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Breeding Bird Atlas II Will Document Changes in Michigan's Bird Populations

July 21, 2005

As director of avian research at the Kalamazoo Nature Center for 35 years, Ray Adams, Jr., is one of the leading experts in the country when it comes to understanding the relative health and abundance of birds of the eastern United States.

Ray Adams"In the early '70s many species were increasing, but during the 1980s, we began to see a lot of negative changes," Adams said.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources first identified the need for a breeding bird atlas in 1981, but it wasn't until the inception of the state income tax checkoff for nongame wildlife that money was available to fund the project. Adams and the Kalamazoo Nature Center were recruited to coordinate the effort with the Detroit and Michigan Audubon societies providing additional support.

From 1983 through 1988, more than 2,000 volunteers collected over 500,000 field records of nesting birds. The effort was the most complete and authoritative accounting of the state's breeding bird populations ever compiled. At least 215 birds were confirmed to nest in the state, with another 18 species identified as possible or probable Michigan breeding species.

At the conclusion of the project, the data, including comprehensive, up-to-date maps, were published in 1991 as "The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan."

Stilt"The results were surprising," Adams said, "not so much for what we found but for what we didn't. Unfortunately, many of the uncommon species proved to be just as uncommon as they originally seemed. Lark sparrows, for example, now are listed as extirpated as a result
of the survey, while the occurrences of king rails, loggerhead shrikes and short-eared owls -- all endangered species -- continued to be extremely rare."

More promising, however, Adams said was the discovery of three new species nesting in the state: worm-eating and Wilson's warblers and the cattle egret.

Biologists, wildlife managers, planners and administrators have used the data from the first breeding bird survey as the basis for public and private agency planning and management decisions ever since.

Man banding birds"Now, 20 years later, the status of Michigan's breeding bird populations has changed dramatically. According to Adams, development continues to consume and fragment natural habitats at an alarming rate, especially as suburban sprawl spreads on five- and 10-acre parcels throughout the state. Forest canopies are broken up with houses being built in the middle of woodlots. Wetlands have been affected by recent drought conditions and other factors are diminishing habitat. Together, these factors are having a serious impact on our avian heritage.

"Grassland birds have declined so precipitously that it could be considered a natural disaster," Adams said. "The declines are not limited to songbirds but encompass game birds as well."

Such observations were the driving force for a second Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas, a six-year project again initiated by the DNR and coordinated by Adams that began in 2002 and will continue through 2007.

"A statewide breeding bird atlas is a massive undertaking," said Karen Cleveland, all-bird coordinator for the DNR. "Within Michigan's nearly 1,800 townships, we have designated priority survey blocks as well as an undetermined number of specialty and secondary blocks, which all need coverage."

The purpose of the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas-II project is to determine and map the current distribution and abundance of each bird species that nests in Michigan and to identify the habitats necessary to their maintenance and survival.

And even though the survey has been underway for some time, Cleveland said there remain many opportunities for birders of all skill levels throughout the state to participate.

Bluebird"Everyone can participate in the atlas whether they are an experienced birder or a novice who simply enjoys watching birds at their backyard feeder," she said. "People can help by documenting birds in their yard, at their favorite park or even as they drive back and forth to work.

"Observations are needed from anywhere in Michigan. Whether people enjoy waterfowl, upland game birds, raptors or songbirds, everyone can help. The more reports the atlas project receives, the more complete the survey and the more useful the data will be in developing strategies for monitoring and conserving all bird species."

Cleveland said there are several ways to participate. The most basic level is by reporting casual observations from a person's backyard, neighborhood or vacation site.

"Keith Saylor of the Northern Michigan Birding Web site was kind enough to create an online form which is now up and running and accessible from the DNR Web site at Click on Wildlife & Habitat, then Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas," she said.

The DNR site also has information on how to sign up, and includes the various data collection forms and the new handbook for casual observers.

Although the peak of the breeding season in Michigan takes place from May-July, surveys for breeding birds can begin as soon as great horned owls begin courtship in January and continue until September or October when the last young fledge from the last nest of late-nesting species such as the cardinal, cedar waxwing and American goldfinch.

For more information, contact Karen Cleveland at (517) 241-4250; e-mail:, a regional atlas coordinator listed on the DNR Web site, or the Kalamazoo Nature Center at (269) 381-9738; e-mail:

The project also needs financial support. Go to for information on how you can help. Individuals also can help by making a $10 donation to the Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund online at Click on "Tax Deductible Donations," then click on the loon. Add to shopping cart and follow the normal check-out process. Or mail a donation to the Nongame Wildlife Fund, P.O. Box 30180, Lansing, MI 48909. All donations are tax deductible on your federal tax form.

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