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Great Lakes Article:

West Nile impacts bird population
By Jennie Daley
The Ithaca Journal
11/03/03


ITHACA -- With information gathered from more than 16,000 participants in all 50 states and 13 Canadian territories, Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has compiled data on backyard birds and identified startling trends.

According to David Bonter, project leader for Cornell's Project FeederWatch, last year was "such an odd year in terms of extremes in bird populations."

American Crow counts hit a 15-year low in the Midwest, as did Black-capped and Carolina chickadees according to data sent in by the project's citizen scientists. While researchers have yet to confirm a reason for the decline, informed speculation points to the possible impacts of West Nile Virus.

"They really got nailed by something," said Wesley Hochachka, assistant director of the lab's Bird Population Studies department. Whole stretches of land just below the Great Lakes found participants reporting no crows at all in areas where often there are hundreds. A similar phenomenon was noted in Staten Island, another area hard hit by West Nile.

A Project FeederWatch participant, Frederic Buse of Allentown, Pa. has been submitting information on birds in his suburban backyard for close to 13 years.

"I definitely see trends. Years ago I counted about 53 species, now we're down to about 27," Buse said. "We see very few warblers any more. When we first moved here we had pheasant and woodcock right in our yard. That's all gone now."

Buse attributes much of the change to development. According to him much of the old farmland has been turned into housing, causing habitats to disappear.

In the case of decreasing chickadee populations, scientists suspect not habit destruction but side effects from West Nile. Many municipalities, in response to West Nile, sprayed large amounts of pesticides in hopes of killing disease-carrying mosquitoes. Bonter speculates that the pesticides may also have affected the chickadees' food supply.

Hochachka noted that chickadee declines were also seen outside the area affected by West Nile.

Whatever the reason for changes researchers are glad for the chance to identify such trends.

"Most folks know a lot better than we do what's going on in their own backyards. The project is critical for identifying patterns," Bonter said.

For instance Mark Boyd, a carpenter who lives in an urban section of Allentown, has seen an upswing in birds in his backyard.

"I've been getting more species and more numbers lately," Boyd said. "Birds are like people, if they find a good spot they're going to go back and they're going to tell their friends about it."

Susan and Larry Newman of Ithaca also take part in Project Feederwatch.

"We enjoy birds," Larry Newman said. "It's sort of like watching a soccer game. Once you learn something about the rules and the players it becomes a lot more interesting."

Boyd agreed.

"I look forward to my count week. It's like doing a science project in your own back yard. You don't even have to leave the house."

Not surprisingly according to Hochachka, Davis hasn't noticed any major shifts in the birds at her feeders.

"For Ithaca itself we've been relatively unscathed" by West Nile, Hochachka said. Some crows were reported killed in the area last year "but in very, very isolated places."

More information on the project, which depends on citizen scientists' weekly or biweekly reports from November through April, is available at www.birds.cornell.edu/ pfw.


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