Citizen scientists flock to annual bird count

Tue Dec 29, 2009 11:29am EST
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By Ed Stoddard

MCKINNEY, Texas (Reuters Life!) - Walking on a heavily wooded trail by a north Texas pond, Craig Miller spots a large white bird lifting up from the water's edge.

"Good, we got a great egret," said Miller, adding it to the list of close to 60 species sighted by early afternoon on the cold, crisp day after Christmas at the Heard Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, a fast-growing city just north of Dallas.

Miller and a his group of three other volunteers are part of an army of tens of thousands of citizen scientists taking part nationwide in Audubon's annual Christmas bird count, which started on December 14 and ends on January 5.

This season marks the count's 110th year, making it the longest-running wildlife census on record and one that has contributed hugely to data about changing bird ranges linked to global warming and habitat change.

Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, said "there are hundreds and hundreds of scientific publications based on Christmas bird count data."

Among them is an Audubon study released earlier this year that looked at 305 widespread species that are commonly seen on the bird counts. It found that 177 of them, or 58 percent, had increased their range significantly northward over a 40-year period from 1966.

"This is clearly linked to climate change," Butcher said in an interview, referring to rising temperatures which most scientists attribute to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal.

Butcher said birds also shifted their territory in response to things like the stocking of fish in large numbers where they were not found before and habitat changes. He also noted that 70 of the 305 birds in the study had moved south.   Continued...

<p>Volunteer Bob Adams scans the skies for birds during the annual Christmas Bird Count in McKinney, Texas, December 26, 2009. REUTERS/Christa Cameron</p>