People, Birds, and Science | Montana Audubon

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People, Birds, and Science

By David Cronenwett

MoKellyIsland_2011_tallyingbirdsst birders understandably, have a keen appreciation for nature and its conservation. A cynical question we occasionally hear from some quarters is why birds or any other component of nature should matter at all; but it is a question that has been repeatedly and resoundingly answered by our culture since the end of the nineteenth century. In North America, our extraordinary efforts to keep wildlife and wild landscapes around largely arises from our unbounded love of these creatures and places. Conservationists make numerous arguments for how nature provides “ecosystem services” and other functional benefits for humanity which are certainly valid. But I suspect in the end, we’re more often motivated to conserve the natural world by deep affection stemming from our individual relationships with flora, fauna and land. 

While these connections are what motivate us to act on behalf of nature, the actual management of wildlife requires a great deal of data to make intelligent and informed decisions. Conservation today is a complex art that attempts to balance the needs of both wildlife and people across changing landscapes. Given the serious ecological challenges of our time, more data collection can only help us understand what is going on out there and what, if anything, we can or should do about it. It may surprise some to know that ordinary citizens make substantial contributions to scientific understanding, especially in the biological sciences. A well-known example of this is the 114-year-old Christmas Bird Count (CBC) organized by various Audubon chapters or bird aficionados across the Americas.

The CBC is the longest running “Citizen Science” survey on earth. It arose as an alternative to the late nineteenth-century tradition of holiday “side hunts” where shooters competed to kill the most birds possible, regardless of species, their rarity or usefulness. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman suggested counting birds as an alternative and so the Christmas Bird Count was born. During last year’s count, over 71,000 observers in 2,369 locations participated in the US and Canada.

CBC data collected over the past century has directly contributed to our understanding of bird behavior and population trends over time. Birds are seen as a reliable early indicator to changes in natural habitats; they are easily affected by the presence of chemical toxins in the food web, habitat fragmentation, climate change and other factors. Because of this, their relative health and presence in an ecosystem can be used to understand potential threats to many species of wildlife and in some cases, our own kind. In recent years, CBC data has been incorporated in major bird population and climate studies by the Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other institutions, including Audubon!

Our impulse to protect birds comes from our affection for them, their beauty and the joy they inspire in our lives. In addition to its obvious utility to conservation, the CBC is about the enjoyment of birds and their habitat in the company of others. Nothing inspires camaraderie more than collecting important data in the field with enthusiastic birders on a cold winter’s day!


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