The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State
Edited by Kevin J. McGowan and Kimberley Corwin
Cornell University Press, 2008
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into English, the translators named the second book Exodus” because they understood the narrative of redemption as the key element of the text. What they missed is that the meat of the story is in the number of people who went into exile and then escaped. It would have been a much different story if only one person crossed over. That hundreds of thousands of people left exile for the Promised Land makes it the essential narrative of a race. This story is about who went into exile and how many of them were there? Who and how many traveled across the desert? Who and how many crossed the river into the Promised Land?
“Exodus begins with the words: V’eleh shemot.. –“ and these are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt.” The text names all the people who entered Egypt. It tells of taking a census after they left. They count each other again and again. They seem obsessed with counting. The Hebrew name of the book is Shemot – “the names.” Why does such a short text devote so much space to counting? Because numbers tell us something about our essential natures. Numbers tell us something about our world. They tell us about our place in the world. If counting is significant, then re-counting is more significant because it tells us how our world has changed.
The late comedian, Andy Kaufman, maintained that mindless ritual and meaningless superstition separated man from the other animals. Birders know that what distinguishes humans is our obsession with naming and counting. We compulsively name and re-name. The AOU periodically sends field guide publishers back to their presses to update names and taxonomic orders. We count and we re-count.
And we keep lists. Life lists. Year lists. State lists. Central Park lists. Staten Island lists. First sighting of the season lists. First on territory lists. Last to leave lists. Lists of lists. Over 50,000 obsessive listers participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count. Thousands submit data to breeding bird atlases. Birders always want to know how their current experience compares with the past. A thing that makes a Christmas Bird Count wrap-up interesting is the comparison with past counts and the presence of a few old-timers who remember when. The 2008 Central Park CBC wrap-up was made notable by the presence of Irving Kantor, who has been birding Central Park for over seventy years.
The newly published The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State is a significant event for birders because it is (I believe) the first second edition of a breeding bird atlas. The first New York state atlas is now twenty years old. The second edition of Bull’s Birds of New York State is now ten years old. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State is the first book on New York birds in ten years. It is a compilation of the efforts of over 1,200 volunteers who monitored breeding birds in assigned blocks between 2000 and 2005. When I received the book I searched immediately for a summary of changes and found that 70 species are experiencing significant increases, 58 species are seeing serious declines, and 125 species are remaining relatively stable. Generally, resident woodlands birds showed increases, and grasslands birds showed the greatest declines. But the Atlas is not like reading a movie review where you just skip to the part where the reviewer tells you if he likes the film or not. The lion's share of the book is devoted to species accounts, which I now find myself poring through after every bird walk (although breeding season is a few months off). The accounts feature detailed narratives and maps comparing the current census results with the data from the 1980 – 1985 census. What are especially interesting to me are the outliers--the birds who don’t normally breed in New York who have been recorded here for the first or second time.
The Second Atlas is a birders equivalent to Shemot. It is the story of who and how many made it to the Promised Land. (If you are a bird, the promised land is breeding territory.) Who and how many get to perpetuate their kind in in New York? The Second Atlas deserves a place in the library of every New York birder. You may even like it if you live in New Jersey.