Opinion

Annual Christmas bird count provides vital conservation data

For decades, American men celebrated this season by teaming up to shoot birds, competing with other local hunters. Pictures from that era show thousands of pheasants, songbirds and wild turkeys strung up on lines hung across horse-drawn wagons.

So when Dr. Frank Chapman – an officer in the fledgling National Audubon Society – suggested 115 years ago that counting birds each Christmas season might be a better idea, he never imagined the crucial role those bird counts would play for today’s scientists.

In the coming weeks, an estimated 70,000 volunteer observers will brave winter weather to provide scientists with first-hand data on the fluctuation, range and movement of bird populations across the North American continent and beyond. This is scientific crowd sourcing at its best.

Scientists have grown to rely on the trend data gleaned from the annual Christmas Bird Count to better understand how birds and the environment are faring and what we can do to better protect them. It was this citizen science that allowed Audubon ornithologists – in a groundbreaking study released this year – to predict how climate change will alter the geographical ranges of North American bird species.

We found that 314 of 588 species are at risk of losing more than 50 percent of their ranges by 2080 because of changes in our climate. The reason: Each species has a tolerance zone for climate conditions. When it gets too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry, birds will be forced to leave their homes.

The good news is that we still have time to give birds a fighting chance. To do that we must protect and preserve the places we know birds need today and in the future. And, we need to pitch in and do everything we can to slow the pace and severity of global warming.

Data from the volunteer Christmas bird counters is helping conservationists and policymakers pinpoint priority areas for conservation. These are “strongholds” that will remain stable for multiple species of birds and provide birds bridges to live in the future as some areas become uninhabitable.

This information will allow local city councils and federal lawmakers to consider the impact of climate change on birds and other wildlife when making decisions about conservation priorities, whether it’s a neighborhood land use issue or setting strategies for managing millions of acres of national parks and other public properties.

While it’s critical that national leaders own responsibility for the sweeping regulations and laws that protect clean air and water and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, Americans have never just waited for politicians to take the initiative. We need to support efforts close to home – in our neighborhoods, our cities and states – assuming local control over some of these decisions in making our environment a safer place for both people and birds.

But the Christmas Bird Count doesn’t just record gloom and doom. It also reveals success stories, helping document the comeback of our national bird, the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and significant increases in waterfowl populations, all promising results of conservation efforts.

Last year, our volunteers tracked the largest influx of snowy owls to the East Coast and Great Lakes ever documented during a count.

Clean air and water and protecting natural habitats for the future should not be political issues. These are bird issues. And just as important, these are people issues.

Frank Chapman had no idea he was birthing a database for the largest, longest-running animal census on the planet. Our grandchildren owe him – and every one of the 70,000 counters – a huge thanks for helping us build that data base so we can see the long-term effects of the conservation actions we take in communities across the Americas.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. He wrote this for Tribune News Service.

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