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Christmas Bird Count is a walk in the winter wonderland that helps scientists — you can help

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Let’s get the first shameless pun out of the way: This story is for the birds.

But it’s also for the cause of science. The Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count is the world’s longest-running wildlife census, a citizen science effort that provides useful information to wildlife and conservation scientists across the Western Hemisphere, says biologist and Professor Walter Piper, Ph.D., who teaches ornithology at Chapman University.

Citizen scientists to the rescue

For three weeks each winter – Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 – volunteers gather in the great outdoors, from local parks to remote wildlife refuges, to spend a day tallying up the birds they see there. Many are hobbyist birdwatchers and so a few miscounts are expected, but scientists and conservation biologists prize the big-picture view the winter census offers, Piper says.

“Scientists understand this. Still, knowing that, if you look at the data over a long enough period of time and take that into account and do statistical adjustments, you can see patterns. You can see if birds are in trouble or spot an alarming trend that scientists should look into,” says the professor, who’s teaching an ornithology course in spring 2018 in the Schmid College of Science and Technology and directs research at The Loon Project.

More than 200 peer-reviewed articles have cited Christmas Bird Count data, according to the National Audubon Society. Last year’s count identified a worrying drop in the numbers of Northern Bobwhites, one of the only native quail in the United States, possibly because of drought, according to the Audubon Society.

Happily, there’s good news, too. People are flocking to the cause, which began 117 years ago when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed it as a new holiday tradition. Last year more than 73,000 volunteers staffed a record-setting 2,536 count circles.

Join a Christmas Bird Count

Each summer professor and biologist Walter Piper visits Oneida County, Wisconsin, to study common loons.

Audubon chapters love welcoming newbies into the tradition, too.  In Orange County, Sea and Sage Audubon heads up three Christmas Bird Counts, including coastal, inland and south coast and foothills. Novices are usually assigned to teams where a bit more guidance will be offered, but it would be a good idea to visit bird sanctuaries before your assigned count day and test out your binoculars, he says. Poor binoculars will leave you with a headache by day’s end.

And be ready to set your alarm early, says Piper, who’s been on more of these seasonal treks than he can, ahem, count.

“You get going even before daybreak and often you meet at a McDonald’s parking lot at 4 a.m.,” he says. “You disperse into different groups for the study area, a count circle, which is a 15-mile diameter. You’ll have teams of two to 15 people whose job it is to focus on a habitat within that diameter, which can be a neighborhood park, a lake or other area.”

There will usually be some folks also keen to spot rare species, which are a treat to see. But ornithologists like Piper appreciate observations of common birds because those counts can reflect environmental impacts on breeding, migration and population trends.

At the end of the day, volunteers regroup with clipboards and tallies in hand, often at a restaurant or community center, to report the data to the count circle leader.

“It’s a funny, quirky thing,” he says with a smile. “But it’s fun.”

Most of all, it’s helpful to scientists and good for the birds.

To find a Christmas Bird Count near you, visit the Audubon Society.

Display image at top/KGrif for Thinkstock

Dawn Bonker

Dawn Bonker

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