Study focuses on bird species living in northeast Oklahoma

PICHER, Okla. (AP) — Birds are more than just winged messengers that can carry a tune or soar through the sky — bird species also can act as indicators of environmental health.

The feathered creatures are useful in determining overall changes in environmental conditions and habitat quality. This is why they're the primary focus of a study analyzing different species of birds living around the Tar Creek Superfund site in Northeast Oklahoma.

The goal is to find out how large-scale changes in habitat resulting from remediation efforts and environmental cleanup can affect bird communities over time. Christine Brodsky, an assistant professor of biology at Pittsburg (Kansas) State University, and her graduate biology students and student volunteers have teamed up with tribal officials with the Quapaw Nation Environmental Department for the past three years to study the long-term effects the changing landscape has on different bird species, the Joplin Globe reported.

The Tar Creek Superfund site, one of the largest mining contamination locations in the U.S., spans more than 40 square miles. The area is littered with toxic heavy metals, giant chat piles and more than 1,000 abandoned mine shafts left behind from the lead and zinc mining era.

Many bird populations such as bank swallows nest in the chat piles, Brodsky said.

"Bank swallows, historically, nest on the banks of rivers with nice clay, so they like to take advantage of all of the chat piles there," she said. "With that changeover, we're probably going to see less of those species because we're taking away where they nest. What we're seeing is we're attracting more birds and more species with the remediation, but we're shifting what birds we see."

The Quapaw Nation signed a cooperative agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 to perform cleanup action at Tar Creek, making the tribe the first to lead and manage cleanup of a Superfund site. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality also has been assisting the EPA and the tribe.

The tribe has remediated about 358 acres of land and removed more than 2.6 million tons of chat since 2013, including work done in partnership with the state, said Summer King, environmental scientist with the Quapaw Nation Environmental Office.

"I was excited and interested about the study because, as far as I knew, there was nobody else out here doing any kind of wildlife research," she said. "Any kind of additional information we can get on the birds or the wildlife that's on-site using the contaminated site, how they react to our cleanup process and if they come back, that's really valuable data for us."

Over the summer, Brodsky and her team visited 24 sites across Tar Creek, including locations that have already been cleaned up and others that remain untouched.

"We have a gradient from no remediation to complete remediation, so some of the sites are currently in construction and others have been seeded," she said, describing the project. "We wanted to see with that remediation gradient how it's affecting the birds.

"A site that had no remediation done in 2017 can be now completely remediated," she added. "Year one of complete remediation may be different from the five-year complete remediation. We're trying to do a long-term study on how the birds are changing."

With the help of King, who guides them in navigating the Superfund terrain, Brodsky and her students can rotate among the 24 sites. The groups then listen, watch and record every bird that they find during five-minute surveys while also monitoring their location and weather conditions. Brodsky said they do this three times at each site to get an adequate average.

"We do this very early in the morning, so we start at 6 a.m. and go on until about 11 a.m.," she said. "Then later in the season, we sample the vegetation in the area. That's just a good way to connect the remediation with what plants are actually on the ground. We're seeing some sites with no remediation have some trees or shrubs, completely bare with construction and then over time it becomes more of a grassland."

Morgan Smith, 22, a PSU student majoring in biology, has served as an intern assisting Brodsky with her research. Smith said they've found a couple of new species this year that they haven't found previously, including green herons.

"Honestly, I didn't know what to expect to get from the opportunity," she said. "I'm from Welch, so I've grown up driving through Picher and seeing it. I didn't know a lot about the history, but working with Dr. Brodsky and Summer, I learned so much. I was happy with what I got out of it."

As cleanup progresses, it attracts more species to the sites, according to their findings. They're seeing fewer birds that are reliant on forest habitats, such as cardinals, and more members of a grassland bird community, such as meadowlarks. More birds were found in completely remediated sites compared to sites without remediation and bare sites, according to their results.

Brodsky estimates they've recorded at least 70 different bird species.

"They're still native to that region of Oklahoma, but now that we're changing the habitat, they're literally flocking in," she said. "It's not good or bad that we're leaving the forest bird community behind in favor of the grassland bird community, but these species, they're common. If we can create more habitat for them, that's even better."

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Joplin Globe.