Every year, tens of thousands of avid birdwatchers wander through frozen fields and marshy swamps. Their job is to record as many birds as they can find in a given area. For birders, it’s a day to enjoy the outdoors while doing what they love most. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, that passion serves another purpose – it helps scientists:
Every year, tens of thousands of avid birdwatchers wander through
frozen fields and marshy swamps. Their job is to record as many birds
as they can find in a given area. For birders, it’s a day to enjoy the outdoors
while doing what they love most. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Karen Kelly reports, that passion serves another purpose – it helps scientists:
(sound of footsteps)
Georgina Doe: “There’s five robins right there and there’s three common mergansers,
Georgina Doe scans the shoreline with her binoculars. Within seconds,
she spots a tiny glimpse of a bird and names it.
She knows them by the way they dive in the air, and the way they thrust
their chests out.
Doe has been scanning the treetops of Carleton Place, Ontario for
more than 30 years. She says she loves the chase and the element of surprise.
And over the years, birding has also been her escape.
She remembers watching a robin build its nest when her grandson
was seriously ill.
“So I used to count the birds every morning before I went off to
the hospital. And then after that, you come back to reality. Somehow a
little bird can just make you feel better.”
Birds have been a part of all of our lives. We might not know their names.
But we can remember holding a baby chick. Or hearing a cardinal on a crisp cold day. But now, many bird species are dwindling. And scientists are
counting on birders like Georgina Doe to help them find out why.
Doe is one of many birders in North America who collects
information for scientists. Jeff Wells works with that information
at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.
“There’s no way that we could ever pay the tens of thousands of
trained biologists that would be necessary to gather this kind of
information. It’s only possible when we can engage volunteers like
we do in citizen science projects.”
Cornell runs at least a dozen programs that rely on information
from average birders.
There’s the Christmas Bird Count. About 50 thousand people participate.
Another 50 thousand track species during the Great Backyard Bird
Count in February.
The volunteers reported that wood thrushes are disappearing in
many areas. And they’re tracking the effect of the West Nile Virus
on bird populations.
“If a little bird dies, usually it just disappears quickly
and no one ever sees it. So we don’t really know the impact.
And so looking at the differences in the numbers and distribution
might give us some sense of when the disease was rampant in the summer,
whether it killed off enough birds to make a noticeable
difference in our count.”
(sound of quiet footsteps)
Robert Cermak: “You can see it’s about 10 inches high. It’s all fluffed
up right now…”
Birder Robert Cermak tiptoes closer to a barred owl sitting in the
crook of a tree. We’re in Ottawa, Canada’s capital and a city of about a million
people. When it comes to bird counts, this is Cermak’s territory.
“It’s not often that you see a barred owl, any owl, during
the day. They’re usually more secretive. This one is not too
afraid to be out so it’s probably more accustomed to having people
around it, since this is the center of the city.”
Like Georgina Doe, Cermak has been birding for years. But even with
veterans, there’s always concern about their accuracy. Cermak
discovered this firsthand when he reported seeing a rare
harlequin duck last year.
“I sent it in and a few hours later, someone from Cornell –
very politely because it’s a delicate subject to question
someone’s sighting of a rare bird – but they very delicately
indicated that a harlequin duck is extremely unusual in Ontario and
could I please provide a few extra details.”
Cermak sent them a published account of the sighting. He also
gave them the number of a local expert.
Jeff Wells says researchers check their facts carefully. They look
for reports that don’t match others in the surrounding area. Sometimes
an investigation turns up a trained ornithologist… and sometimes not.
But overall, Wells says the information has formed the basis for
hundreds of published studies.
That’s something that makes birders like Robert Cermak and
Georgina Doe feel proud.
“It’s nice because you’re contributing. You’re doing a
lot of hours, it uses a lot of gas, you go around a lot of blocks
but we just think it’s important.”
(sound of Georgina Doe walking)
Georgina Doe says she doesn’t really think of herself as a
scientist. But she’s out there every day, with her ear to the wind. And that’s
what the scientists are counting on.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.