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Why Utah ‘bird nerds’ count birds through the holidays

Male American Kestrel, Utah DWR, courtesy
courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
A male American kestrel perched upon an overturned beer bottle, Jan. 16, 2018.

The 123rd Audubon Christmas Bird Count is underway, and bird lovers across Utah have headed out to tally the feathered friends in their area. The data collected during this annual census helps scientists identify species that are at risk and understand long-term trends.

The count started in 1900, and the Audubon Society calls it the longest-running community science bird project in the United States. Each year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, volunteers sign up and meet in groups on a specific day in that window. Then, the participants count the number of birds they see or hear in a 15-mile wide circle. That data is then broken down by species. In 2021, there were 2,621 of these counts conducted across the Western Hemisphere, according to the Audubon Society.

How Data is Used

Conservation outreach manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Tonya Kieffer-Selby said the Christmas Bird Count has shown how many birds have been lost over the last several decades. The 2022 State of the Birds Report that drew from several surveys, including the Christmas Bird Count, concluded that birds in the U.S are declining in almost every habitat except wetlands.

“We’re looking at drastic declines,” Kieffer-Selby said. “The purpose of doing this count is to understand bird biology.”

Agencies like the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will use data from the count, in combination with other surveys, to identify species they are concerned about and create better wildlife management plans.

“Where we maybe spend more time and resources to see whether there’s something we need to do to adjust our way of life in order to adapt to this bird's population decline,” Kieffer-Selby said. “And so it’s pretty critical data that we’ve been doing, and we are very blessed to have volunteers from all over the world willing to help us.”

For example, Kieffer-Selby said the rosy-finch is a species that scientists do not know a lot about. Through data from the Christmas Bird Count and other surveys, like the Great Backyard Bird Count, scientists identified a nationwide dip in the bird’s numbers.

“So, biologists across the state have been banding rosy-finches, which means that we put this little metal leg band on them like a Social Security number,” she said. “So when they hop on to certain feeders, we’re able to see where they were banded, what time of year, how often they visited.”

Why Volunteers Participate

Since the bird count happens between December and January, participating in it often means being out in the cold for an entire day. But for some, it’s a yearly tradition. As a self-proclaimed “bird nerd,” Kieffer-Selby said she has been doing the Christmas Bird Count since she was 9 years old.

“I will go anywhere to watch birds. It’s kind of a problem when we’re driving with someone because I get distracted very easily because I want to see what kind of bird it is,” she said.

Biologist and meeting coordinator for the Utah County Birders Keeli Marvel leads the Provo Christmas Bird Count. Part of the reason she participates in the count is to help provide data for scientists to track long-term population trends, but also it’s just a fun tradition.

“It’s kind of like a treasure hunt, almost, to go out and see how many bird species we can find,” Marvel said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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