For the birds: Christmas Bird Count is critical for Wisconsin species

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

They don their holiday apparel and accessorize — fleece jackets, knit caps, hiking boots, scopes and binoculars.

Thousands of citizen scientists, most of them avid birders, flock together in December and early January to celebrate a holiday pastime: the Christmas Bird Count.

The National Audubon Society count begins on Dec. 14 and continues through Jan. 5. In its 116th year nationwide, the count is the longest-running wildlife census in the world, providing decades of data for researchers to identify trends and for conservationists to take action.

“People who watch birds are seeing changes,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “By recording all those observations, they’re contributing the information that’s needed to make a difference. I couldn’t be prouder of the volunteers who contribute each year.”

The first count in Wisconsin took place 100 years ago in Milwaukee. Today, more than 1,000 volunteers are involved in more than 100 counts in the state.

Wisconsin isn’t the most populated state in the country and it isn’t the largest geographically, but participation in the Christmas Bird Count is extremely high.

“What’s really cool is Wisconsin is just second in the nation to California,” said Carl Schroeder of Kiel. He and Kyle Lindemer co-lead the count in Wisconsin in a combined effort of Audubon and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. “It’s really phenomenal. Wisconsin is really, really active in birding in general and in doing this kind of organized, citizen-science activity.”

Counting counters

Ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer with the Audubon Society, gets the credit for founding the Christmas Bird Count. At the time, people engaged in a tradition known as the Christmas side hunt, a contest in which the hunter who collected the largest pile of feathered or furred quarry won.

Chapman was among the early conservationists concerned about declining bird populations. On Dec. 25, 1900, he and 27 other birders conducted 25 counts. Fourteen years before the once common passenger pigeon went extinct, the first Christmas counters observed 90 species of birds.

This year, the National Audubon Society expects more than 72,000 volunteers from 2,400 locations across the Western Hemisphere to participate in the count. The counts will occur in circular areas about 15 miles wide in all 50 states, as well as the Canadian provinces and about 100 locations in Latin America. The birders in the circles will tally every bird they see or hear.

In 2014, volunteers counted more than 68 million birds and 2,106 species.

Schroeder, in addition to his role as a co-coordinator, participates in one or two counts every year.

“I have pretty much my whole life, since I was 9 or 10 years old,” said the 61-year-old manager of new product development for Kohler Co.

He traces his enthusiasm for birding to his ninth birthday, when his Grandma Been gave him a Petersen’s Field Guild, the birder’s bible.

“I don’t know what made her think I might be ready for it, but she took me out … and we found a peewee,” Schroeder said, recalling that his grandmother taught him how to use the guide to identify the bird.

“It took hold of my imagination,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow. That’s really cool. There’s these little treasures out there that you can find.’ It was like a treasure hunt. And it just grew on me.”

By age 12, Schroeder was going out on his own to observe birds.

Today his “life list,” a listing of the birds he’s observed over the years, is at 604 species for the lower 48 states. “I just topped the 600 mark just this past summer,” Schroeder said. “I was driving cross-country with my grandson.” His 600th bird? A Virginia’s warbler.

Most of those who volunteer for the Christmas Bird Count share Schroeder’s passion for birding.

“I count Christmas Bird Counts like other people count Grateful Dead shows,” said birder Mary Khoo, who’s participated in counts in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Florida. “We all contribute to the greater good, and this is one way to blend passion and cause.”

In recent years, coordinators have shaped some counts to draw children into the circles. The first kids’ count in Wisconsin was in 2012 at the Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve in Two Rivers.

“The Christmas Bird Count harnesses all this passion in an effort to gather information that can be used to look for trends,” Schroeder said. “Are populations increasing or decreasing? Are birds shifting geographically? This might give clues to changes in the weather or climate or other factors. The data have become very valuable.”

Counting cardinals & other species

From analyzing Christmas Bird Count information, researchers have produced more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and papers, including a groundbreaking report released in 2014 showing 314 species in North America are threatened by global warming.

This month, findings gleaned from the Christmas Bird Count are being shared at the global climate change conference in Paris.

While the president and leaders of 194 other countries are gathered for the COP21 summit, Schroeder, Lindemer and others are making final arrangements for the count.

Prior to the count, state leaders are sharing dates and making certain a coordinator is assigned to each circle.

As the circle counts take place, tallies will be entered into a database, which Schroeder will review for accuracy and errors. 

“A lot of time goes into checking,” he said.

After the last count is submitted and verified, Lindemer will begin an analysis, looking at species counts and other information.

Others also will begin studying the details, looking for local, state, regional, national and international trends.

Questions linger from last year’s count. 

Researchers, for example, will be looking to see whether numbers continue to decline for Northern bobwhite, American kestrels and loggerhead shrikes — all species affected by habitat loss and diminished food supply due to pesticides.

Another focus will be on snowy owls, a species observed in 2014 in above-average numbers and a record number in Ontario. Researchers will be looking to see what happens this year as snowies begin to make early winter visits to the Midwest. 

In Wisconsin, will counters again see increasing numbers of cardinals in the southern part of the state? Is the species pushing north? If so, why?

“I love the idea that my observations can be useful,” Schroeder said of the information gathered in the count. 

And, he encouraged, the count always can benefit from more counters.

“The circles are never completed in terms of having too many people,” Schroeder said. “Some people are out looking on foot, some by car. We have a large number of birdfeeder watchers. It’s all good.”

And it’s all for the birds.

On the Web…

For more information about the Christmas Bird Count in Wisconsin, visit the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology at wsobirds.org/christmas-bird-count. Also, go to the Audubon Society at audubon.org.