Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Commentary: Birding And Climate Change

An ornithologist visiting Oseetah Lake this summer thought he heard the call of a fish crow. Being a scientist he is a careful person, and when I contacted him he said he really couldn’t confirm his observation—there may be hybrids of fish crows and American crows out there.

The common American crow has been in the Adirondacks at least since colonization, in the mid 19th century. Fish crows, which are smaller and voice more of an awh than a caw, reside primarily in the coastal southeastern United States and were once restricted in New York State to Long Island and the tidal Hudson River, according to The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State (2008) and John Bull’s Birds of New York State (1974).

I was curious about the possibility of a fish crow near my home, but in a different way than I would’ve been a decade ago. If one were here as an “accidental,” a bird blown off territory by a storm, it would be a novelty, occasion for birders to go out with binoculars and add it to their lists. If, however, fish crows were establishing themselves near Saranac Lake and even breeding here, it would mark a milestone in a northward and inland expansion that began in the last third of the 20th century.

So I wonder, Will this be our next turkey vulture? Or cardinal, or tufted titmouse? Species that once reminded me of visits to an aunt and uncle in Virginia have been arriving in the Adirondack upland, nesting near boreal, cold-weather birds such as spruce grouse and gray jays that’ve been here for centuries.

Diversity is often considered a sign of a valuable ecosystem, and many factors can influence the expansion of a bird’s range. But some species late to the Adirondack Park might be harbingers of unsettling change. “Nine new breeding birds have spread into the Adirondack interior over the past century,” Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Jerry Jenkins writes in a report to be published this year, Climate Change in the Adirondacks. “The distances the birds have moved correspond to the amount that the temperature has changed and suggest that the birds are tracking climate change and moving with it.”

“It is the privilege of the naturalist to concern himself with a world whose greater manifestations remain above and beyond the violences of man,” Henry Beston wrote in a foreword to his 1928 classic of nature observation on Cape Cod, The Outermost House. Birdwatching and the study of other fauna and flora is no longer such a refuge.

The more warblers, wildflowers and what Beston called “charming bits of life” I learn, the more I want to understand how they came to be where they are, and the more a pastime becomes an inquiry into human influence on other living things. As kids my brothers and I would catch smallmouth and see mallards in the park. We would later learn that conservation officials introduced these creatures by the tens of thousands around the state, reducing numbers of native fish and ducks as a consequence. “Playing the sorcerer’s apprentice,” our father called it. It was an early lesson in the idea that things we do as a species can unintentionally alter even nature’s “greater manifestations,” and do so in ways that take time to see.

Painting by John James Audubon

See this page from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s birding Web site for tips on how to tell a fish crow from an American crow.

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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