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Corps of Engineers tracks birds and bats to improve habitats along the Mississippi River

A pond at the Audubon Center at Riverlands.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Wildlife biologists at the Army Corps of Engineers and the Audubon Center at Riverlands plan to conduct a study of birds and bats along an 80-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in July.

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to launch a long-term study this month to study birds and bats near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

The Corps of Engineers' biologists want to track the populations of birds and bats that live on islands in the river and study what habitat conditions best support them.

A wide variety of species is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, said Lane Richter, a Corps of Engineers ecologist. Plant and animal life have declined along the Mississippi River due to dams, levees and other manmade structures that degrade wetlands and other crucial habitats. Studies have also shown that climate change has caused many North American bird species to decline.

“If a common species is in significant decline, we know something bigger is going on,” Richter said.

Cerulean warblers and red-shouldered hawks are among the hundreds of bird species that use the Mississippi Flyway, a migration route that follows the Mississippi River.

Since 2012, wildlife biologists with the Corps of Engineers and the Audubon Center at Riverlands have surveyed birds at two dozen Corps-owned islands within an 80-mile stretch of the river north of St. Louis.

In mid-July, scientists plan to conduct a more comprehensive study that involves tracking populations of birds and bats that breed on the river’s islands in the summer. Researchers want to learn what types of habitat conditions work best for different species. The study could change management practices to better protect species that live along the river.

Another reason scientists want to study populations of bird and bats is because they play an important role in the food chain by consuming insects.

“Bats specifically in agricultural areas, they eat a lot of species that are pests on crops,” he said. “So the services they provide, it can be [worth] in the millions [of dollars] when you’re looking at a large scale across the U.S.”

Tracking their numbers could help scientists better understand the impacts of climate change on local species, Richter said.

This story was made possible, in part, by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

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