Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
The New Mexico Breeding Bird Atlas Project
The history of mapping of breeding bird distributions can be traced back at least to 1922 with the publication of Phillips's A Natural History of the Ducks, a text that provided maps of the known breeding and wintering distributions of ducks throughout the world. Within ten years, two books with state maps of bird distributions were published. Birds of New Mexico by Florence Merriam Bailey was published in 1928 followed by Howell's Florida Bird Life in 1932. In the 1950s, mapping the distribution of breeding birds at a national level began. The 6-volume Birds of the Soviet Union by Dement'ev and Gladkov was published over the period 1951 to 1954. In 1966, the first national maps for North America were published by Godfrey in The Birds of Canada.
The above named atlases were basically a compilation of known information on the distribution of birds. These atlases did not rely on a systematic grid-based method for gathering of information. Such grid-based mapping had been conducted as early as 1860 by Hermann Hoffman in Germany for plant distributions. It was not until the 1960s, however, that a systematic effort to map birds was started in England's West Midlands. This effort produced the Atlas of Breeding Birds of the West Midlands by Lord and Munns in 1970 and covered three counties. The West Midlands project was so popular and successful that an enormous 5-year effort began to map the distributions of breeding birds within Great Britain and Ireland using a 10-kilometer grid. Interest in atlasing birds continued to build as the British and Irish atlas work progressed. In 1971, the European Ornithological Atlas Committee was formed and took on the task of atlasing the birds of Europe in 5 years using a 50-kilometer grid. In 1976 the atlases for Britain and Ireland, France, and Denmark were published, followed by atlases for West Germany in 1977, the Netherlands in 1979, and Switzerland in 1980. Since 1980, work has been conducted on breeding bird atlases in Spain, New Zealand, and many countries in Africa including Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Zambia.
In the United States, Skaar's Montana Bird Distribution Preliminary Mapping by Latilong was published in 1975 and used 47 one-degree blocks of latitude and longitude to show categories of breeding evidence. Also in 1975 Stewart published his one-man atlas project for North Dakota that spanned 1950-1972 and used a grid based on townships.
In 1981, the first conference on North American breeding bird atlasing was held in Vermont and began to lay the foundations for atlas methods and standards to be used by many state atlas projects. Topics addressed were mapping scales, grid size, sampling design, standards for coverage, evaluation of survey data, data tabulation, habitat analysis, recruitment and motivation of volunteers, verification of records, blockbusting, financing an atlas project, and publishing the atlas. During the conference reports on the status of breeding bird atlases for Connecticut, Maine, the Maritime Provinces, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ontario, Rhode Island, and Vermont were presented. At a second breeding bird atlasing conference in April 1986, Alberta, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia were added to the list of States and Provinces working on atlas projects.
By 2000, over 40 atlases have been completed or are underway in North America. Colorado published its breeding bird atlas in 1998. Oklahoma completed its third year of fieldwork in 1999. Nevada will complete fieldwork for its atlas in 2000. Arizona will conduct its eighth and final year of fieldwork in 2000. Breeding bird atlas work is so valuable that several northeastern states are planning the second round of atlas work to draw comparisons and conclusions about changes in bird distributions. New York will start its second atlas in the spring of 2000.