Citizen Science and the Christmas Bird Count

Watching and listening for birds to aid bird sciences.
This month groups of volunteers are venturing out into parks, cemeteries, neighborhoods, and office parks with binoculars, bird identification books and bird tallies in hand. What’s happening here? Science. Citizen Science. This type of scientific research is done by ordinary people, for the joy that comes with being outdoors, helping the birds they care about, and contributing new information to the scientific community. The specific citizen science project I’m talking about here is Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, which over the years has helped shed light on such diverse topics as avian diseases and climate change’s effects on bird populations.
This window says it all.

The Christmas Bird Count is the largest and longest-running citizen science census in the world. Last year 71,454 people contributed data to the 113th year of the Christmas Bird Count. The size and sheer scale of this event is great, but specifically what makes this count really amazing is the amount of data collected and its availability to the public and scientists. Scientists use the data to study topics that are quite diverse: where which bird species are in the winter, how weather affects the accuracy of the census, El Niño Southern Oscillation’s effects on bird populations, how West Nile virus is impacting the yellow-billed magpie, and if new management practices are actually helping birds.

Jim and Steve with their official Christmas Bird Count vehicle.
This is why new and experienced birders alike venture into the winter weather to count birds. On Saturday the 14th of December, I met up with Steve and Jim, Christmas Bird Count volunteers from the Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter to learn more about citizen science and to count birds around the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. This team has been birding together for several years and knows the territories of many birds within their count area. Since some birds tend to return to the same place every year they can go out with a good idea of what they’re likely to see, but even they can be surprised.
From the warmth of the Thomas C. Savage Visitor Center at Fort Snelling State Park we watched house finches, cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, and a hairy woodpecker flutter around bird feeders and trees. Steve and Jim were carefully counting the number of each species present when they realized there was a white-throated sparrow hopping about on the ground! This species is rarely found in Minnesota winters. For the most part, these birds stay in warmer parts of the eastern United States during the cold winter months, and then as spring arrives they migrate north into Canada. Some white-throated sparrows spend the warm months in northern Minnesota, but most of the population uses our state as little more than flyover land.
Map of white-throated sparrow distribution in January. Note that they are not particularly close to Minnesota in winter.
Click here to see a video of their movement through the year.
Steve and Jim enjoy the surprises and sense of adventure that comes with watching birds, but the Christmas Bird Count is special to them for other reasons as well. They take pride in knowing that by contributing their counts to the scientific database they’re helping the birds that inspire them to go outdoors time and time again.  
Turkeys in Mendota Heights.

Citizen science is a great opportunity to work for the causes you care about. Projects like the Christmas Bird Count provide valuable information that is used to help evaluate past actions and determine what should be done in the future. If you’re interested in citizen science in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area we have a few opportunities to get involved. In the spring we’ll be asking for volunteers to help us with a cottonwood restoration project. We’ll need to prep study plots, plant young trees and record how the cottonwoods are doing throughout the season. The information from this study will help us improve cottonwood restoration techniques throughout our National Park and will help guarantee that these trees continue to grace the river well into the future.

If you can’t wait for spring, we also have an opportunity to take pictures in the park for an ongoing phenology study of the Mississippi River’s most treasured places. Volunteers head out to record scenes of the park throughout the year to track seasonal changes. Over time we will be able to compare flooding, ice on/off on the river, water flow, etc. A new group of volunteers will be beginning their phenology photo projects in January, so let us know if you want more information about how to get involved.