Thursday, December 8, 2011

Audubon Society Spends Christmas with the Birds

Photo: Jerry Acton, courtesy
National Audobon Society
December is here again.   Shopping malls are filled with people, houses are decorated in lights, and egg nog re-appears on the shelves.  It's also time for the 112th Annual Christmas Bird Count.  Yes, 112.  This  is the longest-running Citizen Science project and arguably one of the most successful.

The project began in 1900 when Frank Chapman, a prominent member of the Audubon Society, wanted to change a common after Christmas tradition of hunting birds in a "Side Hunt".  He proposed a much more humane hunt to just count and identify birds.  But not only did he create a new tradition, he helped introduce concepts of both "crowd sourcing" and citizen science long before anyone else.

The Christmas Bird Count is also one of the most scientifically successful citizen science projects out there.  With 111 years worth of ornithological data (much of it global) we can identify trends in bird populations over both short and long periods of time.    So we can identify shifts in the types of birds living in an area, see the effects of local development projects on individual habitats, and even observe the potential impacts of global warming and other large-scale phenomena.

The scientific rigor in how the count is performed (through established counting circles and oversight by trained experts) also makes the data highly reliable.   This has been confirmed through independent, peer-reviewed studies and allows the data to be used for many different purposes.  Take these examples provided by the Audubon Society:

In the 1980's CBC data documented the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck, after which conservation measures were put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on this species. More recently, in 2009, the data were instrumental in Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change analysis, which documented range shifts of bird species over time. Also in 2009 CBC data were instrumental in the collaborative report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - State of the Birds 2009
 Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count web site to learn more about the project and it's impressive history.
  • Go to the Get Involved and Registration pages to find and join a counting circle near your area.  The cost is only $5 and you will be put in a team of both experienced and less-experienced birders.  So your skill level doesn't matter...the Count Compiler in your area will help in areas you aren't familiar with.
  • Once you receive an assigned date and time for the count (in or around Christmas time, between December 14 - January 5) mark it on your calendar and get your equipment ready.  Cameras and binoculars are strongly encouraged, but so are warm clothes for a cool winter's day.
  • If you are really new to birding, visit the Cornell Ornithological Lab's Birds of North America Online, check out mobile tools such as eBird or Project NOAH, or contact a local Audubon Society chapter.
  • That's all there is to it!

Hopefully you'll find this one-day project as fun as the 60,000+ others expected to partake each year.   If you enjoy the experience consider joining the many other citizen science birdwatching projects available.  I've described a number of big ones in this Birdwatching blog post,  or you can check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for their listing of available projects (both national and local).  And make sure to let us know about it in the comments below...we'd love to hear about your experience.

So let's get to it...I count 23 birds in the 12 Days of Christmas (seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, 4 colly/calling birds, three french hens, and two turtle doves).  Plus one for the partridge.  Now how many birds are in your Christmas counting circle?  Sign up with a volunteer coordinator and find out.

Photo: Deborah Phillips, courtesy National Audubon Society

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