Citizen Science

Citizen Science

Pasadena bird lovers join National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count

By Rebecca Kuzins 12/12/2012

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Members of the Pasadena Audubon Society will be taking part Saturday in one of the venerable organization’s oldest and most rewarding activities — the annual Christmas Bird Count, a national tradition that began at the turn of the last century and kick-started the country’s then-fledgling conservation movement.

Today, the count, which started as an alternative to annual holiday bird-hunting and slaughtering expeditions, has taken on added significance, as scientists are now able to use bird population growth and migration patterns to further analyze weather systems and the effects of such phenomena as global warming.

Equipped with binoculars, spotting scopes and checklists, local Audubon members will be combing a broad area of the San Gabriel Valley beginning Friday to count and compile a list of the birds they encounter. 

“For Pasadena, the count is a nice, long-term tradition, something we look forward to every year,” explained Jon Fisher, who has been the count compiler for more than two decades. 

Although Audubon Christmas Bird Counts have been conducted in East Coast and Midwest communities since the early 1900s, a few years before the formation of the National Audubon Society, the local society chapter has only been at it since the late 1940s. 

The Pasadena group is responsible for surveying a birding circle centered at the intersection of San Gabriel Boulevard and Duarte Road in San Gabriel and extending 7½ miles in all directions. This territory includes some areas with large bird populations, such as Big Santa Anita Canyon, Whittier Narrows, the San Gabriel River, the Santa Fe Dam, Eaton Canyon, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Legg Lake and Mt. Wilson. 

Volunteer participants count both the number of species (or different types of birds) and the number of individual birds seen in each species. Last year, local birders found 167 species, including a hard-to-find spotted owl in Santa Anita Canyon and a Swainson’s Hawk, rarely spotted in the San Gabriel Valley in winter.

Fisher noted that the Pasadena Christmas Bird Count has “really grown over the last 10 to 20 years,” with more than 40 members participating each year.  

 

As the crow flies

Some local birders will spend all day counting, rising before daybreak and remaining in the field until sunset. When the count is over, many group members will take part in another tradition — the annual Christmas Bird Count Dinner at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, where birders will enjoy a vegetable and pasta-based meal, compare notes and provide Fisher with information to determine the number of species spotted during the day. 

Information obtained by local birders — along with data from tens of thousands of other counters throughout North America — will be compiled by the National Audubon Society. Christmas Count data enables researchers, conservation biologists and other scientists to study the long-term status of bird populations throughout the continent. This information can then be used to analyze regional weather patterns and the impacts of climate change. The count also helps the National Audubon Society determine how it can better protect birds and their habitats. 

The count is important because, as Fisher said, “it tracks bird populations and changes in the area over a long period of time. There’s not many ways to do that, but the bird count can do that because it is a repeatable survey.” 

In the past 112 years, the national survey has garnered significant findings about the birds of North America. Counts conducted between 1967 and 2007 produced evidence that the bald eagle population had increased nine-fold and could be removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Surveys performed between 1988 and 1998 revealed that the Eurasian collared-dove, first reported in south Florida in the late 1980s, was expanding its range across North America, including the San Gabriel Valley. 

Based on an analysis of 40 years of Christmas Bird Count data, the National Audubon Society concluded that many North American birds are shifting their winter ranges in response to global warming. American robins, house finches, red-tailed hawks, mourning doves and canyon wrens are among the many bird species that have been affected. 

Next year, Audubon will use data from this year’s count and other sources to publish projections of future bird ranges based on scientific models that illustrate the impact of climate change on hundreds of types of birds living in North America.

The Christmas Bird Count is considered one of the nation’s most successful examples of “citizen science” — programs in which people who are not ornithologists can learn more about birds and compile information that can later be used by professionals.  

“Citizen science, to me, is someone who is not an ‘expert’ or professional making a contribution to science,” explained Ron Cyger, a former president of the Pasadena Audubon Society and a veteran birder. 

 

National outrage

This year, the National Audubon Society’s 113th Christmas Bird Count is from Friday through Jan. 6, said David Arnold, CEO and president of the national group, who describes the count as the “largest, longest running animal census on the planet.” 

The first bird survey was held on Christmas Day 1900 and was organized to counter the traditional Christmas “side hunts,” in which hunters would kill thousands of birds. Another major concern of the time was the use of all types of bird feathers in millinery, or the making of women’s hats. 

Concerned about declining bird populations, Frank M. Chapman, an ornithologist and a founder of the National Audubon Society, organized 25 different counts that year as an alternative to the hunting expeditions. But it was in his response to the millinery industry that Chapman both honed his skills at identifying different types of birds and fueled his passion to protect the animals.

In 1886, according to a 2004 article in Audubon Magazine, Chapman, who lived and worked in New York, counted the number of stuffed birds that adorned the heads of women shopping in the city’s Fashion District. “He identified the wings, heads, tails, or entire bodies of three bluebirds, two red-headed woodpeckers, nine Baltimore orioles, five blue jays, 21 common terns, a saw-whet owl and a prairie hen. In two afternoon trips he counted 174 birds and 40 species in all,” writes author Jennifer Price.

By 1900, separate Audubon Societies were cropping up in cities across the country, representing the country’s first true conservation movement, according to Price. “In the late 1890s, outraged Americans in state after state founded Audubon Societies to combat the feather trade and advocate bird protection,” she wrote. The Massachusetts Audubon Society was formed by prominent women in 1896, among them Boston socialite Harriet Hemenway, with other states and cities soon to follow. That year also saw the debut of Bird-Lore magazine, launched by Chapman, the ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The magazine was later renamed Audubon. 

The work of conservationists like John Muir, who was a great influence on President Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to set aside more national parkland than any president before or since, would only gain prominence a few years later. Roosevelt, the former governor of New York who, along with Chapman, served as an officer with the New York organization, took office in 1901. The Audubon Society, so named for famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon, Price wrote, “waged the first truly modern conservation campaign.” 

But, Price continued, if not for women objecting to the destruction of so many birds for sport, as well as the use of their lifeless carcasses for hats, there might not have been such an organization. “In nearly all of the states, women founded the clubs then asked male scientists and civic leaders to join the leadership,” Price wrote.

 

Making an impact

Since that time, the number of Christmas Bird Count participants only seems to have grown each year. In 1900, Chapman first organized counts in 25 communities in the United States, many of them on the East Coast, and Canada. In the 2000-01 count, the 101st annual event, 52,471 people in 1,823 locations in 17 countries contributed, according to Audubon Society figures.

In addition to conducting the bird count, the Pasadena Audubon Society organizes numerous birding field trips, including monthly events at Eaton Canyon Nature Center, Huntington Library and Hahamongna Watershed Park. Most of the year, the group holds general meetings on the third Wednesday of each month at Eaton Canyon Nature Center. 

“Us ordinary birders can go out and report what we have seen. What we saw may not be spectacular, such as lesser goldfinches at a feeder. But when this information is added to a larger database, it takes on new meaning. And when that database is spread out over decades, like the Christmas Bird Count, it can really have impact,” Fisher said. 

 

For more information about the group, visit pasadenaaudubon.org. For more on the history of the Audubon Society and Frank Chapman, visit archive.audubonmagazine.org/century/dawn-1899.html or archive.audubonmagazine.org/features0412/hats.html

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