Scientists have revealed through a new study that fracking could be blamed for reduced songbird nesting success in the central Appalachian region.
This particular region is experiencing the country’s most rapid growth in shale gas development, or “fracking.” Researchers have demonstrated that the nesting success of the Louisiana Waterthrush–a habitat specialist that nests along forested streams, where the potential for habitat degradation is high–is declining at sites impacted by shale gas development in northwestern West Virginia.
Researchers at West Virginia University mapped waterthrush territories and monitored nests along 14 streams from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2013 to 2015. They also mapped and measured disturbances to streams and to the forest canopy, using aerial photographs and satellite imagery as well as extensive ground-truthing, and classifying them according to whether they were related to shale gas development.
Results show that as shale gas development has expanded in the area, nest survival and productivity and riparian habitat quality have declined. At the same time, the size of individual waterthrush territories has increased, suggesting birds need to range farther to find sufficient resources. This study is one of the first to demonstrate that shale gas development can affect songbird reproductive success and productivity, both directly through the presence of fracking infrastructure and indirectly through effects on habitat quality.
Scientists are hoping their 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.