Tallying America's Tweeters—The Feathered Ones

Every year, volunteers throughout the Americas grab their notepads and binoculars to take an inventory of local birds for the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. Greg Butcher, Audubon's director of bird conservation, talks about this year's tallies and species to look for.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

It is the most wonderful time of the year, and to that I mean when birders all over America get out their binoculars and their notebooks and their warm clothing to talk up all the birds they see for Audubon's annual Christmas bird count.

And then we always like to check in on the count at this time of the year to see how the purple finches, the red-breasted nuthatches and all their pals are doing.

And we want to hear what you've seen too. Spotted anything good, or maybe you're a little bit mystified by something you saw fluttering through the trees? Maybe we can help you figure it out. Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can always tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Joining us now is Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington. Welcome back.

Mr. GREG BUTCHER (National Audubon Society): Thanks a lot. Hi, Ira, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hey, how the bird watch going?

Mr. BUTCHER: Oh, it's going great. You must have been doing your homework because red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches are the big news in the East this fall.

FLATOW: No kidding?

Mr. BUTCHER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Wow, tell me about that.

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, those are eruptive species. So some winters we don't see any, and some winters we see a bunch. So this is a relatively good year for both those species.

FLATOW: Any guess why that is?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, these are birds that sometimes they winter in Canada, if there's a good enough food supply for them. But this year there doesn't seem to be enough seats to keep them all happy in Canada, so they come visit us in the states.

FLATOW: Now, the bird count isn't really a complete census, is it?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, no. If you think of a complete census, like they did - the Bureau of the Census just did for the country, we don't try to count every bird. It's really just a sample of what's out there every year.

CONAN: And it goes on all over the country, correct?

Mr. BUTCHER: Oh, my goodness, we have more than 2,000 places every year where we count birds, all across the U.S., southern Canada, and most of the Western Hemisphere.

FLATOW: Is it too late to get in on this?

Mr. BUTCHER: Oh, not at all. We go till January 5th. So you can actually go on our website. If you Google Christmas bird count and you can find a location near you. We've got a location finder.

FLATOW: And so what kind of results have you gotten so far this year?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, the results are we've had some record counts. So it's interesting. Even though where I am in Washington, D.C., it's pretty chilly, it's kind of concentrating the birds. So we've seen some record numbers.

CONAN: Wow, and in any part of the country where you're seeing more than others?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, basically it's good all across the country, and every state kind of has its own special birds this year.

CONAN: Now, you were just down on a count in Ecuador, right? Tell us about that.

Mr. BUTCHER: Oh, I was on a birder's dream. I couldn't believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTCHER: I went to the number one Christmas bird count in the world. So I got to go to Mindo, Ecuador, and I was within inches of the equator, in the Andes Mountains and in the place where they see more birds on Christmas bird counts than any other place.

FLATOW: Wow. Let's go to the phones, to Darcy(ph) in Kansas City. Hi, Darcy.

DARCY (Caller): Hi, I'm in Kansas City, Kansas. How are you doing, Ira?

FLATOW: Fine.

DARCY: I love your program.

FLATOW: Everything's up to date today, right?

DARCY: Something like that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

DARCY: I put out birdfeeders every winter because I like to see little birds come and get what they need to survive over the season. And, oh, I've seen flickers, a tufted-headed titmouse, various(ph) sparrows, male and female downy woodpeckers. But I've also seen a golden flicker. He's come back.

FLATOW: A golden flicker(ph).

DARCY: Yes.

FLATOW: What does it look like besides being golden? Is it a big bird, small bird?

DARCY: Okay, it's a smaller - it's a little bit bigger than a woodpecker. They have a butter-yellow breast, and the back is kind of tannish gray. And the males have a little orange-reddish cap.

FLATOW: Greg, what do you think of her golden slicker(ph)?

Mr. BUTCHER: Oh, it's a great bird. It actually is a type of woodpecker, and they often will feed on the ground. And it's one of the few birds in North America that will eat ants. And they will come in to birdfeeders.

DARCY: I put up (technical difficulties) for my woodpeckers, and I've got a regular seed feeder.

Mr. BUTCHER: Yup, and the flickers will often come to that suet. So it's a great bird you have. The normal name people use for it is Northern flicker, but in the East they have what they call yellow shafts, and in the West they have red shafts. So what they're seeing in Kansas City is one of the eastern kinds of flickers.

FLATOW: Thanks for the call. Let's go to Rachel(ph) in Huntsville, Alabama. Hi, Rachel.

RACHEL (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

RACHEL: We saw seagulls, a flock of seagulls, in Huntsville, Alabama.

FLATOW: Wow, they're a little far from home.

RACHEL: Yes, they are. I just wanted to know what you made of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTCHER: Ornithologists don't tend to call them seagulls because you can see them anywhere in the country. And what you've probably got in Huntsville, Alabama is ring-billed gulls, because those are the species that like the inland areas more than, say, heron gull or a great black-backed gull, which is more likely to stick close to the sea.

FLATOW: All right, there you have it, Rachel.

RACHEL: Okay, thank you so much.

FLATOW: Have a happy, healthy New Year and Merry Christmas.

RACHEL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Greg, have you noticed with the count any species that used to be very common that people are just not finding anymore?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, unfortunately, there's quite a few of those. And one of the strangest things happened in the East United States, is in the 1980s we had huge flocks of evening grosbeaks, and now there's almost no flocks of evening grosbeaks, and they're a beautiful yellow and black bird and we used to complain about them every year because they'd come in big numbers and eat up all our sunflower seeds, and now we're complaining because they don't come anymore.

FLATOW: Wow, that's too bad. Let's go to Jennifer(ph) in, well, I think we'll go to Jennifer in Lansing, Michigan. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JENNIFER: Well, I've participated in our local Christmas count for, ooh, probably close to 30 years now. I do the same section with a friend of mine every year.

This year, we found that the numbers were actually down overall, except for crows. I was there at sun-up when the flock of crows came out of the woods, and there had to be, oh, probably 4,000-plus.

FLATOW: Wow, that's a lot.

JENNIFER: Yeah.

FLATOW: I'm thinking of "The Birds," that movie.

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, especially in Michigan. You know, 20 years ago, they didn't have that many crows in Michigan, but that's one of the species that's been wintering farther north over the last 20, 30 years.

JENNIFER: Yeah, when I was a kid, crows were pretty uncommon.

FLATOW: Thanks for that report, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get one more quick one in from Phil(ph) in Fort Lauderdale. Hi, Phil.

PHIL (Caller): Yes. I was wanting to report a change in behavior in rather large water birds. I live on a lake where I see white herons (unintelligible) and we see them feeding in the waters and canals frequently. But lately I've noticed them moving into urban areas, where hedgerows and shrubs and bushes - and they seem to stalking some of our small, gnolly lizards.

And I've even observed one, you know, catching them. So in an urban area, these large birds seem to be adapting their feeding habits, much like the little cattle egrets, which are a pasture bird, have done the same thing.

FLATOW: Huh, what do you think of that?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, that is a first for me because I was thinking, as he was telling the story, that it probably was a cattle egret, because we've seen them do that. They're called cattle egrets, of course, because they follow behind cows and kick up whatever insects or lizards or whatever follow the cows.

And so as the listener said, they came into the urban areas first and started taking advantage of whatever food we had in that area. And we know the great blue heron, you know, will eat almost anything too. So I guess it's not too surprising if a great egret might do so as well.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for the call. Greg, I've got a couple of minutes left. You said your number one birding goal is to see male birds of paradise displaying at a breeding. Like, why is that number one for you?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, I think the male birds of paradise are sort of the pinnacle of evolution. They're big birds. They have gorgeous colors on them. And then they have real strange long tails or wild feathers. And they can create some of the strangest postures you've ever seen.

So I've been able to see them on David Attenborough's nature shows, but I want to see them out in the wild. And they display to the females in a group. And so they make wild calls and these wild displays.

And when I was down in Mindo, I saw these little miniature birds of paradise. They're called - oh, and they're (unintelligible) as well.

FLATOW: And where would you see, if you wanted to go see these birds of paradise, where would the best shot at seeing them be?

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, the birds of paradise are in New Guinea, primarily.

FLATOW: A-ha.

Mr. BUTCHER: And then the little birds I saw in Mindo were manikins, and they're little tiny birds, and they're not related to birds of paradise, but they also do wild displays (unintelligible). So I got a little mini version of it this winter already.

FLATOW: I got a quick tweet from UrsulaV(ph), who says: The best bird this year was a yellow-billed cuckoo. Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Mr. BUTCHER: Now, that is a very unusual bird in the United States. They breed across the East United States, and some out West as well, but they're almost all gone in the wintertime. So it's a very unusual species to be staying put.

FLATOW: Wow. So we can still use our backyard birdseed feeders to watch for birds too, could we not?

Mr. BUTCHER: Oh, it's a great time for feeding birds because the cold and the snow really brings them into the birdfeeders, and just unbelievable surprises can come into feeders.

A lot of people are feeding hummingbirds in the wintertime, and now along the Gulf of Mexico a number of these hummingbirds are wintering where they used to just stop off on migration.

FLATOW: That's one of my great unsolved mysteries, how to get a hummingbird into my birdfeeder. And I've tried for many years, but...

Mr. BUTCHER: Well, keep at it.

FLATOW: I've grown all the plants - that's another story. We haven't got time for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTCHER: It'll work.

FLATOW: Thanks, Greg.

Mr. BUTCHER: Good talking to you, Ira.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Happy New Year, Happy Holiday.

Mr. BUTCHER: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Greg Butcher is director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington.

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