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Baltimore commits to migratory bird habitat

Baltimore is for the birds – not just the O's — after committing to help migratory birds.

Baltimore is for the birds now — not just the Orioles.

The city, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will create a hospitable habitat in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park for migratory birds that regularly pass through Baltimore on their airborne journeys.

More than a 100 spectators, many of them bird enthusiasts, endured periodic rains in the park Saturday to witness representatives of the federal agency and the city Department of Recreation and Parks sign the joint funding agreement

"Birds are important, and we take them for granted," said Jerome Ford, assistant director for migratory birds for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Also, birds need these habitats because 80 percent of the country is urbanized."

The agreement designates Baltimore an urban bird treaty city, which means the city joins 22 other cities across the country, including cities in Alaska and Hawaii, that have committed to restoring and conserving green space especially for birds. The program, formally known as the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds, was launched by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999.

"We have 4,600 green acres in the city and 1,200 acres in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, which makes it the second-largest urban wilderness in the U.S.," said Fran Spero, chief for special events and partnerships for the city parks department.

There are 80 documented species of migratory birds that regularly fly through Baltimore.

"This is an important place for raptors, owls and other birds stopping in this forest," said Genevieve LaRouche, a field specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. "This is very important for song and migratory birds."

White tents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Chesapeake Bay Conservancy, the Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition and the Carrie Murray Nature Center, among others, ringed a meadow for the event, which was billed as Celebrate Baltimore Birds Fest.

As Julie Slacum and Devin Ray of the Fish and Wildlife Service explained to a visitor the value of planting milkweed seeds and pods to attract monarch butterflies, Izzy, an 8-year-old light brown-and-white female barred owl, patiently waited while her handler, Amber Whitehair of the Carrie Murray Nature Center, dried her off from the rain.

"Izzy, who could live to be 30, has three calls, a general hoot, a trilling and clicking its beak," she said. "She can still breed and is larger than the male barred owls."

As the owl scanned the skies and took in the pelting rain, Whitehair hoped to do live bird demonstrations with a common raven, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and a Eurasian eagle-owl that she'd brought for the fest.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also awarded a $90,000 federal grant to the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School to work with partners and volunteers to help remove invasive species such as vines from the park, to enhance nesting and stopover sites.

Joining the effort to make Baltimore more hospitable to birds is the Lights Out Baltimore program whose aim is to reduce birds colliding with buildings at night.

"Most people think they have to go to Yellowstone or some other national park to experience what we have here," said Dr. Mamie Parker, a former assistant director of fisheries and habitat conservation at the Fish and Wildlife Service and now of the Chesapeake Bay Conservancy. "Birds need this urban habitat and environment, and through it we can teach children life lessons about conservation."

Not only does the program benefit birds, it also benefits nearby neighborhoods.

"I call this a natural stress reliever. I wish everyone would come in here," Spero said.

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