Sunday, June 29, 2003

Power lines pose threat to songbirds

Boone Nat'l Forest in Ky. focus of suit

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

PIKEVILLE, Ky. - Crews that cut trees to create a narrow right of way across more than four miles of the Daniel Boone National Forest may have cleared the way for more than just power lines.

Unwelcome species, including the brown-headed cowbird that lays its eggs in borrowed nests, may use the passage to declare war on migratory songbirds that now nest safely in undisturbed portions of the forest.

That's the contention of the environmental group Kentucky Heartwood, which filed suit in federal court to stop the corridor from being cut across the southern portion of the national forest.

"If we can't defend our national forests from being chopped up in a million tiny, fragmented pieces, we're not going to be able to protect any species, anywhere," said Perrin de Jong, spokesman for the Lexington-based group.

Females of the brown-headed cowbird species, one of the most abundant and widespread in North America, each deposit up to 40 eggs every year in the nests of other birds.

In some cases, songbirds end up incubating larger cowbird eggs. Those eggs hatch into voracious fledglings that grow fast, grabbing most of the food from the adults, causing other young birds in the nest to starve.

De Jong said the Forest Service could protect many songbirds by keeping the forest intact. Cowbirds prefer open, grassy areas, like those created by power line rights of way, so banning power lines would help hold cowbirds at bay, he said.

"These species that rely on unfragmented forests aren't going to have a place to live if we chop up all the forests we have left," he said.

Paul Finke, a spokesman for the Forest Service, said biologists concluded that cowbirds are not likely to threaten songbird populations because the Daniel Boone remains so heavily forested.

"In a mostly forested area, that's very unlikely to occur," Finke said. "I'm not saying it couldn't occur, but it's not a very likely situation to occur."

The issue goes far beyond Kentucky. Discussions about what can be done to ease the conflict between cowbirds and songbirds have arisen across the East, said Daniel Niven, a program director for the National Audubon Society.

Niven said species of forest birds that haven't traditionally encountered cowbirds usually accept their eggs and their young as their own.

"Neotropical migrant birds, like warblers and wood thrushes, have been getting hammered by cowbirds," he said.

The power line right of way, de Jong contends, also will increase the number of predators, especially black snakes and raccoons, that eat songbirds.

He said the addition of more species of birds also means more competition for food among themselves and with Indiana bats that eat many of the same insects.

In addition, de Jong said, herbicides will be used to keep vegetation from growing back on the right of way. That, he said, could kill rare orchids on the forest floor and pollute water supplies.

Kentucky Heartwood filed suit in June to stop the U.S. Forest Service from allowing Eastern Kentucky Power Cooperative to cut the 4.3-mile right of way, which is 100 feet wide and required the cutting of some 53 linear acres of trees.

Finke said crews have already cut all the trees along the right of way, though not all have been removed yet. He said workers have begun erecting towers along the electric transmission route.

In the lawsuit, Kentucky Heartwood also claims that alternative routes bypassing the national forest were available for the power line.

De Jong said the group will continue with the lawsuit to prevent similar projects in the future. He said the Daniel Boone is one of the few remaining forests in Kentucky that hasn't been completely fragmented by mining operations and the construction of roads, power lines and natural gas pipelines.

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