Bird Counts: Citizen Science Documents Climate Change Impacts

Dec 30, 2015

A birder taking part in a Christmas count in the Black Hills
Credit Courtesy Wind Cave National Park

The 116th annual Christmas Bird Count is happening across the country again this season.  The counts include volunteers who fan out around communities and document as many birds as they can on a given day.

There are over a dozen bird counts happening in South Dakota from late December into early January.

The data, collected over the long term, is valuable to scientists who say it shows how birds are reacting to a changing climate.   There is even new research showing migration patterns over South Dakota are changing. 

The range of many species of birds is well known, pick up any book on birds and you can often find maps of North America with colored areas showing the expanse where various avian species are found.  But birds are mobile, so if they don’t like the climate – they can just fly somewhere else.  

“And that can show up in the Christmas Bird Count data by seeing increasing numbers of populations that used to be in low numbers when it was colder and as the climate warms we might see those moving northward,” says Dr. David Swanson is a professor of biology at University of South Dakota  

Dr. David Swanson is a professor of biology at University of South Dakota says the data gathered by Christmas Bird Counts shows some broad population shifts.  He says in South Dakota his research also shows changing timing of migration patterns.    He says this kind of research can’t be done without the volunteer efforts of citizen scientists.

“For individual researchers there is no way you can do these sort of brad scale sorts of things with the massive volumes of data that you can get out of theses citizen science projects so they’re kind of a unique data set to be able to work with there,” says Swanson.

Swanson is working on a new study showing how avian populations are adapting in South Dakota.  Swanson believes birds are responding to a warmer climate.  He says the temperature records show a trend of warmer winters in the state beginning in the 1970’s.