103 Bird Years and Counting
Its below zero. The sun wont rise for another hour. What could possibly motivate a personeven a hardy Minnesotanto get up, pile on thick layers of warm clothes, and head out for a day tromping forests, fields, streets, and back yards counting birds?
"I havent figured that out yet," laughs Roger Schroeder. But he does it anyway. Schroeder, of Marshall, is one of some 50,000 people in North, Central, and South America who will participate in this years Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Multitudes of volunteers have carried the tradition throughout its history.
The count began as an ornithologists riposte to a 19th-century tradition called a side hunt, a Christmas Day diversion in which hunters competed to see how many birds they could kill. On Dec. 25, 1900, a little more than two dozen birders, organized by American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Frank Chapman, went afield to count instead of shoot. The practice gradually spread, and the procedures became standardized. Today participants sign up to be part of a counting group through a local coordinator. The group tallies by species all birds spotted within a specified 15-mile-diameter "circle" on a certain day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Last year in Minnesota, 755 observersincluding one ambitious fellow who drives up from Illinois each winter to count near Baudettecounted 362,188 birds.
Schroeder, who coordinates the CBC in Minnesota, says the count not only motivates people to step outside for a breath of fresh air, it also yields data that can provide valuable insights into birds early winter distribution. The data can also help researchers figure out how human activities, weather, and other factors might be altering that distribution. Hundreds of scientific papers have been published based on CBC data. The CBC helped document the decline of species such as bald eagles and trumpeter swans, an important step in mobilizing efforts to prevent extinction. Now the CBC is helping to document the recovery of these and other birds. It also has tracked the march of invasive species such as house finches and Eurasian collared doves across North America. That information could someday help us better understand how the spread of nonnative species affects other birds.
If youd like to participate in this years count, contact Schroeder at email@example.com or 507-537-0047.
Mary Hoff, free-lance science writer