LAUNCHED IN 1900, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count is the oldest and largest “citizen science” project in the world.
For the past 108 years, people throughout the Western Hemisphere have gathered during the winter holiday season to count birds. Because of their efforts, a vast pool of data has been compiled.
“Citizen science means ordinary people investing a little time to help gather information over time that forms a valuable database for professional scientists to use,” says Dot Bambach, past president of Savannah Ogeechee Audubon, who is organizing the local bird count.
For example, if you look at data collected 20 years ago and compare it to recent findings, you might see that 50 percent of the robins have shifted southward over time. That might indicate something in the environment has caused the shift, a trend scientists might want to study further.
“You can actually see a decrease in a population, or an increase,” Bambach says. “Because it’s been going on for 108 years, you build up a really serious database. Professional ornithologists use it all the time to look at particular species.”
The data provides information on the status and distribution of early winter bird populations that is studied by scientists around the world, especially by conservation biologists. “This is the only midwinter count, but there is the Migratory Bird Count, generally held in April and May, and the Breeder Bird Survey held in June,” Bambach says.
Despite its importance, the count is open to everyone, regardless of experience, although beginning birders are put into a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher. “Obviously, in each team we need at least one pretty expert birder,” Bambach says. “You need someone who really knows about identifying birds.”
Birds must be counted within an existing Christmas Bird Count circle with a diameter of 15 miles. The birders follow assigned routes and count every bird they see.
The volunteers perform research by doing tasks such as observation, measurement or computation. “There’s something for everyone to do,” Bambach says. “It’s a long day. We generally start at 7 a.m. and go until it’s dark. People can do it for a couple of hours and leave, but it’s disruptive to the team, and it’s impossible to start late.”
Every year, the Christmas Bird Count season runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, with many bird counts going on throughout the Western Hemisphere each day. This year, the local count is on the last day of the season, Jan. 5.
The first Christmas Bird Count was proposed by ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in what was then the new National Audubon Society, in response to a 19th Christmas tradition known as the “side hunt.” In a side hunt, people went out on Christmas Day and competed to see how many birds they could kill, often without regard to rarity, usefulness or beauty.
“By then, certain species were in serious decline, Bambach says. “The National Audubon Society was formed because we were about to run out of egrets.”
Chapman proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them. “He said, ‘Why not count them and make it a game?’,” Bambach says.
Today, tens of thousands of people participate in the Christmas Bird Count in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Central America. Savannah’s count is relatively new, having been started less than 10 years ago.
There is a $5 fee to participate which supports compilation and publication of the data, which also appears on the National Audubon Society Web site.
The real fun of the count begins when it’s over, Bambach says. “After it gets dark on the day of the count, we all get together at a local restaurant where everyone has a beer and something to eat,” she says.
“When you see all that at the end of the day, you really get a sense of the variety in Savannah,” Bambach says. “There are more than 150 species of birds in the Savannah area.”
On Saturday, Jan. 5, Ogeechee Audubon will conduct the Christmas Bird Count. There is a fee of $5 per person. Contact Dot Bambach at 598-3764 or dotbam@ bellsouth.net for meeting time, place and dinner information.