The 109th annual Christmas bird count

One of last week’s Nature editorials extols the 109th annual Christmas bird count, a tradition started by the National Audubon Society as an alternative to the former competitive sport of shooting birds to mark the holidays.  The survey, which takes place during a three-week interval that overlaps Christmas and New Year’s Day each year, involves birders of all ages and backgrounds from around the globe traipsing through the elements for a day to count the kinds and numbers of birds around their homes.

The official numbers are staggering:  this year’s 437 individual count groups spied a total of 18.5 million birds across the Western hemisphere. You can track individual species by area or check out what birds were seen close to where you live by using this nifty widget at the Audubon site.

Citizen science is something that few scientists take very seriously, but here is a perfect example. The Christmas bird count is the longest-running field survey of any living thing, and it’s mostly done by non-scientists. As the editorial notes, volunteer science is a win-win situation because citizens get to learn about science and have fun doing it, and scientists get much-needed data.

Nature even suggests that there are great benefits to scientists tossing off their regalia and considering themselves – gasp – citizen scientists:

‘So researchers should think creatively about whether the data they need, or the crunching or sorting they must do, can be outsourced to members of the public. And while they are at it, perhaps they should also consider joining one or more citizen science projects themselves. Participation in such efforts can reconnect scientists consumed with grant-writing and project management with the ‘doing’ of science. In the Christmas bird count, the most skilled bird spotters and identifiers are inevitably the non-scientists; professional ornithologists spend too much time doing paperwork. And, of course, volunteering for science feels good, especially when you see a black oystercatcher, say, or two merging galaxies — something fun, beautiful and rare.’

Author: Christine Buckley

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  1. I participated in my first count in Pasco County, Florida this year. I’m not a great a birder, most smaller song birds move too quickly for me to tell spp apart. I’m enthusiastic about birding and science and I want the count to reflect as accurate a number as possible. So, on one hand, citizen science isn’t necessarily all that great when the scientist is undertrained.

    On the other hand, I was partnered with two people who _were_ able to tell a yellow-rumped from a palm warbler. So, citizen science _can_ be a successful endeavor. At the worst, between the three of us, we might have undercounted a group of swallows or missed a red-bellied woodpecker.

    The take away? Citizen science is symbolic of an engaged public and can make a contribution to the bigger picture, but the science part may need to be handled with caution.

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