During the next two weeks, from Dec. 14, 2007, until Jan. 5, 2008, the Audubon Society will conduct the 108th annual Christmas Bird Count across the nation. Last year, nearly 70 million birds were counted by 58,000 volunteers, a record level of participation.
The tradition was founded on Christmas Day, 1900, when a small circle of bird lovers offered the bird count as an alternative to the “side hunt,” a Christmas Day activity in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds and small mammals.
The Audubon Society urges everyone to join. Experience is not required. Shotguns must be left at home, which may exclude quail hunter Dick Cheney.
“Each of the citizen scientists who braves snow, ice, wind or rain to take part in the Christmas Bird Count is making an enormous contribution to conservation,” said Geoff LeBaron, director of the program. “Counting is the first step in learning how environmental threats are affecting our birds — and in helping to protect them.”
Wild birds: classic canary in the coal mine
John Flicker, president of the Audubon Society, told a recent news conference that wild birds “are the classic canary in the coal mine,” and when these fine feathered friends are threatened, humanity too is at risk.
Habitat loss puts birds at risk
“We care about birds and we care about the environment we share with them,” said Flicker, adding that 26 percent of the birds in the report are on the “Red List” facing “imminent risk of extinction.” The cause, he said, is habitat loss, including destruction of wetlands, competition with invasive species, real estate development, urban sprawl, oil and gas extraction, and global warming.
“For Watchlist birds, the clock is ticking,” he said. “We need to take action at every level to pull these species back from the brink of extinction.”
ABC President George Fenwick told the news conference, “We can do much more. Conserving birds should be nonpartisan.” What is needed, he added, is the establishment of more wild bird reserves and increased funding for the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. He also called for government action to curb climate change and the use of pesticides and herbicides.
Greg Butcher, director of Audubon’s Bird Conservation Program, said, “Human actions continue to put bird species and the environment we share with them in jeopardy.” He cited the Gunnison sage grouse, its range restricted to southwest Colorado and adjacent Utah; the lesser prairie chicken, its numbers dwindling in the Midwest and Southwest; and the reddish egret along the Gulf Coast. All will “will fade into extinction” without quick action to save them.
Politics of funding
Yet none of these birds has been given the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), despite determined efforts by bird lovers to convince the federal government to add them to the list.
“It’s astounding to us that several of these species are so close to the edge but haven’t even received Endangered Species Act protection,” Butcher said. “This list is a reminder that we need to act and act now. Unfortunately, there has been a complete halt to adding to the ESA list under the current administration.”