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Wednesday, 06 December 2006 00:00

Go forth and add

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It’s time once again for the Granddaddy of bird counts. Audubon’s 107th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) takes place between December 14 and January 5.

More than 50,000 participants will drive, hike, pedal and/or paddle across more than 2,000 count circles trying to identify and count each and every bundle of feathers seen. And once again there will be a flap about the validity of the data compiled in this prototypical citizen-science endeavor.

Face it citizen-science is sloppy science. There will not be 50,000 bespectacled scientists in white lab coats followed by their statisticians evaluating and recording all the nuances observed afield. There will be you and me and some birders better than us and some birders not so good. Not every birder participating in a CBC will be able to differentiate between a female sharp-shinned hawk and a male Cooper’s hawk. But 99.999 percent of CBC participants do know what a robin looks like and a cardinal and a chickadee and most can count. And learning about population and distribution trends of common birds is just as important (if not more so) as noting how many European wagtails show up on this year’s CBC.

With more than 100 years under its belt, the CBC is the longest running ornithological database on the planet. Scientists at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which has joined with Audubon to make CBC data more relevant and more accessible note that, “The CBC’s current relevance is as a comparative historical source of information on bird changes, a coarse means of capturing large bird changes, and a conservation-oriented recreational pursuit by birders. There are better ways of measuring changes in wintering bird populations. On the other hand, since the CBC system is already in place at no cost to anyone but those who participate and over long periods of time interesting trends are documented, the running of CBC’s by birders should not be discouraged.”

A bibliography of scientific papers and articles found at http://www.audubon.org/ bird/cbc/biblio.html lists well over 250 titles that have incorporated CBC data. It’s apparent that the science aspect of this citizen-science project, albeit primitive and unwieldy is of significant value.

But it was the citizen or social aspect of the CBC that got the ball rolling back 107 years ago and still sustains it. The camaraderie of being afield with like-minded souls probably rousts more CBC participants out of bed on those cold winter mornings than any thoughts of scientific contribution. And when darkness begins to envelope count day and participants gather to share lists and swap stories of the ones that did or didn’t get away it’ll be that camaraderie that takes center stage. And it’s that camaraderie that’s integral to conservation.

We didn’t create Dupont State Forest or preserve the Needmore Tract because we read, in some scientific journal, about the need to preserve biodiversity. We protected these areas because we were connected to these areas. We had experienced them.

As the number of people who experience CBCs or other citizen-science projects increases the number of people who become connected increases. And the more people who are connected to more wild places, means more wild places will be protected.

The Balsam CBC will be on December 30. If you’re interested in joining a crack team of scientists you should call MIT. But if you’re interested in joining a bunch of birders who actually enjoy getting up in the wee hours on a cold winter’s morning to spend the day counting feathered bundles and who also enjoy swapping lies that evening at Bogart’s call Balsam count compiler, Bob Olthoff at 803.627.2546.

Now get out there and count one for the Gipper, and have fun, but don’t expect a Nobel.

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