By Gail Walter, ASK Board Member –
Bird populations are in trouble. A ground-breaking study published by Rosenberg et al. in the journal Science in 2019 was the first to undertake an accounting of the net population changes across a total of 529 breeding bird species in the United States and Canada. The data included 48 years of data from multiple independent sources, including North American Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts. This study illustrated that almost 3 billion birds have been lost in North America since 1970. Equally as alarming, the 2022 State of the Birds Report noted 90 avian species within the US that have lost 50% or more of their population in the last 50 years. Seventy of those 90 species are at a tipping point, having already lost 50% of their populations and are on a trajectory to lose another 50% or go extinct within the next 50 years.
Many of the birds that reside in or migrate through Kalamazoo County are experiencing declining populations. We believe that the important bird species and habitats here warrant consideration as an Urban Bird Treaty (UBT) City. Some of the highlights include:
- 331 bird species have been historically documented in Kalamazoo County.
- Kleinstuck Preserve in the City of Kalamazoo has the largest number of species at 209.
- 15 species that are listed by the State of Michigan as endangered, threatened, or of special concern are present in Kalamazoo County, including our resident state-endangered Peregrine Falcons that live in downtown Kalamazoo.
- 20 local species are federally listed as species of special concern by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
- 16 species present in Kalamazoo County have lost more than 50% of their populations.
- Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) are identified using an internationally agreed-upon set of criteria as being critically important for bird conservation. There are five IBAs in Kalamazoo County: Kalamazoo River corridor, Fort Custer Recreation Area, Fort Custer Training Area, Kalamazoo Nature Center grasslands, and Austin Lake/Upjohn Pond.
- The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is an international collaboration using radio telemetry. The county’s three Motus receiving towers have detected several species, including the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, not previously known to fly over this area.
- eBird is a phone-based citizen science collaborative enterprise of Cornell Lab of Ornithology. eBird hotspots represent public locations that people regularly visit for birding. There are 97 hotspots in Kalamazoo County.
The threats to birds in Southwest Michigan are similar to threats that are challenging bird populations in most locations. These include habitat loss and degradation, climate change, air and water quality, collisions with structures in the built environment, invasive species, and avian diseases, such as avian influenza.
Habitats that are good for birds are good for people. Good air and water quality and the presence of natural features have been identified as important to community members. Birds and people need clean air, clean water, a clean environment free of toxins, nourishing food, safe green spaces, and trees. Investing in what is good for birds is also good for people. Increasing the livability of a community, especially in under-served areas, will benefit people as much as birds.
Habitat loss is often an accumulation of insidious and incremental loss of natural areas. Look for a future article with more information about this particular challenge. Several municipal partners have enacted Natural Features Protection Ordinances to protect features such as woodlands, trees, riparian buffers, and rare species. Many municipalities are feeling pressure from development, and we anticipate that increased awareness about the effects on bird and wildlife populations and awareness of options to preserve habitat will encourage and inspire creative solutions.
There are many actions that individuals and organizations can take to help mitigate population declines in birds. One way is to create a Bird-Friendly Community. The USFWS created the UBT, a non-binding and non-regulatory collaboration with local, state, and Federal governments, non-profit organizations, corporations, and local communities, with the dual focus of carrying out bird conservation while educating and engaging local communities. This is based on the understanding of the importance of green space to urban communities in order to create healthier places for people and birds, and to create environmental equity. The goals of the UBT are to:
- Protect, restore, and enhance urban habitats for birds
- Reduce urban hazards to birds
- Educate and engage urban communities in caring about and conserving birds and their habitats
Becoming a UBT city is a rigorous process that entails a letter of nomination from three core partners stating a commitment to the goals of the UBT and recognition of the importance of bird conservation to the welfare of people and the community, and an implementation plan that describes the natural features, especially as they relate to bird populations, geographic and demographic information about the area, a description of the municipal communities, actions that have been accomplished over the past 1–2 years, and objectives and actions that are planned for the next 3–5 years. Some objectives are required, such as addressing light pollution and bird collisions with glass and celebrating migratory bird day. Achieving designation as a UBT community is a high-level goal, and it has taken over a year to put together all the requirements. The selection process is also rigorous, as a team of reviewers will take a couple of months to determine whether an application meets the requirements of the program. Our application was submitted in late February 2023.
The UBT partners are an informal group of municipal, conservation, and environmental organizations, one school, and one business that have united to submit an application for designation as a Kalamazoo County Area Urban Bird Treaty City. This association provides opportunities to work collaboratively and share resources among partners to enhance bird conservation and nature in everyday urban life. The vision is that all people in Kalamazoo County have an awareness of and access to nature and can actively steward and promote ecosystem sustainability. Currently the partner organizations include: the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo; the Kalamazoo Nature Center; Fort Custer Training Center (Department of Defense); Michigan Department of Natural Resources; Kalamazoo County Parks; the cities of Kalamazoo, Parchment and Portage; the townships of Comstock, Oshtemo, Pavilion, and Schoolcraft; Children’s Nature Playscape; Kalamazoo Area Wild Ones; Kalamazoo Conservation District; Kalamazoo River Watershed Council; WK Kellogg Bird Sanctuary; Michigan Purple Martin Friends; Oakland Drive-Winchell Neighborhood Association; Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy; Stewards of Kleinstuck; Stewards of Glen Park; Greta Berman Arbetter Kazoo School; and The Mill. Leadership of several other townships and organizations have indicated their interest in becoming partners and those are currently pending. A future goal is to invite more organizations to join this initiative.
Some of the advantages in becoming a UBT city are:
- Support in achieving goals for making a community healthier for birds and people
- Opportunities to share and learn from other partners’ tools, tactics, successes, and challenges
- Strengthen the cohesion and effectiveness of local partnerships by coming together and working under the banner of the UBT program
- Improved access and priority to funding through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundations’ Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration grant programs, as well as other urban conservation grant programs that have shared goals and objectives
- Achieve green building credits, reduced energy costs, meet green space requirements, environmental equity, and other sustainability goals by working on UBT habitat conservation and hazard reduction
Although there have been many activities accomplished or planned by the UBT partners that will benefit birds, the benefit to birds was not often considered as the goal of the project. One of our objectives is to bring a bird-focused awareness to the actions and choices that are taken by individuals, organizations, and communities. Through a UBT collaboration, we anticipate that our partners will be able to better coordinate work around shared goals, incentivize new and more effective collaborations around funding and shared resources, and influence the community via cohesive and deliberate messaging that advances bird conservation. We expect that, as Kalamazoo County partners plan goals and actions, the query “And how will this affect birds?” will become a commonplace part of the planning process rather than an unintentional result. Through this partnership agreement, the partners have committed to help protect and conserve Kalamazoo area birds.