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Songbird nests struggling near fracking sites

Researchers at West Virginia University are reporting that songbird populations in the central Appalachian Mountains are struggling with a greater presence of shale gas development. An investigation has revealed that the nesting success of the Louisiana Waterthrush, in particular, has declined at sites impacted by the extraction of natural gas.

The most rapid growth of hydraulic fracturing in the country is taking place in northwestern West Virginia. Prior to this study, little was known about how this shale gas industry boom may be affecting bird populations in the region.

A team of researchers led by Mack Frantz mapped territories of the waterthrush and monitored nests along 14 streams from 2009-2011 and also from 2013-2015. Using aerial photographs and satellite imagery, the experts measured disturbances to both the streams and the forest canopy, and then determined which of these disturbances were caused by shale gas development.

The results of the study showed that nest survival and reproductive success declined as shale gas development expanded. Experts also noted that the size of individual waterthrush territories increased, which indicates that the birds had to range farther in order to access a sufficient amount of resources.

“I hope our findings lead to robust protections of our forested headwater stream ecosystems, which are currently overlooked for regulation despite their critical role in providing nutrients and organic matter downstream, not to mention as an important source for drinking water,” said Frantz.

“Waterthrushes are a modern-day ‘canary in the coal mine,’ and there are many more opportunities to study how anthropogenic disturbance affects and entangles food webs at the aquatic-terrestrial interface.”

The study is one of the first to demonstrate that shale gas development can affect songbird reproductive success and productivity. Leesia Marshall is a waterthrush expert who was not involved in the research.

“This paper should serve as a call for all scientists to redouble efforts across all related disciplines to document the present impacts of shale gas extraction and to develop strategies for mitigation and avoidance of potential impacts in the future,” said Marshall.

The study is published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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