The National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count is underway this week in Northeast Ohio. Worldwide similar counts are showing that hundreds of species of birds are in trouble. In North America alone nearly a third of native bird populations are showing significant declines. Scientists say loss of habitat is the biggest factor, followed closely by global climate change. But scientists wouldn't know about these losses if it weren't for the thousands of ordinary citizens who take part in annual events like the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. For 105 years, bird lovers have been keeping records of the species and numbers of birds they see over the first three weeks of winter. As ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports, these citizen scientists are gathering data that could help protect our feathered friends.
Nancy Howell: Oh... Robins going over! Three, six, nine, twelve... about 21? Now they're landing...
Every Christmas season for the last 15 years, Nancy Howell has come out in the cold and snow to tramp these fields at the Squire Valleevue Farm in Chagrin Falls and count birds.
Nancy Howell: So how many robins? 11? I got 12. Okay.
Howell is an educator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and one of 50,000 citizen scientists in North America who join in the annual Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. She says the idea is to tally the different species and the numbers of birds seen on the same day in the same place every year.
Nancy Howell: The habitats have changed or are non-existent and other birds are new to the area. With some of the earlier Christmas Counts cardinals were almost non-existent. And yet they're very abundant now. Maybe one of the reasons is habitat changes, but also the bird feeding.
The first Christmas Bird Count was conducted in 1900 by just 25 people across 13 states. Ohio Audubon Society spokesperson Casey Tucker says Ohio held one of those early counts, in part as an alternative to what were then known as the Christmas side hunts.
Casey Tucker: Prior to that time the tradition had been to hunt and shoot as many birds as possible. But we really didn't have any idea of what bird populations were like back then. And so this first count was established to get baseline data on how many birds there were.
Tucker says Audubon's research shows the first Ohio count was probably conducted by Lynds Jones, a professor of zoology at Oberlin College who helped found the Wilson Ornithological Society. Today there are 60 bird counts conducted in the state each year. The 105 years of data from those tallies will be analyzed next year by Greg Butcher. Butcher a Wisconsin zoologist who works for the National Audubon Society. He's also the author of Audubon's first-ever State of the Birds Report released last month.
Greg Butcher: We're going to take all that information collected by people who participate in the Christmas Bird Counts and look and see what population trends have been over the past 40 years.
Butcher says his analysis this year of data collected since 1966 shows some disturbing trends. He says continuing loss of habitat, compounded by global warming, has significantly reduced populations all manner of bird species in North America, some by as much as 70%. And he says that's a problem.
Greg Butcher: Birds have practical values that they add. Birds are great insect eaters. They're great weed seed eaters. Birds eat fruits and they distribute the seeds from the fruits around, so that they help plants to disperse throughout the world. If bird populations were to decline dramatically, you would see even more forest insect outbreaks than we already see.
Butcher believes agriculture and urbanization are removing habitat where many species need to breed, feed, and rest during migration. He says in Ohio, which once held a mix of grassland, forest and marsh, species like the cerulean warbler and the red-headed woodpecker are particularly at risk. But on this December morning in Chagrin Falls, there's no dearth of woodpeckers to be found.
Alan Palmer: A red-bellied woodpecker. Oh wow. He's big, too. Isn't that pretty? He's red-headed, but he's called a red-bellied woodpecker. There's another woodpecker called a red-headed woodpecker.
Alan Palmer may sound like a seasoned ornithologist, but he's still a junior at Beachwood High School. One day he says he'd like to become a working naturalist.
Alan Palmer: I just love nature so much, it's so soothing, so relaxing and mind-stimulating when you learn about different ecosystems and habitats, such as the bird habitat that we're learning about today.
But you don't have to be an expert to help with the Christmas Bird Count. Palmer is one of six students out counting today with Nancy Howell and her colleague Bob Segedi, who oversees the Young Scientists program at the Natural History Museum.
Bob Segedi: It's a good thing to bring students out. They can participate in citizen science. You don't always have to have an advanced degree to make a contribution.
The Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count concludes this weekend, with counts across northern Ohio and many other parts of the state. Anyone with a sharp eye and an extra pair of socks is welcome to join in. In Chagrin Falls, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.