The diverse habitats in the Chesapeake watershed support an enormous variety of plant and animal life—more than 3600 different species. These include year-round residents of the Bay ecosystem and also migrants that pass in and out of the Bay region at varying times a year. Each is important to the wondrous web of life.
Wildlife was even more abundant when Captain John Smith visited the Bay. He describes seeing many kinds of fish and land animals. He writes of the great number of eagles and diverse sorts of hawks. “In winter there are plenty of Swans, Cranes gray and white with black wings, Herons, Geese, Duck…Parrots, and Pigeons. Of all those sorts great abundance, and some other strange kinds to us unknown by name.”
Some species did not survive the changes that followed in Smith’s wake. The passenger pigeon—once so plentiful they darkened the sky as they flew overhead—were market-hunted to extinction in the 19th century. The Carolina parakeet—considered a pest by farmers—fell victim to hunting and loss of habitat.
The colonists hunted beaver to near extinction by 1700 for their commercially viable pelts. Deer and wild turkeys were hunted to near extinction because they were good to eat. Elk, wolf, and other large game also disappeared as settlers took over the land.
Further, the colonists introduced non-native, often invasive species, which competed with natural species, often with devastating results.
Factors that destroy habitat also impact the wildlife that lives there: storms and other natural causes, deforestation, pollution, disease, and development. Oysters are a prime example. In Smith’s day they “lay as thick as stones.” Today, the native oyster population is only about 2 percent of its historical abundance. The interaction of over-harvesting, disease, sedimentation, and poor water quality is causing a serious decline in this famous Bay species.
Concern about the decline of oysters, crabs, and many other native Bay species has led to a large-scale Bay restoration effort, coordinated through the Chesapeake Bay Program. The need is critical. The solutions require the help of everyone who lives in or visits the Chesapeake watershed.
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