Category Archives: Conservation Issues

Celebrating 30 Years of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act

Conservation success stories rest on a bedrock of strong environmental laws. Many of Massachusetts’ most notable species recoveries, from the resurgence of Peregrine Falcons in cities to Bald Eagles populations’ dramatic turnaround, are grounded in the legal provisions of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA).

MESA provides robust protections for over 400 local, rare, and declining species. With the chaos of 2020 disappearing in the rearview mirror, this is also a time to reflect on and celebrate positive achievements from past years. To mark the 30th anniversary of MESA, passed in December of 1990, take a moment to learn about the history of this sweeping and ever-relevant legislation.

Laying the Groundwork

Conservation laws in Massachusetts date back to 1818, when the state passed the first bill to protect songbirds from sport and food hunting, and by 1855 a broader act was instituted that protected all “nongame” birds.  By the end of the Civil War in 1865, the genesis of today’s Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife came about with the establishment of a two-person commission “to investigate the obstructions to the passage of fish in the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers.”  By 1886 this grassroots political conservation effort became known as the Commission on Fisheries and Game. 

As this incipient conservation machinery continued to evolve, by 1908 Edward Howe Forbush was appointed as the Commonwealth’s first State Ornithologist.  After Mass Audubon’s Founding Mothers spearheaded the national Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, the state was spurred to create the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources. Embedded within this department, the Division of Fisheries and Game was essentially charged with conserving and managing the Commonwealth’s diversity of wildlife, plants, and habitats for the benefit of Massachusetts residents.

Conservation is a Team Effort

Through the years environmental legislation gradually grew stronger, and by 1973 the federal Endangered Species Act was passed.  This landmark legislation soon saw The Nature Conservancy (TNC) develop a network of natural heritage programs across the country that would eventually oversee state level stewardship for all elements of biodiversity, including plants, animals, and natural communities. In 1978 Massachusetts became the fourth state to formally establish a Natural Heritage Program, which by 1983 had morphed into today’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP).  By 1990, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis signed the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act into law, designating species as Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern, and providing legal protections for each status.

Since then, Mass Audubon has played a key role in partnering with the state to protect the Commonwealth’s most imperiled (“state-listed”) animals and plants through the efforts of the NHESP.  Examples include such rare species as North Atlantic Right Whale, American Bittern, Red-bellied Cooter, Marbled Salamander, Northern Redbelly Dace, Early Hairstreak, Yellow Lady’s-slipper. Massachusetts publishes a complete list of state-listed species online. In other cases the NHESP’s Habitat Management Program focuses its conservation efforts on threatened habitats (e.g., vernal pools, pine barrens, sandplain grasslands, and calcareous fens).

As we enter 2021, the conservation efforts driven by the NHESP and MESA continue apace. For more information about the history of the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, check out the November issue of Massachusetts Wildlife magazine, or visit the Fish and Wildlife Service homepage for MESA’s 30th anniversary.

A New Tool For Identifying Threats to Migratory Birds: the Motus Network

Across the US, conservationists are expanding a network of radio towers that automatically record the positions of radio-tagged birds as they pass nearby.

Data from this initiative, called the Motus network, is helping scientists understand what factors influence bird declines and what it will take to stop them. In mid-2021, Mass Audubon will use the Motus network to identify where threatened American Kestrels faces the most risks and mortality after leaving Massachusetts.

Here are some other examples of recent studies that have used nanotags to change how we understand bird migration—and specifically, how birds’ health during migration influences their survival and breeding success.  

Pit Stops can Make or Break a Gray-cheeked Thrush’s Migration

A Gray-cheeked Thrush on its nesting grounds on Kodiak Island. Image: Dave Menke/US Fish and Wildlife Service

One study used Motus stations to link how much weight Gray-cheeked Thrushes put on at stopover sites in Colombia with their migratory schedule (and, indirectly, to their breeding success).

Gray-cheeked Thrushes stop along Colombia’s coast on their journey from their wintering range further south to their breeding grounds in boreal Canada.  Massachusetts birders know them as an uncommon migrant on the ground, although their flight call is fairly frequently heard from night-migrating birds overhead.

This trend lines up with the Colombian study’s first surprising finding: many of these thrushes make direct, continuous flights to Canada from stopover sites in Colombia, instead of hopscotching through the Caribbean and North America. One bird averaged 46 miles per hour as it covered the 2100 miles between Ontario and Colombia in less than two days!

But not all thrushes have enough fat reserves to power them through these marathon flights.

Researchers analyzed the amount of fat thrushes packed on at their stopover sites, as well as the amount of time spent refueling. They found that the longer birds spent feeding on the north coast of Colombia, the earlier they arrived on their Canadian breeding grounds—allowing for a longer window to breed and raise young successfully.

Most interestingly, the researchers found that most thrushes arrived in Colombia with similar levels of fat reserves—suggesting that food availability on their Amazonian wintering grounds had less of an impact on their migratory success than their ability to refuel during stopovers in Colombia. This suggests that Gray-cheeked Thrushes face a bottleneck specifically in Colombia, and that conservation efforts [JA1] on their breeding grounds or wintering grounds could be weakened if their stopover sites are degraded.

Horseshoe Crab Eggs are Critical Fuel for Red Knots

Red Knots feeding on horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay. Photo: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Conservationists have long been concerned about horseshoe crab harvesting along the Atlantic Coast and its effect on Red Knots, a chunky shorebird that feeds on horseshoe crab eggs during migration.

New evidence from a study of nanotagged knots validates concerns that food availability at one key stopover site influences their eventual success on the breeding grounds.

Some Red Knots were fat, healthy, and well-muscled at the time they were fitted with nanotags in Delaware Bay, which hosts more migrating knots than any other East Coast estuary. Motus receivers detected these birds leaving Delaware Bay on nights with favorable winds, which the birds rode nonstop to their breeding grounds.

Birds that failed to find as much food in the bay, however, left sooner— whether or not they had to fight the wind the whole way. These birds could be cutting their losses and giving up on feeding in the bay, the study authors speculate. Alternately, and perhaps more likely, these birds are aware that they weren’t in good enough shape to make a non-stop flight—and so leave earlier in order to arrive on time.

But that decision (whether conscious or not) came with a trade-off: by flying in poor conditions, these birds eroded their fat reserves even further. Because these birds had to fight the wind, the effect of malnourishment on the East Coast was magnified by the time they reached the Arctic.

Ultimately, the birds that showed up in poor condition to their breeding grounds also returned south before the breeding season was over—suggesting they had not been able to successfully raise young.

Pesticides Disrupt White-crowned Sparrows’ Journeys

Motus stations can also help track how tagged birds fare on migration after they’ve been exposed to an environmental hazard.

One study used geolocators to follow White-crowned Sparrows that had been exposed to seeds contaminated with a neonicotinoid, a class of pesticide widely implicated in some bird declines.

They found that while unexposed birds moved on after less than one day, birds that ingested a non-lethal dose of neonicotinoids—less than 1/10 of the amount present in a fully-coated seed—stuck around for an average of 3.5 days.

More worryingly, the birds lost weight. Within just 6 hours of ingesting contaminated seeds, the sparrows lost an average of 6% of their body weight. The loss deepened to 17% for birds that were exposed to neonicotinoids for three days straight. While these birds wree shown to eventually recover, these losses jeopardize White-crowned Sparrows chances of arriving on the breeding grounds with enough time to hatch and raise young.

Collaboration Is Key to Raising Motus Towers

While tracking birds with radio tags is not new technology, the Motus network dramatically expands its reach. Receiving stations across the continent can now pick up birds that would have previously only been detectable locally, either by a human carrying an antenna or by a single-site, stationary receiver.

This isn’t possible without a huge range of partners on public and private land who can host Motus stations, which now number nearly 1,000 across 31 countries. Mass Audubon is proud to be offering a few sanctuaries as potential sites for towers, and to be participating in the Northeast Motus Collaborative.

Abundant Deer are Bad News for Understory Birds

Human activity has caused white-tailed deer numbers to swell beyond sustainable levels in the Northeast, which spells trouble for birds that nest in the forest understory. At certain Mass Audubon sanctuaries, staff scientists monitor deer density to keep tabs on their ecosystem impacts.

Deer eat some birds out of house and home

Deer are “ecosystem engineers,” capable of changing the physical characteristics of their habitat by eating plants that grow low to the ground (aka understory). While a few deer per square mile can help plant diversity by creating gaps in the understory, much higher densities—often caused by an absence of natural predators—can spell trouble for plants and wildlife.

It only takes eight deer per square mile begin to reduce the number wildflowers, like trilliums and lady’s slippers. With wildflowers devoured, deer shift their diet to plants with tougher leaves, like birches, blueberry, and greenbrier. As deer thin out the forest understory and eventually remove it entirely, birds that normally rely on this vegetation to cover nests and raise young, like Ovenbirds and Black-and-white Warblers, struggle to persist. Even species that nest in the mid-levels of the forest, like Indigo Buntings and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, are affected when deer reduce the number of tree saplings.

Studies of protected areas show that nearly a third of migratory forest birds are more likely to disappear from forests with overabundant deer populations. It’s not just birds: more than 20 deer per square mile are enough to have severe impacts on bird, amphibian, insect, and mammal species diversity.

Heavily deer-browsed understory. The forest floor is mostly bare, with few low, leafy plants. Growing saplings are limited to species that deer don’t eat, like white pine.
In forests with fewer grazers, the forest floor is almost totally obscured by shrubs, grasses, ferns, and saplings that will grow into the canopy as older trees die.

Certain kinds of human disturbance help deer

Deer may never have lived as densely in Massachusetts as they do now. Wolves and mountain lions kept deer numbers in balance with their ecosystem until humans exterminated large predators from Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.

In the pre-colonial past, subsistence hunting also helped keep deer numbers in balance with the ecosystem. Sport and commercial hunting had nearly eliminated deer from Massachusetts in the mid-20th century, but their numbers began to bounce back as hunting declined—even though deer’s key predators were never allowed to return to the state.

In the meantime, suburbanization has created a nearly ideal landscape for deer in the Northeast. Suburbs mimic the patchwork of fields and forests that deer love, with open areas for nighttime feeding, sheltered woods for raising young, and landscaped backyards providing a steady supply of ornamental plants that are replaced as deer eat them.

Deer impacts endure

Even if the deer population crashes due to lack of food, disease, or a tough winter, their browsing has long-term impacts. Since deer avoid eating hay-scented fern, a plant that acidifies the soil, the fern can dominate the understory making it inhospitable to other plants. In addition, deer browse gives an advantage aggressive invasive plants with spines or thorns that deter grazing.

In the long term, over-browsed forests go into “regeneration debt,” which is when there are more mature trees than young saplings growing to replace them. Without sapling growth, the forest thins as more mature trees die. And since deer avoid eating some unpalatable saplings, especially pines and conifers, this eventually reduces diversity among mature trees as well.

Black-and-white Warblers require intact forests with a thick understory layer to breed. Photo: Davey Walters

How densely do deer live on Mass Audubon sanctuaries?

For the past several years, Mass Audubon scientists have employed a variety of methods to estimate deer density. Since 2018, deer monitoring has involved pellet counts and browse surveys at 16 of our sanctuaries.

Pellet counts take place in February and early March, after deer pellets have accumulated through the winter on the forest floor. Pellets decompose slowly because of the cold temperatures, and there isn’t much vegetation that can fall and accumulate on top of it. Browse surveys involve looking for deer impacts on plants, like nibbled-down twigs, to establish if deer are reducing tree regeneration or plant diversity.

Data from the 2020 season (which was interrupted by the pandemic) yielded deer densities ranging from 19 deer/mi2 at Elm Hill in Brookfield, to 31 deer/mi2 at Moose Hill in Sharon, to as many as 66 deer/mi2 at Daniel Webster in Marshfield. Some sanctuaries in Central and Western Mass, like Rutland Brook (Petersham) and Canoe Meadows (Pittsfield) have deer populations closer to the goal of 6-18 deer/mi2 suggested by state biologists.

To ensure that our properties are providing habitat for as many plant and animals as possible, Mass Audubon has implemented controlled, selective hunting programs during hunting season at sites where deer populations are growing unsustainably. After evaluating a variety of options for reducing deer density, we concluded that carefully managed hunting program is the only feasible and effective approach. We will continue to work with conservation partners and the state wildlife agency to maintain deer at appropriate densities so that our forest ecosystems continue to thrive. 

Coming Soon: Tracking American Kestrels with New Technology

Tracking migratory birds is getting much easier, thanks to the expansion of a continent-wide network of antennas that automatically receive signals from radio-tagged birds. This network, called the MOTUS network, enables scientists to use much lighter transmitters called nanotags, and study the movements of birds that are too small for older transmitter technology.

By tracking birds during migration, MOTUS data can answer a host of questions about bird biology and conservation—like where birds face the highest mortality, which habitats they rely on most during migration, and what determines whether they successfully reproduce. 

These are some of the questions Mass Audubon is trying to answer for migratory American Kestrels, which weigh only 4 ounces and are too small to carry most tracking tags. Kestrels have declined steeply across the state even as habitat loss has slowed, leaving apparently good-quality habitat unoccupied. Beginning in 2021, Mass Audubon will track Massachusetts-breeding kestrels with nanotags (or similar LifeTags) to see what happens to these birds on migration.

American Kestrel. Photo by John Flagg.

How MOTUS Nanotags Work

All nanotags give off bursts of signal on the same frequency, so any MOTUS antenna can detect any tag. To differentiate one tagged bird from another, each tag has a “signature” with different burst lengths, pauses, and spacing—almost like Morse code. When a tagged bird flies within about 9 miles of an antenna, the antenna picks up its signature and records the bird’s position on a connected computer.

Older tracking technology presented many challenges for studying small birds. Tags that transmit GPS data to a satellite are too heavy for most small birds, and there’s still no clear way to make them smaller. Plus, such satellite transmitters are very expensive. For many years, the only tags small and light enough to use on most small birds were less accurate, and required the recapture of any tagged individual in order to download stored location data.

Building a Nationwide Network of Receivers

MOTUS antennas are an improvement over older technologies, but only in areas where there are enough of them to detect birds as they pass through. Now, the focus is on creating rows, or “fencelines,” of evenly-spaced antennas to intercept birds as they pass by on migration.

One of these rows of antennae crosses Pennsylvania and parts of New York State, and soon, there’ll be additional MOTUS “fencelines” across inland areas of New England. Mass Audubon has proposed placing antennae at some of our sanctuaries, although coordinators of the New England MOTUS Collaborative will ultimately determine which sites make the most sense in terms of monitoring migrating animals.

Flyways: a poem for our lost birds by nature poet and new member, Hayley Kolding

Flyways

I lived a good life
and was reborn a sparrow.
Towhee-like
I scratched meals 
on the ground
with both feet
but mostly I flew,
threading a needle
through dense thickets,
wheeling in legions
above power lines.
My breast was streaked
white and brown,  
my bones  
an invention of light.
Crossing low alone
in clearings I felt 
I soared: 
then a pane of glass
in what had seemed  
a clearing.
So the reality
I meant only to pass through
contracted
to an instant 
and killed me.

God had mercy
and remade me as
a blackbird. 
In the marsh
it was sweet:
I built my nest,
wove a wet cup
about the cattails.
The walls
were bur-reed and rush
the bed inside
grass dry and soft. And oh
I loved the brood
with eyes tight shut.
For my baby
seed of the field,
damselflies
for my baby. But you
do not grow fat–
I paired again,
my mate distinguished
by song:
a choking,
scraping noise
made with much
apparent effort.

Expiring
without legacy
I begged to still
be winged An ivory
gull A plover
A thrush
And mercy
was endless
As a guillemot
I returned
starving slick
in my own color
as murre in
Alaska I starved
as one penguin
of 40,000
Then God blessed me
at last I was a sea bird
in Australia I floated
in the water
I ate everything
the world gave me
And then I was full
O Heaven Then
I realized my need
could not be met


There is an emotional toll, for birders and nature-lovers, in reading so frequently about the scale of bird declines. Summaries of recent scientific papers, updates on population trends, and calls to action can fail to address the sadness and loss readers feel at more bad news. These reactions are just as real as the ecological damage that provokes them, and scholars increasingly recognize them as “ecological grief.” For all the successes of conservation movements, the declines of many species continues unabated, and each feels like a defeat.

Kolding approaches these defeats from a bird’s perspective— in fact, from the perspective of several birds. She treats an indefinite number of birds killed by human activity as reincarnations of one consciousness, condensing a wide and complex range of conservation threats into a linear, tragic story. In so doing, Kolding’s poem resists the treatment of bird deaths as statistics.

While this poem takes ample (and poetically necessary) liberties in ascribing feelings to birds, its poignance is grounded by accurate natural history details and descriptions of real threats. The last passage (“I ate everything the world gave me/ And then I was full… Then I realized/ my need could not be met”) both describes a complex emotion— the dread of living in an unsurvivable world, or of asking in vain for what you need— while also reflecting the reality of how some seabirds die. Plastic pollution kills seabirds because they eat indigestible plastic debris, which accumulates inside them until they starve with a full stomach. (Plastic in the ocean smells like food to seabirds because it grows the same algae as decomposing fish).

In each of Kolding’s vignettes, she frames a scientist’s perspective on birds with a poet’s sensitivity and imagination. The result is a both refreshing and profoundly sad approach to thinking about conservation losses.

Loons Return to Plymouth County after a Century-Long Absence

Fast on the heels of Bald Eagles’ exciting return to Cape Cod, another iconic species of the north has recolonized Southeastern Massachusetts after more than a hundred years’ hiatus. This summer, Common Loons are raising chicks in Plymouth County for the first time since at least 1872.

It started with an oil spill

A pair of Common Loons in Maine, the birthplace of most of Massachusetts’ reintroduced loons. Photo by Will Freedberg.

Loons used to be common in some of the deep, clear lakes of Plymouth County until the 19th century, when sport hunting and state-sponsored extermination programs removed them from the state entirely. While loons that breed in New Hampshire and Maine spend winters off the Massachusetts coast, it wasn’t until 1975 that they started nesting here again. In fact, Massachusetts is the only state where loons have returned of their own volition, and they now number over 100 birds—but only in the north-central and western parts of the state.

Strong, proactive environmental laws are enabling loons’ renewal to this part of their original range. The male of the Plymouth County pair arrived as part of a reintroduction program, funded by a legal settlement over a Buzzard’s Bay oil spill.

In 2003, the population of overwintering loons in Buzzards Bay took a hit when an oil barge spilled 100,000 gallons of oil into the water after striking a rock. The spill killed over 1,000 marine birds (the total loss, accounting for those birds’ future contributions to their populations, is closer to 20,000 birds). 

Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the barge company had to pay to clean up its mess. (At the time, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act also required that companies pay to restore any birds they accidentally killed, whether or not an oil spill was involved). Some of the funds went towards habitat protection, lead fishing tackle cleanups, and artificial nest sites in areas with existing populations. But there’s no easy way to quickly replace 530 Common Loons, especially when it’s not clear which breeding areas the dead birds came from.

So, the remainder of the funds went towards facilitating loons’ return to places they had historically occupied by translocating “excess” birds from upstate New York and Maine. When loons have two chicks, one often outcompetes the other, which is less likely to survive—making the second chick a great candidate for captive rearing.

Giving loons a head start

Local loon reintroduction efforts formally began in 2015, when the Biodiversity Research Institute began raising loon chicks in captivity in partnership with state wildlife agencies. For the next few years, they managed to release around eight young-adult loons annually into unoccupied, good-quality habitat in Massachusetts.

The project’s success would only become clear a few years later. Young loons don’t breed until they reach several years of age, spending at least the first three years of their life at sea. The marine areas they use as juveniles continue to be their wintering grounds as lake-breeding adults.

While one of the (now fully-grown) male loons has returned to the Plymouth County lake where it was raised for the past couple of years, it was joined by a fully wild female in the spring of 2020. Their chick— the first of what will hopefully be many to come out of the translocation effort—was spotted a few weeks later.

Strong conservation laws yield results

In this case, loons’ reintroduction into southeastern Massachusetts was part of a larger vision for restoring public resources—from fisheries, to swimming beaches, to migratory birds—after they were accidentally damaged by a private company.

But were the damage to bird populations not caused by an oil spill or other pollution that affected people’s health, only the MBTA could have been used as a legal tool to require that a company make amends. Now, that framework is gone—and the current administration’s decision may soon become difficult to overturn

Birders have already observed several other loons from the reintroduction project at different sites across eastern Massachusetts. If you see a loon with a leg band, or on fresh water inside of route 495, let us know in the comments!

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

Description automatically generated

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 >