By Mark Faherty
The results are in and the state of our birds is…not too bad. That’s right – Mass Audubon’s landmark State of the Birds report is not all gloom and doom! And I guarantee you will be surprised by some of the findings.
To produce the report, my colleagues here at Mass Audubon have scoured three important citizen science data sets – National Audubon’s 110 year-old Christmas Bird Count, the federal Breeding Bird Census dating back to the 1960s, and Mass Audubon’s two Breeding Bird Atlases, completed in five-year blocks first during the late 1970s and again between 2007 and 2011. Detailed accounts of the status of each species can be perused on the website (easily found by Googling “Mass Audubon State of the Birds”). The site offers many search options - you can read a summary of the key findings, look at species grouped by habitat or population status, or search species by species. You can download a pdf of the report for free.
More than just a list of species and their population statuses, the report has a deeper message about what is happening on our landscapes and even to our climate. For example, the results show a strong global warming signal – formerly southern species like Carolina wren, red-bellied woodpecker, and even tufted titmouse have invaded the state as our winters have grown milder.
Some of the results are intuitive – for example, suburban birds like chickadees and American robins are doing very well. Other results may surprise those of us used to the environmental warnings of the 1980s and 1990s: that cutting forests is always bad for the environment. Not necessarily so, say the birds. In fact, the species most imperiled in Massachusetts are those that would benefit from ecologically sound forestry practices, which means cutting trees. The open spaces of our agrarian past have grown up into either forests or subdivisions in recent years. This means that while forest and suburban birds are increasing, species dependent on grasslands and shrublands are experiencing a serious real estate crunch. Eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, short-eared owls, and brown thrashers are all declining. In the absence of cutting, mowing, and/or burning, open habitats will continue to disappear, taking these birds with them. Two Cape species that are especially struggling are the gorgeous grassland falcon known as the American kestrel, and the northern bobwhite, the formerly common Cape quail. Both depend on the open habitats that have disappeared so rapidly throughout the region.
What can you do? Knowledge is power, so first get yourself up to speed by reading the report. Next, support your local conservation organizations who work to create and maintain bird habitat. You could even think about foregoing the usual suburban landscaping on part of your property to create habitat for declining birds. Who knows, you may end up hearing the old familiar call of the bobwhite once again.
-Mark Faherty is Science Coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary where he oversees various research and endangered species monitoring projects including the Cape Cod Osprey Project, plus research on turtles, nesting shorebirds, oysters, horseshoe crabs, bats, and other critters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org