Citizen science for Christmas
Out there where the wind blows cold through field and forest, a northern cardinal hunkers down amongst the boughs of a thick cedar. His mate, suddenly alerted to the arrival of four bulkily clad humans, utters a chip note to make contact with him.
Flashing crimson in the cold morning light, he flies to a bare branch that offers wide views of the valley below.
With the wind blowing hard from the northwest his crest lays uncharacteristically flat but one of the birders below has already raised a pair of binoculars and identified him.
“Male cardinal on the ridge up there!” the voice exclaims. The man’s breath rises from a fur-lined hood and disappears into the branches around him.
“Species number ten!” responds one of the other humans. With gloved hands she awkwardly places a checkmark on her clipboard then smiles from beneath a woolen toque. “Now let’s see what else we can find in here!”
The humans turn west along a riverside path and move out of view, their voices trailing back to the cardinals like smoke on the wind.
• • • • • •
Scenes like this one will unfold across North America during the holiday season as one of the best examples of “citizen science” that exists in our time.
It is the annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that dates all the way back to 1900 when an ornithologist named Frank Chapman suggested that the Christmas bird hunts conducted by outdoorsmen in the 1800s should be replaced by a more environmentally sensitive activity.
Instead of seeing who could shoot the greatest amount of feathered fauna on Christmas Day, said Mr. Chapman, perhaps it would be better to see who could identify and count the most birds.
Not everyone agreed with him.
Still, 27 naturalists agreed to give it a whirl. They went out with binoculars instead of guns and took note of every species they saw in their area as well as how many individual birds they encountered.
The results of these inaugural counts were recorded by the newly-formed Audubon Society, an organization devoted to saving rather than exterminating North America’s already declining animal populations.
Toronto, I am pleased to note, was among the 25 North American locations involved in that first “CBC”.
The event has grown exponentially since then. More than 1,700 “Christmas counts” now take place in Canada and the U.S., and an estimated 50,000 people participate each year.
The data gathered by these birders assists greatly in creating a clearer picture of which birds are where during the period of the winter solstice. Although it is not a pure census (you simply cannot find, much less count, every single bird out there), the count offers a good baseline for comparing bird populations from year to year and helps to show changes in the geographical distribution of many species.
The designated time period for Christmas Bird Counts in North America ranges from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. Regional organizers are given a count circle of about 250 square kilometers to work within. These circles are designed to have no overlap with other count circles.
The count circle that Mike Van den Tillaart and I are in charge of is situated in the general vicinity of Bradford. Peter Wukasch started this count 14 years ago when he saw that no birding data from southwestern Simcoe County was included in the CBC results published annually in American Birds magazine.
He took it upon himself to fill that gap and soon recruited several other amateur ornithologists to help him out. Peter is still an active participant in the Bradford area CBC but has turned the organizational duties over to Mike and me.
Our annual count represents one of several CBCs that take place near Lake Simcoe. These include Barrie, Orillia, Wye Marsh, Sutton, Kleinburg, Richmond Hill, and the Carden Alvar.
The success of each Christmas Bird Count is dependent on the help of volunteers who are reasonably good at spotting and identifying birds. Our circle is usually divided into five smaller areas covered by “teams” of about four people (it is logistically and environmentally preferable to have them all travel in one vehicle).
My own team covers the town of Bradford and the Holland Marsh. Over the allocated duration of eight hours we hike through various town parks, woodlots, and river valleys. We also drive many kilometres along country roads and neighbourhood streets, stopping to count and identify birds whenever and wherever we spot them.
Although the majority of Ontario’s nesting birds have flown south by Christmas, more than 90 different species have been observed during the relatively short history of our local Christmas count. Highlights include Varied Thrush, Great Gray Owl, Bald Eagle, Common Raven, White-winged Crossbill, Hoary Redpoll, and Snowy Owl.
Coffee, tea, juice and snacks fuel the fire of many a CBC team, so contributions to the local economy are made throughout the course of these bird-counting days. Some teams have even been known to stop for liquid refreshments of a stronger variety at esteemed local establishments.
Perhaps the cardinals appear brighter that way…
Regardless of the fuel that drives them, CBC participants contribute valuable information to ornithological organizations like Bird Studies Canada and the National Audubon Society. Population trends, changes in range distribution, and many other interesting observations are derived from the data generated by this fine and enjoyable winter activity. The Christmas Bird Count represents citizen science at its best.