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The number of eastern meadowlark, top left,... (Photo and data from the National Audubon Society)
The eastern meadowlark once thrived in Connecticut's open fields, quietly nesting in the tall grasses every spring. But those days are gone.

Housing developments and suburban neighborhoods have eaten into the nesting areas of grassland birds, destroying their natural habitat and putting into sharp decline their numbers in Connecticut, according to a study released by the National Aububon Society. Grassland species like grasshopper sparrows and eastern meadowlarks are declining most rapidly, according to Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon Society in Fairfield.

In the last 40 years, the population of eastern meadowlarks has dropped by 99 percent, russed grouse by 98 percent and Baltimore orioles by 78 percent, according to Bull.

Today, fewer than a dozen eastern meadowlarks live in the Connecticut River Valley and in open fields near Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. Forty years ago, in a more agricultural era, Connecticut was home to thousands of meadowlarks.

"The eastern meadowlark won't ever be extinct — the population will reach a very low number but will hang on," Bull said. "Grassland habitat conservation initiatives will slow, stop and reverse the population decline. Conservation efforts will bring them back up."

Like those in Shelton. In order to conserve grasslands for bird reproduction, Thomas Harbinson, chairman of Shelton's Conservation Commission, said "the city owns parcels of land of open grasslands.

Harbinson added that meadows and grasslands are a diminishing resource up and down the eastern seaboard.

According to Bull, shrubland and woodland bird populations are in decline as well, like the brown thrasher, whose population has decreased by 99 percent, to around 1,000 birds.

Gradually over time, fewer and fewer birds are able to nest because they return from migration in the south and cannot find a field to nest in, he said.

These birds "cannot put enough new members of the population back into the population," Bull said. "[They] cannot reproduce any more because there is nowhere else for them to go."

Other rapidly declining birds, whose populations are in the low thousands, are the common tern, bobwhite quail, prairie warbler, blue-winged warblers, and salt marsh shark-tailed sparrows.

The common tern nests on offshore islands and the edges of Long Island Sound, where the colonies of eggs are disturbed by dogs or people walking on the beach.

Meanwhile, the number of typical feeder birds, such as the black-chested chickadees and morning doves, is increasing because they do well in suburban neighborhoods, Bull said. Wild turkeys also flourish in suburban areas.

According to Donna Lundgren, director of the Ansonia Nature Center, meadowlarks and bobolinks — species that nest in grasslands — are declining because there aren't as many meadows.

"Populations of birds go in increases and declines," Lundgren said. "It is not abnormal to have crashes of certain bird populations. Fifty years ago there was more farmland; now there are more lawns which are not good for birds. [Lawns] are not the tall grass meadows of farms."

Nationwide, 20 common bird species — those with populations more than half a million and covering a wide range — have seen populations fall at least in half since 1967, according to the Audubon study. The bird group compared databases for 550 species from two bird surveys: its own Christmas bird count and the U.S. Geological Survey's breeding bird survey in June.

Many of the species in decline depend on open grassy habitats that are disappearing because of suburban sprawl, the author of the study, Greg Butcher, Audubon's bird conservation director, said.

Some of the birds, such as the evening grosbeak, were once so plentiful that people would complain about how they crowded bird feeders and finished off 50-pound sacks of sunflower seeds in just a couple days. But the colorful and gregarious grosbeak's numbers have plummeted 78 percent in the past 40 years.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.