May 23, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Thursday, 08 December 2011 14:57
The Christmas Bird Count is one of citizen science’s longest-lived and most significant efforts. The census of the bird populations is a way that you and I can help scientists ascertain the health, ranges and numbers of birds.
“From Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas take part in an adventure that has become a family tradition among generations,” the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says.
“Families and students, birders and scientists, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists go out on an annual mission — often before dawn. For over 100 years, the desire to both make a difference and to experience the beauty of nature has driven dedicated people to leave the comfort of a warm house during the holiday season.”
Cornell says the long-term perspective made possible by the Christmas Bird Count is vital for conservationists. “It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat — and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well. For example, local trends in bird populations can indicate habitat fragmentation or signal an immediate environmental threat, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from improper use of pesticides.”
In the 1980’s, Cornell notes, counts documented the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck. As a result, conservation measures were undertaken to reduce hunting pressure on these ducks.
Counts have also recently helped document the range expansion of the Tufted Titmouse, population trends of the Evening Grosbeak, the demise of the Eastern Bewick’s (pronounced Buick’s) Wren, and the expansion of Grackle populations.
Each survey takes place within a “Count Circles,” each of which is 15 miles in diameter. A “count compiler” leads each circle. Area circles include Westport, Greenwich, and Peekskill.
If you are a beginning birder, you can join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher. You can explore bird territories that are apt to be richer in species than a subdivision. The Westport bird count even has a boat for exploring the shoreline and islands.
However, if your home is within the boundaries of a Count Circle, then you can stay home and report the birds that visit your feeder if you’ve arranged to do so with the count compiler.
Last year’s Christmas Bird Count tallied 61.3 million birds from 2,213 circles. What’s neat is that anyone in the world can see the details. Cornell and Audubon have compiled the counts online, with decades of data at your fingertips.
For instance, I looked up last year’s Greenwich-based count, which took place Dec. 19, and had 69 participants who counted 108 species. Each species is listed and the number seen. (So are the weather, temperatures, collective hours, and names of participants.)
You can compare the counts from last year with any year back to 1933 when the counting in Greenwich started. For instance, in 1954 with 75 people out counting 110 species, not a single Red-bellied Woodpecker was seen and only 34 Northern Cardinals were spotted. Last year, 237 Red-bellies and 363 cardinals were counted among the 108 species — demonstrating two dramatic changes in ranges of what are now common birds here.
Why is the count at Christmas time? In the late 1800s, many hunters took part in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt” — they’d choose sides and try to shoot as many birds as possible of all kinds. The winner was whoever killed the most.
Many species were already on the brink of extinction, and an ornithologist named Frank Chapman saw this as another threat. An early leader of the then-new Audubon Society, Chapman proposed to counteract the slaughter and encourage conservation by creating a Christmas Bird Count. The first one was Christmas Day 1900. He and 27 other birders from various places in North American counted 90 species that day.
Chapman was a fascinating fellow. He had only a high school education, but became one of the foremost ornithologists in 19th Century America, running the Department of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, writing many books and editing a popular bird magazine, Bird-Lore. He was a Roger Tory Peterson or David Allen Sibley of the late 19th Century.
There is a $5 fee to participate in the count for all field participants aged 19 or older (free if you’re younger). Under Coming up below, there’s a list of area counts you can join. For more information, visit birds.audubon.org/cbc.
Family Bird Watching Class & “Christmas Bird Count” Practice, Saturday, Dec. 17, 1 to 2:30, $5, Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road, RSVP 203-869-5272 x230 greenwich.audubon.org.
Eagle Viewing Trips, on Connecticut River, Feb. 11 through March 18, 9, 11:30 and 2 on weekends, and 10 and 1 on Thursdays, $40, Connecticut Audubon, 1-800-996-8747.
Copyright 2011 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.
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