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Citizen Science and Bird Populations Trends

March 2015

Beaks and Bills

Citizen Science and Bird Populations Trends

by Joe Meche

Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 145 articles for Whatcom Watch.

Since 1900, citizen scientists have been in the field around Christmas time to observe and count birds as part of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC began as an alternative to the annual Christmas Side Hunt where people would go out on Christmas day to see who could kill the most birds. A group of twenty-seven forward-thinking individuals saw the folly in this tradition and offered the CBC as a much safer alternative, especially for the birds.

In over one hundred years, the numbers compiled on CBCs have created an enormous data bank to monitor population trends of wintering birds across North America. More than 2,000 CBCs are conducted every year by capable volunteers. The data collected, along with additional numbers from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the spring equivalent of the CBC, the International Migratory Bird Count, paints a realistic portrait of where the birds are and how many there are. These counts are systematic and consistent from year to year and are often the first to make note of any changes in traditional bird numbers in specific areas.

The Bellingham CBC started in 1967 and significant changes have been noted in its 48-year history. Two of the more dramatic changes have been with Canada geese and western grebes. On the first count, there was not a single Canada goose observed, while recent counts regularly number one thousand or more. Observers on the 2014 count tallied 1,548 individuals. Conversely, as many as 25,000 western grebes were observed on Bellingham Bay in the late 1980s and that number has dwindled annually, with only eighty-three birds reported in 2014.

Across the continent, similar changes have been noted for numerous species. The overall numbers of two of our own local birds − the evening grosbeak and the pine siskin — have seen declines across much of North America. Data of population trends compiled from CBCs nationwide is closely monitored and alerts scientists to species of concern. These alerts focus attention on the possible causal factors of significant changes in traditional populations.

The United States Watchlist is a joint effort of the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy, whose aim is to raise awareness of the need to conserve and restore habitat that birds depend on for their survival. The list is compiled using scientific research assessments and data from the CBC and the BBS.

Recent reports from point to thirty-three common species being in steep decline. These birds apparently don’t meet the Watchlist criteria but are rapidly declining in numbers throughout their range and have lost more than half their global populations in the past four decades. Like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” birds are susceptible to even the slightest changes in their traditional habitats.

Some of the major threats to birds are habitat loss, climate change, wind farms and cats. There have always been threats in the natural order of predator and prey or die-offs due to weather or lack of food, but manmade threats are leading to the demise of many birds in an ongoing and increasing manner.

The loss of habitat poses more of a threat to birdlife than any other. All birds have specific habitat needs, not only in their summer and winter ranges but also along their migration corridors. Some species, like the Canada goose, are more resilient than others to changes in their environment. On the other hand, brant will go elsewhere when their specific habitat requirements have been altered. Such was the case with the development and marina expansion at Semiahmoo. Dredging and the subsequent destruction of essential foraging areas caused many of the birds to forsake their former winter stopovers.

Climate change is forcing many birds to expand or totally change their traditional ranges. National Audubon Society scientists have predicted that more than half of 650 North American species could be affected by climate change by 2050 by moving to other areas, without the potential to make up for losses. Their report also states that an additional thirty-two percent could be affected by 2080.

Climate change has an impact on birds’ migratory habits via the availability of their primary food sources. Whether their diets involve insects or fish, they will leave traditional habitats if the food isn’t there. It’s easier to understand the bigger picture when you consider your own backyard. If you have fed birds for a while and then suddenly remove your feeders, the birds will simply go elsewhere. The overall adverse impacts of climate change will have a similar effect, albeit on a much larger scale.

The increasing utilization of wind farms as an alternative energy source is having a devastating effect on migratory birds. In a 2009 report, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 440,000 birds are killed every year by wind turbines in this country alone. Song birds that migrate at night are at great risk as they move along traditional migration routes. When wind energy farms are placed in these areas, collisions with turbines, power lines and associated structures are always fatal. Habitat destruction to build these facilities is also a problem for birds that are sensitive to change and have specific habitat needs.

Domestic cats are great pets but when they are allowed to roam freely, they exact a tremendous toll on all sorts of wildlife, primarily song birds and small mammals. Free-roaming cats are recognized as a threat to global diversity and have contributed to the extinction of thirty-three species. The situation is so dire that the American Bird Conservancy is promoting a Cats Indoors program to increase awareness of this frequently unrecognized problem. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst non-native invasive species.

Combine these major factors with equally devastating window kills and the widespread use of pesticides and you have a serious threat to birdlife in general. Despite the fact that there are billions of birds in North America during certain times of the year, we simply cannot continue with these widespread losses to one of our most valuable natural resources.

Bird populations ebb and flow and it is in our best interest to heed the warning signs and look into ways to stop the ebb. Read “Silent Spring” and try to imagine the way birdlife might be if DDT had not been banned when it was. Raptor populations — primarily those of eagles, falcons, and ospreys — were plummeting due to the pesticides they ingested. While the pesticides didn’t kill the birds outright, they weakened their eggshells and caused widespread reproductive failure. Many songbirds were killed as an indirect result of spraying chemicals to kill mosquitoes and other insects.

Throughout the associated histories of humans and wildlife, human activities have taken a heavy toll. Market hunting contributed to the extinction of some species; e.g., the passenger pigeon. The American bison was nearly driven to extinction by hunters and profiteers who saw no end to the supply of these magnificent beasts. These actions and attitudes were shared by the same folks who saw no harm in the Christmas Side Hunt. The hunters who pillaged the extensive rookeries of large wading birds in the southern states to feed the millinery trade had the same mindset. Fortunately, a small group of individuals looked for alternatives.

By monitoring bird populations and paying attention to the adverse impacts of our actions, there could be a turning point in these declines. As Christmas approaches every year, find a CBC near you and become part of the longest-running and largest citizen-science effort in the world. Volunteers are always welcome and it’s important to keep the count going. And remember, we’re doing it for the birds and for ourselves.

“We have the capacity to destroy the earth; we also have the capacity to protect it”
--His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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