The state of the union’s birds

A comprehensive analysis of the current condition of birds in the U.S. was released yesterday by The Nature Conservancy, USGS, the Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and many other non-profit groups. Dubbed The State of the Birds, the document reports that of the nation’s approximately 800 bird species, 67 are federally listed as endangered, 184 are of conservation concern and many others are declining due to dwindling habitat. The report highlights precipitous declines in Hawaiian birds, where introduced predators have decimated native bird populations. Seabirds and shorebirds are also suffering from pollution, overfishing and warming oceans, according to the report, and lack of management in arid lands and grasslands have led to neglect and decline in birds adapted to these habitats. On the other hand, Wetland birds are shown to be quite resilient to disturbance. The report draws attention to several successful conservation efforts, such as for the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, and emphasizes the need for conservation programs tailored to threatened species. The report brings together data from three surveys that include biologists and citizen scientists: the North American Breeding Bird Survey, administered by the U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service; the Christmas Bird Count, conducted by the National Audubon Society; and the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. Listen to NPR’s All Things Considered story about the...

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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...

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