Citizen Scientists Count Birds For Christmas For over a century, volunteers have been looking for larks and spotting sparrows in the annual Christmas Bird Count. Ornithologists David Bonter and Glenn Olson talk about this year's most exciting finds, and expert birder Bill Schmoker reviews the best gear for bird nerds.
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Citizen Scientists Count Birds For Christmas

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Citizen Scientists Count Birds For Christmas

Citizen Scientists Count Birds For Christmas

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This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. First up this hour, it's our annual check-in with the Christmas bird count. For over 100 years, bird lovers all over the country have been taking to the fields, marshes and coasts and playing a giant game of I Spy with their feathered friends.

The counts they collect constitute a crucial record of how species are moving and surviving. And this hour, the latest news from this year's count, and the big-picture view on the information that you, you, may have helped collect.

And if you're still itching to keep counting, there's always Project FeederWatch, which can keep you going until spring, if you like. We'll talk more about it and how you can get signed up.

Bird watching is no longer just a set of binoculars, a pencil and Sibley's; there is new technology that makes it easier than ever to identify birds in the field without carrying that hefty field guide along. We'll have a gear review later on for you geeky bird nerds.

Let me now introduce my guest. Glenn Olson is the Donal O'Brien Chair in Bird Conservation and Public Policy for the National Audubon Society in Sacramento. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. GLENN OLSON (Donal O'Brien Chair in Bird Conservation and Public Policy, National Audubon Society): Thank you, Ira. Nice to be here.

FLATOW: You're very welcome. David Bonter is assistant director of citizen science and the leader of Project FeederWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. DAVID BONTER (Assistant Director of Citizen Science, Leader, Project FeederWatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology): Thanks for having me back, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Glenn, tell us, what's been the latest news this year on the bird count?

Mr. OLSON: Well, overall, there's more counts in more places and more people engaged than we've ever had before. We've got - we're expecting to have a record number of counts. It's still in progress. It goes for another five days. And we've got - we're expecting to hit over 2,100 counts, of which we're expecting increasing numbers of counts in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. And it's really exciting, because about 300 of our 800 bird species winter outside of our borders, mostly south of the border. And so to have information on where these birds are wintering is really important. So we've got 90 counts, now, in Latin America and the Caribbean.

FLATOW: Let me give out our phone number, 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk about the bird count - if you're part of it, maybe with your cell phone out there, and you're counting birds. Or if you'd like to join us as Twitter. Yeah, you can tweet us @scifri. That's @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Glenn, how did you get so many more people included?

Mr. OLSON: Well, it's - you know, this is - we've - Audubon has come in to the information age, and so much of what we are doing is available on the Internet. And lots of younger families - I just did a Christmas bird count in the - I'm out in California, and I'm in the Sacramento Valley, did one two days ago, and half of the people that were on our count, this was their first count.

So I think, you know, we did a survey with Cornell Laboratory and the Department of Interior called the "State of the Birds Report" for the first time in 2009, back in March, with the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. And we, as part of that survey, you read the introduction - one in four adults in America are bird watchers of some sort, and more of those people are getting involved in bird watching - whether it's in their backyard or out in the field, things like the Christmas bird count.

FLATOW: Now David, you have a citizen science project, too. How is it different than this bird count?

Mr. OLSON: Well, Project FeederWatch, it's the same general idea, of engaging people all across North America, in our case to tell us what they're seeing in their own backyards and their own neighborhoods, and that's what Project FeederWatch is all about.

We have about 15,000 people from all across the U.S. and Canada, who periodically watch the birds coming to their own backyard birdfeeders, follow a simple protocol for how to record those birds and report that information to us here at the Lab of Ornithology and at Bird Studies Canada, who are our partners north of the border.

And that allows us - that information, an enormous amount of information from these folks allows us to track changes in how many birds are out there and where those birds are located from year to year.

FLATOW: And what's the season on that?

Mr. OLSON: We run from November through April each winter. So it's a program that you can take part in every week throughout the winter, if you like. There's certainly no requirement that you participate every week, but a lot of folks are actually really quite disappointed when it's ended in the spring and want to keep going year-round.

FLATOW: And how can anybody sign up for this if they'd like to?

Mr. OLSON: FeederWatch, you can go to our Web site, which is That's all one word, Or you can call us here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at 866-989-BIRD and get involved in FeederWatch or any of our other citizen science programs here.

We have a program where people help us study the reproductive success of birds by watching nests in the summertime. It's called NestWatch. Another great program for urban environments called Celebrate Urban Birds. The eBird Project. There are - there's an enormous amount of opportunities out there for people to get involved in science, and this concept of citizen science really is growing, and it really goes back to the origins of the Christmas bird count back in 1900. It's sort of the granddaddy program of them all, and it's not just in ornithology anymore. Astronomy, geology, you pick your discipline, and there are citizens getting involved with scientific research.

FLATOW: We have a couple of citizens already on the line. Laura(ph) in Arkansas. Hi, Laura.

LAURA (Caller): Hi. This is Laura in Talkeetna, Alaska.

FLATOW: Oh, in Alaska, wow. Go ahead.

LAURA: We're doing our bird count tonight, well, midnight tonight to midnight tomorrow night, and it's pretty cold out. It's minus-10 at the moment, but I'm looking out at my feeder, and I've got three grosbeaks and some chickadees coming, off and on. And my question is: When I do my count at my feeder, how am I counting those? Am I counting at a certain time frame, or am I counting how many I see all day?

FLATOW: How does she know she's not counting them twice?

LAURA: Right.

Mr. OLSON: Now, is this for Christmas bird count?

LAURA: Yes, it is. This is going to be our 19th year, Christmas bird count in this area.

FLATOW: Glenn, any suggestions?

Mr. OLSON: Well, yeah. What you want to do is just use your best judgment, and I would do it - the Christmas bird count is for a 24-hour period. It sounds like you're going to be counting at night, and you probably couldn't be counting in the day, and by - and just the same thing was happening to us. We had a bunch of tundra swans flying over, and then we moved into an area, and we weren't sure if we had counted them before. We tried to just use - you just try and use your best judgment.

But when you have 50,000 counters out in the field, 50,000 total observers, including the people at the FeederWatches, like you're doing, there's 10,000 of those people involved in Christmas counts, and you are able to sum those together with the total number of counts going on across the country. You can average those out, and whether you - you know, the fact that you may have counted a bird before or not counted it before, it kind of gets averaged out in the science of it.

So that's - I would just use your best judgment, common sense on that.

FLATOW: David, could she get involved in your count also at the same time?

Mr. BONTER: Certainly. Anybody's welcome to join Project FeederWatch, and I think I mentioned we have 15,000 folks out there that take part, and certainly if you have a feeder to watch, and you want to join us, we certainly encourage you to do so.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Laura.

LAURA: Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a happy near year.

LAURA: Thanks, bye.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. David, what have you found so far?

Mr. BONTER: Well, FeederWatch has been going for 23 years now, and it's just been a remarkable amount of information coming in to help us look at changes in where birds are. We've seen northward range expansions and a lot of common backyard birds in eastern North America. Species like the northern cardinal is now found far further north than it was 20 or 30 years ago - tufted titmouse, Carolina wren or other species that fall into that same category.

Another thing we're keeping a close eye on, right now, is the invasion of North America by a new species of bird called the Eurasian collared dove, which first got a toehold here in South Florida back in the 1980s. But in about the last six or seven years, the species has reproduced at a remarkable rate and has spread from Florida to British Columbia in just seven years. And that's a pretty remarkable feat for the colonization of North America by a new species of bird, and we're keeping an eye on that.

FLATOW: But it's also a wide range in temperature.

Mr. BONTER: Oh it is, yeah.

FLATOW: How can it survive? You know, is it Floridian, or is it...?

Mr. BONTER: Well, it's from Southeast Asia originally, but in the last century, it colonized all of Europe and can be found way up north into Scandinavia, and it's doing the same thing here. The birds are surviving the winter well in British Columbia and Alberta, as well. So they're very tough birds and very prolific, and we're just keeping an eye on them to see if they're going to have any effect on our native dove populations.

And we've looked at some of our FeederWatch data from Florida and just published some of that, looking at how the invasion of collared doves into an area affects some of our native species. And we'll certainly be keeping an eye on that as the years go on.

Mr. OLSON: Ira, if I could jump in, I would just add that the same thing - what David had mentioned about species moving farther north, we're seeing the same thing. We analyzed 40 years of Christmas bird count, and 177 of 305 species we've analyzed over the last 40 years are moving significantly northward, like in excess of 100 miles. And it looks like global climate change could be the culprit in this, that the average temperatures for January, the coldest month, have risen more than five degrees over the past 40 years, which is allowing these birds to move north.

FLATOW: And why do you do it at Christmastime? Why not at Easter or some other time?

Mr. OLSON: Well, I think it's just a traditional thing that we started, as David mentioned, back in 1900 when Frank Chapman, founder of the Audubon Bird Lore magazine, did this in order to keep people from going out and shooting birds of prey and songbirds and all sorts of things.

The tradition then was to just go out hunting on Christmas Day. And it's expanded into this Christmas bird count, where it's a watching exercise. But you know, and there are exercises and practices that David has mentioned, the FeederWatch, bird things; but there's also the Breeding Bird Survey that the Fish and Wildlife Service coordinates.

And if you get the wintering habitats and the Christmas bird count in area where the birds are concentrating in the essential habitats they need, together with the breeding habitats and then the migratory stopovers, you're kind of getting a snapshot of the entire bird's life cycle and the essential habitats they need for their entire lives.

FLATOW: And does your count go all the way up into Canada and down into Mexico, too?

Mr. BONTER: Yes, that's exactly right. In fact, we've - one of the things that - getting back to the citizen science aspects of it, we're - you know, you're going to the areas that have the best birds, and you're identifying the concentrations of birds as part of the wintering bird count at the Christmas bird count. And these lead to then becoming important bird areas.

We've identified over 3,000 important bird areas across the United States, and some of these locally significant, some are state significant. We have about 380 globally significant important bird areas, wintering areas and breeding areas for these birds - the 800 species that live in the United States.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break, come back and talk lots more about birds with Glenn Olson and David Bonter. Your calls, 1-800-989-8255. Twitter@scifri. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and you're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, and we're talking this hour about birds, the annual bird count that goes on this time of the year, with my guests, Glenn Olson of the National Audubon Society, David Bonter who is leader of Project FeederWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

On your next birding fieldtrip, you may want to put down a field guide and take along your smartphone, your iPhone or any of those smartphones instead, because birding is going high-tech, too, and there's an app for that, as they say.

There are new apps that help you pick out the calls or check the feather pattern of birds that you're trying to identify, and joining me now to give us a review of some of the gadgets and the gear that birders might find, they can't live without, is my guest Bill Schmoker. He is a Nikon Birding Pro staff member. He writes a column called "Geared for Birding" for the American Birding Association. He's a science teacher. He joins us from Longmont, Colorado. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Bill.

Mr. BILL SCHMOKER (Nikon Birding Pro Staff Member; Columnist, "Geared for Birding," American Birding Association): Happy New Year. Good to hear from you.

FLATOW: Are there apps now out there? Do you write any of them?

Mr. SCHMOKER: I can't say I've written any of them, but I'm using several, a virtual bookshelf I can now take with me on my iPhone.

FLATOW: Really, and so instead of taking that big, heavy book, you can just look at the birds there?

Mr. SCHMOKER: Well, exactly. I think you can safely say bird watchers like their books, but that's always been an issue: What do you bring with you; what do you don't?

So several of the publishers now have portable field guides, including the National Audubon Society has their guide to birds that just came out on the iPhone. National Geographic has always been one of the popular guides, and there's an iPhone version of that.

There's a whole suite of guides called iBird Explorer, ranging from a little free sampler up to a professional version. And there's some specialty ones. Peterson Guides have backyard birds, birds of prey, warblers. There's some other specialty types of guides for raptors and things like that, that you can just load on to your iPhone, and you have it with you wherever you go.

FLATOW: Can you also listen to the songs?

Mr. SCHMOKER: Well, definitely, and that's one of the advantages of this media is all the guides I mentioned include sound files. Many of them also include interactive links to Wikipedia or other online pages that give you more information about the birds, that take advantage of the iPhone or other smartphones' connectivity.

FLATOW: And can you send - let me ask Glenn or David. Can they send the information to you now almost instantly from their iPhone?

Unidentified Man #1: They sure can. There's actually a new application called BirdsEye that's been produced by the lab and a number of other partners, that has the sounds, but it also allows birders to tap into the eBird database here at Cornell to see what birds are being reported wherever they happen to be, and also to submit observations themselves.

So it's bringing together this new technology, linked through the iPhone, with the concept of citizen science.

FLATOW: And these smartphones have all this GPS stuff hooked on. You can now tell where you're - you can just tag where you are, Bill...?

Mr. SCHMOKER: Yeah, there's a lot of applications that weren't designed for birding that really support birding. And the one you mention is one of them, and being able to find out where you are. I like an application that will actually generate an email with a link to a Google map based on wherever you're standing. It's called GeoNumbers. So if I find either a good bird that I want other birders to know about, or maybe I just want to send myself an email to know where I was, it'll generate that for me. I just push send, and it's got the coordinates and a link to the map.

FLATOW: And there are other apps out there. There's one called birdJam, correct?

Mr. SCHMOKER: Yeah, so birdJam is designed to organize your iTunes library of thousands of bird songs that are available, but have, kind of previously, been hard to keep track of. So it goes into your iTunes library and finds all these songs and calls, and it organizes them alphabetically and by bird family, even by habitat. So when you're scrolling through your iPod portion of your iPhone or even just a stand-alone iPod, it'll have them organized and really be helpful to find.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's take a couple of calls here. Ben(ph) in Cleveland. Hi, Ben.

BEN (Caller): How you doing? Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

BEN: My question was: How are you guys tracking predatory birds that, you know, obviously aren't visiting the feeders, you know, such like peregrine falcons and red-tail hawks?

FLATOW: Glenn, you want to...?

Mr. OLSON: Well, I can say that that's one of the most encouraging things that we've been seeing in the Christmas bird counts is the comeback of the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle, occurring throughout their historic range. As many people know, the peregrine got decimated by eggshell-thinning problems caused by DDT, and it was banned by President Nixon in 1972. But it was essentially extinct as a breeding species in the eastern United States, and we were down to two pairs in California. Now, there's hundreds of pairs. They're being seen throughout the Christmas bird count range.

I don't know if it's essentially a predator, but the California condor was down to 26 birds. We now have three distinct populations. They are seen on many of the Christmas bird counts. We have populations in California, in the southern part of the state, as well as along the Big Sur coastline, a healthy breeding population of about 190 birds in the wild in Arizona, Baja California and California. So, really encouraging news about several of the predatory birds that were affected by eggshell thinning and then just other problems, like the California condor.

As far as the FeederWatch information, I would send that over to David, but, you know, we do get - in my feeder, we get Cooper's hawks coming in occasionally to take some of the other, smaller songbirds that are eating. But otherwise, it's not an area that you can really crack - the prey birds.

Mr. BONTER: We actually do track Cooper's hawks very, very well. They're one of the acceptors(ph) and one of these bird-eating hawks that often come around backyard birdfeeders in search of the smaller birds to prey upon.

Cooper's hawks and sharpshin hawks are also two of those species that fit into that category of birds that are being found further north in the wintertime than they were historically.

FLATOW: Thanks, Ben, for calling.

BEN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a happy holiday. Let's go back to the phones, to Gabe(ph) in Coney Island. Hi, Gabe.

GABE (Caller): Hey, how's it going?

FLATOW: Fine, how are you?

GABE: I actually am working with an app, as well, that is oriented towards birders and nature observation. And it's really exciting, because it seems like now, so many people can contribute so much more accurate data because it has the GPS, and you can have temperature data, and you can have a lot of other things. We're even working with somebody who is creating a CO2 sensor, so you could have CO2 readings based on where you are.

FLATOW: So you're actually writing the app yourself?

GABE: I don't do the writing. I have an ecology background more than a technology background. So I'm more interested in the interface and the educational components.

We actually - it's called the WILD-LAB, and we actually have been doing school programs with it. We got a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to go into schools and show kids how to use it and take them outside around New York City.

FLATOW: And when they go out with the app, what do they record in the app, or what do they use it for?

GABE: We're starting with birds just because there's so much available data. We also link with eBird, and so you can download eBird information and also upload to eBird. So we - it creates a file, an exportable file that you can then upload to eBird with very specific data, you know, all your sightings.

And yeah, it walks them through the process of identifying species and then - first you start with habitat and then see silhouettes of birds and pick the species.

It's exciting because it gets kids engaged in a way that - you know, I feel for a long time, technology sometimes could almost separate you from the outdoors because maybe you're tethered to a computer. But now you can put it in your pocket, go outside, and it actually engages you with the natural world, and you can provide this much more accurate data.

So it seems like it's an exciting moment for citizen science.

FLATOW: Bill, Dave, Glenn, any comment?

Mr. OLSON: Well, I would just agree with what your caller said. I was using the Audubon guide on the iPhone - day before yesterday on our Plassard County(ph) Christmas bird count, and we couldn't tell whether it was a Nuttall's woodpecker or a downy woodpecker. And we did the downy woodpecker call on the iPhone and actually called the bird right in to where we could see it in a much closer location. And then being able to take that information and downloaded it to your eBird, you can - you can create just a wealth of data for your local area that can then be summed up into hundreds of data points across your area. And you just get much more - the citizen science potential that this technology provides is extraordinary.

FLATOW: Isn't that kind of cheating, though, to put the bird call out there to track the birds and then count them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSON: Well, we had seen the bird. He was just flitting around far away, and we couldn't tell if it was a Nuttall's or a downy, and by doing the call. And it's - you know, this is not the time of the year that a bird would necessarily be singing on its own, but it responded to the call.


Mr. BONTER: Even the cameras in a lot of the iPhone technology these days, it's great for helping people document unusual birds and sightings that you wouldn't expect to see in an area. So you can just snap a photo with your iPhone and identify a species that shouldn't be there and help get that into the ornithological record, too.

FLATOW: Bill Schmoker?

Mr. SCHMOKER: Yeah, a couple things. I agree with - the sound part has always been one of the most difficult things to learn about birding. So having that with you in the field not only can confirm strange calls but can help you learn it faster.

But there's a responsibility that we hinted at that goes along with that - not to disturb nesting birds, you know, to use it wisely, I guess, is the best I would put it. But I think that the key we keep hearing is the interactive nature - not only can you get things out of it, like you always could out of a book or out of a tape record player or something like that, but that you can put back into these citizen science databases. So, it helps them and then it turns around and helps you learn more about birds, find birds more easily and really understand more about what they're doing.

FLATOW: We've a tweet in from R. G. Good(ph) who says I've fed the birds in New Hampshire for years. Usually I feel of feeders every few days but this year there's no activity. What happens to winter birds? I've actually noticed to my bird feeder lately that the birds are far and fewer in between this year.

Mr. SCHMOKER: Yeah that's actually a very common question that we receive and that's why it's so important to enlist thousands of people across vast areas to let us know what's going in their own backyards because birds do move from time to time and across the years. So, a large number of birds might have been in your backyard last year but they may have shifted their range this year to exploit natural food resources. And we really have no way of knowing what's going on unless we're watching across the entire range of these species. So, every little data point is important whether or not you're seeing a lot of birds or whether it's a bumper year, your location it's important to let us know what you're seeing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Beth(ph) in New York. Hi, Beth.

BETH (Caller): Hi. Well, I've an ultra-identifier flyer I just got for Christmas. I'm simply low tech but I would like the phone number because as I said to the screener there's two things that I've been working on. There's been - I've never seen a Great Blue Heron up close until this past year when they - I didn't know how big they were. As you don't know until you can throw your few feet from them that they have been coming out near literally on the shoulder of the highway. And we had, according to Encon, most likely we've a Sharpshin Hawk hunting our backyard and we're down so we can only fill one birdfeeder now because the squirrel is one year, two years ago showed up with giant gashes on their sides.

And then we realized, first I thought they have some kind of strange mange and then we realized what was happening that we've some hawk hunting our bird feeder so�

FLATOW: Beth, do you've a question because we're running out of time.

BETH: Well, I was told that the Army Corp Engineers would allow you to look at permit regarding development because it's not normal to see these birds. And I assume it has to do with development but that has shown no promise. So, I did know since they're Audobon Society, if they'd another tact that I could take regarding the development in the�

FLATOW: All right. Let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News and Beth wants to know if this is due to development. These birds showing up here and can she do anything about it?

Mr. OLSON: Well I would say that by and large the impact of development has not been helpful for many bird species and if there's a Corp of Engineer's permit that's been issued, for say, (unintelligible) wetland or filling it a wetland that's probably not a good thing. And I would encourage her to get involved, getting call our National Audobon headquarters to get the local autobahn chapter. We have 500 chapters across the country and we have 25 state programs across the country. That's what they do for conservation.

FLATOW: All right.


FLATOW: Thank you for it. Gentleman, thank you all for taking time out to be with us on this holiday. Good luck to you.

Mr. SCHMOKER: And my pleasure.

Mr. OLSON: Thank you.

CONAN: You're welcome. Glenn Olson the National Audobon Society. David Bonter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bill Schmoker who writes a column called Geared for Birding for the American Birding Association.

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