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For the Birds

Birdwatching is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States.  Whether it’s observing who visits the birdfeeder outside the kitchen window, taking part in annual bird censuses, or traveling to see bird migrations and add a rare bird to a life list, millions of Americans are interested in the activity of these lively creatures.

The annual Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the Audubon Society, is a census of birds in the Western Hemisphere, carried out by volunteers to collect population data for use in science, assessing the health of bird populations and designing conservation plans.  The count has taken place for 109 years. Participation has grown from 27 in 1900 to more than 52,000 volunteer counters observing 65,000,000 birds in more than 2500 places today. 

A group of volunteers in Tazewell, coordinated by Sarah Cromer, participates each year.  The group covers a 15-mile area, with participants driving assigned routes counting and recording each species observed.  The weather on the day of the count, January 3, was cloudy, which tends to limit bird activity but, in spite of that, the group saw a total of 55 species and counted 4,404 individuals.  Lincolnshire Recreation Park has a nice walking trail along the lake, from which one group saw four great blue herons.  An observer in Burke’s Garden saw two American eagles.

The largest number of a single species was 1,835 for—guess what?—European starlings.  Other numerous populations included 428 American crows, 361 Canada geese, and 359 house sparrows.  Single birds counted included a killdeer, a loggerhead shrike, a northern harrier, a brown thrasher, a swamp sparrow, an eastern meadowlark, and a pine siskin.
The Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon for twelve years, takes place in mid-February.  This year, 63,600 volunteers observed 619 species and a total of 11,550,200 individual birds.

This year, the count reflected a large invasion of pine siskins over much of the eastern United States. These feisty little birds moved southward because of seed crop failures in their usual wintering grounds in Canada and the boreal forests. GBBC participants reported 279,469 pine siskins on 18,528 checklists, compared to the previous high of 38,977 birds on 4,069 checklists in 2005.

Several people submitted checklists from Tazewell County, where the pine siskins were more numerous than in the January count.  Watchers in Bandy, Burke’s Garden, Cedar Bluff, North Tazewell, Richlands, and Tazewell reported seeing 3,221 birds, including 11 golden eagles in Burke’s Garden, a bird watcher’s paradise.
"I just love the way this event opens up a new world for so many people," says Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science Director Janis Dickinson. "We have grandparents counting with their grandchildren, elementary school classrooms doing the GBBC as a special project, nature centers taking visitors out on bird walks. And adults who never noticed birds before are suddenly smitten!"
For a more detailed summary of this year's results, visit the GBBC web site at Explore 2009 data, compare with other years, and find the exact counts for each species in a particular state, province, or town.
Next year’s count is scheduled for February 12-15, 2010.  It would be an excellent learning opportunity for families and school classrooms to observe, report, and compare local results with others from the same community, county, region, and state, and to become aware of the impact of changing conditions on this vital part of the wild kingdom.

For a fascinating picture of the miracle of bird migration, read “Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds” by Miyoko Chu.  If you are not already a devoted watcher of these lovely creatures, you are bound to become one when you discover the lengths birds go to to fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico on the way to their spring and summer nesting grounds.  Chu’s very readable description of bird migration and the advances in technology that allow scientists to track flight lengths, patterns, and energy expended to accomplish migration brings Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” into marvelous perspective!

Other books worth checking out include “Silence of the Songbirds” by Bridget Stutchbury, “Out of the Woods: a Bird Watcher’s Year” by Ora E. Anderson, “Good Birders Don’t Wear White: 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders”, “Club George: The Diary of a Central Park Birdwatcher” by Bob Levy, “The Big Twitch: One Man, One Continent, A Race against Time: A True Story about Birdwatching: ” by Sean Dooley, “To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, A Son, and A Lifelong Obsession” by Dan Koeppel, and “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson”.

In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson inspired a growing popular interest in birdwatching with his field “Guide to the Birds”.  “All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures”, a collection of his columns from Bird Watcher’s Digest, is bound to inspire interest in observing birds.  This is the perfect time of year to be on the lookout for birds returning to their northern nesting grounds.  For these and more books about birds, visit the Library in person, or online at, or call 988.2541.

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