Tweet to tweet: A century of birding

U. ILLINOIS (US) — A new book is a compendium of how much has changed in the world of birding in the state of Illinois. For example, more than 100 years ago, if a bird couldn’t be identified in the wild, it was most likely shot.

“Many things have changed since 1906. They didn’t have bird books or mp3 players with bird calls on them, says Mike Ward, assistant professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois.

Ward is a co-author of Illinois Birds: A Century of Change, that compiles 100 years of data, photographs, and research. The book follows a comprehensive survey of Illinois birds conducted from 1906-1909; and another from 1956-1958.

“It’s also harder today to walk randomly across Illinois as they did then because of private land issues, so it’s unlikely that we walked in their exact same footsteps, but we know we were in the same general area.

“Most ornithologists avoid urban areas,” Ward says. “But a lot of great conservation happens in the forest preserves in Cook, McHenry, and Lake counties. Fifty years from now, most of northern Illinois will probably be one large metropolis and understanding the dynamics of bird populations in urban areas is going to be important for the future management of species in these areas.”

The book includes pictures and figures—surveyors in 1906 carried a “state of the art” camera and were told to take a lot of photos.

“We have several pictures in the book that were taken in the exact same spot in 1906, 1956, and 2006 so you can see how Illinois has changed and in some cases has not changed.  There are areas in central Illinois where the only change in the last 100 years is that now the field is a soybean field instead of a corn field.

There are areas in southern Illinois that have gone from ag fields in 1900s to a forest in 1950s, back to ag fields in the 2000s.”

What’s changed bird-wise in the past century?

Co-author Jeff Walk, director of science for the Illinois chapter of the Nature Conservancy, says 26 species were found in the 2000s, but not 50 or 100 years ago, including wood ducks, house finches, and collared doves. While only one species has been eliminated from Illinois, there are several species that are declining.

“What we were really struck by is that shrubland and savanna birds such as red-headed woodpeckers, brown thrashers, field sparrows, and bobwhites have been declining for about a century and grassland birds such as pheasants, meadowlarks, dickcissels, and bobolinks have declined dramatically in the past 50 years.”

If this downward trajectory continues, field sparrows and bobwhite are going to be in bad shape, Ward says. “Shrubland birds don’t need a lot to survive, just some messy shrubbery. Everything is so manicured today. If we don’t mow roadsides until July, that would serve as a good habitat for them.”

Shrubland birds like the Brown thrasher have been steadily declining for about a century.

Ward says stepping in now and making them a conservation priority will bode well for them in the future.

“We know that conservation measures taken early in a species decline are much more effective than waiting until there are only a handful left. This survey, combined with the first two, gives us a really good handle on what the conservation priorities should be in the future,” says Walk.

The 1900s survey gave researchers a baseline. “In the 1950s they had seen some changes, but they had only two data points. Now we have three and better statistical tools to look at long term trends, so we have a much better grasp on how things have changed over the last 100 years.”

With three surveys spanning 100 years, researchers developed population models using techniques that weren’t available 100 or even 50 years ago. “We were able to take the 1900s data, the 1950s data, and the modern data and model it to make stronger inferences about what’s gone up, what’s gone down, and what hasn’t changed,” says Jeff Brawn, ornithologist and head of the department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

“We learned from talking with people that their perceptions of what was happening with the bird populations were pretty accurate,” Walk says. “They recognized that wild turkeys and Canada geese were increasing and that there were fewer pheasants and quail.”

A need for further education remains, Walk says. Most people perceived the greatest conservation need with forest birds and didn’t recognize that the grassland birds were in far more danger.

The last chapter of the book predicts what might happen in the future. “We think species such as hawks are going to be fine because they appear to be adapting to living with humans in urban areas,” Ward says.

“Currently crows can be seen in urban areas having learned to eat French fries out of garbage cans at fast food restaurants. One hundred years ago, they avoided towns.  The species that will thrive in Illinois are likely the ones that can cope with humans.”

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