The Joy And Sadness Of Bird Counting

33:15 minutes

A brown bird the size of a pinecone hanging off of a branch with two pinecones.
A red crossbill perched by a pinecone in Jones Beach, New York. Credit: Ryan F. Mandelbaum

The state of the birds is not looking good. That’s the conclusion from a new report that looks at decades of community-collected population data from surveys like the annual Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey. Species that inhabit grasslands seem to fare the worst, with their populations down over 30 percent in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, dozens of newly identified “tipping point” species have lost 50 percent of their populations in the same time, and are poised to lose the same proportion in the coming half century.

a small bird raising its head above grass.
A bobolink, one of the bird species mentioned on-air. Credit: Brad Imhoff, Cornell Lab | Macaulay Library

Dr. Amanda Rodewald of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology helps unpack the report’s key findings, including the good news: Decades of cooperative efforts to protect waterfowl have paid off in thriving duck populations. Rodewald explains what this can tell us about reversing declines in other habitats.

Plus, birder and science writer Ryan Mandelbaum joins Ira and listeners to talk about the joys of winter birding, the upcoming Christmas Bird Count, and the feathery sightings that brighten our lives. 

Further Reading

Count Birds From Home!

Watch Science Friday’s video about a professional bird photographer who did it all from her backyard.

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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Amanda Rodewald

Dr. Amanda Rodewald is the Director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: It’s the holiday season. And it’s a big deal here at Science Friday because that means it’s the annual Christmas Bird Count. It’s starting soon– on Monday, to be precise– when legions of pro and amateur birders spread out to take a tally of what avians are hanging out in the woods, the fields, the beaches, and so on. That data helps fuel research into how well the birds are doing. And unfortunately, news has not been too good in recent years.

This year’s State of the Birds Report looked at decades of data from surveys like the Christmas Bird Count. And in every group of birds except one, species are in decline. Worst off are the grassland and shorebird species, where more than 30% of their populations have been lost in the last half century.

For more insight from the State of Birds, I talked with Dr. Amanda Rodewald. She’s senior director of the Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology for Avian Population Studies. She said the new report was an alarming update to already worrisome news.

AMANDA RODEWALD: We already knew that there were some problems. There was a paper a couple of years ago, published in Science– what we call our 3 billion bird paper– showing that we’d lost 3 billion birds since 1970. So over one in four breeding bird species. And so this State of the Birds Report really underscores that.

And what is really alarming, some of the takeaways, are that these declines are spanning just about all habitats and all groups of birds. And they include many species that we’ve regarded as common for most of our lives.

IRA FLATOW: Now, the declines were highest for grassland and shore species, as I mentioned before. Why are so many bird species in these regions in such trouble? What is threatening them?

AMANDA RODEWALD: Yeah. Well, there are a variety of different factors when you look at any particular species. But overall, with grassland birds, there, of course, we’ve lost native prairies. I mean, that has certainly impacted a lot of grassland birds over the last century. But really, what’s causing these declines over the last 50 years or so is the intensification of agricultural practices.

So when you look at shifts in the way we farm, right– we have bigger farms, we removed hedgerows, and we don’t take land out of rotation, we’re applying more pesticides and herbicides to the land– so those are some of the factors on the breeding grounds that’s affecting them. And for other species, it’s also what’s happening on the migratory– during the migratory pathway or on the non-breeding grounds. Many of these species are wintering in areas that could be as far away as southern South America.

In terms of shorebirds, there, these are really long distance migratory species. So they’re breeding and Arctic areas that are being impacted enormously because of climate change and other pressures on the habitat there. They’re facing many threats as they migrate down to their wintering areas in South America. So if we think about where shorebirds are often stopping over, it’s in the coastal areas that we like to build developments in, right?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that makes sense.

AMANDA RODEWALD: We like to use those, too.


AMANDA RODEWALD: Yeah, absolutely. And again, really, a lot of the species we’re finding are being hit at various stages of what we call their full annual cycle, from when they’re breeding to when they’re migrating to when they’re spending the winter elsewhere.

IRA FLATOW: On the list includes some birding favorites, like evening grosbeaks, the rufous hummingbird, bobolinks. It calls them in tipping points. What was the goal of highlighting these species, and how much trouble are they really in?

AMANDA RODEWALD: Yeah, that is a big take-home message of this report. So tipping point species are species that have lost half or more of their population in the last 50 years, and they’re on track to lose 50% more in the next 50 years if nothing changes. So the point of really calling these species out is to draw attention to the urgent need to act.

Of course, we know we have enormously important laws, like the Endangered Species Act, that can come in and help us at that most critical level, the last gasp species have. But that is a pretty blunt instrument. If we’re going to do better in terms of our ability to recover birds, in terms of the cost effectiveness, in terms of minimizing how conservation actions might disrupt other human activities, all of that is going to be so much better if we are proactive, if we take steps before species require listing under Endangered Species Act.

So that’s really the point of calling these species out. And you’re absolutely right. Some of the species that we’re seeing are ones that we know well. You mentioned rufous hummingbird. Yeah, that was a common species in the Pacific Northwest.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I couldn’t believe when I heard that. Yeah, that’s amazing.

AMANDA RODEWALD: Yeah, it’s lost 2/3 of its population. Or like chimney swift, many people might be familiar with those in cities. They hear their chattering at dusk as they’re leaving the old chimneys or old building structures. And yeah, bobolink, you’re right, that’s just a common species in many grassland areas, on hay fields.

And I think, too, what’s really striking is that many of the species we see on this tipping point list, these are species that have actually adjusted pretty well to human activities. So this is not a group of the most sensitive and needing the most pristine areas. These are species that have persisted in the same landscapes that we’re using all the time, but now we’re seeing problems.

And that signals problems about our environment. Because birds are canaries in the coal mine. And if an environment isn’t– we share the same environments with these birds. So I think, if we really consider the fact, if they’re not healthy enough to sustain bird populations, well, they’re unlikely to be healthy for us either.

IRA FLATOW: I mentioned that there was an exception to the bad news. And I want to talk about something good that’s happening. And I’m talking here about the ducks and the other waterfowl out there that are living their best lives. Their populations are increasing. I mean, they are coastal birds, right? Why are they doing well?

AMANDA RODEWALD: Yeah. And some of them are coastal. And some of them also are inland, in like the Prairie Pothole Region. Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think when you look at waterfowl in particular, this just speaks volumes about how effective we can be with conservation when we have the will to act.

And so the positive changes in these waterfowl populations, that’s because duck hunters, they have been supporting conservation of these species through federal excise taxes that fund on-the-ground conservation. So they’ve restored wetland areas, places where these birds are breeding and producing more young, the places they stop over, and migration. So again, it really speaks to the impact, how we have the ability to turn things around if we want to. And so that’s a silver lining.

With geese, that’s some of these– the ability to manage populations, but also geese have developed an extraordinary ability to exploit a lot of waste grain in the winter and also to exploit urban and suburban areas. So there with the geese, there’s a little bit on both sides of the coin there, right? They’re doing so well they could be a problem for some.

IRA FLATOW: You’re supporting a bill that’s before Congress in I guess an appropriately called lame duck session that would fund more localized investments of money in wildlife conservation. Why does that seem like an important policy move, and what is your aim here?

AMANDA RODEWALD: Yeah, this is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. And so what this will do is it will provide $1.4 billion in funding that go to states, territories, and Tribal nations to fund conservation for species that they have identified are in need. And so if we think about, too, relative to what states and Tribal wildlife grants programs currently receive, it’s about 65 million. So this more than doubles the amount of money that they’ll be getting.

I like to remind myself, and others even, that this isn’t just even about birds, it isn’t just about wildlife, you don’t have to be focused on conservation specifically in order to benefit from this bill. Because when we invest in habitat conservation, we’re actually taking a lot of steps, the same steps that we need to do, to protect human health and well-being.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Amanda Rodewald, director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the famous Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

AMANDA RODEWALD: Oh, thank you so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: As I said earlier, the Christmas Bird Count starts next week. And winter birding season is here now, even for folks who just want to enjoy watching the fowl in their feeders from the warmth of the kitchen.

So did you see something stupendous this year, and are you still hunting an elusive warbler, or have you finally seen your favorite finch who was in your backyard? Is anyone missing from the usual suspects this year? We want to hear from you. Give us a call, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet us @SciFri.

And with me here in the studio to help us take some joy in birds is Ryan Mandelbaum, longtime friend of the show, science writer, avid birder. He’s as avid as they come– right, Ryan? It’s been a long time. Welcome back to Science Friday.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Great to be here, Ira. Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: You were listening along. We were talking about as much as a 50% decline. As a birder, can you actually see this in the field, that there are fewer birds around?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: You know what? It really depends on the specific species of bird. And it’s like the difference between weather and climate. Year to year, you might see fluctuations of more birds and less birds. But birdwatchers span all generations. And if you talk to older bird watchers, you often do hear stories about, oh, this lake was once filled with gulls every year. And so we all know, and culturally we can all tell, that the decrease is happening.

IRA FLATOW: All right. So it’s December. We’ve got the Christmas Bird Count starting next week. Why are we supposed to go out in the winter? Why is that a good time to do this counting?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. So the Christmas Bird Count actually has quite a long history. It began more than 120 years ago. There was a tradition of hunting birds on Christmas. And so we’ve replaced that with counting birds. But also these are the birds that we think of as being the hearty ones, who stick around here in the United States through the winter. And then, of course, we can then have counts of where all of our birds go when they migrate south.

IRA FLATOW: If someone wants to join the Bird Count, or if they just want to start birding on their own for the first time– you’ve got all kinds of equipment with you– but what do you need– the basics– to be a birder?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I would say that it’s just start by looking at birds. Notice the birds in your backyard, the birds when you’re walking through the park.

Of course, people will say you need a pair of binoculars. You don’t need a pair of binoculars. You can really notice their behaviors and things without them. But it helps to have binoculars with about an eight times zoom. And then, as you know, I have a telescope I use to look at very far away birds. And then I have a camera because I like sharing my sightings with people.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. And what are the birds doing right now– this time of the year? What do they want from life?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, I think a lot of them just want to live through the winter so that they can go and breed another year. So right now, if you were to go out in the park, you would see birds in flocks or looking for– basically, roving around, looking for food at their favorite food trees. And then you might even see them in your backyard looking at bird feeders. They’re really just trying to survive the winter.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re talking with Ryan Mandelbaum about birds. And this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

Lots of people calling in. And let’s go to the phones now. Let’s go to Ephraim, in Houston. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

EPHRAIM: Hi, Ira. I’m excited to be on your show. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead. Tell us what you’ve seen.

EPHRAIM: So it would be two weeks ago on this past Thursday. I was coming off of Highway 35, from Palacios into Bay City, Texas, which is here in the Texas Gulf Coast. And I spotted an American bald eagle perched up on a tree. This is crazy because my wife tells me, oh, that she saw one– she and her brother– in their front yard years ago. I’m like, there’s no American bald eagles here. But in fact, there are. And she was right. I was wrong.

IRA FLATOW: Wasn’t that exciting, right?

EPHRAIM: It was. I was in my truck, driving– and I’m driving 60 miles an hour. But I constantly go back and forth and was kind of just scoping around. And it was beautiful, Ira. It was truly majestic. It was amazing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I have to share with you. I saw my first one this year in upstate Connecticut. And it was just– I couldn’t believe I was seeing it, too. So I share that with you. Thanks for calling, Ephraim.

EPHRAIM: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

IRA FLATOW: The bald eagle, it’s back. It’s around. You can see it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, yes. And in fact, I live here in New York City, in Brooklyn. And people might not know that New York can be a good place to see bald eagles. Last year, we had a bald eagle, named Rover, hanging around Central Park and eating gulls all winter long. So this can be a place to see them.

IRA FLATOW: We have a tweet, coming in from Brian, who says, winter is when birders can really appreciate the variety of native sparrows and ducks that visit us from the North. But this year I’m most looking forward to seeing colorful winter finches, like the evening grosbeak and red crossbill, birds that you like, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I sure do. Yes. So the winter finches are my favorite bird. And if you’ll allow me, I’m going to dive into a little story about winter finches.


RYAN MANDELBAUM: So what’s so interesting about these birds is that most of them are spending a lot of their time up North, feeding on conifer cones. And then what happens is that some of these cone crops aren’t very reliable. So after some years, the trees are going to coordinate to not produce food. And that’s probably to starve out the squirrels, to make sure that squirrels aren’t eating up all the seeds.

And then the birds have wings, so they can then just fly South. And so a lot of birders are now eagerly waiting to see if their local pine trees or bird feeders are going to take on a hungry flock of crossbills and even grosbeaks.

And every day this month of November, I stood on my roof and, just the other day, a red crossbill flew right over my house. It was the best.

IRA FLATOW: I’m seeing you smiling. I mean, you’re lighting up. What is so enjoyable for you about seeing all these birds? How did you get started, and why do you find it so interesting?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I started with– because as a New Yorker, I actually never really knew that birds were so exciting. I once thought they were pigeons, rats with wings. But then I had to write a story about the great blue heron for grad school. And as part of that, I got to see a great blue heron on its nest in Staten Island. And I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe how there was this huge bird just surviving here in New York City.

And then my spouse moved to New York and was like, what should our couple’s hobby be? And we were like, we both like birds, let’s become birders. And they say the rest is history.

IRA FLATOW: And so you can be a birder in a big city.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, my goodness, I would say that New York City is one of the best places to be a birder. So it’s not great for the birds. New York City is placed right along this migratory flyway. And what happens is birds migrating North and then back South get funneled into the city’s parks– Central Park, Prospect Park, places like that. And then they become much denser, so they’re easier to see. So you can catch them in May and September. It’s awesome.

IRA FLATOW: Finches are your favorite birds, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I just wanted to come back and say one more thing about– you probably have a lot of callers who are really interested in the finches right now. And there’s a reason for that. So this behavior that I was talking about, that they’ll move based on food, can almost be predicted.

So we actually have– people will survey the Northern forests and see how many pine cones are on these trees, and then use that to determine whether the finches will be in the North or move South. And so there’s a nonprofit, called the Finch Research Network, that’s doing that work. And it’s just really cool. Because then you can predict whether you’ll have finches in your backyard.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that is cool. Let’s go to the phones. So many people want to talk about what they have seen. Let’s go to Marilyn, in Seneca, Oregon. Hi, Marilyn.

MARILYN: Hi, Ira. I’m so thrilled to be on your show. You’re my secret celebrity crush.

IRA FLATOW: Will you tell that to my boss? Just phone that in.


What have you got on your mind? Thank you for that.

MARILYN: Yes. So we have a property in Eastern Oregon, just outside of a wide spot in the road called Seneca. And we are on 80 acres, up at 5,000 feet, in a Ponderosa pine forest. And two years ago, we spotted a pair of great grey owls that were hunting right down in the meadow right in front of– we could sit at the dining room table and watch them. It was so amazing. And they fascinated us. And they disappeared. We didn’t see them last year at all.

And then, the other morning, I was sitting down to breakfast, and I saw something moving in the snow. And I looked out. I’m like, how did a seal get here? What is a seal doing in the mountains? And this bird is so big, he looked– and that head is so round– and I got my binoculars, and sure enough, the great grey owls are back.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That is amazing. Great grey owls are a bird that I really would love to see. So my in-laws all live in Minnesota. And when I’m out there, I’m always looking for great grey owls. And there’s just something about owls, right? Their face– there’s some sort of reverence when you’re with them. It’s just such a cool experience.

IRA FLATOW: Boy, are you lucky. What a holiday present for you, right?

MARILYN: They’re kind of magical. They’re like from the other side, of life or whatever. But they are just fascinating to watch. And the thing about the great grey owls is they’re literally camouflage artists. I mean, they will fly up into a Ponderosa pine tree, and if you take your eyes off of them, you will miss them.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for calling.

MARILYN: Yeah, thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Good luck seeing that.

Jeff, on Twitter, says, I’ve been birding for 40-plus years. Moving to New Mexico has been wonderful. So many resident and migratory species here and in adjacent states, especially Arizona. Saw a roadrunner– not Wile E. Coyote– still waiting for my first golden eagle.

What’s the difference between a golden eagle and a bald eagle?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so they’re two different species and they have different biologies. They do different things. Bald eagles you’ll see more around bodies of water. They’re fish eagles. And golden eagles will be more on the prairies. And they look different. But I will say that they’re the same size approximately.

So if you see a giant eagle, they do look quite similar. And juvenile bald eagles and adult golden eagles do look pretty similar. So you’ve got to be very discerning.

IRA FLATOW: I should have that problem.


IRA FLATOW: I wish. OK, let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Katherine, in Minneapolis. Hi, Katherine.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

KATHERINE: Thank you for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

KATHERINE: I’m calling about city birds. I have a small flower garden here in my townhouse. And in past summers, I’ve had probably up to 10 hummingbirds every summer, along with a lot of bees. This past summer, zero hummingbirds and very few bees. And I don’t know if it’s climate change or the chemicals my neighbors are using or something.

And the other thing I’ve noticed is we have a huge increase in the wild turkey population, to the point where they’re walking all over people’s yards and leaving their poop and everything there. So the decline of one, but the increase on the other is what we’ve seen up here in Minneapolis. Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: You’re Welcome. I have to share that. Because I have bird feeders. I have hummingbird feeders. And I saw no hummingbirds for like three months, until close to the end of the season. And I too was wondering, where have they gone?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I don’t know. And I did call on this a little bit earlier, that these fluctuations year to year are bound to happen. But there’s definitely– if you’re not seeing any hummingbirds, it’s hard to say what’s at work. It could be pesticides. There could be something really to be concerned about. But I would be concerned, too, because I love hummingbirds.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. We’ll see. Maybe someone will be able to know that. Let’s go to a tweet. Dustin, on Twitter, says, so many of us saw the Steller sea eagle in Maine early in January. That’s the most notable bird on the continent this decade. Now in New Brunswick.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I, too, went to see the Steller sea eagle. So actually this bird showed up in inland Alaska and then it showed up on the East Coast. This giant Siberian eagle, very low population– in the thousands– and this bird looked like– it showed up, and people were like, oh, my goodness, I have to go see this bird. And so me and my friend, as soon as we saw it in Maine, we got in the car and we drove up to Portland, in that area. And I saw it from about a half mile away. And it looked like a person in a bird costume. It was just amazing.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s not where it should be. That’s the point, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. Siberia and northern Japan is where it’s usually. And so the East Coast of the United States is the wrong place for that bird.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So what happens? Did it get blown off course or is it climate change, or do we not know?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: For the younger birds, we call it dispersal. And it’s a big part of bird biology. Birds, when they’re first born, they have to migrate. And some of them migrate off course. And then if a bunch of them migrate off course and then can establish a population there, then we have range expansion. But unfortunately, a lot of individual birds will get lost in the meantime.

The eagle, though, I don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: But you got to see it. Wow.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Really, it was amazing. One of my best birding experiences.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Let’s go to the phone. Sondra, in Milton, Florida. Hi, Sondra.

SONDRA: Hi. Thank you so much. I’m a huge fan. And I’m really wigging out now that I get to talk on the phone with you. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Go ahead.

SONDRA: I live in Milton, Florida, which is like the Panhandle. And we had indigo buntings probably about– I don’t know– maybe 10 years ago or longer and haven’t seen them since. So I want to know what did I do to get so lucky? They’re beautiful. And how do I make them come back? And also, we noticed, again, this year, I only had one hummingbird.


SONDRA: And I had another friend noted they actually found dead hummingbirds.


SONDRA: Yes. In our area anyway.


RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s a shame.

SONDRA: Anyway, I just thought I’d add that to your conversation.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for calling. That is shocking.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. I mean, it’s a shame. The indigo buntings– well, very awesome that you had so many. And they’re a bird that they like weedy areas. And I would say they’re the kind of bird that, if you plant native plants and those plants produce seeds, then you might have some indigo buntings show up. So definitely continue to plant native, and that’s a great way to do it.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t give up. Let’s go to Lorraine, in Westchester, New York. Hi, Lorraine. Lorraine.


IRA FLATOW: Yay. Hey, go ahead.

LORRAINE: Hi. I’m a wildlife rehabilitator with the Center for Wildlife Rescue Research and Conservation, Inc. And thank you, Ira, so much for this segment on the Christmas Bird Count and the wonderment of birds.

And although there are many environmental impacts that we cannot control now, what we can do is 75% to 80% of the injured birds we receive are from cat attacks. And outdoor cats are really decimating many of the bird populations. So it is so important to keep cats indoors and to also plant native plants so that birds will naturally gravitate to your property.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I’ll put a stamp on that. Cats should remain inside. Outdoor cats are bad. And then, also, here in New York City, windows need to be treated to be bird safe. And that usually means putting stickers or making them so the birds can’t see them.

IRA FLATOW: You agree, Lorraine?

LORRAINE: Yes, I do. Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you for that. Thank you for that call.

And speaking of New York City, let’s go to Elizabeth, in Manhattan. Hi, Elizabeth.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

ELIZABETH: Oh, here I am a big fan. I just was calling to say, following up, I love finches and I try to attract them. So I have mostly house finches. My golden finches have definitely fallen off. I would say, in the last three years. I see a lot less. I was very lucky to have a lot of kinglets coming in and out of the yard, which I loved, in the fall. And they’ve gone away in the last three to four.

Right now, I do have nuthatches and I have tufted titmouse, who were on the feeder and grabbing the black oil sunflower seeds. I always have a lot of morning doves, a lot of chickadees and sparrows. And I had woodpeckers, but they do seem to have gone away. Which I’m not sure why. We might have lost some trees. But we have a pretty good collection in Upper Manhattan.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s good.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s awesome. That’s actually a very similar selection that I have in my backyard in Brooklyn. Tufted titmouse, especially, is a bird that it kind of goes in waves. Some years we’ll see a lot and some years we won’t. And this year, if you walk down the streets of Brooklyn, you will hear tufted titmice in almost every single tree. And they are very cute. So I really like that about it.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: They are cute. And they’re very fast. Thank you very much for having me. Bye-bye.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let’s cycle right through to Mike, in Milford, Connecticut. Hi, Mike.

MIKE: Hi. Hi how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

MIKE: So I really like land-bearing birds. But we are definitely looking towards the ocean. And we are missing the buffleheads this year.

IRA FLATOW: Buffleheads?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, they’re very cute.

MIKE: Yeah.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I haven’t seen very many buffleheads, either. Although in Jamaica Bay, we usually have some.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. That may be part of the problem we were talking about.


IRA FLATOW: The birds are missing. Do you usually see a lot of them, Mike?

MIKE: So we would see probably 15 to 20. They’re gorgeous birds. But like what you were saying with planting food, planting certain plants to attract certain birds, we can’t do that with buffleheads because they’re seafaring.


MIKE: So we weren’t sure if anything was going on under the water that we’re just not aware of.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Thank you. Thanks for reporting in, Mike.

MIKE: Sure. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s go cross country, to Chris, in Chesapeake, Virginia. Well, not quite cross country. A little–


IRA FLATOW: The South. Hi, Chris.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

CHRIS: I wanted to share a story. A couple of years ago, we had a large Bradford pear tree taken down. But the gentleman that took the tree down did not have a stump grinder. So as the years passed, we had a pileated woodpecker that came and pretty much finished the job for us.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they make a big hole, don’t they?

CHRIS: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: They actually cut the tree in half for you?

CHRIS: No, it was just the stump.

IRA FLATOW: The stump.

CHRIS: But he pretty much got rid of it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, maybe put out some suet to say thank you.

CHRIS: Yeah. And it’s interesting because they strike the wood so much more slowly than the smaller woodpeckers that you hear in the trees.


CHRIS: And they’re really cool to watch.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they are cool. Thanks for calling. I remember the first one I saw. I didn’t know what it was. It was a hole the size of a shoe box–


IRA FLATOW: –in a tree. And I knew that’s what it was.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They’re heart stopping when you see them fly across the road. I mean, they’re big birds, these pileated woodpeckers.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

Talking about the Christmas Bird Count and what to see with Ryan Mandelbaum.

Ryan, I know that you’re joining the crew for this year’s Christmas Bird Count, right? That’s put on by the Audubon Society every year. Where are you going to do the Count?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I will be in Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, in Northwestern Minnesota. Which is a grassland wildlife refuge. And it’s a little different. Some years I’ll do the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count, in which we can expect to see between 100-130 species of bird. Far fewer in Northwestern Minnesota. It’s quite snowed over. But the birds I see there are some really cool ones.

In previous years, we’ve seen greater prairie chickens, northern shrike, rough-legged hawk, snowy owl. So what we don’t have in the number of species, the different stuff is really thrilling for me.

IRA FLATOW: And we want to reiterate, this is a citizen science project. You don’t have to actually know a lot about birds to get involved.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. And a lot of these Christmas Bird Counts, I mean, there’s a big element of camaraderie. There’s often a potluck at the end of it. But really, some of them just need eyes. They’ll pair you with the person who will identify the birds. And then you just have to go and find the birds. And finding the birds is often half the battle, when you’re going through thickets or on a grassland or anything like that.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if I can get one more call in before we have to say goodbye. Let’s go to Vicky, in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Vicky.


IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

VICKY: Well, what I’m seeing now, which happens every winter, is golden-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed Oregon juncos, and black-capped chickadees, along with the resident song sparrows and Anna’s hummingbirds, which live here all year round. What I’m not seeing at all anymore is house finches. But I stopped putting seed out because we have a rat issue in the city. We’re very close to a busy street and lots of restaurants.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for calling.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, I think that’s really cool. Because you’re really observing migration in action. A lot of these birds are winter birds that have decided that your area is a good place to be. So that’s one of the reasons I like winter birding so much.

IRA FLATOW: What’s a final tip you can give to people who go out on the Bird Count? I guess certainly dressing warmly, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, wear a lot of layers. Keep your ears open. Honestly, I often hear birds before I see them. And just go out as much as you can, keep your eyes open, and then be nice to the birds. Make sure you’re doing it ethically. Don’t go playing audio or trying to feed them or anything. Just experience the world for what it is.

IRA FLATOW: Is it easy to find a spot to go to, to know where the bird counting is happening?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, sure. So I would just Google Christmas Bird Count, and you’ll find the websites where you can find– they’ll have a map with all of the local coordinators on it. And then, if you don’t feel like doing the Christmas Bird Count, then there’s the eBird website you can use to get started, get a field guide, or do like I do and just look for the birds in your backyard.

IRA FLATOW: And the birds you’re going to be looking for, what would you really like to see to add to your collection of bird sightings?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: In the world or in Minnesota?

IRA FLATOW: I’ll take one of each.


RYAN MANDELBAUM: So like I said previously, the great grey owl is a bird that I would really like to see. They’re just such beautiful birds. And then, in the world, I don’t know. There’s a bird that makes a really weird noise in northern South America, called the capuchinbird. It sounds like, “krook-mrowr.”

IRA FLATOW: I can’t top that.


Thank you, Ryan. We have to make like a bird and fly–


IRA FLATOW: –at the end of this show. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer and birder, based in Brooklyn, New York. And also, thank you– all great callers. We love to hear from you. And if you’re interested in the Christmas Bird Count– we kept talking about this– we’ve got more information linked on our website, at sciencefriday.com/christmasbirds.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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