Group warns of saltmarsh sparrow's possible extinction

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) " Many birds in Connecticut are suffering slow, steady population declines because of a loss of nesting areas, and scientists say the saltmarsh sparrow could be extinct in 50 years, becoming the first avian extinction in the continental U.S. since 1931, the Connecticut Audubon Society reports.

The group released a sharply worded report recently, warning of the threat of the loss of coastal habitat from rising sea levels and urging state officials to take action to protect endangered bird species, including setting aside funds needed to address the rising waters.

The organization reported that many birds are suffering population declines with the loss of large grasslands, shrubby areas, beaches, and tidal wetlands. The saltmarsh sparrow, which weighs about a half-ounce, is particularly at risk.

"It would be the first avian extinction in the continental U.S. since the Heath Hen in 1931," Milan Bull, the Connecticut Audubon Society's senior director of science and conservation, wrote in the annual Connecticut State of Birds Report. "There's no way to characterize that as anything but a disaster."

Saltmarsh sparrows, which live in coastal areas from Maine to Virginia during the breeding season and migrate farther south in the winter, are disappearing on the East Coast.

University of Maine professor Brian Olsen, one of the researchers studying the bird, said the population has dropped about 9 percent annually since 1998. Besides sea-level rise, he blames structures such as roads and railways, which restrict the flow of tides to salt marshes and interfere with the sparrows' habitat.

In Connecticut, the Audubon Society is recommending the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection receive enough funding to plan for sufficient landscapes to allow the migration of tidal marshes inland as sea levels rise. The group also is calling on land-use officials, private landowners, and conservation groups to find opportunities to maintain or expand shrub-scrub habitat within existing forests or newly created or restored habitats.

The report also recommends the Connecticut Audubon Society work with the department, the separate organization Audubon Connecticut, the Connecticut Ornithological Association and academic ornithologists on planning and funding a statewide survey of where birds breed. It notes how New York completed its first breeding bird atlas project three decades ago.

"Connecticut still lacks this basic and indispensable inventory and data source," the report notes.

Other recommendations include increasing land acquisition to meet the goal of protecting 21 percent of the state's land by 2023 and 10 percent for state parks, forests and wildlife management areas, as well as finding new ways to fund those purchases.

The report found several examples of bird species in Connecticut doing surprisingly well. The authors of six articles which make up the Connecticut Audubon Society report note how a region-wide effort to create and expand habitat for the New England cottontail rabbit has improved chances for birds that nest in the same area. However, it notes that Piping Plovers remain highly vulnerable.

"Despite some improvements, most of the trends aren't good," Bull said.

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Associated Press Writer Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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