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Aflock of seven birds flying over a pond
Information icon Blue-winged teals. Photo by USFWS.

Focus on birding

This Saturday, join in international count

It’s not every day that you can help science and have a good time doing it. So, make the most of this day, Saturday, May 9.

Saturday is International Migratory Bird Day; the 2020 theme is “Birds Connect Our World.” It’s also Global Big Day, 24 hours set aside to participate in a worldwide bird count that adds to a body of avian knowledge.

Illustration of two songbirds on a branch advertising Global Big Day from The Cornell Ornithology Lab, May 9, 2020

Perhaps best of all: You can observe both days in your back yard. Who said social distancing has to be a drag?

The Cornell Ornithological Laboratory and the National Audubon Society are urging people to turn their eyes — or, even better, their binoculars — to the skies and trees and share their findings with them. The bird tally runs from midnight to midnight, local time.

The observances also are a reminder that birds need our help. A 2019 survey revealed that the total number of birds in North America has declined by 3 billion in the past half-century. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and other agencies are working to reverse those statistics.

Data collected on Saturday could shed light on whether the dismal numbers from 2019 have budged.

During last year’s Global Big Day, more than 35,000 people turned in more than 92,000 sightings, or checklists, of birds. They reported their findings with the smartphone app eBird, or visited eBird.org to share that information.

Of course, this year is not like 2019. COVID-19 may alter birders’ movements, the Cornell lab said in a statement. The best tactic: adapt.

“While not everyone may be able to leave home to bird this year, Global Big Day is still an opportunity to check in with the birds in and around where you live,” the statement said. “It’s that simple.”

That’s Lewis Burke’s plan. He lives in Saluda, South Carolina, and knows that the woods at his small farm 50 miles east of Columbia can hold surprises. Last fall, he spied an olive-sided flycatcher perched in a dead tree. The species is typically found in the Western United States.

“You never know what may be outside,” said Burke.

He’s been perpetually surprised, he said, since Burke’s dad took him into the woods when he was 4 or 5. “I saw a red-headed woodpecker,” Burke recalled. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”

A woodpecker with a red head, white breast and black feathers on it's back
Red-headed woodpecker. Photo by Miki Jourdan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

He still can’t. Burke’s now president of the Carolina Bird Club, which comprises 1,000 members across the Carolinas. Most of the members, said Burke, will be participating in the Saturday count.

He’ll rely on the eBird app on his smartphone, meaning his data go directly to Cornell. “It’s wonderful,” said, Burke, a retired University of South Carolina law professor. “Think of the scientific knowledge being collected.”

Bob Ford, who coordinates the Service’s participation in Partners in Flight, a bird-conservation initiative involving 150 organizations in the Western Hemisphere, understands the importance of bird counts.

He knows, too, that findings in recent years have shown declines in birds not considered at-risk, endangered or threatened. An estimate released last year in the journal Science concluded that North America has lost more than a quarter of its entire bird population in the last 50 years – 3 billion birds, total. A scientist at Cornell called the loss “tremendous.”

Ford, who works in the Service’s Migratory Bird Program, shares researchers’ concerns.

“It still looks like a lot of birds now, but it’s probably 40 percent compared to what our grandparents saw,” said Ford, a lifelong naturalist and birder. “That’s worrisome … as to how ecosystems are functioning.”

Dottie Head, spokeswoman for Atlanta Audubon, is equally aware of those grim numbers.

“In less than a single lifetime , North America has lost more than one in four of its birds,” she said. “The disappearance of even common species indicates a general shift in our ecosystems’ ability to support basic birdlife.”

She also knows that building bird awareness helps their chances of survival.

“If there’s any silver lining to this COVID-19 outbreak, it’s that people are getting outside more with their families to enjoy the natural world around them,” Head said. “We’re seeing a big surge in interest in bird feeding and bird watching as people spend more time at home and in places like national wildlife refuges and state parks.”

Cyndi Routledge plans to be somewhere this weekend with binoculars in hand, eyes toward the sky. She’s the secretary of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, which has urged its 200-plus members to get outside and participate in the count.

A woman looks through the scope of monocular
Cyndi Routledge plans to be birding on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Routledge.

A birder for 15 years, Routledge is an ornithological contractor with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. She’s also participated in the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge’s wood-duck banding, an annual event that’s been known to back up traffic.

And this: Routledge can band hummingbirds, hardly larger than a bumblebee. “It’s not hard,” she said. “It takes really tiny little tools.” Plus the right certificate from authorities, of course.

Whenever she goes birding, said Routledge, she anticipates a pleasant surprise — a feathered visitor from another place that somehow found its way to Tennessee.

“Birds have wings, you know,” Routledge said. “They can fly anywhere they want.”

On Thursday, Routledge wondered where she and her husband, Steve, would go to count birds. They live in Clarksville, about 40 miles northwest of Nashville. The Routledges could easily visit Cross Creeks or the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuges. Both are birding hotspots.

“Or,” she said, “we could just stay outside on our deck and watch them from here.”

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