Enthusiastic audience hears Aububon biologist’s report on how New Hampshire’s birds are doing

MILFORD – There are about 186 species of birds that nest in New Hampshire. Of those populations, about one-third are stable or increasing, another third in decline for various reasons, and the state of the rest, mostly wetland and shore birds that are difficult to monitor, is uncertain.

Dr. Pam Hunt, avian conservation biologist with New Hampshire Audubon Society, presented an illustrated talk, “The State of New Hampshire’s Birds,” to an enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience at Milford Town Hall on May 2. The talk presented reasons for the decline of some species, hope for others, and offered some guidelines for improvement.

Hunt, originally from New Jersey, has degrees from Cornell University, the University of Montana and a PhD from Dartmouth College. She works closely with the N.H. Fish and Game Department to coordinate bird research, and is the author of a report on the status of New Hampshire’s birds. Her areas of interest include habitat use by scrub and grassland land birds, particularly whip-poor-wills, and the conservation of insect eating birds such as swifts and swallows.

She also coordinated the “N.H. Dragonfly Survey,” a five-year project that mapped the insects across the state.

The program was sponsored by the Souhegan Valley Land Trust, the Milford Conservation Commission, and the Regional Open Space Team, an informal coalition of area conservation commissions.

The 28 species of birds that are declining, she said, are those that inhabit brushy tracts and grassland, such as bobolinks. That type of area is disappearing. Grassland birds moved into New England from the west when the state was about 80 percent clear.

“It is now 84 percent forested,” Hunt said. The loss of forest succession, the transition from open grass, through brush, to forest, “has affected the bird population. You can’t have both tanagers (deep wood birds) and bobolinks (grassland birds).”

The conifers have been replaced by hardwoods, and there is a loss of older forests. But there is hope for some.

“Thirty years ago there was one breeding pair of bald eagles in the state. Now there are 40,” she said.

Other birds, such as cardinals, are moving northward with climate change.

Bird populations are declining for several reasons, Hunt said: development, fragmentation, insecticide spraying, “and what happens beyond our borders.”

Towers and turbines disturb habitat, light pollution disorients migratory birds, “and house cats kill thousands of birds.”

What can residents, and conservation commissions, do?

“Promote cluster development,” which cuts down on fragmentation, she said. “Plant seed-bearing shrubs for birds to eat, delay cutting hay until mid-July, after the nesting season of ground birds, and keep your cats inside.”

Much of the decline is beyond our control, Hunt said. Depletion of the rainforests where many birds winter, use of DDT by developing countries, and acid rain from the Midwest.

Fragmentation, leaving small patches of forests disconnected from each other, is a major problem. “It is better to clear cut one large patch than several small areas,” even if that is less esthetically pleasing for a while. In New England, “if you don’t mow the lawn it grows up to trees.”

Many birds like “edges,” the brushy, shrubby borders between fields and forests. Those areas are disappearing under lawns and pavement.

“Whip-poor-wills are an edge species,” Hunt said. There are few of them in this area, although there are “pockets of them in other parts of the state.” Most of those attending said they had not heard one in the past five years, although they were common 20 years ago.

For information call 224-9909, check www.nhaudubon.org or email nha@nhaudubon.org.