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Saturday, June 16, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Common yard birds disappearing in Oregon

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — It may be getting a little more quiet in back yards as a steep population decline continues among common birds such as the Western meadowlark in the Portland metro area.

The meadowlark — the state bird — has nearly vanished as grassland habitat gives way to housing and parking lots.

The rufous hummingbird that winters in Mexico but returns to the wooded Northwest to breed has declined 79 percent in Oregon over the past 40 years. Even the familiar red-breasted robins have declined nearly 3 percent per year in the Portland metro area over the same period.

"There are a lot of species that we take for granted around here that are having real trouble," said Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland.

The decline can also be blamed on urban predators such as house cats raiding nests and wide use of pesticides that kills the insects birds eat, biologists said.

Cats are the top cause of injuries to birds brought to Portland Audubon's care center, Sallinger said.

While the birds are not fading so fast they are near extinction, the declines mean millions fewer birds filling the skies and chirping from tree branches.

Nationwide, populations of 20 common birds fell at least by half during the past four decades, according to National Audubon Society figures released Thursday.

Audubon scientists gauged the trends both nationally and in Oregon from two annual bird surveys: Audubon's Christmas Bird Count and the U.S. Geological Survey's summer breeding bird survey.

"You don't necessarily see their declines, because they're still so common, but just because they're around doesn't mean they're doing well," said Lori Hennings, a natural resources scientist with the regional planning agency Metro, who has long studied Portland birds and tracks their numbers in the Portland area using some of the same survey results.

Hennings found many bird species are declining faster within the Portland area than in the rest of the state, probably because of more rapid conversion of habitat to human uses. The Portland trends are based on a bird survey route from Tualatin to Milwaukie.

Ironically, the decline comes as bird-watching is becoming one of the fastest-growing pastimes, pursued by about one in four Oregonians.

Urban dwellers can do plenty to help birds find a home, such as planting native landscaping and trees, and creating refuges for birds. Hennings found that the more native plants along streams, the more native birds that are likely to hover there.

Hennings noted that Portland lies in a critical spot along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migration corridor for millions of birds — large and small.

"We have a chance to slow down this decline," Hennings said. "Just planting one tree makes a huge difference."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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