Written by Michael Wilson & Bryan Watts
October 4, 2008
Virginia and Washington D. C. are often considered the birthplaces of ornithology in this country. Prior to the advent of modern bird surveys, Virginia and Washington D.C. were the hubs for some of the most significant ornithological reporting within the United States. This was due, in part, because of significant role the region plays in the life history of many of the bird species in Eastern North America. The diversity of habitats available to birds during the breeding, wintering, and migratory periods combined with its geographic position combine to make it one of the most diverse physiographic regions in North America. Virginia was also at the heart of European colonization and has undergone over three centuries of land change by humans. These changes have left indelible marks on the region’s avifauna populations. Some avian species have profited from this human influence, while others have perished.
Since the realization that a large proportion of North America’s bird populations were declining, avian conservation has evolved into one of the most sophisticated, all-encompassing efforts in the world. However, most conservation plans only contemplate recent data on populations or the habitats that birds use when prioritizing species or deriving population recovery goals. Few plans, if any, consider the broader historical context under which species’ populations have changed. Historical information provides us with descriptions of avian community composition, habitat use, and landscape conditions that occurred when population of species were at their highest and most healthy and when they were at their lowest. Historical retrospection also helps us illuminate the conditions leading to ecological demise and helps to set practical conservation benchmarks for the future.
The Center for Conservation Biology initiated the Avian Heritage Program to assemble the historical and contemporary accounts of the region’s avifauna to help guide conservation of species with the highest need. Much of the ornithological information collected during earlier eras exists in the form of scientific and popular publications, unpublished databases, museum collections, and field notes collected by the nation’s most notable ornithologists. Collectively, these accounts chronicle the long history of range expansions, population fluctuations, and changes in distribution for a wide range of bird species. Despite the relative importance of this rich ornithological history, there has never been a systematic aggregation of these various archives for conservation purposes. We are beginning the initial stages of this program by placing historical data into a geographically referenced database and reconstructing history of habitat use. These early efforts are possible by funding from the State Wildlife Grant Program through Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and The District of Columbia’s Fisheries and Wildlife Division.