By ED RUNYAN
Did you know federal law prohibits anyone from possessing the feathers of nearly all types of birds?
Did you know that leaving fishing line in a lake, woods or allowing it to go into a landfill can block a bird’s digestive system or cause amputation of its leg?
Did you know lawn chemicals and rodent poisons can injure and kill pets, birds and other animals?
Heather Merritt, founder of Birds in Flight Sanctuary of Howland, gave these facts to fourth-graders from two Warren public schools Tuesday during the annual Community Waters Festival in Perkins Park. The sanctuary nurses about 900 injured birds back to health per year from an 11-county area.
“If you hunt, don’t shoot hawks or owls or songbirds. You’ll go to jail for doing so,” she told the kids.
The festival, which continues Thursday for fourth-graders in the district’s two other kindergarten-to-grade-8 schools, gives students hands-on lessons about water as a natural resource.
The festival has been run by the Trumbull Soil and Water Conservation District for nine years.
Merritt and her son, Cameron, showed the kids a red-tailed hawk, Harris’ hawk, gerfalcon, barred owl and screech owl, each of which is either impressive to see or possesses impressive abilities or unusual traits.
The large gerfalcon, for example, is the fastest of the falcons — able to fly 353 miles per hour.
The barred owl has special feathers that allow it to fly and hunt silently and make use of its tremendous hearing ability. Because of the way two barred owls call out to each other and move from place to place, it can sound like there are a dozen of them nearby, when there are usually only two, she said.
Screech owls sound so much like a woman screaming that people routinely call police believing they’re hearing a woman being attacked when it’s really the bird, Merritt said.
Alexander Payiavlas of the Lincoln K-8 school said he’s never taken a bird feather from the yard, but he knows now why he shouldn’t.
“If a feather lands in your yard and you take it into your house, you’d get arrested,” he said, adding that he also found it interesting that the small screech owl can sound so loud and so much like a person.
Merritt said the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits possession of bird feathers, was written to protect birds from being killed for their feathers or taken as pets, though there are some exceptions — game birds such as pheasants when hunted in season, and pets such as parrots.
As for lawn and farming chemicals, Merritt said she thinks the damage to humans, birds and other animals is as bad as it has been in many years, even though the area’s population has declined. She’s been running the nonprofit sanctuary for 17 years.
“There’s a lot of children with cancer here,” she said, adding that her shelter is seeing an increasing number of birds with deformities most likely caused by water pollution.
Air pollution in the Mahoning Valley is probably less than when steel mills were operating more extensively here, but there are still “hot spots” where pollution is a big problem, she said, adding that in one 1-mile square area she didn’t want to identify, 13 birds were killed from lead poisoning.
Chipmunks and squirrels frequently come in contact with water pollution first, then pass it along to birds and other animals that hunt them.
“You can kill 15 species of animal by killing a little mouse,” she added of the effect of using rodent poisons. A pet or bird eating a mouse that ate poison extends the poison to that many other animal species, she said.
“Everything we do affects wildlife,” Merritt said.
Most of the birds at Merritt’s sanctuary are released back into the wild after they recover. All of the birds she brought to show the kids are ones that cannot be released because their injuries are too severe for them to fly again.
When the kids left the bird demonstration, they visited four stations set up around the park where they learned more about water.
“I learned that when pesticides get washed away, they get in the water and it kills fish and the other animals that live in the water,” said Terrell Scott of the Jefferson K-8 building.
Lincoln fourth-grade teacher June Bagby said she pointed to the flowing Mahoning River next to the park and reminded students about a lesson she taught them earlier this month about the movement of Warren’s rainwater into the Mahoning River, Ohio River and Gulf of Mexico and how parts of the water they drink now could have been consumed by dinosaurs millions of years ago.
“Some [students] thought we got new water all the time,” she said.