Counting birds in the cold, for 111 years and counting

“Backyard Birds Open a Window on Science”: A recent centerfold in BirdScope magazine celebrates Project FeederWatch. View the full version (and download the poster version) here. Poster designed by Diane Tessaglia-Hymes and Joanne Avila; Illustrations by Larry McQueen, Evaristo Hérnandez-Férnandez; and Evan Barbour.

On a frosty weekend morning in December, I headed out the door before the crack of dawn to count birds for the day. Some of you might think that choosing to hang outside in freezing winter weather all day and NOT skiing is a good indication of eccentricity or the affliction of being an ecologist. But you must believe me when I tell you that I was not driven by any behavioral or professional abnormality to count birds on that day. This winter, I was one of not tens, not even thousands, but tens of thousands of people (people who love the birds – amateurs and pros alike) who participated in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count throughout North America.

So now maybe you think that all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is turning people into crazy birders. But, in fact the CBC began in 1900, back when carbon dioxide was well below 300 parts per million.

Chickadees. From 'American Birds' (1908). Photo by William Lovell Finley/Courtesy OSU Archives

Chickadees. From ‘American Birds’ (1908). Photo by William Lovell Finley/Courtesy OSU Archives.

The story goes that, back in the olden times (technically referred to as the 19th century), Christmas was celebrated by many with a hearth-warming game of ‘who can shoot the most endotherms (i.e., birds and mammals)?’ At the turn of the last century, however, conservation efforts were on the rise, due in part to the precipitous decline of many species. The year 1900 is not only the year the CBC began; it also marks the passage of the Lacey Act, the ‘first far-reaching federal wildlife protection law’ in the US. passed during Republican William McKinley’s administration). The founder of the CBC, Frank M. Chapman, lived through the catastrophic decline of both the passenger pigeon and the American bison. It is hard to conceive of such a dramatic change in the ecological landscape that resulted from the loss of these highly visible species.

In that context, Frank Chapman initiated a large effort to establish long-term monitoring of birds throughout North America on the same day each year. An obstacle to accomplishing this ambitious goal was, of course, the limited availability of person-hours of knowledgeable observers. At that time, the number of professional naturalists was extremely limited (many would argue that it still is). The only federally-employed naturalists were affiliated with the National Biological Survey’s Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, which had been established only in 1886.

Fortunately, birds are beautiful, relatively easy to see, especially with the aid of low-tech binoculars, often sing using species-specific songs, and are active during the day (when people also tend to be active). Because of this powerful combination of traits, there were then, as there are today, folks who were not employed as naturalists but who dedicated much of their free time to learning how to identify birds by sight and song. Although we refer to these dedicated people as amateurs, this term is no indication of knowledge and ability; it means only that they aren’t paid for their many hours of hard work.

In 1900, Chapman was able to garner the efforts of 27 volunteers to count birds on Christmas Day at 25 sites throughout the US and Canada. This year, as I mentioned above, tens of thousands people counted birds in a standardized way for one day during the official count period (Dec 14 – Jan 05) at over at more than 2000 sites throughout North and South America (see map here). These efforts, as with other citizen science projects, provide vastly more valuable data for scientists and policy makers to use to understand the status of bird populations than would otherwise be feasible for the professionals to collect. Ornithologists are particularly fortunate in this regard, since the sheer quantity of amateur birders throughout the world allows for a good number of bird-related citizen science efforts, including eBird, the Breeding Bird Survey, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and Project FeederWatch to name a few.

But enough about history and the great work that millions of dedicated birders do for the world. Let’s get back to me. Although I was whining earlier about braving the cold for the sake of the birds, I and my fellow birders conducting the count for the Boulder, CO, count circle (each CBC site is actually a circle with a 15 mile diameter) were ultimately treated to a beautiful sunny day with a high in the mid-50s (degrees Fahrenheit). Each CBC count circle is surveyed for as much of a day by as many people as are willing. In populated areas with good road access throughout the circle, many people count the area intensively – for example, in Boulder, over 100 observers tallied 112 species on count day. My team of 4, led by fellow biologist Pete Plage, spent a full 12 hours combing an area of about 2 x 4 miles, and counted 43 of these species. I think it’s pretty cool that that many species can be seen in one small suburban area over the course of one day in the middle of winter, and in an area with a surprisingly low density of backyard feeders.

The Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto, an invasive species that appears to be on the rise in Boulder. Photo by Shanthanu Bhardwaj.

The Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), an invasive species that appears to be on the rise in Boulder. Photo by Shanthanu Bhardwaj. Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0

Although my favorite part of the day was the pair of Great Horned Owls sitting close to one another nestled in a bushy conifer (or was it the white-breasted nuthatch?), the most notable result from my team’s endeavors was the highest count of Eurasian Collared Doves for the Boulder count area. This species is considered an invasive species, because it was introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s, spread to Florida in the 1980s, and then began spreading rapidly throughout North America since the 1990s. The Eurasian Collared Dove has only been seen in the last five counts in this area, and its population in Boulder seems to be on the rise. This result highlights one of the many significant contributions to science that citizen science projects make. The contributions that have been made because of citizen science and the as yet untapped potential of these information are too numerous to enumerate here. But it could be a good topic for another blog post…

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2012/01/counting-birds-in-the-cold-for-111-years-and-counting/

1 comment

  1. Alyssia says:

    Great post! Well put together and informative! I am an intermediate birder and have been applying to jobs in Boulder, so maybe I can join in the CBC next year!

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