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Nature Watch: Counts indicate we are losing our bird population

Last week, I wrote about bird population changes over the past 47 years on a single Breeding Bird Survey count: Mike Morgante’s 50-stop route through Hamburg and East Aurora. (Bill Bogacki monitored this route before Morgante took it over.) I indicated that this route was only one of almost 3,000 of those routes censused each year under the direction of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

All the data from those counts are available on the Internet and I report this week on the data for the routes covered each year in New York State from 1967 to 2014. The number of those routes censused in any one year varies between 72 and 95. They are distributed over the state’s geography quite well, and give us a reasonably good representation of the bird populations of our state in June over that time span.

Here I invite you to stop reading and write down the 10 species you believe to be most common in this state today. I compiled that ranked list for 2014, the most recent year for which counts are available. Here are the most common birds from first to 10th: American robin, red-winged blackbird, European starling, American crow, song sparrow, red-eyed vireo, mourning dove, common grackle, common yellowthroat and ring-billed gull.

How did you do? Many of those birds you probably guessed, but red-eyed vireo you might well have missed. Years ago, some of America’s senior ornithologists were asked what species they thought was the most common in North America. One of them named the red-eyed vireo. Asked why, he said that this is easily the most common forest bird and much of this continent is forested. My own experience confirms that. Hike through any regional woodlot and you find a singing red-eyed vireo every few hundred yards.

Note that our state bird, the bluebird, ranks only 57th in numbers, but that is a significant improvement from the 1960s, when its rank was 83rd. This shows once again how human intervention, in this case providing and monitoring nesting boxes, can improve the status of a bird species.

Those that moved up in rank 40 places or more between the 1960s and 2010s are clearly playing an increasing role in our ecosystem. They include Canada goose, wild turkey, double-crested cormorant, osprey, ring-billed gull, red-bellied woodpecker, common raven, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, hooded and pine warblers, Northern parula and house finch. Of special interest on that list are three species that are moving into this region from the South: red-bellied woodpecker, tufted titmouse and Carolina wren.

On the other hand, the numbers of some species are declining significantly, as shown by dropping 40 or more rank places: American black duck, blue-winged teal, ring-necked duck, Northern bobwhite, ring-necked pheasant, American coot, spotted and upland sandpipers, black and common terns, red-headed woodpecker, bank swallow, yellow-breasted chat, grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows, Eastern meadowlark, pine siskin and evening grosbeak.

Notice how on those lists the turkey is replacing bobwhites and pheasants. The turkey is one of the success stories among game birds that should be credited to conservation officials of New York and Pennsylvania for the series of closed seasons that allowed them to expand from the few areas where they remained. Bobwhites and pheasants, on the other hand, held on only while their populations were enhanced by game farm distributions. The rare pheasant or quail seen today is almost certainly an escape from a hunting club. The increasing ring-billed gulls and cormorants are similarly replacing herring gulls, which dropped 30 rank places.

Groups of birds increasing over those years are waterfowl, vireos, birds we feed in winter and warblers. Declining groups are game birds (except for turkeys), shorebirds, flycatchers, swallows, thrushes, native and house sparrows, blackbirds, orioles and finches. But perhaps the most striking feature of these counts is the fact that the total number tabulated in this decade is down 35 percent from the 1960s. This is clear evidence that we are losing our bird population over time.