State's loss of open space a growing threat to birds
The open spaces that humans think are wonderful places for wildlife are, more often than not, better suited to people.
The Connecticut Audubon Society, in its "State of the Birds" 2014 report, issued a scathing assessment of how open spaces are managed in Connecticut, noting that the population numbers of some bird species are in a tailspin because their traditional habitats have all but disappeared. The report also notes there's no accurate count as to how much bona fide open space really exists in the state.
The reasons for the loss of the meadow environment are many, but the fact that birds aren't allowed to vote is part of it, according to Stephen B. Oresman, chairman emeritus of the Connecticut Audubon Society. Oresman, who wrote the opening essay in the report, notes that support in the state Legislature is scant for preserving habitats that humans don't find attractive or valuable, such as scrubland and meadows.
He also said "open space" and "wildlife habitat" are not always the same.
"Cove Island Park (in Stamford) has a protected wildlife sanctuary -- an unprotected woods frequented by dog walkers -- (it also has) softball fields, tennis courts and large mowed lawns surrounded by walkways, as well as beach and shoreline," Oresman said. "On a map, it is probably all counted as open space."
Similarly, golf courses often get "open space" status, even though they offer a strange-looking habitat to most wild animals, other than the dreaded Canada goose.
"It takes a coordinated approach to re-establish these grasslands and shrublands," said Susan Whalen, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "The Department of Forestry, the Department of Wildlife and the Department of Inland Fisheries are all involved."
She said it takes a lot of effort to maintain a meadow environment, too. If left alone, it will return to forest in a few years. Then there are invasive plant species which out-compete local plants, she said.
"Deer are a problem, too," she said. "They'll eat the native plants to the benefit of the invasives," she said.
Another challenge to meadows are the residents of rural and suburban towns, who complain when they see a forest knocked back to create a meadow or scrubland, experts say.
Other impediments to meadow-loving bird species include raccoons, skunks, feral cats and people who hike with their dogs off-leash, according to the report.
The meadow habitat was far more common in Connecticut until the 1930s. Forests were cleared both for agriculture and to provide fuel for the iron forge industry. But as railroads pushed into the Midwest in the mid-1800s, agriculture followed. Farms in Connecticut were abandoned as people took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided 160 acres for the asking. And as the vast iron deposits in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan opened up, that industry moved out, too.
The result was a steady loss of meadows and grasslands in the state in the 20th century. In 1825, only 25 percent of the state was forested; today that figure is about 60 percent.
One bright spot is the Aspetuck Land Trust's Trout Brook Valley Conservation Area, whose 1,009 acres (about 1.6 square miles) offer a mix of grassland, meadows, forests and farms.
"Migrating hawks like it here because they can forage for mice and voles running through the tall grass," said David Brant, executive director of the Trout Brook area, which is along the Easton-Weston border. "A well-manicured landscape might look nice to people, but isn't doing wildlife any favors. A lot of your bird species like grasslands, meadows, scrubland and generally unkept places."
He said although humans might think golf courses are a good substitute for the meadow habitat, they aren't. These highly managed landscapes rely on herbicides and insecticides and they "offer a toxic environment to humans and wildlife alike," Brant said.
"We need to have a diversity of habitat," said Scott Kruitbosch, the conservation and outreach coordinator of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, N.Y., and one of the report's authors. "Forests are fine, we need them, but we also need the `successional habitat' for a lot of bird species like the upland sandpiper, bobolink and the golden-winged warbler."
Kruitbosch, a former staff member at Connecticut Audubon, said the concerns voiced in the State of the Birds report apply to other states in the Northeast. He added that power-line cuts offer some respite for the meadow-loving species.
"You can get brown thrashers in these cuts, birds that we don't see much in Connecticut but which used to be very common not too long ago."