Nature Boost Podcast
Christmas Bird Count
[Music playing, animal sounds.]
>> Hey there and welcome back to another episode of Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Holiday season is here and it's always something I look forward to each year. I love all of the food, finding those perfect gifts for my friends and family. And of course, my annual cookie baking day with my mom.
But I do have a tendency to overindulge in all things holly jolly. Maybe you are right there with me. Which is why I try to decompress in nature whenever I can. And it just so happens there is an annual nature watching event in December that I wanted to learn more about. The Annual Christmas Bird Count.
So to learn more about the Christmas bird count, I reached out to the best of the best. I'm talking about my birding best friend, Sarah Kendrick.
I appreciate you joining me today. I want to talk about this Christmas bird count. We are recording this a week before the bird count gets started. They start on December 14th and it runs through January 6th?
>> 5th. Okay. I was close. I think it would be great to be able to provide some insight into this Christmas bird count. One of the big topics you and I have discussed in the past is about how our birds are facing real big declines. They have been for years.
>> That's right. So since about 1970 we've lost about 29% of our birds in North America. A large study published in the journal of science in September of 2019 quantified the loss of birds across North America in the last 50 years, and yeah, losing a third of our birds is just a little bit too much to handle. That study, a part of that study, were findings from these long term bird monitoring effets like the Christmas bird count, as well as the Breeding Bird Survey which is held in the breeding season in the summer. These long term monitoring efforts really fed into that quantification of the net loss over time. The Christmas Bird Count is the longest running bird census of its kind, monitoring effort of its kind. It has been held since the year 1900, so this coming session will be the 122nd Christmas Bird Count. It is really truly amazing that between the Bird Breeding Survey and the Christmas Bird Counts, their monitoring efforts included as well, and the analyses; we wouldn't know these things without these long term efforts. So, any people getting involved in it and the people who have been doing it for 20-30 years, doing a Christmas Bird Count for that long, it's all such important information to gather.
>> So by the time this episode drops, the Christmas Bird Count will have kicked off the day before, on the 14th. Can people still sign up if they would like to participate?
>> Yeah, they can. There may be some count circles that filled out their entire crew of people doing the count circle. So, the Christmas Bird Count is run by the National Audubon Society. It's on their website. Or you can just google "Christmas Bird Count" and then there is a link that says "join the Christmas Bird Count'' and it takes you to an interactive map where you can see all of the Christmas Bird Counts in the state, in the country, they even extend into Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands. Lots of areas. You can choose one. It shows the coordinator's name and contact information. Then you just reach out to the coordinator to see if there are spots or if they need any additional help. It's a little bit close to the dates, so be aware of that, but yeah, you can reach out to a coordinator and see if they need any extra assistance.
>> Okay, so, what if you are not that of an experienced birder. Can you still help? Or are they like, "no, we need more seasoned help. Next year, kid."
>> It depends on the count. It will just depend on the count coordinator and whether they have their whole plan lined out already. Most people will the week before they will already know all their people going to the different portions of the count circle.
A circle is 15 miles in diameter and it's plopped on a map. And the coordinator will arrange with volunteers to come and divy up the count circle to them. It is a census which is unlike the Breeding Bird Survey and other long term monitoring efforts which means you drive around your portion of the count circle and you don't access private land if you don't have access. But you go around the count circle and you count every single bird that you see or hear through the 24 hour period. From midnight to 11:59 that night on the day of your Christmas Bird Count. I think the Christmas Bird Count is a great way for new people who do not know their birds to get lots of good experience because you can follow around a group all day and just one of the best ways to learn your birds is to be around other birders who are helping you by pointing out different calls and what the birds look like. I think the easiest way to learn your birds is a mentor.
Spending an entire day, albeit freezing, it's definitely extreme birding. Especially for a newbie. But it is a great way to learn your birds - to follow some birders around.
>> So it's a 24 hour period that you are doing this.
>> Yes, on the count day, you can count birds for 24 hours. From 12:01 or 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. that day. So a lot of people go out before dawn. I go out for my Christmas bird count in Kirksville. I go out before dawn, and you owl. You look for owls and try to check those off your list because they aren't as detectable during the day time and you want to get, at least I do, everybody. You want to get as many species as you can in your count circle in that 24 hour period.
>> Do you get competitive with Christmas Bird Count?
>> I think I would be lying to say that I don't. But, there are many Christmas Bird Counts in this state that get many more species than I do. Mostly ones that are around wetland areas, just because wetlands are so . . . they just support a whole lot of life with a lot of water and many more birds. Our wetland areas in the state support the most species year round. But, the Kirksville count is an upland count.
>> The wetlands host, and can support a variety of species. I think I got it so skewed in my head that I think Christmas Bird Count we are just looking for backyard bird species. But, okay, owls are cool. So you know, eagles are big with Eagle Days. Do they count as well?
>> Of course! Every bird counts. Every bird counts. You get such a wide array of species, especially depending on the diversity of species within your count circle. That's where you get a lot of species. If you have a wetland, and upland areas, and fields and backyards, and a town, and and and. Just all the different habitats just increase that species diversity.
So, yes, all different types of species. Backyard birds, water fowl, a lot of migrating waterfowl. A lot of counts find kind of rare species that otherwise may not be found in the area because you are spending the entire day searching for different species and scanning wetland areas with scopes. You are out and about and that is where you find the birds when you are out there.
You gotta get out there.
The birds are out there.
>> How are you, whenever you are doing one of these bird counts, how are you collecting the data? Is there an app you are putting the info in? Are you just writing it down and then submitting it? How does that work?
>> I do multiple approaches. So, I am a big advocate of eBird which is an online database that collects all birders' checklists. There are hundreds of millions of bird sightings uploaded every year onto eBird. It is a great way to track conservation and bird trends. It is also a way to compile your life list and your different birding checklists.
I make an eBird list for the day. Then, also, as part of the Christmas Bird Count part of your protocol, you have a data sheet for your count circle that you submit and give back to your coordinator at the end of the day when you are done. The coordinator compiles all of the detections throughout the day and then they give it to a statewide coordinator and then they submit it to National Audubon.
>> How long have you participated in the Christmas Bird Count?
>> I have participated in the Christmas Bird Count probably the last 10-12 years. I resurrected the Kirksville Christmas Bird Count because it had been defunct for about 4 or 5 years and I am from Kirksville. I had to do that one. I've been the coordinator for the Kirksville Christmas Bird Count for about the last 5 years.
>> How many people do you have participating in that one?
>> Around 15-20. It kind of varies.
>> That is a big group of people. That's a good amount, I feel like.
>> There are birders everywhere, Jill. Everywhere. Even in Kirksville. Our biggest population of bird watchers are around our urban centers in St. Louis, Kansas City, Colombia, Springfield. There are birders across the state. We have a dedicated group that comes every single year around the Kirksville area to get out there on the landscape and count what birds we can find.
>> Like you were saying earlier, all of that information once the birders put it in there, it really helps in the research efforts to understand how birds are doing and like we touched on earlier. Sadly, their populations have been decreasing. But, again, the citizen science efforts like this are one way that you can help birds. Can we touch on other ways that people can help birds as well with their populations?
>> Great question, Jill. Yes, so in the wake of the 3 billion birds decline, which is what the paper has kind of been coined. A loss of 3 billion birds, or about 29%. There was a big set of actions that Cornell and the authors of the science paper came up with that are online at 3billionbirds.org. They are called The Seven Simple Actions. I think the ones we should highlight are the Christmas bird count. One of them is to report your bird sightings whether that is through eBird as we mentioned before, ebird.org or the Breeding Bird Survey which happens in late May through June and the Christmas Bird Count. Yeah, these two long term efforts - the Breeding Bird Survey and the Christmas Bird Count - were essentially the crux of this study that quantified the net loss of birds. We would not have been able to do that without those two long term monitoring efforts.
These long term efforts are so important just to gauge how our populations are doing both in the breeding season and through the Christmas Bird Count in the winter when it is a totally different set of birds to really keep tabs on how these birds are doing. It can be very disheartening to me when you think about all these bird declines, but I do think that these seven simple actions and these declines are for a reason. Maybe to wake people up and help them to realize that we all got to do something different. Even in a little way. Hopefully a bigger way.
We all have to ban together to just change certain parts of our lifestyle - small or big - to help the natural environment.
I think one good way is clearly to record our bird sightings. There are other changes we can make in daily life that are outlined in some of the seven simple actions. Treat problem windows where birds fly into your windows. Bird strikes are the second largest human caused area of mortality for wild birds and it is the simplest easiest thing to change.
If you have a problem window at your home or at the office, every single person has one. Which is why it is such a big contributor to bird mortality. If you have a problem window where one bird has flown into your window and either died or been stunned and even if they flew off later, it can affect their survival. Treat that window. There are lots of different options. Do your research online. You can hang little paracord strings outside your window. They blow in the breeze and look nice. You can put stickers on the external side of your windows. And it is one of the only fixes that we can do and has an immediate effect. You just won't have bird strikes anymore after you do that. You can immediately stop that cause of mortality.
Another way I think is great around the holidays is native plants. Native plants are species that clearly are native to Missouri. They adapted to our environment, our precipitation, our weather patterns, and so they are plants that take a lot less maintenance and watering. They get established.
One great way around the holidays, I think, is to get a gift certificate for your loved ones and friends for native plants from a native plant vendor. You can find native plant vendors on the grow native.org website. Grow Native is an amazing program that promotes native plants, tres and shrubs and it is run by the Missouri Prairie Foundation. That is a great way to do that and to encourage your friends and family and really just do the work for them by giving them a little money to get some startup plants. That is the longest term benefit I think we can do for birds and native insects and it really makes a difference.
>> We are getting into the winter time, obviously, where birds are having . . . the birds that don't migrate out of state may have a little bit harder time finding some food. So it is still important to feed them this time of year, right?
>> It can be really important to feed birds, especially during inclement weather. Ice and snow covering the ground for an extended amount of time where birds don't have access to seeds on the ground. So providing that seed in a bird feeder and suet, is also very important. Any time that you feed birds, we are supplementing their natural food sources. A lot of birds are not relying on our feeders and if we take them down, they will die. They will find other things to eat and they know what nutrients they need. But especially when the ground is covered with ice and snow. They may not have many options.
Remember, two winters ago we had about two weeks of subzero temperatures and ice and snow on the ground. There was a lot of eastern blue bird mortality. Some folks have noticed declines in species like Carolina wrens the following year. Those are species that eat soft mast, they eat berries, they eat whatever insects they can find. When the ground is covered, which is where they do a lot of their foraging. They don't have an option for that long. For weeks of ice and snow on the ground. Feeding mealworms for species like that is also very important. But yes, it is most important during those tough weather periods.
>> If you want to get really fancy, if you have some extra cheddar, as I like to call it. I'm bringing it back. Cheddar. If you've got some extra money, or you know, probably something you might splurge on. Like a heated bird bath.
>> That's a great addition. Look at you! Yeah. Providing water for birds is an essential part. If you are feeding birds, you should also have water out there. They need that. It's very important. They need that just as much as they do food, especially in the winter months when a lot of water sources are frozen. Yeah, you can find a $30-40 dollar one that you keep plugged in. You put it in your backyard and yeah, it keeps the water open and gives them a source.
>> It gives them a water source. That's right. You know, I saw . . . I saw . . . it was beautiful. My mom has a bird bath out. Not right now. But, she does in the warmer months.
>> That's what you should buy her for Christmas!
>> I already got her . . . I started Christmas shopping early. That's not a bad idea. She do love the birds. She do love them.
>> If you come across some extra cheddar, you should buy her one, Jill.
>> That is a great, great suggestion. Thank you, actually, I might do that. She had one out over the summer and there were like 5 or 6 bluebirds all in it.
>> Yeah, it's a real game changer for your backyard setup to add water. It just will bring in so many more species.
>> Was that a Carolina wren?
>> Carolina wren. Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle.
>> Go over there and look.
>> Take it all, take it all, take it all.
>> There is the red bellied woodpecker.
>> Yeah, they don't actually have red bellies.
>> They do! You've just not seen a red bellied woodpecker's belly.
>> Yes, they have a white wash on their belly, but yes, I feel poorly named woodpecker. They should have been called the zebra backed. That is my personal opinion.
>> Oh yeah!
>> Yes, they can be confused with the red headed woodpecker.
>> Yes, because they both have red heads.
>> They do, but the red bellied one is more orange but yeah that is semantics to a new birder, especially. When you see a red headed woodpecker, you know because their whole head is like blood deep red and the rest of their body has big blocks of black and white. Whereas, a red bellied woodpecker has zebra stripes of black and white down its back and more orangey and it does have a pale wash on its tummy, hence the name.
>> It is confusing.
>> If you say so.
>> I didn't name it.
>> What is that one?
>> Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle. You tell me!
>> An Carolina wren?
>> Oh my gosh! Look at me. Birding! Just two babes birding. Of course, talking about the woodpeckers, there is the monster . . . is it . . . okay. Tell me. Is it pileated how do you say it?
>> Both are acceptable.
>> How do you say it?
>> Pileated. But I know many people of various backgrounds, and professionalism and orthology that say pileated. Both are equally accepted.
>> Okay. But those are monsters.
>> They are very big. They are the largest woodpecker. It is crazy to think that the ivory billed woodpecker was 50% larger than that.
>> That is that woodpecker you sent me a picture of one time. You were like, "this is the woodpecker I was talking about," and I was like, "that looks like the Frankenstein of woodpeckers."
>> Yes, and there is new discussion on whether it is actually extinct or not. Back again. This will always go back and forth. Yep. There isn't solid evidence but there are some folks that think it has never been gone and folks who have new claims that it is out there. I don't know.
>> That is the Carolina wren?
I just . . . when bird watching you have to be really quiet.
>> Yeah. Shh!!!!
>> It just did it. It was . . . [calling.]
>> Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle.
Right now we see . . .
>> Oh, I think those were blue Jays. Did you see it?
>> Yep. There are Blue jays. I hear chickadee. I hear a white throated sparrow. Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. [Calling.]
>> That's a what?
>> White throated sparrow.
>> That marks that winter is here and that fall migration has begun. when I start seeing dark eyed juncos, white throated sparrows, white crowned sparrows. I might see a brown creeper in my backyard. Creepin' up a trunk or along branches. Those species only winter here. We are like their tropical climate. They breed up in the arboreal forest in Canada, in the northern US and they come down to us for the winter. That marks that winter is here for me when we see beautiful juncos and those other sparrow species.
>> In our feeders!
>> I will read you a few stats about the Christmas Bird Count. It was held on Christmas Day 1900. It included 27 birders. That's it.
>> It was . . . started by Frank Chapman.
>> Frank Chapman, yes in the northeast.
>> Are you impressed?
>> Yes. I was getting to that.
>> Let's start over.
>> No, I want to keep that in.
>> No. So yes, Frank Chapman started it as an alternative activity for the holidays to side hunts which were hunts where people took their friends and family out and shot and killed whatever they could find. There weren't regulations on hunting limits or other things like that. As an alternative to that, Frank Chapman thought, "why don't we go out and count the birds instead of collecting all of them?"
>> Okay, wait, I want to say, "Hey, how about instead of harvesting them we just go and count them?" Do you think everybody was like, "Nah!"
>> I think the birders that he recruited to go do it with him probably agreed but I am sure that was not a popular sentiment at the time, yes.
>> Yeah, we're going out with ole frank over here. Got to go count these birds.
>> They probably said, "Yeah, you go do that and count the birds. We will continue to shoot them."
>> It was probably a pretty out there suggestion for the time. Now that you know . . . obviously those side hunts were pretty popular.
>> I'm sorry, continue.
>> No, it's okay. So on the very first Christmas Bird Count was held on Christmas Day 1900 with 27 birders and they conducted 25 Christmas Bird Counts from Toronto to California. This last winter the 121st Christmas Bird Count was held and it included 72,000 participants across the US, Latin America, Canada, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. 44 million individual birds were tallied. That was 40.6 million in the US, and 3.5 million in Canada and over 397,000 individuals in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Last year, and the year before, we had to deal with COVID guidelines that Audubon gave out, right, to try and mitigate large groups of people in one place. With a lot of Christmas Bird Counts they have a tallying lunch or dinner after the count where everybody sits around and talks about all the cool birds you saw throughout the day and you compile the final tally of species that you found.
So, over the last few years, their guidelines were to keep groups small. Maye don't have a big meet up. Everybody just goes out separately. Even in the face of those guidelines with smaller groups of people, they still logged 130,000 hours birding. And they covered 539,000 miles across all of their Christmas Bird Counts. You keep track of your effort in terms of time and the area that you traveled. It's really just amazing to look at the stats like that to show just how widespread it is and how many people are out there birding on a set day around winter.
>> It's beautiful.
Thank you for elaborating. I think that gives us more insight on the Christmas bird count. How popular it has become. Do you think Frank Chapman, do you think he would know how popular it would become and what a big effort it is? You think he is happy? I bet he is happy.
>> I think Frank Chapman would be very proud, yes. It is really interesting to see how the technology has just changed completely. We all know this over the last few decades and how all of these tallies even of Christmas Bird Count bird list used to be all tallied by hand, sent to a central place, you know, at National Audubon all tallied by hand. Then a huge phone book sized book was sent out with all the results. Now it is all online. You know? It saves us a lot of time and they are able to disseminate the results a lot easier. You even look at eBird and you can put eBird on your phone and you walk around birding, tallying the birds from your pocket. It is sent to a central database and we are able to track status and trends, abundance, and the Cornell lab of Ornithology and eBird are able to track all of that information for science and conservation. It is really interesting.
>> Really, in other words, it is easier now more than ever to join it and kind of user friendly.
>> Absolutely. Yeah, you can just go online to see where there is a count near you or drive a few hours to go to one. Yeah, just reach out to the count coordinator and see if they are willing to take on new folks. It may be a little late, so give them some grace. Maybe next year is the way to go. Or to go out with somebody for the Breeding Bird Survey if you are new to it. I would just get involved.
You know, these bird declines are happening so rapidly. We have seen such big changes that we all have to do something. This is kind of a fun thing we can do to contribute to monitoring these birds over time. We all have to do something real soon, or the birds will continue to decline and none of us want that.
Birds provide so many important ecological roles. Managing pests. birds eat 400 to 500 million tons of insects per year. That is hard for me to even wrap my head around. Think of what a world would be like without birds managing those insect populations. What it would do to our ag systems, our plants in general. The entire plant community in the world. What would happen?
We wouldn't be able to go outside for many reasons. Birds keep that ecological balance. You know, they scavenge dead things on a landscape. They help manage wildlife and human health disease by removing it from the landscape.
Plus, they are beautiful. They bring so much joy and beauty and they are just little jewels, you know? They are one of the more beautiful things in life. If we see that go away, I think we will all kind of pay for it in some way whether through just seeing less beauty in the world or many of these ecological jobs that they do for us that we may never even know about and understand fully.
>> A big thanks to my good friend, Sarah Kendrick for joining me on this episode. If you want to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count or birdwatching in general, visit the National Audubon society at audubon.org.
As we wrap up 2022, I want to thank each of you for listening and supporting Nature Boost. It is always such a joy to record these episodes and explore these topics and I just hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoy making them.
If you have any topics you would like to see featured on the show, remember you can send us suggestions at missouriconservation.org/natureboost. I am Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation wishing you Happy Holidays and encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.