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The Natural Casualties of War and the Hope of Migration

by Jim McGinity, Research Liaison, Urban Ecology Center

Like everyone else I find myself thinking and talking to others about the war. In addition to concern for the men and women of our armed forces and the people of Iraq, my thoughts are on the impacts of this human conflict on the natural resources, and in particular, the birds of Iraq. During the Gulf War, hundreds of oil well fires and the largest oil spill in history impacted thousands of birds and marine life. It raises the question, how bad might it be this time around? The war in Iraq couldn’t have come at a worse time for migratory birds. Iraq lies on a key migration route for many species that winter in Africa and breed in Europe and western Russia in the summer. Iraq’s two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, are an important part of the route for many long distance migrants, including pelicans and storks, and for shore birds that breed along the Caspian Sea and in central Asia. The river systems create a natural migration corridor for birds as they move north through Iraq. The major movement happens from the middle of March through April, a little earlier than here in North America. As I did some searching for information on how the war will affect birds on the internet, I came across a diversity of perspectives from scientists in Europe, the Middle East and even Russia. In one article, Russian scientists said they do not know exactly how many birds winter in Iraq and cannot estimate how many will be affected by the war. The country is on one of the migration routes for an estimated one billion birds, including ducks, geese, loons, seagulls, snipes, and gray cranes that inhabit the European part of Russia each year. There is widespread concern by ornithologists around the world for how this war will impact birds in this critical time of migration. We can only hope the birds will be able to adapt and rebound from whatever may happen to them. As we ponder the fate of birds in Iraq, we are on the threshold of one of the great mysteries of the natural world — spring migration. With the increase in temperature and the arrival of birds from the south, our spirits tend to rise in anticipation of spring. Even in the middle of our urban environment, the feathered signs of spring are upon us. Whether you see an American Woodcock in your backyard or notice the song of the Robin, these signs are unmistakable. During April and May, millions of birds return from Central and South America either to nest in Wisconsin or pass through on their way further north to Canada and the Arctic. Many different species stop in Riverside Park to rest and fatten up before they continue their journey. By mid-April, we have seen the first Eastern Phoebe, Belted Kingfisher, and Winter Wren on our weekly bird walks. This is just the beginning with the peak of migration falling in the middle of May. We can only hope for the best as birds migrate through Iraq. Meanwhile, I encourage you to stop and take the time to witness more fully the hope of migration and to help us, through the Citizen Science Project, to learn more about the natural world in Milwaukee. To contact the Urban Ecology Center, call 964-8505, e-mail , or stop by Riverside Park at 2808 N. Bartlett Ave., just east of the River. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003
by Jim McGinity, Research Liaison, Urban Ecology Center