This page contains feature articles from our Summer, 1998, semi-annual newsletter, which was mailed in December. You may receive future, full-color issues of the newsletter by becoming a member.
- Sutton Center Affiliates with University of Oklahoma
- What is Happening to Our Prairie-Chickens?
- First Year of Breeding Bird Atlas is Productive
- Sutton Center Conservation Projects are Subjects of National and Local Media
- Bald Eagle Population Grows
- Meet the New Staff Members
Sutton Center Affiliates with the University of Oklahoma!
by Steve K. Sherrod
After operating as a totally independent entity for the last 14 years, the George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center (GMSARC) is proud to announce that it is now associated with the academic home of its namesake. On October 1, 1997, GMSARC affiliated with the Oklahoma Biological Survey at the University of Oklahoma as a constituent program in parallel with the Oklahoma Natural Heritage Inventory, the Bebb Herbarium, and the Oklahoma Fishery Research Laboratory.
The Sutton Research Center and the Oklahoma Biological Survey both involve, to varying degrees, programs committed to conservation, education, and scholarly research related to birds, and such a union seems a natural fit. At the time of his death in 1982, Dr. George Miksch Sutton, world-renowned artist, author, and ornithologist, was a George Lynn Cross Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma where he had taught since 1955, as well as Curator of Birds at the Stovall Museum and a Research Affiliate in the Oklahoma Biological Survey.
OU and GMSARC expect to build on "Doc" Sutton’s legacy by engaging in numerous joint field studies, and OU students as well as students from other institutions of higher learning and from other countries will participate in such studies. This cooperative association will give OU a greater opportunity to participate in field-directed, ornithological conservation efforts, and will provide the Sutton Center with access to important resources at the university and within the Oklahoma Biological Survey.
While funding for some salaried employees at the Sutton Center will be channeled through the university, the Sutton Research Center retains its 501(c)3 non-profit status and will still be responsible for raising all funds to support its facilities and for the projects in which it is involved. Partnerships for such projects with Sutton will continue not only with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, but also with private foundations, corporate foundations, and with interested individuals.
This affiliation will be announced formally to the public in late January of 1998. Both the Sutton Center and the Oklahoma Biological Survey are excited about the opportunities that will arise as a result of this new relationship!
What is Happening to Our Prairie-Chickens?
by Donald H. Wolfe and Steve K. Sherrod
Across much of North America, species of grouse that inhabit our grasslands (the prairie grouse) have been showing declines. First it was the Heath Hen, a subspecies of Greater Prairie-Chicken historically so numerous in the northeast that only "commoners" regularly ate them. People noticed their decline by the second half of the 19th century and initiated one of the first avian conservation programs.
In 1909, a refuge was established at Martha’s Vineyard where land management and intensive predator control were practiced in an effort to stabilize numbers. These held steady until 2,000 acres of the refuge burned, and predation, disease, and loss of genetic variability wiped out the last Heath Hen in 1932.
Further west, Lesser and Greater Prairie-Chickens including Attwater’s were still numerous, but Attwater’s in Texas started showing the same trend as its northeastern cousin. Today, Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken is endangered, with only about 50 individuals left in the wild. It still exists only because of captive breeding and supplementation to the wild population.
Now, the Greater Prairie-Chicken and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken are declining. As native prairie was plowed for row-crops, the adaptable and resilient chickens survived and made use of grains left after harvesting and survived as long as large tracts of native grasses were left as well. In areas that remained prairie, they continued to feed on summer grasshoppers and utilized seeds from native plants like ragweed, wild sunflowers, various legumes, and acorns during the winter.
No clearly obvious reasons are apparent why Lesser Prairie-Chickens have declined enough for potential listing as a threatened species, or why Greater Prairie-Chickens have recently declined by about 90% in northeastern Oklahoma.
Sutton Avian Research Center biologists began noticing chicken declines and disappearance of historic "booming grounds" several years ago. Landowners, hunters, birders, and Oklahoma Department of Wildlife biologists as well have watched these declines with concern. Following the Sutton Center’s mission statement, we decided to try to identify factors contributing to this decline and to offer sound conservation suggestions before chicken numbers were so low that federally mandated regulations were the only recourse.
In the spring of 1997, we surveyed booming grounds in Osage County and collected reports from local residents. We started trapping birds on booming grounds and fitted them with radio transmitters. Additional winter trapping is occurring right now. We have followed them to determine daily movements, nest success, habitat use, and rates and causes of mortality. Even with a late start, a total of 33 birds (10 hens and 23 cocks) were captured and radioed this spring. Those birds produced a total of 12 nests in which the eggs of only one hatched; of those that failed, two appeared to be due to weather and two for unknown reasons. The others were destroyed by predators.
The hen that successfully hatched her brood lost it after only two weeks. Of all the chickens tagged, three birds lost radios; as of early November, 12 (at least) adults have been killed by predators, and nine have disappeared from our search efforts (this may be due to birds moving completely out of our study area, radio failure, or to birds dying and the radio becoming buried in a badger hole, in mud, under water, etc). On the positive side of things, we still have eight spring-trapped birds and so far, seventeen winter captures that we are tracking regularly; we are optimistic that we will not only catch and radio more this fall and winter, but significantly more in the spring.
One season of experience makes expanded success much more likely. Additional optimism results from anecdotal observations from other field observers. Our work is not too late, as these reports indicate that flocks at several of the feeding fields throughout the state yet number in the 20's and 30's. We are still hopeful that this declining trend might somehow reverse itself.
We are especially grateful to all of the business people, outdoor sporting people, corporations and private foundations that have supported this work. We also thank the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for financial support and for cooperation in this study.
First Year of Breeding Bird Atlas is Productive
by Dan Reinking
The spring of 1997 marked the beginning of a five-year effort by Oklahoma birders to document the distribution of Oklahoma’s nesting birds. Coordinated by the Sutton Center and the Oklahoma Biological Survey, the project relies on volunteer birders who are familiar with all of the nesting birds in their part of the state.
The area to be surveyed consists of 583 blocks of land, each about 10 square miles in size, which have been randomly selected statewide. Birders visit one or more of these blocks several times during the nesting season and record all of the species they find within the block, as well as the bird behavior they observe.
As anyone who has spent time watching birds knows, they do many interesting things. One common nesting species here in Oklahoma, the Killdeer, performs a fascinating display when a person or predator gets too close to its nest. Feigning a broken wing by holding it at an awkward angle while running over the ground, the adult bird will attempt to draw the threat away from the nest before finally flying off at a safe distance.
Atlas volunteers know that when they observe this behavior, a Killdeer nest is not far away. This and many more subtle clues in other species provide good evidence that birds are nesting. The careful records of this evidence kept by volunteers over the five years of this project will result in a book describing in detail the current distribution of Oklahoma’s nesting birds.
Despite a late start in the spring, the atlas project has made significant progress in its first season. Over 1,052 hours of survey time were spent in atlas blocks during 1997! About 150 species were recorded as possible, probable, or confirmed nesters in the 85 blocks that were surveyed this year. This leaves nearly 500 blocks to be covered in the next four years–certainly a challenge, but an achievable one thanks to the interest and support of Oklahoma birders!
Sutton Center Conservation Projects are Subjects of National and Local Media
by Steve Sherrod
During the past year, conservation projects underway at the Sutton Center received attention from both local and national news media. In December of '96 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC photographer Joel Sartore visited the Sutton Center with a CBS THIS MORNING film crew in tow. As they filmed Joel's work shooting stills, they also recorded some mist netting for the declining prairie birds project. An image of Sutton work shot that day by Joel later appeared in the August '97 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC's EARTH ALMANAC section. CBS THIS MORNING featured footage involving both Joel and the Sutton Center on Christmas Eve of '96.
Next, KOTV's Wendy Burkeen began laying groundwork for a special by Tulsa's CHANNEL 6 . With the Emmy Award- winning Scott Thompson and his cameramen visiting several of Sutton's field projects from Osage to Cimarron counties, a unique program, "Songs of the Prairie", was created as only Scott Thompson can do. Phillips Petroleum and Southwestern Bell sponsored a series of ecomercials and the final 30-minute special which aired several times. More recently on PBS, READING RAINBOW aired a rerun of our Bald Eagle reintroduction work in the southeastern states.
Throughout the year, Joe Robertson of the TULSA WORLD accompanied by "5 A.M. cameramen" has reported on many projects from prairie-chicken research to declining prairie songbirds. The BARTLESVILLE EXAMINER-ENTERPRISE and the PAWHUSKA JOURNAL CAPITAL have also published articles about our projects. In addition, we are pleased to share some of our SUTTON NEWSLETTER articles which were reprinted in The Nature Conservancy's OKLAHOMA CONSERVATOR and in the Oklahoma Wildlife Federation's OUTDOOR NEWS.
A few years ago a French film crew visited the Sutton Center to record our Bald Eagle work. This footage has now been acquired by CNBC for possible future airing. We are extremely grateful to all the news media for responsible environmental reporting about plights facing our wildlife as well as about the positive accomplishments that have been made by the Sutton Center and other conservation groups. At Sutton we are doing our best to achieve conservation goals through cooperative avenues with both public and private landowners and land managers.
Bald Eagle Population Grows
by M. Alan Jenkins
As regular readers of this newsletter will know, nesting Bald Eagles in Oklahoma have increased from no known nesting pairs in 1990 to at least 25 pairs this year. We proudly attribute this increase to our years of reintroduction efforts. But what about the other four southeastern states in which eagles were hacked? What has happened to their populations?
We have anecdotal information from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina, but up to now very little solid nesting population data have reached us. Also there has been the odd Sutton-released eagle or two that has shown up to nest in states where we made no releases. The Kansas female and one which nested in Texas come to mind. And this year we heard of an eagle with a Sutton band that nested in South Carolina.
The past couple of years' data on nesting Bald Eagles from the 4 other states have now become available. Surveys reveal increasing nesting activity, reinforcing the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to down-list the species in most of its range from endangered to 'threatened.'
Using Georgia, which has the best data (except for Oklahoma), as an example, the number of occupied nests, active nests, successful nests, and young fledged increased each year in every category since 1993, with few exceptions. For example, in 1993 the number of known occupied Bald Eagle nests in Georgia was 17 and increased to 31 in 1997; the total number of fledged young increased from 15 to 42 in the same period.
Alabama also showed increased nesting occupancy and productivity. Alabama’s eagle population numbers seem to parallel those levels enjoyed by Oklahoma. At least 9, and perhaps 10, of their nesting attempts had one or more adults believed to be hacked by Sutton personnel.
In Mississippi, surveys found 13 active (had eggs laid) nests in 1996, up from 8 in 1993. Productivity is around 12 young fledged per year. Productivity appears as though it might be reaching a stable plateau in Oklahoma, Alabama, and Mississippi. However, 1997 productivity in Georgia was 26% higher than the previous year, and so is still on a steep upward trend.
Few data are known for North Carolina where Sutton-reared eagles were released in 1988. The only data known to us were for 1995 when 11 occupied nests produced 13 fledged young.
We cannot lay claim to being solely responsible for the recovery of Bald Eagle populations in the southeastern U.S., but with 275 eagles released into the wild in 5 states over 8 years, we are certain we deserve some credit for this heartening trend in nesting eagle numbers.
Meet the New Staff Members
David A. Wiedenfeld is the new Director of Research, and he started in this position in February 1997. David grew up in west Texas, but most recently lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from 1990 until beginning his current position. In Baton Rouge he was a Research Associate at Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science.
David has a strong background in ornithology. He received his B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from Texas A&M University. He then went on to Louisiana State University for an M.S. in Zoology, and received his Doctorate of Philosophy at Florida State University. He has a great deal of experience working and traveling in the New World Tropics, including Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Guyana, Peru, and Bolivia. His research interests focus on bird conservation issues. His work has focused especially on bird population changes and the pet trade in parrots.
Tamera Daniel is the new Director of Development at the Center. She began working for the Center in September 1996. She works three days a week for the Center, two at the headquarters in Bartlesville and one in Tulsa, where she resides.
Tamera has a marketing background. She received her B.A. in Business Administration and Foreign Language (Spanish) from Stevens College in Columbia, Missouri. She then worked for Xerox Corp. for three years. In Tulsa, she has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Tulsa Global Alliance (formerly called Sister Cities International), and served as chair of a fundraiser for the Parent-Child Center of Tulsa. Tamera has a daughter, Grace, born since she began work here, in March 1997.
Karen Kilbourne is the new Administrative Assistant for the Center, starting work here in December 1996. Karen grew up in Oklahoma City, but has lived in Bartlesville for many years. She received her B.S. at Oklahoma State University. Her previous work has been with financial institutions. She lives amid the chaos of three boys and a myriad of pets.
Amy Burruss is the new Animal Caretaker. She began working full-time for the Center in March 1997, although she had volunteered at the Center in 1989 and 1997. Amy grew up in Houston and Bartlesville.
Amy has been interested in animals since she was quite young. She started a pet care business when she was 12 years old. She was a volunteer for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for many years, and worked for two years at Manley Animal Hospital in Bartlesville. She owns four dogs, two cats, and two hedgehogs.