A Remarkable New State Bird Book

(A shorter version of this column first appeared in the November 2, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    A significant ornithological event has occurred.

    Bull's Birds of New York State, edited by Emanuel Levine of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and with a Foreword by Governor George Pataki, has just been published by Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press. Dale Dyer's handsome cover bluebird portrait and his many attractive line drawings enhance what can only be described as a splendid production. A copy belongs in the library of every bird watcher in this state, from the beginning feeder-observer to the academic ornithologist. Many outside the state will also find it a useful reference. (Wives, husbands and friends of birders take note.)

    This is our fifth state bird book. The first, by J. E. DeKay, Zoology of New York: Part 2, Birds was published in 1844. Next came E. H. Eaton's two volume, Birds of New York State in 1910 and 1914. John Bull compiled, edited and wrote most of another Birds of New York State in 1974. (Unable to play more than a minor role on the present book due to poor health, Bull is honored in its title.) The final predecessor is the more specialized Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, edited by Robert Andrle and J. R. Carroll and published in 1988.

    Unlike all but the Atlas, the new book is written by a formidable team of authors -- in this case 77 of them.. Seven prepared introductory essays about the state's environmental and ornithological history and about the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs under whose aegis the book was developed. These essays are followed by one- to two-page accounts detailing range, status, breeding and nonbreeding information and remarks (but not identification characteristics which are readily available in field guides) about the 451 bird species recorded through early 1997 in this state.

    What I find remarkable is the uniformly high quality of these brief accounts. They constitute not only a compendium of information but also a collection of interesting insights. How was this possible with so many writers spread across the state? Obviously through the discipline that was provided by Levine and his associates, Berna and Stanley Lincoln -- both Lincolns past Federation presidents. I know about this discipline as each of my own contributions made several trips to and from New York City in the revision process.

    More questions than answers arise from this vast collection of information about migration, nesting and behavior, but one underlying theme derives from many of these accounts. It is the fluctuations in bird populations due to clearing of the countryside for farmland during the 18th and 19th centuries followed in this century by the return of much of that land to forest. The recent good news for woodland birds like pileated woodpecker and raven is equally bad news for grassland birds like horned lark, loggerhead shrike and vesper, grasshopper and Henslow's sparrow.

    But there are so many other insights to be gained here. Hooded mergansers nesting in pileated woodpecker holes at beaver ponds but, unfortunately, olive-sided flycatchers not taking advantage of these same new resources. The increasing number of wintering accipiters almost certainly due to their exploitation of "the bird-feeder resource." Less than five percent of released pheasants surviving but wild turkeys making their way back into the state without stocking. Cormorant guano eliminating common tern nesting sites along the Niagara River. Early spring phoebes, like tree swallows, switching to berries when their usual arthropod diet is not available. The source of the name rough-winged swallow. Blue jays hesitating before migrating across bodies of water. Cedar waxwings with orange instead of yellow on their tails. The reasons for splitting the Bicknell's thrush of the Adirondacks and Catskills from the gray-cheeked thrush, the species that migrates through the Niagara Frontier. The chickadee's means of winter survival.

    It is difficult to choose from among these fine essays but my favorites are Don Windsor's pieces about those lowly urban birds: rock dove, starling and house (a.k.a. English) sparrow. And two remarks deserve, I believe, a tie for best of show. The first is Steve Eaton's about how our premier game bird got its name. "The Spanish first introduced the turkey from America into Europe in the early 1500s. From Spain it spread rapidly as a domestic fowl throughout Europe, but knowledge of its place of origin did not. In the Middle Ages nearly everything exotic was obtained in or through Turkish, or Arabian, territories. Even our corn is still known in the Near East as Turkey wheat. There is little doubt that our bird derived its name from the country Turkey (Schoerger 1966)."

    The other is Chad Covey's about the red-breasted nuthatch: "It is a cavity nester in both coniferous and deciduous trees. Both adults smear pitch from conifers around the cavity entrance hole. The purpose of this activity is not clearly understood. Some have suggested that the pitch may act as a deterrent to predators; others believe it may simply be a nonfunctional evolutionary relict behavior. That the nuthatches themselves brush against the pitch is evidenced by the reported increasingly disheveled appearance of their plumage during the nesting period. One was found dead stuck to the pitch around the entrance hole in a dead stub of a paper birch (Kilham 1972)."

    The number of species recorded in New York has increased over the years but new birds continue to appear. Number 452 -- the lovely lazuli bunting that was seen by many regional birders at the farm of Don and Virginia Tiede south of Batavia last winter -- is the first of those that must wait many years for the next volume in this series.-- Gerry Rising

Note: A number of people have asked for the price of this book and information about ordering it. In response, it should be in local bookstores soon, but you may have to push them to order it. You could also order it online from Amazon.com or from Cornell University Press, the latter by searching for "Bull's Birds of New York State". The listed cost at Cornell University Press and Amazon.com is the same, $39.95, but local booksellers may charge more. Shipping would be added to the online prices.