Christmas Bird Count at Four Rivers Conservation Area shows mixed results

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Kansas City
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Kansas City, Mo. – Birds will need to hunt harder for food in western Missouri’s natural areas this winter, as the summer drought reduced seed and fruit production by plants. Teams conducting the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on Dec. 14 at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Four Rivers Conservation Area found a high number of species, but low bird numbers within the species counted. The drought affected the count, said organizer Mark Robbins, ornithology collection manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute.

“The drought is having a major negative impact on a number of species,” Robbins said. “We had a lot of individual species, but a very low number of birds within those species across the board.”

Teams counted 110 different species of birds, just below the area’s CBC record of 114 species. The area’s habitat diversity of extensive wetlands as well as bottomland forest, old fields, and grasslands makes a high species count possible, Robbins said. He has long been involved in ornithology field work in Missouri and authored “The Status and Distribution of Birds in Missouri.”

Teams making the count included 17 trained volunteers and MDC staff members. They spotted a pine warbler, a bird normally found only in the shortleaf pine forests and woodlands of the Ozarks. They also noted three prairie falcons, unusual because they are infrequently seen in Missouri.

“The negative part was, this drought is having a tremendous effect on the birds,” Robbins said.

Some wetland pools that waterfowl and shorebirds depend on were dry, and all other pools were low. In the uplands native plant foods that wild birds utilize are poor. Teams saw no fruits on wild grape vines or poison ivy vines, he said. Berries were few on coralberry, a late-winter food for birds on a shrub also known as buckbrush. Pecan groves along the Marmaton River did produce mast and will help nut-eating birds like the red-headed woodpecker. But seed production from forbs and grasses that various sparrow species depend on is low.

Some birds such as mockingbirds and Carolina wrens suffered population losses due to harsh winter conditions in February 2021, he said. Winter is difficult for birds.

“If people are feeding birds, they may want to put out water for them,” Robbins said. “Birds are hurting for water. You’re going to be surprised at what birds you see at your water source.”

Bring water bowls inside at night to thaw ice and put them out during the day when temperatures are warmer, he said.

North American birds have declined by 3 billion since 1970 due to habitat loss and other factors, according to a Cornell University study released in 2019. But a bright spot over those 50-plus years has been waterfowl population increases, Robbins said. That’s due to support by hunters for waterfowl habitat conservation, such as the August A. Busch Jr. Memorial Wetlands at Four Rivers Conservation Area.

For information about birding, hunting, and hiking at Four Rivers, visit