Fall is Social Season for Blue Jays

Fall holidays mean family gatherings – for people and for Blue Jays. Much like people, these highly social birds are more active in the fall, when the harvest is good and families are reuniting. This pattern is borne out by data on eBird, when observers’ Autumn checklists show a spike in sightings. Here are a few explanations for jays’ noisy behavior right now. 

Image: David Young

Predators on the move mean agitated birds 

When there is a predator nearby, many birds exhibit mobbing behavior to warn others of the threat. This means loud calling and erratic flight patterns. During migration, higher numbers of hawks, owls, and falcons may excite young jays and cause them to vocalize more frequently.  

Blue Jays have also been known to imitate hawk calls. Some researchers think this is a signal to their flock of a potential threat nearby. Others believe Blue Jays are cleverly trying to scare other birds away from their food source. Ross D. James, in a 2002 edition of Ontario Birds, theorizes that young birds learn raptor calls during periods of high stress and excitement and therefore will reproduce them under those same conditions.  

Acorns are plentiful  

Image: Peter Flood 

Every two to five years, Oak trees drop their acorns in much higher abundance than usual. These periods of higher acorn production are called “mast years” and greater Boston residents have taken notice. Fortunately for Blue Jays, who eat mostly seeds, this means lots and lots of food. They flock to areas with high densities of Oak trees, like many Massachusetts forests, and call out to their kin that they’ve hit the jackpot. 

Winter flocks are recruiting 

Blue Jays are winter residents in Massachusetts. Some individuals do migrate, but little is known about how or why they decide to do so. Families group together in large flocks starting in the fall. These flocks are constantly communicating potential threats and food sources since fledglings are still learning the ropes.  

One study of Blue Jays at Mass Audubon’s Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary observed wintering jay groups of 14-49 individuals. These birds tended to stay in the same groups throughout the winter and in subsequent years.  

Image: Raina Aiello 

Have you noticed more Blue Jay activity lately? Let us know in the comments! 

29% of America’s Birds Are Gone. What Are We Doing About It?

“Species extinctions have defined the global biodiversity crisis, but extinction begins with loss in abundance of individuals” —Rosenberg et al., Decline of the North American Avifauna (2019)

So begins the first comprehensive review of bird population trends since the mid-20th century. Summaries of the study are available via the New York Times and NPR.

The results were unequivocal: 76% of all bird species in the US are declining, some precipitously. Compiling on-the ground data from Breeding Bird Atlases revealed that the total number of birds in the US has fallen by 29% since 1970. Some groups fared worse than other over the five decades in question: shorebirds were down 37%, warblers were down by 33%, and aerial insectivores were down by 32%. And the total volume of birds in the sky, as detected by the national weather radar, was down 14% in the last ten years alone.

Rusty Blackbirds, an inconspicuous, clear-eyed relative of the more common Red-winged, underwent a population crash of over 93% over the past several decades. They are now rare enough that monitoring them is difficult.

This is bad news. Really bad news. But it’s possible to fight, and it’s even reversible. Scientists and conservation professionals have time-tested and proven strategies for stemming the tide of ecological decline, and the only obstacles are funding, public interest, and political will.

Mass Audubon continues to take a multi-pronged, species-specific approach to mitigate the damage in our state. Here are a few of the solutions we’ve already mobilized:

Habitat protection

Birds simply can’t exist without bird habitat. We protect 36,000 acres of bird habitat in Massachusetts through direct ownership, and another 6,000 through “conservation restrictions” and other legal protections against development.

We’ve recorded 149 species of bird breeding & raising their young on our wildlife sanctuaries– over two thirds of the total species in the state.

Landowner Partnerships

Where we can’t protect land through direct purchase, we find ways to ensure that it’s being used in bird-friendly ways. Many grassland species have healthy populations on agricultural land, and agricultural practices can make or break their prospects for survival. The same goes for forest birds living on land actively managed for timber; birds and forestry can coexist where sustainable practices are applied.

Mass Audubon encourages bird-friendly agriculture through projects like the Bobolink Project, incentivizing landowners to delay mowing hayfields until after Bobolinks and other grassland birds have completed nesting. The project compensates landowners directly for any profits lost due to delayed mowing, and the compensation fund is 100% donor-supported. In 2018, we saved more than 1,000 Bobolink fledglings from going under the mower.

Similarly, our Foresters for the Birds program pushes a bird-friendly approach to forestry in Massachusetts. One of our sanctuaries even acts as a demonstration site for how sustainable forestry and bird habitat go hand in hand.

Direct Habitat Management

Mass Audubon is directly responsible for managing between 40-50% of Piping Plovers (a federally Endangered species) in Massachusetts, a state with 1/3 of the Atlantic Coast population. We also are responsible for 20% of the state’s American Oystercatchers, and 40% of its Least Terns.

Since 1986, Piping Plovers have rebounded from 135 pairs to 680 pairs.

While the Cornell study showed shorebirds declining on a continental scale, conservationists in Massachusetts have known that shorebirds were in trouble since the middle of the last century. That’s why Mass Audubon developed our Coastal Waterbird Program to protect shorebirds through management, conservation, policy development, and education.

Science-based Advocacy

In the past year alone, Mass Audubon petitioned for three species to receive special legal protections from the state: Eastern Meadowlarks, Saltmarsh Sparrows, and American Kestrels. These petitions were based on our own monitoring of these species’ populations, which are in particular trouble and require intervention, as well as growing consensus among ornithologists.

We also speak up when legal frameworks for protecting birds are under attack. The rollback of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act last year was a major setback for bird conservation, and we spoke up.

Fight the decline with your donation today >

Field Notes: Southern Breeding Birds Are Moving North

“Whe-peet!” Hearing the explosive, snappy squeak of an Acadian Flycatcher at a Mass Audubon sanctuary would have been a huge surprise, were it not for the species’ ongoing shift northward into Massachusetts. Stumbling on this denizen of the American South used to be a downright rare occurrence here, but the northern edge of its summer range has advanced in fits and starts since the early 2000s.

When this particular bird was observed defending a territory at a sanctuary in Central Mass this summer, it was the first time it had been recorded as a likely breeder at a Mass Audubon property. Yet breaking the news in the Bird Conservation Department’s offices elicited mild enthusiasm and a hint of fatalism, with reactions ranging from “Cool!” to, “yeah, they’re comin’.”

Along with a few dozen other species, it seems this once-scarce visitor is on track to become a regular summer resident in a growing part of the state.

As Climate Changes, So Do Bird Ranges

Data from Mass Audubon’s first and second Breeding Bird Atlases showed an increase in breeding records of Acadian Flycatcher between 1974–2011.

Acadian Flycatchers are a naturally inconspicuous species, but other birds have made more dramatic entrances into Massachusetts. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are a loud, gaudy species of wet southeastern forests that have become downright common throughout southern New England. Northern Cardinals delighted birders in the middle of the 20th century as their brilliant reds and muted oranges became common sights in suburban yards and city parks.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker at a backyard feeder—in the dead of winter! Photo by Christine McCormack.

All of these range shifts have been thoroughly documented by scientists as well as casual birders. The most comprehensive effort to document these changes is coordinated by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). Mass Audubon is NEON’s partner for bird data in New England, and every summer, our staff contribute bird censuses to NEON from across the region.

NEON treats birds as one piece of a vast puzzle: by studying how long-term ecological trends line up with each other, the project aims to parse out the causes and consequences of environmental change. Read more about our work with NEON in this blog post!

The Role Of Ecological Monitoring

Range shifts represent more than a curiosity to ornithologists. Rather, they are part of larger ecological disruptions caused by a warming climate and other human-caused factors like agricultural intensification, urbanization, and invasive species.

While a few species adapt to these changes and even benefit from them, they do spell trouble in the grand scheme of things. Niches go unfilled as some species’ ranges shift away from habitats they were once well-adapted to, leaving their home ecosystems in flux.  Other species’ ranges are limited by physical factors like elevation, or by the distributions of their competitors or their food source. Birds with finely-tuned ecological roles struggle to adapt to changing conditions, most bird species’ populations decline.

This makes keeping tabs on bird populations critical.

Conservationists first establish which species are declining or adapting (and why, and how) in order to target habitats to create or manage and prioritize species for legal protection.

This leads to concrete action, like advocating for the state to list acutely declining species as Endangered, or creating young-forest habitat at wildlife sanctuaries– all pieces of planning for a future with brave new ecological realities.

The Bobolink Project 2019: End of Season Report

© Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are making their way south to their wintering home in South America and there are more Bobolinks doing so thanks to The Bobolink Project. THANK YOU to all of our donors and participating landowners for making 2019 another successful year for Bobolinks!

Male Bobolink with food for nestlings © Allan Strong

The numbers are in!

This year The Bobolink project protected 928 acres of hayfields for grassland birds. On these fields we estimated that there were 227 Bobolink pairs and 633 young fledged. Those estimated 633 fledglings would not have survived without the help of The Bobolink Project!

For those of you familiar with last year’s numbers, this year’s numbers don’t sound nearly as good. Bobolink numbers were down (633 fledglings this year vs. 1,027 fledglings in 2018) despite us protecting about the same number of acres. Why? The answer is, we don’t really know! But here are some possible explanations to consider:

  • Perhaps this observed decline is not real. Each year we base our calculation of fledgling number on the number of breeding males which are estimated at the start of the nesting season. This is a difficult number to collect, since we always prefer to spend our Bobolink Project donations on enrolling more acres rather than hiring field crews to do careful censuses of participating fields. In similar year-to-year bird monitoring efforts, for example the USGS Breeding Bird Survey, numerical estimates are typically averaged across several years in order to calculate trends, rather than making comparisons from one year to the next.
  • However, 11 of the farms enrolled this year were also enrolled in 2018, so maybe there was a decline. There are several possible causes of decline:
    • Fewer birds returned from their South American wintering grounds.
    • Unusually wet spring weather may have delayed the onset of nesting, thus causing lower estimates of breeding birds.
    • The wet spring weather may have improved nesting conditions throughout the region, causing some of the birds that previously nested on Bobolink Project fields to nest on a different field.
    • Fields could be degrading due to weather conditions or other factors, making them less suitable for the birds.

Because of these—and other—uncertainties, the most reliable metric to us in evaluating The Bobolink Project’s success is the number of acres protected. This number increased significantly between 2017 and 2018 and held steady this year.

And don’t forget—The Bobolink Project protected fields are home to other birds too. Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, and other birds were also seen on the fields.

Savannah Sparrow © Allan Strong

2020 season will be here before we know it

The 2020 season may seem a long way off, but the sooner we can start collecting donations, the better. This project is only as successful as the amount of donations it receives from people like you. Donate now >

Meet The Bird Conservation Department’s Two New Members

Two new college fledglings will be joining Mass Audubon’s Conservation Science Department this year. Cameron Piper and Kaleigh Keohane are be on board for an 11-month term through July 2020 as TerraCorps service members. TerraCorps is a branch of AmeriCorps focused on land stewardship for the benefit of people and nature in Massachusetts. The program cultivates a new generation of leaders and builds capacity for nonprofits. Read on for more about the Conservation Science Department’s two new TerraCorps members:



Red-headed woodpeckers have become one of my favorite birds with their beautiful coloration and engaging personalities. We captured adults using a hoop with a bag attached to a long pole we held up to cavities. To capture nestlings, I climbed a 40 ft ladder to grab them before they fledged, getting a great view of the oak forests. 

Hi there! My name is Cameron Piper and I am one of the two Landscape Stewardship Coordinators serving at Mass Audubon Headquarters this year. I am originally from outside Denver, Colorado where I fell in love with the mountains, conservation and wildlife. While volunteering at the Denver Zoo, I was inspired to pursue a career in conservation science, leading me to attend SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in central New York, where I graduated this past May majoring in Conservation Biology and a Food Studies minor.  

I’ve been involved in many field research projects, including studying red-headed woodpeckers in Michigan and Ohio for three years, using remote cameras to monitor piping plover nesting behavior, and testing mobbing behavior of forest birds to various owl species in the Adirondacks. I spent a semester in northern Mongolia researching waterfowl, pikas, camera trapping mammals, and developing the first ecological study on the endangered medicinal plant, vansemberuu.

This year at Mass Audubon, I am excited to be joining the team where I will be working on projects including building on deer monitoring and exploring the rare native plants found on our properties, plus hopefully getting out to explore (and bird of course!) more beautiful Mass Audubon sanctuaries. 

We found an old cinereous vulture nest in Mongolia, so I decided to see what it was like to be a bird. Cinereous vultures are the largest vulture in the world with a wingspan of over 10 feet! 


Hello! My name is Kaleigh Keohane and I am a huge bird nerd. I grew up in Shrewsbury, MA, and recently graduated from UMass Amherst with a dual degree in Natural Resources Conservation and Journalism. I’ve completed three seasons of bird-related field work from 2017-2019.

This year I will be working with the bird conservation crew on standardizing methods across for Tree Swallow nest box monitoring across Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries, as well as helping coordinate the Avian Collision Team (ACT). I’m looking forward to working on these and developing new projects with the conservation science department! 

Science communication is something I’m passionate about, so I’ve included some of my field journalism linked in the photo captions below:

2017: House Wren field technician in Amherst (video: Warren Lab Field Research at UMass Amherst

2018: Grassland bird field technician in Montana (podcast: Declining Grassland Birds Could Be An Indicator of Climate Change

2019: AmeriCorps service member at Manassas National Battlefield Park (blog: Virginia

Thanks for reading!

The Death of a Warbler: A Tragedy in Four Chestnut-sided Parts

Prologue

In addition to collecting data on bird-window collisions, Mass Audubon’s Avian Collision Team also generates many good stories that range from hopeful, to tragic, to simply strange. While most of the birds our volunteers found were dead, some were nursed back to health at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. What follows is an account of one window-struck Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) that proved to be an emotional roller coaster for our project coordinators.

Part I: The warbler is alive

A dedicated ACT volunteer called up about a handful of window-struck birds outside a building facing the Boston Public Garden. Most were dead, but for a single Chestnut-sided Warbler. It was apparently sitting on the curb, visibly breathing, but injured. The volunteer was a little shaken up. Since they didn’t have a net or tools to safely catch the bird, I advised them to wait to see if the bird could fly off on its own before trying to catch it.

Our volunteers snapped a quick cell phone photo of the injured warbler next to the curb.
Our volunteers snapped a quick cell phone photo of the injured warbler next to the curb.

Part II: The warbler is dead

A few minutes later, the volunteer called back– sounding even more shaken. The bird had flown away, but just as it lifted off, it was caught in a gust of wind from a passing car and was struck by the fender. From the volunteer’s description, the bird was truly lifeless. The volunteer said they would take the carcass back to their freezer and eventually bring it to the Harvard zoology museum, where we had been depositing specimens for research.

Part III: The warbler is alive, again

“It’s alive!” were the first words out of the volunteer’s mouth on our third phone call within a half-hour. “The bag started moving!”

Stunned birds can truly appear lifeless, and in fact, many birds that hit windows are stunned, concussed, or go into shock before eventually shaking themselves off and flying away. But just because a bird can fly doesn’t mean it’s healthy. A broken clavicle or corocoid bone allows birds to make short flights, but prevents them from gaining altitude, halting their migration and making them an easy meal for predators. Any bird found stunned from a building impact is a good candidate for treatment at a wildlife care center.

The volunteer met Mass Audubon staff at a nearby T station to hand off the bird, which was taken to Tufts Wildlife Clinic.

Part IV: The warbler is dead. Again.

The Tufts clinic graciously provides every animal with a case number, so its finder can call up to check on its condition.

While the bird was initially given an optimistic prognosis, we learned a few days after dropping it off that it had suffered untreatable head trauma. The bird had died.

Epilogue

While healthy bird populations naturally fluctuate enough to practically erase the effect of one birds’ death, there is no harm in trying to save individual lives. Naturally, most volunteers prefer to put in the extra effort involved in helping injured birds than leave them to die from an indirectly human-inflicted injury. It was sad not to be able to save this warbler, but we did successfully release a number of other birds, including Brown Creepers, Song Sparrows, Ovenbirds and Common Yellowthroats.

If you want to help monitor window collisions and ambulate injured birds, join Mass Audubon’s Avian Collision Team for its fall migration via this form!

Join the Avian Collision Team’s Second Season

Here’s an easy way for anyone living or working in Boston to help migratory birds: help monitor window collisions!

An Indigo Bunting lies stiffly among litter, hours after striking an office building window in Boston. (Photo: ACT)

Mass Audubon is seeking new volunteers for the fall season of the Avian Collision Team (ACT). ACT is an initiative to collect data on bird–building collisions, and to rescue injured birds.

This spring, the team of birders, conservationists, and other concerned citizens observed 115 birds across 38 species affected by window strikes. This fall, and in coming seasons, we need to keep up the momentum and grow our dataset.

The Problem

Window collisions are an under–appreciated source of bird mortality in the US, causing several hundred million casualties annually.

Birds struggle to distinguish reflections from reality, and often strike glass windows that reflect the sky or nearby greenery. City lights also confuse night-migrating birds, which use the stars to navigate, and which often land near sources of light pollution. Many window strikes occur as birds try to re-orient in the morning, after being drawn in to an unfamiliar concrete jungle.

Project Details

The program runs from August 24–October 28 in downtown Boston. Volunteers need to sign up for 1-4 weekly shifts, Saturday–Tuesday, that can take place between 6-9am. Most shifts last around 30-60 minutes.

Volunteers walk predetermined routes through downtown Boston to photograph or collect deceased specimens, fill out data sheets, and occasionally rescue live birds. We’ll be holding volunteer trainings on August 11, 18, and 22.

Carrying out ACT surveys can be an eye-opening experience, between watching the city as it’s waking up, discovering seemingly out-of-place warblers, buntings, and vireos, and occasionally saving the life of an errant, injured migrant. And once you’ve found your first few birds, a collector’s instinct sometimes kicks in, making the search all the more engaging. It’s like birding with a twist– a sense of urgency, purpose, and sometimes, a touch of sadness.

If this sounds compelling, sign up here!

Avian Collision Team: First Season Updates

Since mid-April, a team of Mass Audubon volunteers has combed the streets of downtown Boston in search of migratory birds killed by collisions with windows. Here are some preliminary results of our first season running the Avian Collision Team (ACT).

The first statistic that jumps out is the higher-than-expected number of live, injured birds found by our volunteers. Based on what we heard from New York, Chicago, and Toronto, we had told volunteers it was highly unlikely they’d be able to save any injured birds. This ended up being far from the truth! Here’s one video of a Brown Creeper that was well enough to be released after suffering non-life-threatening head trauma:

The Five “Hardest-hit” Species

Some patterns are also beginning to emerge in the species of birds we’ve been finding. Here’s the full breakdown:

The five most frequently-encountered birds (in bold text above) have something in common: they’re all low-flying migratory species, and they’re relatively common. Certain buildings also seemed to kill a disproportionate number of birds that climb trees vertically, like woodpeckers, nuthatches, Black-and-white Warblers, and Brown Creepers. Other cities have reported similar species profiles with an emphasis on common migratory birds that fly low and weakly.

The Bottom Line

A few dozen people surveying a thin slice of the city for an hour or so per week found 119 window-struck birds of 38 species.

Other cities report that certain seasons have up to four times the number of strikes than others. The wide variability of window strikes makes it difficult, after just one season, to make broad statements about how many birds die from collisions in Boston annually, or establish how Boston shapes up compared to other cities. That said, our numbers fall roughly into the range reported by similarly-sized programs in other cities, like Baltimore, Detroit, and New York.

After accounting for scavengers, industrious building cleaners, and low volunteer detection rates, it’s estimated that only 10-20% of window strikes on a given route are actually recorded. That makes our numbers all the more sobering, especially considering our volunteers covered less than 1/50th of the street area of Boston.

That said, window strikes by themselves may not drive bird declines in Massachusetts. Window strikes are an additional stressor, however, on top of a laundry list of human-caused threats to bird populations. In today’s world of climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species, every bird counts– which is why window strikes are worth understanding.

Cities Are Only Part of the Problem

Outside the study areas in Downtown Boston, our volunteers reported many casualties even without focused searching. Their findings emphasize what other studies already suggest: window strikes are at least as much of an issue at single-family homes and low-rises as they are at tall urban buildings.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to make your home or office windows bird-safe. Here are some tips:

Screens on windows are the cheapest and perhaps simplest option: they break up reflections and also provide a springy barrier that collision-bound birds can bounce off of.

Where screens are impossible, consider buying or building an Acopian Bird Savers (hanging lengths of bird-deterring string). Learn how to build your own here!

Window decals only work when spaced less than 2” apart vertically and 4” apart horizontally, but when used correctly, they’re another great option. Certain kinds are transparent to human eyes, so even narrowly-spaced ones won’t interrupt your view.

Installing UV-reflective patterned glass like Ornilux is extremely effective, and by far the most discrete option– but also the most expensive.

Finally, turning unneeded lights off at night helps conserve energy and avoid drawing birds into strike-prone areas.

(Disclaimer: Mass Audubon has no affiliation with any of the above vendors).

Joan's Video

Joan Walsh: In the field at Great Gull Island

Ever wonder what we do in the field? Check out this video of Bertrand Chair, Joan Walsh, marking Roseate Tern nests on Great Gull Island, NY. Jeff Collins, Director of Conservation Science at Mass Audubon, asked Joan to share what a day in the field looks like on Great Gull Island. Joan has worked on Great Gull Island off and on for 39 years. The island is home to 18,000 Common Terns and 3,000 federally endangered Roseate Terns.

When she reaches a Roseate Tern nest box, if there is a nest, she marks it with GPS coordinates and records data on eggs and nestlings. Roseate Terns prefer to nest under vegetation or in man-made nest boxes. The work seen in this video was part of Joan’s 5-day effort to mark nests.

Important: It is illegal to approach or disturb a nest without a permit. Joan works under a permit to research Roseate Terns and Common Terns.

*Video footage was sped up when Joan is doing the nest box marking to fit more content in 1 minute. Joan is not that speedy!

Barn Swallows at Conte Refuge, Hadley

Since mid-May, Jon Atwood has been collaborating with US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) managers at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in a study aimed at monitoring Barn Swallow use of an abandoned stable located on the refuge’s Fort River Division in Hadley, MA.

Barn Swallows © Kim Caruso

Barn Swallows Are Declining in Some Places and Increasing in Others—Why?

Barn Swallows, along with many other aerial insectivores, are showing serious population declines in many portions of their North American range. However, the causes of these declines are uncertain. Pesticide impacts associated with large-scale agriculture, reduction of flying insect populations, landscape conversions, habitat changes along the species’ migration pathways, unknown impacts on the species’ Central and South American wintering grounds, and loss of barns and similar structures that are often used as nesting sites have all been postulated as possible factors.

The question is complicated—Barn Swallows in the northern portions of their range are mostly declining, while those in the south and west are increasing. If there is a single explanation, presumably the “answer” needs to make sense throughout that extensive range—why are populations increasing in some areas but decreasing in others?

Barn Swallow population trends in North America. Red areas highlight substantial declines, while blue areas reflect increasing populations. From USGS Breeding Bird Survey data, 1966-2015.

Understanding Barn Swallows in MA

In this year’s work in Hadley, our focus is on starting to understand the population dynamics of Barn Swallows nesting in this portion of the Connecticut River Valley. About 30 pairs of swallows have nested in the abandoned stable in the last few years, making this site one of the largest known colonies in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, as is often true of aging barns in New England’s agricultural landscape, the stables in Hadley are in serious disrepair, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that the building be taken down over a several year period, while simultaneously making efforts to attract the birds to alternative nesting sites.

Mass Audubon and USFWS are studying this situation to collect information that will help inform the policy decisions. This work includes regular censusing of nesting efforts in the stables and banding of nesting adults. At the end of the season we will issue a final report that details our findings, so stay tuned for more information.