Counting on Volunteers: Audubon Celebrates its 115th Annual Christmas Bird Count

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This year marks Audubon‰Ûªs 115th annual Christmas Bird Count. Started in 1900, the number of counts has been steadily growing, creating a valuable body of data and offering opportunities for volunteers to develop their skills and build friendships.

This brant duck was spotted in December 2011. It was the first and only time in 60 years that the species was recorded on the Denver Circle Bird Count. Image Credit: Joey Kellner

This brant duck was spotted in December 2011. It was the first and only time in 60 years that the species was recorded on the Denver Circle Bird Count. Image Credit: Joey Kellner

Birders, grab your binoculars. This year marks the 115th year of the National Audubon Society‰Ûªs annual Christmas Bird Count. The event was started by ornithologist Frank Chapman in 1900 as an alternative to a traditional Christmas-time hunt, during which thousands of birds were killed each year. The idea of shooting birds with a camera rather than with a gun caught on, and today, not only do the counts continue, but they are growing.

In honor of the event, Earthzine spoke with two bird count leaders associated with Denver Audubon in Colorado to learn more about what a Christmas Bird Count looks like on the ground and the drive that keeps these birders out and eager.

Hugh Kingery in his natural habitat. Image Credit: Hugh Kingery.

Hugh Kingery in his natural habitat. Image Credit: Hugh Kingery.

Hugh Kingery is an Audubon volunteer and a group leader of the Denver Urban Count. He has been conducting bird surveys of one kind or another since he was a teenager. He is a group leader for the Denver Urban Circle Christmas Bird Count.

Joey Kellner also is a Christmas Bird Count leader. He operates in the original Denver area count (simply known as the Denver Christmas Count), adjacent to the younger Denver Urban Circle. Kellner is a software engineer who has been birding for more than 30 years and compiling Denver data for four.

‰ÛÏI just have a mad passion for birds,‰Û Kellner says. In the case of the National Audubon society, mad passion like Kellner and Kingery‰Ûªs translates directly into valuable data.

Each count takes place over the course of a single day, but the date on which a survey can be conducted is not limited to Christmas. Counts take place any day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

Every survey in the nation covers a circle of 15 miles in diameter. The circle is then broken down into 24 smaller pieces, each with an area leader to coordinate the section count. Depending on the landscape, what the actual count looks like on the ground varies. Some groups walk their area, following park trails; large open prairie areas may be driven, with the birders scanning fence posts and tree tops for perched birds. Even ‰ÛÏhome birders‰Û can contribute data, sending in reports of birds sighted at their feeders on the day of the count.

The atmosphere is congenial and the skill-level of the company is mixed.

‰ÛÏAnybody is welcome,‰Û Kingery says, ‰ÛÏfrom a totally neophyte or beginner to an advanced birder. People can check with their local Audubon or go online to get involved.‰Û

Statistics come later when compilers like Kellner have had a chance to collect and process the day‰Ûªs lists. That data is then shared with a greater Audubon Society database. The Denver Christmas Count has been conducted continuously since 1954, creating a steadily growing body of data that can reveal interesting trends about what is happening locally. For this reason, the numbers of frequently cited birds can be as interesting as rare ones to long-time birders like Kingery.

‰ÛÏCommon birds are much more important than the rare stuff. It‰Ûªs the birds you see commonly and how the numbers vary from year to year that show trends.‰Û

Figure 1a, top: Western Meadowlark sightings in the Denver Christmas Bird Count since 1954. Figure 1b, bottom: Canada Geese sightings in the Count since 1954. Image Credit: Joey Kellner

Figure 1a, top: Western Meadowlark sightings in the Denver Christmas Bird Count since 1954. Figure 1b, bottom: Canada Geese sightings in the Count since 1954. Image Credit: Joey Kellner

As an example, Kingery describes that Canada geese make up half of the total number of individual birds seen in the Denver Urban Circle each year. Since counts began, they have been able to note that the number of Canada geese that is growing.

Kellner confirmed a similar observation in the Denver Count. Since the Denver Count began, numbers of geese have been increasing and numbers of Western meadowlark have been decreasing (Fig. 1a and Fig. 1b ). Once trends like this are observed, hypotheses can be drawn about the cause.

‰ÛÏThe reason is urban sprawl,‰Û Kellner says. Urban development eats up prairies that the meadowlark thrives in and simultaneously leads to the creation of more of the ponds and golf courses that make ideal Canada goose habitat.

Data from Christmas Bird Counts fosters local knowledge and contributes to identification of trends in North America. For example, data from these counts allowed Audubon to identify that the ‰ÛÏcenter of abundance‰Û for North American birds has largely shifted more than 100 miles north over the last century‰ÛÓlikely a consequence of climate change.

Realizations such as this are only possible because of the commitment of Audubon‰Ûªs volunteers. Thousands of citizen scientists join the count each year, offering manpower far beyond the physical or financial capacity of a single research organization. The volunteers involved are aware of the impact of their work, Kingery says.

‰ÛÏThese things really do tell us something about what‰Ûªs going on in the world ‰Û_ when you amass all these different sets of data you learn things that one set couldn‰Ûªt possibly come up with.‰Û

The utility of this data is exactly what draws many of the citizen scientists who participate in the bird count annually. They appreciate knowing that their efforts are contributing to a broader cause of conservation and advancement of scientific knowledge. Kingery and Kellner both say they value knowing that the data they collect will be used.

As the Christmas Bird Count moves into its 115th year, the event is still growing, continuing to add new participants and survey locations. Kellner has a few thoughts about why that might be.

‰ÛÏIn all the high tech hustle and bustle, people are looking for a way to get back to nature, and it shows in the numbers. People are striving to have that experience ‰Û_ and [being part of the count] is wonderful! All this data is actually being used. You can‰Ûªt ask for anything more than that.‰Û