Birds (Aves)


Birds (Class Aves)

Creatures which can be considered more birds than dinosaurs first appeared in the fossil record in the Jurassic Period about 145 million years ago, although their evolutionary origins may go back to the Late Triassic Period, about 210 million years ago (Mayr, 2001). The best known early fossil birds are Archaeopteryx lithographica and its close relatives. These animals had many reptilian characteristics but were distinguished by feathers and partially hollow bones, both of which are required for flight. Since that time, birds have evolved to occupy almost every available ecological niche and have diversified into about 11,000 species worldwide. Of these, about 2,186 species are known from the North American continent, and about 835 species are known from the 48 contiguous states.

The following list includes 402 species recorded on Martha’s Vineyard and in adjacent ocean waters. The study of ornithology on the island has been ongoing for nearly 200 years, though most intensively for the last 50 years. Both resident and visiting observers have contributed to the present state of knowledge about the number and abundance of breeding species, migration patterns, etc.

During the last 50 years, there have been dramatic changes in the habitat conditions on the island. About 80% of the island area was pasture, grassland and savannah in 1900. By 1925-1950, this percentage had dropped to about 50% as scrub woodland began to appear widely. Today open fields and pastures probably constitute no more than 10%-15% of the island’s dry land area, and the island is probably as heavily wooded as it was when the first European settlers arrived (see the Spongberg essay on island vegetation history). 

In addition, several mammal predators were, tragically, introduced (Eastern Chipmunk) or reintroduced (North American Raccoon, Striped Skunk) about 1960, and feral cats have been a problem for over a century (see the chapter on Mammals). As a consequence of the return of widespread forest and the arrival of these predators, populations of open country ground-nesting birds, in particular, have been greatly reduced. Species such as Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper, Eastern Meadowlark, Vesper Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron and Snowy Egret, to name just a few, have virtually or entirely disappeared as breeding species on the main island. A few of these do persist in small numbers on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge. Conversely, woodland species such as Red-eyed Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-and-White Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Ovenbird, Wood Thrush, Screech Owl and Cooper’s Hawk have become much more numerous breeders or have begun breeding for the first time. Some scrub habitat breeders such as Brown Thrasher, Prairie Warbler and Rufous-sided Towhee were more abundant breeders in the 1950s than they are today as the scrub has grown into more mature forest. 

Weather conditions have always been a factor in migration patterns and a determinant of breeding populations to a degree. Being surrounded by the ocean, which warms up much more slowly in spring than does the mainland away from the coast, the leafing out and flowering of trees and shrubs is delayed by several weeks in comparison to localities 30-40 miles inland on the mainland. Thus the appearance of many insects is also delayed, and much habitat is not ready for many birds, especially early northbound migrants, when they normally arrive at this latitude, and most of the spring passerine migration largely passes the island by, keeping away from the coast. Exceptional circumstances such as fog, strong west winds overnight, etc. are needed to force spring migrants out here in numbers. Conversely, in fall warm temperatures tend to be prolonged since the ocean cools off more slowly than the mainland. Many fall passerine migrants tend to follow the prevailing northwest winds out to the coast and then follow the coast south. This process usually brings many birds here in fall, especially to favored sites for migrants such as the Gay Head cliffs, Wasque Point, West Chop and Cape Poge. 

Because weather conditions in spring are similar to those at inland localities somewhat further north, there is a “boreal” component to our breeding birds. Such species include Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Winter Wren (occasionally), Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Purple Finch. However, the last 50 years has witnessed the arrival as breeders or a great increase in numbers of representatives of what has sometimes been called the “Carolinian” fauna: Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Chuck-wills-widow, Acadian Flycatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Turkey Vulture, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. 

Martha’s Vineyard is a relatively disappointing place for shorebirds. In the first place, we have few undisturbed prime mud flats and sand flats to attract passing shorebirds or to provide resting places. In spring, many shorebird species pass northward well inland from the east coast. The largest numbers of shorebirds use the Mississippi Flyway rather than the east coast flyway because it is a more direct route to most of the tundra breeding grounds. And in fall locations such as Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge, Duxbury Beach, Nantucket, and particularly Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Cod are more attractive to southbound migrants. So the Vineyard is in a migration “shadow” for this group of species both spring and fall. 

Not as much work has been done as could have been on ocean birds that are known to occur 20-30 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. It is known that several species for which there are few or no island records occur with moderate regularity at canyons of the continental shelf about 100-120 miles due south. More work on the pelagic species in nearby waters is needed. 

During the last century, there have been significant fluctuations in the general numbers of birds present in eastern North America. Waterfowl and shorebird numbers declined drastically in the 1850-1900 period due to virtually year-round hunting. Since 1900 their numbers increased sharply with protection at least until the 1960s-1970s. Since then their general numbers have been stable to lower. For some species, the pace of decline has accelerated in the last decade. This is particularly true of some species of shorebirds (e.g., Stilt Sandpiper) and some waterfowl (e.g., Canvasback, Redhead). As for passerine birds, their general numbers have declined at a slow pace, but steadily, since about the same time. These general national trends have been reflected on the island as well. 

Mention must be made of what is perhaps the island’s most celebrated bird, the Heath Hen, variously considered a unique species or an eastern race of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. The Vineyard was its last refuge, it having originally occurred from southern Maine to northern Virginia on the eastern Coastal Plain but heavily hunted from the Colonial period well into the 1800s. It ultimately succumbed here to disease, predation and in-breeding. The last bird, a male, lived alone from 1929 to 1932. See Gross (1928), Edey (1998), Dunlop (1999, 2004), and Hough (2001) for details of this history. 

In addition to those species listed below, there exist reports of at least 7 species treated here as hypothetical and thus not included in the following list. Also, there are at least a dozen species generally considered to be escapes such as exotic waterfowl, parakeets, etc. that are not included below. Lastly, ten hybrid birds have been recorded (four ducks, one sandpiper, three gulls, and two warblers) that are not listed below.   

For further background on island birds, see Griscom and Emerson (1959), Keith and Chalif (1968), Whiting and Pesch (1983), and Whiting and Pesch (2007). A valuable general reference for the entire state is Viet and Petersen (1993). The weekly bird columns in the Vineyard Gazette by various authors have also been a source of much useful data. Sibley (2000) provides excellent illustrations of all species that have been found on the island except four vagrants from Europe (Common Shelduck, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Curlew, Common Cuckoo), one from Asia (Red-footed Falcon), and three extinct species (Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Eskimo Curlew). Taxonomic sequence and nomenclature here are that of Checklist of North American Birds [AOU Checklist] (1998) and supplements thereto (2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006) with the exception of two species pairs considered by most European authorities to be separate species: Eurasian and Green-winged Teals, Hudsonian and Eurasian Whimbrels.

The species in the following list are all known to have occurred at least once on the island. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are believed to breed on the island currently; those marked (*?) are thought possibly to breed now but that is unproven, while those marked (*p) are known to have bred on the island in the past. Those species with English names italicized are vagrants that are known to have occurred seven or fewer times; those underlined are considered rare enough so that they probably do not occur annually but can be expected to occur at least once a decade. Very brief status comments follow each species’ name. Breeding species considered as threatened, endangered or of special concern by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program are indicated as such in bold.



American Ornithologists’ Union. 1998. Check-list of North American Birds. Published by the American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 pp.

—————————————- 2000. Forty-second supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk, 117(3):847-858.

—————————————- 2002. Forty-third supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk, 119(3):897-2002.

—————————————– 2003. Forty-fourth supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk, 120(3):923-931.

—————————————– 2004. Forty-fifth supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk, 121(3): 985-995.

—————————————– 2006. Forty-seventh supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk, 123(3):926-936.

Dunlop, T. 1999. Return of the Heath Hen. Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Vol. 15, pp. 46-51.

_________ 2004. Birds of a very different feather. Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Vol. 20, pp. 44-51.

Edey, M. A. Sr. 1998. The last stand of the Heath Hen. Dukes County Intelligencer. 39(4):155-174.

Griscom, L. and G. Emerson. 1959. Birds of Martha’s Vineyard, with an annotated checklistPrivately printed, Martha’s Vineyard, MA. 164 pp. 

Gross, A. O. 1928. The Heath Hen. Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History. 6(4):491-588, 12 plates.

Hough, H. B. (compiler).  2001. The Heath Hen’s journey to extinction. Dukes County Historical Society, Edgartown, MA. Reprint. 31 pp. 

Keith, A. R. 1964. A thirty-year summary of the nesting of the Barn Owl on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Bird-Banding 35(1):22-31.

————–  1968. A summary of the extralimital records of the Varied Thrush, 1848 to 1966. Bird-Banding 34(4):245-276.

Keith, A. R. and E. L. Chalif. 1968. A supplemental list of Martha’s Vineyard birds. Sponsored by The Massachusetts Audubon Society. 38 pp. 

Lack, D. 1976. Island biology – illustrated by the land birds of Jamaica. University of California Press, Los Angeles, CA. 445 pp.

Mayr, E. 2001. The birds of northern Melanesia – speciation, ecology & biogeography. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 492 pp.  

Quammen, D. 1996. The song of the Dodo – island biogeography in an age of extinction. Simon & Schuster, NY. 702 pp.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 544 pp.

Whiting, S. B. and B. B. Pesch. 1983. Vineyard birds. Printed by Concord Press. 117 pp. 

Whiting, S.B. and B.B. Pesch. 2007. Vineyard Birds II. Vineyard Stories. 149 pp.

Veit, R. R. and W. R. Petersen. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Published by Massachusetts Audubon Society. 514 pp.