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Birds and you: New Putnam exhibit highlights amazing world of birds, how you can help

Birds and you: New Putnam exhibit highlights amazing world of birds, how you can help

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The facts are disturbing.

Since the 1970s, the North American continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, according to a 2019 report in Science magazine. Populations of migratory songbirds have been plummeting for years, but the 2019 report showed a decline even among common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds.

Spurred by that report, Christine Chandler, curator of natural science at Davenport's Putnam Museum, decided to delve into the world of birds and see if there was something to report beyond "doom and gloom."

The result is a new exhibit titled "Birds and You," offering information about the problem of bird decline as well as hopeful strategies of what regular people can do to help reverse it.

The exhibit also celebrates birds in general, highlighting some of their beyond-amazing characteristics and offering examples of how they have inspired human beings through time, such as the bald eagle as the symbol of the United States.

Since its beginning, the Putnam has had a focus on natural history, so it has a vast store of bird-related material in its collection on which to draw for an exhibit. Stuffed neatly in the back rooms of the museum there are about 1,700 mounted birds, 1,500 clutches (or groups), of eggs representing 3,707 individuals and a couple of hundred nests. Most of the birds are about 100 years old.

From this stash, Chandler culled about 190 birds for the exhibit, arranging them according to different categories, such as birds that are now extinct, or birds that one might see during the spring migration season in the Quad-Cities.

"They are so tiny and fragile," she said, of many of the birds. Handling them gave her a new appreciation for how the smallest manage to survive huge onslaughts of wind, storms and bitter cold.

Some highlights:

• Extinct birds. These include the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet. You'll never see these in the wild, but they are at the Putnam.

The passenger pigeon is a native bird that was once so numerous that flocks were said to have darkened the skies. It was hunted to extinction, with the sole survivor dying in 1914 in a Cincinnati Zoo.

The Carolina parakeet, the only native North American species of parrot, became extinct in 1918, the victim of hunting and habitat loss.

• Wildly colorful birds. These include the Lady Amherst's pheasant, native to China, and the ring-necked pheasant, a native to Asia and parts of Europe that was introduced to the United States and is a popular game bird in the Midwest.

• Interactive opportunities. You can pick up a checklist of birds that are mounted in the museum's Black Earth, Big River exhibit and can challenge yourself to see how many you can spot.

Also available for pickup: a sheet to make an origami passenger pigeon and another with bird silhouettes to learn to identify.

What can we do about declining bird populations?

The recovery of eagles and other raptors after the U.S. ban on the insecticide DDT in 1972 shows that when the cause of a decline is removed, "the birds come back like gangbusters," Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, told Science magazine.

Reversing habitat loss — from the conversion of grasslands for biofuel crops and coastal development, for example — could help stabilize populations.

And the Cornell (University) Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York — THE place in the United States for bird research and information  — recommends seven simple actions that anyone can take to boost birds.

The Putnam's Chandler is especially supportive of the recommendation to plant native plants — flowers, trees, grasses and shrubs — that provide food and shelter for birds as well as insects that birds need to eat.

"It doesn't take a lot to help the environment," she said. "There are those little changes you can make. Plant flowers and bushes. Get rid of some of that yard. Let your leaves on the ground. They serve a purpose. Critters live in that. Don't be so crazy with raking. Leave the dandelions alone. They're one of the first things that bloom in spring where there isn't a lot else out. It (your lawn) doesn't have to look like a golf course."

Other steps recommended by Cornell: prevent bird-window collisions by installing screens or breaking up window reflections; keep cats indoors (cats kill birds), and avoid pesticides.

And here's one for coffee-drinkers: seek out shade-grown coffee. Sun-grown coffee production involves cutting down forests and extensive pesticide use.

The Putnam exhibit includes a free quarter-fold flyer from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources with more tips on establishing wildlife habitat and recommended lists of perennials, trees, shrubs and vines.

In the realm of political action, you can find opportunities to defend birds and wildlife from the national Audubon Society by going to audubon.org/takeaction.

And, you can set up feeders and water source in your backyard. The exhibit includes pointers on types of feeders, types of food and birdhouses.

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