Duck, Duck, Goose
Birders gather for 116th annual bird count
On a chilly December morning at Virginia Lake, hundreds of Canada geese and mallards honked and quacked as they moved slowly along the shoreline, intermixed with lesser numbers of American coots. A flock of noisy ring-billed gulls circled overhead, and further out, a group of ruddy ducks headed toward the south shore. Near the roadside, 77 pigeons sat on a telephone wire, evenly spaced (and temporarily easy to count). A man walked by tossing breadcrumbs, and chaos ensued.
To accurately count all of the birds at Virginia Lake, much less the entire Truckee Meadows region, would no doubt be a challenging task—but on Dec. 19, local birdwatchers will join forces to do just that, as part of the National Audubon Society’s 116th annual Christmas Bird Count.
“The Christmas Bird Count is a great example of what is called citizen science, where a lot of data is being collected by people that are amateurs, but it’s being consistently reported, and scientists are beginning to use that data,” said Kathy Oakes, communications chair for the Lahontan Audubon Society, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society.
Each year, volunteers across the Americas, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands gather during the holiday season to participate in these counts. Counts can happen anywhere that a volunteer organizes a “count circle,” a 15-mile diameter circle with at least 10 willing birdwatchers. Most counts do not actually occur on Christmas Day, but take place during one 24-hour period between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
Data from the counts have been used in hundreds of studies, including the National Audubon Society’s 2014 Climate Change Report, in which was reported that 314 species, or nearly half of the bird species in North America, will be severely threatened by habitat changes associated with global warming.
The Christmas Bird Count began in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional Christmas “side hunt,” in which people would head out into the wild to shoot as many birds as they could. Though the first Truckee Meadows count circle wasn’t organized until 1963, volunteers have now gathered more than 50 years of valuable data on local bird populations.
“In 1963, they saw 49 species, and 2,700 individual birds,” Oakes said. “There were four participants in that count. Last year, 26 participants saw 121 species and over 27,000 birds, just within the Truckee Meadows. The [location of] the count circle doesn’t change and you only count for the one day, so it gives you kind of a picture of what an area looks like in time.”
Because more people can generally find more birds, Audubon also records the number of people who participate each year, how much time they put in, and other information that can affect the count.
In the Truckee Meadows, data from the Christmas Bird Count show changes that have occurred as land use patterns have shifted. Pigeons, for example, are a relatively new arrival. “The first pigeon recorded in Reno was 1974 in the Christmas Bird Count, because it was so much more rural then. Now they’re all over,” Oakes said.
The Lahontan Audubon Society welcomes all participants, regardless of experience level, to the Truckee Meadows Christmas Bird Count on the 19th, said Oakes. Other local counts will occur in Carson City (Dec. 20), Pyramid Lake (Jan. 1), and Minden (Jan. 2).