Source: U.S. News & World Report, June 7, 1999
v126 i22 p54.
In forest and field, binocular-ed spies.
Author: Laura Tangley
Subjects: Bird watching - Appreciation
Bird populations - Analysis
Endangered species - United States
Business Collection: 116T0852
Electronic Collection: A54804021
Full Text COPYRIGHT 1999 U.S. News and World Report
At 5:22 a.m. he heard it: three slurred whistles
followed by a jumble of twitters, the mornings first
warbler song. Bruce Beehler turned to his four
companions, still snoring inside their sleeping bags.
"Louisiana water thrush!" he shouted. The race was on.
Once a year, Beehler, a Bethesda, Md.-based
conservation biologist, joins a handful of friends for
a "big day" spent tallying as many species of warbler
as possible from dawn to dusk. Their annual outing
coincides with the peak of spring migration, when
billions of warblers and other songbirds that winter
Latin America and the Caribbean return to their North
American breeding grounds. This year, after 15
exhausting hours hiking and driving the forests,
fields, and winding back roads of western Maryland,
the group racked up 31 warbler species (out of a
possible 36), plus one rare hybrid called Brewster's
Beehler's team is hardly alone. "Bird-watching is
the fastest-growing outdoor recreational activity in
the country," says Frank Gill, senior vice president
for science at the National Audubon Society. According
to the most recent National Survey on Recreation and
the Environment, a public-private study conducted
every five to 10 years, the number of people
participating in bird-watching more than doubled, from
21 million to 54
million, between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. In
contrast to the stereotypical old lady in tennis
shoes, many young men and women, couples, and even
families have taken up birding. Increasingly,
scientists are harnessing these bird-watchers'
enthusiasm, collecting reports of their sightings and
using them to monitor bird populations.
Such data are badly needed. Since the 1970s,
ornithologists have noticed steep drops in local
numbers of many migratory species, including the
Baltimore oriole, wood thrush, and several warblers.
Some full-time North American residents, such as the
California thrasher and the redheaded woodpecker, also
seem to be in trouble. Establishing clear
continent-wide trends and pinpointing trouble
spots--both needed for conservation--require more
pairs of eyes and ears than the limited number of
professional ornithologists can provide. Though the
majority of recent birding converts are less
experienced than Beehler 's group, several new
programs, many of them on the Internet, give beginners
training in bird identification and an easy way to
report their sightings. The annual Christmas Bird
Count, launched in 1900 by Audubon, is the grandfather
of such "citizen science" programs. Last year, about
50,000 birders participated. Since the 1960s, the U.S.
government has sponsored the more ambitious North
American Breeding Bird Survey, in which volunteers
monitor nearly 3,000 25-mile transects, recording
all the species they hear or see on a given day during
the summer breeding season. According to Sam Droege
of the U.S. Geological Survey, who ran the census for
several years, conducting this project without help
from bird-watchers would require "30 to 40 full-time
staff members, which we could never afford." He adds,
"Most of what is known today about the status of U.S.
birds has come from the efforts of volunteers."
Online tabulation. Now computer technology,
particularly the Internet, has spawned a spate of new
citizen-science projects--targeting warblers, forest
birds, HAWKS, bluebirds, even pigeons--many of them
sponsored by Bird Source, a joint project of Audubon
and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (box).
According to Cornell lab director John Fitzpatrick,
"The Web makes it so easy to submit, organize, and
present bird data that we're inventing new projects
all the time." Last year, for example, Bird Source
launched the Great Backyard Bird Count, a project in
which bird lovers, from teenagers and their parents
to local church and school groups, count birds at
feeders and in local parks for four days in
mid-February. Participants with Internet access enter
results directly online; others can bring handwritten
lists to a chain store, Wild Birds Unlimited, which
submits the data. Last February, 42,000 participants
counted more than 3 million birds.
Unlike most of these beginning birders, hard-core
enthusiasts often get started in childhood. Beehler
and members of his warbler team, for instance, learned
the songs of most U.S. birds in grade school--and have
never forgotten them. "I think birding was hard-wired
into my brain," says Cornell's Fitzpatrick.
Explanations for the general publics more recent
interest in birding range from humanity's fascination
with flight to the idea that bird-watching may be a
modern surrogate for hunting.
For "life listers," who care only about seeing a
species once to check it off a list, birding seems to
be just another way to compete. But for the majority
of serious birders, who tend to care deeply about
nature, birds may simply be the most accessible of
wild creatures. "Like us, birds are both visual and
vocal--and they're up during the daytime," says
Beehler. "To be in tune with most mammals, you'd
have to go around sniffing the ground at night."
Birding for science
BirdSource offers many volunteer projects
Great Backyard Bird Count. Survey wintering residents
at feeders and in parks. Warbler Watch. Count warblers
and help scientists map migration routes as the birds
fly north in the spring. Gulf Coast Migratory Bird
Survey. Verify radar data on migrants between the
Florida Keys and Brownsville, Texas.
Project Feeder Watch. Survey birds visiting your
feeder from November to May.
-- End --
I've been catching up on some emails today and read
many that had hidden in them despondency, sadness and
a feeling of being alone?
So my beaut little Ozzies, if ever you feel down or
even slightly ashamed that you like Oz birds or bird
watching then don't be. Also, don't forget that is a
very conservative estimate for the USA birding
numbers? the ratio is higher for the UK, as in those
that birdwatch as a percentage against the population.
I have this sneaky feeling that birding is a majority
interest across this planet.
Perhaps we need a T shirt that reads:
"I'm normal" "I bird"
John A. Gamblin.
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