GEORGETOWN — Sandwiched between Interstate 75 on the west and the Norfolk Southern railroad on the east, Veterans Memorial Wildlife Management Area reverberates with manmade sounds.
About 75 percent of the nearly 2,500 acres that opened to the public in July are covered in forest. So within its interior, away from the whoosh of traffic whisking up and down the highway, hikers in summer can hear the song of a scarlet tanager, a striking red bird with black wings. It sounds, as Roger Tory Peterson suggested in his classic field guide, like "a robin with a sore throat."
The tanager is one reason why wildlife management areas serve a public purpose. More than half of the bird species that breed in Kentucky migrate as far south as Central and South America to winter in warmer climates.
The numbers of these so-called "neotropicals" are declining. So providing a stable breeding ground that won't be developed protects the tanager and other songbirds that inhabit Veterans Memorial and dozens of other wildlife management areas across Kentucky.
Wildlife management areas act as showcases of what can be done to attract birds and animals on private lands. Rather than have manicured parkland, these areas have unmowed fields, brushy expanses, and food plots with agricultural crops left standing — all for the benefit of wildlife.
So what was known as the old Hall Farm — once part of a 6,000-acre cattle and sheep farm — is now planted in corn and millet. Young deer were spotted in late summer grazing near a cornfield. Millet, a seed crop often found in commercial wild-bird feeds, will be there for wild turkeys in the winter.
Wildlife management areas are also set aside as places for the public to hunt, fish, hike and sightsee. Veterans Memorial has already proved popular with bow hunters, and it didn't take long for fishermen to find the pond that's about a quarter-mile from the last of five parking areas along a gravel lane. Before the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources bought the property, it was leased by a couple of hunting clubs, said Dave Frederick, a public lands biologist for the department.
First-time visitors might be put off by some sights. Honey locust trees sport a fierce armament of 6- to 8-inch thorns that could do some serious damage should one back into them. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers reportedly used the thorns to pin their tattered uniforms together.
And visitors might see the remains of animal skeletons here and there. A sun-bleached jawbone of a deer and the spinal columns of some kind of mammal have been found near the pond and a neighboring hillside. Perhaps they are remnants of what was left behind by coyotes, another denizen of the recreation area.
But Veterans Memorial can also be a place of sublime beauty, especially in fall, when the woods between I-75 and a gravel lane blaze in bright yellow, orange and red.
And when the seed-heavy tops of grasses are backlit by the late-afternoon autumn sun, it's a light show like nothing staged by Pink Floyd.
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul," naturalist John Muir wrote.
Veterans Memorial Wildlife Management Area offers that.