Category Archives: Conservation Issues

Barn Swallows Successfully Return to Nest at Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge

Barn Swallows build their nests out of mud often on the eaves, rafters, and cross beams of barns, stables, and sheds.

Last summer, Mass Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, Jon Atwood, collaborated with Andy French, project leader at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, to study Barn Swallows that were nesting in an aging horse stable destined for demolition during the non-breeding season. Approximately 40 pairs of swallows nested in the stable during 2019; an additional 4-7 pairs nested in an adjacent building, known as the Boat House, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) planned to set aside as a more long-term Barn Swallow nesting site and storage area. The aging horse stable was eventually demolished after the resident swallows had migrated to their South American wintering grounds.

The Barn Swallows are back!

We have good news to report! As hoped, the majority of swallows that nested in the stable in 2019 have returned and set up housekeeping in the Boat House. As of June 16 (still relatively early in the breeding season), 30 pairs were actively nesting in the Boat House, and four additional pairs had established nests in nearby artificial structures built for this purpose.

Jon Atwood removes a captured Barn Swallow from a mist net for banding.

Last year Jon banded many (but not all) of the Barn Swallow adults so that we could tell if they returned to the site in future years. Of 51 birds that have been captured using mist nets in the Boat House in 2020, 22 (43%) had been banded as adults in 2019 in the stable. In other studies, researchers have found that return rates of breeding swallows to undisturbed nesting sites have ranged from 20% in Oklahoma to 42% in New York. Although most Barn Swallows do not return to where they were hatched, we have even captured 2 individuals that hatched from nests that were located last year in the horse stable.

A new kiosk gives an up close look at the birds

Conte Refuge visitors watch nesting Barn Swallows at the kiosk at Fort River (photo by Andy French).

USFWS has placed video cameras in the Boat House, and visitors can watch the nesting swallows feed their young from an observation kiosk located near the start of the 1.2 mile long universally-accessible Fort River Birding Trail. Visitors may also be greeted by the families of Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows that are also nesting in the kiosk. The kiosk will eventually house a professionally-designed and fabricated exhibit with information about aerial insectivores.

This success will lead to other successes going forward

Not only does this success story provide a happy ending to the difficult management debate that swirled around the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the horse stable, but these efforts have also paved the way for future conservation actions that can be applied to other situations. Aging barns occupied by Barn Swallows are a common feature in New England’s historically agricultural landscape, and sometimes these structures cannot be saved. Through the experience at Conte Refuge we have learned important lessons about how to attract and relocate Barn Swallows into alternative structures where they can be protected if occupied barns need to be removed.

We’ll keep you posted as the season progresses.

ACT at Home: Volunteer to Track Bird-Window Collisions at Residences

Even with most volunteer programs on hold for public health reasons, there’s still a way to participate in bird-window collision monitoring from home.

The normal format of the Avian Collision Team (ACT) will not be possible this spring. Last year, ACT involved around 40 volunteers looked for dead or injured migrants along routes through Boston. Working a couple of days each week during migration, those volunteers tallied 193 window-struck birds in total, representing nearly five dozen species.

Many volunteers, once primed to look for window strikes, also started reporting injured birds outside their homes and offices. Window strikes are indeed not only an urban issue, and houses in the suburbs or countryside play an important role. While a skyscraper kills an average of 24 birds per year, low-rises are not far behind at 22, and most single-family residences kill between 1–3. (Buildings vary, of course, and some are responsible for more than 100 collisions a year).

Feathers left behind on a glass residential window after a bird collided with it.

Residences: a silent culprit

Standalone homes are responsible for 90% of bird-window collisions. Even though sleek, all-glass facades on non-residential buildings kill many more birds on a per-building basis than the average single-family home, residences are more than 60 times as common as tall city buildings—making their collective impact even more significant.

More importantly, bird collisions are harder to detect outside of the city. Landscaping around houses conceals the bodies of window strike victims, and scavengers like raccoons and squirrels abound. Consequently, window strikes at residences are underreported.

Help us track bird-window collisions at home

Participating in this project requires less effort than a normal ACT season, since it only involves a quick daily check at one building (your home). It’s important, however, to make this a daily or near-daily routine, since there may only be one or two days out of the season when you find a bird (although there may be many more). As always, data on where window collisions are not occurring is just as important as where they are. The data from this project will help us better understand the problem and eventually develop recommendations for reducing bird kills caused by window collisions at residential structures and low-rise office buildings.

The survey period officially runs until June 2, when most migrants are settled into their breeding territory. Anyone is welcome to continue submitting data after that, though—breeding birds are nearly as likely to collide with windows as migrants.

If you want to learn how to make your home safer for birds, check out these tips. Please only put up bird-friendly products like window tapes or screens before or after the data collection period. Modifying your windows in the middle of the data collection period will make it impossible to analyze data from your building.

To learn more about why birds have a hard time detecting glass, and to sign up to survey your home, visit our Anecdata webpage.

Two New Citizen Science Projects for 2020: Kestrel and Swallow Nest Site Reporting

American Kestrels, Barn Swallows, and Cliff Swallows are all declining in Massachusetts, like many other open-country birds. The Bird Conservation team is initiating two exciting studies on these species during this spring and summer, and data from the community will be integral to both studies’ success!

Barn Swallow young on nest (Photo by Ginger Lane)

Have you seen these birds nesting?

If you have any information on these species’ current (2020) nest sites, or are willing to look for them, please submit data via our swallow project and kestrel project webpages on Anecdata (a citizen science website).

You’ll need to set up an Anecdata account first. Click on “register” to first create an account, and click on “join project” once you’ve signed up with Anecdata.

A screenshot of a social media post

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Both projects are fairly simple for users: simply click on “add an observation” and report the coordinates of nesting American Kestrels, Barn Swallows, and Cliff Swallows.  In the case of both swallow species’, it’s also useful to know if you observe structures that do NOT host a colony but which you think potentially could (e.g., old barns or small wooden bridges near open grassland and freshwater). Note that this study is focused on nesting sites, not places where birds are observed foraging or flying around.

What we hope to accomplish with your help

The purpose of the swallow project is straightforward: we want to identify sites where Barn and Cliff Swallows are nesting that may not yet be known to biologists.

Mass Audubon’s work on the kestrel project on the other hand, will be a little more involved. After compiling a list of remaining nest sites, the Bird Conservation Department will team up with state biologists in 2021 to fit kestrels with radio tags. These tags will track their movements around the region after nesting, and eventually to their wintering grounds.

Kestrels breed widely throughout Massachusetts, but there are many Breeding Bird Atlas blocks that showed declines between Atlas 1 (1974-1979) and Atlas 2 (2007-2011). Interestingly, there are both urban-nesting and farmland-nesting American Kestrels, and the two populations may be showing different population trajectories. Studying the life histories of these birds, including tracking their movements away from nest sites, could hold clues as to why so much apparently good kestrel habitat goes unoccupied in the state.

As always, all nest data is kept strictly within the community of biologists working to conserve these species.

American Kestrel at nest box (Photo by Mark Grimason)

More Tips For Searching

  • Both projects run from May 20 – August 20, to reduce potential confusion between nesting birds and migrants.
  • The focus is on nest sites and not on places where birds are seen flying around.
  • If you need a refresher on identifying Barn and Cliff Swallows in the field, check out our ID tips for these similar-looking birds.
  • Please participate only if you can do so in your own local communities.
  • It’s likely that some sites will be on private property where direct observer access is impossible. Please don’t trespass! Even if you’re only able to observe from a road edge and can’t collect, it’s helpful to know that you saw swallows or kestrels entering or leaving a particular cavity or structure.

All three of these species were once common sightings in rural parts of Massachusetts, and they’re all a joy to observe and spend time near. Thank you for helping Mass Audubon protect them, and happy birding!

The Saga of the “Robin Snipe”—An Artful Overview of an Atlantic Flyway Tragedy

The Red Knot (Calidris canutus) is a shorebird, roughly the size of an American Robin, and similarly colored in spring, with rusty red underparts and a ruddy brownish back sprinkled with black and calico. This species’ legacy has been punctuated by eras of superabundance, intense market hunting persecution, habitat disruption, and most recently anthropogenic events that have nearly brought the Atlantic flyway population to its knees. Favored sandy beaches on the South Shore of Cape Cod Bay and outer Cape Cod in Massachusetts have for many decades hosted great numbers of “Robin Snipes” (so-called by early market gunners) during their autumn migration en route to the far reaches of southern South America for the winter. And it was on these same Bay State beaches that the Atlantic population of knots was mercilessly persecuted from July-October during much of the 19th and early 20th century. 

Red Knot (Photo by A Grigorenko)

Fast forward to the last half of the 20th century when the ornithological community, initially in the Mid-Atlantic Coast region, began systematically registering measurable declines in the vast numbers of knots that once stopped on Massachusetts shores during autumn migration and on the shores of Delaware Bay in May. These early warnings presaged what was to become one of the most precipitous declines in modern shorebird history. The sad and well-documented chronicle of the near collapse of the eastern North American Red Knot population is one of the most dramatic sagas in modern-day bird conservation.

The pathos and intimate details of this ongoing conservation drama have recently been eloquently presented in Orion magazine by author and Audubon A awardee Deborah Cramer and artist Janet Essley. To explore the details of this fascinating story, follow this link >

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.

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 >

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).

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.