Kentucky’s Spectacular Songbirds

By Brainard Palmer-Ball
Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission

Of the more than 350 species of birds that have been reported from Kentucky, almost half are members of the order Passeriformes, often referred to as the perching birds or songbirds. The Passeriformes represents the largest order of birds in the world, including 59 families and approximately 5,100 species. In fact, about 60% of the world’s birds are passerines. Members of the order are recognized for several unique attributes, including the structure of their feet -- three toes pointing forward, one backward -- allowing an upright posture and the ability to grasp twigs and other perches easily. The group as a whole is the most evolutionarily advanced among birds.

Diversity among passerines that are found in Kentucky is remarkable. Flycatchers, swallows,corvids (crows and blue jay), parids (chickadee and titmouse), wrens, thrushes, mimids (like the mockingbird), vireos, wood warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, sparrows, blackbirds, and finches are some of the representatives found here. They range in size from the tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet, less than four inches in length, to the Common Raven, which has a wingspan of more than four feet. Some are drab in coloration, but others, including some of the wood warblers, represent some of the most beautifully colored birds in the world. Most have complex songs that are used by males for defense of territories and the attraction of mates. Among them are some of the most treasured among bird songs, including the nightingale of Europe and the New World thrushes. Within the latter group is perhaps Kentucky’s finest songster, the Wood Thrush, whose flute-like notes ring throughout woodlands across the state from mid-April to August.

Some Kentucky songbirds are year-round residents such as the Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Eastern Meadowlark, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Blue Jay, American Crow, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, and House Sparrow. Others --mostly seed-eating sparrows and finches -- occur in the state only during the winter months. Most conspicuous among this group are White-throated and White-crowned sparrows, Purple Finch, and (rarely) Evening Grosbeak.

Another group of songbirds is found in Kentucky only during migratory periods and summer. Most of these species are insectivorous and migrate southward in winter, some to the southern United States but others to points much farther south. Members of the latter group are referred to as "neotropical migrants" because they winter from Mexico and the Caribbean, southward as far as central South America. In spring they return northward to nest in the temperate regions of the United States and Canada. Some of Kentucky’s more conspicuous summer resident songbirds are neotropical migrants, and they include the Eastern Kingbird, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Scarlet and Summer tanagers, and the state’s most widespread breeding species, the Indigo Bunting. Banding studies have shown that many of these birds return to nest in the same area year after year. In fact, many may return each year to nest in the same tree in Kentucky, having found their way thousands of miles to wintering grounds in the tropics and back again! How they perform this great navigational feat is still somewhat of a mystery, but most songbirds are thought to use a combination of the sun, nighttime stars, and the magnetic field of the earth. And we humans think its difficult just trying to read a road map!

Songbirds are also known for their intricate nests. Most are built from a variety of plant materials including dead leaves, weed stems, twigs, grasses, and strips of soft bark. Some are deftly disguised with mosses and lichens. Many are lined with finer items including animal hair, the cottony material from cattail heads and thimbleweed fruits, and the tiny fruiting stalks of mosses. Among the most interesting of Kentucky songbird nests are those of the Baltimore and Orchard orioles, which are intricately woven of fine grasses and suspended basket-like from the outer twigs of trees.

Species that are strictly migrants through the state are also numerous and include the Swainson’s Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, and Tennessee, Magnolia and Bay-breasted warblers. Some of these birds stopover only briefly in Kentucky to rest on migratory journeys that take them from South America to the boreal forests of Arctic Canada and back again each year. The peak periods of songbird migration through Kentucky typically occur from mid-April to mid-May, and again from early September to late October. During these times, many species appear in our area that are not typically present at any other time of year. A typical tract of Kentucky forest that may support about 20 nesting songbird species in summer may host 70 or more during these periods. The highlight of most birders’ year is the two week period on either side of May 1st, when it is not uncommon to find more than 100 species of birds locally, including many colorful songbird migrants.

Neotropical migrant songbirds have received a great deal of attention in the past few years, mostly because declines have been detected in many species’ breeding populations. It is widely believed that habitat loss on the tropical wintering grounds of these birds is compounding the problem of loss of breeding habitat in the United States and Canada. Most of the more substantial declines have been attributed to the clearing and fragmentation of forests. A related factor has been the increase of the Brown-headed Cowbird, a native blackbird that lays its eggs in the nests of other songbirds. These "hosts" then incubate the cowbirds’ eggs and raise their young. Cowbirds apparently evolved this nesting strategy because they once were largely nomadic, moving about with the large herds of elk and bison. Over the past two hundred years bison have disappeared but humans have altered the landscape to the benefit of the cowbird, and population levels are now so high that in many areas nesting success for some host species is negligible.

In the past several years, a comprehensive project known as Partner’s in Flight has been initiated by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in cooperation with numerous private, state, federal, and international agencies and groups to investigate the alarming downward trends in songbird populations. The goal of the effort is to further document these declines, determine their causes, and try to reverse them. Numerous regional projects are underway to assist in this endeavor, including one involving Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama that targets the Interior Low Plateaus physiographic region. Additional efforts are being initiated across the rest of the state as time and resources become available.

For more information on the Partners in Flight Initiative in Kentucky, you can contact Shawchyi Vorisek, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, #1 Game Farm Road, Frankfort, Kentucky, 40601 (502/564-5448) (e-mail: Shawchyi.Vorisek@mail.state.ky.us).

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A new source of information on the birds of Kentucky is now available. The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas contains a compilation of the results of a seven-year survey, and represents the most comprehensive effort ever undertaken to document the status of the state’s nesting birds.

The book contains:
•summaries for each of approximately 150 species
•information on historical status
•the timing of nesting
•details of nest construction and placement

Each species is illustrated with a black-and-white print, and maps and tables summarize breeding occurrence and abundance.

The project was sponsored by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in cooperation with the Kentucky Ornithological Society. The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas is available from the University Press of Kentucky (800/839-6855) for $29.95 + tax and shipping

Copyright 1998, The Nature Conservancy