01/07/2022

How Christmas Bird Counts Help Shape Science

17:00 minutes

Credit: Hilary Wood

This winter marks the 122nd annual Christmas Bird Count, a project of the National Audubon Society, which is self-described as the longest-running community science project in the country. What started as a few dozen volunteers in 1900 has grown to tens of thousands of birders, spreading out in 15-mile circles across the country to count every bird insight on one midwinter day. From this record, scientists can draw insights about everything from the abundance of species to how species’ ranges are shifting from year-to-year and decade-to-decade.

Ira talks to Audubon’s bird count director Geoff LeBaron, and director of quantitative science Nicole Michel about the value of the annual community science project and some of their more joyful winter sightings. Plus, how the data provide clues to which birds are most likely to adapt as human habitat disruption and climate change continue.


What You Said

We asked listeners to share their winter birding stories with us on the SciFri VoxPop app. Here’s some of what you said.

Kat in Longmont, Colorado: “I do the Christmas Bird Count every year. We had two unusual birds in our count this year, trumpeter swans and a yellow-bellied sapsucker, so those were real treats. But my favorite bird so far is a leucistic house finch. We’ve named him Frosty. He is absolutely white except he’s still got the male house finch red on his head and a little bit on his rump. He is really a stunning bird and it’s a treat every time we see him.”

Ari in Little Rock, Arkansas: “I am at a lake called Lake Maumelle, and my family has excused me temporarily from my Christmas Eve festivities so I can go look at ducks. So I’m out here on the side of the highway looking at gadwalls, buffleheads, scaups of different kinds. And I just spotted a big mess of coots. They’re a funny-looking black bird and there’s like 250 of them? And a bald eagle just swooped out of the sky trying to see if he could get his Christmas Eve meal. And it’s just delightful, being here with the grebes and some of the common loons that are spending the winter here in Arkansas as opposed to the sea. And just a gorgeous way to spend an afternoon here in central Arkansas.”

Cathy in Kansas City: “This is my first winter of really watching birds every chance I get. They are amazing. It expands my delight in the details of the natural world and things I can learn about. I stop by a nearby park when I’m on errands just to see “who” might be out there. And when I find out who’s out there I end up looking them up in my books or going online to see why these birds are doing these things on this day.”

Ellen in Longmont, Colorado: “I participated in my first Christmas Bird Count in December, which was a lot of fun. According to our group leader, we had a record number of spotted towhees this year. Towhees don’t always winter in our area, but this winter has been incredibly dry and mild, which may have something to do with it. Those dry conditions also contributed to the incredible fires that destroyed almost a thousand structures in Superior and Louisville, including a neighborhood where we did part of our count. It just goes to show how climate change affects all of us, the birds and the people.”

Emily & Annie in New York City:

Annie: “Emily, I reached out to you on New Year’s Eve telling you I had heard from a friend up in Maine that there had been a re-spotting of a Stellar’s Sea Eagle.”

Emily: “And I said…I’m not doing anything. Let’s see what happens. This bird has an 8-foot wingspan. A giant orange beak. Massive yellow feet. Talons for days.”

Annie: “Yeah, I just remember when we came around the corner and it came into view, thinking it must be a joke, like no no that can’t be it, it’s too big.”  


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Segment Guests

Geoff LeBaron

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

Nicole Michel

Nicole Michel is the director of quantitative science at the National Audubon Society.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Was bird-watching part of your holiday season?

KAT: I do the Christmas Bird Count every year. We had two unusual birds on our count this year– trumpeter swans and a yellow-bellied sapsucker. But my favorite bird so far is a leucistic house finch. We’ve named him Frosty. He is absolutely white, except he’s still got the male house finch red on his head and a little bit on his rump. He is really a stunning bird, and it’s a treat every time we see him.

IRA FLATOW: That was Cat from Longmont, Colorado, on our SciFri VoxPop app. Cat’s comment is a great segue into talking about this year’s Christmas Bird Count, marking its 122nd year, organized by the National Audubon Society every year since 1900. And what was once a small project of a few dozen people has now lured tens of thousands of birders out of doors in deep winter to identify and count their feathered friends. That’s a lot of binoculars and hot chocolate. The data from these counts has helped fuel research into how species are changing over time, both as humans continue to disrupt their habitats and as climate change tampers with everything from drought to warming winters.

Here to talk more about this long-standing collection project, the joy of birding, and some troubling trends are my guests. Geoff LeBaron, the Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society. He joins us from Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Welcome back, Geoff.

GEOFF LEBARON: It’s great to be on the show again, Ira. Thanks very much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, you’re like a staple on the show at this time of the year. Welcome back. And Dr. Nicole Michel, Director of Quantitative Science, also at Audubon. She’s in Portland, Oregon. Welcome to Science Friday.

NICOLE MICHEL: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you, too. Geoff, you’ve been our Mr. Christmas Bird Count for so many years. One more time, for people who are just joining us, why are we sending birders out in the snow every holiday season to count what they see?

GEOFF LEBARON: Well, birders have this amazing ability to– they just have a tremendous amount of passion about birding and everything that has to do with it. And we have just this amazing database that has been generated where we not only have the bird numbers, but also the effort numbers. So we know how much effort it took to count those birds. People get really attached, not only to the birds, but they get a real sense of place for the Christmas Bird Counts. That gives us the continuity over the years to know that the data that are being generated are truly valuable.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s what I want to talk about with you, Nicole, because as Geoff says, this is real data, right? That scientists like you rely on to understand bird populations.

NICOLE MICHEL: Absolutely. I mean, this is the longest running bird count that we have in North America, one of the longest in the world. And so it just gives us this incredible look back into history, into how bird populations have changed over time, that we just don’t get any other way. We can go back, certainly about 50, 60 years, and see how bird populations have changed. And we’re seeing quite a bit of change over time, as you might imagine.

IRA FLATOW: And since the count literally just wrapped up a couple of days ago in some places, Geoff, I imagine it’s just too soon to know the data haul this year. But how was your birding experience? Any highlights?

GEOFF LEBARON: I didn’t see anything that I haven’t seen overall before. But I did the local Northampton count, and actually, the most exciting bird was almost our first bird of the day, which was an adult bald eagle. They always get them on the count itself, but I’ve never had one actually on the CBC up here. And it was really, really fascinating.

NICOLE MICHEL: Yeah, coincidentally, my very first bird of the count was also an adult bald eagle. And I was birding a fairly industrial area, so I was definitely not expecting to see it. And then shortly after that, I saw a Wilson’s snipe, which again, I’ve seen before, but it was in a very unexpected location.

IRA FLATOW: Well, bald eagles must be in vogue this year, because Ari in Little Rock called us from a birding trip last week.

ARI: I am at a lake, and my family has excused me temporarily from my Christmas Eve festivities so that I can go look at ducks. So I’m out here on the side of the highway looking at gadwalls, buffleheads, scaups of different kinds, and I just spotted a big mess of coots. They’re a funny-looking black bird, and there’s like 250 of them. And a bald eagle just swooped out of the sky trying to see if he could get his Christmas Eve meal.

IRA FLATOW: Nicole, what have some of your favorite bird sightings in total this winter been, not just in the Christmas Bird Count?

NICOLE MICHEL: Oh my gosh. Well, you know, with COVID, I have not been getting out and about quite as much as usual. But I, of course, have feeders all over my yard. And I have two Anna’s hummingbirds that have claimed my feeders. And every time, I go out there to refill them, they’ll come in and fly right at my head. Just seeing the birds in the yard is so nice, you know, especially when you have snow and you see the colorful birds against that white background.

IRA FLATOW: Now, Geoff, I know you got to see something really exciting and rare and kind of weird this winter. And so did two birders who called us, Annie and Emily.

ANNIE: So Emily, I reached out to you on New Year’s Eve, telling you I had heard from a friend up in Maine that there had been a re-spotting of a Steller’s sea eagle, and asked you if you wanted to come on a chase.

EMILY: And I said, I’m not doing anything. Let’s see what happens. This bird has an 8-foot wingspan, a giant orange beak, massive yellow feet, talons for days.

ANNIE: Yeah, I just remember, when we came around the corner and it came into view, thinking at first it must have been a joke. Like, I’m like, no, no, that can’t be it. That’s too big.

IRA FLATOW: Geoff, what is this eagle they’re talking about?

GEOFF LEBARON: This is one of the most magnificent raptors in the world. It’s probably tied with two other species for being the largest eagle out there, both in size and in weight. There aren’t very many of them. There’s only somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 Steller’s sea eagles in existence. They basically breed in Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, and they winter in concentrations down in Japan.

This one particular Steller’s sea eagle, which is an adult, has decided it wants to do a tour of North America. It was first seen toward the end of last year in the interior of Alaska for one brief period, then it disappeared for a long time. It was next seen near Houston, Texas. This year, it was discovered in southeastern Massachusetts, where it spent about three or four days and then disappeared again. And that’s when it showed up in Maine.

I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to say that I did get to see it on the end of the year. It’s just– it’s an amazing bird. And yes, you sort of do feel like you need to pinch yourself, because I’m– especially looking at one in Maine. It’s surreal.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you’ll enjoy a comment we got from a listener, Kathy, in Kansas City on the SciFri VoxPop app. I think you’re going to really like this.

KATHY: This is my first winter of really watching birds every chance I get. They are amazing. It expands my delight in the details of the natural world and things I can learn about. I stop by a nearby park when I’m on errands just to see, quote, “who might be out there.” And then when I find out who’s out there, I end up looking them up in my books or going online to find out why these birds are doing these things on this day.

IRA FLATOW: Nicole, was this how you came to be a bird researcher?

NICOLE MICHEL: It really is. For my story– and all of us have our own unique stories– my grandfather was into birds. And so I was learning about the swallows of San Juan Capistrano when I was a young kid and feeding black-capped chickadees out of my hand. I happened to meet a group of birders, and one of them taught me how to identify bird songs. And that just opened up a whole new world to me, that you could hear these sounds and know what birds were around you communicating with one another. And so that was it for me, and I’ve worked with birds for the last 25 years or so since.

IRA FLATOW: Do you get the feeling that more people are birding these days, perhaps because they’re home?

GEOFF LEBARON: In a strange way, COVID almost helped birding. And a lot of people started going out and sort of became birders during COVID. Birds have the amazing ability of engaging everything that we think is wonderful. I mean, fly, they sing, a lot of them have these incredible migrations. And they’re really beautiful, a lot of them. So it’s just a wonderful way of engaging people in nature, which then hopefully leads to an appreciation and wanting to conserve nature.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, let’s get back to the data trends you’re seeing. What happened last year, then, with the bird populations?

GEOFF LEBARON: So we had about 250 fewer counts than usual last year, and roughly 10,000 or so observers fewer. But interestingly, the numbers of birds that we tallied was actually slightly higher than the year before. And I think that’s because people were outside actually spending more time on foot and covering their areas more thoroughly. And also, the weather was continentally pretty good last year, which is somewhat unusual. This year, we’ve been having storms on the weekends across a lot of the continent, and that very much affects the numbers of birds that people can find.

What Audubon has, right on the Christmas Bird Count website, which is ChristmasBirdCount.org, is what we’re calling our trends viewer, where we’ve taken all the species that are well sampled in the CBC and we actually have the trends for all, about, I think it’s 500 or so species. That shows over time how they’re doing, not only continentally, but also on local and regional bases.

IRA FLATOW: Nicole, did you see anything interesting in that data?

NICOLE MICHEL: The data are telling us quite a bit. For one thing, we’ve learned through analyses of Christmas Bird Count data as well as a breeding survey that has also gone on for about 50 years, the Breeding Bird Survey, we know that we’ve lost about 3 billion birds since 1970. Christmas Bird Count data are also telling us birds are shifting north. We’re seeing a lot of range shifts due to climate change, and we see this particularly in the winter. Birds are moving further and faster in the winter than they are in the breeding season.

Birds are really physiologically limited in the winter. They’re not able to move into areas that are further north because the temperatures are too cold. And now that the temperatures are warming, they’re able to or perhaps even need to move further north.

We were talking with some people who are in the hunting community in the Southeast. And you know, hunters have been saying for a number of years now that, wow, there are just a lot fewer ducks out there. Hunters are coming home with much fewer captures than previously. And so we dug into that analysis, and we found that of the 16 species we looked at, 12 are shifting north. And we linked that directly to warming temperatures.

IRA FLATOW: Geoff, but if the birds are simply shifting their ranges as the climate changes, should we be less concerned about their survival if they’re finding homes in new places?

GEOFF LEBARON: It’s really an unknown as to how easily many of the species will be able to react to a changing climate. We know that some birds, the more generalist species like robins and blue jays, and the birds that are habituated and do well in human-disturbed environments– they’re doing pretty well. Any of the birds that are more specialized potentially will be having some real issues as the environmental conditions that they need will be shifting away from the areas where they’ve been sort of programmed to be forever. This is going to be especially true of the migratory species that breed up here in North America in the summer and then winter in Latin America and the Caribbean. They don’t really have the adaptability to be able to say, oh, I’ll look around for another place.

IRA FLATOW: Nicole, do you have any species like that?

NICOLE MICHEL: One of the major impacts that we talked about is hurricanes. With climate change, we’re seeing an increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes. And a new study by our colleague Erik Johnson showed that we had, in fall 2020, two back-to-back hurricanes, Laura and Delta. The CBC in 2020, 2021– they went out there and for the first time in 36 years didn’t see any blue jays, didn’t see any Carolina wrens. I mean, all the birds that are just your bread and butter in the Southeast were gone. Hurricanes come through, and they disturb the wetlands, and they disturb the forest canopy. And it just takes years for the habitat to return.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking to Geoff LeBaron and Nicole Michel from the National Audubon Society about the annual Christmas Bird Count and what kind of birds you might be seeing outside your window this winter. Let’s go back to our listeners. We had a call from Ellen in Boulder County, Colorado. She did her first Christmas Bird Count in December, and she also noticed a connection to climate change.

ELLEN: According to our group leader, we had a record number of spotted towhees this year. Towhees don’t always winter in our area, but this winter has been incredibly dry and mild, which may have something to do with it. Those dry conditions also contributed to the incredible fires that destroyed almost 1,000 structures in Superior and Louisville, including a neighborhood where we did part of our count. It really goes to show how climate change impacts all of us, the birds and the people.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And that makes me want to know if it’s possible to predict, knowing bird habits and habitats, which birds might be better suited to survive and thrive as global warming and sea level rise and extreme weather accelerate. Will Christmas bird counting help us see that clearly, Nicole?

NICOLE MICHEL: Yeah, absolutely. As Geoff alluded to earlier, we’re seeing there are clear winners and losers in climate change. So those species that are habitat generalists, that use habitats that are abundant, those species that do well with humans– when I was out doing my bird count on Sunday, I saw a lot more birds in the neighborhoods than I did down in industrial areas, even where there were patches of natural habitat.

On the other hand, birds that are very specialized in the habitat they use, especially if it’s a limited habitat such as riparian area or grasslands, as well as neotropical migrants– in addition to Geoff saying them coming back to the same area, we’re seeing already that neotropical migrants, instead of shifting north, they’re just contracting their ranges. They’re shrinking the southern ends of their ranges. So they’re losing habitat. So species like bobolinks are predicted to be on the brink, one of 389 species that are expected to lose more habitat than they will gain as climate change progresses.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. One of the things I just love about the Christmas Bird Count is that you don’t need to have a great deal of special bird expertise to help collect vital scientific data. And that’s me. What can we do, though, the rest of the year to help make sure birds are getting what they need to thrive even in a changing world, Nicole?

NICOLE MICHEL: Oh, there’s a lot that you can do to help birds. Planting native plants will provide more food and shelter for birds. You can put up stickers or a film on your windows in order to reduce collisions. And turn off lights at night. I’m a cat lover, but keeping your cats indoors or in catios would really help reduce bird mortalities.

IRA FLATOW: Geoff, anything to add there? What about your bird feeder, keeping it stocked?

GEOFF LEBARON: You want to keep it stocked, but clean, also. If there is a disease outbreak or if there’s something that happens with the food in the feeder, if it gets fungus or whatever in there, you don’t want to be feeding them bad food. A bird bath is a very important thing.

And the other thing is just, you know, let your yard be messy. We encourage gardeners to be lazy. Like Nicole said, plant native plants. That’s going to have a lot more native food source for the birds, more insect life for the bug eaters and more seeds and such for the seed eaters.

And the really interesting thing is it can be so sort of overwhelming thinking, oh, there’s nothing I can do about climate change. But if you make your yard a better place for birds and wildlife, you are helping yard birds that can scale out to your neighborhood or maybe city ordinances. And just small efforts like that on a local basis can actually really help.

IRA FLATOW: Geoff LeBaron, the Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Dr. Nicole Michel, Director of Quantitative Science, also at Audubon. She’s in Portland, Oregon. Thank you both for joining us today.

NICOLE MICHEL: Thank you, Ira.

GEOFF LEBARON: Thanks very much, Ira.

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