WASHINGTON -- Migratory birds got a helping hand from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week as the federal agency gave a total of $650,000 to cities across the country to help those urban areas conserve and protect their bird populations. Anchorage's Cheney Lake was among the beneficiaries.
The wildlife agency started the Urban Conservation Treaty grant program in 1999 to help cities preserve the ecosystems and habitats that aid migratory birds as they pass through the communities and to raise consciousness about the importance of birds to a healthy environment.
"This program not only promotes actions that connect people and nature, but it also increases awareness and encourages youth to get involved in learning about birds and the role they play in our environment and urban settings," Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe said.
The grants announced Wednesday are to 18 cities across the nation, from Washington to St. Louis to Anchorage.
"I think it will get the people in those communities a little bit more aware of their environment: clean air, clean water and the role that birds actually play in our everyday lives," said Jerome Ford, the assistant director for migratory birds at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Anchorage, part of the $10,000 in grant money will help improve nesting habitats and restore vegetation and the bank at Cheney Lake in East Anchorage, considered a key stop in the bird migration corridor in Alaska.
"This project, with its interpretive component, will inform and educate the public on the importance of migratory birds and bird habitat," said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.
Species that live at Cheney Lake year round include the red-breasted nuthatch and black-capped chickadee. Wilson's warbler, Canada goose and merlin -- a small falcon -- are among the birds that flock to the area from April to September.
Woods said Cheney Lake is also a popular recreation spot for fishing and a place that parents liked to take their children to play. He added that restoring the site "is important for the quality of life" of the community.
In St. Louis, officials will use some of the $10,000 grant to help set up a nature park geared to bird-watching in Maryland Heights, a western suburb of the city.
Bird-watching in the United States, even in crowded and busy cities, has become a popular recreational activity across the country, with more people taking it up in recent years.
The pastime "taps into some base human emotional connection to nature," said Glenn Phillips, the executive director of New York City Audubon. "When you look through nature and art, images of birds are everywhere."
Jason Berry, 42, of Washington, D.C., is one of those people who have embraced the hobby with gusto. A bird-watcher for more than 10 years, he tries to go out as often as he can to spot migratory bird species he hasn't seen before.
"It's just really amazing that you can connect with something as exotic that spends its summer in the Arctic and maybe winters down in Colombia," said Berry, who added that he has seen more than 180 species of birds in Washington.
When he spots rare birds that aren't often seen in his city, he feels as if he's won the lottery.
"To be at the right place at the right time for a bird that shouldn't be here is just an outstanding feeling. I feel great," Berry said.
Cities new to the Urban Bird Treaty program can receive grants of up to $70,000. Those were Phoenix; Indianapolis; San Francisco; Washington; Kennedale, Texas; Opelika, Ala.; Hartford, Conn.; Ogden, Utah; Lewistown, Mont.; and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Existing Urban Bird Treaty cities received $10,000 grants. In addition to St. Louis and Anchorage, those were Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and New York, along with Portland, Ore., and Nashville, Tenn.Reader photos: Alaska birds
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By DANIEL LIPPMAN