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WORK SPACE

Guardian of the birds: State’s ornithologist warns we can’t do without them

Andrew Vitz is the state’s ornithologist.
Andrew Vitz is the state’s ornithologist. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WESTBOROUGH — As a boy, Andrew Vitz often took a butterfly net to school and used it at recess to catch monarchs, swallowtails, and painted ladies, all of which he could identify.

His classmates mocked him, calling him “Nature Boy.”

To avoid the teasing, Vitz tried to suppress his interest in winged creatures. But he admired the starlings and sparrows that fluttered around his home in Cincinnati, and his curiosity about the avian world only grew. After a semester in college of observing birds in South America, he decided to devote his life to studying them, each of which he considers “a work of art.”

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“Their color and diversity just blew me away,” he said in a recent interview, months after Baker administration officials — as part of a policy limiting state employees from being interviewed — initially barred him from speaking to the Globe.

In 2012, after years of working in remote forests from Hawaii to the Everglades, Vitz became the state ornithologist of Massachusetts — the 12th man to hold that position since 1908.

Vitz works out of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Vitz works out of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

To those who wonder why the state keeps someone on the payroll to study birds, he has a ready answer: Birds are harbingers of change, uniquely graceful creatures that are highly susceptible to subtle shifts in the environment. Like canaries in a coal mine, they serve as an early warning of dangers such as global warming.

Monitoring and protecting birds are vital functions of the state, he added. They help disperse seeds, control insects, pollinate flowers, and, among other things, connect us to nature.

They also help the economy. He cited a US Fish and Wildlife Service study that found bird-watchers in the United States spend more than $41 billion on trips and equipment every year.

Observing birds, he said, is also good for the mind. “I certainly find bird-watching to be wonderful for relaxation and alleviating stress,” he said.

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Sitting in one of the state’s newest buildings, which has a pool of live trout and shelves of taxidermied fowl and other creatures, Vitz said the job has become more important in recent years.

As the planet warms, more species are at risk of vanishing. A landmark United Nations report last spring found that as many as a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, and that the rate of those losses is unprecedented in human history.

At the same time, he and others noted, federal officials have been seeking to undermine a range of environmental regulations, from the Endangered Species Act to efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

In Massachusetts, the future for birds looks dire, as the warming is expected to alter food sources and affect everything from when flowers bloom to when important insects emerge. A report by Mass Audubon two years ago said that 43 percent of the state’s 143 most common bird species were “highly vulnerable” to climate change, with an additional 22 percent “likely vulnerable.”

Those threatened species include the state bird, the black-capped chickadee; the yellow-bellied sapsucker; ruffed grouse; purple finch; magnolia warbler; and white-throated sparrow.

A wood duck is displayed in the lobby at the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
A wood duck is displayed in the lobby at the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

At his desk on a recent afternoon at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in Westborough, in a nondescript cubicle that’s filled with old birding books, binoculars, and images of some of his favorite species, Vitz had been busy making plans to update the state’s list of vulnerable birds.

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In the coming months, Massachusetts plans to add three birds to the list of 27, which includes nine that are endangered, eight threatened, and 10 of special concern. The additional birds are the eastern meadowlark, which will be listed as a species of special concern; the saltmarsh sparrow, also of special concern; and the red knot, which will be listed as threatened.

“We have to review any development in areas where there are these species,” he said. “We need to make sure the science is behind us to warrant listing — that the birds are really in need of help.”

While the future may be grim for many species, there have been some positive developments in recent years.

Piping plovers, for example, have enjoyed a resurgence in Massachusetts, where there are nearly 700 pairs, up from just 139 when the federal government listed them as threatened in 1986. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons, both of which had disappeared from Massachusetts, were reintroduced to the state in the 1980s, and there are now 85 known nesting pairs of bald eagles and about 45 pairs of peregrine falcons.

Both will soon be downgraded from threatened to species of special concern.

After seven years serving as the state’s ambassador to the avian world, Vitz says Massachusetts is an ideal place to work as an ornithologist.

While he often wakes up well before dawn to trap and tag rare birds and has spent more hours than he would like tracking radio transmitters to the scat of predators, the state’s rich array of species — about 500 either live or transit through Massachusetts — has made for a fascinating career.

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“I can’t think of a better state to be employed as a state ornithologist,” he said.

Barred owl feathers adorned Vitz’s desk.
Barred owl feathers adorned Vitz’s desk.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.