Chandler S. Robbins
Research Wildlife Biologist
Biological Resources Division
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Ovenbird illustration

An atlas is, fundamentally, a method of depicting and understanding some component of the world; and, usually, in addition to providing information purely for intellectual interest, it serves as a means to some end. The atlases of the early navigators were crucial aids to the development of global commerce, the effects of which-both good and bad-can hardly be exaggerated. Like navigational charts, grid-based biological atlases tell us where organisms are-namely that this particular species lives (or does not live) in this particular place.

But the greatest value of atlases depends on the addition of another key element: time. For naturalists, it is interesting to know that some rare creature may be rearing young in the neighboring town. And, if you volunteered some hard-earned leisure time on hot summer afternoons to detect birds carrying fecal sacs, there is inordinate pleasure in recognizing "your" dots on an authoritative distribution map. But the true and worthy rationale for undertaking a project as complex and labor-intensive as a breeding bird atlas is nothing less than depicting the status of life on one’s "own" portion of the planet—and the measure of this status is change over time.

The need for this kind of measure—the ability to read the vital signs of life on earth—has become critical. In most instances, we exercise these godlike powers with the best of declared intentions: developing new sources of energy, eradicating disease, improving living standards. We live at a moment in the earth's biological evolution when a single species—our own—has acquired the ability to significantly alter fundamental components of the biosphere such as climate, sea level, vegetation, and animal populations. And to give proper credit to the unique capabilities of the human beings, we have been immensely successful in realizing many of our wildest dreams.

bald eagle illustration
Bald Eagle

If there turns out to be a tragic flaw in the headlong course of human progress, it may be that our power to invent has dangerously outdistanced our ability to predict the consequences of our most "earth-shattering" creations. We did not mean to perforate the ozone layer or to set Lake Erie on fire or to deny Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons the ability to make eggshells. But there is no dodging our responsibility for these lamentable and portentous results.

The hope of course is that our unique ability to consider how we should direct our activities to affect the future will be our saving grace—and that of our fellow creatures. This will entail putting a much greater emphasis on accurately predicting and then making necessary allowances for the consequences of our planet-altering capabilities. An optimist might say that there is already a preservative trend, and that this book is evidence of it since a biological atlas can also be described as a chronicle of consequences.

The data for Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 1 were collected 25 years ago; and, though many Massachusetts atlas volunteers have waited a long time to see the tangible fruit of their efforts, these records—far from being in any sense outdated—have set a baseline for measuring the consequences of a quarter-century of human progress. The value of this historic baseline increases with the passage of time.

For someone like me, accustomed to assessing the state of global health through the lens of bird populations, pressing questions about the environmental consequences of 25 years of rapid change in the United States and Neotropics leap from at least a third of the maps in Atlas 1. What is happening to the exquisite American Kestrel, still apparently on the increase when Atlas 1 data were collected but now declining alarmingly as a breeding bird? Is this decrease simply a consequence of reforestation of open habitats or the result of something less visible and more insidious?

Is the Whip-poor-will still widespread and locally common as Atlas 1 showed it to be in the 1970s, or is this voice of the summer night continuing to fade with expanding subdivisions and the attendant pressures such as habitat loss and house-pet persecution of ground-nesting birds?

Is the Bicknell's Thrush, having just become a species in its own right, about to go extinct as a result of destruction of its winter habitat in Hispaniola? It was one of my favorite nesting songsters on Mount Greylock in the 1930s, but it had already disappeared from Massachusetts as a breeding bird by the time of Atlas 1.

blue winged warbler illustration
Blue-winged Warbler

Will the Blue-winged Warbler eventually swallow up its kissing cousin, the lovely Golden-winged Warbler, possibly as a consequence of global warming?

These and countless other questions beg to be answered with future surveys, not only because they are interesting to a handful of ornithologists but also because they are of consequence to everyone.

Not long ago I might have felt obliged in this foreword to defend the notion that birds matter to people or that they can serve more dramatically than we ever would have predicted as "canaries in the mine," foretelling danger on a global scale. But not today.

In 1999, the Department of the Environment for the United Kingdom published a white paper entitled A Better Quality of Life. One of the "headline" indicators of the sustainability of lifestyles in the UK is based on population trends of breeding birds. That birds should appear alongside more traditional economic and social indicators of the quality of human life is appropriate for a number of reasons:

  1. their broad distribution and varied ecology make them excellent indicators of environmental change;
  2. they have deep and increasingly wide appeal among the general public;
  3. they are of direct economic importance because of the burgeoning expenditures associated with birdwatching; and
  4. we have good data on them, including atlases like this one, against which to measure change.

Should you doubt the need for following such trends, let me cite another British example. During the past 25 years, the Skylark—once an abundant and ubiquitous avian emblem of the British countryside—has declined by more than half largely as a result of "improved" agricultural practices, and similar trends are documented for over twenty other "common" breeding birds. If you doubt the relevance of this trend to Massachusetts and other parts of North America, I direct your attention to the maps and species accounts in this handsome book for Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Red-shouldered Hawk, Prairie Warbler, and Vesper Sparrow.

Some of the canaries are not faring well; it's time for the miners to pay attention.