Researchers are seeking citizen scientists to help track birds in their area this winter

·2 min read
Northern cardinals are being spotted further north, partly due to to milder winters, says Birds Canada regional manager Andrew Coughlin. (Submitted by Gord Belyea and Birds Canada - image credit)
Northern cardinals are being spotted further north, partly due to to milder winters, says Birds Canada regional manager Andrew Coughlin. (Submitted by Gord Belyea and Birds Canada - image credit)

The health of a bird population can tell you a lot about the health of the environment it lives in. That's why many scientists and researchers are putting in the effort to track their numbers and migration habits.

But the work of tracking birds across Canada doesn't just fall on academics.

"It would be impossible for scientists to do alone," says Andrew Coughlin, Quebec regional manager for Birds Canada, a non-profit bird conservation group. More than 20,000 citizen scientists across North America participate in Project FeederWatch every year, from November to April, and more are welcome to join.

"We ask participants to describe the area that they're surveying, so that we can see how that's changing over time," says Coughlin.

Participants are asked to name the species and the maximum number of birds they see at one time. They then register their findings online, where they'll be collected and processed as part of a continental set of data on the health of bird populations and their migration patterns.

David M. Bird, professor emeritus of wildlife biology at McGill University, says programs like these "contribute immensely" to the welfare of the bird population.

He says they provide a "critical snapshot of their population trends as well as important data on causal factors," in addition to giving bird-lovers a way to contribute to their conservation.

Submitted by Gord Belyea and Birds Canada
Submitted by Gord Belyea and Birds Canada

There are a number of species under close watch. In the 1990s, the population of the evening grosbeak was healthy, but then saw a decline. Their numbers are closely tied to the spruce budworm, an invasive species. The budworm will cycle over 30 to 40 years, and with information from birdwatchers, ornithologists now know that the bird's population follows a similar pattern and is now on the rise.

They've also observed a growing number of northern cardinals in colder climates. Coughling says that's probably because of two factors: "milder winters and the availability of food that people are putting out."

The feeders help replace natural food sources that have disappeared due to habitat loss.

For a small donation to Birds Canada, participants receive a kit and instructions on how to submit their observations, as well as information about the kinds of bird species they will see.

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