The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State

Cornell University Press, 2008 Hardcover, 712 pages, $59.95
Cornell University Press, 2008
Hardcover, 712 pages, $59.95

In 1988, Cornell University Press published The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. The book, which sits before me, filled 552 pages with maps, text and elegant line drawings of every bird found courting prospective mates, hatching eggs or raising young in the Empire State. The culmination of more than 200,000 hours of skilled volunteer fieldwork beginning in 1980 and ending at the end of 1985, the book was a knockout. It contained a wealth of information, including first-ever range maps showing the meticulously documented distribution of every grebe, heron, blackbird and sparrow. I still refer to my copy, and I’ll always be proud that I played a role—a small one—in its completion.

Now in bookstores and libraries arrives The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, also published by Cornell, edited by Kevin McGowan and Kim Corwin. It brings together information gathered during a do-over of the original project— a census of the state’s breeding birds conducted from 2000 to 2005. I helped in a small way on this project, too. Under Corwin’s deft coordination, 1,187 volunteers spent 140,000 hours in the field. Stir in statistical analysis and 21st-century cartography, and presto!—out comes a detailed portrait of what birds nest where in the state.

As far as I can tell, all the line art is new. Often, excellent drawings are replaced by even better ones, although in several cases, such as the sketch of the hooded warbler, I prefer the old. Adirondack birds that come off especially well in the art department include the northern goshawk (shown feeding a chick), the merlin, the Swainson’s thrush and the white-throated sparrow. Cynthia Page’s drawing of the gray jay, one of my favorite birds and a classic Adirondack native, brings this graceful bird alive. A few drawings disappoint me, including the spruce grouse and the bald eagle. All in all, though, thumbs up for the art, especially the new habitat paintings that convey some of the thrill of finding birds in the wild.

The maps are brilliant. Two appear for each species. One shows the current distribution, color coded to show where the species was proven to breed, where it was likely breeding (the judgment based on sensible and standardized criteria), where it possibly bred (because it was found on good habitat in nesting season) and where it was not found at all. A second map illustrates the changes from the first atlas’s findings to the second.

Gray jay
Gray jay

Let me give a couple of examples to illustrate how the atlas works and the information it conveys.

Consider the American black duck, which is found, among other places, in wetlands in the Adirondacks and salt marshes on the coast. The 2000-2005 distribution shows that the bird was confirmed breeding in 239 breeding blocks. It was detected as a likely breeder in 215 more and a possible breeder in 274. Overall, the number of blocks in which it was found dropped 34%, from 1,102 to 728. The “change map” illustrates the trend. Different colors indicate blocks where the duck was newly discovered, where it was found during both surveys, and where it was found only during the first survey. The conclusion is graphically clear: The black duck seems to be declining, at least in terms of the number of places it nests.

Let’s also look at the palm warbler, a nesting bird of the North so named because the first specimens known to science were shot on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in palm trees. Here the maps show this yellow, rusty-capped, tail-twitching warbler sharply on the geographical increase. Volunteers, including my wife, Debbie, and me, found the bird breeding in 15 blocks, most of them in the Adirondacks. This points to a dramatic gain over the single location where the species was confirmed nesting in 1980-1985.

I find it fun to scan the maps and look for trends in our own backyard. Adirondack birds on the rise, at least as far as breeding distribution is concerned, include Canada goose, wild turkey, common loon, turkey vulture and bald eagle. Adirondack birds in decline, at least geographically (volunteers note only locations and occurrences, not actual numbers of birds), include black duck, American three-toed woodpecker, rusty blackbird, Baltimore oriole and bobolink. Some species show no clear trends.

Even books this good have weak points. Right off the bat, I groaned when I found my wife’s name missing from the volunteer list. Debbie and I conducted our fieldwork as a team, and she did nearly all the paperwork. The snub was accidental, surely, yet it makes me wonder how many others are missing.

Another fault lies in the text, particularly the species accounts. For purposes of discussion, let’s zero in on a single bird, another favorite of mine, the rose-breasted grosbeak. In the first atlas, the description begins, “The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a large and handsome songbird that often whistles its loud, robin-like song from the very top of a tree.” The account goes on to describe past and present distribution and winds up with engaging detail about how and where rose-breasted grosbeaks build their nests.

Hooded merganser
Hooded merganser

In the new atlas, the same bird’s account is vague and dry. Compare the first sentence: “The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a colorful, vibrant songster of forests.” What, exactly, does colorful mean? See the male for the first time, and you may think it’s had its throat slit. The plumage is mostly black and white, which may explain why that splash of blood red on the white breast forcefully grabs one’s attention. Vibrant? I’m not sure what that means. Aren’t all birds vibrant? Gone from the old account are the loud, whistled singing from treetops and the engaging bits of nesting detail. To be fair, some accounts appeal, and getting them written, no doubt under a deadline, must have been a long, hard slog.

What I’m trying to get at is a shift in tone from the first atlas to the second, one away from lively writing and reproductive biology toward a greater emphasis on statistics, graphs and numbers. The effect is to take a “vibrant” subject— birds and the sometimes surprising places they breed, or don’t breed—and drain the blood out of it. In certain corners of academe, this will win points. Yet I fear the change will greatly diminish the atlas’s appeal to the hard-working Janes and Joes whose tax dollars subsidized its publication and who are being asked to pay an additional sixty bucks for the privilege of wheelbarrowing the heavy tome home.

It didn’t have to be this way. World-class scientists such as Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan and Edward O. Wilson, as well as a host of able nature writers, have demonstrated again and again that good science and good writing make boon companions.

Gripes aside, this is a splendid book. It’s bigger and better than the old atlas, and McGowan and Corwin deserve our gratitude for the skilled efforts required to bring it to press. Its appeal, though, will be limited mainly to specialists, and to bird nerds like me. Twenty years from now, I hope to see a third atlas take a serious crack at combining cerebral number-crunching with writing that compels readers to pay attention. After all, putting this sort of fascinating information, with its implications for conservation, into the hands of a wide audience, seems a job worth doing.