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Slayton: Breeding Birds Atlas

The newly published Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont is a large, beautiful, and important book that documents the 202 species of birds that nest in our state.

It is also a monument to citizen-science – the kind of science you and I do, perhaps without knowing it, when we go out into the countryside and record what we see there.

And make no mistake about it, this Second Atlas of Breeding Birds, edited by Rosalind Renfrew is important science. It not only establishes which birds are breeding where in Vermont, but also points out trends in Vermont’s avian populations – which birds are increasing here, and which birds are disappearing.

The second atlas can do this because of the first Atlas of Breeding Birds, which was published back in 1985. The same process was used then to survey birds – hundreds of measured blocks of territory in important locations throughout Vermont were assigned to volunteer birdwatchers who were trained to record the birds they saw there.

By comparing birds seen in the first atlas, and birds seen a quarter-century later in this second atlas trends can be identified. And what is the major trend? Not surprisingly, it is change.

Several species seen in the first atlas have declined or disappeared in the second atlas. And conversely, several species not found in the surveys of the first atlas were found by researchers in the second.

Most often, birds declined in number because their habitat was lost or altered. For example, grassland birds like upland sandpiper, bobolink, and eastern meadowlark declined significantly. The reason? Vermont is losing open grassland to development, and the meadows that remain are being farmed more intensively.

However, the Earth’s changing climate and conscious restoration programs have brought new nesting birds to Vermont. Birds of prey like the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, and the osprey, which were threatened with extinction in the 1970s, have been brought back from the edge and are now nesting here. Common loons, still a species of concern, have been re-established in the lakes and ponds of the Northern Forest.

And southern birds like the tufted titmouse and the red-bellied woodpecker are now being seen often in Vermont, because of global climate change and other factors.

So the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont tells us many important things – not only about the birds we see and hear around us, but about our state, and how it is changing as well.

This amazing book would not have been created without the foresight and dedication of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, and several other organizations. Especially noteworthy are the 350 or so devoted citizen scientists who researched this landmark volume. The fact is, it could not have been produced without their diligent volunteer fieldwork

In a world that desperately needs both hard scientific facts and beautiful birds, this is very good news.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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