Kansas, Missouri join in annual bird count
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
By ANDRA BRYAN STEFANONI
The Joplin Globe
JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) -- A once-popular Christmas tradition of killing birds for sport has evolved into a Christmas tradition in which tens of thousands of birders document bird sightings in an attempt to help conservation efforts.
Called the Christmas Bird Count, the citizen science effort will take place between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, 2014, and will include area outings in Missouri and Kansas.
In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which banned the shipment from one state to another of birds killed in violation of state laws -- killing that was occurring both for sport and because bird plumes were a popular fashion item of the day, The Joplin Globe reported (http://bit.ly/1kRNCtw ).
That December, the nation's most celebrated ornithologists and editor of the newly started Bird-Lore Magazine (a precursor to the National Audubon Society) proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of shooting them.
Just a few dozen observers took part that first year in 25 locations across the U.S., noting species and number sighted. Since then, the counts have been held every winter. Last year's count, the 113th, saw 71,531 people participate in 2,369 locations.
Audubon and other organizations use data collected in the census to assess the health of bird populations, how they've changed over time, and to help guide conservation action. For example, data from 1980s counts documented the decline of wintering populations of the American black duck, after which conservation measures were put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on the species.
Joplin birder Larry Herbert, who has studied birds since he was a little boy growing up in Kansas City, Kan., said the first Joplin count was in 1915.
"There was one participant," Herbert said. "They spotted more than a dozen birds."
According to Herbert, for some reason the second Joplin-area Christmas Bird Count wasn't held until 1936 or 1937, when two people went out to document sightings.
"Perhaps lack of interest or lack of communications in the early days," he said.
Again, it fell by the wayside, until in 1973 a local group reorganized it and has kept it up ever since.
"Technology has certainly transformed it," Herbert said. "You can look up on the Internet Baltimore, Md., and see what birds were seen there last year and maybe even the list of participants. It's a big deal now."
Herbert, now 71, has been the group's official compiler since moving to Joplin in 1986.
"I take the lists of sightings from each person and put them together and then submit them to the national CBC," said Herbert, who earned degrees in education and in biology with an emphasis in studying brown creepers, a species of small songbird.
He works closely with educators at Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center to organize the annual group outing, which this year will be Saturday. Participants will depart at 8 a.m. from Wildcat Glades for an area near 32nd Street and Duquesne Road that is 15 miles in diameter. They've counted in that area since 1987.
On the Kansas side, Steve Ford, a biology professor at Pittsburg State University, has organized the Christmas Bird Count in Cherokee County since 1988, when he became a faculty member.
"At the time, I was a young natural history professor, and I felt compelled to start something and maybe hopefully to get some of the local citizenry and students interested in nature and birding in particular -- to have them become part of the larger effort," said Ford, himself an avid birder and charter member of the Sperry-Galligar Audubon Chapter that meets monthly at PSU.
"It is one of the longest ongoing conservation efforts in the country, if not the world, and I thought 'If I don't do it, who is going to?'"
With the help of Stan Harter, at the time the assistant wildlife biologist at the state's Mined Land Areas, Ford worked out a 15-mile circle that would encompass as much mined land as possible.
"It's unique here to Southeast Kansas, and I wanted as much unique landscape as possible in this area," he said. "There's also a lot of agricultural land in the circle."
His group will meet at 7 a.m. on New Year's Day at the Express Lane five miles south of Cherokee, Kan., where participants will be given maps and assignments for coverage. Small groups will then fan out to six pie-shaped areas.
"We always welcome new friends," Ford said. "People sometimes think they have to be hard-core birders, and they don't. If we get someone with not as much experience, we team them up with someone with experience."
On a good count day, they'll observe an average of 65 species, he said. Herbert said his group might observe that many, or perhaps as many as 75, depending on the weather.
"What always interests me is just the number of birds that are making a living in what looks to be -- it's not, but it looks to be -- a pretty desolate, sterile environment," Ford said. "To find not only the abundance of birds, but the number of species in the winter is interesting."
Sometimes they've been lucky, he said, and have seen a longspur or a bald eagle.
Herbert gives participants affiliated with the Glades group a deadline to submit their data, which he spends a day or so compiling and then another day posting to the CBC website.
"Sometimes I have to get back with people whose count was out of bounds, or they didn't see what they thought they saw -- maybe birds they wrote down that were highly unlikely," he said. "And that's OK. You don't have to be a member or an expert -- just have an interest in birds, and that's fine. It's fun."
Individuals also may count birds from their own yards and submit the data themselves online. Visit birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count to participate.
Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com
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