Author Archives: Mass Audubon

Protecting Salt Marshes at Allens Pond 

Visitors to Mass Audubon’s Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in South Dartmouth and Westport may be curious if they spot groups of individuals digging on the sanctuary’s salt marsh. 

Under the watchful eye of Mass Audubon’s Coastal Resilience Program Director Dr. Danielle Perry and the South East team, they are carving out runnels, shallow channels used to improve waterlogged conditions on the salt marsh by lowering the water table and draining impounded water.  

Climate-related increases in sea level have shown that incoming tides are higher and lasting longer, causing upland areas of the marsh to be flooded more frequently, resulting in the formation of saltwater pools (water impoundments) that remain even when tides recede.  

These water impoundments are having a disastrous effect on the high-marsh ecology, including vegetative die-off and habitat loss. As they literally drown in place, we lose essential salt marsh services such as protection against floods and storms—and as marshes degrade they can release stored carbon and greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. 

Along with our partners at Save the Bay, Bristol County Mosquito Control, Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we are utilizing narrow, strategically placed runnels to drain excess sea water into preexisting ditches or creeks that flow into open water. This strategy alleviates stresses on these habitats, which is crucial to the long-term viability of the plants and animals that rely upon them.  

A runnel

For example, Saltmarsh Sparrows are now extremely vulnerable as their nests within the high marsh are more frequently inundated by incoming tides, as sea level rises.  

Creating runnels can be an effective nature-based climate solution, rather than constructing extensive and costly sea walls that further erode the salt marsh. 

Perry and Mass Audubon Director of Conservation Science Jeff Collins hope to use this salt marsh restoration technique and others at additional coastal sanctuaries, including Great Neck in Wareham, Barnstable Great Marsh and Wellfleet Bay on Cape Cod Bay, and Rough Meadows in Rowley on the North Shore. 

Why You Should Appreciate Pigeons. Yes, Pigeons.

We all love birdwatching, but—pigeons? Who cares about pigeons? Rosemary Mosco, the creator of the nature comic Bird and Moon (and Mass Audubon alum), has a new book out that explains why these ubiquitous city birds deserve a second look. It’s called A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird.

Here, Rosemary shares some of the most frequent questions she gets asked about pigeons.

Why should I care about pigeons?

Our aloof attitude towards pigeons is a new thing. For much of human history, people loved them. Native to parts of northern Africa, Europe, and western Asia, rock pigeons (Columba livia) were domesticated in the Middle East by least four or five thousand years ago.

People used them for meat, for poop (a potent fertilizer), and to carry important messages. Pigeon fans developed all sorts of amazing and fancy breeds, just as with dogs and cats. The birds became a symbol of peace and love, and in some places, only elites were allowed to keep them.

Colonists brought them to North America in the 1600s. But over time, pigeons became obsolete with the introduction of chicken meat, chemical fertilizer, the telegraph. People began to forget why there were pigeons everywhere. It’s a sad tale—feral pigeons are just like feral dogs and cats, but we’ve forgotten why they’re here!

Okay, but why should I watch pigeons?

They’re surprisingly fun to watch! They mate for life and dance for their partners. They feed milk to their young—both male and female pigeons make a rich, fatty milk in their throats and puke it into their chicks’ mouths. Pigeons come in a mix of cool colors because of their purebred past.

Also, watching them can help you find hard-to-spot birds of prey. Peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, and all sorts of other birds prey on pigeons. If you see a flock of pigeons burst into the air, scan the skies for a raptor.

What’s the difference between a pigeon and a dove?

There’s no real difference. The beautiful white symbol of peace is the same as the city pigeon. Pigeons and doves belong to the scientific family Columbidae. It’s a big, amazing family full of beautiful members such as the mourning dove, Nicobar pigeon, and dodo.

Within that family, people randomly named some birds “pigeons” and some birds “doves,” regardless of who’s related to whom. But wait, why do we have two English words for the same thing? It might date back to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The word “pigeon” comes from French and the word “dove” has Old English roots.

Do pigeons harm the environment?

They certainly annoy people when they poop on statues or nest on our balconies. Pigeons are now a major part of the urban ecosystem, but for the most part they don’t have a huge impact on wild spaces. They tend to stay near human settlements—that’s what people bred them to do!

There are exceptions, though. In the Galapagos, for example, pigeons were exterminated so they wouldn’t spread disease to the rare native Galapagos dove.

Why do I never see baby pigeons?

In their wild past, pigeons nested in cavities in cliffs. In urban areas, they nest in crevices in buildings or under bridges. Babies don’t emerge from these safe places until they’re old enough that they look a lot like their parents—just with duller plumage and paler eyes.

You may not ever see pigeon chicks (which is a shame, because they’re gangly, fluffy, and amazing-looking). You’ll hear them, though. They make a high-pitched whistling noise. Listen for that sound when you’re walking around the city or under a bridge.