Category Archives: History

Evening Grosbeaks Used To Be Common In MA. This year, They’re Back.

Just as ornithologists predicted, 2018 is shaping up to be a banner winter for a number of nomadic finches in the Northeast, especially Evening Grosbeaks. Having steadily declined as winter visitors since the 1970s, these predictably unpredictable birds are a welcome sight this year.

Evening Grosbeak (Creative Commons)

Irruption Years: Boom And Bust

Evening Grosbeaks, like several species of “winter finch”, rely on conifer seeds and berries whose yield in the wild (or “crop”) varies intensely from year to year. When cone and berry crops in certain areas of the boreal forest are strong, winter finches stay close to their breeding areas year-round. When cone and berry crops fail, winter finches become nomadic, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to the south and to lower elevations.

Even within the season, these birds move around a ton. After an historic number of Evening Grosbeak sightings this mid-November, things seem to have quieted down a bit. EBird records suggest that as many birds may have moved on from or even “overshot” Massachusetts and landed deeper into the mid-Atlantic.  This is unlikely to last though—new pulses of irruptive species will continue into the winter and there is still plenty of finch forage left in the trees.

Shifting Distributions

Misconceptions abound regarding Evening Grosbeaks’ status in Massachusetts, in part because this species’ distribution is in almost constant flux.

The last Breeding Bird Atlas showed these grosbeaks breeding in small but growing numbers in the western highlands of Massachusetts, despite a precipitous decline in winter observations statewide. Climate change is shifting the general range of this species northwards, and the prognosis for breeding grosbeaks in Massachusetts–which rely on climate-sensitive and declining conifer species– is grim. Indeed, eBird data suggest they may have already declined since the last atlas.

Birders who were around in the 1960s and 70s often fondly remember the times when Evening Grosbeaks were abundant every couple of winters. It’s a popular misconception that this species was naturally abundant in Massachusetts, and that climate change alone is responsible for their shifting status.

In fact, breeding Evening Grosbeaks were historically restricted to northwestern North America. Their population slowly advanced south and east during the latter half of the 19th century until a significant irruption brought them into the northeast in 1890. The 1890 irruption carried them as far east as Revere Beach, and in subsequent winters, the birds returned in larger and larger numbers. Nearly 14,000 Evening Grosbeaks were recorded in the 1972 Christmas Bird Count, but in the 1990s and 2000s, their winter range shifted away from Massachusetts dramatically– despite a modest increase in local breeders.

This Year’s Conditions

Winter finch irruptions do not only reflect a snapshot of food availability in the current year, but are affected by longer-term trends. For example, 2017 was an excellent year for cone crops in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, leading to increased reproductive success for seed-eating birds. This year, winter finch numbers are high as a result– in a year when food happens to be scarce.

This makes it a particularly good year to put out black-oil sunflower seeds, Evening Grosbeaks’ birdseed-of-choice. While many Evening Grosbeaks have been reported eating crabapples and ornamental tree fruits this winter, they’ve also been showing up in strong numbers at feeders.

Check out Your Great Outdoors for more information on this year’s winter finch irruption! 

Remembering Kathleen S. (Betty) Anderson: June 15, 1923–August 24, 2018

Betty Anderson receives Mass Wildlife’s Sargent Award on September 10, 2007. Photograph by W. Petersen.

The conservation and ornithological communities of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—along with the countless lives that Kathleen (Betty) Anderson touched—have sadly lost one of the Great Ones.

Betty, as she was known among her friends and colleagues, originally hailed from Montana, the state she often considered her “real home.” Regardless, she spent most of her adult life living with her beloved husband, Paul, and raising two children in Carver and East Middleboro. In the 65 years she lived at Wolf Trap Hill Farm, Middleboro, Betty “kept track of every living critter [she] could identify…not just birds but also mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and plants.” (Bird Observer, February 2016). Her love and stewardship of the natural world radiated outward from the farm to the rest of Massachusetts as she taught and advocated on behalf of the environment, inspiring other people in all of her endeavors.

I want to paraphrase part of the speech Betty made upon receiving one of Mass Audubon’s most prestigious awards, the Allen H. Morgan Award, in 2009:

“From the day in late October 1949 when I first came upon a group of Mass Audubon birders at the Lakeville Ponds, this organization has enriched my life in so many ways. Foremost, always, the friends I’ve made who share my interests and my concerns. But also the events, the publications, and the incentives for providing active participation in environmental issues.”

Betty Anderson claimed that her 60 years as a Mass Audubon member offered a continuous learning and enriching experience, along with ongoing opportunities to contribute to various projects where she always felt she learned more than she produced.

Here I have to disagree. Betty Anderson gave so much of her knowledge, her friendship, and herself to so many people for so many years, that her greatest legacy will forever be her love of other people and her own incalculable ability to enthuse, enlighten, educate, and motivate others to become the best that they can be. And I’m confident that there are legions of ornithologists and conservationists throughout the country who learned from what she produced, which will long withstand the test of time.

What Betty Anderson produced throughout her life is truly remarkable.

Always curious and ever-intrepid, Betty began her professional ornithological career in 1957, working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Encephalitis Field Station in Lakeville, whereshe was employed trapping, banding, and bleeding birds in cedar swamps in Raynham as part of early research on Eastern Equine Encephalitis. When her two children were young, Betty became a Mass Audubon teacher where weekly she introduced hundreds of young children to birds and natural history in school systems in southeastern Massachusetts.

By the 1960s, Betty’s enthusiasm for research and birdbanding led to her establishment of an Operation Recovery banding station on Duxbury Beach. Betty’s active involvement with this cooperative banding project—coordinated by Chandler Robbins, James Baird, and other active banders of the day—and her long-standing friendship with John and Rosalie Fiske—whose summer home was in Manomet—ultimately led to the establishment of the Manomet Bird Observatory (now called Manomet, Inc.). She was the founding director from 1969–1983.

As Betty’s reputation and expertise in conservation-related activities broadened, her influence and experience similarly grew. In 1973, she became a founding trustee of the Plymouth County Wildlands Trust (now the Wildlands Trust). From 1981–2018, she began a continuous run as a member and eventually chair of the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program’s Advisory Committee. Betty received the prestigious Governor Francis W. Sargent Award from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in 2007.

While her many honors and tributes are legend, several of the most notable are: being among the first women elected to membership in the Nuttall Ornithological Club in 1974 and being one of only two women to serve as president of that Club in 1987; receiving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Arthur A. Allen Award in 1984; being elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2005; and her service on the boards of Mass Audubon, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the New England Wildflower Society, the North American Loon Fund, and the American Birding Association.

Throughout her career Betty authored more than 50 professional papers and published numerous popular articles in journals and magazines. However, her personal journals documenting and detailing indications of climate change as a result of 50 years of continuous observation of events on Wolf Trap Hill Farm, her 100-acre property in Middleboro, may be among her most valuable professional and valuable contributions.

The beacon that was Betty’s life for me was a brilliant beam that significantly shaped my life and career. May her rich legacy live on forever, and the lessons that she taught me always remain a beacon for others to follow.

Reprinted with permission from Bird Observer 2018,  Volume 46, Number 5. www.birdobserver.org

Two Poems for Bobolinks: Dickinson and Bryant

Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary: a few miles from where Emily Dickinson was inspired by Bobolinks- which have returned to the property thanks to careful stewardship.

References to Bobolinks abound in poetry from 19th-century New England. Massachusetts authors drew inspiration from local birds for a host of reasons, not least because they saw local species as uniquely American subjects (as opposed to, say, the European Nightingale). Bobolinks and Meadowlarks helped distinguish their work from other English-language poets’, and perhaps more importantly, ground it in a sense of place.

Bobolinks were also particularly an familiar and evocative sight through the 1800s and into the past century. Widespread low-impact agriculture provided habitat for field-loving Bobolinks, which don’t mind living near humans as long as their nests are undisturbed. Conspicuous and bold, Bobolinks became an icon of the countryside, and a cultural touchstone for many.

Emily Dickinson, one of rural Massachusetts most-celebrated poets, took a particular liking to them. Bobolinks recurred as a motif in more than 20 of her works. Dickinson often made the birds into rowdy or joyfully anti-authoritarian figures, as here:

 

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

–Emily Dickinson

 

Loosely interpreted, the poem emphasizes finding joy in nature and in the everyday. Here, the Bobolink is part of Dickinson’s everyday “Heaven” on earth; its song part of her quiet resistance to organized religion. Dickinson had studied religion in a seminary, but perhaps tellingly, dropped out after a year.

Dickinson always ascribes human qualities to the bird to illustrate a point—whether as a “Sexton” (someone who rings the bells of a church) calling her attention to beauty in nature, or in other poems, as a disruptive “Rowdy of the Meadow.”

Other poets, however, grounded poems in Bobolinks’ natural history and biology, although few connected them with complex societal themes as adroitly as Dickinson. William Cullen Bryant, for example, managed to accurately convey key points about Bobolinks’ seasonal behavior (despite leaning pretty heavily on twee personification and cutesy metaphors):

 

Merrily swinging on briar and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers;
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln is gaily drest,
Wearing a bright black wedding-coat;
White are his shoulders, and white his crest;
Hear him call in his merry note:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Look what a nice new coat is mine,
Sure there was never a bird so fine.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln’s Quaker wife,
Pretty and quiet, with plain brown wings,
Passing at home a patient life,
Broods in the grass while her husband sings:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Brood, kind creature; you need not fear
Thieves and robbers while I am here.
Chee, chee, chee.

Modest and shy as a nun is she;
One weak chirp is her only note,
Braggart and prince of braggarts is he,
Pouring boasts from his little throat:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Never was I afraid of man;
Catch me cowardly knaves, if you can !
Chee, chee, chee.

Six white eggs on a bed of hay,
Flecked with purple, a pretty sight!
There as the mother sits all day,
Robert is singing with all his might:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Nice good wife, that never goes out,
Keeping house while I frolic about.
Chee, chee, chee.

Soon as the little ones chip the shell,
Six wide mouths are open for food;
Robert of Lincoln bestirs him well,
Gathering seeds for the hungry brood.
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
This new life is likely to be
Hard for a gay young fellow like me.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln at length is made
Sober with work, and silent with care;
Off is his holiday garment laid,
Half forgotten that merry air:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Nobody knows but my mate and I
Where our nest and our nestlings lie.
Chee, chee, chee.

Summer wanes; the children are grown;
Fun and frolic no more he knows;
Robert of Lincoln’s a humdrum crone;
Off he flies, and we sing as he goes :
“Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
When you can pipe that merry old strain,
Robert of Lincoln, come back again.
Chee, chee, chee.

– William Cullen Bryant

 

Bryant’s poem draws a parallel between the Bobolink’s behavioral changes over a breeding season and a human who is burdened with work and worry as they age. But the poem is essentially fanciful, and its goal is mainly to describe these seasonal arcs with flowery language. Still, it’s a rare poem for weaving in a significant amount of natural history.

One could say that Dickinson’s and Bryant’s poems have different goals. Dickinson uses the Bobolink as a device to illustrate the experience of finding joy and religion in nature; she ascribes human qualities to a bird to tell us something about ourselves. Bryant’s poem ascribes human qualities to a bird, but more to illustrate points about the bird itself.

Which poem do you prefer? Do you know of any contemporary poems about Bobolinks—or maybe have written one yourself? Share with us below in the comments!

You can also learn more about (currently-living) Bobolinks and how to protect them at Mass Audubon’s Bobolink Project website.

 

Conservation Success Stories: The Osprey

Ospreys are on the rebound after a troubled past. Despite a history of pesticide poisoning, persecution, and population declines, Ospreys have returned as one of the most abundant raptors of the coast. Today, the Osprey’s story stands as a testimony to the power of scientifically-informed environmental activism.

An Osprey stands watchfully on a snag over a marsh. Photo © William Freedberg 2015

DDT: A Silent Threat

Osprey numbers crashed dramatically following the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide deployed across America in the 1940s. While previous decades saw Ospreys hunted as “pests” and their wetland habitats drained for development, the introduction of DDT all but rang the death knell for the entire US Osprey population.

Nobody realized it at the time, but DDT builds up in animals’ body tissue, and persists in the environment years after being sprayed on farm fields. This spelled trouble for birds of prey: while DDT spraying rarely poisons adult birds to death, it destroys the structure of raptors’ eggshells, preventing them from reproducing.

As a result, Ospreys declined by over 90% between 1950 and 1970. When the now-famous environmentalist Rachel Carson finally named DDT as the culprit in her book Silent Spring, the discovery ignited a movement. A coalition of the National and Massachusetts Audubon societies, as well as local land trusts and nationwide advocacy groups, intervened on behalf of all species threatened by DDT. They sued the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the pesticide—and won.

A few decades later, Ospreys are almost back to their pre-DDT abundance.

A Place To Nest

The DDT ban eliminated a significant threat to Ospreys, but the bird didn’t immediately bounce back. Even in places with clean water and plenty of fish, Osprey numbers are naturally limited by the number of appropriate nest sites. They normally require a tall, dead tree at the edge of a marsh, but lacking standing trees in the open, they settle for utility poles or other problematic locations.

Artificial nest platforms are one solution. In addition to keeping Osprey nests away from telephone wires and buildings, nest platforms increase the number of Ospreys any wetland can support. With wetland edge habitats constantly losing ground to development, it’s critical to maximize the number of Osprey nesting in appropriate wetlands.

Mass Audubon Continues To Support Ospreys

Mass Audubon’s South Coast Osprey Project maintains about 100 Osprey nest platforms. The project also monitors and records data on the Osprey population, including banding and tagging several birds, and tracking their movements. The data never fails to yield exciting results— whether demonstrating Ospreys’ reliance on the spring herring migration for food, or revealing variability in Ospreys’ choice of wintering grounds (South Shore birds end up in places as far away from one another as Cuba and Bolivia).

If you love Ospreys as much as we do, consider sponsoring a nest platform!

In Pictures: A Time When Dead Birds Were High Fashion

After Mass Audubon’s founders curtailed the trend of decking out ladies’ hats with entire birds, many bird-adorned fashion items fell into disuse. Local activism made wearing plumes socially unacceptable, and many people donated their avian accessories to Mass Audubon. These donations quickly accrued into a large historical collection.

It’s sobering to imagine how these feathers and hat ornaments were harvested. Take egret plumes, for example, which make up the bulk of Mass Audubon’s collection of hat-related (or “millinery”) items. Because egrets only grow their most extravagant feathers (called “aigrettes”) during a short part of the breeding season, most were shot while on nests. The deaths of their chicks make the millinery trade in birds seem even more wasteful.

Although most activism around the feather trade focused on its impact on America’s avifauna, the Mass Audubon collection includes some surprising and uncommon birds from far-flung locales. For example, this Lesser Bird-of-Paradise head was collected in New Guinea before being attached to a hat, and eventually haphazardly removed:

This Magnificent Riflebird, also from New Guinea, met a similar fate. Only the lower beak and breast feathers remain.

Not everyone who took part in the bird ornament craze could afford the real thing, and many milliners cobbled together cheaper imitations of tropical birds from farmyard feathers- like this hat-topping “parrot” made of pheasant plumes.

Or this cap made from a mishmash of upland game birds:

Some items in the collection have nothing to do with hats. This “feather painting” depicts a parrot, using feathers from the real thing:

Wild bird feathers were also valuable for use as handwarmers, like this ornate muff made from grebe feathers.

For decades, this collection has been housed at Mass Audubon headquarters. It will soon be moved to a more state-of-the-art facility dedicated to housing historical objects and art, where it can be restored and used for research and public education.

You can learn more about Mass Audubon’s founders and the social history of bird conservation by downloading the article “Founding Mothers of Mass Audubon” here.

 

Throwback Tuesday: Old And New Perspectives On Migration

Spring Migration: The Early Birders’ View

William Brewster, the famous 19th-century ornithologist and Cambridge resident, imagined that spring migrants preferred the rural countryside west of Boston to the woodlands near the city. But when he moved to Concord in 1892, he was surprised to find fewer migrants than he had become used to seeing in Cambridge.

Brewster’s student, Ludlow Griscom, hypothesized that this was the result of birds’ migratory routes. Brewster’s data, collected over decades, seemed to show that migrants did not move evenly across the state, but rather took routes based on the shape of the landscape.

Paraphrased, Griscom’s theory went like this: a big stream of birds passes up the mid-Atlantic coast, and two major contingents form in New York. One, with many inland migrants, would hit the Hudson river valley and follow it north, and the other would travel along the Connecticut coast. A small contingent of birds would then split off and follow the Housatonic River, and a major one would follow the Connecticut River Valley. The rest turn northeast just ahead of Narraganset Bay to avoid the pine barrens of southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. These birds turn north near Boston Harbor, passing through Canton, Milton, Brookline and Cambridge, before continuing north into Essex County and along the New Hampshire coast.

Griscom and Brewster’s theory of migratory routes is roughly illustrated in this map:

Almost, But Not Quite

This particular set of routes has not been borne out by modern data gleaned from the radar. While some studies show that certain areas are regularly “birdier” than others during migration, (including sites along major river valleys), wind and weather patterns ultimately have more sway over bids’ trajectories than the topography of the landscape. Some expert birders still swear that migrating birds following “sight lines” or topographic features, but these observations remains anecdotal.

Even if migratory routes are not as fixed or as specific as Griscom imagined, radar does often show higher concentrations migrants in some areas than others. For example, in early May 2018, birds seemed to avoid southeastern Massachusetts and Boston, staying northwest of I-495. This is demonstrated on the radar maps below (note that the radar station is the white cross in the center of the circle, and that radar can detect birds equally in all directions- check out our blog series on reading radar images if you haven’t yet!)  Bear in mind that these are by no means typical nights—birds take very different migratory paths through Massachusetts every night, mostly depending on wind direction and time of year.

While the radar doesn’t show nocturnal migrants grouping together in narrow ribbons in the air, compiling images like these helps scientists observe patterns in bird migration. For example, this map by Kyle Horton of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows the direction in which birds are heading. The length of each bar shows how many birds are flying in that direction over the course of a season. The key takeaway: many birds fly over the ocean from Massachusetts, preferring to take the direct route over the Gulf of Maine rather than follow the coastline.

 

This map was recently featured in an awesome video by Jackson Childs, a local birder and friend of Mass Audubon. Check out Jackson’s video for more cool information about bird migration, including dawn flight, and some close-up footage of colorful warblers.

If you’ve found surprising patterns in spring migration, let us know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why does the official Bird-a-thon checklist change over time?

In a word: Genetics. 

Bird names are not set in stone. Just ask the Rock Pigeon (formerly the Rock Dove). Depending on your birding experience, you may recognize other examples of species name changes: Thayer’s Gull to Iceland Gull, Rufous-sided Towhee to Eastern Towhee, and Northern Oriole to Baltimore Oriole.

Eastern Towhee used to be considered a subspecies of Rufous-sided. (Photo by Will Freedberg)

Some names change once, only to change again. For instance, the Black Scoter was formerly the Common Scoter, and the American Scoter before that. Perhaps the most complicated name changes come from the splitting of one species into two or three different species. Traill’s Flycatcher, for example, became Willow Flycatcher and Alder Flycatcher.

Just to make sure everyone is thoroughly confused, the ordering of species on avian lists is fluid as well: falcons used to be found with the hawks before they were evicted from the group, and Snow Buntings, which were once found near the finches, are now cozied up with the warblers.

The Rhyme and Reason

While these changes may seem arbitrary or like part of a nefarious arrangement between field guide publishers and the ornithological establishment, neither is the case. There are science-based reasons for periodic changes in bird names and in the ordering of species on avian checklists. Until the 1990s, birds were grouped and classified solely by the way they looked and behaved. Today, it is the genetic makeup, or genome, of a species that is considered more important in determining its origins and its relationship to other living birds.

As genetic relationships become more fully understood, it sometimes turns out that two different-looking “species” are not genetically distinct, or that populations of another “species” are in fact distantly related.  These revisions to bird classification are the most common reason for renaming. For instance, genetic (and other) research has determined that Eastern Towhees and Spotted Towhees represent a distinct pair of species, while the Solitary Vireo has actually been proven to represent three species masquerading as one (Blue-headed Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, and Cassin’s Vireo)!

Behind the Curtain

Maintaining these changes is the responsibility of The American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature. The ornithologists comprising this checklist committee (the NACC) keep abreast of the classification and distribution of all the birds in North and Middle America in order to created standardized classification and nomenclature.

The NACC regularly produces supplemental changes to the latest edition of the Check-list of North American Birds. These are responsible for the periodic name and sequence changes Bird-a-thon birders will see on the event’s official checklist.

Thank you to our Bird-a-thon sponsors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who Was Edward Howe Forbush?

In ornithology, as in most disciplines, there are inevitably “giants” whose profiles stand taller than those of their peers.  Such a figure was Edward Howe Forbush, a prominent Massachusetts ornithologist living from 1858–1929.

Born in Quincy, most of Forbush’s adult life was spent in Worcester in the county that today hosts a bird club bearing his name. Once established in Worcester, at the early age of 16 he was appointed Curator of Ornithology at the Worcester Natural History Society.

By the turn of the 20th century, Forbush’s awareness and passion for the developing need for increased bird protection resulted in his appointment as Ornithologist to the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, where his duties included determining which bird species at that time were deemed detrimental or beneficial to agriculture. By 1896 he became one of the founders and supporters of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and in 1908 he was named the first Massachusetts State Ornithologist.

As a lifelong champion of bird protection, Forbush ultimately undertook the project for which he is best known today: the publication of Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (1925-1929), a spectacular three-volume set of books magnificently illustrated by artist luminaries Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Major Allan Brooks.  In addition to their famous collection of paintings, the species accounts and accompanying essays about the birds in these books are still considered among the best ever compiled on the birds of Massachusetts.

Sadly Forbush never lived to personally complete his magnum opus, yet his many essays and species accounts about birds will forever linger on as richly informational and engaging accounts of the bird species found in the Commonwealth today. The world lost a true hero and a giant in the bird conservation movement with the passing of Edward Howe Forbush.

To get a glimpse of his essays on birds, look for our Warbler of the Week postings, which feature a quote from Forbush for each bird.

Can you spot the grey morph of the Screech Owl in the below Fuertes watercolor?

©Louis Agassiz Fuertes – Plate 47 of Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States: Hawk Owl, Screech Owl, Richardson’s Owl, Saw-whet Owl.

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

Extinct And Back Again: The Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey, John Sill.

Wild Turkey, John Sill.

With Thanksgiving approaching, turkey is on everyone’s mind. While best known as a delicious Thanksgiving centerpiece, the Wild Turkey is also an exemplary icon of conservation success. This quintessentially American bird can now be found roaming free in every state except Alaska, but this was not always the case.

For nearly 100 years, there were no Wild Turkeys in Massachusetts—the state where Thanksgiving began. Hunting and the loss of forest habitat caused the Wild Turkey to be extirpated from Massachusetts by 1851. People attempted conservation action by releasing captive-bred turkeys into Massachusetts, efforts which were unfortunately unsuccessful.

Success came in the 1970’s, when wild-caught New York turkeys were released in Berkshire County. This ‘turkey transplant’ technique proved to work exceeding well: in less than 50 years, Wild Turkeys went from being locally extinct to nearly ubiquitous as a breeder in Massachusetts. No reintroduction program in the history of the Commonwealth has been as wildly successful as that of the Wild Turkey. Perhaps it is time to herald these birds in a new light, as a conservation ambassador!

Read more in our Breeding Bird Atlas account, and amaze your friends and family at the dinner table.

One of our Wild Turkey residents at Mass Audubon Headquarters.

One of our Wild Turkey residents at Mass Audubon Headquarters, Lincoln.

We Are Here To Help

Harriet Hemenway by JS SargentMass Audubon was founded by Harriet Hemenway (left) and Minna Hall in 1896, and was one of the earliest bird conservation societies in the world. Their impetus for creating a “society” for the protection of birds was driven by the Victorian era’s appetite for using whole birds, as well as feathers, as ornaments in women’s fashion. Hundreds of millions of birds were killed worldwide to stoke the furnaces of fashion.  This, along with unrestricted market hunting of shorebirds, ducks, pigeons and other species was driving many species toward extinction. Their slogan, We are Here to Help, still guides our work.

Mrs Hemenway and Miss Hall, residents of Beacon Hill in Boston, organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society, named to honor the great naturalist John James Audubon, and their goal was change the status quo and to protect birds. The group started a movement, and the movement led directly to the protection of birds in the United States, as well as abroad. Their actions changed the world, and, in the US, their work led to the formative legislation that protects birds to this day. There are two fine articles to read regarding the history of Mass Audubon, and they help to set the stage for all of our work since then.

Our commitment to bird conservation has never wavered. While we have new science bringing us new tools to drive our actions to protect birds, at Mass Audubon we also celebrate birds simply for their beauty and mysteries. We recognize that protecting birds in a vacuum is short-sighted, and we continue to work every day to be a voice for protecting the intricate and fragile web that supports all species. Simply, living in a world rich with wildlife makes us feel good, watching and learning about birds makes us feel good, and it is our passion to protect the diversity of the natural world for the future.

This blog will focus on birds, conservation, and ecosystem sciences, with a non-exclusive bend toward work on species that occur in the northeastern US. Sometimes we will post images just because they are beautiful, funny, or inspiring. We welcome your constructive comments.