The year flies by - and so do birds
by Ann Hutton
December 30, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Have you ever wondered how a bird census is achieved? What scientific institution has enough resources to go out and count species throughout the Western Hemisphere? For 110 years, that institution has been the National Audubon Society, and its resources are comprised of volunteer counters: bird-lovers who are also "citizen scientists."

In 1900, the first Christmas Bird Count was launched by Bird Lore founder Frank Chapman, who suggested an alternative to competing teams of game hunters. He proposed that people hunt birds only to identify, count and record them. "When Frank Chapman started the Christmas Bird Census, it was a visionary act," said Audubon president John Flicker. "No one could have predicted how important the CBC would become as a resource and tool for conservation. It allows birds to send us a wakeup call about the importance of addressing the warming of our climate and the loss of vital habitat through action at every level."

The CBC survey has become the longest-running citizen science project in the world, involving more than 50,000 participants who gather data that are used to identify bird population trends from year to year. Such data help scientists understand how the environmental changes are affecting them, in terms of weather, habitat loss, industrialization, human expansion and other factors. It also helps identify birds in most urgent need of conservation action - and it reveals success stories. The Christmas Bird Count helped document the comeback of the previously endangered bald eagle and brown pelican and significant increases in waterfowl populations: both the results of conservation efforts.

New York State Ornithological Association president Carena Pooth explained how habitation regions across North and South America are divided up and mapped in 15-mile-diameter circles, which are then assigned to teams of 15 to 30 people who take shifts within a 24-hour-long period, from midnight to midnight. Counters commit to trekking around the circle to look for birds. They even set up spotting scopes at the edges of open water to document waterfowl. They keep track of the species sighted and the number of individual birds of each species, and report this information to the National Audubon Society for inclusion in the complete records.

The Christmas Bird Count takes place between December 14 and January 5 this year. From Alaska to Antarctica, volunteer counters will add a new layer of information to a century's worth of accumulated data. "Everyone who takes part in the Christmas Bird Count plays a critical role in helping us focus attention and conservation where it is most needed," said Audubon chief scientist Dr. Tom Bancroft.

Local birding groups associated with the National Audubon Society include the Northern Catskills Audubon Society, home to the RamsHorn-Livingston Sanctuary at Catskill in Greene County, a sanctuary that encompasses a 480-acre tidal swamp with the RamsHorn Creek connecting to the Hudson River; the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Cold Spring, a unique and beautiful 270-acre tidal marsh on the eastern shore of the Hudson River; the Orange County Audubon Society in Middletown; and the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club of Pawling in Dutchess County. The Waterman Bird Club is scheduled to do the Christmas Bird Count on January 1. For further information about joining this effort, visit or contact Carena Pooth at Also see the New York State Ornithological Association website at and the National Audubon Society at

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