Birds of Northeastern Pennsylvania Threatened by Fracking Development
Species lists are an important tool to raise awareness and inform decision makers on species affected by certain issues. Here we compile information from published studies in order to present a consensus on which bird species in northeastern Pennsylvania are affected by the fracking industry’s expansion. Along with a species list of 12 birds, we offer an interactive map that allows you to explore reported sightings of these birds and their proximity to fracking development.
Conservationists create species lists to help protect biodiversity. These lists condense large amounts of scientific information to categorize species at different priority levels or highlight a group according to a particular threat or shared trait. Conservation lists, like the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Birds of Conservation Concern, raise public awareness and are an easy tool to inform policy makers, organizations, or government agencies. In many cases, creating a list, or getting a species added to or recategorized under an existing list, is enough to spur organizations to implement protection programs.
Resources like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species generally rank thousands of species. By remaining generalized, they are easy to use and quickly become an authority to many people. Anyone can easily use the list to see that the northern cardinal is a bird of “Least Concern” while the California condor is “Critically Endangered.” This tool is great for prioritizing different animals but a downside is that a reader might not necessarily understand why one is endangered but another only near threatened. These generalized lists are so expansive that they cannot afford to go into great detail or illustrate the underlying causes. As a result, it falls on the reader to conduct more research or refer to a specialized list for a specific topic.
Like climate change or wildlife trade, the expansion of the fracking industry shapes biodiversity. Its effects must be managed. Setting aside possibilities like pollution and noise disturbance (Wood et al., 2016; Mason et al., 2016), the industry has a profound impact by merely converting wildlife habitat into industrial landscapes. This includes conversion not only for the well pads where drilling occurs, but also for related infrastructure. Every fracking well needs a network of gathering pipelines and compressor stations that further fragment surrounding habitats.
Fracking in Pennsylvania
North of the Appalachians, fracking companies convert forest habitat to extract gas from the underlying shale. Northeastern Pennsylvania—particularly Tioga, Bradford, Susquehanna, Lycoming, Sullivan, and Wyoming counties—is a hotspot for the fracking industry. According to FERC reporting, this region contains over 8,000 permitted wells for hydraulic fracturing (FERC 2019).
The land use change associated with all these wells particularly affects bird communities. For many bird species, this region is either their nesting habitat, or an important stop during seasonal migrations. In order to measure the impacts of fracking land-use change, scientists conduct bird surveys at fracking wells, fracking related infrastructure, and in undisturbed areas. They then use this information—what bird species were seen, how many individuals of each species, distance to the nearest disturbance, ecosystem characteristics where the sighting took place etc.—to model the relationship between bird presence and fracking development.
Many studies in this region used modeling techniques to establish a simple linear relationship between distance to fracking infrastructure and a species’ presence. However, newer statistical analyses allow scientists to not only establish this linear distance relationship, but also to investigate the habitat’s ecological thresholds.
An ecological threshold is the tipping point at which incremental changes or disturbances cause drastic or disproportionate results. In the case of forest habitat and bird species, removal of an acre beyond a particular species ecological threshold will result in a huge loss of population, much larger than the loss incurred by removing the same amount before said threshold. When removing the first acre of forest, birds or other animals can likely migrate to connected habitat. It doesn’t incur much loss in terms of population. However, when you remove land past the ecological threshold, a species no longer has the options to tolerate the disturbance. Beyond this point, the losses become disproportionately large.
The Birds Affected by Fracking
Understanding these thresholds allow us to manage human disturbances of an ecosystem. One study sampled from over one hundred fracking-related sites in order to detect bird species responses past their ecological threshold (Farwell et al. 2020). They found evidence for non-linear population declines in response to low levels of forest loss—a sign that for some species these ecological thresholds were already crossed. Along with the abundant amount of studies that modeled linear distance relationships, the consensus is that fracking development predominantly affects birds of the forest interior.
Birds like robins or sparrows are habitat generalists that thrive both near and far away from human development. Areas cleared for well pads or pipelines create edges and open areas that can benefit these generalists (Thomas et al. 2014). However, that previously undisturbed forest was home to more specialized species, primarily warblers and thrushes. These forest interior birds, such as the Cerulean Warbler, need a pristine habitat.
The Cerulean Warbler’s (Setophaga cerulea) overall population has declined by 75% since 1966, primarily due to habitat loss (Sauer et al. 2013). Habitat fragmentation from fracking is another concern for this already threatened bird. Photo by Petroglyph.
Forest interior specialists avoid these new forest edges and also must compete with generalist species (Barton et al. 2016). As a consequence, the impacts of habitat conversion for fracking extends well beyond the visibly cleared acreage. It is also important to note that the relative increase of generalist birds nowhere nears the declines of forest interior birds (Farwell et al. 2020). It is a net loss for birds overall. Specialists also provide important ecosystem services, such as suppressing insect outbreaks (Whelan et al. 2008). For preserving biodiversity and these ecosystem services, we must monitor and manage the impacts on these birds.
We used statistically significant results at the species-level from published studies to compile a watchlist of birds threatened by fracking development in northeastern Pennsylvania (see Appendix for more detailed methods). The list features mostly warblers, but also some thrush, vireo, and woodpecker species. Nearly half of the birds included are already included on a conservation priority list. This underscores that fracking development jeopardizes already vulnerable species.
A Watchlist for Birds of Northeastern Pennsylvania
Along with the list above, we also provide an interactive map so that you may explore the sightings of these birds and their proximity to fracking development. Use the drop-down in the top right to view sightings by species. Sightings are provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database. eBird data is curated from reported sightings by citizens and scientists. It is limited primarily by places where people live or go bird-watching. However, as this region is entirely within the range for all of these birds, it is still useful for exploring local sightings. Click any colored point on the map to see more information about that bird’s sighting.
Fracking pipelines are colored in orange. Click any pipeline to see the total acreage cleared for that segment. Pipeline data comes from a portion of FracTracker Alliance’s gathering line dataset. Since fracking wells are too numerous to view regionally, zoom in to see permitted well locations at the local level.
To view map instructions on the page, click the side panel to the left.
The Take Away
The clearing of habitat for fracking wells, pipelines, and compressor stations is just one of the many ways the industry affects surrounding wildlife. Increasing forest edges and clearing forest for fracking particularly impacts birds of the forest interior. A majority of the birds on this list are already of conservation concern or declining in terms of population. Many migrant warblers are continuously declining from year to year, and researchers have yet to pinpoint exactly why. Continued expansion of this industry into forest habitats will only exacerbate these conservation issues. In order to preserve biodiversity, ecosystem services, and our enjoyment of these creatures, we must manage the impacts of fracking on these birds.
References & Where to Learn More
Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture (2015) Priority Landbirds. http://amjv.org/documents/Priority_ Landbird_Species.pdf
Barton, E.P., Pabian, S.E., and Brittingham, M.C. (2016) Bird Community Response to Marcellus Shale Gas Development. The Journal of Wildlife Management 80(7): 1301-1313
eBird. (2021) eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. http://www.ebird.org
Faaborg, J., Arendt, W.J., Toms, J.D., Dugger, K.M., Cox, W.A., and Mora, M.C. (2013) Long-term decline of a winter-resident bird community in Puerto Rico. Biodiversity and Conservation 22:63-75
Farwell, L.S., Wood, P.B., Brown, D.J., and Sheehan, J. (2019) Proximity to unconventional shale gas infrastructure alters breeding bird abundance and distribution. Condor 121:1-20
Farwell, L.S., Wood, P.B., Dettmers, R., and Brittingham, M.C. (2020) Threshold responses of songbirds to forest loss and fragmentation across the Marcellus-Utica shale gas region of central Appalachia, USA. Landscape Ecology 35:1353-1370
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (2019) Approved major pipeline projects. https://www.ferc.gov/industries-data/natural-gas/approved-major-pipeline-projects-1997-present
International Union for Conservation of Nature (2019) The IUCN red list of threatened species, v. 2021-1. http://www.iucnredlist.org
Langlois, L.A. (2017) Effects of Marcellus shale gas infrastructure on forest fragmentation and bird communities in northcentral Pennsylvania. Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, State College, USA
Manthey, J. D., Klicka, J., and Spellman, G.M. (2010) Cryptic diversity in a widespread North American songbird: Phylogeography of the Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 58: 502-512
Mason, J.T., McClure, C.J.W., and Barber, J.R. (2016) Anthropogenic noise impairs owl hunting behavior. Biological Conservation 199: 29-32
National Geographic (2003) Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington. D.C.
Thomas, E.H., Brittingham, M.C., and Stoleson, S.H. (2014) Conventional Oil and Gas Development Alters Forest Songbird Communities. The Journal of Wildlife Management 78(2): 293-306
Tingley, M.W., Orwig, D.A., Field, R., and Motzkin, G. (2002) Avian response to removal of a forest dominant: consequences of hemlock woolly adelgid infestations. Journal of Biogeography 29(11): 1505-1516
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2008) Birds of conservation concern 2008. United States Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management, Arlington, Virginia. http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/
Schlossberg, Scott and King, David (2008) Are Shrubland Birds Edge Specialist?. Ecological Applications 18(6): 1325-1330
Sauer, R., Link, W., Fallon, J., Pardiek, K., Ziolkowski, D. (2013) The North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2011: Summary Analysis and Species Accounts. North American Fauna 79:1-32
Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link. (2017) The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015. Version 2.07.2017 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD
USGS Paxtuxent Wildlife Research Center (2016) “Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis: North American Breeding Bird Survey Trend Results”. U.S. Geological Survey. Department of Interior.
Whelan, C.J., Wenny, D.G., and Marquis, R.J. (2008) Ecosystem Services Provided by Birds. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1134: 25-60
Wilson S, Ladeau, S.L., Tottrup, A.P., and Marra, P.P. (2011) Range-wide effects of breeding- and nonbreeding-season climate on the abundance of a neotropical migrant songbird. Ecology 92: 1789–1798
Wood, P.B., Frantz, M.W., and Becker, D.A. (2016) Louisiana Waterthrush and Benthic Macroinvertebrate Response to Shale Gas Development. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 7(2): 423-432
The list was comprised of birds that showed negative threshold responses to overall forest loss, increase of forest edge density, increase in well pad development, and linear non-gas development (Farwell et. al. 2020). While many forest interior species show negative threshold responses to some of these factors individually, we decided to only include species that negatively responded to all factors in order to create a conservative list.
Statistically significant results from local studies that used linear models to assess species responses were used to offer further verification of this list (Thomas et al. 2014; Barton et al. 2016; Langlouis 2017; Farwell et al. 2019). Unfortunately, not all local studies analyze the same species. Within each of these local studies, the species they do aim to analyze do not always yield statistically significant results. This is possibly due to the limitations or randomness of sampling and bird surveys. This reality makes it difficult to produce a species-level list that is strictly congruent across many studies. However, by aiming to highlight a conservative list of sensitive species, our hope is that resulting efforts will be most prudent in helping all birds generally.
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