Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

Christmas Bird Count


Piliated Woodpecker Poughkeepsie Journal
December 12, 2004

By Wesley M. Hochachka

For the love of birds, volunteers keep tabs on habitats to help protect species

The wood thrush, or at least the song of this sometimes-retiring bird, is a familiar part of a walk through the forest for many people east of the Great Plains in the United States. However, over the last decades, the sight and sound of wood thrushes has become far less common; our best estimate is that there are 43 percent fewer wood thrushes now than in 1966. A major cause appears to be acid rain affecting the thrushes' habitat, severely compounding the detrimental effects of fragmentation of larger forests into smaller and more isolated patches.

And we only know the size of the declines and their causes because of people who are not paid, professional biologists.

The efforts of these non-professionals are essential to the goal of conserving birds by keeping common birds common whenever possible.

This goal is desirable because rescue efforts for a species close to extinction can be extremely risky, very costly and wrapped in red tape, with people having to take immediate action in the absence of firm knowledge about how best to proceed.

Keeping common birds, like the wood thrush, commonly requires knowing how abundant all of North America's bird species are, and being able to detect the earliest possible signs of declining abundance. However, gathering the needed information across the entire continent requires a figurative army of biologists -- and where do you find the money for that?

For monitoring bird populations, the practical solution to this problem relies on the fact most of the skilled army of bird monitors already have day jobs. You probably call them ''bird watchers'' or ''birders.'' Bird watchers exist all over North America, will watch birds anyway, and many are happy to volunteer their time and skills for a worthwhile cause.

Commitment varies

The level of commitment from these volunteer ''citizen scientists'' varies with the particular project in which they are involved. On the high-effort end have been projects like the Birds in Forested Landscapes project run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Volunteers made multiple visits to patches of forest, often over several years, and collected measurements to describe habitat. Among the results: they helped demonstrate that acid rain was affecting wood thrushes. Most of the volunteer work is less intensive -- and North America's most important monitoring project, the Breeding Bird Survey, requires a single morning of a volunteer's time each year.

For the Breeding Bird Survey, a volunteer drives a pre-determined 25-mile route on a late spring morning, counting birds at 50 evenly spaced stops. Every effort is made to evenly disperse the survey routes across the United States and Canada, sampling all the major biological regions and all of the bird species possible. The resulting information documents the fates of hundreds of species of birds throughout the continent from 1966 to the present. While this information is central to bird conservation planning, some species are not adequately monitored.

For many of these birds that fall through the monitoring net, the problem is simple: no roads. An enormous swath of North America is in the boreal forest of Canada, Alaska, and the northern contiguous U.S., which are rich in breeding birds, but have very few roads along which to watch them.

If you can't get to these birds, then what about letting the birds come to you? Many of the boreal-nesting birds do come south during the winter and yet another monitoring project, the Christmas Bird Count, has recorded the changes in these species' presence for over 100 years.

Started in protest

Originally started as a protest against a Christmas tradition of seeing how many birds one could shoot in a day at, the Christmas Bird Count has grown to become probably the most widely known bird monitoring project in North America.

It's also a lot of fun spending a Christmas season's day with others, scouring a 15-mile diameter circle for every bird and bird species that can be found (and, yes, I can still say after having done my share of Christmas Bird Counts in minus 40-degree weather).

Data from the Christmas Bird Count are only now starting to be used intensively for conservation purposes, but have a long history of being used by researchers to study a variety of topics, such as investigating what determines the winter ranges of species and documenting the effects of disease on wild bird populations.

Whether for bird conservation work or for more esoteric purposes, essentially everything scientists know about the distribution and abundance of North America's birds is the result of the efforts of thousands of volunteers.

If you would like to take part in the fun and the science of keeping tabs of North America's birds, you have opportunities to start this winter.

Wesley M. Hochachka is assistant director of Bird Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca.

For more information

The Christmas Bird Count season starts Tuesday. For a complete list of counts in New York, visit

Here are local counts planned in Dutchess or Ulster counties, and contact information for each:

Dec. 18

Bowdoin Park, Poughkeepsie: Bill Case,

Mohonk Lake and Ashokan Reservoir: Steve M. Chorvas,, 845-246-5900.

Dec. 19

Lakeville-Sharon, Conn., including Northeastern Dutchess County: Janet Williams,

Jan. 1

Pawling: Carena Pooth,, 845-724-3236

The Cornell Lab of Ornith-ology offers citizen-science projects involving people of all ages and backgrounds, including Project Feeder-Watch, The Birdhouse Network, Urban Bird Studies, House Finch Disease Survey, and Birds in Forested Landscapes. The Great Backyard Bird Count and eBird are two other citizen-science projects, run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon Society. Visit or call 1-800-843-BIRD (1-800-843-2473).

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