Citizen science is another way to protect our environment. This is the collection of data by ordinary members of the public — and another method for building the case against climate disruption. This month, volunteers completed the National Audubon Society’s 116th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Between December 14 and January 5, tens of thousands of volunteers across the country walked through designated areas and counted birds.
According to CBC director, Geoff LeBaron, each field party covers one slice of a 15-mile circle, traversing a specified route or series of routes during the day to avoid the possibility of double-counting birds. During a recent phone interview, he told me that participants don’t need any special expertise, just a desire to go out and look at birds. As he explained,
“Because each group always includes experienced observers who both know the birds and the areas they are in, it’s a great way for beginner birders to get to know about birding, and a good opportunity for mentoring.”
At the end of the day, field teams from each circle get together and compile their data, forming a cumulative list. Compilers have until the end of February to submit the pooled data. Regional editors then review and code the data, query counters about unusual sightings, and discard unverifiable anomalies. The regional editors also write prose summaries for their area, which are submitted with the finalized counts.
LeBaron expects to have the full 2016 CBC dataset in late spring or early summer. During our January 13 interview, he noted that less than one-quarter of this year’s counts were in. The process may be lengthy, but it yields data that he characterizes as “powerful and rigorous,” and bolsters one of two crucial databases that ornithologists use. The other, he says, is the breeding bird survey done in June.
In fact, Audubon has used three decades of data from both of these citizen-scientist observations to formulate its climate change report, “314 Species on the Brink.” The report provides a snapshot of how bird populations could be impacted in the future if we don’t halt climate disruption. As Moms Clean Air Force writer, Marcia Yerman, noted in her post about the report,
“…birds are cautioning humans about the imminent threat of climate change — and the news is not good.”
As LeBaron told me,
“The 2014 climate study talks about what is likely to happen and what climate will be suitable for birds later. Some species will have to change their range in order to survive. Anything that’s more highly specialized in its needs is more susceptible to be threatened. If you lose a resource, you can lose the whole species.”
As for what this year’s count will tell us, LeBaron says that,
“The big picture from this season is the cumulative effects of this strong El Niño which gave us the mild fall and early winter. The weather effects will play a big factor in this year’s CBC because it will affect bird counts and efforts to go out.
When we look at what’s happening in decade-long intervals, that’s where we see meaningful data. That’s when the weather patterns even out. We’ve been able to track a significant number of species that have moved their center of existence northward.”
LeBaron notes that while the CBC is too rigorous for kids’ groups, he highly recommends that they connect with nature by participating in February’s Great Backyard Bird Count, which is much more “freewheeling” than the CBC. Results, which are compiled via eBird, an online checklist program, can be tracked in real time. As he noted,
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for every kid … a great engaging tool and helps people understand what citizen science is all about.”
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