Audubon's Annual Christmas Bird Count

Get out those binoculars and notepads. For the 109th year, birders throughout the Americas are navigating tropical forests and crunching through snowy meadows to tally up birds. Count director Geoff LeBaron and Cornell ornithologist John Fitzpatrick discuss the annual event.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Whether you're crunching through those snowy forests in the Northeast or peering at forest canopies in Central America, birders from the Amazon to the Arctic are out there right now, tallying the birds all around them, and that's because we're right in the middle of the Audubon's Annual Christmas Bird Count. It's the 109th year running, ever since Christmas Day in 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a bird census as an alternative to a traditional holiday hunt, where the objective back then was to shoot and kill and bring home the most feathered creatures, even some of the furry ones that you found along the way that you could.

But back in that first year, there were 27 participants in the Christmas Count, and they totaled up 90 species of birds, including hawks, chickadees, sparrows, woodpeckers and loons, but the count has grown and changed just a bit since then. Last year, nearly 60,000 bird watchers got out their binoculars - no weapons - and they spotted over 2,000 species. We're going to talk about some of those birds and birding with my next guest, and if you have been out there with your binoculars, too, have you seen something good? Or maybe you can't figure out what you saw. Give us a call. We'll try to figure out what it is, and we'd like to hear what you've been watching, if you're out there in the bird count.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK, and if you're Twittering with us, you can send us a tweet at SciFri, and maybe we'll take your messages that way. Also you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com and leave us an email about what you're doing. Let me introduce my guests. Geoff LeBaron is the Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society. He joins us on the phone today from Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Nice to have you back.

Mr. GEOFF LEBARON (Director, Christmas Bird Count, National Audubon Society): It's my pleasure to be here, Ira. It's sort of become a part of my holiday tradition as well.

FLATOW: Well, that's very nice of you to say that. Thank you very much. We kind of consider it that to be that also. John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, and he joins us by phone today. Welcome to Science Friday.

Dr. JOHN W. FITZPATRICK (Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University): Terrific to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you. To get us going, I thought to sort of set the mood of what we're going to talk about, our producer Christopher Intagliata went to Brooklyn last weekend to tag along for one of the Christmas counts in Prospect Park. And we're going to - we divided up what he saw at the three separate little sections. Let's play section one now, and our tour guide is Michelle Dreger, who is a volunteer naturalist, and here's how the count got started.

Ms. MICHELLE DREGER (Volunteer Naturalist, Audubon Society): My name is Michelle Dreger. I'm a volunteer here at the Audubon Center. I've been working at the center for six years. This is our sixth winter together, our Christmas Bird Camp. Let's go out and have a nice time today.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. DREGER: Our assignment is to do an hour-and-a-half walk in Prospect Park. So, how do we count birds? I know a lot of people want to know. When you count birds, well, what if you see five sparrows over here, and then what if they're the same five sparrows that are over there? So, we have a lot of people here today - one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, oh, about 14 of us. So, there's 14 sets of eyes. What we want to do is we want to count the birds that we see at the same time. So, right now, what do we see on the lake? On the low water here, one, two, three, four - are they all mallards?

(Soundbite of people counting)

Ms. DREGER: I see two coots, three coots. I see three coots, a Canadian goose. Oh, no, that's not a Canada goose. That's the baby swan. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 - 21 at the same time.

Unidentified Woman: Coots?

Ms. DREGER: Coots.

Unidentified Woman: And then the mallards, one, two, three...

FLATOW: There you go. That's Michelle Dreger, who was out there in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Even in Brooklyn you could see some great birds. Right, Geoff?

Mr. LEBARON: That's absolutely right. Some of them - one of the best birding area is actually in the northeast of Central Park in New York.

FLATOW: And how's the count going so far this year?

Mr. LEBARON: I think it's going very well. I mean, we're obviously having some weather challenges, but we always do. It just becomes - it really is a part of everybody's holiday tradition that's involved with it, and I know Fitz know that as well as I do.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Right.

Mr. LEBARON: And it's just - it's a really wonderful way, you know, despite the weather, of people getting out there and sort of getting connected with nature. So, it's - things seem to be getting off to a great start.

FLATOW: That Fitz that Geoff was talking about is John Fitzpatrick. He's here with us also and...

Dr. FITZPATRICK: And I'll be doing my 52nd year of Christmas counting here in the next couple of days.

FLATOW: Wow, you don't look that old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You have a program called the eBird for citizen scientists. What's that all about?

Mr. LEBARON: That's right. eBird is a way in which people who birdwatch anywhere in the Western hemisphere can get online and put their checklist into a huge and very rapidly going database. We do this - invented it and run it together with the National Audubon. And we're getting 60 to 80,000 checklists a month now from people, largely North America, but now increasingly through Central and South America as well.

FLATOW: So, you're covering basically the whole Western hemisphere soon.

Mr. LEBARON: That's right. Anywhere, anybody who watches birds, they make a checklist and record how long they've been watching. They can put their numbers into a personalized database - it's ebird.org - and they can get going and become ebirders. It's basically birding with a purpose.

FLATOW: What do you mean a checklist? Tell us what that means.

Mr. LEBARON: The checklist is a full list of the birds that you've seen at any one spot. For example, on New Year's Day, I'll be walking for about eight hours, and I'll develop a list of probably 40 species, I hope. And I have a number for each of the species, you know, 17 song sparrows or three pileated woodpeckers, five house sparrows and so on. So, that complete checklist is a tally of the birds that were at one spot with a given amount of effort by a birder. So, we accumulate all of those across the continent, and we're now actually expressing some remarkable patterns of bird movements and relative abundance, continent-wide.

FLATOW: We'll get into that in a minute. Let's talk a bit of more, Geoff, about - my own backyard birdfeeder, can I be useful in any way looking at the birds there?

Mr. LEBARON: Absolutely. You can as long as you live within a Christmas count circle. They are two - I mean, as we've heard from their experiences last weekend, the people go out in the field and count birds that way, but if someone does actually live within Christmas count circle - and each named count is done conducted within a 15-mile diameter circle every year and it's always the same area - if you live within that circle, then you can also count the birds that at your feeder. So, absolutely. And we, on the Christmas Count, actually, we also, there's an account-specific checklist for each so the history of each count that's included in the database. So, checklists are sort of the heart and soul of any of the point-count sort of methodology things that are so important for this in science.

FLATOW: And we have birders checking in already. Let's good to Willa in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

WILLA (Caller): Hi. I was (unintelligible). I opened up my back door yesterday, and I saw this shadow through my backyard, and I looked up and just over my mobile home was a bald eagle.

FLATOW: Wow.

WILLA: And wow, it was just thrilling.

(Laughing) I'm glad I have a healthy heart because I'm sure it just about pounded out of my chest.

Mr. LEBARON: That's exciting to know there are bald eagles flying over South Dakota this time of year. That's a species that has spectacularly rebounded since its a little point in the 1960s. So, almost every state in the union now, as long as there's a little bit of open water somewhere nearby.

WILLA: Exactly.

Mr. LEBARON: And the eagle almost...

WILLA: And there're sort of reservoirs nearby.

Mr. LEBARON: Uh-huh. Yep, that's the key.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: That's wonderful.

WILLA: Yeah.

FLATOW: You should...

WILLA: It was really thrilling.

FLATOW: Well, now you can expect to see your second and third one, right?

WILLA: Exactly, yes, yes.

FLATOW: Can't be just one.

WILLA: I need to get out of my mobile home, though, and start counting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEBARON: You got that right. That's the key.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, it's a key to birding.

Mr. LEBARON: And eagles sometime actually do the occurring winter, especially in open areas in pretty significant numbers. So, as the numbers rebound and - you might expect even more, at least on the years when you do have some more open waters.

FLATOW: What does - if Willa one wants to get out seriously, does she just need a nice pair of binoculars? What kind of equipment that she need?

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah. Out there, I'd wear some pretty heavy clothing, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: At least in the winter. But absolutely a pair of binoculars and a good bird book, and there are quite a few really excellent, very convenient field guides now that allow you to take whatever you're saying right down the species quite quickly. But a good a pair of binoculars is really the key.

WILLA: OK.

Mr. LEBARON: It certainly is a big help. I mean, you can actually go out and I mean, it's - if you're careful, it's actually pretty interesting how well you can absorb and see birds even if you don't own a pair of binoculars. But certainly, it very much helps, and it obviously brings much closer to you.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Willa. Congratulations.

WILLA: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Have a happy new year.

WILLA: Thank you. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. 1-800-998-2555. Lots of bird watchers. Cindy, and is it Nebo, North Carolina?

CINDY (Caller): It is Nebo. We're between Asheville and Statesville. It's a very small, rural area. And I love your show. First of all, thank you so much for doing this every Friday.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

CINDY: I live in the foothills of Appalachia, and I've lived here for three years, and I live in a - surrounded by woods. And last spring, I started hearing at dusk a beautiful bird call, and all my rural neighbors who've lived here all their lives said, oh, that's a whippoorwill. Well, my older daughter who is very intelligent and astute said, no, Mom, that is a chuck-will's-widow you're hearing. And she pulled up the different sounds on the Internet, and sure enough, it was chuck-will's-widow. And I actually saw one, because they, I believe, they blend right in on the ground. That's where they sleep, or on low branch, and I startled one. It had just called, and it took off. It was a right at sunset. It was beautiful.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: And it's huge, isn't?

Mr. LEBARON: They're...

CINDY: Yes. Yes. And so my neighbors now, I've told a couple of them, and they said, I've never heard of a chuck-will's-widow. And I said, trust me, my daughter, you know...

FLATOW: I think a lot of people would have never heard of it.

CINDY: Oh, they're beautiful.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: There are two species of nightjars in Eastern North America.

CINDY: Yeah.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: The chuck-will's-widow is the southern one, and whippoorwill is the northern and coastal one.

Mr. LEBARON: And actually, last spring, I was out in Ashville, North Carolina. I think - I suspect that's relatively close to you?

CINDY: Oh, yeah, 40 miles.

Mr. LEBARON: And actually, the place where were staying I heard a whippoorwill out the back door and a chuck-will's-widow at the front door. So, you really have...

CINDY: Oh, wow. And I have since heard a whippoorwill. Actually, well, I thought it was a whippoorwill because now I sort of know the difference in the calls. Then in the summer, the tree frog started up and we couldn't hear anything except tree frogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FITZPATRICK: But you pointed out an interesting things, which is very much true throughout the southeast of many people, rural people actually refer to the chuck-will's-widow as a whippoorwill. So, it's sort of the - it's the more commonly known name, even though they're actually two species.

CINDY: Yeah, great.

FLATOW: Well, happy bird watching to you, Cindy.

CINDY: Thank you very much. Thanks for your show.

FLATOW: Have a happy new year. Thank you very much.

CINDY: Thank you. You, too.

FLATOW: We're talking with Geoff LeBaron, who is the Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society, and John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. 1-800-998-2555. We're going to take a break. When we come back, we'll catch up with those birders out in Brooklyn, see what they're - what the kind of results they got. Also, we'll take more of your questions; people have birds they've heard they want help to identify. So, we'll ask Geoff and John to put their bird caps on again. And stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: