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Bird Lovers Create Safe Habitat In Urban Hartford Setting

Goal Is To Identify City Hazards, Educate Children And Adults

By Steve Grant

December 02, 2012

On a chilly recent morning, two women worked with shovels and their hands at the edge of Hartford's Pope Park pond. They were planting shrubs, but not in a pattern that had anything to do with a formal, aesthetically pleasing landscape design.

In fact, if these shrubs were out-of-the-way and inconspicuous, all the better.

One of the workers, Mary Rickel Pelletier, executive director of the conservation organization Park Watershed, found a great spot for a young flowering shrub native to the area, sweet pepperbush, also known as summersweet.

That she worked in a tangle of weeds, that there was a shopping cart protruding from the water a few feet away, was not an issue. The location of this planting had other virtues. "This is good for us," she said, "because the mower can't get here."

Indeed, in a park landscape dominated by grass, this little spot at pond's edge was too steep for mowing crews to get at. Another plus: it wasn't immediately adjacent to walkways.

It was the kind of natural nook where a bird might rest, roost or feed without harassment. That was the point.

Pelletier and Joan Morrison, a biology professor at Trinity College and an authority on birds in urban areas, were planting native shrubs as part of a new project to enhance bird habitat in Hartford, educate children and adults about the importance of bird habitat in cities, and to identify hazards to birds living in or passing through Hartford.

"Most people who live in urban areas have this idea that wildlife lives somewhere else," Morrison said. "We are trying to find ways to educate people in the city who are very removed from nature about wildlife and about the importance of urban habitats."

The idea is to make the sometimes-harsh city environment with dense development far more bird-friendly, combining hands-on habitat enhancement with a major public education push.

Morrison, Pelletier and the city received a $70,000 grant from the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, matched by the city, to carry out the work this year and next.

"We truly believe that for people to enjoy and protect their environment, they need to be engaged in it," said Alicia F. King, the wildlife service's national coordinator for its Urban Bird Treaty program, which involves 19 U. S. cities, including Hartford. Programs typically combine habitat improvement, public education and research. In Philadelphia, for example, researchers are studying what factors contribute to bird mortality from collisions with tall buildings.

As part of the Hartford project, with hands-on work focused on Pope and Keney parks, Morrison monitors which bird species are year-round residents in the parks, which species spend part of the year in the parks and which species use the parks as stopovers during spring and fall migration. The Connecticut River, a comparative short distance from both parks, has been recognized in recent decades as a distinct flyway for many species. Parks like Pope and Keney can be important refueling stops for these flyway travelers.

A surprising number of species can be found in the Hartford parks, including virtually all of the colorful warbler species that pass though in migration, as well as many other songbirds and birds of prey, Morrison said.

As if to underscore her point, Morrison spotted a most uncommon falcon species for the area a merlin perched in a large oak near the pond as she worked the other day. "That is a first for this park," she said. Every park in the city has a resident pair of red-tailed hawks, she added.

One of the goals of the project is to help people in the area understand that there are simple things they can do to help protect birds, like keeping cats indoors, planting seed- or fruit-producing native plants that provide food for birds, or placing images on large windows to help reduce bird strikes, Morrison said.

She will produce on-line materials identifying which species can be found in the city and when, along with a plant palette, a listing of which plant species are appropriate for Hartford growing conditions and also provide food and shelter for bird species. Budget permitting, hard copies may also be produced.

Already, Morrison, Pelletier and groups of volunteers, including 16 Trinity students so far, have planted birch, oak and elm trees, as well as spicebush, winterberry, blueberry and viburnum shrubs in the two parks.

Another focus of the project is identifying urban hazards to birds, including light pollution and windows on city buildings. Birds sometimes strike buildings when they see trees reflected in the glass.

In addition to presentations at public events during the year, participants in the Hartford project work with three middle schools, the Mary Hooker Magnet School in Hartford, the Illing Middle School in Manchester and the Two Rivers Middle Magnet School in East Hartford. Students are taken on field trips and shown how to catch birds, band them, measure them and release them.

"We get to talk about why scientists band birds and why wildlife preservation is important," Morrison said.

Contact Steve Grant at steve@thestevegrantwebsite.com

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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