Christmas Bird Count: Highlands Plateau Audubon Society
Written By: William McReynolds - Highlands Plateau Audubon Society | Issue: 2020/12 - December
Literally a canary in the coalmine, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count suggests a dire future for the birds of North America, even here on the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau.
The birds of North America are continuously watched, carefully monitored and repeatedly counted. The most definitive inventory of these tender life forms is the yearly Audubon Christmas Bird Count. This annual bird inventory has been sponsored by the U.S. National Audubon Society for 120 years.
An international bird count, it typically has involved over 2,400 counting groups and 60,000 individuals who in years past achieved totals of 70 million birds sighted in the U.S., Canada and some parts of Latin American and the Caribbean.
These large-scale, yearly bird counts are used to specify winter bird populations and distributions in North America, both of which are changing with ongoing climate change. Data from this massive citizen’s science initiative are being used to monitor the health of our avian populations and guide conservation efforts.
Among our most frequently sighted winter species here on the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau are Carolina Chickadee, pictured left, Dark-eyed Junco and Mallards. The number of species and total number of birds sighted each year vary as a function of the number of observers and weather conditions. When combined with the thousands of other counting groups across the continent and over many years, a clear picture of changes in our bird population emerges.
That clear picture is alarming. Published last year, The National Audubon Society’s Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink reported that hundreds of North American bird species are “at risk” of extinction. This latest Audubon research is based on large surveys including over 100 years of the Christmas Bird Count.
Of the 604 species closely examined, 85 percent of all North American species, 389, two thirds, were found to be in decline and vulnerable to extinction.
Through extinction and loss of habitat, nine U.S. states could lose their state birds. These forecast losses are: Minnesota’s Common Loon; Maryland’s Baltimore Oriole; Louisiana’s Brown Pelican; Utah’s California Gull; Vermont’s Hermit Thrush; Idaho and Nevada’s Mountain Bluebird; Pennsylvania’s Ruffed Grouse; New Hampshire’s Purple Finch and the Wood Thrush of Washington, D.C.
A second, far ranging effort by scientists with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology found, “cumulative loss of nearly three billion birds since 1970,” signaling a “pervasive and ongoing crisis” in the avian world. These are grim findings: 29 percent of North American birds have vanished in the last 50 years according to this comprehensive, peer reviewed research. European countries report similar losses. Parallel losses have been observed in insect populations.
The collection of living creatures on this planet is our greatest natural heritage and the fabric of life that sustains us all.