National Wildlife Refuge System

Refuges Offer Highest Counts in the U.S. for Some Bird Species

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Credit: USFWS
Nowhere in North, South or Central America could you find more snow geese between December 14, 2011, and January 5, 2012, than the 490,000 tallied at one national wildlife refuge, according to the 2011-12 Christmas Bird Count.

You know many national wildlife refuges are beloved as bird havens. But did you know that refuges’ reputation is based on science, not say-so? Some refuges attract more birds from a single species than can be found anywhere else in the country or continent.

So show data from the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the National Audubon Society-sponsored event involving tens of thousands of volunteers across the country that’s become one of the world’s most comprehensive bird population surveys. With this year’s count now well under way, results from the 2011-12 count have recently been published by Audubon in the journal North American Birds, and the data confirm refuges’ important role in protecting habitat for birds.

Take snow geese, for example. Nowhere in North, South or Central America could you find more snow geese between December 14, 2011, and January 5, 2012, than the 490,000 tallied at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in western Missouri.

Tundra swans? Nowhere were more spotted than the 37,000 counted in that same period at Mattamuskeet Refuge in coastal North Carolina.

Ditto for the 30,000 sandhill cranes counted at Muleshoe Refuge in west Texas, the 12,500 ring-necked ducks at White River Refuge in Arkansas, and the 3,600 red-throated loons at Back Bay Refuge along Virginia’s southeastern coast. And on it goes.

All told, Audubon lists 70 bird species for which country-high or continent-high counts were recorded in areas wholly or partly occupied by national wildlife refuges in more than a dozen states.

Waterfowl and wading birds aren’t the only migratory birds to benefit from refuge protection, shows the CBC. Refuges also recorded national-high counts for other birds, including birds of prey such as falcons and hawks; galliformes such as turkey and grouse; pelagic seabirds including petrels, albatross, shearwaters, boobies and tropicbirds; shorebirds such as plovers, sandpipers and dowitchers; and passerines such as blackbirds, jays and flycatchers. Of course, bird migration is an ever-changing dynamic affected by shifts in climate, habitat and food availability. So, by the time a broad picture of bird movement emerges from the data, the picture can change. Some early reports from the 2012-13 Christmas bird count suggest that may be happening: Some refuges with high species counts last year are reporting lower numbers this year, after two and a half years of drought. Quivira Refuge in Kansas, for example, counted 1,000 snow geese in 2012, down from 4,000 last year, 25,000 in 2010, and 111,000 in 2009. Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at Quivira Refuge, is wary of blaming any one cause, though. “It could be there aren’t that many birds in the region, or they would be here. It could just be a matter of timing. There could be birds to the north of us that haven’t come through. There are so many factors.”

This spreadsheet highlights refuges in more than a dozen states that have the highest counts of particular bird species in the United States according to data assembled during the 2011-12 Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society.

Last updated: December 31, 2012