Cold winter weather means it's time for two important citizen science projects: the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.
This year the 113th CBC runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, 2013. Volunteers will devote one entire day to counting all the wild birds they can find. Local leaders determine the exact date for local counts.
It all began on Christmas Day 112 years ago when ornithologist Frank Chapman organized groups of birders to see who could identify, count, and record the most species.
This first CBC was an alternative to Christmas holiday "side hunts." Prior to 1900, groups of hunters chose sides and competed to see who could kill the most game.
Wildlife conservation was in its infancy at the turn of the century; scientists and the general public were just beginning to notice and worry about declining bird populations. The CBC was one of the first attempts to engage the public in conservation, and it has become the longest running citizen science program in the world.
It's not an exaggeration to say that the first CBC marked the beginning of modern wildlife conservation.
Though skilled birders form the backbone of CBCs, beginners are always welcome. CBCs are a great way for first time birders to learn how to identify birds in the field and make real contributions to science. And it's free.
CBCs provide a snapshot in time of winter bird populations.
Information collected over many years is particularly valuable because it illuminates long term trends. CBC data is frequently used in peer-reviewed scientific publications and has been used to link bird population declines to climate change.
Last year, 63,227 volunteers participated in 2,248 CBCs. Most took place in the U.S. (1,739) and Canada (410). The remaining 99 took place in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.
The highest species count came from Ecuador (492). Local counts typically range from 35 to 70 species, depending on weather conditions.
To participate in a CBC near you, contact your local Audubon Society or nature center.
Or visit birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count and click on "Find a count near you."
And don't be discouraged by inexperience. Count groups are set up so that each group has at least one experienced birder.
This insures accuracy of bird identification and enables veteran birders to encourage beginners.
Another winter-long, backyard citizen science project is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.
From the comfort of cozy living rooms, participants simply count birds at feeders.
Thanks to last year's results, I can be quite specific about what species you can expect.
Assuming you have suitable habitat with at least a few trees and shrubs for cover, you can expect 15 to 20 species over the course of the winter.
Based on data submitted from 5,120 northeastern sites last year, expect to see chickadees (black-capped or Carolina, depending on your location), dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, downy woodpeckers, blue jays, American goldfinches, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches. These eight species were reported at 80 percent or more of the northeastern FeederWatch sites last year.
This year is also shaping up to be good for irruptive migrants such as red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins. I've had as many as 20 siskins at my feeders since early November.
And for the first time in nearly 20 years evening grosbeaks are being widely reported in the northeast, though I'm still waiting for grosbeaks to visit my feeders.
Launched in 1987, Project FeederWatch compiles information gathered by volunteers from all across North America. Last year 112,774 checklists were submitted from the U.S. and Canada. FeederWatch volunteers devote just a few minutes every week or two to identify and tally the birds that visit their feeders. No special knowledge is required because the material provided to volunteers include posters that facilitate bird identification. The best time to see the most birds at feeders is on cold, snowy mornings.
To become a FeederWatch volunteer, visit www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw, or call 800-843-2473 during normal business hours, or send a check to Project FeederWatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, P.O. Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011.
The $15 fee ($12 for Lab of Ornithology members) covers all materials, data analysis, and publication of each year's results.
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Send questions and comments to Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via his web site, scottshalaway.googlepages.com