Drumlin Farm is banding Massachusetts’ smallest owls – the Northern Saw-whet

A team of researchers measure the wing feathers on a Saw-whet owl at Drumlin Farm’s banding center. Handling owls is only legal with a government permit, and only by researchers trained to handle them safely.

Each year, Mass Audubon sanctuaries across the state set up banding stations to track Saw-whet owl migration. Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Moose Hill in Sharon, and Daniel Webster in Marshfield all have dedicated crews of Saw-whet owl banders. November is the best time to find these tiny predators, as large numbers are passing through Massachusetts on their migration route.  

Saw-whets were an under-studied species 

At 7-8 inches long and weighing 2-5 ounces, Saw-whet owls are about the size of an American Robin. Because of their small size, Saw-whets are difficult to find. Many birders used to consider them a rarity, but in 1994 a study at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary revealed that these birds are much more widespread than previously thought. In fact, they are found in higher numbers than any other owl species in Massachusetts in the fall. 

Saw-whets are migratory 

Not only were these birds mistakenly thought to be a rarity, but they were also thought to be permanent residents. With anecdotal evidence as well as increased banding efforts, researchers have discovered that most of them do migrate, and can travel as far south as the Mexican border. Their migration routes, however, are less consistent and more unpredictable than other migrants, making them a complicated species to study.

A scientist holds a Saw-whet Owl with a “bander’s grip,” securing it’s talons in a way that’s safe and comfortable for both the bird and the human.

Banding efforts in the US 

In 1994, Project Owlnet was initiated as a way to bring together data from across the country and recruit new banding stations. Participating organizations share research and best practices to better understand these birds. The map below shows a map of owl banding stations that are a part of Project Owlnet. 

Mass Audubon sanctuaries contribute to this dataset by banding, weighing, and measuring Saw-whets. They also identify each bird’s age, sex, and take feather samples for DNA research. 

Fun fact: Saw-whet age can be determined with UV light 

The fluorescent color in young owl feathers comes from a pigment called “porphyrin,” which causes the feathers to appear red under UV lights. This pigment breaks down over time and exposure to light, so researchers can use this technique to identify an owl’s age. The pictures above show a second-year Saw-whet because they have clear pink hues in their newer primary feathers and on their coverts.  

Findings 

The map below shows banding stations in Massachusetts (yellow dots), Saw-whet owls from Massachusetts that were recaptured elsewhere (red dots), and Saw-whet owls banded elsewhere that were recaptured in Massachusetts (blue dots). Owls have been banded along their migratory route from as far north as Ontario and as far south as Maryland. 

Interested in seeing these owls for yourself? Join Mass Audubon at one of many upcoming nocturnal events. Happy owling! 

Report on Barn Swallows in Hadley Now Available

The final report describing “Barn Swallow Nesting Biology at Bri Mar Stable, Hadley, Massachusetts During 2019” is available here. The report, written by Mass Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, Jon Atwood, as well as collaborators with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes the scientific context and behavioral ecology of Barn Swallows nesting at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

In Mass Audubon’s formal response to the proposed demolition of an abandoned horse stable that is used by a large colony of nesting Barn Swallows, we wrote “If the barn does indeed need to be demolished in the near future, Mass Audubon supports the Refuge’s proposed action, Alternative A – Phased Closure of Stable and Delayed Demolition. We encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use the opportunities available under Alternative A to study methods that can be used to promote colony relocation on private and public lands. We also support monitoring of Barn Swallows on and around the site during the phased closure process. Mass Audubon’s bird conservation staff are willing to advise and support the refuge staff in those efforts.”  This report is the result of this promised research effort.

The report provides useful data that is relevant to decisions regarding future plans of the refuge. There is no doubt that this site hosts a large colony of this declining species. However, multiple authors have pointed out that factors other than availability of nest sites are most likely responsible for the species’ regional population declines, and have even noted that small colonies often have higher reproductive success than large nesting groups. In 2019 we had good success in attracting swallows to nest in an adjacent structure where they can be protected in the future. And, we also discovered other nearby Barn Swallow colonies, including at least one site that is probably comparable in size to the colony at Bri Mar Stable.

We’ll keep you posted as we learn more about this ongoing issue.

Barn Swallows nested on electrical boxes in structures nearby the Bri Mar Stable. Photo by Ainsley Brosnan-Smith.

Errata: After we published the final report about Barn Swallow nesting biology at Bri Mar Stable, we discovered information about past nesting activity within the Boat House. These sentences, found in the Abstract and Results sections of the report, have been corrected.

Dial-a-Bird: A Tribute to the Voice of Audubon

Before the internet age, informational phone lines were widespread— providing everything from weather forecasts, time of day, or even local rare bird alerts.

Mass Audubon started the original bird hotline in 1954 with some help from a telecom executive, Henry Parker, who happened to be an avid birder.

In fact, the system that Parker developed for the Voice of Audubon came before the widespread use of phone hotlines. The Dictaphone-based system he gave Mass Audubon eventually became the basis for other users to pre-record airline schedules, theater showtimes, and other, more general-interest uses.

The rarities hotline, called “The Voice of Audubon” or VoA, reduced the need for staff to recite sightings to every birder who asked—making it as much a boon for Mass Audubon as for the hundreds of birders calling in each week.

Making the Papers

Shortly after its introduction, the Voice of Audubon was incorporated every week into a bird sightings column in the Boston Globe.

Initially, non-birder Globe interns had to transcribe the bulletin entirely by ear, leading to some amusing misspellings of bird names—such as “wobbling vireos” instead of “Warbling Vireos, “dowagers” instead of dowitchers,” “dick sizzles” instead of “Dickcissels,” and a “pair of green falcons” instead of a “Peregrine Falcon.” Eventually, a written transcript was made available to anyone interested in printing the week’s bird sightings.

A group of photographers respond to a report of a rarity, in this case a Great Gray Owl in southern New Hampshire. Always be respectful of vagrant birds– particularly owls and waterbirds– by not approaching them.

Changing Tastes

The Voice of Audubon became a wildly popular model, with similar call-in lines eventually cropping up in most US states. The nationwide rare bird alert even made it in the birding-centric Hollywood movie, The Big Year.

Email changed everything for birding hotlines. With the advent of the listserv, or email message board, call-ins to the Voice of Audubon began to decrease.

Listservs went out of vogue when eBird emerged on the scene, revolutionizing how birders reported their observations. Still, some preferred listservs for the opportunity to discuss sightings in addition to reporting them, for the way listserv conversations build community, and for the ease of reporting a sighting in text rather than via online form. These needs have also come to be addressed by Facebook groups for bird sightings, adding another medium vying for birders’ time and information.

Standing the Test of Time

Through it all, the Voice of Audubon has held firm as a resource for birders, even as it’s call-ins have declined since the heyday of the 1960s and 70s.

Continuing to publish the VoA serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it informs birders who don’t have access to a computer or who prefer the hotline format. Perhaps more importantly, its existence and regular publication in newspapers serves to raise the public profile of birdwatching among the general public.

Do you ever call the Voice of Audubon (781-259-8805), read it in the Sunday Globe, or check out the sightings on our website? Let us know in the comments!

Do Vagrant Birds Indicate a Changing Climate?

It’s been an incredible past few weeks for rare birds in Massachusetts. First, a Purple Gallinule showed up in Milton. Then a White-faced Ibis arrived in Sterling, and a Tropical Kingbird shocked birders in Belmont—the first ever to be seen in Middlesex County. Finally, the first Pacific-Slope Flycatcher seen anywhere in the state was spotted in Hadley, and a Western Kingbird and Rufous Hummingbird rounded out the glut of unusual visitors.

More than 2,000 miles from home, this boldly-colored Tropical Kingbird in Belmont made birding headlines.

It’s tempting to think that these out-of-range birds (or “vagrants”) are the result of climate change. Although climate change certainly affects species’ normal ranges, and may make vagrancy more common and extreme, it’s a reach to say that these “lost” birds themselves indicate any larger trends.

Instead, these birds are just as likely examples of species that only show in Massachusetts every several hundred years. This phenomenon of once-in-a-lifetime birds has plenty of precedent. Consider, for example, the first time a Masked Duck was seen in Massachusetts was in 1889—and the species hasn’t been reported in New England since. Similarly, the first and only record of a Brewer’s Sparrow was in 1873, and the first and only record of a White-tailed Kite was in 1910.

Vagrants: Unpredictable in Predictable Ways

As fall migration draws to a close, there’s almost always a spike in vagrant birds in Massachusetts. Birds from the interior southwest of the US ride winds blowing northeast, often making it as far as the coast.

Many bird populations contain a few individuals prone to wandering. In some cases, wanderers are biologically hard-wired to migrate differently than others of their species, and in other cases, the cause is unknown. These outliers aren’t unique to migratory species; even flightless penguins have been documented walking into the icy mountains of Antarctica, far from any food source.

Most vagrants either perish or (less often) make it back to their home ranges. Even if the vast majority of these birds don’t manage to reproduce on terra incognita, some scientists theorize that having a few exploratory or mis-oriented individuals gives the species an evolutionary advantage. This may allow a population to very occasionally colonize new, faraway areas that turn out to be hospitable, serving as a bulwark against sudden cataclysmic change across its entire normal range.

Climate Affects Vagrants, But Vagrants Aren’t Necessarily Climate Indicators

Fall isn’t the only time when wind patterns regularly bring Massachusetts a handful of unusual birds. Southern birds that overshoot their breeding grounds in spring are mostly the result of wind patterns that blow them far over the Atlantic, where they continue north until making landfall in New England. Even more noticeable are the hurricanes that have brought tropical seabirds like Sooty Terns and Red-billed Tropicbirds inland into Massachusetts.

As rising global temperatures create stronger storms and shift continental wind currents, it’s reasonable to think that new patterns in bird vagrancy will emerge. This doesn’t mean, however, that recent “firsts” (such as last month’s Pacific-slope Flycatcher or Tropical Kingbird) are indicators of climate change– especially with only 200 years of records and a long list of vagrants that showed up in the 18th century and never again.

Demonstrating an increase in vagrant birds (or changes in where they show up) is a tricky proposition, in part because there’s no good way to adjust for how many people are looking. Not only has the number of birders increased dramatically since the 19th century, but birders’ knowledge of how to predict vagrants has improved—and their interest in finding them has intensified. This complicates studying patterns in bird vagrancy, let alone linking them to long-term climate trends.

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!