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.
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
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 www.nybirds.org/ProjCBC.htm
Here are local counts planned in Dutchess or Ulster counties,
and contact information for each:
Bowdoin Park, Poughkeepsie: Bill Case, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mohonk Lake and Ashokan Reservoir: Steve M. Chorvas, email@example.com,
Lakeville-Sharon, Conn., including Northeastern Dutchess County:
Janet Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pawling: Carena Pooth, email@example.com, 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 www.birds.cornell.edu or call 1-800-843-BIRD (1-800-843-2473).