jays, crows and yellow finches, for example, seem to be doing just fine and are eager to share with early risers what birders call the "dawn chorus."

But the decline in population of the once common meadow birds must be viewed as another warning sign of what's at risk if precious resources are squandered. Or even, in the case of ethanol, how addressing one environmental problem can create others.

As Ms. Carson predicted, the goal must be to figure out how all life can live in harmony with its surroundings - or the hubbub of bird voices will be just one of the casualties.

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