Pennsylvania’s Breeding Birds: Changes Since Atlas One

by Nick Bolgiano


How have Pennsylvania’s breeding bird populations changed in recent years? The state’s second Breeding Bird Atlas will help to answer this question, but the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is particularly valuable for this purpose. The BBS is a collection of routes, each run once during the breeding season, usually during early June. Each route consists of 50 stops one-half mile apart and all birds observed within a three-minute period at each stop are noted. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assesses the status of North American birds from the data collected on approximately 2000 routes.

The accompanying graphs give a visual summary of the BBS data within Pennsylvania and the surrounding region. They allow you to see bird distributions, where changes have occurred, and the rate of these changes within the state. Each graph has a map from the first atlas period, 1983-89, and from a recent seven-year period, 1998-2004, as well as a trend line of the mean Pennsylvania birds per route. On the maps, symbols of different type and color represent different densities and appear for routes run three or more times within that time period. Symbols are plotted at route starting points. If starting points of multiple routes are close together, the symbol representing the higher density is shown on top.  If a range next to a colored symbol in a map's Mean/route table is given as, say >0-4, this means that the average count is greater than zero and less than or equal to 4.

As you look through the maps, you will notice several patterns. One is that Pennsylvania is a keystone state for a number of species, in that abundance drops off sharply north or south of the state. For some species, particularly forest birds, abundance is much higher within Pennsylvania compared to other places within the region. Conversely, some species are much more abundant just outside Pennsylvania’s borders.

The majority of Pennsylvania’s forest birds appear to be increasing. Among these, the boreal birds whose distributions follow the Appalachians south from their northern heartland have generally fared very well. For species that have special habitat requirements, a route with high density may be close to other routes with much lower density. For such species, be cautious in making conclusions about increases, as the addition of a few routes can have a large influence. Black-throated Blue Warbler may be an example of this. 

For several forest birds, decreases in BBS counts have occurred within a broad belt from northwestern Pennsylvania to the Adirondacks. Acid deposition has been blamed in the decline of Wood Thrush within this area. Data for Least Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Veery suggest possibly similar trends.

Birds of farmlands and of early successional habitat have generally fared less well than the forest birds. Ring-necked Pheasant and Northern Bobwhite either no longer occur as naturally reproducing populations in many locations or are in much lower densities than during the first atlas. Others, such as Red-winged Blackbird, Vesper Sparrow, and Brown Thrasher, dropped sharply in number during the 1970s and early 1980s, but now appear as if they are stable in number.

You can see the great success of some species. Canada Goose is spreading from southeast and northwest, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse continue their surge northward, while Eastern Bluebird and Tree Swallow appear to have benefited from more nest boxes being deployed.

These graphs contain much more information than is described here. See for yourself.

Nick Bolgiano
711 W. Foster Ave.
State College, PA 16801



BBS maps in taxonomic order:

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ruffed Grouse
Wild Turkey
Northern Bobwhite
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Black Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Barred Owl
Great Horned Owl
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Winter Wren
Marsh Wren
Eastern Bluebird
Swainson's Thrush
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Kentucky Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Canada Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Summer Tanager
Scarlet Tanager
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Henslow's Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow