Category Archives: Birds & Birding

Mid-Atlantic Bird Disease Outbreak: No Change to Recommendations

Bird feeders are still empty and indoors at Mass Audubon sanctuaries (as they mostly are statewide). We miss seeing our visiting chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and woodpeckers at our nature centers and offices!  

Keeping feeders down is still the right decision in light of the disease outbreak in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. So far, the disease has not spread into New England, and there’s no immediate cause for concern at this point—only caution. 

Blue Jay sitting on bar copyright Richard Morreale
Blue Jay © Richard Morreale

Hold tight! 

It is possible that nothing will change for the next couple of weeks, and perhaps even the rest of the summer. It’s worth checking back on this blog or on the MassWildlife website later in August for any future updates.  

Both MassWildlife and their state agency counterparts in Connecticut and Rhode Island continue to ask that people pause feeding birds statewide.

Luckily, late spring and summer are the seasons when insects, water, wild seeds, and fruits are abundant. These natural foods have sustained birds in the warm season since long before we began feeding them.

More Unknowns than Knowns 

The cause of the outbreak is still unknown, and identifying the cause of any new avian disease is a process of elimination. So far, wildlife health experts have confirmed that the disease is not due to West Nile virus, avian flu, conjunctivitis, or agricultural pesticides or herbicides. A hypothetical link to the Brood X cicada emergence in the Mid-Atlantic has also been ruled out. 

We also don’t really know if this disease can be passed from bird to bird yet. Some of the affected birds show signs of eye infections—which suggest, but do not confirm, that it’s transmissible.  

This disease spread rapidly in its early stages, though the numbers appear to be stabilizing in some states. We do know that birdfeeders and birdbaths have in the past facilitated other outbreaks of disease, like salmonella and conjunctivitis, because they provide shared surfaces where birds congregate densely and frequently.  

By temporarily removing your feeders and bird baths, you are reducing the chances that this disease will spread into Massachusetts. Thank you. We can’t wait to get back to feeding birds as soon as it’s prudent, and we’ll be sure to let you know when that is.

Update on the Unknown Bird Disease

Updated 7/20/21

Mass Audubon is in conversations with MassWildlife and other colleagues about the risk posed to Massachusetts birds by the ongoing avian disease outbreak in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern US.

While the disease has not been confirmed in any areas north of New Jersey, out of an abundance of caution Mass Audubon and MassWildlife have decided to recommend taking down bird feeders and birdbaths until the current outbreak is over. Birds can find plenty of natural food and don’t depend on bird feeders, especially during the warm season.

blue jay at feeder
© Lori Lawson

Here’s what to do now:

  • Cease feeding birds (including hummingbirds) until this wildlife morbidity/mortality event subsides.
  • Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach mixed with nine parts water), rinse with water, and allow to air-dry.
  • Avoid handling birds unless necessary. If you do handle them, wear disposable gloves and wash hands afterwards.
  • If picking up a dead bird, place an inverted plastic bag over your hand to avoid direct contact with the bird. To dispose of dead birds, place them in a plastic bag, seal, and discard with household trash or alternatively bury them deeply. 
  • Keep pets (including pet birds) away from sick or dead wild birds as a standard precaution.

Bird mortality is always a little higher during the summer, as a good number of fledglings sadly don’t make it past their first few months.

Please email reports to Mass Wildlife via this form and include your location, number and species of birds, symptoms observed, and any photos. We will continue to monitor the situation, so stay tuned for more information as wildlife biologists monitor the current outbreak. 

Monitoring the Mysterious Bird Disease

Two American Goldfinches at a bird feeder
American Goldfinches

We have received quite a few questions about the mysterious disease impacting birds in some states to our south.

We’re in touch with local wildlife officials and health experts. To our knowledge, the disease has not yet been observed in Massachusetts but we will continue to monitor the situation and advise accordingly.

Scarlet Tanager © Kate Finn

Take 5: A Study in Scarlet

A bird as brilliantly colored as the Scarlet Tanager might seem at first to be impossible to overlook. But as it happens, this vibrant forest bird is improbably gifted at evading the birder’s eye, even as it moves sluggishly about the forest canopy, singing its hoarse song as it searches for caterpillars to eat.

During spring migration and summer, look for a flash of red up high in the canopy of mature deciduous forests for a chance to spy a male Scarlet Tanager. The females will be even trickier to spot—this species is sexually dimorphic, so the yellowish-green females are significantly less vibrant than breeding-season males, although the males’ brilliant plumage fades to yellowish-green in the fall and winter.

To somewhat more easily identify both males and females, listen for the loud, distinctive chick-burrr call given by both sexes. Their song is similar to a robin’s, but with a raspier tone.

Enjoy these five photos of Scarlet Tanagers from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest and let us know in the comments if you’ve been lucky enough to spot a Tanager in your area. The 2021 photo contest opens in early June, so keep an eye out for the announcement!

Scarlet Tanager © Jeff Carpenter
Scarlet Tanager © Jeff Carpenter
Scarlet Tanager © Lauren Sullivan
Scarlet Tanager © Lauren Sullivan
Scarlet Tanager © Matt Sabourin
Scarlet Tanager © Matt Sabourin
Scarlet Tanager © Kate Finn
Scarlet Tanager © Kate Finn
Scarlet Tanager © Elizabeth Watson
Scarlet Tanager © Elizabeth Watson

Black Birders Week is Back!

After the global success of its inaugural year, #BlackBirdersWeek returns Sunday, May 30 through Saturday, June 5, 2021!

Organized by Black AF in STEM, a collective of unapologetically Black scientists studying topics in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, this year’s event will showcase the many unique ways Black people connect in the outdoors.

The week’s lineup includes nationwide birding events, live-streamed panel discussions, and daily interactive themes, some of which are produced in partnership with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Collective, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and more.

Black Birder's Week 2021 Schedule Overview
Image © Black AF in STEM, artwork by Sheridan Alford

Be sure to check out the schedule of events for Black Birders Week 2021 on their website, and follow @BlackAFinSTEM on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for updates about daily activities and entry links for a daily giveaway!

Black Birders Week at Mass Audubon

In addition to spreading the word about Black Birders Week and the official lineup of events, Mass Audubon is also offering the following free events to celebrate locally.

Virtual Conversation with Dr. J. Drew Lanham

The On Belonging In Outdoor Spaces speaker series concludes on Wednesday, June 2 with a talk featuring Dr. J. Drew Lanham on “Coloring the Conservation Conversation,” moderated by Mass Audubon’s president David O’Neill. Dr. Lanham will discuss what it means to embrace the full breadth of his African-American heritage and his deep kinship to nature and adoration of birds. He will also examine how conservation must be a rigorous science and evocative art, inviting diversity and race to play active roles in celebrating our natural world.

Bird Walks

Join local naturalist John Green for a Black Birders Week bird walk at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton/Northampton on Thursday, June 3, to explore the birds of Arcadia at the end of the busy spring migration season.

The Boston Nature Center and our partners at the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition are sponsoring three Black Birders Week bird walks and a family program from Wednesday, June 2 to Saturday, June 5. Observe birds in a unique urban habitat and practice finding and identifying birds through field marks, sounds, and behaviors. Birders of all levels will enjoy these guided walks.

Virtual Storytelling Event

On Saturday, June 5, professional storyteller Ben Cunningham will share bird and wildlife folktales and stories from around the world in a free, virtual storytelling program, followed by a 15-minute Q&A with the performer. This event is free to register, but we ask that you consider making a donation to our partner Outdoor Afro, an organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature.

Great Horned Owl © John Harrison

Take 5: Great Horned Owlets

Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest birds to breed in Massachusetts, with courtship beginning as early as December. They are not cavity nesters, but use old Red-tailed Hawk or Great Blue Heron nests, often at the top of dead tree snags. With a little luck, you may be able to spot the still-downy heads of fledglings sticking up over the edges of these large nests.

Around six weeks of age, baby Great Horned Owls begin to venture out of the nest onto nearby branches, a behavior called (appropriately) “branching.” Because their wings are not yet fully developed, they use their talons to grip branches and move around.

After another week or so, their wings and confidence have strengthened enough to try out a few awkward test flights, but they usually bungle it more often than they succeed in the beginning. This can lead to some comical situations with confused, panicky youngsters finding themselves hanging upside down from tree branches or even on the ground, sharply clacking their bills and wearing a bewildered expression. Appearances to the contrary, they are perfectly fine and will return to the safety of their nests after a brief period of recovery.

So if you come across a fluffy fledgling looking a bit disgruntled on the ground, there’s no need to worry—the parents are almost certainly nearby keeping a watchful, stoic eye while their little ones blunder their way through adolescence. Keep a respectful distance to ensure you don’t inadvertently cause them further stress, and enjoy a quiet chuckle of commiseration—after all, who hasn’t been through an awkward growth spurt or two?

Enjoy these five photos of Great Horned Owlets from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The 2021 contest will be opening in early June, so get your cameras ready and get outdoors!

Great Horned Owl © Jason Goldstein
Great Horned Owl © Jason Goldstein
Great Horned Owl © John Harrison
Great Horned Owl © John Harrison
Great Horned Owls © Rick Olick
Great Horned Owls © Rick Olick
Great Horned Owls © Jim Renault
Great Horned Owls © Jim Renault
Great Horned Owl © Scott Creamer
Great Horned Owl © Scott Creamer
Magnolia Warbler © Joe Howell

Take 5: A Wealth of Warblers

Bird-a-thon is a wrap! How did you and your team fair? Spot any cool warblers?

For those new to the tradition, Bird-a-thon is Mass Audubon’s big annual fundraiser and birding competition, in which teams compete head-to-head by earning points from birding and nature activities and by birding in strategic sub-groups in an effort to identify the greatest number of bird species in 24 hours. The event takes place in mid-May, in large part because it’s peak migration season in Massachusetts for many of our migratory bird species.

One group that gets a lion’s share of the attention? Warblers. Each spring, thousands of warblers fly north from their southern winter homes to breed and raise their young, delighting us with their bright colors and distinctive markings.

With more than 30 species of warblers annually occurring in Massachusetts, these colorful avian sprites are consistently among the favorites of birdwatchers everywhere. They consistently both challenge and seduce birders with their animated but sometimes elusive behavior, preference for sheltered forest canopy, and frequently difficult-to-distinguish songs.

Below are five photos of beautiful, bright warblers from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest to celebrate the end of another successful Bird-a-thon. And check out the hundreds of birding programs happening at Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries across the state this spring and summer. May you be blessed with a wealth of warblers!

Yellow Warbler © Jason Gilbody
Yellow Warbler © Jason Gilbody
Magnolia Warbler © Joe Howell
Magnolia Warbler © Joe Howell
Cape May Warbler © Andy Eckerson
Cape May Warbler © Andy Eckerson
Prothonotary Warbler © Jeff Carpenter
Prothonotary Warbler © Jeff Carpenter
Palm Warbler © Mary Dineen
Palm Warbler © Mary Dineen
Barred Owl © Jenny Zhao

Take 5: Freebirds

Mass Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon is an amazing event that allows us to share our love for birds and, thankfully, the number of participants grows each year. We have always been mindful that while this event has unmatched potential for getting people excited about birds, birding, and conservation, it also has the potential to create stress for some species if we do not manage how participants interact with the rarest birds found in our state, especially those that are on-nest this time of year. Stress on wildlife is the last thing we want to encourage.

For several years, we have been adding precautions to the official event rules and guidelines to ensure that our Bird-a-thon activities are not causing any harm to birds. For instance, using audio recordings to lure birds in is not permitted. This rule is there to protect rare birds from being lured with a broadcasted audio file multiple times simply to be counted by teams during Bird-a-thon.  Some species are given “Freebird” status for exactly that reason—every team can check off these birds, and that eliminates the possibility of multiple teams descending on one rare bird in quick succession.

This year we are taking additional steps to protect birds during Bird-a-thon by adding the regularly occurring and rare owls to our list of “Freebirds”. Each team gets to count these birds toward their totals without having to actually see them:

  • Barn Owl
  • Eastern Screech-owl
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Snowy Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Long-eared Owl
  • Short-eared Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet owl
  • Northern Goshawk
  • King Rail
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Cerulean Warbler

This decision takes us one step closer to doing our best to protect the nature of Massachusetts while we encourage people to take a deep dive into birding. We realize this shift may affect the way some teams develop their strategies for Bird-a-thon, but at the end of the day, it’s all about protecting the birds, and we trust that’s a mission all Bird-a-thoners can get behind.

Instead, we hope you’ll enjoy these five beautiful photos of owls from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Good luck to all the Bird-a-thon teams! Fly on, freebirds!

Barred Owl © Jenny Zhao
Barred Owl © Jenny Zhao
Great Horned Owl © Katherine Sayn-Wittgenstein
Great Horned Owl © Katherine Sayn-Wittgenstein
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Barn Owl © Victor Simas
Barn Owl © Victor Simas
Eastern Screech-owl © David Morris
Eastern Screech-owl © David Morris
Bald Eagle flying

When Pest Control Poisons Wildlife: Why It Happens and How to Help

(Disclaimer: the post below includes a photo of a dead bald eagle)

This week, Massachusetts passed a sad benchmark–the first documented case of a bald eagle death in the state from second-generation anticoagulant rodenticide (SGAR) poisoning.  

Or, in clearer terms: rat poison. 

Anticoagulant rodenticides kill rodents by preventing blood from clotting normally. But these poisons can have unintended victims when wildlife, like birds of prey, ingest them or eat prey that has consumed the bait. 

Second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs) can be especially problematic since they don’t kill rodents immediately. Poisoned rodents can still live for a few days and consume more poisoned bait during that time, and the delay means they can ingest enough poison to kill a much larger animal. 

Photo: James B. Condon

Aren’t These Poisons Regulated?

Second-generation anticoagulants have been banned by the EPA from the consumer market, but licensed exterminators are still allowed to deploy them. Other rodenticides, called first-generation anticoagulant rodenticides and non-anticoagulant rodenticides, are still approved for residential consumer use if enclosed within a bait station. 

While this was the first confirmed case of an eagle death in the state as a result of SGARs, the issue of birds of prey becoming the unintended victims of these poisons is a growing problem. Nearly every raptor species is vulnerable to rodenticide poisoning. For example, one recent study found that 100% of tested red-tailed hawks at Tufts Wildlife Clinic had been exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides. Secondary poisoning has also been documented in species like foxes, bobcats, and coyotes.

What’s the Solution?

With rat populations on the rise, pest control measures continue to be necessary. But many poison-free options for preventing rodent problems exist. In addition to non-chemical traps, these include exclusion methods, like sealing up access points to buildings, and sanitation methods, like securing trash bins to reduce food sources.  

If the situation necessitates hiring a pest control company, choosing one that uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can also make a big impact in reducing widespread pesticide use. IPM relies on a series of pest management evaluations, and its strategies can include trapping, sealing up entry holes in foundations, walls, and roofs, and removing or trimming vegetation that obscures the ground.  

We also need laws to regulate the pesticides that do continue to be used. In California, legislation has passed prohibiting the use of SGARs until state agencies can reevaluate what long-term restrictions are needed to avoid impacts to nontarget wildlife.  

Here in Massachusetts, An Act relative to pesticides would better regulate the use of SGARs, in turn reducing their impacts on birds of prey and other wildlife. The bill would: 

  • Increase use of IPM strategies in Massachusetts 
  • Educate consumers about the benefits of IPM and impacts of SGARs 
  • Require digitization of pesticide use forms, making them more accessible and searchable 

You Can Help Stop Wildlife from Being Poisoned

Ask your state legislators to co-sponsor An Act relative to pesticides today! The more co-sponsors a bill has, the more support it has behind it and the better chance it has of passing. 

By improving our approaches to pest management, we can reduce the need for rodenticides at their source and help our wildlife thrive. 

Bald Eagle Flying © David Morris
Bald Eagle © David Morris

Protect Birds by Addressing Climate Change

When Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall founded Mass Audubon in 1896, they were committed to ending the cruel practice of killing birds for fashion. Since then, Mass Audubon has continued its dedication to protecting birds through the threats they’ve faced over the decades – and now that means addressing climate change

North, North, and Away 

Both plants and animals live in predictable environments, and one of the most important parts in defining these environments is their temperatures. But climate change is causing temperatures to increase world-wide. As Massachusetts gets warmer, the plants and insects that comprise these environments are shifting northward – and we’re seeing birds follow them away from the Commonwealth. 

Higher temperatures also provide a suitable environment for the spread of invasive pest and plant species – both of which reduce healthy Northern hardwoods forested habitat.  

49% of the Massachusetts’ breeding forest bird species we studied are highly vulnerable. 

Black-throated Blue Warbler © Terri Nickerson

The Commonwealth’s Black-throated Blue Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler are expected to decline as the Northern hardwood trees they call home are overtaken by more heat tolerant species. Ruffed Grouse, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Wood Thrushes are also expected to be vulnerable to the reduction of Northern hardwoods forested habitats as a result of this shift in dominant tree species. 

Changing Seasons 

Our seasons are changing, impacting bird food sources and nesting behaviors. With milder, shorter winters and earlier springs (among other shifts) – the environmental cues that typically trigger breeding or nesting behavior and the emergence of food are thrown out of whack. 

66% of the Massachusetts breeding, long-distance migrants we studied are highly or likely vulnerable.  

Tree Swallow in nest box.

Migratory species, like Tree Swallows, can only make minor modifications to their migration schedules to coincide with the shifting peak abundance of their food. The dissonance between migration and breeding schedules and shifting seasons can adversely affect breeding birds— especially if available food sources are insufficient to raise their young. 

Rising Sea Levels 

With tides creeping farther up our shores, sea level rise is swallowing important marsh and beach-nesting habitat of coastal bird species. 

56% of the Massachusetts’ breeding, coastal-nesting species we studied are highly vulnerable. 

Piping Plover and chicks © Lia Vito

These, often already threatened, species now contend with the effects of sea level rise. Least Terns, Piping Plovers, and Saltmarsh Sparrows nest in habitats that are slowly being overtaken by this climate impact in addition to the increasing frequency and severity of storms. 

We Can Make a Difference 

Let’s come together to protect birds by working to solve climate change in two ways: by adapting to climate change (withstanding its current impacts) and mitigating climate change (reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and removing them from the atmosphere). Visit massaudubon.org/climate for how you can start doing both.