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NWA Audubon Society calls upon citizen scientists to count local birds

A LeConte's Sparrow perches on the day of the 2023 Christmas Bird Count.
Mitchell Pruitt
A LeConte's Sparrow perches on the day of the 2023 Christmas Bird Count.

Every December, citizen scientists bundle up and travel around Fayetteville. Their eyes are skyward. Their ears are primed for chirps, squawks and songs.

These scientists are bird watchers: members of the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society, and they are participating in the Christmas Bird Count.

The count is an annual tradition in which groups of bird watchers, or birders, gather to- well- count birds. The idea of a winter birding expedition is an old one.

“The idea of it comes from the 19th century when groups of people- around the turn of the year- would get together and form smaller hunting parties that were competing to see how many birds and other animals they could shoot and kill and bring home,” Pruitt said.

That’s Mitchell Pruitt. He’s a PhD candidate at the University of Arkansas who researches owl migration. He headed the Northwest Arkansas Christmas Bird count this year.

He says that around the turn of the century, there was a shift in focus toward conservation efforts of species that naturalists noticed were declining.

“Around 1900, several ornithologists got together and took this decades, and possibly centuries-old concept of winter hunt and turned it into the Christmas Bird Count where small parties of bird watchers would get together and go out for a set amount of time,” Pruitt said. “And count the birds, the number of species, and the number of individuals within a species that they could see during whatever that set time is.”

Jump forward to the present day, and the once-Christmas bird hunt has transformed into a standardized, widespread survey method assisting ornithologists in their conservation efforts. The count now has birders working throughout a single day counting birds in a 15-mile radius from a predetermined point in their area. Pruitt says researchers are able to gather and examine a wide range of data thanks to people participating.

Birders of the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society.
Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society
Birders of the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society.

“This sort of data collection would fall under citizen science,” Pruitt said, “which is any way that non-career scientists so citizens can collect data for scientific purposes. And, of course, there are some career scientists involved in this, too. But it's meant for sort of the general public to collect the data to be used later, because scientific studies are great, but a limiting factor often is how much data we can collect across space and time. And so, by drumming up business in the public and birdwatchers, we can collect more data across larger spaces and across larger time periods to be used in future scientific analyses.”

The count has grown quite a bit since its early days. The 2023 count marked the initiative's 123rd year and included 2,625 separate counts across the United States, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands. Over 79,000 birders and citizen scientists joined the effort to collect data in those counts.

Fayetteville’s count isn’t especially large, but it isn’t the smallest either. Pruitt says they usually have anywhere from 30-50 participants armed with binoculars, notepads and birding apps on their phones.

“And during the day, different groups of people will go out into different sections of the circle and count the birds that they see,” Pruitt said. “And that data comes back and is compiled and is submitted to the National Audubon Society that runs the database for Christmas Bird Count data. And in that database, you log effort data as well, which is important. So it's like, how many? How many people were out? And how many hours? Were they out? How many miles did they cover? That sort of thing. And in order to come up with meaningful estimates of what the count data means. And using that information, you can look at trends over time, which is sort of what all of this boils down to like the why. Why do we go to this effort every year to count birds at a set period of time? And by having a set schedule to count birds across the years and a set place, so the count circles to count birds within, we can really use that data across time to look at trends and populations, which is what is super important.”

Pruitt says citizen science projects like the Christmas Bird Count have drawn attention toward alarming trends over the past few decades. Bird populations are rapidly declining, even in our own backyard.

Bonnie Taylor Barry
Adobe Stock
Songbirds native to Arkansas perch on a branch.

Zooming out of Northwest Arkansas, the American Bird Conservancy reports that since 1970, North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds. Roughly 90% of that loss came from 12 families of bird species, including sparrows, finches and warblers. These are all common backyard birds that play a large role in local ecosystems. They eat insects that many people consider pests, they pollinate plants and spread seeds, and they even provide a food source for larger birds of prey and mammals.

Pruitt says many factors are contributing to this national decline.

“One of the more concerning ones is climate-related,” Pruitt said. “And there's evidence that shows migrants- not just birds of prey- but also migratory songbirds. So, warblers, various sparrows, bluebirds, those sorts of that sort of cohort of birds. That migration is shifting over time. And this is thought to be primarily climate-related. So, in some species, we see what we would call short-stopping, which is not migrating as far, or we see advanced migrations in the fall. So species leaving earlier, or delayed migrations in the spring. And the flip-flop of those.”

These negative trends are present in Northwest Arkansas, too, a region where rapid urbanization has taken hold, leaving native species struggling to find a place.

“I can think of some examples that come immediately to mind here in Northwest Arkansas are grassland species,” Pruitt said. “So historically, much of Northwest Arkansas, especially as you move further northwest towards like Centerton, and Northwestern Benton County, was historically tallgrass prairie. Or at least patches of prairie mixed with woodland. So, essentially still prairie and grassland, a lot of those species have declined pretty drastically in Northwest Arkansas.”

One bird species has become a particularly hot topic with conservationists. It’s a small quail called the Northern Bobwhite, which lived in the grasslands of Northwest Arkansas. The species has not been documented in the Bird Count for several years. Pruitt says the disappearance of the Bobwhite's habitat directly affects the people living in the area where these small quails used to call home.

“Our prairies in this region, especially further south here towards Fayetteville, the prairies that we had, to some extent, were also seasonal wetlands,” Pruitt said. “So they were seasonally dry grasslands during like the summer months, for example, and then through winter and spring, were seasonally wet. And those wetlands are important for things like water control. And as well as providing refuge for lots of species. But as far as sort of a direct human impact, since that's what humans care about, ‘What does it mean for me?’ They were great habitats for flood control, water control, and so on. The loss of those habitats is a loss to us really, we don't we don't realize it when we're raising it for a neighborhood. But after the fact, when you have to pay buku money for flood insurance or, or your driveway floods three times a year, we're really missing those wetlands, those grassland habitats that we had here, and so are the Bobwhite that were also there.”

Geese fly away in East Arkansas.
Adobe Stock
Geese fly away in East Arkansas.

We can make startling discoveries about our own lives by analyzing trends in the natural world and learning how to better protect the species we share our planet with. Citizen science initiatives like the Christmas Bird Count allow regular folks like you and me to collect data for professional scientists to analyze, proving everyone can play a helpful role in conservation.

Pruitt says those who are interested may go a step further to help birds in their area.

By mixing diverse habitats alongside cities and towns, we give wildlife a fighting chance. Development is inevitable, but we can still manage to be sustainable in our growth.

“So, urbanization is going to come for us all,” Pruitt said. “I think it's a matter of really working to make the environment that we live in as much of a diversified matrix as possible. And I think northwest Arkansas has done that really well. We have a great diversity of green space mixed in with the suburban and the urban areas. And I think that something that the general public can do is make sure that the importance of those areas is known- That we don't forget about them when we see the next opportunity for urbanization as the urbanization comes, we also remember that it's important to balance it with native habitat, patches sort of mixed in the matrix.”

There are lots of things that anyone can do to make their own yards more habitable for birds and other animals.

“And that's having what we would call in the sciency-lingo, habitat heterogeneity, Pruitt said. “Which is- that's the fancy term for not just having a monoculture grass yard, but having a yard that's broken up with gardens and shrubs, and maybe you have a bird bath, or some sort of water features so that things can drink. Maybe you have a feeding station for your birds or your squirrels, but within that, more importantly, have a diversity of habitats that these animals can use. So not just not just having the nice grass yard, but having some patches of shrubs or patches of wildflowers and other native vegetation, trees, that sort of thing.”

The 2023 Christmas Bird Count tallied 671 total species across the United States. In Northwest Arkansas, Pruitt says they counted 102 unique species. You can visit our website to dive into specific data from this year’s count. However, to stoke your curiosity with an example, birders counted over 560 Canadian geese in our area, and that’s not even the most numerous species.

More information about the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society and how you can get involved in other citizen scientist initiatives.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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