A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Birds of Kentucky offers comprehensive look and state’s avian history

Author Burt L. Monroe Jr. (1930-1994), who was professor and chairman of the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville from 1970 to 1993, details 345 bird species that have been documented in Kentucky.

This includes extinct and extirpated species, native and non-native species, and birds that are permanent residents, winter residents, summer residents, visitant, or transient.

The hardcover 152-page book is richly illustrated with 51 color paintings by wildlife artist William Zimmerman (1937-2011).

The addenda has records of 33 birds noted subsequent to the writing of the main text, and there’s a six-page chart of occurrence and abundance records for all species.

There are numerous historical references from John James Audubon, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, Alexander Wilson and other naturalists and ornithologists who visited or lived in the state beginning the 19th century.

Kentucky’s varied landscape, with five physiographic regions, is a major reason why the state has such diverse avifauna. This book is based on a lifetime of field observation and research.

Writing in Birding Magazine, Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr., author of The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, said The Birds of Kentucky is “a pleasing blend of artistry and informative text that will be hard for local bird enthusiasts and casual, armchair birders to resist, especially at the reasonable price.”

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Gary Sprandel has been an avid birder for most of his adult life. He is retired from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and is currently on the board of the Frankfort Audubon Society.

Here are some of his observations about The Birds of Kentucky, and birdwatching across Kentucky:

• First published in 1994, it’s great to see this book available again. The illustrations and text, particularly for regularly occurring species, are a delight.

Northern Harrier by William Zimmerman from The Birds of Kentucky.

The full-page paintings by William Zimmerman are richly detailed, and often show the species in their native habitat.

One of my favorite illustrations in the book is the painting of the Acadian Flycatcher confronting a Southern Flying Squirrel.

Viewing the painting of the male Northern Harrier sailing over a marsh, you can also almost hear the grass rustling. The waterfowl paintings are quite ethereal as the water’s edge blends into the horizon.

For lovers of warblers (and aren’t we all) the two-page painting of a mixed flock of six favorite spring warblers feeding on insects is great. I can hardly wait to see my next Blackburnian Warbler. This is an iconic species for the Kentucky birder.

• The species accounts are well written.

The habitat, geographic distribution and breeding period is included for species that breed here, and the accounts of transient species include when and where they are most likely to

Some of the best parts of the accounts are when professor Monroe included antidotes from his vast experience. One of my favorites is when he is watching a Great Blue Heron and explaining to a class how herons fold their necks back when flying. “I promptly flushed it, and it remained visible in flight for at least two miles, all the while flying with its neck stretched forward exactly like a crane! My comment to the class was that the bird apparently had never read the Peterson field guide.”

• Reviewing The Birds of Kentucky in light of current information, there have been some notable changes in bird populations in the past 25 years.

Ruffed Grouse by William Zimmerman from The Birds of Kentucky.

Our national bird, the Bald Eagle, has been firmly established across the state, as nesting has greatly improved. There were less than 15 nests in the mid-1990s. By 2019 187 nests were counted. This iconic species has been taken off the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Wild Turkey has also staged a remarkable comeback, having been restored in Kentucky during a nearly 30-year period that ended in 2000. The big birds are now found in all 120 Kentucky counties, with a population estimate of 250,000 to 400,000 turkeys in 2020.

But we lost some species too, and changes in habitat are affecting other species.

Two examples are the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, described in the mid-1990s as “rare and local, the species still exists in pockets in southeastern counties.” By 2001 the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was extirpated from the state.

Ruffed Grouse, a species found “throughout the Cumberland Plateau and eastern mountains, where it is a fairly common permanent resident” in the mid-1990s, is now on a downward population trend, due to maturing forests throughout the region. Its preferred habitat is early successional forestlands.

• Two good sources of supplemental information are the Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, published by the University Press of Kentucky, and the Annotated Checklist of Birds of Kentucky, published by the Kentucky Ornithological Society.

Burt L. Monroe Jr. Photo courtesy of the University of Louisville)

Both books were authored by Kentucky ornithologist Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr.

• An overview of Kentucky’s varied habitats found in its five physiographic regions, helps readers understand why bird species occur where they do.

Kentucky’s landforms vary greatly over its 40,395 square miles.

The diverse landscapes range from the Eastern Coal Field, where the unique and rugged Black Mountain in Harlan County, is the highest point in the state at 4,145 feet above sea level, to the far western reaches of the state in the Jackson Purchase, bounded by water on three sides. The wetlands in that region are like those found along our country’s Atlantic coastal plain.

Central Kentucky is in the Bluegrass Region, the lush, rolling Inner Bluegrass, bounded on the west, south and east by the Knobs, and the Ohio River to the north.

The crow family illustrates how physiography impacts species distribution, with the Common Raven found in the east, the American Crow in the Bluegrass, and the Fish Crow in far western Kentucky.

• Within central Kentucky, exclusive breeding species for the state include the Savannah Sparrow and Bobolink.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Expect many opportunities to observe birds at the backyard feeder, with White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows in the winter, and hopes for a glimpse at a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the spring or a Baltimore Oriole throughout the summer.

• For those wanting to travel to observe birds, there are ample public land opportunities at state Wildlife Management Areas, State Parks, and State Nature Preserves.

Some areas to birdwatch in central Kentucky include the Ohio River from Louisville to Cincinnati for wintering waterfowl and Mammoth Cave National Park in the south for Cerulean Warblers in the park’s magnificent hardwood forests.

Reclaimed grasslands at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and Camp Nelson National Monument offer opportunities to observe unique species such as Bobolink and Dickcissel.

In and around Lexington, Jacobson Park, Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, and the Lexington Cemetery offer opportunities to observe migrants as well as resident species.

In and around Frankfort, the headquarters of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and the Peter W. Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery, offer good birdwatching opportunities.

• For those wanting to learn more about Kentucky birdlife, I suggest joining a local bird club such as the Frankfort Audubon Society, the Central Kentucky Audubon Society in the
Lexington/Bluegrass area, or the Beckham Bird Club in Louisville. These groups offer field trips with experienced leaders.

The Kentucky Ornithological Society maintains the Commonwealth’s state list and has semi-annual meetings. They have established an Avian Research Fund to honor Dr. Burt L. Monroe Jr.

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The Birds of Kentucky, by Burt L. Monroe Jr., is published by the University Press of Kentucky, March 2021.

The 152-page, 9 by 12 inch hardcover book, is $40.

To order online, visit www.kentuckypress.com

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