Volunteers Turn Eyes to Sky for Annual Bird Count For the 108th year, volunteer birders are fanning out across the Americas for the National Audubon Society's annual birding census. Data collected during the Christmas Bird Count help researchers monitor bird behavior and bird conservation.

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Volunteers Turn Eyes to Sky for Annual Bird Count

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Next up, it's that time of the year again and I'm not talking about the stampede to the shopping malls or the rush to holiday parties, but rather people flocking to fields, forests and backyards to count birds. That's right, it's Christmas Bird Count time. The 108th count is in full swing across the western hemisphere. We're going to check in with the Count's director to see how things are going to - are going so far, and whether the recent ice storms in the middle of the country and snow in the northeast have slowed down the counting at all or maybe affected the birds as they hang around this season.

We're also going to talk about a new report from the National Audubon Society. It's a watch list of the country's most at-risk birds. Now, it kind of reads like a who's who of U.S. birds. We've got the piping plover, the whooping crane, the California condor, the Gunnison sage-grouse - all making the list for this time.

Joining me now to talk about the watch list and Christmas Count is Geoff LeBaron, Christmas Count director for the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Mass. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. GEOFF LeBARON (Director, National Audubon Society's Christmas Count): It's a pleasure to be here again, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi. It's our seasonal thing.

Mr. LeBARON: It is. It wouldn't be the holidays without it.

FLATOW: Thank you. How's the count going?

Mr. LeBARON: I think things are going pretty well. As you mentioned in the intro, we had a bit of a rough start at least in some areas with weather on our first big weekend. An awful lot of counters try to get their turn to see scheduled right on that first weekend. And a lot of CBCs in the northeast especially had to cancel because of our big nor'easter including one of the ones that I was supposed to go on.

But interestingly, I think maybe the snow that we've had and the cold weather actually seems to be pushing some of the birds that might be out sort of having a good time looking for food out in the farther regions of town circles into where people are actually able to find them. And on the count that I did on Saturday down in Rhode Island, we actually had an absolutely wonderful day.

FLATOW: Wow. The fact that you have a white background, does that actually helped counting or hinder it?

Mr. LeBARON: Well, it can help it. I mean, it kind of depends on exactly how much and how long it's been all white.


Mr. LeBARON: Up here, what happened I think is - at least in New England, it appears that for that snow that we had, it sort of pushed some of the birds that were lingering around down to the areas like roadsides and, you know, strip(ph) places that were still open, so - to where birds - we were actually able to find them. And we - in my area, we actually had an unusually high number of species and record numbers for a lot of things too, so.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Well, we're talking about the Christmas Bird Count with Geoff LeBaron. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Maybe you're out there with your transistor radio listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, call in, tell us about what you're doing on the bird count. Also in science school in "Second Life," you can come and join a group of folks with their SCIENCE FRIDAY t-shirts on. 1-800-989-8255.

We're going to take a break, come back to talk lots more about the bird count. What are some of the birds at risk? How do you count the birds? How can you get involved maybe next year? Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONA: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the annual Christmas Bird Count with Geoff LeBaron, Christmas Bird Count director of the National Audubon Society.

Geoff, what's -what is the focus - any specific focus this year?

Mr. LeBARON: This year, not really. We're -the - we don't - as in the past couple - you know, few seasons, occasionally, we have had things that we are either hoping to have people look for or key areas that we're hoping to get interesting results from, like last year, just sort of talking about the recovery in the Louisiana Coast. But this year, you know, really, it's pretty much hoping to have business as usual, you know, that's really what the whole Christmas Count is all about - keeping things going in the way they have been done for so long, which is why it makes it such a good yardstick to measure how the birds are doing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This year, you put out a watch list for those birds at greatest risk. Tell us about them.

Mr. LeBARON: Yes, the 2007 watch list was actually published in American Birds, which is the publication that results from each year's Christmas bird count. The watch list is basically, as you said, it's - this was a joint publication of Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy as well as many other authors. And what it does is it allows us to sort of publicize which birds are most at risk.

There are basically three levels on the watch list at this point, which is the red watch list, which are the birds that are most severely declining, and then two different levels on the yellow watch list, which means - which are birds that are either declining but not as severely or have potential threats or very limited range or population size. So there's various different categories that birds can fall into.

And the especially gratifying thing about this year's watch list is, for the first time, we've used not only the breeding bird survey to get a snapshot of how birds are doing during the breeding season, but also perform the first large-scale analysis on Christmas Bird Count data and, for the first time, actually have trend data from the CBC that are also included at generating the numbers.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. LeBARON: So it's a pretty exciting thing.

FLATOW: Could we - what birds would we recognize on your watch list?

Mr. LeBARON: Well, as you mentioned in the intro, in the northeast, one of the ones that - at least in northeastern as a breeding bird that we have up here that's very much at risk is the piping plover. It's, you know, restricted to sandy coastal habitats for its nesting needs and to raise the young of the year. And, of course, there's a lot of competition for nice sandy barrier beaches.

Out west, it's, you know, grouse and things like that. Saga-grouse, both a greater sage-grouse, which has become a widespread one, a relatively common in widespread, and then the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is restricted, really, pretty much to southwestern Colorado.

FLATOW: But are you seeing these birds move at all because of global climate change or local climate change of the season being longer or warmer in places and birds showing up where they normally don't show up?

Mr. LeBARON: Well, that's actually going to be the next phase of what we start to look into with the Christmas Bird Count that sort of comes nicely after the last segment.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. LeBARON: But for the watch list, actually, we weren't looking at range shifting. What we were looking at is long-term trend and how, you know, basically, how the numbers' doing in regions or continentally.

From this point forward, what we're hoping to do is actually - or what we're starting to do is look into what species and document how much species - bird species have actually shifted their ranges over the last 50 or 100 years as accounted by Christmas counters across the continent and then potentially try to draw some conclusions or hypotheses any way about what might be happening for the future with however things go with climate change.

FLATOW: Hmm. Are they - the birds at risk, are they all at risk for a common reason or are there just - they each face a different kind of risk?

Mr. LeBARON: In a nutshell, most species, at least in North America that are at risk, are basically because of some portion of their habitat is being negatively affected whether it's a, you know, breeding season needs or wintering ground needs or even migratory stopover point needs, something is negatively affecting them so that they can't, you know, reproduce in the numbers that they need to have stable populations. So a lot of it has to do with habitat degradation and alteration.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I understand that many of the most at-risk birds are in Hawaii.

Mr. LeBARON: That's true.

FLATOW: You would not think that.

Mr. LeBARON: Well, you might not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And you'd be wrong.

Mr. LeBARON: Yeah, you would, unfortunately. I mean, it seems like a paradise out there.


Mr. LeBARON: But, actually, there's a lot of pretty very serious environmental concerns with many of the native and endemic species to Hawaii. As people have sort of flocked out there, there's a lot of introduced wildlife and plants also out there and these very much negatively affect a lot of the native species especially if there are introduced diseases that come in and that's what's most affecting the birds in Hawaii. At this point, it's avian malaria that's carried by mosquitoes. And there were no native mosquitoes in Hawaii, and when, basically, Westerners started visiting the islands and dumping, bilge water into the Hawaiian Islands, they dumped out water that had mosquito larvae in it and now we've got mosquitoes there. And they carried avian malaria, and it just wipes out a lot of the native birds in Hawaii.

FLATOW: Any avian bird flu out there?

Mr. LeBARON: I don't think it's been documented out there yet, but I'm not sure on that.

FLATOW: Hmm, that's quite interesting. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

What about other birds showing up and competing? You know, we hear stories back east here of wild parrots and wild parakeets, you know, that have created huge colonies where they were never before.

Mr. LeBARON: Well, you know, couple of the most familiar and widespread birds in North America, the house sparrow - well, three, really - the house sparrow, starling - European starling and rock - well, people call them pigeons, but they're actually rock dove or rock pigeon at this point. Those are all introduced species.

Interestingly though, if you look a Christmas Bird Count data over the last 40 or 50 years, both house sparrow and starling, which are very common, widespread, intelligent and human-adapted species are declining pretty severely. And interestingly with house sparrow, they're considering actually listing it as endangered species in the United Kingdom where it's native.

FLATOW: No kidding, because? Can we know why?

Mr. LeBARON: Not really. It's a good question, because, as I said, you know, they - obviously, they do very well at feeders and they're very adaptive and can actually out-compete other cavity-nesting birds. Both starlings and house sparrows are cavity-nesting species. But there's something bad in house sparrows though, I guess are practically worldwide.

FLATOW: All right, let's go to see if we can get a phone call in. Jim(ph) from Cleveland. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

JIM: For 27 years, my subgroup in the Cleveland Bird Count has been in charge of finding Wilson snipes in our region, and the only place to find them is a regional county airport where there's some warm water ditches that are partially culvertized underground then come up and we can walk the edge of the ditch and flush them. But since 9/11, we have to sign in at the airport headquarters and are escorted by guards who watch from the truck as we do that. We used to be able to wander out to the airport, but everything changed after 9/11 2001.

FLATOW: Even bird counting. Had…

JIM: Yes, we found three snipes this year and usually it's one of the few places in Ohio to find them.

FLATOW: Has the - has your escort interrupted how many birds you might've found by scaring them away or anything?

JIM: No, we actually have to flush them by walking - two of us - on either side of this 4-foot-deep ditch that holds brush. So we always invite them along and usually it's cold and they sit in the truck and watch us.

FLATOW: There you go.

JIM: We waived(ph) this year when we flushed them. But the airport administrator is supportive of citizen science, so we're greatly appreciative of that.

FLATOW: Well, good for you, and have a happy and a healthy new year…

JIM: Thanks. Thanks, same to you.

FLATOW: …in the holiday season.

What do you think, Geoff? That's an interesting story.

Mr. LeBARON: It is. It certainly is a fact of - post-9/11 fact of life that a lot of the areas that many people used to just sort of pretty much have free access or unrestricted annual access on Christmas counts, not only just regular airports, but actually on military installations and other government facilities. It's a lot, you know?


Mr. LeBARON: Especially in that first year, it affected us. It's getting better now, but it's still significant.

FLATOW: If someone, next year, wants to join the bird count, how do they do that?

Mr. LeBARON: For next - well for this year, there's plenty of time still to join in.

FLATOW: Oh, there is, really?

Mr. LeBARON: Yeah, sure, yeah, because the counts will be done through January 5th and on the CBC Web site, which is www.audubon.org/bird/cbc, on the left-hand menu set, you'll see a link to get involved. And when you click on that, you'll be able to click on a thing that says find a circle near you. And it will give you a pull-down menu of states and provinces and countries. And basically, that will show you all the dates of all the counts for which compilers have entered their upcoming dates and also contact information for the count. And that's, you know, for the current season, that's probably the best way to get involved.

In general, though, you know, if you have a local birding group or Audubon chapter or nature center, we're just bird club. You don't - it's not a requirement that you have to be an Audubon member, but, you know, Audubon is the organizer of the program. But we - it's not a requirement that you actually be an Audubon member to join in. Then, you know, it's always good to contact your local birding group because most of them are probably getting involved in it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Christmas Bird Count, CBC, not to be confused with the radio.

Mr. LeBARON: Right.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible).

Mr. LeBARON: We do have to think about that in Canada.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, when we give out the number or somebody's going to Google CBC and come up with all the radio stuff so.

Mr. LeBARON: Yeah.

FLATOW: All right.

Mr. LeBARON: We actually have a Canadian partner. Bird Studies Canada actually coordinates the count…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. LeBARON: …with Audubon in Canada, so.

FLATOW: Well, Geoff, good luck to you this year as always.

Mr. LeBARON: Well, thank you very much.

FLATOW: And thanks for taking time from the count to come back and talk with us.

Mr. LeBARON: You're entirely welcome and happy holidays.

FLATOW: You too. Geoff LeBaron is a Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Mass.

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