Birds of Putnam County, Tennessee: Introduction


Physiography and Habitats of Putnam County

Putnam County (Figure 1) is located on the eastern edge of the Grand Division of the Volunteer State known as "Middle Tennessee," about midway between Nashville and Knoxville; from its extreme northernmost point, it lies about 45 km (28 mi) south of the Kentucky border.  Many persons writing about the physiography of Putnam County have noted that its general physiography imitates that of Tennessee, since the county is much longer west to east (about 80 km [50 mi]) than north of south (about 25 km [18 mi] along an average longitudinal line) and since elevation in the county generally increases west to east.

    The county contains 1042.5 km2 (402.5 mi2) and lies in three physiographic provinces (from west to east; Figure 2): the Central (or Nashville) Basin, the Highland Rim, and the Cumberland Plateau.  An important feature of the county, from the avifaunistic point of view, is the separation of these provinces by escarpments that provide dramatic transitions from one province to another.

    The Central Basin portion of the county is quite limited, amounting to about 10% of the county's land surface and being located entirely in western Putnam County along the Caney Fork River, Martin Creek, and some of the tributaries of those watercourses.  Elevation in the Basin ranges from approximately 150 to 210 m [ 490 to 690 ft] above mean sea level.

    About one half of the county lies in the Highland Rim, including the town of Cookeville and the communities of Algood and Baxter.  Elevation ranges from 275 to 350 m [900 to 1150 ft] though occasional knobs of higher elevation and creek valleys of lower elevation occur.

    The easternmost part of the county, amounting to about a quarter of its land surface, lies on the Cumberland Plateau, including the town of Monterey.  Elevation ranges from 550 to 625 m [1800 to 2050 ft], although a shelf, known as the Hartselle Bench, in the eastern escarpment (see below) with plateau-like characteristics occurs at 425 to 475 m [1400 to 1600 ft] in several areas including the small communities of Brotherton and Rocky Point.

    County elevations ranging from 210 to 275 m [700 to 900 ft] generally indicate areas on the western escarpment separating the Central Basin from the Highland Rim, while elevations of 350 to 550 m [1150 to 1800 ft] signal areas on the eastern escarpment separating the Highland Rim from the Cumberland Plateau.  Each of these "transitional zones" amounts to about 10% of the county.  Note: The escarpments harbor a diverse array of breeding Neotropical migrant landbirds, including many dozens of pairs of Cerulean Warblers on the western escarpment, making them highly valuable avifaunal sites and their preservation a matter of considerable importance.

    Various kinds of deciduous forest cover about 70% (estimated at 75% in 1993) of the two escarpments with the upper portions of the eastern escarpment being covered by an increasing component of mixed (deciduous-coniferous) forest.  Development on the escarpments has been  a slow but escalating process since (and before) 1993, exacerbated because most homeowners on escarpments cut down the forest on the slopes around their homes to provide themselves with a "view," a singularly poor trade-off from the biological standpoint.  The forests of the Cumberland Plateau, like those of the upper eastern escarpment, are mainly mixed forest types; these cover 5060% of the province in the county (estimated at 6070% in 1993); loss of forest cover as a result of development on the plateau seems to be occurring somewhat faster than on the escarpments, mainly as a result of the housing for retirement communities (as in the area around Icy Cove).  About 25% of the Highland Rim remains forested (estimated at 30% in 1993), with the remaining land surface is devoted to a diminishing agricultural component and an increasing suburban and light industrial component. At least 20% of the Central Basin remains forested, a percentage that has not changed much from 1993.

    Wetland habitat in Putnam County is quite limited, occurring mainly along rivers and streams.  Very few natural lakes and ponds originally existed, but several lakes and many ponds have been created by impounding rivers and creeks in suitable areas. These have considerably increased the attractiveness of the county to various waterbirds.  Marsh habitat remains scarce in the county, as it was historically, but wooded swamps, including the locally famous "Booger" Swamp, occur with greater frequency.  Many of these have been subjected to drainage and other abuses, reducing their presence in the county (see Bird Conservation below).


History of Ornithology in Putnam County

The earliest ornithological reference that may be attributed to Putnam County dates back to 25 November 1799, when Carolina Parakeets were observed in or near the county by two travelers (Steiner and de Schweinitz 1927; McKinley 1979), the only extant reference to this now extinct species available for the county.  From that time until the mid-Twentieth Century, nothing in the way of an ornithological record exists for Putnam County.  That record may be said to have its real beginning in the 1950s when Mayfield (1953) published a note about the presence of Song Sparrows during the breeding seasons of 1952 and 1953 in Cookeville, an event rare enough at that time to warrant special attention. Then in the late 1950s Ralph L. Dunckel, a native of New York State, moved to Cookeville and was instrumental in the founding of the Upper Cumberland Bird Club, a chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, in that city.  Dunckel played a crucial role in initiating the annual Christmas Bird Count in Cookeville, the first of which was conducted 27 December 1957.  The first Spring Bird Count followed a few years later, with the initial survey of this type being held 22 April 1961.  For a quarter century after Dunckel's arrival in the county in 1957, this bird club was the primary source of the collection of bird data here.  Though Dunckel died in 1969, the bird club he had such a large part in founding continued to be active in the collection of bird data until 1982, when the last of 25 nearly consecutive CBCs was conducted. Only in December 1969, the month and year of Dunckel's death (McGee 1970), was a CBC not conducted in Cookeville from 1957 to 1982.  The last Spring Bird Count was conducted by the bird club in 1978.  Many individuals contributed to the success of the Upper Cumberland Bird Club and the bird counts it administered; quite a few of them are included in the List of Observers section of this work, and the specific contributions of several are discussed in the first edition of this work (Stedman 1993).

    When the Upper Cumberland Bird Club ceased to function in 1982, bird study in the county did not come to a halt.  In particular, Richard W. Simmers, Jr., a native of New England, who had moved to the area in the 1970s and established a domicile in Barnes Hollow, was responsible for gathering some of the most important data ever collected in the county's history.  From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, Simmers conducted annual Breeding Bird Censuses and frequent Winter Bird Population Studies on a plot at Barnes Hollow, providing much useful information about the breeding and wintering birds of the county.  In particular, he discovered a territorial Bachman's Sparrow (Simmers 1980) during the spring and summer of 1979, providing what remains as the only record of this rare breeder for the county.

    From the late 1960s onward, graduate students in the Department of Biology at Tennessee Tech University conducted studies about birds in the county that became the focus of masters theses produced as part of Master's degree requirements.  These theses produced data relating to several common species: Wood Duck, Mourning Dove, and Red-winged Blackbird.  References to theses by graduate studentsBradshaw (1978), Cole (1968), Folkerth (1982), Hurst (1977), Shaw (1984), Stewart (1984), and Wrinn (1974)are, or shortly will be, included in the bibliography linked to this work; theses written more recently will also be added to the bibliography.  Several professors in the Biology Department at Tennessee Tech University have also made important contributions to our understanding of the birds of the county.  In particular, Daniel L. Combs (and graduate students working under his guidance) has conducted extensive research relating to the Canada Goose population in Putnam County, and Steven E. Hayslette (and graduate students working under his guidance) has conducted research relating to the doves of the county, especially the Eurasian Collared-Dove (Hayslette 2006, Poling and Hayslette 2006).

    In June 1987 Stephen J. Stedman, a native of New York State, and Barbara H. Stedman, a native of Florida, moved to Cookeville.  With Simmers' assistance, they immediately reorganized the Christmas Bird Count, commencing a new sequence of counts 17 December 1987 and continuing that sequence down to the present time. A few years later they also reorganized the Spring Bird Count, which began a new sequence of counts 9 May 1992 and was continued until 2014.  On 16 September 2000, they initiated the first Fall Bird Count in the county, and that survey was run annually for a decade. For a time in the 1990s the Stedmans conducted a Breeding Bird Census and a Winter Bird Population Study on a plot at City Lake Natural Area near their domicile.  In January 1991 they conducted a Winter Roadside Survey in Putnam County, sampling 500 points around the county following a standard protocol; in June 1991 they conducted the first Summer Roadside Survey over the same 500 points.  During 1996, 2001, and 2006, the Stedmans resurveyed the same set of 500 points during January and June of each of those years; the WRS was also completed in January 2011, while the SRS was replaced that year by a UCR Foray.


Documentation of Bird Records

The surest means of separating birders and ornithologists from the vast throngs of other persons who express varying degrees of interest in birds is the different manner in which persons in these groups record bird data (another discussion of the "field marks" that distinguish groups of persons interested in birds from one another is presented at a page of this website accessible via this link: Philosophical Comments on Birding).  Birders and ornithologists generally record bird data in a standard, archivable manner, so that the resulting data can be easily consulted and interpreted whenever the need arises.  All others, whatever they may call themselves, either do not record bird data at all or record it in an incomplete manner that seldom involves an archive of any sort; consequently and sadly, the observations they make are seldom of long-standing value.

    To make a bird record means that the person who makes an observation (visually or aurally) writes down on a bird checklist or in a field notebook (or suitable electronic device) the following data: 

Any bird record that does not include all of these items is not truly a bird record (and the person who creates such a record not truly a birder or an ornithologist).  For records of rare species, additional information may be provided to create a strong basis for acceptance of the record (Stedman and Robinson 1987), or a photograph or sound recording may be obtained and archived as supporting evidence for such a sighting.

    Besides providing all the above data about each bird sighting, the birder or ornithologist also places the data on or in an archivable format, usually a bird checklist or field notebook but also (more recently) an electronic recording device of some sort.  Furthermore, the resulting data are then preserved in some manner such that the resulting checklist, notebook, or recording device data output can be accessed whenever the need arises.  Current advances in archiving bird data have also made it possible to create a back-up electronic version of many bird data, using a platform such as the one known as eBird, available to those with an internet connection.

    Anyone who wishes to make a meaningful contribution to ornithology in Putnam County (or anywhere else) needs to be aware of, and comply with, the basic principles of recording bird data noted above.


Monitoring Bird Populations in Putnam County

Many are the bird surveys and censuses that have been conducted in Putnam County over the past half century, beginning with the earliest of these, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which began operation in December 1957.  This survey does a good job of monitoring populations of permanent resident species in the county; however, it may not be a reliable means of monitoring populations of winter resident species, given the high degree of correlation that seems to occur between changes in numbers of many of those species on the CBCs and changes in the winter supply of hard and soft mast available to many of those species.

    The next most venerable of the bird-monitoring surveys that have been undertaken in the county is the Spring Bird Count (SBC), first initiated in 1961.  This survey also does a good job of monitoring permanent residents and summer residents of the county, but its taking place in the second to third week of May each year since 1992 probably prevents it from being a good monitoring survey for all but the latest appearing of the transient species that pass northward through the county.

    Extremely valuable as a means of determining the general size of breeding territories used by many species found in the county is the Breeding Bird Census (BBC), two of which have been conducted in the county, with the earliest (at Barnes Hollow) being initiated in 1977 and the other (at City Lake Natural Area) being initiated in 1991.

    Winter Bird Population Studies (WBPS) have been conducted at two sites in Putnam County (the same two sites at which BBCs have been conducted).  These studies were undertaken from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s (Barnes Hollow) and from the early 1990s to the mid-1990s (City Lake Natural Area).  The primary result of these studies is to show the relative abundance of many species at these sites during the period from December to February.

    In January1991 a Winter Roadside Survey (WRS) surveying birds at 500 points around the county was initiated and continued at intervals of five years since that time.  This survey has lent support to the data collected on CBCs regarding populations levels of many species and trends evident about many of them; in particular the statistically significant decrease in the population of Loggerhead Shrike in the county has been given much support by WRS data.  Also in June 1991 a Summer Roadside Survey (SRS), covering the same 500 points surveyed by the WRS, was begun and continued at intervals of five years ever since.  This survey has provided data that support trends in populations of permanent resident species emerging from CBC and WRS data, and it provides the best current data regarding trends in populations of breeding species.

    Beginning in the fall of 2000 a Fall Bird Count (FBC) was conducted in the county during mid-September each year for a decade, ending in 2009.  It remains difficult to determine what, if anything, can be derived from the fall data collected by this survey in the way of assessing population size or trends in the populations of species found in the county at that time.

    Beginning in 2004 and continuing since that year, a pooled data effort has been part of the local participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).  It is too early to tell what this set of data may tell us about the late winter birdlife in the county.

    See the next section for a discussion of some specific changes that have taken place in the bird populations of the county over the past half a century; many of these changes are known to us only because of the fairly constant bird monitoring that has taken place during that time and especially during the past two decades.


Changes in the Putnam County Avifauna

In the first edition of this work (Stedman 1993) a brief synopsis was offered describing known changes in the avifauna of the county up to that point in time.  These changes included all of the following:

    Since 1993 most of these trends have continued and others have manifested themselves, primarily as a result of field work focused on monitoring bird populations in the county.  A probably incomplete summary of known or suspected avifaunal changes occurring in the county since 1993 follows:


Bird Conservation

There is little doubt that humans benefit greatly from the presence of birds in our urban communities and in the surrounding, less inhabited, countryside. There is considerable doubt about the opposite proposition, whether birds benefit greatly from the presence of humans in their urban communities and surrounding, more inhabited, countryside.  A brief summary of a few of the benefits offered to humans by birds may be found at this link: A Rationale for Birding.  Consequently, conservation of birds by any and all means ought be a priority for any community of humans worthy of that name; sadly, such is seldom the case for reasons that are too many to list and too depressing to dwell upon.  See the first edition of this work (Stedman 1993) for some actions you can take to sustain healthy populations of birds in Putnam County and around the planet.


Literature Cited:


Clickable Contents   

            Front Dust Jacket
            Back Dust Jacket
            Title Page
            Copyright Page
            Preface to the Second Edition
            List of Figures
            List of Tables
            Explication of the Species Accounts
            List of Observers
            Species AccountsGeese through Terns
            Species AccountsPigeon through Weaver Finch


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