For the birds
Christmas Bird Counts
The National Audubon Society offers educational programs and lobbies on behalf of bird conservation. It also coordinates the Christmas Bird Count, an annual citizen science project that brings together Audubon Society members and the general public to count birds in places across the U.S. and Canada.
Kathy Oakes, a field biologist, has been a member of the society’s local chapter since 1982. The Lahontan Audubon Society has been organizing Christmas Bird Counts in the Truckee Meadows for more than half a century.
The Audubon Society has been doing these Christmas Bird Counts for many years, right?
This will be our one hundred and eighteenth Christmas Bird Count. So, they’re going into their second century. It all started right around 1900. … It was proposed by Frank Chapman, as an alternative to something they called the Christmas Side Hunt, where people went out and shot birds and small mammals and kind of piled them up. So he suggested that instead of that, people go out and count birds. And 27 people actually participated, and they counted birds on Christmas Day in 25 places throughout the U.S. and into Canada. So it started there, and it’s been running ever since. It’s become much more standardized since around 1960, so that the information can be used reliably. I won’t get into a lot of the details, but we know how much effort was involved in the number of people and the number of hours for each count. So, you can be sure when you’re looking at a count, if you got a lot more species on one count year, it might be because you had 10 more people involved in looking for the birds. And also we collect information on weather. And last year, there were huge winter storms—and so the number of birds counted in the U.S. and Canada were less than the year before, mostly because of terrible weather conditions.
People weren’t out, or the birds weren’t there last year? I read somewhere, maybe on the Audubon website, that birds, unlike members of Congress, aren’t climate change deniers. Have there been more because the migrators aren’t leaving?
Well, not necessarily that. They are able to track movements of birds—because since the’60s, we have a much more standardized way of looking at it. So, we’ve been able to track movements of individual species. And just to give you an example, data from the 2013 CBC looked back four decades, and they found that 58 percent of the species counted in the U.S. and Canada—so that’s about 117 species out of 305—moved significantly northward. And 60 species moved more than 100 miles northward. So, in the first part of winter, they would find birds that four decades before that, had been found considerably farther south. … Interestingly, species that have moved northward include ones that we might be familiar with. Northern Mockingbird, which didn’t used to be found in the Reno area much at all, is now found fairly regularly in Christmas Bird Counts here. The mourning dove, since the 1970s, has moved considerably north. And then a couple of other species that we don’t see here, but they do back East—the northern cardinal has expanded its range northward for the winter.
This is revealing important information. I think it’s an interesting chance for non-scientists to get involved.
It’s a great opportunity for that, because we really need people. It’s an all-volunteer effort. It’s not supported by anything but donations from people who are interested in it. I was looking back on our records, and this is from the National Audubon Society, but from the 2006 CBC, they did a calculation of the value of volunteers, and it came out to be almost five and half million dollars’ worth of volunteer effort and miles driven that contributed to science. They would not be able to get that kind of effort, if we didn’t have a lot of people coming out for the counts. If people are interested in doing a count, our webpage has all of the current Christmas Bird Counts throughout this area. And if people want to volunteer, they don’t need to worry if they’re not an experienced birder—because they will be paired by the count leader with somebody who is. … They just need to contact the count leader—and the leader for each count is listed on the website—and it’s fun.
Can you give me an idea of what a newbie might expect on that day?
Each count circle is 15 miles in diameter, and I think our website has a link to where you can zero-in on the count circles. You can see that the Reno count circle—within which we’ve been counting birds since 1964—is centered right around Windy Hill. It’s actually centered on a reservoir that became part of the Lakeridge Golf Course. From there, that includes most of Reno, a good part of Sparks, all the way down to the Damonte wetlands, over to Hidden Valley. It’s a huge area, but within that area, different parties get assigned to different sections. So, if you show up, you may go with the party that’s going to come out to west Reno, the Caughlin Ranch area. You might go to Sparks. … Within each area—the party that’s assigned—they actually census it such that they can cover much of that area within the day, and they count every bird seen. And they keep a tally of how many people are involved, whether they do it on foot or bike.
There are counts all over the place. I saw one at the Sheldon National Refuge. It says they’re offering lodging and kitchens for volunteers at that one.
Yes, because it’s so remote. And then at the one in Minden is now going to run out of the Nature Conservancy’s Riverfork Ranch. And many of them include what they call a tally rally—so a dinner where everybody gets together and compiles the data. And so you get some idea right away, really, what species were seen in all. So, anyway, it’s a great way to meet people and to get interested in birds.