Citizen Science: Best Hope for Songbird Survival?
Earlier that day I had decided that my ‘watch’ would begin at 11:00 am, and I logged that starting time on a blank sheet of notebook paper. I wanted to participate all four days, so I added the date at the top of the page. My location was the next entry, and then the temperature and overcast conditions. It was time again to begin my Great Backyard Bird Count, and I knew that data entry needed to be accurate and complete if it was going to be of any help to the researchers.
Get Comfy and Start Counting Birds
I grabbed my binoculars and found a comfy spot from which to make my 15 minutes of observation on this cold February day. That’s all I intended to spend counting bird feeder birds that day.
I jotted down each species as I began spotting several of the usual bird feeder suspects. Let’s see: 2 downy woodpeckers, 1 male and 1 female; 6 cute little chickadees—gotta love those little guys; 5 white-breasted nuthatches; 3 gorgeous blue jays; oh, and there’s one of my sweet tufted titmice.
But, wait a minute, what the heck is that little brown bird? That’s not a sparrow, what is it?
Refocusing my binocs revealed a bird I had heard of but never seen before. It was a Common Redpoll! Oh, but there are several more that just flew in, and then more, and then more yet. I counted 35 in that one flock! I was thrilled right down to my knee socks!
Have You Ever Participated in a Citizen Science Project?
Are You a Bird Nerd?
I have to explain something here. If you happen to be a bird nerd like me, then you can skip over this explanation. You know exactly how I felt. But if you are not ‘into birds’, then to a bird lover, seeing a new species is akin to winning the lottery. It’s a happy bolt out of the blue, like Nature just gave you a big hug!
Common Redpolls are small, chatty, and friendly members of the finch family of songbirds. To me they were anything but common as I watched them with delight. The large flocks busied themselves scouring the snow under my bird feeders.
They wore distinctive red caps, and their ebony chins created a sharp contrast to yellow beaks. The males were easy to spot as they proudly sported decorative pink chests! My gratitude to the creator of the Great Backyard Bird Count knew no bounds!
Steep Decline of Bird Species
Over the past 4 decades, many of our birds have been in a steep decline. Some have decreased by as much as 80%. Environmental factors, urban sprawl, modern industrialized farming, wind farms, habitat loss and fragmentation as well as deforestation have all contributed to the disappearance of once common bird species like the Whip-poor-will, Evening Grosbeak, Horned Lark, Greater Scaup, Northern Bobwhite and Ruffed Grouse.
Top 20 Common Birds in Decline: http://birds.audubon.org/species-by-program/cbid
Those initial sightings multiplied threefold in the next several days. My 15 minutes of observation had stretched into several hours, which were broken up between household chores, making meals and checking emails, etc. Every chance I got I eagerly drank in the sights and sounds of these new-to-me gregarious avian visitors.
They happily filled the bare tree branches with cheery chattering, and punctuated the white snow as they investigated every possible morsel of food. I was vigilant about keeping those feeders well filled so as to make my new friends as welcome as possible. I would have been very sad if they had departed before I had the chance to get to know them.
A Memorable Great Backyard Bird Count
Weed seed heads were quickly ‘shaken, not stirred’ by the energetic invaders. As fast as the seeds fell off the weeds, that’s how fast they retrieved their treasures. I could tell by their happy, tiny trills and constant chet-chet calls that they were having a blast. They seemed to be making a game out of finding food, and as I watched them I secretly wished I could enjoy grocery shopping that much!
I finished all 4 day’s observations, again noting the dates and times in my notebook, along with temperature and weather conditions. This particular GBBC had become one of the most memorable for me, even though I have been participating for many years. My usual winter birdfeeder gang sort of sank into the background in the midst of the Redpoll irruption. Turning in my tallies to the GBBC website was done with great eagerness.
My very short Red Poll video
Goodbye and Come Again!
The Red Polls’ slow departure seemed to ease me into the reality that they would not be with me any longer this year. I knew they couldn’t stay, just like ‘Frosty the Snowman’; but I hoped they’d be back again someday. Somehow these diminutive birds had warmed the winter chill and hastened the demise of what usually seemed like interminably cold months.
Helping Researchers Help Our Birds
Had I not participated in this important citizen science Audubon project, I would have missed this happy experience! Many ordinary people are making extraordinary strides in helping researchers count, map habitats, and determine the health of songbird populations worldwide. This popular yearly event has grown by leaps and bounds.
We as citizen scientists have done so much more than the dedicated scientists and researchers could have accomplished on their own. From the data we have gathered, Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology researchers have been able to effectively craft programs that are geared to help waning worldwide bird populations rebound; and to keep others healthy. Anyone can participate anywhere in the world in the GBBC’s annual event in February.
A New Citizen Science Project
Project Feederwatch is a program exclusive to North America whereby you can monitor your bird feeders from November through April, and then report your sightings. You will receive a research kit, which contains all you need to know to participate.
This is great fun for people of all ages, from school children to bird clubs, retirees and individuals from all walks of life. Amateur backyard bird observers to experienced devotees are all welcome. The more information we can add to the data bases, the better able our scientists and researchers can serve wild birds everywhere.
Become a Citizen Scientist
I believe we as citizen scientists have been and will continue to be instrumental in bird survival through the vital individual observations in our own backyards. We are the future of the success of our precious wild birds. Join us in making an enormous difference to our awesome birds!