Urban tree loss hitting sparrow populations


The population of house sparrows in Britain has fallen by 68% in the past three decades, according to the RSPB.

A report by the charity said the paving over of front gardens and removal of trees had caused a big decline in insects which the birds eat.

It suggests that sparrows are now disappearing altogether from cities such as London, Bristol and Edinburgh, the BBC News website reports.

Dr Will Peach, from the RSPB, said many gardens had become “no-go areas for once-common British birds”.

Scientists from the RSPB joined forces with De Montfort University and Natural England to investigate the decline of the house sparrow.

They studied numbers in Leicester over a three-year period and found that they fell by nearly a third.

Dr Peach said every pair of house sparrows must raise at least five chicks a year to maintain the population, but many were starving to death in their nests or were too weak to live long after fledging.

The study did find that chick survival was higher in areas where insects, such as aphids, were more abundant.

Dr Peach said: “Peanuts and seeds are great for birds for most of the year, but sparrows need insects in summer – and lots of them – to feed their hungry young.

“Honeysuckle, wild roses, hawthorn or fruit trees are perfect for insects and therefore house sparrows.

“The trend towards paving of front gardens and laying decking in the back, and the popularity of ornamental plants from other parts of the world, has made many gardens no-go areas for once common British birds.”

He said gardeners could help sparrows by “being lazy, doing nothing and allowing the garden to be a little bit scruffy”.

The study, published in the journal Animal Conservation, concluded that the decline in house sparrows in Britain began in the mid-1980s.

In London, numbers fell by 60% between 1994 and 2004.

The house sparrow has been added to the list of species identified by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as in need of greater protection.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 20/11/2008

Tropical farms ‘aid biodiversity’


A study has shown that certain farming methods can help sustain the biodiversity of tropical forests, reports BBC News’ environment reporter Mark Kinver.

Researchers found that an areca nut plantation in south-west India supported 90% of the bird species found in surrounding native forests.

The low-impact agriculture system has been used for more than 2,000 years and should be considered as a new option for conservation efforts, they added.

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team of scientists from the US and India chose the site on the coastal fringes of the Western Ghat mountain range because it met a number of attributes the study required:

  • a long history of continuous agricultural production
  • intense human pressure
  • extensive natural areas still remaining

The landscape consisted of a mixture of intact forest, “production forest” (where non-timber products, such as leaves, were allowed to be removed) and areas of cash crops, primarily areca nut palms (Areca catechu).

“We found a total of 51 forest (bird) species in this study system,” the researchers wrote.

“These species were broadly distributed across the landscape, with 46 (90%) found outside of the intact forest.

“Within areca nut plantations, we recorded threatened forest species, such as the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) and the Malabar grey hornbill (Ocyceros griseus).”

The team said the combination of the height of the areca nut palms (Areca catechu) and the plantations’ close proximity to the intact forest created the necessary ecological conditions to support forest bird species.

They added that data showed the distribution of species in the area had been relatively stable for more than 2,000 years, before the first farmers cultivated the area.

As well as having a high ecological value, the plantations were also economically productive.

The areca nut is consumed by about 10% of the world’s population, predominantly Asian communities.

The shade provided by the palms’ canopy also created the conditions that allowed farmers to grow other high-value crops, such as pepper, vanilla and bananas.

Rather than expanding the plantations, the farmers relied upon the leaf litter from the surrounding production forests to produce mulch for their crops, rather than using costly fertilisers.

The researchers also said alternative crops that could be grown in the wet lowlands, such as rice, yielded lower returns both economically and ecologically.

Lead author Jai Ranganathan, from the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), said the findings provided another option for conservationists to consider.

“It identifies another tool that can be used by conservationists,” he told BBC News.

“If it is not possible to make places completely protected areas then they can look at whether a system like this will help support the rich biodiversity.”

Dr Ranganathan said that he intended to look for further examples of established agriculture and cultivation practises in the region that provided habitats that supported a high level of biodiversity.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 04/11/2008

Prince calls for rainforest bills


Prince Charles has called for rich countries to pay an annual “utility bill” for the benefits given to the world by its rainforests, the BBC News website reports.

Speaking in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, the prince called rainforests the “world’s greatest public utility”.

They act as an air conditioner, store fresh water and provide work, he said.

The proposal by the Prince’s Rainforest Project would generate funds allowing rainforest countries to change their practices and halt deforestation.

The Prince of Wales outlined the plan in a speech to the Indonesian President, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his cabinet in Jakarta.

He told the audience at the Merdeka Palace: “Indonesia and the other rainforest nations are stewards of the world’s greatest public utility.

“The rest of us have to start paying for it, just as we do for water, gas and electricity.”

He added: “Payments should have the characteristics of a commercial transaction, in the same way we pay for our water, gas and electricity.

“In return the rainforest nations would provide eco-services such as carbon storage, fresh water and the protection of biodiversity.”

The prince said the forests provided a livelihood for more than a billion people.

As developed nations were the driving force behind their destruction, through a demand for products like beef, palm oil, soya and logs, they should be billed for their protection, he said.

It is hoped that a large part of the funds raised from the “utility bills” would come from bonds issued by an international body.

Describing the form the annual billing could take, the prince said: “These emergency funds could be provided directly by developed world governments, perhaps from expanded development aid budgets, from surcharges on activities which cause climate change or from the auction of carbon market emission allowances.

“However, I hope that even in the short term the large part of the required funding could be provided by the private sector by subscribing to long-term bonds issued by an international agency.

“The issuing entity would pay the proceeds from the bonds to the rainforest nations. They in turn would use the money to re-orientate their economies to halt or refrain from deforestation.”

Earlier on his Indonesian visit, the Prince visited the Harapan Rainforest conservation project on the island of Sumatra as part of his 10-day tour of Asia.

Indonesia is the final leg of his tour. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall also visited Japan and Brunei, but he travelled to Indonesia alone as his wife has returned to Britain for other engagements.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 03/11/2008

Willow plantation tackles massive fuel leak


About 23,000 willow plants are cleaning up the site of a 164,000-gallon spill of fuel that has been spreading underground for more than 50 years at the Fort Drum military installation in New York state, US.

Dr. Christopher Nowak, a silviculturist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, believes it is the largest phytoremediation effort – the process of using plants to remediate contaminated soils and groundwater – in North America.

As explained in a SUNY press release, the trees are part of an aggressive cleanup strategy to remediate groundwater contamination caused by fuel that leaked from the tank farm along Fort Drum’s “Gasoline Alley”.

The military installation, home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division – Light Infantry, covers more than 107,000 acres. This year, the base is marking its 100th year as a military training site.

No one knows exactly when the leaks began – perhaps as early as World War II – but they were discovered in 1988, when the petroleum, which had been spreading underground for many years, began to foul small creeks on the base.

The plume has been flowing downhill under the Old Sanitary Landfill, which closed in the mid-1970s. It moved through the sandy soil and showed up in groundwater that surfaced as creeks in low-lying areas. The creeks were turning rusty brown with precipitated iron and bacteria as the petroleum surfaced in “seeps” that brought groundwater to the surface.

Donald Beevers, the installation restoration project manager, who is employed with contractor Applied Services & Information Systems at Fort Drum, said roughly $1m (£500,000) has been spent on the remediation project. He estimated that constructing a treatment plant would have cost $8m (£4m).

The goal is to develop a phytoremediation model that can be tailored for use at similar sites across the United States. “We want to transfer the technology,” Mr Beevers said. “This isn’t the only Department of Defense landfill.”

Dr Nowak added: “This is just one military base of many, and it was clear that what we are doing here could be applied elsewhere. It’s tailored phytoremediation.”

The SUNY researcher and his colleagues began with a small pilot plot, which expanded over the years to two acres. He has experimented with some 30 varieties of willow trees and shrubs to see which ones grow best.

As a silviculturist, Dr Nowak’s specialty is the care and tending of tree communities. Part of the challenge in this case was finding a way for the willows to grow in the contaminated soil.

He settled on planting boxes, bottomless wooden frames filled with soil that contained enough nutrients for the young plants to establish themselves before the roots reached soil that was soggy with petroleum-laced water.

It was a laborious task. His students lugged in enough soil to fill the original 60 planting boxes. The expanded system has nearly 900 planting boxes that were filled by contractors using a specially designed machine to pump soil across the site.

Now the landscape is dotted with monitoring wells and piezometers that track the level of the water table. ESF is one of many partners in the project, which also involves installing a new cap on the old landfill.

Dr Nowak said the willows were a cost-effective, environmentally benign way to treat the contamination.

“Photosynthesis drives the system. It’s a sun-driven system with transpiration of water as the key,” he said.

“Ecological engineering projects like this relinquish control to nature. We’re getting sedges and cattail in here. They came for free and are contributing to the phytoremediation.”

There are also asters, goldenrod and several grasses thriving among the willows. Protected by fencing from foraging deer, the willows are leafy and densely planted.

The biggest ones absorb five gallons of water per day. At the quarter-acre site of the pilot project, 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water per day are pumped from the site by the willows. Without the willows, that water would flow into the creek.

The willows do their work naturally. Uptake of water lowers the water table and allows roots to grow. Root systems create a habitat that invites the presence of bacteria and fungi that break down contaminants; the plant uses some of these molecules for its own growth; and willows recycle a lot of water back into the atmosphere through transpiration, releasing some contaminants in greatly reduced concentrations.

The goal is to reduce the volatile organic compounds, particularly the concentrations of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, the compounds of concern in petroleum-based fuel.

“The reason the contaminant stream is there is the training,” Dr Nowak observed. “It’s the cost of doing business for the Army. “

He said monitoring efforts indicate that the contaminant concentrations are lower than they were before the willows were planted.

ESF’s many partners in the project include the Army Corps of Engineers; the Army Environmental Command; consultants Malcolm Pirnie Inc., Engineering and Environment Inc. and EA Engineering, Science and Technology Inc; and the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Source: ESF (via Newswise wires)

Date: 17/10/2008

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