Rhode Island in Danger of Losing ‘Our Birds’
February 13, 2023
SMITHFIELD, R.I. — The state of the state’s birds is distressing.
According to a first-of-its-kind report by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, more than a third of bird populations — from wood thrushes to common grackles — studied on the organization’s 3,338 acres of refuges are declining. Only a quarter of the bird species are showing long-term increases in population, according to The State of Our Birds, Part 1.
The report, written by Charles Clarkson, the Audubon Society’s director of avian research, uses data collected on the society’s 14 publicly accessible refuges between Jan. 1 and Nov. 1, 2022. It’s the first effort to summarize which species use the society’s refuges throughout the year, and tracks the habitats the birds choose, long-term trends in populations, and “represents a first step toward the proactive management of birds” on Audubon refuges.
“Because of human population growth and all the things our species does to this planet, birds are becoming more and more scarce,” Clarkson wrote in the report. “Despite the numbers of binoculars, bags of bird seed, bird feeders, bird books and birding trips sold, birds continue their decline. Unless we can get a handle on the reasons behind these declines and work toward stopping them, we will lose our birds.”
Beautiful, and vital
Is there a better portent of spring than the birdsong that heralds the warming weather? Or anything as stunning as spotting the brilliant red and black feathers of a scarlet tanager high in a treetop?
But birds do much more than sport colorful plumage or help us mark the change of seasons. They help pollinate flowers and fruiting trees, control pesky insects, and disperse seeds. They scavenge dead and decaying organic matter, and otherwise contribute to our ecosystem.
“We need birds more than they need us,” Clarkson said.
The report identifies nine species as “responsibility birds” — chimney swifts, barn swallows, common yellowthroats, prairie warblers, eastern towhees, black-and-white warblers, wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and red-winged blackbirds — that are easy to monitor, with loud, distinct vocalizations and conspicuous habits. These birds will be studied intensely, including population size, habitat use, and nesting success. The nine birds are considered “umbrella species,” occupying similar habitats, eating similar foods, and nesting in similar locations as other birds; therefore, conserving one species may result in the conservation of other birds with like habits.
The report breaks bird habitat into “guilds,” or types, such as grassland, salt marsh, deciduous forests, scrub/shrub, and mixed forests, to name a few. The greatest declines were seen in species that spend their breeding seasons in salt marshes, grassland, and urban foraging areas, according to the report. The habitats that supported the most diversity during the breeding seasons included deciduous forests, forested wetlands, scrub/shrub, and mixed forests, according to the report.
The bird with the most diversity in its habitat, according to the report, was the white-breasted nuthatch. The Northern cardinal, meanwhile, had the least overlap in living quarters, preferring scrubby, shrubby habitats most of the time.
One of the birds most vulnerable to climate change is the saltmarsh sparrow, according to the report, which calls the small, brown-speckled bird the “poster child” of how changes in habitat can affect populations. Experts predict the saltmarsh sparrow will be extinct by 2050.
The birds are salt marsh specialists, living in higher marsh elevations and building their nests at a particular height in the marsh grass — high enough to avoid damaging nest flooding, but low enough to be out of sight of predators. They have evolved to be able to handle the regular ebb and flow of tides, with chicks learning to climb the marsh grass during high tides, and mothers returning to sit on and warm the eggs after a high tide has dampened them.
But just an inch or so of sea-level rise will decimate these birds, washing away the eggs and forcing the birds to build their nests higher in the grass, which will expose them to predators, experts say.
Birds who live in wetlands are also struggling, according to the report. Forty percent of these species, which include the marsh wren, red-winged blackbird, and swamp sparrow, have declined over the past 50 years. In the case of marsh wrens, the loss of native wetland vegetation like cattails and its replacement with non-native common reeds has led to their decline, according to the report.
But it’s not just birds who live in marshes or wetlands that are in decline. The birds you see when you look out the window — blue jays, robins, song sparrows — are also declining, according to the report.
The Audubon Society hopes to counteract this decline by building or creating new habitats for responsibility birds, in the hopes this will support other species of birds as well. In the case of the chimney swift, which has been shown to respond to the construction of roosting and nesting towers in open fields, the society plans to build such towers in refuges with extensive open habitats, such as Caratunk in Seekonk.
Other responsibility birds, such as the common yellowthroat and the prairie warbler, will be studied and monitored to see how the populations are faring on the society’s refuges.
Eighty Audubon Society volunteers visited each refuge at least twice during the overwintering season, once in January and again in February of last year; and twice during the breeding season, from May 15 to Aug. 1. They also conducted surveys during a full moon cycle in the breeding season to accurately document nocturnal birds, such as owls. Volunteers also did point counts, during which all birds either seen or heard were documented.
Across all the society’s refuges, a total of 144 birds were documented during the breeding season, and 86 during the overwintering period, according to the report.
During the breeding season, the 200-acre Caratunk Wildlife Refuge in Seekonk, Mass., saw the highest number and most species diversity, followed by the 220-acre Long Pond Woods Wildlife Refuge in Hopkinton and Fort Nature Refuge, a 230-acre parcel in North Smithfield. During the overwintering period, Touisset Marsh Wildlife (66 acres) in Warren, Emilie Ruecker Wildlife Refuge (50 acres) in Tiverton, and Caratunk Wildlife Refuge contained the largest number of species and greatest species diversity.
The Audubon Society hopes to use the report as a first step toward proactively managing the birds that use the society’s refuges.
“With the baseline data contained in this report, well-informed management plans can be implemented and conservation success becomes easier to measure,” Clarkson said. “Through this proactive conservation, we aim to keep our common birds common.”
Jeff Hall, the executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, called the report “sobering,” but, he said, it also offers a roadmap “on how Audubon will move forward to protect birds and bring threatened species back.”
“Hopefully [the report] will become a blueprint for other land conservation organizations,” Hall said.