Bird Wintering: How Citizen Science Supports Climate Science
By Brittany Whited
This December, tens of thousands of individuals across the Americas will participate in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizen science program in the world.
The first Christmas Bird Count took place in 1900 with just 27 individuals as a conservation-minded alternative to the “Christmas Side Hunt”- a hunt aimed at bagging feathered and furry creatures alike. Conservation was in its beginning stages at the turn of the century and citizens were growing concerned about declining bird populations.
The new tradition struck a chord. One-hundred and fifteen years later, the Christmas Side Hunt has faded from our nation’s memory and the Christmas Bird Count boasts 70,000+ participants spread over 2,000 locations. At each location, birdwatchers tally the number and type of species they see and hear over a 24-hour period and report their results back to the Audubon Society.
In the 1930s, this act of citizen science helped scientists better understand the decline of wild turkey populations. At that time, the US had only an estimated 30,000 birds. Today, after notable conservation efforts, the US is home to about 7 million of the gobbling creatures.
The Christmas Bird Count continues to produce valuable information. For example, data collected by dedicated individualshas revealed that, among 305 widespread North American bird species, the average winter “center of abundance” moved northward by more than 40 miles between 1966 and 2013. The center of abundance is a point on the map that represents the midpoint of each species’ distribution. If a population of birds were to shift northward, so would the center of abundance.
Trends in the center of abundance moving northward can be closely related to increasing winter temperatures. This indicator is now used as one of the EPA’s Climate Change Indicators in the United States.
Some birds have moved farther than others- a total of 48 species have moved northward by more than 200 miles. For example, the Pine Siskin moved 288 miles north in the last 40 years.
Source: Climate Change Indicators in the United States, 2014 –Third Edition, US EPA
Data source: National Audubon Society, 2014
The Christmas Bird Count is free and open to all regardless of experience. Each group of birdwatchers will have at least one skilled birder to assist in identifying birds. For dates, registration information, and the person of contact in your area, click here.
If birds aren’t your style, or you simply aren’t one to spend a day braving the December cold, there are many other opportunities to be a citizen scientist with your smartphone. There are a multitude of citizen-science apps sure to suit even the choosiest naturalist – mPING, from NOAA, lets you submit reports on the weather in your area to improve weather report predictions. Check your app store for more citizen science opportunities. Anyone with a smartphone can quickly contribute to science through data gathering – making reporting much easier than it was during the first Christmas Bird Count 115 years ago.
About the Author: Brittany Whited is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) participant hosted by the Climate Science and Impacts Branch in the EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs.
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