Common Birds in Decline
(This 880th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 3, 2008.)
The National Audubon Society recently issued a report analyzing forty years of Christmas Count and Breeding Bird Survey reports and naming twenty common bird species in serious decline. The report raises concerns not only about these species but about bird populations in general. And for us they may serve like the canary in the coal mine.
Interestingly, only two of the twenty species of concern have never occurred on the Niagara Frontier and one of those is found in other parts of the state.
Here are the species listed with some personal comments about them. (The number in parentheses represents the percent of their earlier population still remaining.)
1 Northern bobwhite (20%). Formerly a regional game bird, this species now occurs here only temporarily where reintroduced by hunters. Bobwhites disappeared from this area even before the 1960s, some believe due to introduction of individuals from the south that interbred with local birds, producing a race that could not withstand northern winters.
2 Evening grosbeak (22%). This species breeds in Canadian and Adirondack forests. It was formerly common at local feeders in winter. I have seen none for five years even on those summer breeding grounds.
3 Northern pintail (23%). With the possible exception of the wood duck the most handsome of our waterfowl. Losing this graceful migrant from our marshes is a tragedy.
4 Greater scaup (25%). The inclusion of this diving duck on this list will come as a surprise to local birders. We just completed our January waterfowl count which tallied almost 5000 scaup in the Niagara River.
5 Boreal chickadee (27%). Slightly smaller than our black-capped chickadees, these are birds of high elevations. I used to see them on the slopes of Adirondack Mountains.
6 Eastern meadowlark (28%). A common field bird when I was young, their cheery whistles brightened my days. Now I seldom hear them. The cause of this species decline is usually assigned to changed farm mowing. For example, winter wheat harvesting now occurs in the middle of the nesting season for many field birds.
7 Common tern (29%). Here is a species to whose welfare local activities contribute. With the help of the Department of Environmental Conservation and others, several thousand of these lovely birds now nest on Lake Erie breakwalls.
8 Loggerhead shrike (29%). We still find Northern shrikes here in winter but the range of the loggerhead is contracting southward. I see them occasionally on southern trips, but the last one I saw here was in 1990.
9 Field sparrow (32%) and 10 grasshopper sparrow (35%). Two more species probably affected like the meadowlark by harvesting times. Here field sparrows are by far the more common of the two. Grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows are disappearing from fields where we used to find them regularly.
11 Snow bunting (36%). Also unexpected on this list. We often see hundreds of these mostly white birds flying like snowflakes over fields bordering Lake Ontario or even over the lake itself.
12 Black-throated Sparrow and 13 Lark Sparrow (both 37%). These are western species. The black throated sparrow has never been recorded here, the lark sparrow rarely.
14 Common grackle (39%). Finally a decline that I welcome. The fewer of these bullying predators the better.
15 American bittern (41%). Because it is so good at camouflage, this species is a tough find under any circumstances. Its pumping call that so defines marshlands will be sorely missed if this decline continues.
16 Rufous hummingbird (42%). Another rare western visitor to this region.
17 Whip-poor-will (43%). We still find a few of these interesting birds on a trip each June to the Ontario peat bogs.
18 Horned lark (44%). Another attractive field bird that was common when I was young. I rarely hear its tinkling call now.
19 Little blue heron (46%). A rare southern visitor to this area, its decline is probably due to loss of Everglades habitat.
20 Ruffed grouse (46%). Grouse numbers vary cyclically, but hunters will agree that those cycles have been running downhill here for more than a decade.
These serious losses represent a warning about the declining quality of our general environment. One group feels that this represents a general decline in air quality. Whatever the cause, we need to consider it in planning for our future.-- Gerry Rising