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2nd Breeding Bird Atlas Book Published

By dgross November 17, 2012

Cover of the 2nd Atlas of Breeding Birds in PA

A milestone bird book has just been published that reflects considerable contributions from the state’s birding community. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, published by Penn State University Press, is now available. The project was coordinated by Robert Mulvihill and the book edited by Andy Wilson and Dan Brauning, as well as Bob.  It is a follow-up to the first Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, conducted in our state in the 1980s, but with many improvements. The new Atlas compiled observations made by volunteers from 2004 to 2009 in the same set of blocks where observations were made in the first Atlas, 1983-89. So, comparisons can be made between these periods on the distribution and populations of breeding species.  Bird populations never stay the same.  The new Atlas documents 190 breeding species, including new nesting species such as the Great Black-backed Gull, Merlin, and Eurasian Collared-Dove, but also charts declines of other species. The new publication includes many graphics and color photographs, making it a very attractive and visually informative publication.  It also includes more quantitative information about many bird species that were studied by point-count surveys that supplemented the regular Atlas block data. This book is not only a tremendous achievement for the state’s birders who participated in collecting its data for years, but also testament to the importance of “citizen science,” that same grassroots approach from which eBird was built.  It is one of the largest citizen science projects for wildlife in the history of the state.  Your bird records count!   The book is available at

Given America’s deep interest in wildlife, particularly birds, it’s sort of surprising that the history of breeding bird atlases in the United States is so short; it started with the Vermont Atlas, conducted in 1976 – 1981.  Many have followed. Atlases are very intensive efforts that cover the entire state.  Atlas projects are even more powerful if they are followed with another Atlas, so comparisons can be made and lessons learned about human and other impacts on bird habitat and distribution.  For Pennsylvania, the entire state was divided into 4,937 blocks about 10 square miles in size where birds were observed and reported.  This systematic and consistent approach allowed analysis of statewide bird populations and comparisons between projects.

The original Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, published in 1992 by the University of Pittsburgh Press with Dan Brauning serving as editor, has become one of the most significant publications about the birds of Pennsylvania.  Its fieldwork help to rewrite the distribution map for every breeding bird in the state.  It documented new breeding species like Black-necked Stilt, and rediscovered others like Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.   It also served as a basic resource for cataloguing species into conservation priority groups like Endangered, Threatened, and Species of Special Concern, leading not only to state lists  but also various conservation initiatives.  It also served as a milestone for the distribution of species such as Bald Eagle, Osprey, and Peregrine Falcon, which since then have increased as a result of recovery plans.   This Atlas eventually affected what areas were designated as the state’s Important Bird Areas and what species were targeted for research projects.  It also was a very attractive publication with handsome line drawings, maps, and charts showing Breeding Bird Survey trends.  It still stands as a watershed publication of great importance even 20 years after its arrival. 

The recently published Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania takes the Atlas publication to another level.  This new Pennsylvania book may be the best example of a breeding bird atlas done for any geographic area in the world.  It is visually arresting with more graphics and color illustrations than the first book.  One of the most informative features of the Second Atlas is the set of maps that compare the blocks where a species was documented in each of the Atlas projects, 20 years apart.  Graphs showing the changes in many breeding bird species greatly supplement the Atlas block coverage maps.  The Atlas also conducted a parallel project where thousands of point-counts were conducted across the state, documenting the abundance of vocal bird species.  The point-count data provide breeding density data for about 100 bird species, allowing population estimates for these species and showing hot-spots for many species of interest to birders and conservationists.   Researchers have a treasure trove of information in this project’s data set and the publication, itself.  

The contributions made by volunteers were enormous for the Atlas projects.  Birders contributed more than 1.5 million bird records that populate the breeding bird distribution maps for the 2nd Atlas.  While visiting the 4,937 blocks across the state, ranging from cities to deep forests and remote wetlands, they drove more than 890,000 miles and walked hundreds of miles through bird habitat to get every bird in every block.  The entire Atlas data collection and recording was lead by a cadre of Regional Coordinators who continue to provide leadership in their areas for birding projects.  The momentum of the Atlas project continues with state’s birders who still contribute valuable bird data through eBird, Pennsylvania Birds, the Pennsylvania Birds List Serve, and the Game Commission’s various bird projects. 

There are many surprises and lessons hiding in the pages of the new Atlas.  Over the years, population declines and increases can sneak up on even the attentive observer. The most common species found during the Atlas was not the ubiquitous American Robin, but rather the drab Song Sparrow.  It might not be news that Red-eyed Vireo and Chipping Sparrow are among the most abundant birds, but the Atlas also provides population estimates of many less-studied forest and thicket species.  There were increases in some species, such as Red-bellied Woodpecker, Common Raven, Carolina Wren, and Hooded Warbler.  Other species declined, sometimes at alarming rates, over the same period.  This list includes popular species such as American Black Duck, Common Moorhen, Northern Harrier, Northern Goshawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Common Nighthawk, Barn Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Purple Martin, Marsh Wren, , Northern Waterthrush, Golden-winged Warbler,, and Henslow’s Sparrow.  Overall, there have been widespread declines in both grassland and wetland birds since the first Atlas. 

The newly-published 2nd Atlas, therefore, is a vital tool for conservation and its data already are informing us of conservation priorities.  Many more details about changes in bird populations can be found in the 616 pages of this fully-colored book that is chock-full of information about the state’s breeding birds. 

More information about this book can be found at the Penn State University Press website, and can be purchased at 20% off using the discount code  SOC-12. 

This eBird news item was based in part on an article by Dan Brauning, Andrew Wilson, and Bob Mulvihill in the Pennsylvania Game News, November 2012.

The cover of the 2nd Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania is a painting of a Brewster’s Warbler and a Golden-winged Warbler at a nest.