Since publication of the first West Virginia Encyclopedia in 1929, the state has gone through many changes. As would be expected, birds and their environment have also experienced changes. The changes were not detrimental to every bird species and benefited many. In 1929, some people considered snowbirds and robins to be fare for the table, and hawks, eagles, and owls were usually considered varmints and sometimes even had bounties on them.
The wood duck was considered rare in 1929. Hunting regulations, habitat management, and artificial nest boxes have aided this species considerably. These beautiful waterfowl are a common sight today. Canada geese were noted as migrants. This bird is now a permanent resident in the state, sometimes a nuisance. In writing for the 1929 encyclopedia, Earle Brooks expressed concern that the one sighting of sandhill crane would be the last the state would ever see. While still not a common visitor to West Virginia, recent sightings have occurred. On the other hand, the northern bobwhite was considered a common species in 1929. Now this bird has nearly disappeared from our state. Wild turkeys were rare to nearly non-existent 70 years ago. Since the early 1970s, the Division of Natural Resources has successfully returned the wild turkey to every county. They are a major game species today.
Turkey vultures were primarily listed in the eastern section of the state, and black vultures were not even on the state list at the time of Brooks. Turkey vultures are now found over most of West Virginia, even in a good portion of the state in winter. The expansion of their range has been attributed to the large population of white-tailed deer. Wounded deer not found by hunters, road-killed deer, and winter-killed deer provide an ample food supply. This may also contribute to the presence of the more southern black vulture, which is now fairly common in the eastern counties.
Brooks described some birds of prey as being harmful while others were useful. Bird-eating hawks, such as the sharpshinned and Cooper’s hawks, were considered harmful. Soaring hawks, such as the broadwinged and red-tailed hawks, called buteos, were usually branded as chicken hawks and shot on sight. Newspaper accounts of bald and golden eagles usually dealt with how many were shot. Now that laws protect these birds and the pesticide DDT has been banned, these predators are in better shape. Red-shouldered hawks appear to be more common today than they were in 1929. Changes in habitat probably contribute to this situation. Thirteen bald eagle nests were reported in West Virginia in 2002. Attempts to reintroduce peregrine falcons in New River Gorge and near the Eastern Panhandle have had little success. Similar programs for ospreys on the Ohio River and near Tygart Lake have been more successful.
Red-headed woodpeckers were common early in the 20th century. They are less common today, probably because of the introduction of the European starling. This aggressive import forces the woodpecker from preferred nest sites. Whip-poor-wills were common in 1929. They have nearly disappeared from much of the state. Brooks said as many as 25 species of sparrow could be found in every community in his day. This may not be true today. These are grassland-loving species, and our state has much more forest cover than in earlier times. Two others, the vesper sparrow and the American tree sparrow, were common seasonal visitors. Today, neither is. Purple martins were common in 1929, and tree swallows were rare. Habitat change and the influence of man appear to have reversed conditions, so that purple martins are now rare and tree swallows are common.
Loggerhead shrikes were common along the Ohio River in 1929 but now are seldom encountered in that area. They are found in the eastern part of the state but are considered a species of concern. Blue-winged warblers were not very common and golden-winged warblers were doing well. This situation appears to be reversing itself today. Brooks wrote that the Bewick’s wren was far more common in West Virginia than in most of the country. Today, the Bewick’s wren is a rare sight. Brooks did not even list two imports, the European starling and the house (English) sparrow, which today crowd out native species such as woodpeckers and bluebirds. In the 1980s, another import reached our state. The house finch, originally a western species, is now a part of most neighborhoods.
West Virginia claimed about 268 species and subspecies during the time of Brooks. Today the list stands at about 321. While some of the additional bird varieties may have resulted from reclassification, the major factor contributing to an increased figure is habitat change. These changes include a dramatic increase in forest cover. According to forestry officials, in 1922, West Virginia was 35 percent forested. In 1996, the state was 77 percent forested. Road building, surface mining for coal, housing developments, waterway impoundments, and the introduction of multiflora rose have all affected bird life. Some species benefit from these changes, while others are harmed. Elevation contributes to our variety of birds, and some elevations have decreased due to mining. We have an abundance of rivers and streams, and now many man-made lakes as well. Sizable lakes such as Burnsville, Bluestone, Summersville, and Stonewall Jackson offer resting areas for migrating waterfowl as well as nesting habitat. Although there is less farmland today than in 1929, some parts of the state still provide this habitat. Properly reclaimed surface mines supply some grassland birds and brush-loving birds with a place to live. Future research will determine the lasting effects of urban development, mountaintop removal, and recent timbering practices.
Organizations such as the Brooks Bird Club, local Audubon chapters, raptor rehabilitation centers, and the nongame section of the state Division of Natural Resources all encourage the study of West Virginia birds. The Audubon Society has sponsored the Christmas Bird Count for nearly 100 years. In recent years about 15 of these surveys were done across the state. Counts of migrating birds of prey are conducted near Bluefield on East River Mountain and near Waiteville on Peters Mountain in the fall.
Learning to identify the birds around you can be a rewarding experience. The birds are your friends. Birds serve as a barometer of the health of our environment. Their troubles may become our troubles. The best way to learn about birds is to experience them firsthand. So get out in your own backyard and get to know your neighbors.
Written by Jim Phillips
Buckelew, Albert R. Jr. West Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.
Bullard, James W., ed. Birding Guide to West Virginia. Wheeling: Brooks Bird Club, 1998.
Hall, George A. West Virginia Birds. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1983.