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Songbird Migration

The mountains of North Carolina offer ample opportunities for watching the annual bird migrations. Overlooks and parking lots, riverbeds and gorges, meadows and backyard feeders welcome thousands of temporary residents each season on their way up from Central America and down from Canada. Concern is growing, however, as the birds' populations grow smaller each year. Surveys over many decades in the Maryland/Washington, D.C., area, for example, have documented the disappearance of several warbler varieties and drastically reduced numbers of wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and red-eyed vireos. The reasons for the decline are complex, but certainly two factors are the loss of habitat and use of pesticides, especially those banned in the United States but used in countries more lax in their regulations. A tragic report of as many as 20,000 Swainson's hawks (Buteo swainsoni) dying in Argentina in one season because of a toxic chemical used to kill the grasshoppers on which they feed is just one such story. While many birds and other wildlife are experiencing losing their habitats as the tropical rainforests are harvested or cleared for agriculture, habitat problems occur in the United States, as well. For instance, birds dependent upon the Texas coast as a place to rest and feed after their exhausting trip over the Gulf of Mexico now find farmlands that lack the food and shelter they require. In addition, many forests and wetlands throughout the United States are being drained and developed.

That's the bad news. The good news is that a wide range of community and environmental groups are getting involved to make much-needed changes. The National Audubon Society kicked off a campaign earlier in the decade called Birds in the Balance, which is being implemented by all 515 of its chapters in the United States and Latin America. The goal is to protect not only endangered birds but also species that are still abundant. Individuals get involved by building better backyard habitats featuring native plants, ponds, feeders, baths, and houses for the birds. Successful community-based projects include efforts ranging from conducting bird surveys and lobbying legislatures to building plaster of paris nests for cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) when bridge repairs destroyed their colony site.

Education and negotiations in and with Latin American countries are also reaping rewards. One of the most promising programs in Central America is the campaign to show how well-managed coffee fields in shaded, forestlike environments—rather than sunny plantations—can also serve as havens for wildlife. The shade-loving coffee bush thrives as an understory plant, setting it apart from other tropical products such as bananas or sugar that require the clearing of rainforest land for fields, leaving birds and other wildlife neither food nor shelter. According to a story in the November-December 1994 issue of Audubon, a single shaded coffee field can support 66 species of trees and shrubs and 73 wildlife species.

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