Report: Mountain bird numbers see dramatic dip

Report: Mountain bird numbers see dramatic dip

Counts show decline in many high-elevation species across the Northeast since 2010

By Chloe Bennett

On many June mornings, volunteers have camped along Adirondack Park peaks listening to the songs of the boreal forest. These citizen scientists each year count and record the existence of a set of bird species atop the park’s mountains. 

Birds found in high elevations, including Bicknell’s thrush, chickadees and the white-throated sparrow are singled out from the natural symphony as part of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ bird watch project, which has operated for more than 20 years. The program’s 2023 report, released this winter, shows a decline in nearly all of the studied species.

Climate change is a root cause of the population reduction, the report states. 

The monitored birds are a mix of species that mainly inhabit mountains and those found in low elevations that are expected to inch upslope as temperatures warm. Watched birds, including Bicknell’s thrush, white-throated sparrow and winter wren, have declined by 40%, the data showed.

The results were unsurprising to the report’s author, Jason Hill, who said harmful climate impacts on the birds will be long-lasting. “The processes driving these long-term trends that are reported in the State of the Mountain Birds report aren’t ephemeral,” Hill, a quantitative ecologist for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, said. “They are choices that we make as a society.”

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Volunteers from the Adirondacks often include some from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Angelena Ross, the department’s avian and mammal diversity unit leader, got involved to help study the effects of climate change. 

“The vegetation these species rely on has no more room to expand upslope with increasing temperatures, which essentially results in shrinking islands of suitable forests surrounding the peaks of these mountains,” Ross said. A biologist with a background in bird research, she has also led a multi-year project to increase the population of spruce grouse in the Adirondacks. 

Report: Mountain bird numbers see dramatic dip
Algonquin Mountain is one of the established routes bird watchers can take in the Mountain Birdwatch program. Photo provided by Angelena Ross

One observed bird, the white-throated sparrow, is declining across the globe. The Northeast has seen a reduction in the bird’s population since 2010 averaging 61%, the report found. The Adirondacks are the second steepest decline after the Catskills. 

It was around the year 2021 that one volunteer, Joan Collins, noticed a major difference in bird populations. “You would go out there on a perfect day with no wind, which is really rare up there, early in the season in June when you should just be surrounded by birdsong, and there were moments when it was just dead quiet,” said Collins, who is on the board of the Northern New York Audubon Society. 

Putting the findings into perspective, Hill likened the data to seeing a steep change in one’s retirement or savings account. “The money you’re setting aside for a new car or to send your kids to college — and that had just been declining steadily — you’d be panicking,” he said. “And for folks that study montane organisms like myself, that’s the sense of feeling I get.”

Solutions for all

Hill said he is optimistic that he will see the population data flattening out in the future, signaling the success of climate mitigation efforts. In the meantime, small-scale solutions can also be deployed by anyone with a backyard or land around their home, he said. 

“One of the best things you could do is kill your lawn,” he said. 

Instead of mowing grass in the summer, Hill suggested slowly adopting a native plant habitat for pollinators like birds. According to the National Audubon Society, birds benefit from native plants with increased food and shelter. Nursery plants installed on lawns are often from other countries, the organization states. 

“Stop using chemicals around your house, stop using neonicotinoids and other pesticides and embrace the organic component of it,” Hill said. Keeping pet cats inside also helps, he said, as the felines likely kill billions of birds each year, according to the American Bird Conservancy. 

People concerned about bird population decline can also join the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ bird watch this summer. Several spots in the High Peaks, including on Porter Mountain, have yet to be reserved for the 2024 project, according to a map on the center’s website. 
To read the State of the Mountain Birds report, click here.

Photo at top: A song sparrow and a white-throated sparrow. Photo by Larry Master

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