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Health, Science, Environment

Counting Birds This Month Could Let Scientists Know Which Birds Need Help

A robin in the snow.
Greg Munteanu | St. Louis Public Radio
The data collected by people who attend the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count has contributed to scientific studies on many bird species.

An annual winter bird-watching event kicks off this weekend, giving people the chance to learn about birds and collect data for wildlife scientists.

Nature lovers in the St. Louis area will gather in parks and wildlife refuges to partake in the National Audubon Society’s 120th Christmas Bird Count from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. There are 20 gatherings taking place in Missouri and almost 90 in Illinois.

The citizen surveys have helped scientists determine which bird species may be in trouble, said Sarah Kendrick, Missouri’s state ornithologist. For example, scientists reported in the journal Science in September that 29% of North American birds have declined since 1970

“That’s pretty alarming, but they were able to calculate that net loss of birds tied directly to monitoring efforts like the Christmas bird count,” Kendrick said. “Birds fulfill really important roles in our ecosystem; they’re declining, and they do need our help. People can do many things for birds at any level.” 

Many bird species have declined largely due to climate change and industrial farming. Grassland birds, like the Eastern meadowlark, have been hurt the most, Kendrick said. 

She also worked on a state bird conservation plan that the Missouri Department of Conservation released in October detailing many ways people can protect Missouri’s birds. They include planting native plants in yards and participating in events like the Christmas Bird Count. Kendrick will be leading a group in Kirksville on Jan. 3. 

People participate in Christmas Bird Counts gatherings, called circles, by following a route within a 15-mile radius of the meeting spot. Kirksville resident Anne McCormack has led the circle in Weldon Spring for about 10 years, which includes the August Busch Memorial Conservation Area, Broemmelsiek Park and Edmund A. Babler State Park. 

At past bird count events, McCormack has seen bald eagles, a type of falcon called a merlin, and, at one time, a bobcat. 

“We see some really interesting things every year. There’s always something unexpected that we see,” she said. 

The Weldon Spring circle meets at the Busch Conservation Area’s headquarters building on Dec. 22. McCormack recommends that first-time birders dress warmly, bring a lunch and ask many questions. 

“If you can’t see the bird we’re talking about, step to the left or right. You’re probably just blocked,” she said. 

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