Vt. group turns international focus on saving a disappearing songbird

A thrush that summers in N.E. facing threats

The Bicknell’s thrush spends the summers and breeds at high elevations in New York’s Adirondacks, northern New England, and Canada. It winters in the Caribbean islands. The Bicknell’s thrush spends the summers and breeds at high elevations in New York’s Adirondacks, northern New England, and Canada. It winters in the Caribbean islands. (Vermont Institute of Natural Science/Associated Press/File)
By Wilson Ring
Associated Press / July 29, 2010

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MONTPELIER — A small Vermont environmental organization is leading an international effort to protect the habitat of the Bicknell’s thrush, a disappearing songbird that breeds in the highlands of the Northeast and Canada and spends winters in the islands of the Caribbean.

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies brought together dozens of public and private scientists from the United States, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti and developed a long-range plan to increase the number of Bicknell’s thrushes by 25 percent over the next 50 years.

The species, considered by some bird experts to be the flagship species of New England bird conservation, is estimated to have a worldwide population of up to 126,000, but specialists say habitat loss and other environmental threats are causing a decline in the population through much of its range.

The conservation plan for the Bicknell’s thrush, due to be formally released this week, calls for working with timber companies and others in North America to protect high-altitude breeding habitat and finding ways to protect its winter habitat, most notably on the island of Hispaniola.

“These are shared species,’’ said Ian Davidson, executive director of the nonprofit group Nature Canada, based in Ottawa, which recently joined the Bicknell’s thrush conservation effort.

“We have a joint responsibility for their conservation,’’ he said. “If there’s something negative happening to Bicknell’s thrush in Vermont or anywhere along its migratory route, we owe it to the conservation of this species to understand the issue and find effective solutions.’’

The Bicknell’s thrush, or Catharus bicknelli, is about the size of the common white-throated sparrow.

The International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group describes it as “enigmatic,’’ with a swirling song and speckled breast.

Until 1995, the Bicknell’s thrush was considered to be a subspecies of the more common gray-cheeked thrush.

The Bicknell’s thrush spends the summers and breeds at high elevations in New York’s Adirondacks, across northern New England, and in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

The Canadian government lists the Bicknell’s thrush as threatened, although it is not on the endangered or threatened species lists in the United States.

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies, based in Hartford, is a three-year-old nonprofit group with seven full-time employees formed by a number of scientists who focus their efforts on a number of bird species, but the Bicknell’s thrush has become its signature bird, said director Chris Rimmer.

In North America, the groups are working to protect the high-altitude habitat where the Bicknell’s thrush breeds.

There are also threats from acid rain and climate change. The new plan expands on old efforts.

“We’ve met in the US and Canada,’’ Rimmer said. “This is a sea-shift now in a way, to get the focus down there.’’

Ken Rosenberg, the director of conservation science at the Cornell ornithology lab, said the biggest threat to the Bicknell’s thrush is not in the United States and Canada.

“The majority of its problems are on the wintering grounds,’’ Rosenberg said.

But there are variations of the same challenge in North America.

David Pashley is the vice president for conservation programs at the Virginia-based American Bird Conservancy The conservancy is not involved in the Bicknell’s thrush conservation efforts, but Pashley is familiar with them. He said arguments can be made about the economic reasons to protect the Bicknell’s thrush, such as bringing bird watchers to areas to see it, but it is more than that.

“Personally, I think that we as a society have an obligation to protect things like Bicknell’s thrush from going extinct,’’ Pashley said. “To those of us in the conservation community, it’s not just aesthetic. It’s not just economic. It’s not just cultural. It’s a moral obligation.’’

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