Nic Korte has always been a prolific reader.
In his youth, he would normally check out about two books a week from the Louis Latzer Memorial Public Library in Highland. With direction from his mother, Margie “Mick” Korte, his choices ranged from literary classics to science to world and cultural history.
But of all the books he read, the “B” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia set his parents bought for him was his favorite.
“Because there were a whole bunch of pictures of birds, and I used to look at that all the time,” Korte said.
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As he grew up, Korte said he would tell people he wanted to be an ornithologist, a scientist who studies birds.
However, after graduating from St. Paul Catholic School in Highland, Korte would pursue a degree, not in ornithology, but in geochemistry, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
But there would come a day while he was in graduate school in Tucson, Arizona, when Korte’s interest in birds would again take flight.
A world opens up
It was 1971, a year after Korte had started graduate school, and he was on a camping trip in southeastern Arizona with his new wife, Mary. He didn’t know it at the time, but the area is world-famous for viewing of countless sub-tropical bird species.
During the trip, Korte happened upon a house with countless humming bird feeders and large numbers of beautifully colored little birds zoomed to and from them. He soon struck up a conversation with the owner of the home, who lent him a pair of binoculars in order to get a better look. The experience would propel what had been a fledgling interest of youth into a life-changing hobby.
“I went out and bought a bird book and have always looked for birds ever since,” Korte said.
He went from someone who had never had any plans to travel outside the United States to a world-explorer. Overall, Korte has been to Central and South America almost 40 times in search or rare bird species. He has been to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Columbia, Chile, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and Peru.
Korte finds thrill in a challenge, which he said is part of the reason why he keeps returning to these countries instead of new ones. He said he would rather find one of a location’s most elusive birds rather than travel to a new place to see 100 birds that are more common. One of his best sightings was seeing an Antpitta, a small, elusive and rarely seen bird. But rareness aside, Korte said his favorite birds are still the bright, queerly named humming birds that brought him back to his passion.
Looking at the bigger picture
Korte’s love for the environment does not stop at just looking at birds, it extends to saving them as well.
“I’ve been very active in conservation things for many years,” he said.
After moving to Grand Junction, Colorado in 1977, Korte became involved with a chapter of the National Audubon Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to bird and bird habitat conservation. He has been the conservation chairman of his chapter for about 25 years. Throughout this time, Korte has organized multiple tours in locations in Central and South America as fundraiser events for the society.
Korte has also won a statewide award for his almost 20 years of work with Western Screech Owls in Colorado. As part of his project, he installed around 200 bird boxes for the small owls in his area. The boxes provide a home that would otherwise be non-existent for the owls. In the Audubon Society’s annual bird count, his chapter always draws the largest count for Western screech owls in the whole world, which is largely in part due to his project. And Korte always jumps at the opportunity to help educate about the bird world.
On Oct. 3, he gave a presentation at Louis Latzer Library on the importance of bird conservation. The presentation centered on one point: the world of birds as we know it is changing, and it is changing fast.
“The biggest thing I would like people to understand is just how rapidly so many bird populations are falling, and they are not leveling off,” Korte said.
Korte said many of the birds in Southern Illinois migrate to spend other seasons in the tropics. But, as a result of modern-day activities, such populations have dropped anywhere from 25 percent to 90 percent, depending on the species, in the last few decades. Some notable examples he listed were the barn swallow at about 50 percent and the Eastern Kingbird at 47 percent. He said short-distance migrants are also in danger. For example the Eastern Meadowlark population has gone down 89 percent, and Northern Bobwhite Quail, which has dropped 85 percent, according to Korte.
Dropping bird populations cause a number of problems within the environment, Korte said. In the extensive list of implications that he went over, Korte said it could mean anything from anything from increases in Lyme disease to ecosystem collapse.
“We either have to make a change or we’re going to see a lot of things that we are accustomed to not be here,” he said.
How can you help?
During his presentation, Korte listed some things that citizens can do locally to help protect birds in their area. Three of these actions can be done in your local grocery store.
To make an impact, you can buy shade-grown, organic coffee, stop eating pineapples and buying products with palm oil, Korte said. Out of the many products that contribute to deforestation, these are three things that largely help to wipe out bird habitats, according to Korte.
Secondly, Korte said you can give to local conservation organizations that are actively looking to conserve land. Lastly, Korte said it is important to learn about the climate change, and educate yourself on local conservation efforts.
Korte said that anyone who has more questions over bird conservation, or any Boy Scouts wanting to start a bird box program for their Eagle project should contact him through the Grand Valley Audubon website or through the Grand Valley Audubon Society Facebook or Twitter accounts.
As for now, Korte still returns to Highland on an annual basis. He likes walking through Silver Lake Park, enjoying the lush foliage that is often lit with the sound of calling birds. He said that one day he hopes that his grandchildren and following generations will be able to admire the same species that he grew up with.
“If I can convince one or two people that they aren’t just birds and it’s important to everything about their lives, then I have succeeded,” Korte said.