The bird that likes farming — and airports

The streaked horned lark was once abundant in Puget Sound prairies of Washington state. As its population and distribution have decreased with the decline in habitat, it is most successful in such areas as the Willamette Valley. The bird population in the United States and Canada has fallen 29% to about 7.2 billion birds, according to a study in Thursday's journal Science.

The streaked horned lark is a breed apart. It likes airports. In fact, the largest known breeding population is at the Corvallis, Ore., airport, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Another breeding population resides at the Portland International Airport.

It also likes military bases, golf courses, prairies and farmland. Specifically, it likes any areas that are open, flat and sparsely vegetated.

“Today nesting occurs in native prairies, coastal dunes, fallow agricultural fields, seasonal wetlands, sparsely vegetated edges of grass fields, moderately to heavily grazed pastures, seasonal mudflats, airports and dredge spoil islands in and along the tidal reach of the Columbia River,” the agency wrote.

Unlike the northern spotted owl, which likes undisturbed old-growth forests, the streaked horned lark seems to like areas that have been disturbed by jets, dredges, tractors, combines and even golfers.

Considering its preferences, this would appear to be an easy species to manage. About half of the 1,600 birds live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon — where farms, pastures and grass fields proliferate. The birds should be all set.

Comes now the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that believes the bird, which is already listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act, should be protected even more. The group has sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to upgrade the bird’s listing to “endangered” and to get the agency to stop allowing farming activities. The group claims the bird’s population is decreasing “due to conversion to agriculture and urban development, loss of natural disturbance regimes and resulting woody plant encroachment, and incompatible management practices. For example, when agricultural fields are converted to vineyards or are used to produce crops such as blueberries or broccoli, they cease to provide larks with habitat for breeding.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service had allowed farming activity based in the fact that the birds gravitated to many farms. It should be noted that the bird is native to the western portion of British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon and appears to be doing best in the Willamette Valley.

Instead of seeing that as a promising outcome, the Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit seeks to shut down farming while the birds are nesting in the summer. By some convoluted reasoning, its lawyers argue, that would benefit the birds.

Experience has shown that most farming is good for the bird. The Fish and Wildlife Service appears to recognize that, and so do the birds.

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