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Health, Science, Environment

Being bird scientist for a day can help make sure that birds are thriving

A pair of bald eagles.
Christopher Grau
The citizen-gathered data from Christmas bird count can help scientists track the health of local bird species, such as bald eagles.

Conservation groups are looking for volunteers to contribute their birdwatching skills for the 119th annual Christmas bird count.

Between now and Jan. 5, experienced birders around the world are holding events where people can help count local birds. In Missouri, there are 20 counts taking place in areas that are good for observing wildlife, such as state parks and wildlife refuges.

Citizen surveys like the Christmas bird count can help scientists track bird populations, said Jean Favara, conservation manager at the Audubon Center at Riverlands in West Alton.

Those who attend the count taking place at the Audubon Center at Riverlands can help observe species, such as trumpeter swans, that local conservation officials have a special interest in.

“If we start losing swans at the sanctuary, that’s an indication there’s a problem in their wintering or breeding habitats,” Favara said. “So [the counts] can give us an early warning if there’s a problem that we need to explore.”

As the longest-running and largest annual wildlife survey, the Christmas bird count has provided data that has contributed to hundreds of scientific publications. That includes a 2015 study by the National Audubon Society that showed that climate change is threatening many birds in North America.

Volunteers don’t need to have any birdwatching skills to participate in a count. They’ll be asked to count birds along designated routes within a 15-mile-wide circle.

The citizen bird surveys allow participants to channel their inner scientist and question what’s behind their observations, said Pat Lueders, a Webster Groves resident who has participated in Christmas bird counts for more than 15 years. The experienced birder has attended counts in Weldon Spring, the Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Missouri and the Audubon Center at Riverlands.

“It’s fun because if you do the count every year, you usually get the same route and you can compare the birds you see each year,” Lueders said. “You start looking for a particular species in a particular place. For example, last year, there was 20 American robins in this field and this year, you don’t have them, so why don’t you?”

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