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Pleistocene Parkland to Hay Meadow
The Bobolink is gone- The Rowdy of the Meadow- And no one swaggers now but me- The Presbyterian Birds Can now resume the Meeting He boldly interrupted that overflowing Day When supplicating mercy In a portentous way He swung upon the Decalogue And shouted let us pray- -EMILY DICKINSON, c. 1883
Emily Dickinson's surroundings, in Amherst, Massachusetts, at the middle of the nineteenth century, were strikingly different from the heavily wooded suburbs and mountainsides that dominate New England today. Her poems describe a world of open meadows and large vistas. The birds of her poems are birds of hayfields, gardens, and orchards. A modern poet evoking the New England countryside would more likely describe the songs of the Wood Thrush and other forest birds. Poetry, of course, is not necessarily a dependable source of information about nature; the larks of Dickinson's poems were probably the Skylarks encountered in British poetry, not the inconspicuous Horned Larks that she may have flushed in a winter pasture. Nonetheless, the writing of an earlier century can help describe a lost landscape.
Although Dickinson wrote most frequently about the still-common American Robin, the second most frequent species in her poems, the Bobolink, has disappeared from much of New England. It has declined for a number of reasons, but principally because of the loss of the open meadows and pastures where it lived. The poem "The Bobolink is gone," which describes the dullness of a meadow following the Bobolink's migration south, has become more poignant as the species has disappeared from most of New England and, indeed, from most of eastern North America.
Nearly all of New England's forests have grown up through the skeleton of abandoned farmland. When walking in a tall, old forest, one constantly climbs stone walls and passes root cellars, stone foundations, and massive piles of rocks (removed one by one to improve fields that no longer exist). The truly giant trees grow along the walls; they have the wide-spreading branches of open-growing pasture trees, not the sleek, columnar shape of trees that have always been surrounded by other trees. If one looks down on the leafless winter forest from an airplane, the gridwork of stone walls maps out the hay meadows, orchards, and vegetable fields of the last century. All of these landmarks point to a past in which a dense and busy human population occupied what is now the interior of an extensive forest.
One can capture the feeling of this lost landscape in the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the early poems of Robert Frost, but the magnitude of the ecological changes in New England is described better by naturalists. The novels and poems of the nineteenth century suggest that the Bobolink was a common bird, but the proportions of its abundance in eastern North America are made more dramatically clear in the detailed descriptions of John James Audubon. In Ornithological Biography (1831), Audubon described Bobolinks in New York and Connecticut in mid-May, when "they have become so plentiful, and have so dispersed over the country, that it is impossible to see a meadow or a field of corn, which does not contain several pairs of them." At this time of year they were trapped in "great numbers" for the cage bird trade. At the end of July they would concentrate in huge flocks that "plunder every field, but are shot in immense numbers." According to Audubon, professional hunters shot millions of these birds at their evening roosts during the fall migration along the East Coast and in the rice plantations in the Carolinas, where they spent the winter. Bobolinks and other songbirds were sold for food in city markets.
Bobolinks thrived in the nineteenth century despite the depredations of bird catchers and market hunters. Ironically, after they were protected by the migratory bird treaty in the early twentieth century, their population began a steep decline that continues today. If they had disappeared because of overhunting there undoubtedly would have been an outcry from conservationists. But the decline results from slow changes in the landscape, changes that also have diminished or eliminated the populations of many other species of grassland birds. What Harold Mayfield called the "quiet decline" of grassland birds has attracted surprisingly little notice or concern. This response (or lack of a response) is rooted in the myth that before Europeans cleared the land, unbroken forest stretched from the Atlantic to the Great Plains.
Population Declines in Grassland Birds
Many species of grassland birds were common or even abundant along the East Coast through most of the nineteenth century, but their numbers diminished noticeably between the late 1800s and the middle of the twentieth century. Ludlow Griscom described the Upland Sandpiper, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and Grasshopper Sparrow as formerly common but declining in Massachusetts. Edward Forbush mourned the virtual disappearance of the Upland Sandpiper from New England: "Our children's children may never see an Upland Plover [Sandpiper] in the sky or hear its rich notes on the summer air. Its cries are among the most pleasing and remarkable sounds of rural life.... [Its] long-drawn, rolling, mellow whistle ... has the sad quality of the November wind."
Although the decline of grassland birds was obvious to any careful observer, only in recent decades have we been able to calculate the precise rate and extent of these population changes. The best evidence for this comes from the Breeding Bird Survey (or bbs), a system of roadside routes scattered throughout the United States and southern Canada where birds are counted each year. In 1994 more than 3,000 of these routes were surveyed. A volunteer proficient at identifying birds and bird songs travels along a 25-mile route, stopping every half mile and recording all the birds seen or heard during three minutes. The results for all of the survey routes east of the Mississippi River indicate that since 1966, when the surveys began, the abundance of 15 of the 19 species of grassland and savanna birds in eastern North America has fallen. Some have shown rapid population changes. Between 1966 and 1994, for example, Grasshopper Sparrows decreased at a rate of 6 percent per year, while the annual rates of decline were 3 percent for Vesper Sparrows, 9 percent for Henslow's Sparrows, and 3 percent for Eastern Meadowlarks. In contrast, only 2 of the 40 species of forest-dwelling migratory birds (a group that has received considerable attention from conservationists) decreased at a rate of more than 2 percent per year during the same period.
Another indication that grassland birds in the northeastern United States are in trouble comes from state lists of endangered and threatened species. Of the 40 species listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern in three or more northeastern states, 13 are grassland or savanna specialists, and only three are forest specialists. For example, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Harrier, Loggerhead Shrike, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, and Vesper Sparrow are listed in all or most of the New England states. The populations of many of these species have dropped in other parts of the eastern United States, both along the heavily forested East Coast and in the more agricultural Midwest.
Unlike migratory songbirds that live in forests, eastern grassland birds have received relatively little attention from most government wildlife agencies and conservation organizations. One reason for this surprising complacency in the face of well-documented population losses is the general impression that most grassland species are not native to the region but have invaded the eastern states from western savannas and prairies after the clearing of the forest for agriculture. For example, Whitcomb argues that this invasion of the eastern "neosavanna" created by agriculture has been a "failed experiment for many of these species" that are now declining. The implication is that this is a return to ecosystems more similar to those existing before European settlement and therefore should not be a cause for concern. According to Whitcomb, these species could survive only with active management to preserve grassland "in a region where [grassland] is inappropriate as an equilibrium community."
Many historians and botanists have depicted the landscape of the ancient East Coast of North America as carpeted with forest, a forest so continuous that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without touching the ground. Since the early 1900s, however, some botanists have argued that the forest was not always continuous but was sometimes interrupted by scrubland, barrens, and even, in places, with prairie-like grasslands. If this is true, then grassland birds may have had a place in the presettlement landscape.
Were There Grasslands on the East Coast Before European Settlement?
When H. S. Conrad visited Long Island's Hempstead Plains in the 1930s, much of the area was little bluestem prairie, a yellow-green grassland dotted with the small, bright-green hemispheres of wild indigo plants. In May, the prairie was blue with the blossoms of birdfoot violets, and in June it was speckled with the yellow globes of wild indigo in bloom. As Conrad pointed out, this grassland on the coast of New York was remarkably similar to the tallgrass prairies of Iowa and Nebraska. Moreover, the Hempstead Plains had a rich community of grassland birds: Upland Sandpipers, Bobolinks, Vesper Sparrows, and Grasshopper Sparrows were all common there in the 1920s.
European travelers described the Hempstead Plains as treeless in the 1600s, so this grassland was not a product of European agriculture. The Hempstead Plains was characterized by thin soil resting on a porous foundation of quartz and granite pebbles, features that, in combination with periodic fires, may have favored the growth of grasses and herbs rather than trees and shrubs.
The Plains once covered more than 50,000 acres (20,000 ha), and for many years it was used primarily for sheep grazing and horse races. Large areas of grassland remained when Conrad visited the area in the 1930s, but after the Second World War these open areas were subdivided for housing or plowed for truck farms. Today only a few acres of this prairie survives: a 19-acre parcel belonging to Nassau County Community College and managed by The Nature Conservancy, and a 46-acre parcel managed as a nature preserve by Nassau County. The smaller preserve has been maintained with controlled burning.
Although the Hempstead Plains may have been one of the largest and most distinctive grasslands on the East Coast, it was not the only one. Another grassland, the Montauk Downs, covered part of eastern Long Island, and several large grasslands called glades characterized a plateau in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania. Also, in the 1600s a savanna where occasional large oaks broke an expanse of tall, wiry grass (probably bluestem) stretched for 15 miles along the Quinnipiac River north of New Haven, Connecticut. After decades of overgrazing, this area became the almost desertlike North Haven sand plains, and subsequently most of it was developed. Blueberry barrens, which are open expanses covered with low blueberry shrubs and grasses, still cover large areas in eastern Maine, where they are maintained by burning for blueberry production. Some of the largest East Coast populations of Upland Sandpipers, Vesper Sparrows, and other species of grassland birds live in these barrens.
Many of these grasslands may have resulted from the activities of Indians before European settlement. Early explorers and colonists frequently encountered open landscapes created by firewood harvesting, clearing for maize fields, and burning to enhance hunting. For example, Verrazano described the area around Narragansett Bay (Rhode Island) in 1524 as open plains, without forests or trees, for many leagues inland. Champlain and John Smith reported extensive areas of cleared land along the New England coast before Europeans colonized the region. Moreover, an early settler in Salem, Massachusetts, described "open plains, in some places five hundred acres ... not much troublesome for to cleere for the plough to goe in." These clearings were not restricted to coastal regions; accounts of early settlers indicate that river valleys had been cleared by Indians for farming and hunting.
Early assessments that Indian agriculture had relatively little effect on the landscape were based on population estimates after European settlement, but population densities were much higher before contact with Europeans triggered epidemics that killed a large proportion of the people in most tribes. As Kulikoff wrote regarding the Chesapeake Bay region, "though English settlers did not find a wilderness, they did create one"; extensive agricultural clearings reverted to forest as Indian populations declined. Pilgrims traveling through the area near Warren, Massachusetts, in 1621 "saw the remains of so many once occupied villages and such extensive formerly cultivated fields that they concluded thousands of people must have lived there before the plague." Maps, drawings, and written accounts of the landscape around Indian settlements in the southeastern United States before European settlement provide evidence of extensive clearings created by farming and of "parklands" maintained by controlled burning. In New York and southern New England, relatively high population densities combined with the slash-and-burn agriculture would have resulted in extensive areas of cleared land in the form of both active and abandoned fields. This would have produced a "mosaic of forests and fields in varying degrees of succession." Another view is that eastern tribes used large permanent agricultural fields from which tree stumps had been removed rather than temporary fields cut out of the forest for slash-and burn agriculture. This permanent farmland would have to be rested occasionally, however, producing "weed-covered" fallow fields of the sort seen by Samuel de Champlain near the site of Boston in 1605. Regardless of whether the Indians used slash-and-burn or permanent field agriculture, their activities would have produced open habitats (abandoned or fallow fields) that could be used by grassland birds.
There also is good evidence that the Indians of the East Coast burned large areas to create open woodlands and grassland for hunting. For example, Roger Williams wrote in the 1640s that Indians in New England "burnt up all the underwoods in the Countrey, once or twice a yeare and therefore as Noble men in England possessed great Parkes ... onely for their game." In 1818, B.
Excerpted from Restoring North America's Birds by Robert A. Askins Excerpted by permission.
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|Ch. 1||Grassland Birds of the East Coast: Pleistocene Parkland to Hay Meadow||1|
|Ch. 2||Another Quiet Decline: Birds of the Eastern Thickets||27|
|Ch. 3||The Great Plains: Birds of the Shifting Mosaic||55|
|Ch. 4||Lost Birds of the Eastern Forest||75|
|Ch. 5||Deep-forest Birds and Hostile Edges||99|
|Ch. 6||Industrial Forestry and the Prospects for Northern Birds||131|
|Ch. 7||Birds of the Western Mountain Slopes||155|
|Ch. 8||Declining Birds of Southwestern Floodplains||185|
|Ch. 9||Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and the Longleaf Pine Woodland||209|
|Ch. 10||Landscape Ecology: The Key to Bird Conservation||229|