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Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest

Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest

by Matt Williams


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From the birds who wake us in the morning with their cheerful chorus to those who flock to our feeders and brighten a gloomy winter day, birds fascinate us with their lively and interesting behavior and provide essential services from controlling pest populations to pollinating crops. And yet for all the benefits they provide, many species across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio are in danger of extinction due to loss of habitat, agricultural expansion, changing forest conditions, and interactions with humans.

In Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest, Matt Williams profiles forty of the most beautiful and interesting birds who winter, breed, or migrate through the Midwest and whose populations are most in danger of disappearing from the region. Each profile includes the current endangered status of the species, a description of the bird's vocal and nesting patterns, and tips to help readers identify them, along with stunning color images and detailed migration maps.

An exquisite and timely examination of our feathered friends, Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest is a call to action to protect these vulnerable and gorgeous creatures that enliven our world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253035271
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 726,069
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Matt Williams is Director of Conservation Programs at the Nature Conservancy, where he has worked for more than 16 years, and is a specialist in prescribed fire and endangered species management. He is author and photographer of Indiana State Parks: A Centennial Celebration and photographer of The Complete Guide to Indiana State Parks.

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Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus)

STATUS: Common Bird in Steep Decline, IUCN Near Threatened, State Special Concern (Ohio)

ESTIMATED POPULATION TREND: –85% during the period 1966–2014

LENGTH: 9–10"

Species Account. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, the Northern Bobwhite, or Bobwhite Quail, enjoyed robust population numbers across much of the Midwest. During this time period, 150,000 hunters annually killed as many as 2.5 million quail in the state of Illinois alone. However, by the 2015–2016 quail season in Illinois, 7,665 hunters harvested only 29,674 birds — an indication of how quail populations have fared across the Midwest as a whole in recent decades.

Another measure of the quail population is through calling routes. Quail calling routes are run each summer by biologists working for several Midwestern states. In Illinois, the routes are run in prime quail habitat twice per year — once during the period May 10–June 10, and a second time from June 10 to July 10. There are twenty stops on the route and observers record the number of quail heard or seen during three minutes of observation at each stop. The 2016 numbers revealed that quail were recorded at only 24 percent of the stops, which marked the third year in a row that the numbers declined, representing a 6 percent decrease from the previous year's results.

Although quail numbers fluctuate substantially from year to year, similar population drops since the early 1970s have taken place across the region, and some Midwestern states like Indiana even closed the quail season for a number of years in an effort to help the population rebound. Many biologists and hunters point to the harsh winters of the late 1970s as a turning point in quail numbers. In winters with below-normal temperatures and heavy snow cover, quail numbers crash. On bitterly cold winter nights, quail coveys huddle together in a circle facing outward, with each body touching another in order to stay warm. However, in extreme temperatures, entire coveys may freeze or die of starvation if they are unable to find food in deep snow. In the late 1970s, there were three such winters in a row in the Midwest, and population numbers have still not recovered. Other factors are likely in play as well — for example, the intensification of agriculture is often cited as a reason for the decline of Northern Bobwhite numbers. Fewer fencerows, increasing use of chemicals to control insect populations, fewer fallow, brushy fields, and mowing during the nesting season all likely play a part in the overall decline.

Because of its popularity among hunters, the Northern Bobwhite is a highly studied bird. Genetics studies have identified twenty-two separate subspecies throughout the bird's range. Other studies have looked at the foods eaten by these small quail. In examining the stomach contents of over eight hundred Northern Bobwhites, nearly seventy different kinds of food items were identified over the course of one two-year study. Some of the most common fall foods were corn, sassafras, ragweed, insects, wheat, acorns, and foxtail.

Although the current situation seems a little bleak for these beautiful birds, there is some good news. Bobwhite populations farther south, where winters are warmer, seem to be doing better than they are in the Midwest. Also, hunters and groups like Quail Forever are working hard to improve habitat across the core of the birds' range. Programs for farmers, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, are also important opportunities to increase the amount of suitable habitat for these birds.

Identification. The male is a chunky quail. In the Midwest, male birds have a rufous band across their breast that continues onto their backs. The head is striking, with a bright white throat and a white stripe that runs over the eye and down the nape. This contrasts with a black beak and a black stripe through the eye. The back is mottled with tan, gray, and black. Females have a similar appearance but have muted buff on the head, whereas the male is bright white. In the Midwest, the Northern Bobwhite is fairly unmistakable, with the possible exception of being confused with a young pheasant or Wild Turkey.

Vocalizations. The Northern Bobwhite says its name bob-WHITE — often from a fencepost or a dead branch. The call is a clear, two-part whistle, with the second note emphasized and slurring upward in pitch. Occasionally, the call will have three notes instead of two, with a second bob note slightly higher than the first. The birds also have a variety of calls used to stay in touch with other members of their covey. Some of these calls warn of danger, with a different call used for ground-based predators than for aerial threats.

Nesting. Northern Bobwhites can lay anywhere from twelve to sixteen eggs per nest attempt, with as many as an incredible twenty-eight reported in some cases. The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground, usually sheltered by a shrub or clump of grass. Nests are usually located within sixty-five feet of a field edge or a road. Chicks leave the nest upon hatching and may be tended by either parent. The adults will flutter or drag a wing in an effort to distract predators away from the chicks.


Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido)

STATUS: NABCI 2016 Watch List, 2016 PIF Watch List, IUCN Vulnerable, State Special Concern (Minnesota), State Threatened (Wisconsin), and State Endangered (Illinois)

ESTIMATED POPULATION TREND: –50% during the period 1970–2014


Species Account. At first light in the early spring, male Greater Prairie-Chickens gather on traditional leks — places of short grass often on a small rise in the prairie where the birds can see a good distance. Here, they stake out and defend small territories against anywhere from a handful to as many as several dozen other males. They erect pinnae feathers over their heads almost like feathered horns, revealing orange air sacs on the side of their necks. The birds can inflate these sacs, then force the air back out to create a hollow moaning, or "booming," noise that can carry for great distances on a still morning. The booming is also often accompanied by a foot-stomping display in which the males rapidly stomp their feet while holding their tails erect and wings stiffly at their sides. In addition to booming, the birds cackle and whoop as they square off head-to-head on the lek. Sometimes fighting males leap into the air and beat each other with their wings while attempting to scratch at their opponent with their sharp claws. This amazing cacophony of sound reaches a crescendo when a female bird approaches the lek. Hens calmly and slowly walk around the lek, feeding and often appearing disinterested in the fierce battles taking place around them. Typically, only the most dominant one or two males do the great majority of the breeding, which is the reason for the battles. As the morning wears on, males will slowly wander off the lek or sometimes they fly off together in groups, only to resume their hostilities at full tilt the next day.

Historically, Greater Prairie-Chickens were abundant in this country. They ranged across the midsection of the nation, from Canada to Mexico. A subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken known as the Heath Hen bred as far east as the East Coast and was so numerous it was called "poor man's food" because they were so cheap and plentiful. Some have even speculated that it was Heath Hen that was eaten at the first Thanksgiving. Despite this abundance, probably because of overhunting and a loss of habitat, among other factors, the last Heath Hen died on Martha's Vineyard in 1932.

A second subspecies known as the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken is found only along the coastal prairies of southeastern Texas. As recently as 1900, these birds may have numbered as high as 1 million in the coastal prairies stretching from Louisiana to Mexico. Despite captive breeding and other efforts, these birds are now critically endangered, and the total wild population may hover around one hundred birds.

In the Midwest, Greater Prairie-Chickens have also suffered significant declines from their peak population numbers. Although the birds were once present in large numbers in every Midwestern state, today they are completely gone from Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, and they hang on only in small numbers in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In our region, only Minnesota boasts a population of reasonable size, with estimates of several thousand males in the northwest part of the state being recorded in censuses of the leks. Although other factors have played a role, habitat loss is likely the biggest reason for the decline of the Greater Prairie-Chicken, with only about 1 percent of native prairie habitat remaining in the Midwest. The birds need thousands of acres of intact prairie with few trees for avian predators to perch in. With so little of this type of habitat remaining, it is not hard to see why we have so few birds left today.

Fortunately, Greater Prairie-Chickens remain in good numbers outside the Midwest across portions of Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, where swaths of native prairie habitat still exist. Overall, the birds appear to be doing quite well in these states, with a total population estimated at over four hundred thousand. Efforts are under way to translocate some of these birds to the Midwest in an attempt to vary the gene pool of the remaining small, isolated populations in order to stabilize and grow them before they disappear.

Identification. Greater Prairie-Chickens are relatively large, stocky chickenlike birds. They are heavily striped and show a chocolate brown tail. The male's orange air sacs are usually visible only during breeding displays. In flight, the birds show rounded wings and frequently glide before settling back into the grass. The Sharp-tailed Grouse is similar looking, but it is more spotted than striped and has a pointed tail rather than the short, stubby tail of the Greater Prairie-Chicken.

Vocalizations. Away from the booming grounds, the birds are typically quite quiet, although they may give a few short cackles if flushed. Vocalizations on the lek include cackles, whoops, and the low, hollow moaning sound known as booming.

Nesting. The male takes no part in nesting or brood rearing. Hens typically lay between ten and twelve eggs that are light buff and speckled with brown. Incubation lasts approximately three weeks, and the chicks leave the nest and can forage for their own food immediately after hatching.

Matt Williams


Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

STATUS: Common Bird in Steep Decline

ESTIMATED POPULATION TREND: –52% during the period 1966–2015


Species Account. The bird sits hunched in the shadows, its body and long tail completely motionless. Slowly, very slowly, it turns its head to look first up, then down. Slow as a sloth, the bird cranes its neck to peer carefully at every leaf surface in all directions. The bird is a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and it is hunting. It is patiently watching for any sign of movement that would betray the location of a tasty caterpillar in the nearby foliage. Finally satisfied that no meals are within easy reach, the cuckoo takes flight and heads deeper into the forest. After having sat motionless for so long, the swiftness and directness of its flight is breathtaking: it flies with swept-back wings and its long tail streaming behind it, twisting to avoid branches in its path and flashing red primary feathers as it disappears.

Because of their habit of sitting motionless for long periods, cuckoos can be remarkably difficult to spot despite their relatively large size. Often, the best way to find them is to listen for their unique, rhythmic knocking call. According to some, cuckoos give these calls more often on cloudy days or in response to thunder, which has given rise to their nickname — the rain crow. The nesting season for cuckoos in the Midwest can last all the way through early September, making them one of the few birds still calling during the dog days of late summer.

Cuckoos are beneficial in helping to control populations of insects. One of the few birds that eat hairy caterpillars, cuckoos have been reported to eat as many as one hundred tent caterpillars in one meal. In fact, outbreaks of tent caterpillars or gypsy moths often result in higher numbers of cuckoos in the area, and food-supply levels may even affect the timing of the breeding season. In addition to caterpillars, Yellow-billed Cuckoos also eat spiders, katydids, and cicadas. They have even been observed flying to the ground to take crickets, grasshoppers, and other prey as large as small frogs.

Yellow-billed Cuckoos have been known to occasionally lay their eggs in other birds' nests. During times of high food abundance, female cuckoos will lay their eggs in another cuckoo's nest, as well as in the nests of American Robins, Wood Thrushes, and Gray Catbirds. If food is especially scarce, the adults may remove the youngest nestling from their own nest in order to give a higher chance of survival to the larger chicks.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo has a wide distribution in North America, with birds occurring from the East Coast to California. However, the cuckoo has suffered a significant population decline from its historical levels. The birds have been extirpated from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. In California, the population has gone from an estimated fifteen thousand pairs to forty pairs in the past hundred years. Because of these declines, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo population west of the Rocky Mountains has been granted protection as a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In the Midwest, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is still a relatively common bird in forested habitat, where it prefers early successional young forest with plenty of scrubby, brushy areas. However, even in the Midwest, cuckoo numbers have fallen dramatically since the 1960s. The declines are primarily due to habitat loss, with estimated population drops of 70 percent in Minnesota and Iowa, and more than 80 percent in Indiana.

Identification. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a relatively large, slender bird about the size of a robin, but with a long tail with obvious white spots that are most noticeable on the underside. The bird has a yellow eye ring and a plain brown back, with clean, unmarked white underparts. The wings are brown with rufous primary feathers. The bill is heavy and large, and is primarily yellow, with some black on the top mandible. The Black-billed Cuckoo appears quite similar but has red around the eye instead of yellow, a smaller all-black bill, and smaller white tail spots.

Vocalizations. The call is a loud, hollow, tick tick tick tick tick, kowlp kowlp kowlp. The tick notes are rapid and all on one pitch, while the kowlp notes descend in pitch and are a little more drawn out. The birds also make a cooing call at times that sounds almost like that of a pigeon. Yellow-billed Cuckoos have been known to call even at night during the breeding season.

Nesting. Yellow-billed Cuckoos have been found to nest anywhere from two to thirty feet or more aboveground. Trees used commonly for nesting include elm, hawthorn, and locust, and trees that are overgrown with wild grapevines or other tangles of vegetation seem to be favorable sites for the rather flimsy, platform nests. Typical clutch size is from two to three eggs, with as many as five to six possible.


Excerpted from "Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest"
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Copyright © 2018 Matt Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Northern Bobwhite

2. Greater Prairie-Chicken

3. Yellow-billed Cuckoo

4. Black-billed Cuckoo

5. Whooping Crane

6. Piping Plover

7. Marbled Godwit

8. Red Knot

9. Dunlin

10. Pectoral Sandpiper

11. Semipalmated Sandpiper

12. American Woodcock

13. Willet

14. Lesser Yellowlegs

15. Herring Gull

16. Snowy Owl

17. Short-eared Owl

18. Red-headed Woodpecker

19. Loggerhead Shrike

20. Horned Lark

21. Bank Swallow

22. Wood Thrush

23. Pine Siskin

24. Evening Grosbeak

25. Snow Bunting

26. Golden-winged Warbler

27. Prothonotary Warbler

28. Kentucky Warbler

29. Kirtland's Warbler

30. Cape May Warbler

31. Cerulean Warbler

32. Blackpoll Warbler

33. Prairie Warbler

34. Canada Warbler

35. Wilson's Warbler

36. Field Sparrow

37. Grasshopper Sparrow

38. Henslow's Sparrow

39. Bobolink

40. Eastern Meadowlark

What People are Saying About This

Kenn Kaufman

The Midwest can claim an abundance of beautiful and fascinating birds, but unfortunately, some of them are at risk of vanishing. Read this book's informative text and linger over Matt Williams's stunning photography, and you'll agree that these treasures of birdlife are worth saving. I highly recommend Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest to anyone who cares about the natural world.

Customer Reviews