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Birds as Indicators of Ecological Restoration

Second Nature

Tom Gardali

Future riparian forest. Within ten years this restoration site on the Sacramento River will provide valuable habitat. Photo by Stacy Small.
The loss of functioning ecosystems due to human activities has given birth to the science and practice of ecological restoration-the process of assisting recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed (SER (Society for Ecological Restoration Science & Policy Working Group). 2002. The SER Primer on Ecological Restoration.

There are many types of ecological restoration, ranging from simple to complex. While the goal is to restore the ecosystem to its historic trajectory, in reality this may be unattainable or even undesirable. Why? Current biological and social constraints may make it unlikely or impossible for the ecosystem to function as it once did. Restoration planners must often decide which species to manage "for" and which ones "against," as some species will likely increase while others decrease. Nonetheless, the restoration process aims to improve the health and integrity of the ecosystem. It acknowledges that continued management activities may be necessary to ensure success.

How do we best achieve and measure success? Here is where PRBO and other environmental scientists come in. Restoration requires biological information-on the damaged ecosystem, on comparable intact ecosystems, and on regional environmental conditions. Armed with such information, restoration ecologists and practitioners have a head start toward achieving their goals. The data can be used to paint a picture of how the ecosystem once looked and functioned, and statistical models can be employed to chart a restoration course under various scenarios. To measure success, restoration projects must include biological monitoring to evaluate project objectives: Have we accomplished what we set out to do? Research and monitoring can provide the informational means to make improvements.

Often restoration projects focus on only a single threatened or endangered species, and their goals and objectives reflect this bias. In such situations, restoration efforts are probably not addressing the needs of the majority of species within an ecosystem. Conversely, the whole host of ecological variables in a system influenced by restoration is too great to measure in a reasonable time frame and cost.

Because of birds' value as ecological indicators, PRBO and partners are using avian ecology studies to guide and evaluate restoration projects throughout the West. Through community education, we are working together to foster awareness, stewardship, and a sense of pride in restored ecosystems.