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Local bird watchers gear up for the annual Christmas Bird Count

The pinyon jay, once a common sight throughout the Rocky Mountain West, is now experiencing a significant decline in its population.
Lyndia Radice
Audubon Photography Awards
The pinyon jay, once a common sight throughout the Rocky Mountain West, is now experiencing a significant decline in its population.

The Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count takes flight on December 14th, and local bird watchers are hoping to spot species that are facing population declines.

Zach Hutchinson, the Community Science Coordinator at Audubon Rockies, which covers Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, says several species native to this region are grappling with dwindling populations.

Zach Hutchinson: The greater sage grouse is one that I think there's been a lot of discussion around. Two others that I would mention are the pinyon jay and the evening grosbeak.

The pinyon jay depends upon that arid piñon juniper-type habitat where piñon pine starts to phase out, it's more of a juniper or ponderosa-type habitat.

You know, so you'll find that throughout Western Wyoming, and then you get into the piñon as you go into Western Colorado, that habitat is being gravely impacted by a variety of human factors.

And so we're seeing pinyon jays in our region, which, our region is the only region for pinyon jays, they're found throughout the arid west, and that is it. They have nowhere else to go, so if they start running out of habitat here, or their habitat is degrading too far, they don't have a backup area to move into. So pinyon jays, you're talking 93, 94 percent population loss.

And then evening grosbeaks, which they're a boreal finch, they summer in the boreal forests of Canada and then migrate down in the wintertime, but the Rockies actually have our own populations that breed throughout the Rocky Mountains, and their populations have been impacted as well.

We're not certain what levels on the ones that are more permanent residents of the Rockies versus the ones in the boreal, but just across the board, evening grosbeaks, you know, if you had had a bird feeder up somewhere in the Rockies back in the ‘70s, you would have seen a hundred evening grosbeaks maybe coming into those feeders and cleaning them out.

And now you probably don't see any, or maybe you see one or two. They're a surprise instead of a regular bird that swarms your feeders and causes your bird seed bill to go up, now you're delighted when you see one.

Maeve Conran: Talk about the broader implications of this decline in the population of birds. I think there's a broader understanding when we have declining populations, say, of pollinators, but maybe there's less of an understanding about what that means on the wider scale when we are seeing a decline in bird populations. What should we be concerned about?

Zach Hutchinson: Probably things we don't even know we should be concerned about.

As you mentioned, you know, with pollinators, sometimes it's a little easier to tie into, ‘well, without this, we won't have this.’ With some of these species, I think oftentimes they're overlooked or forgotten because we don't see the value to ourselves and well, if it doesn't have value to humans, should we really be that concerned?

I think that's oftentimes a bit of apathy that shows through around species maybe that aren't as charismatic or beloved, right? And with these species, I think we would have to know every bit of, you know, their ecological import and then connect that because it's all, you know, you can call it a chain, a circle, whatever you would like to call it, a pyramid, it's all connected, and if you pull out that one piece, you know, if you want to think of it as a thread on a tapestry or something, you pull out that thread and it all begins to unravel.

Let's think about something like the pinyon jay, a species that collects piñon seed, piñon nuts, and then caches them.

And so when a bird caches something, they hide it, right? And when they hide it, then they could be hiding it in the soil and cracks and rocks in various places, and they're not going to come back and collect all of those caches. And so you have seed dispersal, and seed dispersal on a level that if humans had to do it, you're talking billions of dollars of human and mechanical input to do seed dispersal.

There was a study done on Clark's nutcracker, which is one of the only major dispersers of whitebark pine, and billions of dollars worth of value in seed dispersal that these species offer that if humans had to do it, we just flat out, we wouldn't be able to, and we wouldn't be able to in as effective of a manner because they're doing it randomly, which is great, right?

And whereas humans, we might often do it a little too methodically, which, maybe is harder on the trees, you know, we plant in lines or something like that, and then that actually doesn't work as well for trees or for those local ecologies.

And something like an evening grosbeak, it's a huge pest-control bird. While they do have a big diet of seeds and berries, they also eat a large number of a certain species of pests. They're not pests that affect maybe food crops that we think of as traditional food crops. If those pests then overpopulate and consume whatever that is, then what damage is that going to have on something else?

And we just don't know what the final outcome would be. You know, those are just a couple of examples. I think there are probably more that either I don't know, or maybe as a collective, we just don't know yet.

Volunteers survey birds for the Boulder Christmas Bird Count at Teller Farm in Boulder, Colorado, on December 18, 2022. The Christmas Bird Count is a long-running, annual community science project.
Evan Barrientos
Volunteers survey birds for the Boulder Christmas Bird Count at Teller Farm in Boulder, Colorado, on December 18, 2022. The Christmas Bird Count is a long-running, annual community science project.

Maeve Conran: Well, you are involved in community science, and I think the upcoming Christmas Bird Count is a great example of that.

But for people who aren't really familiar with what community science is, give us just an overview of what it is and how it impacts and helps the work of your organization.

Zach Hutchinson: Community science is crowdsourcing data to an extent, if we wanted to put it in the simplest of terms.

To gather data for all of our continent, all of our hemisphere, all of our species, we would need armies of scientists, and I don't think there are budgets out there that could handle that.

So this is where community science comes in, in that it offers opportunities to people to dip your toe into some science and see what you feel like collecting some of this information.

And so community science, what it does is it helps scientists fill in gaps in data by saying, ‘Hey, here's our problem. We need to gather this information about this species. So here are the parameters. We'll provide the training. We'll show you how to do it. We'll show you how to collect this information. And then, you can go out and do it on your own, and send us that data.’

And then we are getting more data than we could if it were just, you know, this small group of us trying to collect it, because you just can't cover that much ground.

So, let's tie back to the pinyon jay. We have currently a community science project happening across the western-half of North America. We're training community scientists to go out and count and collect data on just the pinyon jay, everything from behaviors to are they nesting to, you know, marking nests so that we can track where nests are at, what habitat they're using, what foods they're eating.

And it's all being on the ground collected by community scientists who are just people who (have) all sorts of jobs, you know, they could, any sort of day job, and then they do this, you know, maybe they're out hiking and they see pinyon jays and they remember, ‘yes, I was trained on how to do this. ‘I go into my app, I input my data, I click submit, and I just did community science and I'm going to continue on with my hike now.’

And it can be as simple as that or as complex as the Christmas Bird Count, which is a very large event, with a lot more moving parts.

Maeve Conran: Well, let's talk about that. I know it's happening over a series of days, it starts in mid-December, and I think it's the biggest community science project in the country, certainly one of them.

Zach Hutchinson: Yes, it is. It is one of the largest, you know, I think it probably has competition from Global Big Day, International Migratory Bird Day, events like that. But yes, you know, it started out as what, 20 participants back in 1900. And now you're talking tens of thousands of people that go out in this time span and join their local community members and count birds.

And you know you're doing it as maybe just part of a fun thing you want to do, maybe you want to take your family out and get outside and you can do that and then contribute some data back to this long-running monitoring project that helps us to understand this kind of, if you want to envision it as like a capturing an image of a single timeframe every winter for the past 120 some years, right?

This is the 124th count coming up. It's capturing a single image of this time span every single year, and so we can start to see what are the changes happening to birds during the winter across the North American landscape.

And now it's international, now we're getting it not only on the birds that are across North America in winter, but the birds that often breed in North America in the winter, and then migrate south into Mexico, Central America, South America, you know, and are spending time in all of these areas. There are counts there now.

So we can get a snapshot of what these birds are doing down there on their wintering grounds, as well as the birds that North America is their wintering grounds.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KDNK.

Maeve Conran