Take your bird-watching passion to a new level by participating in one or more observation programs.
Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
I (Lowell) recently loaned one of my older bird books to a non-bird-watching friend, Marilyn, who is developing an interest in the feathered visitors to her backyard. Her immediate response was, “But so many of these birds look alike. How can I figure out which one is in my yard?”
That’s where the range maps located in most bird books become important. We were looking at a titmouse that landed on her bird feeder, and I pointed out that of the five species of this tiny crested bird that live in the United States, only one lives in central California. She could ignore the other four.
This idea is particularly important for those of us who spend time traveling, looking at birds in California one month, and perhaps in Maine or Florida the next. In California we might see the oak titmouse, but on the East Coast, the identification would be the tufted titmouse. Since many birds migrate, even the season will help determine what species of birds should, or should not, be in a particular location.
Marilyn’s next question was quite perceptive: “How in the world do the authors of the bird books know where the birds are?” The answer is that many bird-watchers, both amateur and professional, are compulsive “listers.” We make lists of the birds we see in our yards, our towns, our states, and our regions. When we visit a national park, we bring home a list of all the birds we saw on that trip. (Ask for bird lists when you go to a state or national park “” most have checklists of the birds you can expect to see.)
Many of us keep Year Lists, recording each and every bird species we see between January 1 and December 31 of a particular year. And then there is the Life List, a very personal list of all the species we have ever seen, often with the date and location. It’s an ever-evolving record of a person’s interactions with birds, a reminder of the places they’ve been and the events they’ve experienced over the years “” sort of a birding diary.
Some birders are even more compulsive, keeping day lists of everything they see, and like most collectors, they never throw anything away. They can tell you, for example, that the first robin last spring appeared on such-and-such a date, and that there have been only three years in their records when the bird appeared earlier. This is the type of data used to make up the range and seasonal maps that appear in the bird books used for reference. Fortunately for the birding community, birders share their lists, or at least the information that they contain.
Sitting in file cabinets in a Virginia basement are 6 million note cards containing information on birds “” when they first arrived at a specific location, how many were seen, when they were last seen, etc. These records date back to the 1880s and are now a part of the North American Bird Phenology Program at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. (Phenology is the study of relationships between natural phenomena and climatic or seasonal changes.)
These records were contributed by volunteer observers through the years. Now they are being converted to a digital format over the Internet by volunteers who read the scanned cards on their computers at home and type the information into an online database. This morning I entered notes from one card dated April 1888. (For more information about the program, or to volunteer for the project, visit www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp.)
A surprising amount of the information we know about birds comes not from scientific organizations, but by the local efforts of individuals or small groups. You can help expand this body of knowledge by joining a group effort or by taking action in your own backyard. All you need are a pair of binoculars, a bird book, and a desire to help gather useful information about our natural world.
Probably the best known amateur birding survey occurs around Christmas each year. The National Audubon Society started Christmas Bird Counts in the year 1900. The first count had only 27 participants, but they observed more than 18,000 birds of 90 different species. By comparison, last year there were 2,160 count sites and 55,951,707 individual birds observed.
The present-day numbers are perhaps less important than the length of the historical data. With more than 100 years of observation, it’s possible to track the increases and decreases of bird populations, allowing conservation biologists to study the long-term health and status of birds across North America.
Local Christmas Bird Counts are held on a day between December 14 and January 5 each year. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced bird-watcher, it’s a great time to get together with others who share your interest. To learn more and find a local bird count event, visit http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.
If you are more interested in bird-watching on your own but still would like to contribute information that will increase our understanding of bird distribution, you might be interested in participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which next takes place between February 18 and February 21, 2011. Even though the name includes “backyard,” it doesn’t have to be your actual location. For those who travel during the winter months, your “backyard” could be the view through the picture window of your motorhome. Check out the directions and learn how to submit your observations at www birdsource.org/gbbc.
For longer-term observations, you can join Project Feederwatch, which tracks the distribution and abundance of winter bird populations. The observation period extends from the second Saturday in November and lasts 21 weeks through the first Friday in April. It’s not quite as demanding as it sounds, because you count birds only for whatever time you have available, and only on two consecutive days each week. The scope of the survey gives a good overview of just what the birds are doing during the winter, at least those that come to feeders. You can sign up at www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw.
Birding of any type is fun, but we’ve found that it’s more enjoyable when we take part in information-gathering about these feathered creatures that give us so much pleasure.