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Common Grassland Birds Disappearing in Midwest

July 31, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: They don’t call themselves bird watchers; instead, they are citizen scientists, carefully counting the birds they find. The National Audubon Society has just completed an analysis of 40 years of bird population data collected by citizen scientists, and the findings were very disturbing.

Judy Pollack heads up bird conservation for the Audubon Society’s Chicago region.

JUDY POLLACK, Audubon Society, Chicago Region: The declines were staggering in some of them, you know? So some of our most common birds have, in the last 40 years, declined, some of them 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In Illinois, Pollack worries the most about grassland birds like the meadowlark and the bobolink.

JUDY POLLACK: The bobolink, that we’ve lost 97 percent in 40 years? I mean, that’s just astonishing. You know, the meadowlark shocked me. You know, meadowlark, it’s sort of the common birds of the farms. And we’ve lost 87 percent of them in the last 40 years is really, I think, astonishing.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The biggest reason for the steep declines is the loss of the bird’s habitat, says Chicago region Audubon director Stephen Packard.

STEPHEN PACKARD, Audubon Society, Chicago Region: These are birds that depend on a quality habitat of some kind, a quality woodland, a quality savannah or shrub land, quality prairie. Those are the ones going the fastest.

Dwindling prairie space

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Prairies like this one used to cover half of Illinois and 90 percent of this county. Now, there is less than 1 percent of the land in Illinois that is covered in prairie, and there is not one single, high-quality black soil prairie that's big enough for two prairie birds to breed.

It's easier to restore that habitat now than to fight battles to save endangered birds later, according to Doug Stotz, who's in charge of the treasured collection of thousands of birds at Chicago's Field Museum.

DOUG STOTZ, Field Museum: And when birds get really rare and become endangered species, it's very expensive, and there are always big political battles on how -- you know, what can we do to save that? Is it worth, you know, saving some bird in the face of somebody wanting to put a hotel there or something?

But if you start worrying about the birds while they're still common and maintain them as common, you don't get those really strong disagreements over a particular piece of land, and it's much less costly to hold onto common birds and keeping them common than trying to maintain, you know, bald eagle, when the population has almost gone to nothing.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In Illinois, over a thousand volunteers have taken that message to heart and spend many hours on habitat monitoring and restoration. In 1984, this 45-acre field was donated to a nonprofit conservation group, and volunteers have slowly brought back the prairie.

Tom Vanderpoel, a Citizens for Conservation board member, says it hasn't been easy.

TOM VANDERPOEL, Citizens for Conservation: It's very difficult to find the seed that we need to get the "x" amount of volunteers out to pull these weeds that we're pulling with today. It takes a lot of will. It takes a lot of determination. You're not going to get it done in just a few years. It's going to take years to do.

Connecting to nature

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the hard work has paid off. Today, prairie flowers, once long gone, sway in the breeze. And amidst the grasses and flowers, the bobolinks and meadowlarks can again be found. In six large prairie restorations in the Chicago area, Audubon found that bobolinks and meadowlarks had increased by nearly 450 percent. It's making this kind of a difference that fuels the passion of the volunteers.

JENNY VOGT, Illinois Ornithological Society: It's a way that I can connect with my God and Mother Earth and feel a part of the Earth. We're so detached anymore. We go from our car into our air-conditioned house into our office into the mall. Out here, this is where we're real creatures of the Earth. It kind of puts us in our place, too.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: On a recent day, volunteers harvested the seeds from the porcupine grass on one of the restored prairies.

STEPHEN PACKARD: They are like little spears, you know, and you can throw them a distance.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Within an hour, the seeds were taken to a nearby 100-acre field and spread by hand amongst the existing pasture grass. Restoration began on this site three years ago, and Packard is excited to see some of the first results.

STEPHEN PACKARD: It doesn't look like much maybe to the average person. It's terribly exciting to us. When you plant these seeds, they only grow about this much the first year, and you can just never find them, a little wisp.

Here we have a toddler. This is a young little blue stem plant. And here's another one. And then this guy, this is the royalty of the prairie. This is the great prairie dropseed grass, Sporobolus heterolepis to you. When it's flowering, it has the smell of buttered popcorn, and you can just smell it across the whole prairie.

Saving the nation's birds

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But it will take years before this prairie matures, while at the same time more and more grassland is being gobbled up by development. So what is the future for the nation's common birds?

JUDY POLLACK: There's plenty to be optimistic about and plenty to be pessimistic about, you know. When you look at the larger landscape, the numbers are just plummeting. When you come to a small place like this, you see that we do know what to do.

So, you know, it's a question of, will enough people understand how important this is? I mean, it's really not even just about birds; it's about nature. You know, it's going away, you know? And are people going to really care enough about that and support putting the kind of resources in that we need?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Pollack hopes that the specter of a world without bobolinks or meadowlarks will turn the tide in favor of providing the resources needed to save them.