Breeding Bird Atlas 2 Foreword

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlark - John Sill

Massachusetts can lay fair claim to a plethora of historic distinctions, foremost perhaps the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims – those sturdy souls who first established a permanent European presence on North American soil in Plymouth. Thanks to the European colonists vigilant record-keeping, Massachusetts enjoys a legacy of ornithological information dating back nearly 400 years – something that can hardly be said for any other region in North America. While it is likely that many of the earliest accounts of birds in Massachusetts were apocryphal, anecdotal, or fanciful, it is unequivocal that by the latter half of the nineteenth century an accurate picture of the state’s birdlife began to emerge following a series of landmark publications written by such reputable ornithologists as Reginald Heber Howe, Glover M. Allen, Charles W. Townsend, William Brewster, Edward Howe Forbush, Dorothy E. Snyder, and Ludlow Griscom, to name just a few of these early chroniclers.

Almost prophetically, Ludlow Griscom – sometimes called “Dean of the Birdwatchers” – noted in his Birds of Concord (1949), “The type of field work the older generation did was planned and purposive. Whether this notion was in mind or not, in 1974 Mass Audubon and a younger generation of “citizen scientists” undertook a statewide, grid-based, “planned and purposive” breeding bird atlas project in Massachusetts. This gargantuan effort was reliant on an army of over 650 enthusiastic volunteer observers and resulted in the first-ever mid-twentieth-century snapshot of breeding bird distribution on a statewide basis in North America. For the period 1974 to 1979, this first Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 1 (Atlas 1) produced baseline information suitable for mirroring future changes in the distribution of breeding birds throughout the Commonwealth. With the completion of Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (Atlas 2) in 2011, the changes revealed in this second Atlas will be used as a blueprint to help guide Massachusetts bird conservation in the decades ahead.

Not surprisingly, many changes in the Massachusetts landscape and the bird populations occupying this landscape have taken place since 1979. The state’s burgeoning human population has clearly contributed to the loss or deterioration of considerable avian habitat. GIS (i.e., Geographic Information System) mapping visually reveals that extensive fragmentation of Massachusetts forests has taken place since the completion of Atlas 1 in 1979. In the wake of human activity, there has been an increase in housing developments, industrial complexes, roadways, strip malls, and power line cuts that have collectively placed pressure on species such as the Wood Thrush, Black-and-white Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager that require extensive and unbroken forest tracts for successful breeding.

Northern Bobwhite
Northern Bobwhite - John Sill

Forest fragmentation and the resultant increase in edge habitat has also favored the Brown-headed Cowbird – a remarkably successful brood parasite that historically was far less numerous in Massachusetts when forests were more extensive and less fragmented than they are today. A decline in farming and changes in local agricultural practices have similarly resulted in plummeting populations of the Northern Bobwhite, Upland Sandpiper, Brown Thrasher, and Eastern Meadowlark. The precipitous decline of the American Kestrel may also represent a manifestation of these landscape changes. The future for nesting species in Massachusetts adversely affected by landscape changes at this level is not optimistic. When habitats become sufficiently degraded or else are lost completely, restoration becomes nearly impossible. What were once habitable environments eventually become uninhabitable.

Not surprisingly, the demographic and secondary effects of human occupation in Massachusetts since the initial arrival of the European colonists continue unabated and manifest itself in many ways. With the advance of urban sprawl there have been continued escalations in the populations of domestic and feral cats, along with those of other “human-following” predators (e.g., raccoons, skunks, opossums, and coyotes) that collectively and increasingly jeopardize the nesting success of many ground-nesting and shrub-nesting bird species. Even the seemingly benign White-tailed Deer’s expanding population is threatening many ground-nesting bird species due to the impacts created by overbrowsing of understory vegetation necessary for the protection of ground-level nests.

Among the less obvious factors contributing to the diminishing distribution of certain Massachusetts bird populations suggested by Atlas 2 data are the insidious impacts of pesticides and environmental contaminants. The debilitating effects caused by lead and mercury on bird species such as the Common Loon are unequivocal. Ironically, however, the Common Loon has actually increased as a breeder in Massachusetts since Atlas 1. The construction of large human-made reservoirs along with extensive conservation efforts in northern New England have over time bolstered the Commonwealth’s breeding loon population, along with creating suitable habitat for the successful repatriation of the Bald Eagle in the Bay State.  Although the consequences of overuse of DDT and other related hard pesticides were brought to the public’s attention by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), subsequent evidence suggests that widespread and equally pernicious pesticide impacts exist today.

A disturbing possible link to pesticide contamination is information that suggests that the abundance of airborne arthropods (i.e., “aerial plankton”), upon which species such as Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, and several species of swallow (e.g., Bank, Cliff, and Barn) depend for food, may be diminishing. A disparity exists between Atlas 2 data and regional trend information for certain of these species, however. Despite their apparent stability as breeders in Massachusetts, when they are viewed in a regional context some of these same species are declining over large portions of their range. Information presented in Mass Audubon’s State of the Birds 2013 provides helpful insight into this conundrum. In addition to other challenges already facing several of these species, a decline in their food resources will almost certainly be reflected in future Massachusetts populations. Finally, readers hardly need to be reminded that how our rapidly changing climate will impact future arthropod populations presents one of the greatest challenges facing ornithologists and other scientists in the century ahead.        

Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren - John Sill

Lest readers fear (like the oft-quoted Chicken Little) that the sky is falling, Atlas 2 clearly showcases winners as well as losers. Without enumerating all the agents responsible, many birds have dramatically increased since the completion of Atlas 1. A substantial cadre of species that were absent or of only marginal occurrence as recently as 34 years ago, many of them of southern origin, is now well established in Massachusetts. As examples consider the Canada Goose, Wild Turkey, Great Blue Heron, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Peregrine Falcon, Fish Crow, Common Raven, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Pine Warbler, and Orchard Oriole, to name but a few.

Regardless of whether a species has increased or decreased since Atlas 1, each has a story to tell. To allow the birds to tell their stories would have been virtually impossible without the labors of literally hundreds of citizen scientists whose planned and purposiveefforts made Atlas 2 possible. Accordingly, this project is truly the result of a “cast of thousands.” Without the energies and efforts of many, many dedicated volunteers, Mass Audubon staff, and any number of outside consultants who contributed to the project, this significant ornithological contribution would never have come to fruition.

Most importantly, however, special recognition belongs to Mass Audubon’s Director of Bird Monitoring, Joan Walsh, whose personal dedication and commitment to ensuring the successful completion of the Atlas project were unwavering. Without Joan’s expertise, guidance, and good humor throughout the project, the Atlas would not be the outstanding compendium that it has proven to be. The many people who made the project possible as well as all the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who are the beneficiaries of Joan’s efforts should be justifiably proud of the finished product – a product that artfully tells the breeding birds’ stories in Massachusetts as well as providing a roadmap for guiding bird conservation efforts in the state well into the future.