Alabama coal company problems and bird report

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Two recent reports reflect problems confronting coal companies here in Alabama. Walter Energy, headquartered in the state, is the country’s largest producer of coal to make steel. It operates two mines in Tuscaloosa County. It has now filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A company spokesman stated that its problems stem not from President Obama’s so-called “war on coal,” but on low prices being paid for its product. Reportedly, demand for metallurgical coal is low because of a glut of steel on the market. Critics point out that, ironically, during the past three years, when the company’s profits were shrinking, the salaries and bonuses being paid to its CEO and other high-ranking officials were substantially increasing. (“The Birmingham News,” July 17 ed.)
The Drummond Company, the coal-mining company which is the largest privately-owned firm in Alabama, has withdrawn its permit to open a mine at Shepherd’s Bend adjacent to the Black Warrior River in Walker County. For several years the plan has been vigorously opposed by the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a citizen-based non-profit advocacy group and by many officials of the city of Birmingham. The site proposed for mining is situated 1,000 yards upstream from the source of much of the city’s municipal water. The property is owned by the University of Alabama, which has come under fire from numerous students and faculty members for agreeing to lease the land for mining in the first place. The university would have benefitted financially from royalties paid by the company had mining have been undertaken. Drummond’s decision to cancel its plan apparently marks a favorable ending of the “War over Shepherd’s Bend.”
Builders and owners of homes have for several decades contributed, perhaps unknowingly, to the decline of an important insect-eating bird, the Chimney Swift, which breeds in our area, in most of the rest of the eastern half of the country, and in southeastern Canada, The birds, said to resemble “flying cigars,” rely almost exclusively on chimneys as places to nest and raise their young.
When chimneys are capped, they are no longer available as nesting sites. Ornithologists estimate that the bird’s numbers have declined by 50 percent in the past 40 years and that the decline is continuing. The International Union for Conserving Nature in 2010 designated Chimney Swifts to be “nearly threatened,” and Canadian authorities have placed them on their threatened list. In the U. S., the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to remove the birds’ young or their nests from chimneys while the birds are nesting.
When I first moved to where I now live, about 25 years ago, each year until about five years afterward, the birds nested in my chimney, and I enjoyed hearing the cheerful chattering of the nestlings when their parents fed them. I regretted their abandoning my chimney. But to my good fortune, this year they have returned and are nesting. Right now, every 10 minutes or so, the babies are chattering. Chimney Swifts feed exclusively on flying insects, including mosquitos and other pests. A pair raising three young consume the weight equivalent to 5,000 to 6,000 house flies per day. Home owners who appreciate the contributions Chimney Swifts make, but have caps on their chimneys, should consider removing them to provide the beneficial birds places to nest and raise their young. For additional information on the birds google “chimney swifts.org,” a project of the Chimney Swift Conservation Association.
A beautiful songbird having more serious survival problems than Chimney Swifts is the Golden-cheeked Warbler, a breeding resident of the Hill Country east of Austin, Texas. It is designated as an endangered species and is on the verge of becoming extinct. A libertarian outfit called the “Reason Foundation” has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the species from the endangered list. It comes as no surprise that the organization is supported by the infamous anti-environmental billionaires, the Koch Brothers. Ornithologists in Texas and elsewhere strongly oppose the de-listing. Surely the USFWS will reject the petition outright and take measures to ensure survival of this beautiful bird. Stay tuned.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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