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Endangered status considered for Bicknell’s thrush

The Fish and Wildlife Service says a rare songbird that nests atop mountains in the Adirondacks and Green Mountains may need protection as an endangered species. Todd Moe spoke with Long Lake birder Joan Collins, who has been tracking the Bicknell’s Thrush for more than a decade. She says biologists are alarmed by the decline in the bird’s numbers over the past year.

Interview Summary

Birder Joan Collins says just recently, “the center for biological diversity in Vermont asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act. And after a 90 day review, they decided that yes, the Bicknell’s Thrush may warrant protection as an endangered species. So now there’ll be another year-long review, now, of the data to see if it qualifies as an endangered species, which I’m quite convinced that it probably will.” Collins has been a part of the surveying crews investigating the dwindling of Bicknell’s Thrush birds. “I’m doing Whiteface Mountain now.”

Collins says her chief concern is a decrease in the bird’s numbers, “at least on the mountains that I surveyed.” Collins says Bicknells are not only missing from these peaks “in perfect condition,” but the few still around are “calling, not even singing.” She says climate change strongly affects these birds, and as the weather gets warmer, the Bicknells will continue to decrease. “With just a one degree Celsius change, we lose half of the habitat on the peaks, and with a two degree warm up, we lose the Catskills and Vermont’s habitat. And by three degrees, there’ll only be a few remnant patches in New Hampshire and Maine for this bird. And by five degrees, there will be no habitat at all, so the bird faces pretty dire outcome from climate change.”

Bicknell’s Thrushes, which were first identified by American amateur ornithologist Eugene Bicknell in the Catskills in the late 19th century, are native to the Adirondacks and the rest of Northern New York.

Bicknell’s Thrushes sing in the dark, and Collins says the bird’s song is special: “It’s a beautiful flutey song”, she says, “It will be a real loss to lose that voice from the summit, and I think that that change is coming quickly.”

And Collins says the bird has another unique quality: The Bicknell’s Thrush has “one of the most unique mating strategies of any bird in North America”: It practices Polygynandry. The birds all mate with multiple birds of the opposite gender, creating greater genetic diversity, less competition and more cooperation within the group.

But those unique qualities aren’t helping the bird at the moment, says Collins: “It’s kind of sad because even with a designation of ‘endangered,’ there really isn’t much to do. There’s no way to save the habitat that will disappear in the tops of these summits. There’s nothing to be done, really.”