How Amateur Birding Aids Conservation

White-breasted nuthatch, photo by Van WaffleI plan to spend most of today traversing the woods and byways of Wellington County as a dry run for the 2012 Baillie Birdathon. Please consider sponsoring me toward my goal of raising $1,000 for bird conservation. As I will be busy reviewing the best local birding sites, let us take a look at how recreational birding can also aid conservation.

Every June I celebrate the Summer Solstice by participating in the annual Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). This international monitoring program has collected data on nesting bird populations since 1966. Thousands of amateur birders volunteer to cover some 4,100 routes. In order to standardize data, volunteers are encouraged to follow identical routes for as many years as possible (some people do multiple routes).

My Favourite Day of the Year

I have collected BBS data along a route near Dorset, Ontario every year since 2000. It starts at 4:54 a.m., half an hour before sunrise because birds are most active at that time, and lasts about five hours. I begin at the same place and proceed along a 40-kilometre stretch of road, stopping at roughly 0.8-km intervals, exactly the same 50 sites each year. At each post I must count every bird I see or hear in three minutes. It takes extensive experience and practise to recognize and distinguish so many songs and calls. I can expect to see a few robins and crows along the road. However, in the dense deciduous forest of Central Ontario I might hear seven or eight species at many of the stops, about 50 for the daily total. Most of them are identified by ear. It is mentally exhausting; my favourite day of the year.

Over many years the BBS consistently collects a wealth of data from a wide variety of habitats. Analysis of this data allows researchers to observe long-term, wide-scale trends in species population and distribution.

Birds as Indicator Species

These data have a wider set of applications because birds are considered good indicator species. That means they can be used to estimate biodiversity, an important measure of ecosystem health. Birds are relatively easy to observe and identify, they play an integral part in the food web and are sensitive to environmental change. Bird Life International has an article that goes into more depth about why birds are good indicator species.

Last summer I also participated in Ontario SwiftWatch, which monitors chimney swift nesting and roosting sites. The Canadian population of these birds has dropped by 30 percent in less than 15 years. The reason for their decline is poorly understood. Unlike the Breeding Bird Survey, SwiftWatch does not require much birding experience. You only have to watch a chimney once a week for an hour around sunset to see how many swifts fly in and out. The purpose of this study is much different: to identify and protect nesting sites, monitor changes and understand the ecology of one threatened species.

A Plague of Extinctions

Earth has about 10,000 living bird species. Conservative estimates suggest 750 species became extinct during prehistoric human settlement of the Pacific islands. At least 120 have become extinct around the world since the 17th Century. Of those surviving, 12 percent are threatened with extinction due to human activities. They are some of our most splendid, fascinating planetary citizens, but they deserve our concern and protection for far more reason than beauty alone.

Eastern Bluebird, photo by William H. Majoros (Wikimedia Commons)Bird Conservation Makes a Difference

Conservation is effective. In my lifetime I have seen the recovery of at least two species that had been nearly extirpated from Ontario. Bald Eagles populations had declined due to various factors, particularly DDT pesticide. In the 1970s there were only about three breeding pairs remaining in Ontario. Due to protective legislation and the banning of DDT they have recovered their former range in Canada and the United States and are no longer considered threatened.

Eastern bluebirds nearly disappeared due to habitat loss, particularly the removal of old orchards. However, they have made a comeback thanks primarily to property owners who provide nest boxes and diligently monitor the young for parasites. I even had the delight of seeing an eastern bluebird on one occasion during the BBS.

Support Me in the Baillie Birdathon

These are hopeful examples. They show how simple actions by governments, industry and private citizens can make things better. That is why I aim to raise $1,000 for bird conservation. On May 23 I will participate in the Baillie Birdathon and identify as many species as possible within 24 hours. If you would like to sponsor me, please visit my fundraising page. I have already donated $50 myself. However, to help reach my goal, I pledge to donate an additional $5 for each gift of $50 or more received by May 23. Many thanks.


4 thoughts on “How Amateur Birding Aids Conservation

  1. Very informative post! I participated in a bird survey once when I was dating an ornithologist. It’s a long day, but really interesting. I heard and saw so many more birds than I normally do, just because I was actually paying attention to them. Your post reminded me to notice nature more often. Thanks!

    1. Welcome, Sarah. It does make for a very long day. I am royally toasted, and today was only the dry run! Tomorrow’s post will include a brief report on some of the neat things we saw.

    1. I’ve been birding all my life, so it has come in a variety of ways. I learned some birdsongs as a child, some from observation, some from friends, and many from recordings. I have never taken any classes, but I’m sure they are available. The Breeding Bird Survey organizers provide all volunteers with training discs of vocalizations they can expect to hear on their respective routes. I enjoy developing this skill, whereas some birders prefer to concentrate on visual identification. You asked an interesting question. Maybe I’ll write a post about it sometime.

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