Birds of Nebraska: Their Distribution and Temporal Occurrence.—Roger S. Sharpe, W. Ross Silcock, and Joel G. Jorgensen. 2001. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. xiv + 520 pp., 25 figures and plates. ISBN 0-8032-4289-1. $69.95 (cloth).
Many ornithologists think of Nebraska as miles and miles of treeless agricultural fields, populated by an occasional meadowlark or other supposedly boring grassland bird. This misconception may have been generated in part by the experience most out-of-staters have with Nebraska as they cruise the heavily traveled Interstate 80 through the middle of the state. In actual fact, the land types and resulting avian habitat in Nebraska are amazingly diverse. Over 400 bird species regularly occur in the state, and over 200 of those are breeders. In the immediate vicinity of my own study site at the Cedar Point Biological Station in southwestern Nebraska, over 360 species have been recorded. With eastern deciduous forest along the Missouri River in the east, grasslands of several distinct types in the central and western portions of the state, fingers of Rocky Mountain woodlands extending into western Nebraska, numerous small lakes and marshes in the grass-covered sand dune region (the Sandhills) of northwestern and north-central Nebraska, and riparian forest along the prairie rivers essentially connecting all of these habitats, one has a structurally complex, dynamic, and biogeographically fascinating mosaic that is anything but a flat, boring plain.
Although various annotated lists of Nebraska's birds have been published and the state featured prominently in Johnsgard's book on the birds of the Great Plains (1979, Birds of the Great Plains, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln), until now there has been no widely available reference on Nebraska birds. Sharpe et al. have remedied that situation in grand style, producing a wonderfully thorough summary of the temporal status and spatial distribution of all regularly occurring, irregular, accidental, hypothetical, extirpated, and extinct species found in the state. It is current through 1999, in welcome contrast to many state bird books and atlases which often have long publication delays and are of primarily historical value as soon as they are published. For each species, Sharpe et al. provide status information, the details of its first documentation in the state via a specimen, photograph, or other means, a brief discussion of its general distribution and ecology (although mostly distribution and not much ecology), seasonal occurrence data divided into the four major seasons with dates and often numbers for many counties, and a site or two within the state where the species can most reliably be found. For some species, comments on taxonomy, breeding phenology, and historical changes in range are also provided.
One of this book's most interesting sections is a detailed historical account of ornithology and birding within the state. Sharpe et al. trace the first reports of birds in Nebraska back to Lewis and Clark, with interesting accounts of other early expeditions, such as those of Thomas Say and the Long Expedition, Prince Maximilian von Wied, Zebulon Pike, John C. Fremont, and F. V. Hayden. The early development of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union (NOU, the state bird society) is chronicled, including the interesting tidbit that from 1916–1924, the NOU actually joined forces with the Wilson Ornithological Society to coproduce the Wilson Bulletin. Sharpe et al. seem to implicitly equate the development of the NOU with the rise of ornithological study in the state. This may be true, but throughout the book one gets a vague, uncomfortable feeling that active involvement with the NOU is, in the authors' minds, a prerequisite for serious study of Nebraska birds. Their treatment of more recent history is less interesting or objective; for example, I was surprised that Paul Johnsgard, who is clearly Nebraska's most acclaimed ornithologist—he has written over 50 ornithological books and is often designated (along with the obligatory Nebraska football coaches!) as one of the state's 100 most important people of the twentieth century—rates barely three sentences in the history. Individuals who have contributed much less are given as much or more attention. The book also contains a chapter describing the major habitat types in the state, and its beautiful photographs of landscapes evoked pleasant summer memories for me while reading this book during my forced annual winter absence from the state.
For anyone interested in where and when a given species occurs in Nebraska, this book will be the definitive reference. It is attractively produced, and I didn't see a single typo. Interesting facts can be gleaned from many of the species accounts. For example, I was unaware that Common Ravens (Corvus corax) were once common in Nebraska, but the extirpation of the vast bison herds in the nineteenth century led to their disappearance on the plains, with the last documented record apparently in 1936. The Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya), which reaches the easterly limit of its breeding range in Nebraska, is apparently sensitive in this area to 20-year wet and dry cycles. Numerous nestings were observed in the relatively dry 1960s and 1980s and few in the relatively wet 1970s and 1990s, a pattern indeed consistent with phoebe sightings in my own study area. I learned that Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) occur almost every winter in the northern Sandhills and that they should be looked for on windswept, frigid grasslands wherever there are concentrations of waterfowl or grouse.
Like virtually any book, this one does have some weaknesses. Most state bird books are long on summary and description and short on synthesis. This one is no exception. For example, I had hoped to see a general discussion of the effect that the development of floodplain forest along the east-west prairie rivers (especially the Platte) has had on Great Plains avian biogeography in the twentieth century. Prior to about 1920, the western half of the Platte in particular was apparently virtually treeless all the way to its banks; photos in our study area from the very early twentieth century show a river bisecting a treeless prairie that in the same spots today contains thick riparian woodland. This forest, a consequence of modern fire suppression, has provided corridors for the movement of arboreal and brush-associated species throughout large portions of formerly unbroken grassland. Sharpe et al. describe the consequent range changes for certain species in detail, such as Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), that have expanded their range westward along the river valleys. However, the book lacks a more general evaluation of how this rather drastic environmental change has impacted birds in Nebraska, nor is there any discussion of its historical influence on the dynamics of hybridization seen in various east-west species pairs (e.g., flickers, grosbeaks, buntings, and orioles). The book is very thorough in its documentation of distribution and occurrence, but it is less so for nesting biology. For some species, nesting data based on rather dated Cornell nest record cards are given, but it would be difficult to glean from this book the typical nesting period for most species in the state or where nests should be searched for. Related to this is the strong emphasis on sight records by birders (especially those connected with the NOU) but relatively little mention of scientific studies of behavior, ecology, physiology, or population biology of birds in the state. For example, work done on bird biology by professional ornithologists and their students at the Cedar Point Biological Station and the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge is largely ignored unless it involves bird sightings in some way. I have always thought that one role of state bird books should be to highlight scientific advances that have come from that state on particular species.
These quibbles aside, this is an outstanding book, and clearly the best state bird book available for any of the states in the Great Plains. All birders in Nebraska and indeed throughout that entire part of the country will find it useful for its documentation of bird occurrence, and it contains an abundance of raw material for anyone interested in analyses of Great Plains biogeography.