‘Citizen scientists’ count birds during the holidays

by | December 31, 2007 12:00 am

Spend a day with the birds this holiday season by joining in the 108th National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count program, an annual hemispheric early-winter bird census. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) is celebrating its 37th year of participation in Christmas Bird Counts and encourages interested citizens to take part as well.

More than 50,000 observers participate each year in one or more of these hundreds of all-day censuses held in all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and the Pacific Islands. During a count, every individual bird seen or heard during one calendar day (from midnight to midnight) within a specific geographic area is tallied by species. Each geographic area is a circle 15 miles in diameter — approximately 177 square miles. Participants divide up the survey territory and meet at the end of the day to compile results.

This year’s counts will take place during the period of Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 and will give biologists a snapshot of the numbers and diversity of earlywinter bird populations.

“The Christmas Bird Count has evolved into the world’s largest and longest-running citizen scientist event,” said WRD Nongame Program Manager Jim Ozier. “Birds can serve as indicators of the overall health of our environment and by looking at long-term population trends, biologists can get an idea of the success or failure of conservation efforts and identify conservation needs.”

“Christmas Bird Counts offer excellent opportunities for citizens to directly participate in a large-scale, long-term conservation effort,” Ozier said. “It’s a great chance to spend a day outdoors with other bird enthusiasts gathering information on local bird numbers that will help biologists estimate population trends and direct conservation efforts.”

New analysis of Christmas Bird Count data will focus on how populations or ranges may be changing because of the effects of global climate change. The proverbial “canaries in the coal mine,” birds are an early warning indicator of the health of the global climate.

The Christmas Bird Count began more than 100 years ago when 27 conservationists in 25 areas, led by scientist and writer Frank Chapman, changed the course of ornithological history. On Christmas Day in 1900, the small group posed an alternative to the “side hunt,” a Christmas day activity in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds and small mammals. Instead, Chapman proposed identifying, counting and recording all the birds they saw, founding what is now considered the world’s most significant citizenbased conservation effort – and what has become a more than century-old institution.

Most counts are open to the public and everyone is encouraged to participate. However, some counts, such as Cumberland Island, St. Catherines Island and Sapelo Island, are by invitation-only due to transportation logistics.

“Each of the citizen scientists who braves snow, ice, wind or rain to take part in the Christmas Bird Count is making an enormous contribution to conservation,” said Geoff LeBaron, National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director. “Counting is the first step in learning how environmental threats are affecting our birds – and in helping to protect them.”

To participate in an open count, check the Georgia Ornithological Society Web site at www.gos.org for the latest list of count dates, locations and contact information. There is a $5 fee to participate in the count for ages 19 and older. Ages 18 and under can take part free.

The National Audubon Society compiles the data and publishes the annual Christmas Bird Count reports. For more information and count results, see the society’s Web site at w ww.audubon.org/bird/c bc/

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