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Energy & Environment

Volunteers Flock Outside For Audubon's Annual Christmas Bird Count

A male house finch
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A house finch takes off from its perch along Boogy Creek in the Parque Zaragoza Neighborhood.

Bird and nature enthusiasts have volunteered to count and identify as many species of birds as possible within certain areas across North America between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

The annual Christmas Bird Count, which started in 1900, is part of an effort to understand how bird populations are responding to environmental changes, like the loss of wetlands or habitat destruction caused by frequent, powerful storms.

The CBC is managed by the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit that aims to conserve wild bird populations and their habitats.

“The idea was to go out and to observe and count as many different species and the numbers of individuals of those species in a single day,” said Romey Swanson, director of conservation strategy at Audubon Texas.

The Audubon started the CDC as an alternative to a traditional Christmas activity in which hunters competed to kill as many birds and other mammals as possible in a single day.

Now, the volunteer-led bird census has generated 120 years of data that conservationists and other scientists are using to understand trends in bird populations. Swanson said that information can be used to not only understand how birds have responded to changes in land use or other pressures, but also measure positive responses to conservation efforts.

“So [we’ll learn] if the populations are going up as a response to interventions conducted by state agencies and nonprofit organizations to improve habitat and food resources for those species,” he said.

A recent study in Science magazine that used CBC data found more than 3 billion birds have been lost over the last 50 years. Swanson said that makes sense: When natural lands are converted for agriculture, development or other uses, the landscape and some species are affected. In Texas, he said, 2 million acres of open space like ranch lands, grasslands and forests were converted for other uses in just the last 20 years.

Other studies that have used CBC data are forward looking, like the National Audubon Society’s “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.”

“It’s a climate summary that interprets the future of birds,” Swanson said. The CBC data was used “to inform the model and interpretation of what could happen under different climate scenarios.”

For Texas, the interactive report says if the global average temperature increases by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, more than 100 bird species – including quails, hummingbirds and woodpeckers – would be vulnerable to losing a suitable habitat.

A golden fronted woodpecker sits on a grill at Big Bend National Park.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
/
KUT
A golden fronted woodpecker sits on a grill at Big Bend National Park.

Swanson said three things need to happen to improve the situation. First, the natural land areas that are already intact and strongholds for supporting bird populations must be conserved. Second, more investments should be made to restore the adjacent areas to increase the footprint of those strongholds. And third, more data is needed to keep a pulse on the situation at all times.

He said the CBC data may not be 100% accurate, but it’s really good at estimating trends.

Got a tip? Email Sangita at smenon@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.

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