CHANGES IN THE BIRDS OF SWOPE PARK,



Richard Dawson
Published first in Burroughs Audubon Society Newsletter


In June of 1916, Prof. Albert E. Shirling, spiritual father of the Burroughs Audubon Society, undertook a comprehensive count of nesting birds in Swope Park. Mr. Shirling lived on 63rd street across from the northeast corner of the park, and for years tramped the hills and valleys, woods and meadows, making notes on the birds he saw and heard. He divided the park into sixteen sections, and each morning of that June he visited a different area, noting all the birds he saw, but concentrating his counts on singing males. These would primarily represent nesting pairs, although he probably heard more than one singing in vain for a female who never joined him on his territory.

In 1919 Harry Harris had published "Birds of the Kansas City Region." The next year Shirling published "Birds of Swope Park," with his observations on each section's June singers of 73 species (plus 5 others later heard in or near the park). The book also reported the time of first songs of 23 species he and Walter Cunningham recorded on June 13, 1919 from purple martin and indigo bunting before 3:30 to the cowbird, white-breasted nuthatch, yellowthroat, and hairy woodpecker beginning after 5 am CST. He included from his extensive notes 47 species reported during winters in the park, and a master list describing residents, summer or winter visitors, and transients, totaling 173.

By the time of this publication, he had already seen significant changes in habitats. A brushy swamp and rank meadow he described as a bird paradise had been dredged to form the Lagoon in a former Blue River oxbow, and a boathouse and athletic field had been built. Today, this area is the zoo's African exhibit. A golf course had been built, and two nurseries for growing trees for the parks had been cultivated. 940 acres were upland and lowland woods in 1920, 250 had been cleared, and 150 acres were naturally open meadows and prairie. Shirling noted that the Robin, Bluebird, Kingbird, Mockingbird, and Catbird were among those commonly nesting around homes, while Barn Swallows, Martins, House Wrens, and Red-headed Woodpeckers even adopted our buildings, nest boxes, and telephone poles in place of natural cliffs and dead trees.

In 1916, Swope Park was at the extreme southeast corner of Kansas City, the urban area having moved south from around Linwood since Thomas Swope donated the land in 1896. In June of 1973, Swope Park was nearly in the center of Kansas City. William V. Branan undertook to repeat Shirling's study as a Master's thesis at UMKC, "Birds of Swope Park Fifty Years Later: A Study on the Impact of Habitat Modification on Species Composition." Bill was then director of Lakeside Nature Center, and is now director of the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch Sanctuary in Arizona.

During those 57 years, 425 adjacent acres had been added to the park in the northeast, southeast, and west, another golf course had replaced a meadow and prairie, some areas have had undergrowth cut and were parkland, and mowing had become too intensive for ground nesting birds. Fire suppression had allowed a dense understory to grow in undisturbed forests, and trees grew older and larger on the hills, continuing the replacement by woodland of the savannahs and prairies of the early 1800's. Increased traffic, including Gregory Boulevard through Hazel Dell, 67th Street through Wildcat Hollow, Blue River Road, Hillcrest Drive, Oldham Road, and I-435, none of which even existed in 1916, produced a base sound level of about 63 decibels. This drone often drowned out bird songs moe than a few meters away, although the noise and cars may have had little actual direct effect on birds nesting.

In the sections where Shirling had counted 71 species and 2003 singing males, Branan found 65 species and 2048 individuals but adding in the newly-acquired lands brought the total in 1973 to 70 species. The density of singing male birds had hardly changed. However, only 49 of those species were found by both Shirling and Branan. Looking at each study's 20 most abundant species, (including the new additions to the park) Bill noted:

1916/1973

*1. Indigo Bunting, *1. Blue Jay, *2. Tufted Titmouse, 2. Robin, *3. Black-capped Chickadee, 3. European Starling, *4. Red-eyed Vireo, 4. Common Grackle, *5. Downy Woodpecker, *5. Cardinal, 6. Kentucky Warbler, 6. House Sparrow (ignore. '16), *7. Blue Jay, *7. Black-capped Chickadee, *8. Crested Flycatcher, *8. Indigo Bunting, *9. Cardinal, *9. Tufted Titmouse, 10. Yellow-billed Cuckoo, *9. Downy Woodpecker, 11. Brown Thrasher, *11. Crested Flycatcher, 11. Dickcissel, 12. Mourning Dove, 13. Wood Thrush, 13. Red-bellied Woodpecker, *14. Cowbird, 14. Flicker, *15. Wood Pewee, *15. Wood Pewee, 16. Common Crow, 16. Carolina Wren, 17. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 17. Rock Pigeon (ignored 1916), 17. Goldfinch, 18. Cowbird, 19. Cerulean Warbler, *19. Red-eyed Vireo, 20. Eastern Towhee, 20. Red-headed Woodpecker

 * common to both top-20 lists
 

Starlings were not present in 1916, and Shirling ignored House Sparrows and Rock Doves. Of the native birds, to round out Branan's top 20, we would add *Common Crow, *Wood Thrush and Barn Swallow.

Twenty-two species were noted in 1916 and not in 1973, while 16 species were found in the same area in 1973 for the first time. Leaving out those species where one birder found only 1-3. individuals, and the other found none, Branan did not find the following seven of the 1916 list: (number Shirling found in parentheses): Acadian Flycatcher (27), White-eyed Vireo (12), Black and White Warbler (5), Worm-eating Warbler (21), Blue-winged Warbler (17), Ovenbird (7), Yellow-breasted Chat (18).

Two species Shirling found abundant where Branan found only one male singing were Cerulean Warbler (34) and Kentucky Warbler (74). Five species listed by Branan and not Shirling were Rough-winged Swallow (5), Barn Swallow (26), Warbling Vireo (8), and Red-winged Blackbird (27), and Chuck-will's-Widow (4). While the first four were regularly seen in the area but not found nesting in the park, there was at that time only one Kansas City record for the Chuck-will's-Widow (in Shirling's own yard one May evening in 1918).

Branan noted that in all but one of the original sections studied, number of species had declined, indicating most of the park had lost habitat diversity. But total number of nesting males per section increased as often as it decreased.

Nationwide shifts influence the birds available to enter the park, as Bluebirds had declined, and Starlings had moved in. Chuck-will's Widows have been noted spreading northward. The non-migratory Greater Canada Goose is now found nesting wherever water and short grass are provided; this has happened since 1973. House Finches have moved in from the east. Turkeys have been re-introduced. Treaties with Canada in 1918 and Mexico in 1937 resulted in federal protection and hunting regulations for waterfowl, which subsequently increased; Shirling found none nesting which Bill found three species.

Branan concluded that land use and management practices were the most significant factors influencing changes in bird composition. The number of dead and dying trees from Dutch Elm Disease favored woodpeckers in 1973, especially Red-headed. Prairie and meadow conversion to golf courses resulted in loss of Dickcissels and great reductions in Meadowlarks, Chipping Sparrows, and Field Sparrows. But Robins and swallows prefer golf course-type habitat. Opening of upland forests to park habitat favor Wood Pewees and Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpeckers, but decrease Titmice and Chickadees.

In 1916 there were 333 warblers nesting; in 1973 only 14, and they mostly nested high in trees. I noted that non-migratory Carolina Wrens were abundant nesters in the woods before a very cold winter in the late 1950's; the next few years, Bewick's Wrens, usually seldom heard as they moved through in spring, found their niche unoccupied and became common nesters at the camp area in the southeast part of the park; as Carolina populations regenerated, Bewick's once more moved on silently. This temporary "explosion" in the early 60's does not show in counts by either man.

Thanks to Mr. Shirling's Swope Park publication, Mr. Branan was able to study the changes in species composition of nesting birds in Swope Park. He found in some ways it was remarkably small, depending on ecological niche requirements of species. Large areas still today remain little affected by people, including the Shirling Sanctuary, Shiloh Hollow south of the new Lakeside Nature Center, and the outdoor education acreage in the southeast. Volunteers working with the nature center and KCPL have been working to restore the glade prairie on the hillside of the Blue River Golf Course, the only one of Shirling's prairies still present.

In the Kansas City area, as throughout the world, changes in land use patterns have had great effects on birds, affecting many more species than those reduced by hunting and commerce. The Christmas bird count and breeding bird census data from across the nation give us cumulative information beyond quirks of locality. Extensive efforts have been and are being made to help restore populations through purchase and management of habitats for wildlife. However, unless something is done to reduce the increase in human activities affecting global temperatures and precipitation, our great-grandchildren can expect major changes in flora and fauna around the world. These dislocations and extinctions due to climate would occur even if our increasing population were not converting so much forest and grassland to cropland and desert.

As we use our fossil fuels to travel in this country and beyond, birds remain our best windows into the health of nature. No other class has so many species and individuals we can observe--- birds have color, song, movement. They are also dependent on specific food, water, nesting sites, and cover. Thus, our shared observations, locally and worldwide, allow us to construct a picture of what is happening to ecosystems. Birds are not just decorations to admire and trophies to add to our life lists, but more than any other form of life they speak to us of the future of the entire biosphere.