State of the Birds:Documenting Changes in Massachusetts Birdlife
The birds of Massachusetts are a diverse and interesting collection of species, from the wood-warblers of our summer forests to the sea ducks of our winter shores.
Every species has a unique story, but when strong trends arise across large groups of species, it’s usually indicative of a fairly major change in the environment. The story of the State of the Birds is really the story of these trends, as well as what they tell us about our common wealth of birds.
- 39 percent of our breeding birds have significantly declining populations, according to the Breeding Bird Survey. Natural fluctuations are to be expected in any population, but for more than a third of our bird species to suffer statistically significant decline suggests that critical conservation attention needs to be paid to these struggling species.
- Not all the news is bad; while 26 percent of Massachusetts’ wintering birds are declining according to the Christmas Bird Count, many are increasing, especially those that winter along the coast.
- 20 of the 28 species protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act are still vulnerable to extinction at the state level. However, the fact that these species have survived so far is reason to be hopeful. Recovery programs for listed species such as the Common Loon, Peregrine Falcon, and Piping Plover have been very successful.
- Strong trends can be observed for the bird populations of certain habitats. Generally speaking, breeding birds of forests and urban/suburban landscapes are prospering across the state. Conversely, birds of early-successional habitats (such as grasslands and shrublands) are, by and large, declining—some of them precipitously so. A significant proportion of freshwater marsh birds are also declining.
- The effects of climate change can clearly be seen in the ways that many bird species’ distributions are shifting. Many southern species have moved into Massachusetts in large numbers in the past few decades, while birds of high elevation and northern climes have begun to withdraw from the state. Notable disruptions among the ranks of long-distance migrant species may also be an effect of our changing climate.
- Birds that nest on or near the ground appear to be struggling, possibly as a result of decreased cover due to deer browse and predation from burgeoning populations of human commensal mammals, such as raccoons and feral cats.
- Many of our most common and familiar bird species, such as Eastern Towhee and Blue Jay, are showing significant declines in abundance even as they remain widespread. This quiet decline underscores the importance of long-term bird monitoring—and provides us with an opportunity to help declining species before they become critically imperiled.
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