Open Access
Translator Disclaimer
1 October 2009 The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State
Andy Wilson
Author Affiliations +

Twenty years after the publication of The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State (Andrle and Carrroll 1988), New York has become the first state to publish a second-generation atlas; among the Canadian provinces, only Ontario has done so (Brewer 2009). This book is the result of six years of field work by more than 1,200 workers who generated well over half a million bird records. New York is blessed with a large and enthusiastic birding community, but even so, getting comprehensive coverage of all 5,335 (5 × 5 km) atlas blocks is a considerable organizational feat. Distilling such a large volume of data into a book that is informative, readable, and beautiful is a challenge, but Kevin McGowan, Kimberley Corwin, and the many other individuals who put their heart and soul into this project are to be congratulated on meeting that challenge in this landmark publication.

The six introductory chapters are essential components of this book. The introduction and methodology are laudably concise, leaving plenty of space for no less than 15 attractive and informative maps of the geopolitical, topographical, and ecological features of the state. Subsequent chapters do an excellent job of summarizing and interpreting the results, detailing habitats and changes in land use, and discussing ornithology and bird conservation in the state. It was good to see the authors provide “corrected” figures for range change, because changes in survey effort over time can hamper efforts to compare the results of two atlas periods.

Most of the book is devoted to double-page species accounts for the 244 breeding species in the state. The accounts have a familiar look, with a page of text, a black-and-white illustration, and two maps: one of current distribution and one of distribution change. Rather less formulaic are the numerous full-page color plates of New York birds and habitat, which punctuate the species accounts. Although somewhat variable in quality and sometimes rather garish in print (my only gripe with the otherwise superb production values), they add considerable value to the aesthetics of the book and are evocative of the New York landscapes—the best of them really are superb works of art.

The authors do an admirable job in the species accounts of teasing out important geographic patterns and range shifts that were the primary objectives of the atlas project. As expected, there were some stark declines but also some substantial increases, highlighting just how rapidly bird populations can change over large scales of time and space. Around half the breeding species have shown a significant (two-by-two contingency table, P < 0.001) change in status in just 20 years. Awarded the front cover illustration is the Merlin (Falco columbarius), which was confirmed to breed in the state for the first time in 1992 but was found in 131 atlas blocks between 2000 and 2005. At the other extreme, several species, including Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) and Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), appear to be heading rapidly to extirpation in the state. Should a third-generation atlas be in the offing a couple of decades from now, one hopes that this publication will be viewed as having played an important role in highlighting the plight of such species and helping us to avert their loss.

It seems churlish to nit-pick such a wonderful book, but the colors used for the distribution maps deserve mention. In my opinion, the “change” maps fail to convey the important messages of range loss and gain adequately, because the gray (present in both atlases) and brown (found only in the second atlas) are too similar in tone to instantly show range expansion. This is a shame, because the change component of the maps could be considered the single most important aspect of a second-generation atlas. That aside, it really is difficult to fault this book. It is so packed with information that, in addition to being an essential reference volume, it is a browser's delight. One thing that struck me from the distribution maps is what an interesting ecological “island” the Adirondack Mountains are, as much for the absence of certain species as for the (sometimes tenuous) presence of birds typically associated with more northerly latitudes. This book left me wanting to experience those places for myself, and I am sure it will have the same effect on anyone who picks it up. As such, it should inspire further interest in the birds of New York.

I gather that data from this monumental project may eventually be made available on a website, but I join the reviewer of the second-generation Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Brewer 2009) in enjoying the fruits of atlas projects in book form. This book deserves to sell well—at under $60, it is a tremendous value for the money. A key target audience of this publication is the more than 1,200 New York birders whose voluntary efforts it collates, and the organizers, authors, and editors could hardly have bettered this monument to their efforts. Several other states have second-generation atlas projects at various stages of completion. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State offers anyone currently involved in bird atlas work, including volunteer field workers, something to aspire to. They should buy it, enjoy it, and feel inspired.



R. F. Andrle , and J. R. Carroll , Eds. 1988. The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. Google Scholar


R. Brewer 2009. [Book review] Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001—2005. Auk 126:469–472. Google Scholar
Andy Wilson "The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State," The Auk 126(4), 939-940, (1 October 2009).
Published: 1 October 2009

Get copyright permission
Back to Top