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Bluegrass PRIDE: Telephone wires may be handy perch for birds but not ‘natural’ one

By Deborah Larkin
KyForward columnist

Each day as I drive to work through Boyle, Mercer, Jessamine and Fayette counties I have the opportunity to observe the flora and fauna of the Bluegrass. One of the species that I see regularly, especially in the winter months, is the red tail hawk. I used to see these birds perched in the trees while they scanned the pastures for signs of prey (rabbits or mice) moving about. But now, I see more of them balanced on utility lines, surveying their territory. A handy perch, I suppose, for a raptor that seems to be adapting to modern times. So why do I find this disturbing? Because, I think, it signifies the loss of their natural habitat, or more specifically, large stands of trees.

Red tail hawk (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I sometimes think that I don’t recognize my home turf anymore. Where are the huge trees that used to line the fence rows and driveways in the countryside, the prized specimen of burr oak proudly fenced in the pasture, or the tall sycamores along the creeks that meander across the farms? Many have been pruned by utility companies, damaged in wind or ice storms or have succumbed to old age. And as more farmland has been developed, existing trees have often been clear cut and, if replanted at all, have been replaced by smaller, more convenient but short-lived ornamental varieties.

As I observe the ones still standing, often misshapen, I notice that there are no saplings nearby to replace them. Either the area has been mowed clean, or invasive species such as Japanese honeysuckle have taken over the understory, crowding out young trees that might sprout from fallen seeds.

I understand that when people build a new home, they want to surround it with plant life that enhances the landscape, to see fruits and flowers ASAP. And that, as urban areas expand and lots grow smaller, we must plant the right tree in the right place, to avoid interfering with utility lines. But at what cost? Let’s don’t forget the BIG PICTURE, the importance of preserving the genetic heritage of the flora native to the Bluegrass. These trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses have adapted over hundreds of years to extreme temperatures, drought, insects and diseases common in Central Kentucky. Newly hybridized varieties or varieties imported from other continents can either become invasive or fail to hold up to our unpredictable Kentucky weather.

When we plant native grasses we provide habitat for small birds and animals. The roots of our native wildflowers, Willows and Sycamore trees help hold the banks of streams in place. Native shrubs like ninebark, serviceberry and spicebush provide homes and food for birds while enhancing the landscape. Indigenous small trees like white dogwood and redbud are excellent choices near power lines. And if you own a farm or larger piece of property, planting a sapling of the same species near an aging oak, maple, tulip poplar, persimmon or other indigenous hardwood tree can ensure the survival of that species, and of the other lifeforms in its ecosystem.

I will soon become a grandmother. I want to ensure that my grandchildren will grow up with an appreciation for their Kentucky heritage and the unique beauty of the Bluegrass landscape. I hope that one day they will marvel as a red tail hawk dives from the top of a huge oak tree, not from a telephone wire.

Deborah Larkin joined Bluegrass PRIDE in 2010 as an environmental educator. She works with numerous schools in Fayette County as part of PRIDE’s partnership with LFUCG and is responsible for outreach activities in Boyle, Clark, Garrard and Lincoln counties. She received her bachelor’s in Horticulture from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to PRIDE, Larkin worked for 27 years at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, where she researched and re-established the 19th century apple orchard, herb garden and heirloom seed industry.

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