Why Do a Count?

By Nick Freeman

Bird watching is what you make of it. Certainly there are many that would prefer to just take in the marvel of nature, on a canyon trail or at their feeders. Others are artistic photographers at heart, and may not even know their subjects that well. Ornithologists, not surprisingly, watch and survey birds – sometimes for different reasons than the rest of us. Many, though, exhibit a drive that engenders the thrill of the hunt. These are the tickers, and competitive birders amongst us. The Hard Core.

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Compilers for the Lancaster CBC, Mary & Nick Freeman at Piute Ponds, 2013

So who do Christmas Bird Counts (aka CBCs) appeal to?

Oddly, CBCs are an excellent common ground where beginners, fanatics, and academics can meet to do what they love, and all make a real contribution to the present and future understanding of ornithology and other branches of science 2005NickFreeman-Counting-Lancaster-CBC web

If you are “count material”, you have probably already heard about Christmas Bird Counts, and are only trying to decide whether you have time during the busy holiday season to sneak in one, two, three, or maybe even four counts this year. I doubt the following will make this decision any easier, but it may at least make you feel that what you are doing is important as well as fun.

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Lancaster CBC Snowstorm of 2008, CBC participant, Paul Weers and compiler, Mary Freeman

The 2014/15 Christmas Bird Count will be the 115th survey, and is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world. It has provided critical data for over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles fueling the cutting edge of ornithology. When combined with Breeding Bird Surveys and the eBird database, ornithologists today have unprecedented riches of data to mine when addressing myriad questions of changing status and distribution. Here is a short sample:

Increase in numbers or range, regionally or as a species:

Population trends and status of the Olivaceous Cormorant (Morrison, M.L. et al. 1977)

The Hooded Merganser: A Preliminary Look at Growth in Numbers in the United States (Davis, S et al. 2006)

Decrease in numbers or range, regionally or as a species:

Population trends of the Loggerhead Shrike in the United States (Morrison, M.L. 1981)

Changes in the winter distribution of the Rough-legged Hawk in North America (Pandolfino, E.R., et al. 2009)

Population changes due to disease or competition:

Lack of recovery of Yellow-billed Magpie from West Nile virus in California’s Central Valley (Pandolfino, E.R., et al. 2013)

Correlation between House Finch increase and House Sparrow decline (Kricher, J.C. 1983)

Tangential (sometimes unexpected?) conclusions:

Northward expansion of the wintering range of Richardson’s Merlin (James, P.C., et al. 1987)

Disparities between observed and predicted impacts of climate change on winter bird assemblages (La Sorte, F.A., et al. 2009)

Poleward shifts in winter ranges of North American birds (La Sorte, F.A., et al 2007)

For complete bibliographical listings of these articles and the hundreds of others, search:  http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count-bibliography-scientific-articles . National Audubon compiles the CBC information, and maintains the database. Their website is also the source of many of the details in this article, and much more information about Christmas Bird Counts.

LeContes-Thrasher-Snow LancasterCBC By-Mary-Freeman WEB

CBC data can support removal of species from the Endangered Species list, such as the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon; or show marked declines and need for protection of other species. A recent CBC data analysis of population trends since 1967, undertaken by the National Audubon Society, showed many species - some that we consider to be fairly common - to actually be in sharp decline. Greater Sage Grouse, Rusty Blackbird, Evening Grosbeak (down 78%), Northern Pintail (78%), Eastern Meadowlark (71%), Loggerhead Shrike, Snow Bunting, American Bittern, Whip-poor-will (57%), Rufous Hummingbird (58%), Boreal Chickadee, and another 9 species were all down by at least 54%. Many others are down to a lesser degree. Getting help for these species is hard enough when we know what’s going on. We will always need data on birds that are quietly slipping out of existence, and you never know when data from your CBC circle will be needed 20-30 years from now to protect the Forster’s Tern, LeConte’s Thrasher, or Purple Finch that was never that hard to find back in 2014!

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4 California Quails at 2008 Lancaster CBC, Photo by Mary Freeman

Audubon suggests doing what we can to save habitat on the local and national stage by protecting the habitat and resources that we have, and supporting sustainable agricultural and land management practices. Invasive species and global warming will also need our continuing attention. While these are tough fights, and don’t make getting out of bed in the morning any easier, who needs an excuse to get up and count birds?

You don’t need to know about the paper in 2065 showing the explosion of Gray Thrashers from Baja over the last 50 years to go out and find the very first one! And you don’t need to be the one counting young California vs. Ring-billed Gulls. Leave that to your teammate! You can fill the role of scribe or head duck-counter, if it suits you. So call up some birding pals, or ask a compiler to hook you up, and get out there with some like-minded birders and have a good time – all in the name of science, of course!

As good fortune has it, LA Audubon sponsors three Christmas Bird Counts in LA County. The Los Angeles, Lancaster and Malibu counts are centered near those localities. Check field trip listings for information on dates and how to participate. Most (all?) other Audubon chapters sponsor additional CBCs, and welcome participants.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 2 Nov/Dec 2014