By Michele F. Mihaljevich | Indiana Correspondent, Farm World

ROME CITY, Ind. — The Noble County town of Rome City is using a recent designation from the Indiana Audubon Society to help protect birds and also raise money for the community.

Rome City was named a Bird Town Indiana site by the society in December 2013. It’s one of five so named, and was the third to receive the designation. Other Bird Town Indiana locations are Geneva, Chesterton, Nashville and Fort Wayne. The city of Kendallville has applied to the program and is expected to become the sixth site, said Jeff Canada, the society’s vice president. The society hopes to name more recipients later this year.

The goal of the program is to recognize towns that have made a commitment to preserving and conserving bird populations and habitats, Canada said. The idea is based on a similar program in Wisconsin and on Tree City USA, which promotes community forestry management. Bird Town Indiana started last year.

There are several criteria necessary for a community to meet to be designated a Bird Town Indiana site, including the creation and protection of natural bird habitats, the willingness to limit and remove hazards to birds and public education. “Maybe a city has an ordinance that protects bird habitats or has a bird monitoring program,” Canada said. “Some cities don’t restrict lawns so they can grow wild. Programs such as Cats Indoors help keep birds safe.”

Cats Indoors is an initiative from the American Bird Conservancy that promotes keeping domestic cats inside for their safety and the safety of birds and other wildlife.

In Rome City, officials are selling birdhouses and nesting boxes as a way to raise money for Advance Rome City, a downtown revitalization group. The group has a goal of $25,000, which will go toward bird-friendly beautification projects and gateway signage, said Sheryl Prentice, executive director of the Noble County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Included in the beautification plans are bike trails, walking paths and birdhouses around Sylvan Lake.

“This is a continuous initiative, an ongoing effort to attract birds to the community,” Prentice said. “One benefit of being a Bird Town Indiana site is that it makes people more aware of the natural wildlife in the area. It also promotes tourism. People come to the area and they visit our other attractions. They stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants.”

Birdhouse and nesting box options are available, as is an Osprey platform, ranging from $50-$500. The items will be for wrens, bluebirds, wood ducks, American kestrel or screech owl, purple martin and osprey. Anyone who makes a purchase will get two birdhouses or nesting boxes, with the option to put up both, or use one and decorate the other for a November fundraiser during Rome City’s Christmas Walk. Purchasers may opt to put the birdhouse or nesting box on their own property or at another site of their choosing.

Connection to Hoosier author

Rome City and Geneva both have a tie to Hoosier native Gene Stratton-Porter, a naturalist and author of such books as Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. She lived in Geneva for several years before moving to Rome City in 1912, and into a home on Sylvan Lake in 1914.

“The idea of protecting birds fits in well with Gene Stratton-Porter’s lifestyle,” Prentice noted. “She documented wildlife and had a legacy of caring about and preserving the environment and nature.

“The Bird Town designation helps perpetuate her legacy as one of the earliest environmentalists in the late 1800s, early 1900s. It shows the area has an interest in preserving our natural resources and respecting wildlife.”

A project in the Geneva area to restore some wetlands to how they would have been in Stratton-Porter’s day was part of the town’s qualification for the Bird Town Indiana program, Canada said. Officials hope to restore about 4,000 acres in southern Adams and northern Jay counties. “Geneva and Rome City both have a relationship with Gene Stratton- Porter, and Gene was all about birds,” he said.

Rome City also used its connection to the writer as a part of its qualification for the Bird Town program, said Dave W. Fox, manager of the town’s Gene Stratton- Porter State Historic Site. The town and site celebrated what would have been her 150th birthday last year.

“Gene played a major role in the application process,” he explained. “The environmental legacy she left behind has had a great impact on Rome City and may be seen in the bird programs at the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site. I felt having the site Gene called home in Rome City (designated a Bird Town Indiana) would be very fitting since she was an avid bird watcher and wrote a number of books and nature studies about birds. I don’t believe she wrote a single novel where birds weren’t mentioned.”

Among the projects at the site include a bird watching festival and monthly bird survey, Fox said. The site staff also combats invasive plant and insect species to ensure birds can find the native food and shelter they need for survival. They also worked closely in the past with those who rented the site’s agricultural ground to be certain herbicides, fertilizers and sediments didn’t impact the water quality in Sylvan Lake, he said. More recently, those 103 acres of farmland are in the process of being restored to grasslands and wetlands.

A program such as Bird Town Indiana provides economic, environmental and quality of life benefits to a community, Fox said. “Bird and nature watching is the nation’s fastest-growing leisure-time activity, and adds a great deal of economic benefits to the towns that embrace their environmental assets and promote their town’s bird-watching opportunities,” he said. “Birds are an amazing part of our environment and they are most often the only animal we encounter on a daily basis.” While the Bird Town Indiana program seeks to help preserve such migratory birds as the Golden-winged, Cerulean and Hooded warblers, individuals and communities can do simple things to help any species, Canada said.

“Other birds need our help too,” he explained. “Even putting up a birdfeeder draws attention to the birds and brings an interest to birds and birding, which is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the country.”

The Golden-winged and Cerulean warblers are on Indiana’s endangered list, while the hooded warbler is on the special concern list, Canada said. “A lot of migratory birds are in trouble,” he said. “There are so many things we can do to help them.”

Benefits to rural communities

Farmers and other rural homeowners can help by growing those plants native to Indiana and by not cutting their fence rows, Canada said. “There are plenty of easy, economical things they can do,” he said. “They can install bluebird nesting boxes, plant an evergreen tree or not put chemicals on their yards. They don’t have to tear anything down or rearrange their landscape.”

Farmers may also have an impact on birds by using conservation tillage methods, setting aside ground in grasses and following label guidelines for herbicides and fertilizers, Fox noted. Farmers could also allow barn and cliff swallowers to nest in their barns and wait to mow their pastures until after birds have had time to nest and fledge their young, he added.

Homeowners can provide food, shelter and water sources through the year, he said. The National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program gives tips for creating backyard habitats. The program is designed to make backyards wildlife- and bird-friendly, he said.

Farmers should understand how birds such as the American kestrel can benefit them, Canada said. “It’s in a population decline, but it’s more beneficial to farmers than anything other than a cat,” he explained. “They will eat two to four mice a day.

Mice will damage food and feed, and the bird is free varmint control. Mice can do thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.”

Other birds such as Red-tailed hawks, Great Horned owls, purple martins and Eastern meadowlarks are also beneficial to farmers, Fox said. “It’s vitally important we protect our feathered friends. They serve as a food source, enrich our quality of life by offering a stress-relieving pastime, and they consume millions of insect and rodent pests annually,” he said.

“For example, a single Red-tailed hawk eats three mice every day. If you do the math, you will see very quickly how beneficial a bird of prey like this can be – one bird eating nearly 1,100 mice a year. A nesting pair of hawks may eat nearly 6,000 mice, rats and other rodents on a farm. What kind of economic impact would that have on lost grain and crop damage?”

For more information on the Bird Town Indiana program, visit www.indianaaudubon.org or contact Jeff Canada via email at vp@indianaaudubon.org and for details on protecting the American kestrel, visit http://kestrel.peregrinefund.org.

To order a birdhouse or nesting box from Rome City or for more information on the program, visit www.visitnoble county.com or call 877-202-5761. The website includes birdhouse and nesting box diagrams and instructions on how to order.

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