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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

WANTED: Citizen Scientists

On March 19, 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released a report with alarming news. Of the 800 species of birds in the United States nearly one third are endangered, have significantly declining populations, or are threatened in some way. The U.S. State of the Birds Report, the first of its kind, uses bird census data gathered by thousands of professional biologists AND citizen scientists. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service coordinated the efforts to create this report, as part of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, along with help from partner organizations. The School of Ornithology at Cornell University is one of those partners, and you might like to participate in their project called NestWatch. By clicking on the NestWatch link you can learn all about the program, how to register a nest or nest box in your own backyard, how to build nest boxes, watch web cams, learn about focal species and much more. Your backyard observations make an important contribution.

“Citizen science plays a critical role in monitoring and understanding the threats to these birds and their habitats, and only citizen involvement can help address them,” said National Audubon Society’s Bird Conservation Director, Greg Butcher. “Conservation action can only make a real difference when concerned people support the kind of vital habitat restoration and protection measures this report explores.”

Joe McGuire, who lives in University Place, near Tacoma, Washington, may never have thought of himself as a scientist, but he's the kind of citizen whose observations count. He's seen bird populations decline alarmingly since 1933, when Joe's parents moved the family out into rural Pierce County, southeast of Tacoma. During those years of country living Joe discovered his love of birds. "Back then there were a lot of stumps and snags we just don't have around these days," he says, "and the cavity nesting birds need those." Now, at age 84, he continues his hobby of many years: building nesting boxes, or plain old "birdhouses" as he still calls them. He could never count the number he's given away or sold, donating all the money to the Tahoma Audubon Society. He's an expert on how they should be made.

"I make sure it's big enough so the bird can sit comfortably on the nest, and deep enough that predators can't reach in," says McGuire. "It shouldn't have a perch, because that can be used by predators too, and the roof should be hinged." One of the worst predators, he says, are cats. The baby birds of some species don't learn to fly straight from the nest, but actually spend up to three days on the ground, a time of great vulnerability.

Speaking of babies, McGuire adds, "The wood needs to be rough and unfinished so the baby birds can have something to grab onto to climb out. I don't build my birdhouses so people will think they're pretty. I build them so birds will want to nest in them." He knows just what a chickadee, bluebird, or woodpecker wants, and Joe delivers. I asked if I could purchase a nest box from him and ended up with an invitation to come visit. That's one I think I'll accept, gladly. Joe says people can also buy nest boxes from Audubon or local bird feeding supply or hardware stores, "although they may not be the way I think they ought to be," he says. Or you might decide to just build your own.

A major concern right now is the fact that some bird species are nesting earlier than usual due to global warming. If the eggs hatch too early, before it's warm enough to have adequate insect populations, adults may not be able to feed their offspring. You can read about this situation and see an interesting video at ScienCentral . But there's good news too. The U.S. State of the Birds report shows that species can, and do, respond well to conservation efforts. Please consider becoming a citizen scientist. It's a great way to involve children in the appreciation of nature and is as fun as it is valuable. Let's help save America's birds.

Note: Photo courtesy of NestWatch

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