A River Of Crows

Every night between November and March, a steady trickle of American Crows pours over the Lawrence and Andover, MA. The trickle quickly becomes a stream. Soon, a deluge. Crows spread from horizon to horizon as they fly together to their communal roost. The number of crows varies every year, but there can be as many of 12,000 or 15,000 at a time.

The word “Hitchcockian” does not accurately describe every mass gathering of birds, though the term is used broadly. Murmurations of European Starlings dance and contort themselves in the sky, recalling a moving sculpture. Staging flocks of migratory Tree Swallows are clamorous and chaotic, but the birds move with a light and airy agility that lends a whimsical feel to the spectacle. American Crows, on the other hand, flow by steadily in a single direction. Their pace is deliberate, and their rowing wingbeats inexorable. Uniformly black, crows appear at dusk as large, dark shadows against the sky. They even sometimes approach people out of curiosity and stare at us with an unreadable avian gaze. These are the birds that inspired Hitchcock’s eponymous movie, playing off humans’ unease. In reality, though, members of the crow family are harmless, cooperative, and even empathetic. And while some causal observers might find a crow roost uncanny, birdwatchers and nature-lovers often find in them a source of wonder and beauty.

Why Roost in Numbers?

As some of the world’s most intelligent birds, what could American Crows be up to at these roosts? Traditional theories dictate that crows roost together for safety or warmth, or use communal roosts to be able to select mates from a larger pool of candidates. But hungry crows also follow better-fed birds from the roost in the morning, suggesting they are seeking out productive feeding sites, and that roosts can facilitate cooperation. Some roosts are furthermore located strategically near feeding sites, such that crows can grab a reliable snack when they leave for the day and when they return at night.

Thousands of crows gathering together in the same place every night make easy pickings for predators like Great Horned Owls. As a result, American Crows gather at a secondary location, or “staging area,” before continuing on to their real roost after nightfall. American Crows will further confuse predators by changing the location of the staging area, or even the roost itself, every few nights. Some human observers confuse these staging areas for the actual roost, not knowing the roost is several hundred feet to several miles away— unless they stay after dark to watch the crows move a second time.

The American Crows in Lawrence are surprisingly wide-ranging when not at their roost. Pellets they cough up have revealed saltmarsh snails, telling us that they forage at least as far away as the New England coast. Some of the birds are seasonally migratory, and spend the breeding season far to the north on the St. John’s River in Canada.

Viewing The Mass Roost

To find the crow roost in Lawrence, park in the lot for the New Balance factory on the east side of South Union Street. Cross the street and slowly, quietly, walk partway over the bridge on the Merrimack River.  The crows should be in the trees on the north side, numbering into the thousands.  Check out the surrounding area for the crows’ staging grounds as well- they have a particular affinity for the parking lots in the industrial park between South Canal Street/Andover Street and the river, as well as Island Street and Pemberton Park.

Some of these birds will be returning to their breeding ground soon, with the rest pairing off and dispersing throughout the state- shutting down the roost until November. Try to catch the spectacle while you still can, or make a plan to check it out next winter.


Backyard Oddball: A “White-capped” Chickadee

In case our readers are tired of the endless news stories about the yellow Northern Cardinal in Alabama, a surprising color variant of a Black-capped Chickadee has shown up recently in our home state of Massachusetts.

A private homeowner in Charlton sent us some pictures of the bird, which was coming to her feeders.

©Laurie Dearnley

A partially leucistic Black-capped Chickadee in Charlton. ©Laurie Dearnley

In some ways, this bird looks more like a tit from the Eurasian genus Cyanistes—a group very closely related to North America’s chickadees.

However, Wayne Petersen and David Sibley confirmed that this bird’s body shape and plumage is indeed consistent with a partially leucistic Black-capped Chickadee.

What is Leucism?

Leucism is a genetic condition that prevents a bird’s body from depositing pigments in feathers, leaving some parts of the bird white or paler than normal. Leucism is not to be confused with albinism. Albino birds only lack a single pigment (melanin) responsible for producing blacks and browns, but the issue is not getting the pigment where it needs to be—albino birds simply do not produce melanin at all.  While these birds end up with no black or brown anywhere (even in the eye!) they might retain other colors like reds and yellows.  In leucistic birds, any or all colors could appear paler than normal, but their eyes (and often their skin) will be dark.

This bird is particularly fascinating because while it has retained some pigment in its feathers and its legs are partially dark, its toes are pink and unpigmented. Normally, a bird with partially pigmented feathers will have full pigmentation on its bare parts. Transporting pigment to living tissue (skin) is biologically easier than to dead tissue (feathers). It’s quite rare for a bird with partial leucism to have bare parts that are pale, and even rarer for a bird’s bare parts to be half dark and half pale.

Bird Pigments: Form Meets Function

Pigments often serve vital functions for birds beyond what we might expect. Feathers with melanin, for example, are stronger and more resistant to wear and tear than unpigmented feathers. This may be why some birds, like many gulls, have black outer edges on their otherwise-white wings. Female birds may also read certain plumage traits to indicate the physical health of potential mates. Several studies have correlated bright pigmentation with healthy immune systems in species from Zebra Finches to Red-winged Blackbirds (although never any chickadee species), and many birds with aberrant plumage show decreased mating success. Finally, birds with abnormally pale feathers tend to stick out visually, and run a greater risk of predation.

But even if this particular Black-capped Chickadee has a difficult (or short) life ahead of it, we think it’s beautiful just the way it is.

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

Coastal Waterbird Program 2017 Field Recap

Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program protected threatened coastal birds through management and education at 194 sites along 162 miles of the Massachusetts coastline in 2017.  A staff of 56 shorebird monitors and trainees installed protective fencing and signage, monitored nesting activity, provided educational opportunities for beachgoers, and engaged landowners in coastal habitat protection.

Piping Plover and chick © Matt Filosa

Protecting Piping Plovers

State abundance of Piping Plover increased to 657 pairs (preliminary data) in 2017 (649 pairs in 2016). Reproductive success throughout the state was poor, and lower than 2016, with a statewide average of approximately 1.0 chicks fledged per nesting pair compared to 1.44 chicks fledged/pair in 2016.  The estimate for sustainable reproduction in Piping Plovers is 1.24 fledged chicks/pair per year. Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program protected 216 pairs of Piping Plovers (about 33% of the MA population, and roughly 12% of the Atlantic Coast Population estimated at 1,800 pairs).  Predation, both avian and mammalian, limited productivity on Mass Audubon monitored beaches this season (51% of all known egg losses were attributed to predation), making this the greatest known cause of egg loss.  Overwash was the second highest cause of known egg loss at 38%.

American Oystercatcher with chick © Phil Sorrentino

Terns and Oystercatchers Too

A total of 132 sites were surveyed for tern species; 1,132 pairs of Least Terns (38% of the MA breeding population in 2017) were protected by the Coastal Waterbird Program on 41 sites.  American Oystercatcher abundance in Massachusetts decreased slightly to approximately 186 breeding pairs (approximately 190 in 2016). Forty-five pairs were observed breeding on Mass Audubon protected sites, approximately 24% of the state population, and 47% of nesting attempts were successful in hatching eggs.

Least Tern on nest © Brad Dinerman

The Coastal Waterbird Program continued its work on staging Roseate Terns conducting a prey abundance study at several sites on the outer Cape in late summer.  Our work shows the importance of Cape Cod staging sites in the annual cycle of endangered Roseate Terns—especially in providing habitat to newly-fledged birds undergoing their first 5,000 mile migration to South America.

The Curious Case of a Barn Owl in Lexington

Among the half-dozen breeding owl species in the Commonwealth, the nearly cosmopolitan Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is clearly one of the most unusual.

Almost completely nocturnal (active at night), Barn Owls are so inconspicuous that they can sometimes go undetected even in localities where they may be fairly common. In Massachusetts, the raspy nocturnal shrieks of this owl are seldom heard away from their principal year-round nesting areas on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, where they are close to the extreme northeastern limit of their range in eastern North America.

In Massachusetts, any Barn Owl found away from their favored haunts on the offshore islands is decidedly unusual. Consequently, the recent discovery of a dead Barn Owl on the surface of the snow at Dunback Meadow in Lexington (reported to our Wildlife Information Line) was most notable.

Dead Barn Owl found in Lexington © Marj Rines

Out of context the frozen corpse of a Barn Owl in Lexington might simply seem to be an anomaly. However, when all the facts are considered, it may not be as anomalous as it first appears.

At over 170 acres, Dunback Meadow is the largest conservation property in Lexington and it is comprised of a variety of habitats including an extensive open wet meadow and a pine grove. This combination of habitats is highly favorable to several species of small rodents and shrews, most notably the Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus).

The Meadow Vole is frequently the number one prey species for several open country foraging raptor species, especially Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, Long-eared Owls, and Short-eared Owls. In winters when any given field is heavily populated by voles, some of these raptors occasionally become concentrated, much the way high populations of lemmings may concentrate jaegers and Snowy Owls in Arctic tundra areas.

This winter two Rough-legged Hawks and as many as four Long-eared Owls have regularly been recorded at Dunback Meadow – an indication that the vole population in the meadow is probably high this season.

Add to the abundance of food the recent bitter cold wave accompanied by a foot or more of newly fallen snow, and suddenly there is a combination of extreme stressors for a semi-hardy, rodent-eating raptors like Barn Owls trying to survive at the northern terminus of their range. But why was the Barn Owl in Lexington in the first place?

While the definitive answer may never be truly known, it is plausible to think that the Lexington Barn Owl was a wandering individual that was attracted by the same high concentration of rodents that had attracted the Rough-legged Hawks and the Long-eared Owls. But when it was suddenly confronted with a bitter cold wave accompanied by a foot of fresh-fallen snow, it probably became over-stressed and starved to death.

And from a belated report of a Barn Owl in a nearby garage several days previous to its being found dead on the snow, it seems likely that the owl may have been in the area for a period of time before meeting its demise due to starvation and the frigid cold weather.

The Lexington Barn Owl was spotted in a garage prior to being found dead © Charles Hornig

Patriots on the Move: tracking the migration of Great Shearwaters

While New England football fans are anxiously following the fortune of the New England Patriots, ornithologists at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary are tracking the trans-equatorial movements of Great Shearwaters (individuals in this year’s group are named after Patriots players).

Through the use of sophisticated satellite technology, tiny transmitters now have the capacity to follow the movements of birds and secretive mammals more than a hemisphere away practically in real time.

Great Shearwater ©Peter Flood

Followers of Distraction Displays may recall that in late summer seabirds called Great Shearwaters made headlines when exceptional numbers were observed feeding on many thousands of Menhaden (small forage fish) in the surf-line at Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. Although most of these shearwaters have long since retreated toward their nesting grounds on the remote archipelago of Tristan du Cunha deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, scientists nonetheless now know precisely where some individuals are located!

A size comparison of one of the solar PTT transmitters used in the project and a standard U.S. penny. ©NOAA/SBNMS

While satellite tracking has been used to monitor wildlife for 20 years or more, the weight and size of transmitters today makes it possible to follow wildlife significantly smaller than eagles and bears. This summer, waterproof transmitters called PTT (Platform Transmitting Terminal) tags weighing only 12 g and manufactured by Microwave Technology were affixed to shearwaters off Cape Cod during the month of August.

Of nine tags originally affixed to Great Shearwaters and one to a Sooty Shearwater this summer, one is still generating round-the-clock signals from Argos satellites orbiting the earth at approximately 528 miles above the ground. The unique signals generated by the transmitters are regularly received by Argos and eventually made accessible to the researchers who are mapping the movements of the shearwaters. Needless to say the technology involved is complex, but the information gathered is elegant.

All 10 tagged shearwaters as of 1/4/2018. ©NOAA/SBNMS

The 10 shearwaters tagged this summer were all named after New England Patriots players. Of the 10 tagged shearwaters, only Gronkowski’s transmitter was still sending signals on January 2, 2018. Gronkowski crossed the equator on December 19, and as of Jan. 2 was at 16.5 degrees South in deep water (>2000 meters) off the coast of Brazil near Banco Minerva—a semount <100 meters deep. Go Gronk!

Gronkowski as of 1/2/2018 ©NOAA/SBNMS

Cooks crossed the equator on December 12, but its transmitter stopped working on Christmas Eve at 27 degrees South in deep water (>2500 meters) off of Paraguay.

Cooks 12/24/2017 ©NOAA/SBNMS

McCourty’s tag stopped working on December 19, hours after crossing the equator. Edelman was still in the mid-Atlantic on Dec 12, and unfortunately Brady’s Sooty Shearwater transmitter cut out while the bird was off Morocco in mid-October.

Edelman 12/12/17 ©NOAA/SBNMS

All of the tagged shearwaters were aged by plumage to be either one or two years-old, and most will not likely return to Tristan du Cunha this winter because few are likely to attain breeding age until they are at least 5-6 years-old. These sub-adult individuals will very likely remain on the Patagonian Shelf until March/April before beginning their northward migration, which will initially bring them up the east coast of South America before reaching North Atlantic waters and the Gulf of Maine.

Having the ability to track individual Great Shearwaters in this way affords ornithologists not only a fine way to chart how this highly pelagic seabird uses the entire Atlantic Ocean in the course of a year, but also a way to map prime foraging and other concentration areas while they are in Gulf of Maine as well as elsewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. This information ultimately enhances the ability to identify oceanic regions of highest conservation concern. Read more about this fascinating project >

Turkey Trouble?

Got turkey on the mind? Wild Turkeys represent one of the most successful conservation comeback stories in Massachusetts. Due to habitat loss and hunting, there were no Wild Turkeys in Massachusetts between 1851 and 1972. In 1972 the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife worked to reintroduce Wild Turkeys in Massachusetts. The 37 turkeys that were released in 1972 started the resurgence of the population that now numbers more than 20,000.

As you prepare your turkey for Thanksgiving, you’ll likely encounter Wild Turkeys in your backyard and neighborhood. While turkeys are big, they are usually not aggressive towards humans. Our own Wayne Petersen addresses what to do if you should encounter a fearless turkey:

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with your friends and family!

Another successful year for The Bobolink Project

Bobolink © Allan Strong

We are proud to share a final report on what The Bobolink Project accomplished during the summer of 2017. But before we share the results, we first and foremost thank our donors. With their financial support, conservation interest, and promotional efforts, The Bobolink Project would not exist. This is very much a grassroots conservation effort—pun intended—and we are deeply appreciative of our donors’ support.

We also thank the farmers who applied to and participated in the project. Without them the habitat for grassland birds would not exist. We are glad that they are conscious of the birds on their fields and that they are willing to participate in a solution that allows them to grow a “crop” of grassland birds without compromising their financial stability.

Donations and Farms Enrolled

In the months leading up to the 2017 field season, we raised just over $38,000 to support the project’s objectives, and 99% of this donation pool was given directly to the participating farmers. Based on the fixed-price reverse auction, the final bid that was accepted from the farmers was $60/acre.

With this financial support we were able to enroll about 630 acres distributed among 17 farms—13 located in Vermont, two in Massachusetts, one in New Hampshire, and one in New York.

Bobolink (female) © Allan Strong

Successful Breeding Pairs and Fledglings

The project state coordinators surveyed the fields this summer to measure the success of the program for grassland birds. They estimated that there were about 294 pairs of Bobolinks on the enrolled fields. Using what we think is a conservative estimate of 2.79 fledglings per breeding pair, we estimate that 820 Bobolink young were produced as a result of the project’s 2017 efforts.

The number of fledglings nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017 even though the amount of protected acreage increased by about 20%. The huge increase in fledgling numbers is due in large part to one of the participating farms in particular, which consisted of 146 acres with many nesting Bobolinks.

The 2017 breeding season was also especially wet in many parts of the northeast. Increased amounts of rain typically means more invertebrates (e.g., insects) for Bobolinks to eat. This enhancement of breeding conditions could have influenced the higher number of Bobolink pairs and fledglings estimated this year.

What We Left On the Table

Another important aspect of this project concerns what we were unable to accomplish.

In 2017, we had to reject applications from 19 farmers who had submitted bids that exceeded what we were able to support from our donation pool. In other words, about 615 acres of offered habitat was lost because we needed more donations.

Of course, it’s wonderful that we succeeded in protecting 634 acres of grassland bird habitat! But the fact that we had to “leave on the table” a total of 615 acres—land that otherwise might have been protected—is a sobering thought. Remember, the more donations we collect, the more land we can protect from haying. We hope this reminder motivates new and previous donors alike to support the Bobolink Project in 2018.

In fact, contributions toward next year’s efforts can be made now—even while the birds themselves are busily heading toward South America! It’s never too early to make a donation, and your gift will be set aside for the 2018 nesting season.

To get the latest information follow us on Facebook, check out the website, or subscribe to our e-newsletter.

Wings over the Water: a seasonal parade

It was gray and overcast, the sea was churning, and the wind was fresh from the Southeast – perfect conditions for watching a parade in early November….and watch we did!  Our viewing location was North Beach on Cape Cod’s back side, all the way from East Orleans to Chatham.

“Marching” in this winged parade were over 40,000 sea ducks and seabirds, all headed southward in a more or less continuous passage emanating from destinations as far away as Alaska, western Canada, James Bay, Labrador, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and Newfoundland.  This timeless event was part of the annual migration of vast numbers of waterbirds, all originating in nesting grounds far to the north, and all bound for winter destinations well to the south.

The departure of waterbirds escaping the rigors of sub-arctic and boreal winter is part of a great migratory cycle that has evolved through the millennia into one of the most magnificent autumn spectacles to be witnessed on the Atlantic Coast of North America.  When migration conditions are ideal, the number of birds involved may exceed extravagant!

Common Eiders © Peter Flood

And so it was on November 5, 2017.  Between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. my companion and I tallied approximately 12,000 Common Eiders, 18,000 Black Scoters, 5000 Great Shearwaters, 3000 Northern Gannets, 100 Razorbills, 400 Black-legged Kittiwakes, and 550 Bonaparte’s Gulls.  When combined with lesser numbers of numerous other species recorded that day, we estimated we had seen over 44,000 waterbirds in approximately seven hours of more or less continuous watching!

The dynamics and precise timing of such movements varies from species to species, but the net effect is unequivocal—the birds moving under such conditions are singular in their purpose, and all are taking advantage of weather frontal conditions and wind directions in ways that will maximize their migratory efficiency.

On November 5,

  • The sea ducks (e.g., Common Eiders) were flying in linear or loosely organized groups, often numbering in the dozens or low hundreds, sometimes flying low over the wave troughs, and sometimes well above the sea surface.
  • The powerful gannets on the other hand tended to fly high, often more than 50 meters above the sea, occasionally turning abruptly and plunging into the sea to catch a fish during their journey.
  • The shearwaters scaled like skipping stones over the sea as far as the eye could see, alternately using the wind between the wave troughs to carry them upward well above the waves, and rapidly gliding downward between the waves to catch another updraft that would carry them skyward again.
  • The more delicate and tern-like Bonaparte’s Gulls stroked along in small parties relatively close to the beach, while further off shore, football-shaped Razorbills would periodically rocket southward between the wave troughs on stubby wings that reminded one of flying penguins.

All this motion, and all headed in the same direction, even though few were bound for the same precise destinations.

Razorbills and Black Scoters © Peter Flood

Where are they headed?

Many of the Black Scoters and Common Eiders are likely headed for the shallow shoals off Monomoy or Nantucket where great submarine beds of blue mussels will sustain them through the winter. Other scoters however might not stop until reaching New Jersey or shoal waters off the Mid-Atlantic Coast for the winter.

The Northern Gannets will likely precipitate out along the continental shelf all the way from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico.

Northern Gannets and gulls off Diamond Shoals, NC © Peter Flood

Most of the Bonaparte’s Gulls will no doubt spend the winter from North Carolina’s outer banks to Florida and the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Great Shearwaters, however, will not stop until they arrive at their austral summer destination on the Patagonian shelf off Argentina, or the remote archipelago of Tristan de Cunha.

So many birds and so little time to accomplish these epic migrations!  However, for land-bound observers privileged to live in a region where these avian parades are seasonally visible from shore, these great waterbird movements represent one of the most dramatic natural parades to seasonally be observed in Massachusetts.

So the next day a brisk east wind is blowing on the heels of a cold front, grab a pair of binoculars and head for the nearest coastal headland!  You won’t be disappointed.



Hoots, Toots, and Who Cooks For You

Great Horned Owl © Phil Sorrentino

Halloween is typically marked by creepiness—creepy creatures, creepy people, and often creepy sounds.  While it could be true that some of the creepy Halloween sounds are uttered by ghosts, ghouls, and goblins, it’s also true that most are not!  In fact, some mid-autumn night sounds are actually produced by several of our most popular, if not enigmatic birds: owls!

Massachusetts regularly hosts five nesting owl species: Barn Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Other Bay State owl species are either rare or only seasonal visitors.  Because most owls are active at night, much about the lives and activity patterns of owls often goes undetected or unobserved, and frequently it is only the voices of owls that give us a clue about their presence, sometimes without our even knowing which species is making a particular sound.

What are they saying?

Like most birds, owls vocalize to communicate information important to locating or communicating with their mate, their offspring, or other owls intruding into their territory.  And for these different functions, owls regularly use a variety of calls, some of which are the creepy sounds potentially heard by little trick-or-treaters during their nocturnal Halloween walks.

Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls Hoot

If you happen to live where there is good mix of deciduous (broad-leaved) trees and large white pines interspersed with open areas practically anywhere in Massachusetts, especially if the trees border a lake or pond shore, the deep, resonant hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo at dusk or dawn in the autumn is a clear indication that your neighborhood is occupied by a pair of Great Horned Owls.

Alternatively, if you should be awakened in the middle of the night by a rhythmic hooting that clearly sounds like who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you, allll, and if it has the quality of a distant barking dog, then the neighboring woodland is almost certainly home to a pair of Barred Owls.

Barred Owl © Derek Allad

Northern Saw-whet Owls Toot

While most of our local owl species are relatively sedentary throughout the year, the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl is highly migratory in varying numbers during October and November.  Impressive numbers are annually captured and banded at several different owl-banding stations in eastern parts of the state—including Drumlin Farm.

Generally silent, territorial saw-whets typically give a long series of mellow, mechanical, whistled toot-toot-toot-notes that sometimes may continue for many minutes.  Primarily a denizen of coniferous forests in western Massachusetts, but also in the pine barrens of southeastern parts of the state, including on Cape Cod where it is probably second only to the much larger Great Horned Owl.  In fact, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is undoubtedly far commoner than most folks suppose.

Northern Saw-whet Owl © Heather Demick

Barn Owls Shriek

For the keen listener abroad at night on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, one can occasionally hear the raspy shriek of a Barn Owl as it leaves its daytime roost, or forages for mice over open moorland.

Barn Owl © USFWS

Eastern Screech-Owls Whistle

At dusk on Halloween evening it would also not be surprising to hear the soft descending whistle (or whinnying sound) of the little Eastern Screech-Owl, the species which is undoubtedly the most common owl in Massachusetts.  Screech-owls also have a low, hollow, monotone whistle that can sometimes be heard throughout the night.

Eastern Screech-Owl (grey morph) © Nathan Goshgarian

Listen carefully and don’t fear!

So don’t be overly fearful of things that hoot or toot at night!  Indeed, go to the window or door and listen more carefully, or take an evening stroll with a flashlight and see if you can spot one of these fascinating creatures for yourself after dark.


Species Spotlight: Ovenbird

Ovenbird © Tom Murray

The Ovenbird, whose familiar tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher song is a dominant feature of the spring and summer woodlands of New England, was identified in Breeding Bird Atlas 2 as a species on the increase, especially in the central and eastern portions of the state. These increases were thought to reflect increased amounts of suitable forest habitat due to formerly agricultural land reverting to forest.

Change in Ovenbird distribution in Massachusetts between Breeding Bird Atlas 1 (1974-1979) and Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (2007-2011).

But the newly-released State of the Birds report tells a less optimistic story.  Ovenbird distribution in Massachusetts is likely to be adversely impacted by projected future changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. By 2050 the species will continue to occur statewide, but occupancy in eastern areas of the state may decline as the species’ climate envelope (their preferred climate) drifts northward, leaving Massachusetts near the southern limit of the species’ continental distribution.

Current climate suitability for Ovenbird in Massachusetts.

Climate suitability for Ovenbird in Massachusetts in 2050.

How to read the climate suitability maps >

Keeping Large Forest Tracts Intact Will Lessen the Stress Ovenbirds May Face

Research has found that Ovenbirds require large intact expanses of forest habitat for successful breeding. This could be in part due to the fact that larger undisturbed forests have lower risk of nest predation and brood parasitism. Therefore, maintenance of large tracts of mature forest is crucial to future conservation of Ovenbirds in Massachusetts. Such areas will continue to be threatened by suburban development and associated habitat fragmentation.

Additionally, climate change may add to the stress of losing intact core habitat, because warmer temperatures may reduce the soil moisture levels that influence Ovenbird’s food resources (mainly insect larvae gathered on the ground).

Conservation Is Needed for the Full Life Cycle of a Migratory Bird

Distribution of Ovenbirds during breeding (orange), migration (yellow), and winter (blue) periods. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Neotropical Birds

Ovenbirds migrate through the southeastern U.S., wintering mainly in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America – including areas that were recently damaged by Hurricane Irma. Throughout its annual life cycle it is vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation, window collisions, and predation by cats.

Conservation of Ovenbirds demonstrates the broad suite of actions that are important for most

of our Neotropical migrant songbirds. Efforts to reduce losses throughout the full annual cycle are important. Action must be taken on their breeding, migrating, and wintering grounds to effect positive change in the population.

How Can We Help Ovenbirds and Others?

  • Prevent forest fragmentation in the breeding range by supporting the efforts of local land trusts.
  • Ensure that your backyard is a bird-friendly sanctuary safe from cats and potential collisions with windows.
  • Support efforts to reduce window collisions at tall skyscrapers and other office buildings.
  • Donate to organizations focused on protecting lowland forest habitats in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America—actions directed toward all those efforts will help reduce the pervasive impacts of changing temperature and precipitation patterns on breeding Ovenbirds in Massachusetts.

Ovenbirds are often observed strutting (never hopping) like a chicken along the forest floor. © Tom Benson

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!