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DoD Aids Nature's Feathered Fliers

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2000 – Imagine flying 60 to 80 hours nonstop and getting 720,000 miles to the gallon. Impossible? Not for some natural-born aviators.

The 5.5-inch-long blackpoll warbler, for example, gorges on food in New England to build up fat reserves and then flies more than 2,000 miles to spend winter in Venezuela. It loses half its body weight on its trip south.

Some shorebirds make even longer journeys. The bristle- thighed curlew, a 17-inch-long shorebird with a long, slightly curved bil1 and a rusty orange rump and tail, flies 7,000 miles nonstop from the western Alaska to New Zealand. The four-ounce Arctic tern twice a year flies 12,000 miles between the Arctic and the Antarctic.

The Defense Department is saluting these feathered fliers May 6 and 7 at the International Migratory Bird Day Festival at the National Zoo here. The festival, co- sponsored by DoD and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park Migratory Bird Center, will highlight Partners in Flight, an international coalition whose mission is to conserve migratory birds.

From a military perspective, these birds would undoubtedly receive high fitness and readiness ratings. Without refueling, maintenance or spare parts, some of these tiny creatures get better fuel mileage and can outdistance today's sophisticated military aircraft.

The birds possess energy-efficient combustion engines. In his book "Living on the Wind," migratory bird expert Scott Weidensaul said that if the half-ounce blackpoll warbler burned fuel instead of body fat, it would get about 720,000 miles to the gallon. By comparison, an Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter has a range of about 2,300 miles on 5,300 gallons of fuel.

And what's even more amazing about these avian migrants, according to Chris Eberly, is that they navigate instinctively -- no computers, radar or Global Positioning System.

For the past two and one half years, Eberly, a contractor, has managed DoD's participation in Partners in Flight. The U.S. program links more than 110 federal and state agencies with nongovernmental and nonprofit groups, industry and academia. The Partners in Flight goal, he said, is to "keep common birds common" by managing public lands for the benefit of Neotropical migratory birds.

"As stewards of military land, we have a responsibility to do our part s they have the habitat they need," Eberly said. Military reservations total some 25 million acres of federal land.

Warblers, sparrows, swallows, hummingbirds and many other birds breed in the north and then spend winter in the tropics of Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies. The Neotropical category includes the songbirds that herald spring mornings, the shorebirds that grace the nation's beaches and the waterfow1 that migrate along distinct north-south flyways.

The United States is only a way station for many migrating birds. Red knots, for example, fly 10,000 miles from Argentina to the Arctic each spring. They spend two weeks along the Delaware Bay feasting on horseshoe crab eggs before embarking on the final 2,500-mile leg of their journey.

Despite their prodigious flying abilities, these feathered travelers do need some human help. During the 1980s, Eberly said, surveys indicated a significant drop in migratory bird populations.

Some decline is attributed to forest fragmentation and urban development in the north and tropical deforestation in the south. That is, birds found fewer places to feed and roost as their woodlands, grasslands and other natural spaces gave way to housing developments and shopping malls, he said.

Man has created other pressures on the landscape that officials are just now beginning to understand, Eberly said. Besides eliminating birds' habitats, people have also introduced nonnative species that have resulted in Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight, he noted.

In some areas, noxious, invasive plants have killed native vegetation and taken over, according to Alison Dalsimer, a contract resource management specialist with DoD's environmental security office. The kudzu vine is a prime example. The Japanese native today drapes the roadsides of many highways in the east and south, chokes native vegetation, and has no food or forage value to animals, she said.

"Another common one in the East is wisteria," Dalsimer said. "These plants destroy the native communities, which means there's loss of biodiversity. There's loss of species diversity. There's loss of nesting habitats for birds. There's no food base anymore.

"Everything that's green is not necessarily good," Dalsimer said. "Have you ever looked at English ivy? There's no insects, no worms. There's nothing in English ivy because it's not native. It didn't develop as part of the natural ecosystem, so it provides limited ecological value."

In 1990, in an effort to save the birds, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation created Partners in Flight, formally known as the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Initiative. In 1991, Eberly said, DoD, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and other federal agencies banded together to pool resources and work for the common cause of conserving habitat and keeping migratory birds off the endangered species list.

DoD's concern for birds might seem strange, but it's not really. Dalsimer said many military reservations are becoming havens for many bird species as their other habitats disappear. Installations are largely undeveloped and remote, and training areas and buffer zones become homes for all kinds of plants and animals and waypoints for migrating birds, she said.

This development creates a greater incentive for DoD land managers to nurture wildlife and nature and see to their health. That's because protecting endangered species impacts military missions and takes an inordinate amount of money, time and other resources, Eberly said.

Dalsimer said military installations today provide the sole habitat for some endangered species. The San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike, for example, exists in the wild only on San Clemente Island, Calif. The presence of 17 shrikes has severely impacted Navy training operations at its bombing range there.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is another example, Dalsimer said. Much of the remaining longleaf pine the bird depends on is on military installations, she said. "At Fort Bragg, N.C., especially, they've had huge issues because of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Because it was endangered, troops weren't able to use significant acreage for training."

To deal with the situation, Dalsimer said, Army officials incorporated the endangered birds into their training mission. "Soldiers train around them, treat them as 'hot spots' -- minefields, enemy territory," she said.

The Army is also working cooperatively on a regional basis with a number of landowners to protect and extend the existing habitat and to plant additional longleaf pine. In addition, because of Fort Bragg's increasing and improved management of the habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to relax the Army's training restrictions through revision of Armywide guidelines.

"They're near the point where they are talking about being able to open up some of those lands to more training," Dalsimer continued. "This a success story of how aggressive, proactive management can really show direct positive results for the training mission.

In some areas, urban sprawl dominates the landscape and DoD has the only large areas of natural space left, Eberly said. "Southern California is a case in point," he said. "It happened before we really had a chance to take proactive measures to protect habitat. We want to prevent things like that from happening in other places."

In this case, Eberly said, the California gnat catcher, the California least tern, Western snowy plover, least Bells vireo -- all federally endangered species -- owe their continued existence in a large part to DoD.

"If you can address the high priority species and their habitats today, that will take a big step toward preventing common birds like the wood thrush from becoming endangered," Eberly said. "By working to identify where core populations of wood thrush reside and what habitat characteristic they require, we can work toward protecting that type of habitat."

Many military installations will open up their installations to "birders," Dalsimer said. Compared to casual "bird watchers," she explained, a "birder" would plan a whole vacation just to see specific birds. Many want to get onto military installations because you can't see some of these birds anywhere else, she said.

Many installations also celebrate International Migratory Bird Day, which is May 13 this year, Eberly said. "A lot of these events will have bird-banding demonstrations. They'll catch birds so people can see how a leg band is applied. This then shows one way scientists track bird populations.

"Most people, when they see a bird up close and see its eyes and its heart pumping, they're hooked," Eberly said. "It changes their perspective and they will then start to look up and notice birds. Birds are all around all the time. People just take them for granted. I want to get people to start looking up at that bird and say, 'I know what you do now. I know where you travel.

"Once you do that," Eberly continued, "you start to think about the consequences of some action you may take on their land. You might say to the farmer down the road, 'You know, maybe if you cut your hay field two weeks later, you'd let these meadowlarks actually hatch their young.'"

Overall, Dalsimer concluded, birds are the proverbial "canary in a coal mine." They're a good indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem, she said. "If the birds start to die off, we've got a problem."

For more information on DoD's Partners in Flight program, visit www.dodpif.org.

For information on other DoD environmental security programs, visit http://www.denix.osd.mil/denix/Public/ES-Programs/env-sec.html.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBanding birds is one way scientists track bird migrations. Bands have an individual identification number and a contact address. Each time a bird is caught, trained technicians can determine where and when that bird was captured and released, often attaching a new band which others may see in the future. DoD Photo.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFinely meshed nets, called mist-nets, are used to catch birds in flight. The net mesh varies in gauge depending on the size of bird to be captured, so that its strength is appropriate to keep the bird from breaking through or injuring itself upon impact. Trained technicians carefully disentangle birds, then weigh and measure them, and often band them before release. DoD Photo.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageShorebirds, such as these sandpipers, migrate in huge flocks sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands. During the winter and during their northward migration, sandpipers eat aquatic insects, mollusks, marine worms, crustaceans and, sometimes, fish. Sandpipers and other migrating birds also eat huge quantities of horseshoe crab eggs. Beaches where these huge flocks of birds rest and feed during migration are called staging areas. Without them, the birds could not survive their long migrations. DoD Photo.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imagePartners in Flight links more than 110 federal and state agencies with nongovernmental and nonprofit groups, industry and academia. The program's goal is to "keep common birds common" by managing public lands for the benefit of Neotropical migratory birds.   
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