As times change in Rochester area, so too do birds
"The cardinal apparently has become established as a nesting and permanent resident bird in Monroe County, along Oatka Creek … south of Scottsville. A male and two females were watched in that locality most of the summer, and the male, at least, still is there …"
W. L. G. Edson, Weekly Bird Report
Democrat and Chronicle, Jan. 20, 1941
It seems hard to believe now, but a mere 70 years ago cardinals — the beloved "redbirds" that flock to our bird feeders — were rarely seen here. In fact, as bird columnist William Edson reported above, they did not become established as resident, nesting birds in our area until the early 1940s.
They are an example of the so-called "southern invaders" — birds such as mockingbirds, tufted titmice, and red-bellied woodpeckers — that expanded their breeding ranges northward during the mid-1900s, in part because of a gradually warming climate and habitat changes, but also because a proliferation of bird feeders helped these birds survive here year-round.
In fact, there has been an ebb and flow of a great many bird species in our area over the years. And the changes have sometimes occurred in a remarkably short time.
What does this have to do with local history? A great deal, actually. Many bird species are highly specialized in the types of habitat they require in order to survive. And so, by examining which have thrived, and which haven’t, we can see how humans have affected our local landscape and its habitat over the years.
Before the arrival of European settlers, for example, much of western New York was forest. Not surprisingly, birds that thrive in forested areas — wild turkey, raven, pileated woodpecker, passenger pigeon — were common. By 1900, however, a great transformation had occurred. Seventy-five percent of the state had been deforested by settlers clearing the land for farms and for villages, towns and cities.
Wild turkeys vanished from the state by the mid- to late 1800s. Ravens retreated to the Adirondacks, and became scarce even there. Pileated woodpeckers — magnificent, crow-sized birds — could be found, for the most part, only in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
And yet, other birds benefited from these changes. Eastern bluebirds, for example, thrive in open, agricultural areas. They were probably quite uncommon in the Rochester area before the great clearing of the forests, but multiplied quickly thereafter. Horned lark, another species that thrives in agricultural areas, spread here from the west and became one of our common field birds by the early 1900s. Chimney swifts, barn swallows and common nighthawks, previously limited to nesting in hollow trees, overhanging cliffs or other natural features, quickly adapted and began using chimneys, barns and gravel rooftops as nesting places.
Crows replaced the ravens, and ring-necked pheasants, imported from Asia, replaced the turkeys.
Returns and declines
And then another transformation began.
It started with the Depression and continues to this day: The abandonment of farms, dramatic changes in the way agriculture is practiced on the farms that remain, and a slow, but inexorable reforestation in many parts of the state. (By 1993, about 62 percent of the state was classified as forest, only 18 percent as cropland or pasture!)
And this, too, is reflected in the birds we see here.
Wild turkeys have returned within the last 30 years or so, and now inhabit even the river gorge downtown. Pileated woodpeckers also have rebounded, showing up regularly at backyard feeders throughout our area. In just the last few years, ravens have been reported nesting at Letchworth State Park and other spots in the higher elevation forests to the south.
Other birds, in turn, have suffered a reversal of fortunes. Ring-necked pheasants, for example, have declined severely, in large part because there is no longer enough grassland to support them. Horned larks are reported declining in some parts of the state. Other grassland species, especially some of the sparrows, are in big trouble as abandoned farm fields either revert to shrubs, and then woodlands, or are gobbled up for subdivisions.
And so, we have almost come full circle.
However, other species, such as cardinals, robins and mourning doves, have readily adapted to suburban landscapes.
A time for turkey vultures
"On a visit to Letchworth Park on July 10 a flock of 10 turkey vultures were circling around over the river," Edson reported in his Democrat and Chronicle bird column in 1957. "This is the largest group of these birds I have seen here at any time." The increase in turkey vultures here is intriguing, because it shows how complicated all this can be. Vultures, which provide an invaluable service by cleaning up road kill and other carrion, were once a great rarity here. In 1928, one spotted flying over Orleans County was "the first time observers have been fortunate enough to see it here," Edson claimed.
In April 2001, no fewer than 5,834 migrated past Braddock Bay in a single day. At least 200 now reside at Letchworth each summer. You simply can’t miss them as they soar gracefully at or below the level of the canyon rims, or perch on the Mount Morris Dam.
Why the increase? Vultures, it is believed, have also taken advantage of a gradually warming climate to spread north. Moreover, an overpopulation of deer in the Northeast has resulted in an ample supply of "road-killed" carcasses for vultures to feed on. All of which is great for vultures, but not so great for certain other bird species, such as rufous-sided towhees, which thrive in shrubby areas, and black-throated blue warblers, which need woodlands with plenty of bushy "understory." That same overpopulation of deer is, in some areas, depleting the shrubbery and understory these other birds need.
Unfortunately, some of the most dramatic and detrimental changes involve birds that were deliberately introduced from overseas and released.
House sparrows, a European species introduced in Rochester in the 1860s and 1870s by such knowledgeable figures as Seth Green, of fish hatchery fame, and noted nurseryman James Vick, quickly proliferated and began competing with many our native songbirds for nest cavities. European starlings, also imported to this country, reached Rochester in 1918 and have become at least, if not more, detrimental. More recently, mute swans, yet another species introduced from Europe, began breeding in our few remaining lakefront marshes and wetlands in 1990. They have exploded in numbers since, and, it is feared, may be driving out native waterfowl.
Granted, not all human intervention has been bad. Bluebird nest box trails have helped sustain that beloved songbird. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons, all but extirpated in New York by the early 1960s because of DDT, have been re-established here as a result of reintroduction programs.
More often than not, however, human meddling backfires. Just look at what has happened with Canada geese, introduced as breeding stock in nearby refuges. Since the 1970s, a beloved symbol of spring and fall migration has also developed a resident population that has become an out and out nuisance.
At least one destructive human impulse — to shoot any wild creature that moves, an impulse that decimated many bird populations by the early 1900s, and completely exterminated the passenger pigeon — has been curbed and carefully regulated.
Monitoring the changes
Much of what we know about this fascinating ebb and flow is the direct result of observations made through the years by volunteer observers. Especially valuable have been organized counts and other bird-monitoring studies. The annual Christmas Bird Count, tallied as early as 1902 in Rochester, is now conducted in three locations in the Rochester area. An annual spring hawk watch at Braddock Bay has provided more than 30 years of data, tallying the incredible flights of hawks, eagles and vultures that occur there as migrating raptors head east along the lake shore rather than venturing out over the water. A bird banding operation by Braddock Bay Bird Observatory has established links with local colleges and universities.
Local birders have also participated in two statewide Breeding Bird Atlas projects to help document where various species breed.
Predicting the future
These monitoring efforts will be even more important in the future as humans continue to affect bird species, for better or worse.
The impacts may be as far-flung as global warming or deforestation of rain forests, to factors closer to home.
For example, troubling disappearances of black terns, pied-billed grebes, and common moorhens from lakefront marshes in recent years have raised questions about whether regulated lake levels have profoundly changed our marshes and ponds in ways that no longer support these and other species of plants and animals.
The proliferation of zebra mussels and other invasive species on the Great Lakes has been linked to outbreaks of avian botulism that may have severe consequences for the thousands of waterfowl that use those bodies of water as a migratory stopover and wintering area.
"If anything is predictable about the future, it is that unexpected changes, both negative and positive, are likely to occur," David Steadman wrote in From Glaciers to Global Warming, an overview of bird life in New York state.
"With the information available at the time, James DeKay had little reason to suspect in 1844 that the passenger pigeon would be extinct only seven decades later.
Similarly, E. Howard Eaton, writing in 1910, could describe the wild turkey in New York only in the past tense, unaware that this magnificent bird would return within four decades and that his yet to be born son, Stephen W. Eaton, would document the recovery."