PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — For nearly 100 years, people in Portland have been coming together to count all the birds they see on a single day of the year.
The event — called the Christmas Bird Count — is held in cities across the country by the National Audubon Society. Community members young and old lace up their hiking shoes, grab a set of binoculars and gather in groups to count and identify all the birds they can in a given area.
It’s a chance for expert birders and novice wildlife lovers alike to enjoy a fun winter activity. But the Christmas Bird Count also plays a critical role in conservation and population studies.
For many in the Portland area, the Christmas Bird Count (or CBC for short) has been a holiday tradition for decades.
Joe Liebezeit, a staff scientist and the avian conservation manager at Portland Audubon, said the CBC actually started in Portland in 1915 but wasn’t held consistently every year until 1926.
“Originally, people around this time of year would go hunting birds and at the time, there was a big push for conservation and recognizing that that probably wasn’t a good idea — to just start shooting birds,” Liebezeit said. “So people just started counting the birds in their area and over time, it’s led to this amazing database.”
Today, there are thousands of Christmas Bird Counts around the world, though the biggest contributors are in the United States and Canada.
“The power of the Christmas Bird Count is really pooling all those circles — all the data from all the different circles across the country — together and looking at the long-time trends,” said Liebezeit.
About 50 people gathered just before dawn on Jan.4 for the 2019-2020 Christmas Bird Count. After a quick orientation at the Portland Audubon center on NW Cornell Road, they were split into a handful of groups, each led by an experienced birder, and sent out with maps to various sectors around Portland. In all, the groups covered a 15-mile area.
Liebezeit led one of the groups consisting of seasoned bird spotters and a couple of kids with keen eyes for winged wildlife. Together, they recorded sightings of golden crown sparrows, pigeons, mallards, flickers, red wing blackbirds, red-tailed hawks, chickadees (black-capped and chestnut-backed), cackling geese, Bewick’s wrens, white-throated sparrows, juncos, scrub jays, Anna’s hummingbirds and — no the surprise of no one — crows.
There were also a few starlings — birds that aren’t native to North America.
“Someone brought them over here that was really into Shakespeare, I guess,” said Liebezeit. “He brought over like 12 pairs and released them in Central Park and they’ve just spread everywhere across a lot of North America.”
And starlings aren’t known for their neighborly behavior among the avian kingdom.
“They kick bluebirds out of their boxes, they’re a cavity nester,” said Liebezeit. “But ultimately it’s people’s fault, that’s the thing I always try to remind people.”
And while some birds — like the starling — can manage to thrive in just about any habitat, many native birds are at risk of environmental changes.
“You may have heard recently there was a study published by the Cornell Lab looking at, not bird diversity, but abundance of birds and they found that of all the bird species they looked at — they looked at hundreds of different bird species in North America — they found out the abundance of birds has decreased. Even for birds that you think are common birds; abundances have decreased significantly,” said Liebezeit.
The Cornell study concluded the North American bird population is down by nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. Researchers say urgent action is needed to keep our common backyard birds from disappearing — and those taking part in the Christmas Bird Count are heeding the call.
“It’s a bit sobering; it should be an impetus for all of us to be really concerned and get involved in activities to try and help birds,” said Liebezeit. “But it also shows you the power of using community science to collect data that a lone researcher could never do.”
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