Christmas Bird Counts may seem like an excuse for die-hard birders to get out during the slow winter months, but they serve an important purpose.
The counts introduce the broader public to bird conservation and citizen science, while allowing ornithologists and conservation organizations to track trends in bird populations and tailor their efforts.
“It’s something everybody can get involved in and know that they’re actually contributing,” said Keith Bruno, Audubon Rockies’ Southwest Colorado community naturalist and the Christmas Bird Count coordinator for the Weminuche Audubon Society, a chapter of the National Audubon Society.
Last year marked the National Audubon Society’s 122nd consecutive Christmas Bird Count.
The Durango Bird Club held the local bird count on Dec. 18 with the help of 51 volunteers, which set a record for participation.
In Pagosa Springs, 76 volunteers scoured more than 100 square miles for the Weminuche Audubon Society’s count on Dec. 18, a big jump in participation, Bruno said.
“Birding has really been catching on,” said Ryan Votta, Christmas Bird Count coordinator for the Durango Bird Club. “A lot of people have been getting into it these last couple years and (in) Durango a lot of people love their birds.”
As the popularity of birding has grown, the Christmas Bird Count has often served as an entrance into the hobby, while introducing people to the citizen science that is critical for bird conservation.
“It’s a layman’s opportunity, so people can go out and you don’t have to be an expert,” Bruno said. “But your data that you collect is real data.”
Citizen science is an overarching term for data collection and research done by members of public rather than the scientific community. The data collected by “citizen scientists” is often compiled and then used by researchers to analyze trends and study the effects of things such as climate change.
According to Kyle Horton, an assistant professor of fish, wildlife and conservation biology at Colorado State University and the principal investigator of CSU’s Aeroecology Lab, bird researchers have long relied on the citizen science of the birding community.
“In bird science, there’s no way that we could do it by paying people to go out and do very systematic surveys. It’s just not feasible,” Horton said. “That’s the power of these community science initiatives like the Christmas Bird Count.”
The bird counts that groups collect, of which there are more than 2,000 in the U.S., Canada and Latin America, are compiled by local coordinators such as Votta and Bruno.
Those local coordinators send that data to the National Audubon Society, where it is again compiled and can be used by researchers like Horton.
“Every year more scientists are using those data,” Horton said.
“There are some shortcomings of datasets like this, but you often make up for them in terms of the volume of information that you’re getting on a weekly, monthly, yearly and now decadal basis,” he said.
In Durango, the annual count has been taking place since 1949. For bird researchers, the length of the Christmas Bird Count is especially important.
“One year of data doesn’t really give you enough information to learn about what’s happening in the past or into the future,” Horton said. “It takes a long time to get enough information, so the fact that the Christmas Bird Count has been going for over 100 years now, that’s quite powerful.”
With more than a 100 years of data, scientists can analyze bird populations and begin to parse through the effects of DDT, a pesticide which caused the thinning of bird eggshells and led to the rapid decline in bald eagles and other birds before it was banned in 1972, or climate change.
“Over time, the trends that we’re most concerned about pop up in that data set,” Bruno said.
The National Audubon Society built its own Christmas Bird Count Trend Viewer to help with the identification of struggling bird populations.
With that information, bird advocates and researchers can then target conservation efforts.
Every February, the Weminuche Audubon Society in Pagosa Springs holds a nest box building workshop with an eye toward slumping bird species.
“We try to target resident species like mountain chickadees (that) have shown a decline in the last several years,” Bruno said.
The Weminuche Audubon Society has also installed a native plant garden in downtown Pagosa Springs to demonstrate how homeowners can provide food and habitat for declining migratory and residential birds.
The Christmas Bird Count and the conservation work it inspires are especially critical as climate change and habitat loss threaten bird populations.
According to Votta, climate-induced drought and wildfires have harmed birds in Southwest Colorado in recent years.
“Birds need water,” he said. “… Wherever there’s water, there’s typically a lot of food and good habitat for these species of birds. When we’re seeing these megadroughts and big destructive wildfires, it’s (taking) a toll on these birds and dispersing them from this area.”
Studies have also shown climate change is shifting bird migrations and disrupting their breeding and food sources.
“If you’re a bird and you’re dependent on some resource and the timing of that resource is changing, you’ve evolved tying your annual events with those things and now they’re out of sync,” Horton said.
Habitat loss compounds the effects of climate change by limiting the places they can move, further straining many bird species.
“If we remove the habitat, it’s probably no surprise that there are fewer birds around and there’s fewer birds to breed, so (the) overall population starts declining,” Horton said.
Amid these challenges, the Christmas Bird Count stands out as not only a crucial source of data for scientists, but an opportunity to involve the public and introduce people to the importance bird conservation.
“If it means that people are more inclined to care about birds year-round and take action to protect birds, man, what a great way to start,” Bruno said.
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