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IDAHO BIRD POPULATION SOARS

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At a time when widespread declines in the bird population in the West are being reported, it's just the opposite at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

A June survey, the 12th in a series started in 1985, counted 5,038 individual birds, representing 54 species. This year's survey turned up a record number of birds.Tim Reynolds, ecologist for the Environmental Science and Research Foundation, said in the years that the surveys have been made, 224 species have been spotted at INEL. "This long list encompasses a tremendous variety of birds, including raptors, shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds," he said.

The foundation is responsible for the annual bird survey at INEL.

Data for 1985-91 was analyzed by Boise State University professor Jim Belthoff, who found that five native species made up nearly three-quarters of the birds seen. Western meadowlarks were most common, followed by Brewer's sparrows, sage sparrows, horned larks and sage thrashers.

The common species were abundant, but almost half the 90 species were represented by less than 10 birds.

The 1996 survey showed that horned larks are now the most common, surpassing meadowlarks. Mourning doves also seem to be flourishing.

The surveys provide a way to measure the effects on bird populations of environmental restoration activities and changes in facility operations.

The survey showed areas around facilities had about the same number of birds in more remote areas, what ecologists call "species rich-ness."

"It appears that facility and environmental restoration operations have not adversely affected species richness," the report said.

Only brown-headed cowbirds declined significantly between 1985 and 1991. Researchers think cooler, wetter weather and the resulting quicker growth of grass was good for sparrows but not for cowbirds.

Elsewhere in the West, sage thrashers, sage sparrows and Brewer's sparrows are declining, due largely to habitat fragmentation. Those birds require large expanses of unbroken sageland. INEL is good for that, because about 94 percent of the site's 890 square miles is undeveloped land.