Colorado bird health an indicator of water quality for humans |

Colorado bird health an indicator of water quality for humans

In Colorado and the surrounding region, the southwestern willow flycatcher has become endangered due to the loss of vital habitat because of the deterioration of local river conditions.
Flickr |

The growing water issues and shortages throughout the western United States stand as a notable threat to the way of life for millions of Americans but could also pose just as significant a hazard for hundreds of native species of birds.

Tuesday marked World Water Day, an observance by the United Nations of water issues impacting the world over that dates to the early- ’90s in order to inspire action. The country’s leading advocates for bird health, the National Audubon Society, piggybacked off the occasion to spread awareness about the importance of protecting important bird areas.

The nonprofit, focused on identifying and preserving the natural environments of these wildlife-of-the-sky since 1905, notes that almost 85 million people in the United States are amateur ornithologists, or bird watchers and photographers. But aside from aesthetics, birds are important because they can act as an indicator species.

“The lives of birds are very closely tied to water, and our own,” said Abby Burk, Audubon Rockies’ western rivers outreach specialist. “They’re the canary in a coal mine, and that’s what we’re looking at with birds and rivers.”

Habitat areas along the Colorado River Basin, where more than 400 species of bird make their homes, is a particular priority of Audubon. The Colorado River and its offshoots, which include seven states and support more than 35 million people, offer food, shelter and a migratory passageway for many of those species.

It’s why Colorado is a primary place of emphasis for Audubon. The organization, through its Western Rivers Action Network, swung its weight behind the release of the Colorado Water Plan this past November and is now concentrating on implementation of the first-of-its-kind policy for the state, hoping to secure funds for stream management and river restoration plans.

“Habitat is what’s so important,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of Audubon’s Colorado River Project. “When it’s missing or invaded, there’s something awry in how the river is being managed and how it creates natural habitats. Some species have become endangered in this region, like the southwestern willow flycatcher, and we correlate that status of the bird with the condition of our rivers.”

To assist in restoration efforts of these streamside, riparian zones — what are often referred to as “ribbons of green” because of the linear growth patterns of these forests and wetlands — Audubon asks that local citizens apply a couple conservation practices. The practices help both human and winged varieties.

First, water reduction techniques are as easy as shifting from Kentucky bluegrass lawns to native plants and low-water use landscapes. Estimates put savings of 12,000 gallons of water per 1,000-square-feet of space annually. Native plants also reduce the use of pesticides, providing improved sources of food for birds.

And then the organization asks that people support agriculture through efficiencies like water banking, a water management practice that forgoes the precious resource at points of the year and stores it for later use. Audubon also supports WaterSMART, a program from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that tries to establish collaborative partnerships to stretch water supplies to meet future demands.

“One of the biggest wrestling matches is water in the West,” said Burk. “Healthy flowing rivers, benefit all water uses and users. And when you protect water, you’re protecting a resource for a huge cross-section of wildlife.”

To some, protecting waterways merely for the sake of birds and other wildlife that greatly rely on vegetation that grows along rivers and streams is a hard sell. Which is why Burk emphasizes in so doing, people also sustain other environmental purposes, in addition to Colorado’s $9 billion recreation industry that substantially benefits the local economy.

And when it comes to birds, there’s also a considerable economic benefit from those amateur ornithologists, otherwise known as birders. In just 2011, almost 47 million Americans who participated and traveled to watch our feathered friends had a total financial impact of $107 billion nationally. So the rewards for maintaining birds’ lives is multifaceted, and once more, a measure of our own health and value of water sources used by all.

“When we having diminished or reduced numbers of birds, or less diversity present and abundance dwindling, we have to look at habitat,” said Burk. “It’s an indication of habitat for us, and the abundance of water and the quality of the ecosystem. Because if it’s broken, birds won’t be there.”

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