New Year, New Birds

23:46 minutes

This year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count is anything but usual: Since gatherings are unsafe, it’s up to individuals to count what they can, where they are. But eager birders are still out there counting crows, chickadees, and grosbeaks in the name of community science.

Ira joins a flock of bird nerds—Audubon’s Geoff LeBaron and Joanna Wu, and author and nature photographer Dudley Edmondson—to talk about the wonders of winter birding, and what decades of data show about how birds are shifting in a warming, changing world. Plus, how to make the most of birding while sheltering in place.

a man in a newspaper boy cap and wearing a facemask points up at birds. next to him are two women with face masks also looking up at birds through binoculars
Credit: Luke Franke/Audubon
a woman with pepper hair and glasses and wearing a face mask, crouches a little as she looks through binoculars at birds in a park. behind her are a group of fellow birders holding binoculars and wearing face masks
Birding in Battery Park in New York City. Credit: Luke Franke/Audubon

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Segment Guests

Geoff LeBaron

Geoff LeBaron is Christmas Bird Count Director at the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

Dudley Edmondson

Dudley Edmondson is an author and nature photographer based in Duluth, Minnesota.

Joanna Wu

Joanna Wu is an avian ecologist with the National Audubon Society in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Did you take up birding during the pandemic? Yeah? Well, you know, you’re not alone. During the year of staying at home, I will admit to watching the birds in my backyard feeders brought me some joy and comfort, and even a sense of adventure. Even as winter takes hold and the rest of the world slows down a bit, the birds always seem to have something going on. Do you notice?

So as we enter a new– hopefully, better– year, it is now the season to not just watch the birds but to count them. The National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count wraps up next week, the 121st year of a community science project that has spanned the country since 1900.

Whether you’ve been participating in the count, are looking for identification help, getting some fresh air while social distancing, or just excitedly scanning the skies for finches and snowy owls this winter, we’re here to talk about all of it. Joining me today to help, Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count. He’s in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Hi. Welcome, Geoff.

GEOFF LE BARON: It’s great to be on the program, Ira. Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Dudley Edmondson, an author, nature photographer, and, yes, birder, based in Duluth, Minnesota– hi, Dudley.

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: Hello. Nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. And Joanna Wu, an avian ecologist for the Audubon Society– she joins us from San Francisco. Welcome.

JOANNA WU: Hi, Ira. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Just a quick note, this segment was recorded in front of a live Zoom audience. Find out about joining a future recording at sciencefriday.com/livestream.

OK, let’s go right into this. For starters, I introduced you, but I’d like you to introduce your local birds. So let’s have round robin of the birds that are hanging out where you are. Dudley, kick us off here.

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: You know, I pay a lot of attention to the birds in my backyard, like most people. And birds I have are like chickadees, and blue jays, lots of cardinals– which is odd for Northern Minnesota– lots of woodpeckers, and a few winter finches around.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. And Joanna?

JOANNA WU: Yeah, I have seen a robin recently, which was fun. And here, in San Francisco, we get a lot of wintering birds. And that’s truly exciting as well. I took a walk over the weekend and saw [INAUDIBLE] duck, Bufflehead, even Northern Shoveler– which are birds you normally see here in the winter. Then, in my backyard, it’s been a pleasure to see such a colorful bird as the Townsend’s Warbler and California Towhees, of course, white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows.

IRA FLATOW: Nice. Geoff, what have you seen?

GEOFF LE BARON: Up until recently, we actually had a big flock of robins around. But they’ve eaten all of the crab apples in the trees and moved on. We do have a lovely flock of Cedar Waxwings still here, sort of picking up the pieces that are left. But mostly it’s the chickadees which I absolutely adore. They have more personality than just about any other bird. And then we do have this flight of winter finches moving through as well, which is really exciting.

IRA FLATOW: I mentioned the annual Christmas Bird Count, what would this look like in a normal year?

GEOFF LE BARON: In a normal year, a lot of people would be going out and counting birds in their specific areas– in their 15-mile diameter circle– and then getting together at the end of the day, probably for a compilation gathering, and everybody talks about all the fun things that they saw and, hopefully, some exciting new or unusual things in the circle.

Unfortunately, this year we can’t do that because of COVID. So it’s going to be a very, very interesting year. And it could give us a lot of stuff to look at in terms of analyzing how this year turns out in relation.

IRA FLATOW: And Joanna, all of this counting gets you data, right? As an ecologist, what’s so useful about knowing what birds people are seeing during any particular time of the year?

JOANNA WU: Yeah, as Geoff said, this has been going on for over 120 years. The Christmas Bird Count is one of the longest-standing data sets that we have available in science. It’s incredible amount of information. And it really helps us get at those long-term trends.

For example, [INAUDIBLE] Audubon did a study looking at trends from the 1960s to the recent years and found that birds, on average, have shifted northward. And the centrate of their range is about 40 miles, which is an incredible finding. So data like that can help us get at trends like that. And also we can look at trends within each individual state for each species, and look at how each species has been doing over that time period.

So it’s an incredible data set. And I thank all of you who have been collecting that to do so via Christmas Bird Count, via eBird. We’re using that information as well. We can’t do it without you.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, good point. Geoff, this is a community science project. That means the data isn’t gathered by people with scientific degrees necessarily. Is the data still useful?

GEOFF LE BARON: The data is still extremely useful. As Joanna mentioned, it’s one of the only two data sets that we have available to look at what’s happening on a continental basis over time with the birds of North America, particularly, but increasingly also in Latin America.

The reason that it isn’t necessarily important for trained ornithologists to be doing the Christmas Bird Count is because people go out in their own area and do the same thing in the same place every year, with the same skill set in the same way. So there’s a consistency of the way the results are collected over time in each count circle. And therefore, we get really good trend data, which we can then compare with the Breeding Bird Survey, which is the other survey that we use to look at summer data. And it really does give us this amazing view into how birds are doing over time, and also how they’re shifting their ranges.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s go to our first question from the audience. Amy Wilkins has a question about how to accurately count birds. Hi. Go ahead.

AMY WILKINS: My question is, how do you know you are not counting the same bird over and over again?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, good question. Geoff, do you have an answer for that?

GEOFF LE BARON: Yeah, so the Christmas Bird Count has a methodology to it, in that the people who are out in the field are actually moving along a route. And once they’re done with their area and their route or routes, then they don’t actually keep counting birds. When they’re driving through somebody else’s area, they don’t pirate the birds that they’re seeing.

At this time of year the birds aren’t really all that mobile. They’re pretty much stationary. So that we’re pretty well assured that, for most of the birds that we’re counting, we’re not double counting species. The challenge in different methodology is with feeder watchers. You don’t want to keep counting chickadees or towhees that are coming into your feeder for the whole day because it’s likely that then you will be double counting.

So for feeder watchers, what we asked them to do is keep track of the amount of time that they’re watching their feeders and only take the maximum number that they see or hear of any given species at one time. We’re probably getting a little bit of under-counting But we’re not, certainly, getting over-counting or double counting.

IRA FLATOW: OK, time for another round robin. I have heard of this concept called a spark bird or a gateway bird as the bird that got you first interested in birds. Geoff, tell me what your gateway bird was.

GEOFF LE BARON: The most dramatic one was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I used to live in Needham, Massachusetts. And we had some apple trees in the backyard. And one day, when I was about five years old, I was out under the apple tree. And a chipmunk fell out of the tree. And I was like, oh, that’s different. And pretty soon the chipmunk falls out of the tree again.

And we looked a little bit further out. And there’s this adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak further out the branch. Beyond him was the female, sitting on the nest. And every time that chipmunk would climb the tree to go– to get toward the nest, he’d knock the chipmunk out of the tree. So that was, certainly, one of the first spark birds that I had.

IRA FLATOW: Joanna, what was your gateway bird?

JOANNA WU: Yeah. I started birding more as a scientific experience after I took up an internship in college. And I think my biggest aha moment that summer was when we caught a flock of over 150 Pine Siskins in northern California, in the summer, in our mist nets, which we had permits for. We just had so many Pine Siskins. It was just like extract. Let them go. Extract. Let them go. It was just an incredible experience.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that must have been. And Dudley, tell us yours.

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: I remember, actually, in junior high school doing book reports on birds. And birds of prey was one of those. And I remember reading about Peregrines. And I just really got hooked on raptors ever since then. It’s a lot that has to do with the speed. I mean, Peregrines are crazy fast birds. And so that, to me, was just something that was just so exciting, that this bird could fly over 100 miles an hour. Just crazy.

IRA FLATOW: Now I want to talk about going out, looking for birds this winter. Are the birds we’re going to see, say, in Duluth going to be migrating from somewhere else? Or are they more likely to be permanent residents? Dudley?

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: Yeah. I’m on the Mississippi flyway. And so my birds are coming from central Canada and heading south into Texas. And I have birds that are hanging around, like chickadees, and winter finches, and things. But birds that are moving through– Bald Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, things like that– are coming through. All of the songbirds and smaller birds have passed through. And they’re probably already down in Central and South America. But yeah, I mean, I’m getting a lot of what you would call typical feeder birds– cardinals, and woodpeckers, and chickadees, and things like that.

IRA FLATOW: Joanna, what about San Francisco? I know you had your winter in August. So what are the birds coming or going from?

JOANNA WU: In winter in California, in general, we get over 500 species, which is really unusual, compared to other states of our latitude in the US. So it’s an incredible time to bird, in winter in California. It’s not even that cold. It’s just about 10 degrees colder than our summer– in San Francisco, I should say.

And so we do, as I mentioned, get a lot of waterbirds that come down from the Arctic. After they breed there they come down here and they spend their winters here. One of my favorites is the sanderling that breeds in the high Arctic. And it winters along the coast. It’s interesting because it really is gone two, two and 1/2 months of the year. And it spends the rest of its time here. So it’s not even accurate to call it winter. Birders sometimes call it a non-breeding range. And that’s really what they’re doing. They’re spending their non-breeding time here.

And then we do get some birds, like the Hermits Thrush and Townsend’s Warbler that come down, in terms of songbirds. But of course, we have some that migrate South as well. So it’s a little bit of a mix.

IRA FLATOW: And Geoff, what about, if the Bee Gees were going to Massachusetts, what would they be seeing?

GEOFF LE BARON: Well, this year, actually, they would be seeing a rather amazing diversity of the winter finches. We’ve had both species of crossbills, both Evening and Pine Grosbeaks– especially Pine Grosbeaks being unusual. And lots of siskins went through early– and purple finches also– they had a big flight in their way south of here, for the most part, now.

What we have right now are mostly Red Crossbills and redpolls floating around, and then the regular wintering species– both nuthatches that we have in the East, Red-breasted, and White-breasted, and Black-capped Chickadees, and some flocks of robins and things. And we’re actually increasingly having wintering Eastern bluebirds here also. It’s a nice diversity. Although, I’m not on the coast. So I don’t get to see some of the cool stuff that Joanna has.

JOANNA WU: If I may jump in with a quick note about purple finches– one of my favorite ways to tell Purple Finches and House Finches apart is by their vocalizations. I almost can never tell them apart by looking at them. But the Purple Finch has a really spiraling and different call, like a watery kind of call. Whereas the House Finch has a very distinct ending that goes upward.

So I encourage new birders out there to try to learn some songs of birds, when they’re trying to go out and listen. Because a lot of times you don’t get to see them when they’re high up in the trees. But calls are a great way to go about it.

IRA FLATOW: Joanna, that’s a great segue to our next question from someone in our audience. Delwin Elder has a question about bird songs. Go ahead.

DELWIN ELDER: Thank you for taking my call. How do you– what’s a good way to get started learning how to identify birds, based on their bird songs or calls?

JOANNA WU: Yeah. The way I learned was basically by taking a phone or something– you can download the Audubon or Merlin app. And they have bird songs in there. And I would suggest just going out– if you hear something, you can try to match it up in your phone and play the bird song. Don’t play it too loud. It might attract different birds in. But just try to kind of match it up in the field.

I think that’s the best way. Of course, you can practice at home. But it’s always better to be hearing the real bird in one ear and then the bird call in the other. But Geoff and Dudley, if you have anything to suggest, please do.

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: Yeah. I remember, way back in the day of CDs and things, I actually learned my bird songs by bringing along a stack of Audubon, or someone who made CDs of bird songs. And I would stick them in my CD player as I was driving to go birding. And I would be listening the entire way. So I was constantly listening to bird songs, either on cassette or CD. And then I just learned them.

And I still now learn them every season. I’ll do a little refresher and listen. So that by the time birds are back in the area, I know an American Redstart from a [INAUDIBLE] Warbler, or something like that.


GEOFF LE BARON: Well yes, I work for Audubon. But Audubon has a free birding app, which has an amazing variety of bird vocalizations in with the species. So that’s one really easy place to go. And you can do that through the Audubon website as well.

In addition to the Laboratory of Ornithology website, which is absolutely wonderful, if you’re really interested in all the different kinds of vocalizations that a given bird can make, there’s a website called Xeno-canto. It’s X-E-N-O hyphen C-A-N-T-O. And it’s probably the largest library of bird sounds that I know. That’s another good resource if you, you know, you think you heard a wren or a cardinal, to go and listen to all the different kinds of noises that they can make.

IRA FLATOW: Just a reminder, I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday. Talking to bird nerds, Geoff LeBaron, Dudley Edmondson, Joanna Wu about winter birding and what community science can tell us about how birds are doing in a changing world.

Joanna, I want to talk about the downside. Because I know you’re specifically researching how climate change may be affecting how bird ranges change. Can you fill us in on a bit about what you’re learning?

JOANNA WU: Yeah. A lot of my work at Audubon has been looking at climate projections. And we’re seeing, hey, like we know from the big $3 billion birds paper that was published earlier, that birds are declining. But looking forward, what can we predict about where birds might be in the future?

So some of our work has been relating where birds are currently. And we use a ton of community science collected data for that purpose. And then we take variables, such as some precipitation, minimum and maximum temperature. We even looked at land use change projections. And we made predictions about where these birds might range in the future.

So for example, the Dark-eyed Junko is projected to move northward if it is to track its current climate conditions. The California Quail, our state bird, is also projected to move northward and largely out of California, unfortunately. So a lot of birds will have to adapt to new conditions. And if they can adapt, they may be able to stay in place and kind of go against some of our predictions.

But science has found that birds do a mix of things. Some of them do track their climatic niche. And some are able to exploit new niches and kind of stay in place, particularly the urban adapted species and the general list. So that’s the kind of work we’ve been looking at.

IRA FLATOW: You know, we’ve been hearing that the Arctic regions are the fastest changing regions in the world. Are there Arctic birds that are being affected by this?

JOANNA WU: Yeah. Unfortunately, the Arctic species are the ones we found to be the hardest hit by climate change. All– 100% of our 16 Arctic species that we modeled are expected to have high vulnerability to future climate change. For example, the Emperor Goose, which has nowhere to go– it can’t move northward– is projected to lose all of its range, unless it can adapt very fast, which not all birds can do. Many birds can’t. So yeah, the Arctic and the boreal zones are definitely areas to watch for and try to conserve, as much as we can.

IRA FLATOW: Dudley, as a seasoned birdwatcher, can you tell, anecdotally, how the birds are changing in your region over time?

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: No doubt. I mean, I’ve been keeping records, data, my own little citizen science thing going on here, at my property, for 30 years. And I can tell you, I didn’t have cardinals in my yard any time of the year 25 years ago. I have cardinals in my yard all winter now. And I’m 180 miles south of the Canadian border.

It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve got Red-bellied Woodpeckers all winter. None of that makes sense. What I should have is Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, common redpolls, junkos, things like that. And those birds are few and far between when winter really sets in.

And so I used to have hordes of redpolls. I mean, hundreds of Common Redpolls have come to my feeders. And they don’t anymore. It’s very sad.

IRA FLATOW: We have to take a short break. And when we come back, more on both the joys and usefulness of bird watching, and your questions.

This is Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. We’re celebrating winter birding season, with a conversation about the Audubon society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, something we do every year– and just the joys of bird identification, with bird nerds, Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count. He’s in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Author and nature photographer and birder, Dudley Edmondson, in Duluth, Minnesota. And Audubon avian ecologist, Joanna Wu. She’s in San Francisco.

And a reminder that we recorded this conversation in front of a live Zoom audience. Find out about joining a future recording at sciencefriday.com/livestream. I know Mario Alonso has a question. Hi, Mario. Welcome to Science Friday.

MARIO ALONSO: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. And every year we see Barred Owls, usually a pair of Barred Owls that, sometimes, we see owlets there. But I’ve noticed that, during the months between November and January, I never see the owls. So my question is, are they migratory? Or is it a behavior, really, that they are changing what they’re doing? And I don’t see it?

GEOFF LE BARON: We have a lot of Barred Owls around here in New England. They’ve become sort of the most common breeding larger owl. It used to be the Great Horned. But the Great Horned numbers went down after West Nile virus.

With the Barred Owls, what seems to happen is, yes, they do change their behavior. If they’re actually nesting in the park there, once the young have fledged, then they’ll disperse out and around. What we see here, sometimes, in the Northeast is when there’s been a really good year, where lots and lots of Barred Owls are produced– if there are lots of small rodents from the season before– then we actually do get a post-breeding dispersal movement. And it’s mostly the young birds that are moving.

They’re not really migratory species. But there certainly is some dispersal and movement during the winter.

IRA FLATOW: Joanna, I understand that you have a project, a group called Galbatrosses, where you specialize in identifying female birds. Why is this so important for science, Joanna?

JOANNA WU: Yeah. Thanks for asking. Male birds have dominated the birding world, partially because they’re more flashy, they’re brighter. And in a lot of the species, males sing the majority of songs. Although we’re finding more and more that female birds do sing as well. But that has actually led to a lot of conservation implications.

For example, one researcher found that the Golden-winged Warbler actually has sexually segregated habitat use in winter, meaning that females winter at a lower elevation habitat in the [INAUDIBLE] tropics. Whereas males use higher elevation, more intact forests. When logging happens, it tends to hit those lower elevations first because it’s easier to access. And so they’re finding that more females have been lost over a period of time than males in the same general region.

When you lump the males and females together in a study, you might lose some of the details in the nuances, when females use different habitats than males. Ornithology, whether it’s the science or the bird watching, started in the 1800s, were actually with kind of a male biased clubs. And some of those white-centric policies still affect us today. And one of the amazing things about bringing more diverse voices to ornithology and birding is that it diversifies the types of questions that are asked. And it makes our science stronger.

IRA FLATOW: That’s an interesting point. Let me go to the last couple of questions I have, Dudley. I mean, we have all these travel restrictions. I think more of us are looking at birds in our backyard, like I do, than ever before. How do we make the most of a small space, when it’s hard to travel to specific birding hot spots?

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: Yeah. I mean, birds really don’t need a lot. They need food, shelter. This time of year they need water. Having a water feature, a heated birdbath, is a really good way to bring birds to your yard. In the winter, I’ve seen everything from Sharp-shinned Hawks to foxes coming in to my bird bath. Having food and shelter, piling up some brush or leaf matter, and then, definitely, having a heated birdbath is a really good way to bring birds to your yard.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask one last round robin question because I know 2020 has been a harder year for us going out, chasing favorite species. So let me begin by asking, as we enter a new year, what are the birds that you’re most hoping to see in 2021? And Geoff, you can start.

GEOFF LE BARON: I would hope to continue to sort of follow this winter finch invasion. The Evening Grosbeaks that we’ve had moving through in flocks this year in the East, it’s the first time in decades that, actually, they’ve been moving in those kinds of numbers. So it’s going to be really interesting to track those birds because they’re all the way down into, in some instances, even the panhandle of Florida. I’ll be looking forward to seeing them as they come back through.

But honestly, it’s like when people ask me, what’s my favorite bird, it’s whatever I’m looking at at the time. So my– oftentimes, the bird I look forward to most is the first bird that I’ll get on January 1.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a very political, correct answer. Thank you. Joanna, what will you be looking for?

JOANNA WU: Well, my nemesis bird, or a bird that I keep trying to see, is the California Condor. It is– got one of the– maybe it has the largest wingspan in the US. And I have gone out a few times to try to look for it. But it’s just so uncommon. They’re pretty endangered. But they’re recovering. And so I’m going to try to go down to the Pinnacles National Park again and try to look for them.

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: Three-toed Woodpecker for me. It’s kind of a nemesis bird. I mean, I looked for it last year multiple times. People would say, hey, it’s over here. I’d get there. I never saw the bird. And that I happened to be at least three times. So I’ll continue to look for Three-toed Woodpecker.

IRA FLATOW: All right. I want to thank all of you for taking time for us today. Joanna Wu, an avian ecologist for the National Audubon Society. Dudley Edmondson, author, and wildlife photographer, and avid birder. Geoff LeBaron, director of the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Thank you all for joining us today.

DUDLEY EDMONDSON: Thanks, Ira. Appreciate it.

JOANNA WU: Thank you, Ira.

GEOFF LE BARON: Thank you, Ira. I want to thank everybody that does Christmas Bird Counts, too. Because without you, we wouldn’t have the database we have. So it’s wonderful.

IRA FLATOW: And I want to thank our Zoom audience. Thank you all, out there in Zoom land, for joining us for this recording. Its great to have you.

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