IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Every year at this time for more than a century, the National Audubon Society has been asking volunteers just like you and me to join its Christmas Bird Count. Now this year's Christmas Bird Count continues through January 5th, and all you have to do is count all the birds you spot in a certain area during a single 24-hour period.
Well, we wanted to hear which unusual birds were spotted in our area here in the New York City area, so we called Audubon's Rare Bird Alert here in New York, and this is what they told us.
Unidentified Man (Audubon's Rare Bird Alert): Among the Brooklyn counts, 122 species last Saturday, where a Eurasian Wigeon, Red-necked Grebe, Rough-legged Hawk, barn owl, Pine Warbler, and two Yellow-breasted Chats.
FLATOW: Wow, all that here right here in New York City. So if you joined the Christmas Bird Count, you could have fun at seeing more birds and all kinds of birds, plus the total number of birds, the number of species you report. And they help the Audubon Society track how birds in North America and parts of Latin America are faring.
Last year, a record number of volunteers in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America counted more than 61 million birds. Wow, that sounds like a whole lot of birds, and some species, like raptors and doves, are doing well in many places. But the fact is, in general birds are in trouble. The wild weather we've been having here, you know, in the past few years has been very hard on them. Just look at this winter's heavy snow and storms out West in Colorado, places like that. How do the birds survive something like that?
Geoff LeBaron is the director of the Christmas Bird Count. He joins us on SCIENCE FRIDAY every year to talk about the results of last year's bird count. Plus he's been on three bird counts in Central Massachusetts so far this year alone, and he's going to tell us what he's seen in this surprisingly warm weather.
Geoff joins us today by phone from his home in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Geoff.
Mr. GEOFF LEBARON (Director, Christmas Bird Count): Thank you very much, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here again.
FLATOW: Thank you. Last year the Christmas Bird Count found that the mass of hurricanes of 2005 had been tough on the birds, especially in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.
Dr. Peter Yaukey is a biographer who is associate professor and chair of the Geography department at the University of New Orleans. And he has been studying resident birds in New Orleans since 1994, and he has signed up for this Christmas Bird Count, too. And he's been looking at how birds in New Orleans are doing a year after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
Dr. Yaukey, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. PETER YAUKEY (University of New Orleans): Thank you, Ira. It's great to be with you.
FLATOW: Before we start talking to both of you, I'm going to give our listeners a chance to spot a bird over the radio. You don't have to look at your radio. You can just listen to your radio.
We're going to play two birdcalls. And you can call us at 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK and tell us which birds you think they are. Two birds. Here we go. Here's a clue. If you spot this bird on your Christmas Bird Count, you're going to go down in ornithological history.
(Soundbite of first birdcall)
FLATOW: Wow, that's a tough bird to pick up. Well, let's give you an easier one. Here's a Christmas Bird Count that they - this bird is doing very, very well, even in New Orleans.
(Soundbite of second birdcall)
FLATOW: Even I know that one because I've seen them outside in my bird feeder. And actually they live - they actually take the seeds off the ground, not from the feeder themselves.
Give us a call with your guess. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You don't win anything.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: That's the bad news. You just get to tell us on the radio what you think those birds are. And you can also surf over to our Web site at Sciencefriday.com.
Let me turn to my guests. Geoff, how - can you give us a thumbnail sketch on how the count is going this year?
Mr. LEBARON: Well, this year here in the Northeast, anyway, the - as you mentioned, I've been on three counts so far this year, and I would have to say the weather is what I would call absurdly mild here during the count period. I know that's quite different, as you mentioned, when you get out into the, you know, certainly the Rockies and the West Coast. They're getting hammered with storms and snowstorms and a lot of rain in the South, so it's, you know, sort of hit or miss what the weather's like. But up here in the Northeast, it's been pretty ridiculously mild.
I've had flying sulfur butterflies on one of my Christmas Counts. I had a basking painted turtle, singing peepers, and I even had six American woodcocks in display flight last Saturday down in Rhode Island.
Mr. LEBARON: So it's not your typical kind of brutal, windy Christmas Count season that we expect up here. It…
Mr. LEBARON: Go ahead.
FLATOW: No, go ahead finish - because I was just going to ask what effect does warm weather have on the normal existence of the birds?
Mr. LEBARON: Well, it effects - as much as anything it sort of effects our ability to detect them. There's a lot of open water. Actually, an awful lot of fresh water has yet to be frozen, even up into Eastern Canada. So many species aren't concentrated into the areas where we usually anticipate finding them on Christmas Bird Counts. And also they're just out more dispersed, and some species, like robins and things like that, haven't had to move as far south as usual.
We actually did have a pretty strong cold snap earlier in the fall, so some of the lingering species kind of got hastened on their way. And we didn't have anything like the major fall weather events that we had last year that lead up to all the bizarre stuff that was left lingering across the continent, really, on Christmas Counts then with the sort of hurricane events.
So it's sort of a - it actually - the mild weather can actually be to the benefit of the birds, but sometimes to the detriment of the counters because we just can't find them because they're not as concentrated as they usually are.
FLATOW: This weather is not warm enough to prevent them from migrating, is it?
Mr. LEBARON: No. No, actually most birds that are migrating are pretty much programmed to migrate, and it's been more sort of keying on day length and the diurnal cycle, and it gets to a certain point in the late summer and fall and it's just - it's time for them to head south.
So they don't necessarily key as much on what the temperature is doing. Some of the other species, like robins and things like that, are more sort of keeping an eye to, you know, if - how much snow cover there is, you know, is there food available - wild food - are there still worms and bugs out, and stuff like that, so.
FLATOW: Yeah, there was a picture in the newspaper on the Web today of New York City's most famous raptor, Pale Male.
Mr. LEBARON: Oh, yeah.
FLATOW: Helping out a - an Associated Press photographer actually captured a photo of Pale Male spotting a bald eagle right above it with a fish in its talons.
Mr. LEBARON: Well…
FLATOW: That's a rare sight in Manhattan.
Mr. LEBARON: I would think so, yes. I'm sure Pale Male wasn't particularly interested in the fish and was much more interested in the eagle that was over his territory, so.
FLATOW: Are they natural enemies?
Mr. LEBARON: Well, Red-tails, or most birds of prey, are quite territorial about their breeding territories, and certainly Central Park is Pale Male's turf, his home turf, and he would notice. I don't think he would ever actually charge, you know, anything like an eagle, but he would certainly notice it and keep an eye on it.
FLATOW: Dr. Yaukey, let's talk about New Orleans for a bit. I've heard that the numbers of resident birds in New Orleans decreased after the flooding to the same extent that the human residents, like yourself, were displaced. Is that true?
Dr. YAUKEY: Yes, Ira. My data from before the storm when compared to after the storm, from some residential areas in New Orleans, showed that about two-thirds of the bird population disappeared for, you know, your typical suburban and urban backyard birds, like morning doves and mockingbirds and house sparrows and so forth.
FLATOW: Interesting. And how many have returned? Hopefully more people - more than the residents have returned.
Dr. YAUKEY: Well, it depends on which species you look at. You know, some species like - you mentioned Mourning Dove as being doing well in New Orleans. It actually - Mourning Dove is sort of the best case of a bird that does seem to be coming back and is approaching its former numbers now.
There are many other species, however, which are still very, very scarce. Cardinal appears, to me, on the verge of disappearing from, I guess, you can say, formerly residential areas of the city that got flooded. House pigeons are virtually gone. House sparrows might be at about 30 percent or so of their former numbers. So not all species are coming back but a few are.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones to see if we can get a winner on our non-contest. Hi, Debbie, in Aldridge, New York.
DEBBIE (Caller): Aldridge. Yes, hi.
DEBBIE: Do you want me to guess for the bird?
FLATOW: Well, why not?
DEBBIE: OK. I think the first one was an ivory-billed woodpecker.
DEBBIE: Is that right?
FLATOW: You have to get both of them. That was right, yeah. That's right.
DEBBIE: Yeah. I actually have - and the second one was the pigeon. But I actually have a book from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
FLATOW: It's not technically a pigeon.
DEBBIE: A Rock Dove?
DEBBIE: Oh, what was it?
FLATOW: Well, we have to go - you know, I can't tell you - I have to go to the - you got one out two so far. We'll find out later if it was close enough. OK?
DEBBIE: OK, I'll wait.
FLATOW: Thanks for playing our non-game. Let's go to Carl(ph) in Lancaster, New York. All the New Yorkers are calling in. Carl?
CARL (Caller): Yes, hi. Ira?
CARL: Yeah, that was the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Mourning Dove. That was easy.
FLATOW: Ah, the Mourning Dove. Yeah, that was an easy one. Do you have a feeder outside your home?
CARL: I have a few, yes. And I have a lot of Mourning Doves.
FLATOW: Do you notice anything different this year about the birds that appear? Because of the weather or the climate that we're having this year.
CARL: I have a lot more House Sparrows and a lot less - I have no tree sparrows, there's song sparrows. They're feeding the fields.
FLATOW: Wow, because the food is available. All right, Carl. Thanks for calling.
FLATOW: Geoff, interesting.
Mr. LeBARON: Yup. Right. That's the kind of thing that I - you know, it's the way that, you know, do it - given that the Christmas Bird Count occurs in the same place as you mentioned and the same people doing it in the same way every year at the same time of year. That's the kind of thing that, you know, you can sort of track over time as to what these - what's involved with the changes of exactly where the birds are and which portions of the local areas as well as the continent that you find them, based on just what's the, you know, what's happening in a given season.
FLATOW: And in the wintertime, the bird feeder helps because the snow covers the ground, but we have no snow out here in the East. So the birds are they're foraging on their own.
Mr. LeBARON: Exactly. They don't - they just don't really need to come in to the feeders. And it is - I just want to mention to remember that people should also in addition to feeding the birds, it's also important to have a heated bird bath, or at least keep one that doesn't get frozen during the winter, because as much - almost more importantly than the bird feed itself, they do need water and a place to bath.
FLATOW: Well, that's interesting. Yeah, and the water will freeze unless you heat it. All right, we're going to take a short break and come back and take lots more of your calls about the birds, so what kinds of birds have you been spotting, maybe some unusual occurrences, some rare birds.
We'll come back and talk with Geoff LeBaron about the Christmas Bird Count that's going on, and also Dr. Yaukey will tell us some more about what's happening in New Orleans. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
It's our annual Christmas Bird Count program. With my guests, Peter Yaukey, biographer and chair of the Department of Geography at the University of New Orleans; and Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count at the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.
Our number 1-800-989-8255.
Dr. Yaukey when you get back to New Orleans, was it like silent spring there?
Dr. YAUKEY: Yes, you know, it really was almost surreal at some places in the city where - which have been flooded and the people are gone and the birds are also almost entirely gone. And that the silence, both because of the lack of human noise and the lack of bird noise is really kind of very, very odd and very kind of spooky even in some ways.
FLATOW: And have they been gradually coming back or do they come back in little groups? I mean one at a time or you see them in groups?
Dr. YAUKEY: Well, it's actually pretty complicated and different species have been doing it in different ways. It seems like for some species like the house sparrow, what might be going on is that most of the increase in the numbers. And there hasn't been a huge increase in numbers yet. And maybe, you know, have gone from an 85 percent reduction to now maybe a 70 percent reduction in the numbers from formerly - it seems like maybe it's recruitment of young that were born here in the city - fledged here in the city last summer. Others seem to maybe being recruited from outside the metropolitan area.
So it really isn't clear how they're moving into the city whether it's singly or in groups or how much of the recolinization is occurring due to reproduction and how much of it is due to immigration. But I think it's probably different for different species.
FLATOW: Geoff LeBaron, are the birds - and I mentioned at the top that there was the impression that birds are generally in trouble in this country that - could that be a correct impression?
Mr. LeBARON: It's - I wouldn't say it's quite fair to say that all birds are in trouble. But certainly, there are some birds that are definitely declining and are in serious trouble but they're actually other species that are doing quite well.
As what Audubon is actually undertaking now is a large-scale study of a Christmas Bird Count database to - we're coming out with next year sometime or a document called the State of the Birds report, which will be the first large-scale analysis of Christmas Bird Count data looking at the trends that show up within the Christmas Bird Count, as well as in comparing them to the trend data that we see from the breeding bird survey in the summer.
And that will give us an even better idea of which species are going up and which species are going down - sort of a - you know, quick early results. We do know, that things like Rusty Blackbirds, which winter, primarily, in the Southeastern U.S. are really in dramatic decline. A species called Harris's Sparrow, which breeds up mostly around James Bay and up in Central Artic Canada, and winters in the South-central U.S., sparrows are declining a quite bit.
But Merlins, which is a sort of a medium-sized falcon, real feisty, a lot of fun birds to watch. They're actually doing very well across the country. So it's quite - some birds are increasing, some are decreasing. And some it's also, you know, are depending upon what region you look at, some are increasing and some areas are decreasing. And others - so it's sort of a patchwork quilt of what's happening with them.
FLATOW: Are they decreasing because their habitat or their food supply is drying up?
Mr. LeBARON: It's probably - certainly a lot of it has to do with the habitat alteration, let's say. You know, grassland species and shrub lands species as two groups in particular are declining sort of pretty much across the board because there's almost all the native grasslands are very much less than they use to, you know, in the extent that they used to be.
And shrub-land species, which - shrub-land is a transitional habitat between, you know, when something burns or farms or whatever and then as thickets and stuff comes back, and it starts to generate back into forest land.
There's a whole host of species, including things like Painted Buntings and probably some of the other species like Kestrels and Loggerhead Strikes that are declining that need that sort of transitional habitat.
And as agricultural practices are changing, there's less and less shrub land, and you know, parcels aren't left to go fallow and also as in development tends to gobble up areas that would be left to shrub lands. So those are declining habitats.
FLATOW: Interesting. Let's go to Chris(ph) in East Hampton. Hi, Chris.
CHRIS (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call.
CHRIS: And I just wanted to mentioned I have read in “American Bird” that the hurricanes not only affected New Orleans but apparently a lot of birds that were on their way south got picked up by the hurricanes deposited back north. And on their way back south, were counted on the count. So I think Geoff was actually the one that wrote that article.
Mr. LeBARON: Yup. I did.
CHRIS: And I think that's fascinating. I mean we had a lot of, you know, great birds on the count last year. This year it was kind of quiet. You know, but I'm doing another one tomorrow, so let's hope, you know, hope for the best.
FLATOW: What do you see out there in East Hampton?
CHRIS: Well, I tell you what. We had a snowy owl last week, which was nice. It's kind of rare. American Pipit, Ipswitch Sparrow, which is a subspecies of the Savannah sparrow. Those were some of the highlights.
You know, we have water birds. We have grassland birds, and we have woodland birds out here. So we get - as a matter fact, Montauk sometimes ranks very high in the count for the state.
FLATOW: Yeah, do you go out of the group of people? Do you go out of by yourself? And how much homework do you have to do to? Do you have to bring them the big bird book with you?
CHRIS: Well, I go out with groups. You know, we - it's better to have more than one observer. Especially a few years ago, I spotted an American Oystercatcher on the count. And I just happened to, you know, call my friend, Steve(ph), over and say hey, Steve, American Oystercatcher. And we didn't really think much of it until we got to the compilation dinner. And it was a big deal. So I'm glad I had confirmation on that.
FLATOW: And which book is your Bible?
CHRIS: Well, you know, I'll be honest with you, Ira. I grew up with Peterson's “Eastern.” And you know, except if I go out West or, you know, wherever I go, I'll grab a Peterson's. I like his art. You know, his birds are just the best. That's all I can say.
FLATOW: Geoff, you agree? Or you'll be more diplomatic?
Mr. LeBARON: I like them all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LeBARON: But I think certainly the beauty of the Peterson guides is that he really developed a system of bird identification that was unique and sort of set the standard for all field guides that followed after that. And you just can't go wrong with that kind of thinking.
And David Sibley's artwork is, you know, just fabulous. And he illustrates a lot more of the different plumages for a given species than have ever been available in any of the other field guides before.
But until, you know, the newer versions of David's books that have come out - the Eastern and Western ones - have addressed the issue that a lot of people have of it. The big Sibley guide is really - it's a little bit too big to carry around, unless you've got a really big backpack.
CHRIS: So it tends to be the book that stays in the car as a reference.
FLATOW: Yeah. Great gift in a car but it's tough to log around for six hours. Dr. Yaukey, you've looked at a bird, many of us associate with the South - the Mocking bird. Tell us how that's doing.
Dr. YAUKEY: Uh, yeah. The Mocking bird, very interesting here in New Orleans. Of course, a Mocking bird is a citywide resident, throughout residential areas as well as occurring outside the city and is in basically everybody's backyard or at least it was before the storm. And they took a big hit during the storm. More or less, you know, commensurate with the overall loss of the bird population here.
And then there was some repopulation by springtime, a lot of territorial males around. And I began to - I hadn't, fortuitously, I've been sitting my bird classes out on the University of New Orleans campus for about a decade before the storm. And part of their semester projects when I thought a class was to find a Mocking bird nests and to report on the fate of the nests. You know, whether they succeeded in fledging young or not.
So I have this set of data showing the pre-storm conditions as compared to what happened the summer after the storm, and all the data that I had showed that the Mocking bird reproduction in the city just skyrocketed during the summer after the storm. Whereas on the UNO campus, you know, it was the norm for a Mocking bird nest to fail, to get predated before the young fled to the nest. You know, maybe 10 or 20 percent would survive. After the storm it was more like 80 or 90 percent surviving.
So it seemed like somehow the storm had taken out some nest predator. I don't know what the major nest predator was or predators were before the storm. You know, I know that blue jay and crow numbers and also squirrel numbers, by the way. The squirrel population took a hit similar to both the human and the bird populations. Squirrels are nest predators. And so something had taken by nest predators, are allowing Mocking birds to have what appeared to be great nesting success.
I was expecting a big rebound in numbers in the fall from all that summary production. But for some reason, it didn't really happen. It seems like the young that were produced this summer either left the city or died for some reason without us being able to detect it, or something like that. But at this point, the numbers are still down for the Northern mockingbird, even after this strange summer of very high reproductive success; apparently a released from predation pressure.
The other weird thing about it was that it seems like the high reproductive success is contingent upon the male mockingbird actually being able to attract a female, and that it seems like maybe as high as a quarter or even more of the male mockingbirds were unable to find a female. And so there's kind of this weird playoff between difficulty in pairing, but very high success if they could find a female. But in the end, it didn't really seem to have much of an impact on the mockingbird population of the city.
Mr. LeBARON: So there's a very complicated puzzle going on there right now.
FLATOW: Yeah. I can imagine. 1-800-989-8255. Judith in Chico, California, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
JUDITH (Caller): Yes. I just wanted to say that talking to my friend in Andersen last week, it's just south of Reading(ph). He is having large numbers of robins in his yard. Now, we - the northern Sacramento Valley has been having record freezing temperatures.
FLATOW: Oh, is that right? And do you think that's affecting the bird population?
JUDITH: Well, this is no time at all that we ever see robins in this part of the valley. They come through in the spring, not really aware of them in a fall migration, but they usually don't show up here until some time in March.
FLATOW: Geoff, could they be coming out for the cold weather?
Mr. LeBARON: Well, it could be that the cold - if they had been further north or further up in the hills or something, the cold weather might have actually forced them down more into the valley and closer into areas - I mean into your - nearer to your friend's house. Robins, during the winter, actually do form big flocks, and often times form tremendous roosts. There are sometimes counts in the Midwest that can get up to, you know, over a million robins in a given roost.
So if one of those happens to be near your friend's house that could be part of it as well. And it's one of those things where, you know, most years you might think there just aren't any around, and if you happen to be near the roost, they're kind of everywhere.
But robins in general are one of the species that do seem to be shifting their range northward in the winter. And that's another one of the things that we're trying to look at with the Christmas Bird Count, is, you know, try to see what birds are shifting their ranges northward. Some are shifting their ranges southward in the winter. It's interesting to try to figure out the big picture.
FLATOW: Thank you, Judith. Could that be due to climate change?
Mr. LeBARON: It certainly could be. That's one of the things that Audubon's going to - and a lot of other people are very interested in looking into that.
Mr. LeBARON: We can pretty easily document what species are shifting their ranges. The question then becomes, why are they shifting their ranges? And to actually document that it's actually climate change is the challenge.
FLATOW: Talking about the birds this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Dr. Yaukey, as a biographer - for you, as a biographer, why is the Christmas Bird Count important to you?
Dr. YAUKEY: Well, the Christmas Bird Count represents the single largest data…
FLATOW: I meant bio-geographer. I'm sorry, I called you biographer. Geographer, I'm sorry.
Dr. YAUKEY: Thank you.
FLATOW: No wonder you were so confused, because I was confused.
Dr. YAUKEY: The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is the largest single data set, you know, anywhere in the world, you know, analyze - you know, that can be used to analyze geographical distributions and also changes in numbers through time. As you described well earlier in the show, there's just a huge effort amassed every wintertime by amateur birder who - you know, in North America, your average amateur birder is very, very skilled. And birders are really good at ferreting out birds and counting them.
And so it's really a very good data set to have handy, and it covers, you know, everywhere from Barrow, Alaska, to even some counts in the tropics now outside of North America. And even some counts done at sea. I have, you know, looked into it, you know. I've participated in it, of course, over the years just for fun, and I've also analyzed some things with it scientifically. I have used it to try and get a handle on impacts of both Katrina and Rita on birds in the winter following the storms, you know, landfall last summer - two summers ago, rather.
And those analyses are not complete yet, but they do - the Christmas Bird Count was able to pick up a very strong signal from those storms coming to shore. It is very clear from the count data that a lot of species, especially resident land birds, were in unusually low numbers last winter immediately after the storms.
FLATOW: Geoff LeBaron, do you ever count city birds like pigeons? Pigeons?
Mr. LeBARON: Of course, we do. We - I mean theoretically, every bird that every observer sees during the course of the day is the counted, and it doesn't matter whether it's, you know, a city bird or out in the forest, or if it's - we tally introduced species as well as, you know, native and resident species, because actually, it's important to keep track of what's happening with some of the, you know, like these escaped parrots that are so prevalent down in south Florida and Southern California.
FLATOW: We have them in Brooklyn, also.
Mr. LeBARON: Yup, among parakeets. Yup.
FLATOW: And Chicago - every place.
Mr. LeBARON: Yup, yup. And they're, you know, so - the real beauty of the Christmas Bird Count is just like, as Peter just said, it's, you know, mobilizing this, you know, you get all these people up here that really do know what they're looking at.
FLATOW: And how do you join it, if you want to join the bird count?
Mr. LeBARON: It's - the key right now on the - the easiest way to do it, or the best way to do it is on the Christmas Bird Count Web site, which is www.audubon.org/bird/cbc. There's a link there that says Get Involved, and that allows you to search state or by province, or even by country down in Latin America and look at the dates that have been posted for this year's Christmas Bird Counts. And then there's the contact information right there.
If you don't have access to the Web, you can always contact your local bird club or Audubon chapter. And you need to get in touch with a local organizer or compiler of the count. And then they'll get you out in the field with someone, or if you happen to live within a count circle, you can actually just count the birds (unintelligible).
FLATOW: Terrific. I want to thank both of you and wish you both great luck in counting birds this season. Good luck to you and have a Happy New Year.
Mr. LeBARON: Thank you. You too, Ira.
FLATOW: Thanks for taking time.
Dr. YAUKEY: Thank you, Ira. You too.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Geoff LeBaron is director of the Christmas Bird Count at the National Audubon Society, and Peter Yaukey is a bio-geographer and chair of the Department of Geography at the University of New Orleans.
We're going to take a short break and come back, still talking about birds, the birds people love to hate and why you shouldn't. Think about it. We'll be right back after the break. Stay with us.
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