Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Birds of forgotten lands: Avian communities in Baltimore’s vacant lots

By Christine Rega (BES)

Greetings from one of the two urban LTER’s in Baltimore, Maryland!  This summer we are hosting a variety of projects in “Charm City” across disciplines and institutions to understand how urban ecosystems function and change over time.  I thought I’d talk a bit about my dissertation research, which falls within Baltimore Ecosystem Study’s Biodiversity project, the goal of which to determine the relationship between “forest patch origin, size class, and adjacent land use type on species composition and abundance”. 

The overarching goal of my research is to understand the role of vacant lots within the network of urban greenspaces, specifically if they are sustainable habitat sources for bird communities, within a metacommunity framework.  Baltimore has been experiencing a 4.6% population decline over the past ten years, resulting in over 17,000 parcels of vacant land.  This summer is my first field season out to these very interesting lots, which range greatly in their composition and structure (below).  My goals this season are to assess bird communities in these lots, in addition to monitoring nests, determining body condition values for American robins, and resighting color bands to determine any movement between these sites.

Three vacant lots across Baltimore City, varying in size, 
vegetation composition, and degree of urbanization.

Going into this study, I was expecting to see a ton of European starlings and house sparrows, making for a relatively bland bird community, but I’ve been amazed what I’ve been finding so far.  Even though the season is half completed, I have observed 42 species in these greenspaces, with surprises like great crested flycatchers, great horned owl, and downy woodpeckers – all within small lots ( = 1.3 ha) surrounded by a sea of urbanization!  It’s a true testament to how important it is to provide greenspaces throughout the city, even if they are vacant lots that have minimal management, apart from the occasional mowing from the city.  Residents surrounding some sites even make it a priority to clean up these lots, or establish a community garden, which may create even more resources for urban birds. 

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) eggs and 1-day old nestling; 
European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) juvenile.

One of the greatest, and unexpected, joys of working within an urban LTER is the interactions that I get to have on a daily basis with inner-city Baltimore residents.  Now, you might think, “Huh, I wouldn’t particularly like to have a chat with people portrayed in The Wire,” but the experiences I’ve had couldn’t be further from HBO’s “truth”.  It’s hopeful, from an urban wildlife conservation standpoint, to see how people light up when they talk about the time they saw a fox in their backyard, how they think it’s interesting how birds keep territories, and how a group of residents are fighting to keep the greenspace the next block over green.  The extensive education efforts of BES, and our partners with non-profit organization like Parks and People, will hopefully continue to perpetuate these positive views of urban greenspaces and sustainability while also bringing communities together.  Because BES projects are so tightly linked with the community, this positive support from Baltimoreans will truly make this LTER successful. 

Overall, the future of this research seems promising in the city of the Ravens and Orioles.  The City of Baltimore just announced plans to demolish 1,500 vacant houses in the next three years to create more vacant lands and community gardens.  I hope that this will not only provide more habitat for urban wildlife, but will also beautify the city and create greater awareness for urban sustainability.

Contributed by:
Christine Rega
Baltimore Ecosystem Study
University of Missouri, Columbia

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