Counting Birds: Christmas Means Citizen Science For The Birds | @GrrlScientist
Need a breather from the holiday stress? How about communing with nature by joining your friends and family on a local Christmas Bird Count as a volunteer observer
One of the events that I miss terribly ever since I relocated overseas, is the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). For much of my life, those three magical weeks — from December 14th through January 5th — during which the CBCs were held were a defining period of each year. It gave me the excuse to get outdoors to explore as many local natural areas, wildlife refuges, and national parks as I could during the holidays in my quest to identify and count as many birds as possible. I also tried out other people’s optics, learned about their cameras and gave them hand warmers; spent hours outdoors (followed by plates of Christmas cookies washed down by mugs of steaming hot chocolate); watched a lot of wildlife I would not have seen otherwise (I’ve seen a wild bobcat — it was so close that I could have reached out and touched it — and I’m one of those rare people who has seen a wild fisher); learned about the geology and history of the area; caught up with people I had met on previous CBCs, and made friends with people of all ages whom I would never have met any other way (some of whom are my friends even today). Basically, CBCs have given me so many memorable experiences.
The Christmas Bird Count is the “granddaddy” of all wildlife surveys
Although the CBC was started 118 years ago on Christmas Day by a group of 27 friends who loved birds (more here), it feels remarkably similar to a modern Pokémon adventure. Originally devised as a substitute for the “traditional” wanton slaughter of thousands of wild birds to “celebrate” the holidays, the CBC evolved into the world’s longest-running and largest animal survey.
The CBC is a census of North American winter birds: tens of thousands of volunteer observers across the United States, Canada, Mexico and many other countries throughout the Western Hemisphere meet and follow specified routes through a designated 15 mile (24 km) diameter “count circle” during a prearranged 24-hour time period to identify and count all the birds they see and hear. These volunteer observers include all age groups and range from people “on a lark” who have never before gone birding, to expert birders and ornithologists. I often found that, like me, a decent number of university students participated in CBCs as a way to “destress” after end of term final exams.
Seeking rare and unusual birds
Although participants in CBCs are taking a census of every bird they encounter in their count circles, they are always looking for rare or unusual birds. For example, during the 116th CBC, a Siberian accentor, a robin-sized songbird, was spotted during a CBC on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada (ref), a fieldfare, also a robin-sized songbird normally seen in Russia, Norway and Sweden, was spotted in Missoula, Montana and remarkably, not one but two Eurasian Marsh-Harriers, a relative of our own Northern Harrier, a large bird of prey, were spotted on two separate islands in the Barbados (ref). Last year, a very lost Amazon kingfisher was counted for the first time ever in a Laredo, Texas CBC (ref).
Already, we’re seeing a large movement of snowy owls out of the high Arctic and into the Great Plains, Midwest and Northeast, with some spotted as far south as Oklahoma and Virginia (ref) and as far west as western Washington state, according to my bird pals in Seattle, so if you’ve ever wanted to catch a glimpse of Hedwig the owl’s wild cousins, this could be your year.
The Christmas Bird Count is a holiday tradition and a growing international event
Last year was the eighth record-breaking CBC in a row: 73,153 field observers recorded 56,139,812 birds of 2,636 different species, which amounts to roughly one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna. Last year’s CBC comprised 2,536 count circles; 1,933 of which were in the United States, 447 were in Canada and 156 were in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.
These “counts” are recorded by each count circle’s leader and added to a massive database curated by the National Audubon Society. It is this database that makes the CBC special: it transformed the CBC from a seeming “hobby” into the world’s longest-running citizen science project — established long before citizen science became as “A Thing”. But A Thing it is, and the information collected by this census is proving to be an invaluable source of raw data describing avian demographics — and is becoming critically important to a growing number of international research projects and conservation efforts with each passing year.
Christmas Bird Counts provide data that are critically important to research and conservation
CBC data have been used in more than 200 peer-reviewed articles (link) to date, including Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report (link). Based on more than 100 years of data, this report found that more than half of North America’s bird species are threatened by climate change. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed over time and space during the past hundred years. For example, the Audubon report found that the only quail species native to the eastern United States, the Northern Bobwhite, has almost disappeared from the Northeast and faces massive population declines elsewhere due to habitat loss and drought. Other dwindling species include American Kestrels, North America’s smallest falcon, and the Loggerhead Shrike, a predatory songbird that maintains a macabre larder of prey impaled on thorns and barbed wire fences. At this time, it is poorly understood why so many species are declining but CBC and other citizen scientist surveys suggest that widespread pesticide abuse combined with habitat destruction are playing significant roles.
Not only do CBC data provide scientists with information that captures population trends that is vital for conservation work, but it helps point to specific environmental issues that can impact people, too.
Christmas Bird Count rewards its citizen scientists
To inspire you in your bird quest, the Audubon Society’s bird guide app is freely available (link) so you can use it to help identify the birds you are looking at. It’s free to participate in a CBC, and the data collected are freely available online in the quarterly report, American Birds. Since beginning birders accompany expert birders, CBCs are educational and are open to people of all ages and skill levels. This means families are welcome. Kids, especially, are welcome. In this holiday giving season, CBCs are the gift of a unique experience and a gift of hope to the future so today’s children — and their children — will always live in a world that is enriched by bird songs and colors and lives.
The best thing about a CBC is that, like a Pokémon adventure, you never know what you’ll find when you participate. Will this CBC be the one when you’ll spot a bird that’s never before been seen in North America? Is this the day when you’ll watch a snowy owl — or ten (!!) — squinting at you through golden eyes in the daylight? Ready to go? Find a CBC near you.
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Originally published at Forbes on 11 December 2017.