(CN) – Rapid growth in shale gas development through fracking has hindered the reproductive success of songbirds, according to a new study.
A team of researchers mapped Louisiana waterbrush territories and monitored nests along 14 streams in northwestern West Virginia from 2009 to 2011 and 2013 to 2015.
Their report, published Tuesday in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications, shows that the nesting success of the waterthrush, which nests along forested streams, declined at sites impacted by fracking development.
“I hope our findings lead to robust protections of our forested headwater stream ecosystems, which are currently overlooked for regulation despite their critical role in providing nutrients and organic matter downstream, not to mention as an important source for drinking water,” said lead author Mack Frantz, a graduate teaching assistant at West Virginia University.
“Waterthrushes are a modern-day ‘canary in the coal mine,’ and there are many more opportunities to study how anthropogenic disturbance affects and entangles food webs at the aquatic-terrestrial interface.”
The team mapped and evaluated disturbances to both the forest canopy and streams, using satellite imagery and aerial photographs, as well as extensive ground-truthing – obtaining information by directly observing a real system rather than through a model or a simulation. They then grouped the disturbances based on whether they were related to fracking.
The results show that as shale gas development has grown in the area, the waterthrush’s nest productivity and survival and riparian habitat quality have dwindled. Simultaneously, the size of individual waterthrush territories has increased, which suggests the birds must travel farther to acquire sufficient resources.
The study is one of the first to show that fracking can affect songbird reproductive success and output, both directly through the expansion of shale gas development infrastructure and indirectly through damage to habitat quality.
“After 12 years of research conducted with this species, I have seen the numerous impacts hydraulic fracturing has had on waterthrush survival and the toll that the industry has had on our nation’s wild places and wildlife,” said Louisiana State University-Alexandria’s Leesia Marshall, a waterthrush expert who was not involved in the research.
“This paper should serve as a call for all scientists to redouble efforts across all related disciplines to document the present impacts of shale gas extraction and to develop strategies for mitigation and avoidance of potential impacts in the future.”