According to initial results from a two-year study released on April 26 by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), just look to the sky for the answer.
The study, conducted by the New Jersey Audubon Society, attempted to obtain a scientifically accurate survey of the birds found in the 32-square-mile Meadowlands District, which includes Secaucus.
What they found tells the story of an apparent bird population boom in the region.
Scientists counted 80,261 birds in the Meadowlands area, a number representing 181 different species. Of those 181 species, 29 species, or 1,191 birds, are on New Jersey's endangered, threatened or species of concern lists. The birds were counted using 118 points at 28 different locations throughout the Meadowlands from August 2004 to August 2005. The second year of the study will be completed in August 2006.
What the bird boom means
"This preliminary report confirms that our ecosystem is hosting a wide variety of important bird species, and reassures us that the recovery of the Meadowlands is truly taking hold," said NJMC Chair Susan Bass Levin.
Nellie Tsipoura, an ecologist with the New Jersey Audubon Society who participated in the study, listed some of the most frequently observed species throughout the Meadowlands, including red-wing blackbirds, song sparrows, mallards, ring-billed gulls, and great egrets. Tsipoura also named some of the threatened and endangered species spotted during the survey, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys and bobolinks. Observers also witnessed secretive marsh species, such as the least bittern and the common moorhen. However, for Tsipoura, the detection of exceptional or elusive species was not the main goal of the study.
"We're not just looking for the rare sighting," she said. "This is to be used as baseline information for future comparisons and decisions. We really want a structured way of knowing what's out there so we can monitor trends."
Bill Sheehan, executive director of the Hackensack Riverkeeper and Secaucus resident, monitors environmental trends along the Hackensack River and in the Meadowlands. He knows that a plethora of birds means an upsurge in other forms of wetlands life.
"A lot of the birds that use the Meadowlands are aquatic birds," he said. "They go there because of the marine life, such as the fish, the small crabs and mollusks that live in the bottom of the river. A lot of the bird species thrive on that. When we do wetlands enhancement and restoration, we want to improve the fish habitat quality of the area because this automatically makes more food available on the food chain for the birds. So the other aquatic wildlife has made a comeback as well."
Sheehan also looks at the encouraging bird count from a grassroots, activist perspective.
"The fact that the Meadowlands has been and will continue to be a major stopover on the North American flyway for migratory birds was a fact that we used to fight those who used to look at the area as nothing but undeveloped real estate," he said. "One of the tools that we used to break that mindset was the abundance of bird life that use and depend on the Meadowlands for food, migration, and shelter."
While the teeming bird population signifies a positive ecological trend, other observers noted the possible attendant economic benefits of avian abundance.
"Ecotourism is a major part of the future economic impact of this region," said James Kirkos, president of the Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce. "We were supposed to sell a swamp, when obviously we needed to change the perception of people in the region and make the Meadowlands itself a destination, along with the sports complex and the future Xanadu shopping complex and golf courses. This bird study, and the following bird-watchers, helps us to do that."
Sheehan also welcomes those who wish to come to the Meadowlands with birds on their brains. "If people will go all the way down to Cape May to see one bird, they'll come to the Meadowlands to see dozens of them," he said. "The fact that we're so close to New York City makes it possible that people can come out on the train to Secaucus and be bird-watching in five minutes."
Meadowlands commissioner Leonard Kaiser, who grew up in the area, noted the fact that the Meadowlands can now be considered a tourist attraction instead of an awkward local sideshow. "Until I was 11 years old, I thought that the mosquito was the state bird," he said. "But things have changed, and I sure appreciate that."
Reporter Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at email@example.com.