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What has become of Oklahoma songbirds?

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The deerflies were biting, and the summer sun burned hot on the vast northern Oklahoma prairie as two researchers waited, hoping to catch a bird, any ordinary songbird.

They had strung what resembled badminton nets amid the dew-soaked grasses and wildflowers. But the morning was slipping by, and still no birds were entangled in the gentle mesh.A grasshopper sparrow broke the quiet: "Tup-tup zzzz. Tup-tup zzzz." A breeze - and nothing else - fluttered the nets, and nothing more. The two men fanned away the flies and kept waiting.

No one knows exactly why many once-abundant grassland birds are now hard to find.

But after five summers of patient study on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, the Sutton Avian Research Center is developing one of the most comprehensive looks yet at what might be done to halt the dwindling numbers.

"We get a lot of calls from people who say `Where are the meadowlarks? Where are the scissortail flycatchers?' " said Dan Reinking, a biologist at the Bartlesville center.

"Many people are noticing a decline in songbirds," he added.

The center expects to begin producing scientific papers on its findings by year's end. The study, the nation's largest on migratory grassland species, began in 1992 and includes observations from 5,000 nests and 4,500 banded birds.

Tracking the songsters has been a matter of careful observation and patient waiting.

On one summer excursion, the wait ends when a brown thrasher finds its flight cut short by the mist net.

Reinking emerges with the bird squawking indignantly in his hands. The biologist expertly tucks its beak under one finger, blows back the head feathers and looks for changes in the skull that indicate the bird's age.

The biologist also notes the sex of the bird and other characteristics, checks for wing wear and bands it for future tracking.

Combined with nest observations, the information tells researchers how well certain species are reproducing and surviving - the prime indicators of whether bird populations are going up or down.

Most of these songbirds are neither specifically threatened nor endangered; in that way, this project is unlike Sutton's previous work in helping to restore the bald eagle. Getting the public to understand why they should care isn't easy, Reinking acknowledges.

"It's much easier when you have something like the national symbol about to be wiped out than it is to get them interested in grasshopper sparrows and eastern meadowlarks," Reinking said.

Conservationists have been sounding alarms for decades about the decline in songbird populations.

Oklahoma has about one-half of the Bell's vireo population it had in 1965 and 30 percent of the orchard orioles of 25 years ago. Meadowlark and bobwhite quail have shown national declines of close to 2 percent a year, said Mark Howery of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

"I don't believe all birds are going to become rare in the future," he said. "A good percentage of birds, maybe 30 percent, have a good potential of becoming rare within our children's lifetimes if current trends continue."

Generalizations that all the nation's songbirds are on the decline may have hurt more than helped the cause of those that truly are troubled, one expert says.

While grassland birds have shown strong and consistent declines, some forest species are actually growing in population, said Scott Robinson, an ornithologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey.

"I think we need to be wary of blanket conclusions that all songbirds are declining," Robinson said. "I believe the fact that there is variability may help pinpoint causes."

Declines in available grassland, changes in crops from hay to corn, predatory cowbirds, controlled burning practices all appear to affect grassland bird populations.

Researchers at Sutton are drawing some early conclusions from the songbird study, Reinking said.

The key to preserving such songbirds likely will be relatively simple - through voluntary changes in land management practices, Reinking said. With change, it's not too late for the birds.

For example, if ranchers complete prescribed burning by the first of April, regrowth of vegetation would be under way by the time migrating birds arrive in early April and May, he said.

On the prairie, Reinking opens his hands and the brown thrasher makes a quick escape across the rolling golden grasses.

"This is a unique situation," he said. "This is an opportunity to turn things around before they get bad."