“Birds of Maine” by Peter Vickery.

This column is the second in a series examining changes in Maine’s bird populations over the last 200 years in honor of Maine’s bicentennial. Today I want to discuss the resources available to perform this ornithological retrospective, including a fantastic new resource.

As you might imagine, we have very little quantitative information on our bird populations in the 19th century. John James Audubon spent a month in Maine in 1832 in the Dennysville area near Cobscook Bay, giving us a glimpse of our bird life then.

In 1843, the Portland Society of Natural History was formed, dedicated to the promotion of knowledge of all phases of natural history. Their museum was a wonderful resource.

The Maine Ornithological Society was created in 1897. They published the Journal of the Maine Ornithological Society from 1899-1911. The journal contained detailed lists of birds seen by members.

In 1902, the Maine Ornithological Society morphed into the Maine Audubon Society. In 1972, Maine Audubon formerly merged with the Portland Society of Natural History, providing a new home for the Portland Society’s specimens.

Our knowledge of changes in our bird populations grew by leaps and bounds in the 20th century.  The creation of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count in 1900 provided us with insight into the population status of our winter birds.

The Breeding Bird Survey, started in 1966, yields information on our breeding birds.

Maine’s first breeding bird atlas spanned the years 1978-1983, providing a baseline for the current breeding bird atlas project, to be completed in 2022.

Moving into the 21st century, we see the creation of eBird. Although eBird accepts sighting data from years before 2002, most of the records are form 2002 onward.

So, we have lots of resources but getting a thorough overview of our birds take some work. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone examined and assimilated all of this information into a book? It’s been done three times.

The first, “The Birds of Maine,” was written by Ora Knight and published in 1908. This book provides us with a view of our avifauna at the turn of the 20th century.

Fast forward to 1949 and we find the publication of “Maine Birds” by Ralph Palmer. This book packs more information than Knight’s book. Palmer’s book provides a way to gauge changes in our bird populations since 1908.

Last Tuesday will go down as a red-letter date for Maine ornithology. The third book on our avifauna, “Birds of Maine,” was published by the Princeton University Press. This project is the culmination of decades of work by Peter Vickery, a matchless Maine ornithologist and birder.

Peter realized it was high time to produce a new book on Maine’s birds to update Palmer’s 1949 book. Tragically, Vickery died in 2017. Thanks to the tireless editing and organizational efforts by his widow, Barbara, and Scott Weidensaul and the work of three co-authors (Charlie Duncan, Bill Sheehan and Jeff Wells), “Birds of Maine” is now available.

The book is a tour de force. Species accounts make up the majority of the 665-page book. Each account has sections on the current status, the historical status, global distribution, conservation status as well as descriptions of seasonal activities of each species in Maine. Distribution maps point out notable patterns and graphs show the population dynamics of some species.

The bibliography has 27 pages of articles and books reviewed by the authors. This book is thorough!

The front of the book has contributed chapters on Maine geography, Maine’s ornithological history and conservation needs of Maine birds. The book jacket has a marvelous watercolor of razorbills by Lars Jonsson. Line drawings by Barry Van Dusen appear throughout the species accounts. These two men are among our most skilled bird artists.

This book needs to be on the shelf of all Maine birders. It is available in hard copy or Kindle format.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at [email protected]


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