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Wednesday, April 8, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Annual Christmas Bird Count represents 120 years of citizen science

It was cold last Sunday as thick snowflakes left a glaze across the ranchlands west of Cheney.

Despite the chill and wet, Nancy Curry’s window remained open, the wind snaking through the warmth of her Jeep as we drove west on Salnave Road, Sunday.

“The one thing I dislike about my new Jeep is the tinted windows,” said Curry, a retired manager of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. “Being a birdwatcher, I find this (clear windows) to be a requisite.”

Curry is driving slowly and stopping often, hoping to see birds on the side of the road. She’s joined by a squad of retired regional wildlife all-stars: Lisa Langelier, the former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager at Little Pend Oreille and Turnbull national wildlife refuges, and Madonna Luers, the former spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The three women were participating in the Cheney Christmas Bird count, an annual Audubon tradition taking place across the country through the beginning of January.

Nationwide, it’s a longstanding tradition of citizen science, 120 years to be exact, although the Cheney count is only in its second year. And data gleaned from these reports has, in the past, been integral to our understanding of birds.

But things are changing.

With the advent of instantaneous reporting tools like eBird – an online database allowing users to report bird sightings in real time – reliance on the CBC data is waning.

For instance: A massive study published by the National Audubon Society in October that found that two-thirds of America’s birds are facing climate-change-related extinction by 2100, did not use data from the CBC.

Instead, it drew from more than 70 other sources. eBird alone accounted for 58% of all data used in the report.

This doesn’t mean that the CBC data goes unused, nor that the count is useless. Running, as it has, for 120 years, it provides an invaluable long-term winter data set, one that allows the National Audubon Society to look at trends.

Unlike eBird, the CBC is designed “to minimize the possibility of double counting other birds,” said Geoffrey LeBaron, the national director of the Christmas Bird Count. Instead, Christmas Bird Count participants patrol certain areas and are not supposed to log birds outside their area.

The ever-increasing connection of the modern world has given researchers a previously unimagined amount of data, which allows them to build on the 120-year foundation of traditional counts like the CBC.

“Our new models are much more fine scale,” said Trina Bayard, the director of bird conservation for Audubon Washington.

The October report used data collected in square-kilometer blocks. Previous Audubon reports used 10-square kilometer blocks, roughly the size of CBC count circles.

Sandy Schreven, the organizer of last Sunday’s bird count in Cheney, has seen firsthand how technology has changed the role of citizen science efforts like the CBC. While spotting birds and filling out the requisite CBC form, she also filed her sighting on eBird.

“I think it broadens our horizons, tremendously,” she said. “There used to be little snippets here and there. Little pictures. But you look on eBird and there are 10 to 20 people putting in birds daily … it really gives a daily picture.”

The increasing accuracy and breadth of technology-driven citizen science is impacting all areas of research. As of 2018, a social network called iNaturalist, which allows users to submit photos of flora and fauna, had been cited 150 times by academic papers, according to an article in Nature. Data collected by amateurs pouring through Google Earth challenged the findings of researchers studying biofuels.

Many scientists and researchers actively turn toward citizens to help collect data.

In the past, that would not have happened, LeBaron said.

“The scientific community was reluctant if not adamantly opposed,” to citizen science, he said.

Luers, a 34-year spokeswoman for WDFW saw that change firsthand. Early in her career, many biologists and other professionals were reluctant to partner with amateurs.

But as data-driven wildlife management became the new paradigm, agencies found themselves leaning on their constituents, unable to gather that much data on their own.

A positive secondary outcome has been better relationships between citizens and wildlife management agencies.

“It has been absolutely a phenomenal way for the agency to connect with the people they serve,” Luers said.

That shift – from the exclusion of nonprofessionals to the embrace of dedicated amateurs – was spurred in part by the Christmas Bird Count.

Started in 1900, it was offered as an alternative to the traditional Christmas Day activity of the time, shooting birds. That first year, 27 people counted birds in 25 areas around the country.

It has only grown. Last year, nearly 80,000 observers worked in 2,800 10-kilometer square blocks, known as circles. Those 120 years of observation have created a massive repository of data, information which has been used to document the gradual movement of bird species in response to climate change, among many other things.

Now the National Audubon Society receives three to four requests per week from researchers hoping to get their hands on the CBC data.

In addition to that, and perhaps even more important, the CBC gives participants a sense of hope and agency when facing the planet-sized existential threat that is climate change.

“It is relevant to your yard,” LeBaron said of climate change. “And you.”

That connection and concern was evident as we patrolled the back roads of Cheney.

Langelier and Curry (the retired Fish and Wildlife refuge managers) live in the Cheney area. They see the season-by-season changes. Over the course of the day, they documented 23 species and 712 individual birds. They spoke congenially about the differing habits of red-tailed hawks, California quails, rock doves and more.

They commented on the changes they’ve seen. Species that no longer visit. The emerging impacts of climate change and the ever-continuing expansion of humans.

“You can’t get through 10 minutes without hearing a jet airplane or car,” Curry said.

Langelier added, “Or a peacock.”

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