'Now’s the opportunity’ – Songbird reintroduced in Missouri
The song of the nuthatch is returning to the forests of Missouri.
The nuthatches, which are known for their rubber duck toy-like squeak, left Missouri around the early 1900’s. According to Sarah Kendrick, the state ornithologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, the birds originally left the state because of the removal of the shortleaf pine woodland trees.
The trees, which were part of the birds’ habitat, were largely removed by human hands in the early 1900s.
“It's kind of a neat conservation — well, it's an amazing conservation success story — because we've been able to bring back enough of this habitat to also bring back the bird, which used to occur here and it left because we removed its habitat,” Kendrick said.
Kendrick, who has been an ornithologist for three years, describes it as her dream job.
“This is probably the most exciting thing I've gotten to work on so far, and that's saying a lot, since it's an awesome job.”
“It's always fun to handle birds, but I've just been so blown away by just the generosity and, and excitement of a lot of different partners,” she added.
According to Kendrick, the variety of organizations that assisted the Missouri Department of Conservation on their mission to bring back the beloved brown-headed bird were plentiful: The University of Missouri, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Ouachita National Forest and Northern Research Station and the U.S. Forest Service’s Mark Twain National Forest.
The operation to bring the birds back into Missouri is an extensive one. While the mission itself began just recently, researchers like MU School of Natural Resources assistant professor Thomas Bonnot have been working for years to ensure that the restoration is a successful one. And, according to Bonnot, the vision of eventually reintroducing species like the nuthatch began way back in the early 2000s.
“Restoring (a) habitat like pine woodland forest, that is a very lengthy process that requires going back into these landscapes and managing them on a year to year basis,” Bonnott said. “Restoring fire as a process in these landscapes, that takes a while to eventually create the habitat over time. So this process has been a decade and a half in the making.
“We are now to the point, in the last few years, where we got a sizable area of time woodland habitat in the Mark Twain National Forests that we thought, wow, now's the opportunity. Now, we have the habitat to support a population around the nuthatch. So let's see if we can get them here.”
Bonnott and Kendrick were both part of the mission to travel down to the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas, where different watchdog groups throughout the forest began trapping the birds. Coordinating efforts on how to net the birds with their various partners, the groups spent a few days safely capturing the birds during their mornings. The groups would play bird calls, alerting the curious and territorial birds to another bird in their area.
From there, the birds were placed into transport tubes, where they were kept cool and fed. Afterwards, the various groups would drive the small birds to the airport, where a plane owned by the Department of Conservation would fly them back to the release sites in Missouri.
“It’s intense, because we only had a relatively small traffic window in the morning, and so we just had to time it right so that they weren't in the transport tubes for too long,” Kendrick said of the capture efforts.
Bonnott, who led the field crews in Arkansas, was in frequent communication with Kendrick, who was responsible for receiving birds and making sure that they were being let go of safely.
According to Bonnott, the entire effort is paid for by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Mark Twain National Forest and it’s Forest Service.
50 birds in total will be released into the Mark Twain National Forest this year. After that, in 2021, another 50 will be released into the forest again.
“What ultimately is needed will depend upon how well the population does,” Bonnott said of release efforts possibly continuing after 2021. “So, that's why we, rather than just letting these birds go and leaving them and letting them be, we're actually going to continue to monitor the birds we've released and try reciting them and observing them.”
“Based on that kind of data, we can start to model or project what the populations are likely to do over time, and based on those kinds of projections, we can start to say, ‘Okay, how much growth do we expect this population to have over time? How secure and sustainable do we think the population is?’
And if it shows all signs of, you know, being a healthy sustainable population that can conserve here and stay here on the landscape, then that's great.“