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Citizen Bird Counts Going Global — Just as Warming Shifts Migrations

Americans are between bird counts, but this weekend the Brits worked on their big event, the Big Garden Birdwatch.  The bird counts are now spreading around the world–just in time to help capture how climate change is shifting birds’ ranges and migration patterns.

Once written off as somewhat silly and “wobbly” data, citizen scientist data is are now being taken more seriously says Audubon’s Geoff LeBaron, who runs the Christmas Bird Count, which was started by Audubon a century ago as an alternative to going bird hunting on the holiday.

“We could never afford to pay people to do that,” LeBaron says. Now known by the trendy name crowd-sourcing, this data is free and vast. But wait, that’s not all. The bonus is that it helps promote and prioritize conservation and creates bird advocates.

All of the surveys work differently and target different audiences. In terms of sheer data, the biggest is probably Christmas Bird Count: in the 109th count last year 59,000 birders tallied 66 million birds. But it’s a long, cold day in the field and no place for kids.

That’s where lighter events come in, like the Big Garden Birdwatch or the American Great Backyard Bird Count,  which starts here February 12. They’re kind of a gateway drug that birders hope get students and dilettantes hooked. From the comfort of their homes, half a million Brits count for just an hour. Americans have to stay focused for just 15 minutes. (And if that’s not convenient enough, you can do it during the year at eBird.)

This far-flung data net is catching amazing pattern changes. “A lot of birds nationwide have shifted their center of abundance northward and to some extent away from the coast,” LeBaron says. The ocean tempers temperatures, so as the air warms up it becomes less necessary to stay by the coast.

Twenty years ago, biologists discounted anomalies of migrators staying put as bad birders getting identification wrong. But now birding is getting better and broader. Digital cameras have proved rarities. We’re now sure that hummingbirds, for example, appear in the winters in the northeast. Still unanswered: the question of whether the nonconformist birds have always been here,  or whether they are moving in, due to either climate change or the welcome mat laid out by feeders.

What may be more important than whether bird counts spread east to west is whether they spread north to south, so that we get a whole picture of where birds go. Indeed, the counts are creeping southward. LeBaron is getting regular reports from Panama and more and more data from South America, especially the northern countries. Local groups are stepping up so that the data doesn’t just count on an ambitious individual working in the region for a few years. Africa is also getting started with counts, like South Africa’s map, which is hoping for the help of 500 spotters. As migration patterns change around the world, we’ll all be there to witness it.

Sign up for the Great Backyard Bird Count

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