Looking Out for Our Feathered Friends


They come here with names as rich as the velvety colors of their wings—scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, belted kingfisher, golden-winged warbler, and yellow-bellied sapsucker. The year-round residents, the seasonal migrants, the sparsely spotted interlopers that have been driven here by odd weather and confusion make up a diverse and beautiful range of color and song in the southern Appalachians, and their numbers and varieties here are often astonishing. From pastured valleys to cloud-scathing ridgelines stretching more than 6,000 feet above sea level, the southern mountains host a vast array of ecosystems that have made them a hotspot for the ever more popular pastime of birdwatching.

But even as this hobby takes hold among more and more outdoor enthusiasts and draws ever great numbers of eco-tourists to the Blue Ridge and its sister ranges, the feathered creatures that draw all this attention may very well be in jeopardy. Biologists and even backyard birders are just beginning their efforts to understand how air pollution, climate change, human development, and newly introduced non-native species are impacting the birds of the southern mountains and what, if anything, can be done to stem the tide of habitat destruction.

A Bland Ecosystem of Feathered Generalists?

Giff Beaton, author of Birding Georgia, says anyone who doesn’t believe that human activity is changing the wild make-up of our southern forests must be “smoking crack.” Harsh words? Probably not. Though scientists are just starting to evaluate how changing environmental factors impact birds, the general consensus is that bird populations in the southern Appalachians are definitely changing even if the causes are not yet fully clear.

Simon Thompson, owner of Ventures, Inc., a company that leads birding forays throughout the Blue Ridge and around the world, says it’s difficult to trace the causes of declining or shifting bird populations. “The olive-sided flycatcher, for instance, used to breed in the Smokies,” he points out, “but now it doesn’t. We don’t know why. We don’t know if the impact is here or if it has to do with something like deforestation in Costa Rica.”

Paul Super with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park says recent changes in the forest landscape of the southern Appalachians will most certainly impact bird species in the region. “Stress from air pollution and introduced species like the balsam woolly adelgid have greatly changed the highest elevation habitats,” he says, “potentially affecting species such as the black-capped chickadee, red crossbill, and the northern saw-whet owl.” Super says the North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Service will be starting surveys this spring to determine where owls still reside in the southern mountains. The results of that survey and others that are underway around the region will help biologists better pinpoint what species are in decline and why.

“Red spruce die-off is going to affect any birds that breed in the spruce-fir zone,” Thompson notes, “including species like the golden-crowned kinglet. But even as some species decline, others come in to take their place like the hermit thrush.”

“It depends on birds’ adaptability,” Thompson adds. “Some birds are very adaptable, while others have bred themselves evolutionarily into a corner, like the red-cockaded woodpecker,” a rare bird which only resides in the lower elevation pine forests of the Great Smoky Mountains.

What this means is that birds will continue to exist even in the face of pollution, climate change, and development, but we may soon experience an environment of highly adaptable species while many of the more unique species either die off or move elsewhere, leaving the southern mountains with a less diverse community of feathered friends and a lot of habitat generalists.

Shifting Bird Populations Are on the Rise

Jeff Cooper, wildlife diversity biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says human activities area already showing a significant impact on bird populations in the territories he studies. “In the northern Blue Ridge, we’re getting a lot of second home type development and more sprawl,” he notes. “That means habitat loss and forest fragmentation for migrant species like the cerulean warbler, Kentucky warbler, and wood thrush.”

Cooper says Faquier County, Virginia, which has long straddled the boundary line between metro D.C. and the western mountains, has always provided “superior habitat” for cerulean warblers, but that forest clearing is stealing the birds’ shelter, food sources, and breeding grounds. “Habitat change often results in changes in species distribution,” Cooper says. “Where forest land is cleared, you’ll see more roughed grouse and golden-winged warblers, but no ceruleans.”
One holdout in Faquier, he notes, is the Thompson Wildlife Management Area, which is, of course, protected from development. “Here you’ll find the highest abundance of cerulean warblers in the state,” Cooper says, “as well as a whole host of forest interior species.” But Cooper is worried. “Half of the mountain the refuge occupies is developed. If it weren’t for the refuge, the whole mountain would be developed.”

Cooper says Virginia’s Game Department will be conducting a two-year study, beginning this spring, in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institute to determine species distribution (of both birds and mammals) at elevations over 3,500 feet. “Over 90% of high elevation sites are publicly owned,” he notes. That means high elevation species benefit from the protection of public land.

That doesn’t mean they’re completely safe, however. Air pollution, climate change, and invasive exotic species can all impact birds at higher elevations, even if human development doesn’t. “The hemlock woolly adelgid is likely to severely impact several species of birds that are favorably associated with hemlock forests,” Super explains, “like the Acadian flycatcher.” For now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park serves as a vast, unbroken mass of forest land, providing refuge for a variety of bird species. But development around the park still affects bird populations within park boundaries.

Brown-headed cowbirds, for instance, which once exclusively occupied the Great Plains, have moved east as land clearing provides them suitable habitat for feeding and breeding. “They’re encroaching on other bird species at forest edges,” says Beaton, “and parasitizing the nests of songbirds, who have no defense against them.”

“Global climate change is also likely to alter the distribution of forest types within the southern Appalachians,” Super explains, “but we cannot predict exactly how. Some new species might move into the region at the lower elevations while species restricted to mountaintop habitat may become locally extirpated. Climate is far too complicated for an easy prediction.”

One thing is clear, however, if issues of climate change, pollution, development, and invasive species are not adequately addressed and combated, the plant and animal life (not just bird life) could change dramatically in the coming decades. “Species that are habitat generalists do better,” Beaton says. “A bird like the indigo bunting that can breed in any type of scrubby pasture can survive change pretty well.” But some of the more unique species will not be so lucky. “It’s going to get ugly in 20 to 30 years,” Beaton predicts. “We’re hammering the bird populations everywhere.”

How You Can Help in
Your Own Backyard

The fate of diverse bird populations in the Blue Ridge is in the hands of humans. But you do not have to be a biologist or professional conservationist to lend a hand in efforts to preserve habitat for bird species.

“Landowners can help,” Cooper explains, “by getting involved in conservation easements.” Conservation easements allow property owners to preserve their private land for future generations, limiting future development that can negatively impact wildlife as well as flora and fauna. “Clustering development outside of forest blocks also helps,” Cooper adds, noting that developers who avoid clearing large swaths of land and allow forest areas to remain intact will help preserve the habitat birds and a host of other species need to survive.

Domestic pets also have an impact on wildlife. Thompson discourages homeowners from having cats, as outdoor cats can easily decimate bird populations. “If you have a cat,” he says, “keep it indoors. Domestic cats do a mountain of damage.”

Thompson also encourages homeowners to plant as much vegetation that is native to their area as they possibly can. Dogwoods, tulip poplars, black gum, and just about any other type of fruit bearing tree will attract a lot of birds.

While suburban and subdivision homeowners often want lawns as pristine as golf courses, Thompson says having a perfectly landscaped yard makes for poor wildlife habitat. “Leave standing deadwood,” he says. “It’s important for nesting, and it may actually be more important for wildlife than live trees.” Thompson also encourages property owners to allow brush and grass to grow up and to provide water sources for birds. “People shouldn’t be too tidy,” he says, “if they want to help wildlife. No golf course mentality.”

The key to keeping bird populations in the southern Appalachians healthy is awareness. Understanding how human activities impact wildlife and working, even if it’s only in your own backyard, to minimize negative impact on habitat are good ways to start protecting our feathered friends for future generations.

For More Information on Birding in the Southern Appalachians….

Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains
by Marcus B. Simpson, Jr.
UNC Press, 1992
A good accompaniment to an illustrated field guide

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
(865) 436-1200

Smokies birding checklist: www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/othrdata/chekbird/r4/smokymt.htm

Shenandoah National Park

To order free birding and wildlife guides, call 1-866-VABIRDS

Monongahela National Forest


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