Christmas Bird Count and Other Citizen Science

Christmas Bird Count

In bygone days it just wasn't Christmas until teams were chosen, firearms issued, and the competition begun to see who could bring back the biggest pile of fur and feathers by nightfall.

On December 25, 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman organized the first Christmas Bird Count, seeking to put an end to the carnage. He enlisted 27 dedicated birders from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California, and they tallied up a total of 90 species—bagged, as it were, without the use of gunpowder.

Now the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count lures roughly 50,000 volunteers out of their homes and into far-flung fields and woodlands to take the pulse of the nation's bird population. Some years this has involved desperate conditions of wind, snow and sleet, but it is considered a vital measuring tool and, according to the Audubon web site, a significant change in individual species or total population can "indicate habitat fragmentation or signal an immediate environmental threat, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from improper use of pesticides."

The CBC is conducted at the height of the holiday season for three strategic reasons. One, the birds inclined to migrate probably will have already done so, leaving behind a snapshot of the residents versus the transients. Two, the leaves are off the trees, a factor that helps the census takers tremendously. Three, people tend to have a little time on their hands during the holiday season.

Beginning bright and early each day—up with the birds, as they say—the counting marathon has to be done promptly and efficiently. The mandate is to conduct all counts between December 14 and January 5, and some groups have a lot of terrain to cover.

This is not an exact science. Each year more people get involved, and that inevitably results in higher counts, due to the ever-present possibility of a flock of crows flying over first one group of counters and then another. The crows will likely be counted twice, and the compiler might not catch it if the different groups arrive at different estimated head counts.

Some volunteers elect to be feeder watchers who merely inform the compiler when they are on duty. The advantage to joining an expedition is a learning experience that is all but guaranteed, while the problem with flying solo is the loss of bird identification expertise that comes with a group.

CBC results are compiled into the longest running database in ornithology, and the counts that have been conducted for more than a century yield sufficient information to identify a few trends and draw certain conclusions. It is citizen science in action, with some CBCs going on for many years while others are mere fledglings in comparison.

Southeastern North Carolina is fortunate to have a long-running CBC that went into its 110th year in 2010. This gives us lots of historical context in which to view new numbers. Two separate counts are typically conducted, one in Southport/Oak Island/Bald Head Island and the other in Wilmington. It's a crying shame that the Carolina Bird Club mostly conducts the Christmas Bird Counts, because that just gets real messy with the acronyms.

Other citizen science

Let's say for the sake of argument you'd rather spend the holidays with your family. Other opportunities to flee the warmth of your hearth and the safety of your home will present themselves throughout the inclement winter months, or you might make yourself useful just by looking out the kitchen window.

Project Feeder Watch is a program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, encouraging citizen scientists across the nation to monitor back yards, nature centers and community areas, from the first Saturday in November through early April. Feeder Watchers pay some nominal sum to receive a research kit chocked full of informational materials that should turn them into bird identification experts instantly—or at least pretty soon—along with forms to be completed and sent in. You can opt to share your findings online if you prefer.

The data is compiled to identify trends and has in the past been a lifesaver for certain species. For example, information derived from this program, viewed in tandem with data from the Breeding Bird Survey, revealed that the Painted Bunting was on the decline in Florida, which led the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to launch a massive monitoring and protection program.

The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is a joint effort of the U.S. Geological Survey and Environment Canada, formed in response to widespread concerns over the use of DDT in the mid-20th century. Volunteers enjoy much better weather during the avian breeding season, June for most of the U.S. and Canada, and collect data at roadside survey routes. This approach is perhaps a bit more methodical. Each survey route is 24.5 miles long with stops every half mile, and birders conduct a three-minute point count at every stop. Surveys start before sunrise and take about five hours to complete, at more than 4,100 survey routes in the U.S. and Canada.

Scientific publications flock to this database like woodpeckers to a suet feeder, and environmentalists pick it apart in search of evidence of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, changes in land use and chemical contamination. Participants must complete the BBS Methodology Training, available online.

More Information

Terms: Birds: Christmas Bird Count and Other Citizen Science

Information on Birds: Christmas Bird Count and Other Citizen Science.

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