You might be surprised to learn a significant bit of biological research has been happening in your backyards and parks on Capitol Hill since 1908. A few years have been skipped here and there, major wars in account, but since 1952, there have been continuous Christmas Bird Counts in Seattle. This year, you could be one of the proud citizen scientists who contribute just one day and further major monitoring and analysis of North American bird populations.
What exactly is the Christmas Bird Count (or the CBC)? The National Audubon Society in tandem with local organizations run this project: a day of counting birds all over the United States and beyond. On a day between December 14 and January 5, local organizations organize people to go out and to count every individual bird they can. In what started as a way to divert pointless slaughter in a holiday bird-hunting tradition, has become a behemoth 115 year old science project with over 2300 sites in the Americas and far reaching data now being used to track and project trends in bird populations, particularly in the face of climate change.
While it may be confusing that the count doesn’t happen on Christmas and lacks religious affiliation, the semantics are unimportant, Seattle Audubon has been organizing the Seattle area count for 86 years (on December 27th this year). To make sure data is consistent, counts happen in the same area every year, a 15 mile diameter circle centering around Seattle, divided into areas and sub-areas. Here in Capitol Hill, we have two areas that are tackled by a series of volunteer leaders and participants, most of whom are merely bird enthusiasts, not professionals. That is what makes this project so important, you don’t have to be an ornithologist to help out; in fact, if that were a requirement the CBC wouldn’t be even vaguely possible.
Of course people are needed to organize the show and while many CBC efforts are purely run by volunteers, Seattle is fortunate to have a professional scientist as a guiding force. Toby Ross, the science manager at Seattle Audubon, has been running the CBC for three years and when asked why you should volunteer his first response was: “cause it’s awesome. Is that good enough?” Jokes aside, he really wanted to us to know that this is an important effort, despite seeming like a one day affair. “The data has been used by National Audubon Society in combination with Breeding Bird Survey data to actually look at the state of birds, common or otherwise, across the country and beyond. They’ve created models of how our species will fare during climate change.”
Ross recognizes that not everyone can offer their whole day, or that young families and elderly can’t manage the commitment, which is why this year he is encouraging participants to feeder watch. The details are on Seattle Audubon’s website, but the idea is that “even if you don’t have a feeder or live in an apartment, if you know a few birds you can look out your window for thirty minutes and identify some species.” When the goal is to not only identify every species, but count every individual, there’s no way to possibly catch every American Crow or House Sparrow and gain completely precise population numbers. Thus, having extra eyes is a boon.
A large part of being an appreciator of nature is being an engaged in its welfare. With local resources for getting involved with Capitol Hill area nature being limited, there are still several ways to help keep our urban species and greenspaces alive (like through the Green Seattle Partnership). Though open sign-up is over now for volunteers aside from feeder watches, consider getting involved next year. In 2013, 186 people found time to get out in the Seattle Circle, traveling 418 miles by foot, car, and boat while spending 260 hours counting. Obviously they all saw it important enough to count 47,988 individual birds, representing 123 species. Without these numbers we wouldn’t have the state of the birds, which shows us that both common birds like Pine Siskin and iconic Northwest species like Varied Thrush are in steep decline. This may seem bleak, but it’s vital to know how our natural world is fairing under human regime. Me, I like knowing that Anna’s Hummingbird populations have increased by upwards of 180% over the past 40 years. Without the CBC, we wouldn’t know that.