UPDATED ON 12/01/16. This update reflects the individual impacts on melting Arctic sea ice based on a new recent report.
I have changed the name of this blog to represent the true nature of Christmas Bird Counts. I can't think of any other birding event that comes close to matching the carbon used to complete this yearly bird survey.
This post was written last year(2013) and a few things, but not many, have changed during that time. As many of you know, the National Audubon Society released it's big Audubon Climate Report this year. It's a very good report. I wrote about it in a post called, Dear Brigid. Brigid McCormack did not respond (she did respond eventually). The mad CBC counter, which you will read about below, is still featured on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count website (this may no longer be the case but you can find it here as a PDF download). More and more CBC's are added each year which adds more climate changing carbon to the air. Audubon still makes no effort to reduce their carbon footprint for their citizen science projects. I have added some new and controversial comments at the end. I have not checked that all the links still work.
I've been participating in Audubon's Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) for many years. I've done the Palos Verdes Peninsula CBC in Southern California, the Oroville CBC and the Chico CBC in inland Northern California, and I've done the Ukiah CBC, Manchester CBC and the Fort Bragg CBC in Mendocino County. What are CBC's? I will let Audubon explain.
History of the Christmas Bird Count
Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt”: They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.
Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a “Christmas Bird Census”-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them.
So began the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the inspiration of Frank M. Chapman and the enthusiasm of twenty-seven dedicated birders, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined.
Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It's not just a species tally–all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day. If observers live within a CBC circle, they may arrange in advance to count the birds at their feeders and submit those data to their compiler. All individual CBC's are conducted in the period from December 14 to January 5 (inclusive dates) each season, and each count is conducted in one calendar day.
Audubon has an excellent 23 minute Vimeo video on their website that explains the history of the counts and how the data is used to provide a detailed status of our winter bird populations.
As the video explains:
The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years…More recently, in 2009, the data were instrumental in Audubon's Birds & Climate Change analysis, which documented range shifts of bird species over time.
Besides the birding there is a tabulation dinner after the count where the volunteers tally up the birds seen in their individual areas and a total species count is announced. These dinners are a fun social meeting of most of the birders in the local area.
I am the leader of section 8 of the Fort Bragg CBC. As I wrote in the last post it includes the community of Mendocino with it's Mendocino Headland's State Park, Big River (I've written about Big River before), and the Woodlands State Park. It's a great and diverse area and I have a good team in each of these areas with a total of ten people in the field. As the team leader I feel that it's my job to get a sample of the bird life in all the various habitats in my area as best I can. Since the beginning of the Fort Bragg CBC (it's a relatively new count with only four actual counts with the first being a trial run) I have been biking the Big River Haul Road in the morning with my birding partner, Sarah Grimes. This year(2013) we had Penny, visiting her relatives for the holidays, join us. After the bike ride we walk out to the mouth of the river to bird and then carpool to the several known local bird feeders in the area. We don't have a large carbon footprint counting birds in the Big River area. We then head to the Caspar Community Center for the dinner tally. This year people seemed a little more jovial then usual. That may have been because Tim Bray our compiler supplied us with some of his home brew (Note:He plans to do it again). The compiler makes sure the areas are covered and puts all the data together for Audubon. Tim told me that he and his wife had followed my lead and had done some of his area on bike. So a good time was had by everyone and our count will now become part of the 114th Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
In the last post I said that I would address the “pros” and “cons” of Christmas Bird Counts. How could there be any “cons” in this endeavor you ask? The “pros” are numerous. 113 years of bird data showing the ups and downs of winter bird populations with all kinds of reports used by various organizations showing all sorts of things. Christmas Bird counts are a great social event that brings seasoned birders together with new and most important, younger birders. The CBC's are great for Audubon because of the possibities of bringing new people into the organization.
The main basis for this blog has been birds and climate change. Audubon has used Christmas Bird Count data to document the impacts of climate change on birds in their 2009 report called, “Birds and Climate Change–Ecological Disruption in Motion”. Check out the report. It's very convincing.
The problem is that the data gathering method used in the CBC's is very carbon intensive. Audubon makes no effort that I can find to reduce it's CBC's carbon footprint. Audubon is in conflict with it's own climate change policy which states in part:
All of us have a role to play in reducing the worst impacts of global warming. As individuals and engaged citizens, we can all take steps to reduce our energy use, switch to cleaner sources of power, conserve habitat and encourage our leaders to take immediate action….Use public transportation, ride your bicycle, walk, carpool, and drive a more energy-efficient vehicle. Keep tires properly inflated to increase fuel efficiency – it will lower your fuel costs…(Note: This paragraph was removed from their website when they published their new Audubon Climate Report.
Back in January of this year(2013) I became curious and asked the question, “How many car miles were used in the 112th Christmas Bird Count?” I got this reply from Kathy Dale, Director of Citizen Science, National Audubon Society:
I looked up the values for miles by car for the 112thCBC (including converting those recorded in kilometers) and I come up with 583,164 miles by car in circles in North America-that means from Panama through to Canada.
583,164 miles by car will get you to the moon and back and almost half way back to the moon. As a veteran of CBC's I know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is only car miles used while counting birds in the circle. Let me give you an example. Car miles for my section of the Fort Bragg CBC for that year was 14.5 miles. Most of that was birding the Woodlands State Park. All of the Mendocino Headlands was zero miles because he walked the whole area. I had a small amount of car miles checking bird feeders. The “actual” car miles used to get the area counted was over 114 miles because the person counting the Mendocino Headlands came over from Ukiah, a more than 100 mile round trip. I believe the total car miles for the whole count was in the neighborhood of 195 miles. We had at least 7 people (5 cars) that I know of that came from out of the area to count. That would more than triple the car miles reported. There are three counts in Mendocino County. The Manchester Count because of it's isolated location would probably have more “actual” car miles then the Fort Bragg Count. The Ukiah Count less.
UPDATE 12/01/16--A recent report quantified an individual's impacts on melting Arctic sea ice.
Using both observations and computer models, Notz and colleague Julienne Stroeve, of the U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center and University College, London, found that when looking at averages over 30 years, every metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted results in the loss of 30 square feet of sea ice. That amount of CO2 is what is emitted per person on a round-trip flight from New York to London, or by a car driving 2,500 miles.
Using just the Christmas Bird Count's 583,164 car miles mentioned, the 112th CBC melted almost 7000 square feet of Arctic sea ice. People don't realize their impacts on climate change.
And how about the Christmas Bird Count groupies? People who do as many counts as they can during the count period. Here in California they travel up and down the state to do this. On Audubon's CBC Website there is this article called, “Return of the Mad Counter”. This individual bird counter did 23 counts during the 104th CBC, the maximum you can do during a count period. To quote him:
During the course of completing this full CBC marathon, my field parties identified a total of 132 species (115 last year) and recorded 241,223 individual birds (101,066). I traveled 7100.25 miles (6322) over 360 hours (322), this included travel time, as well as daily compilation time. Consequently, my total effort per count averaged 309 miles and 15.7 hours. By comparison, I spent 92.75 hours traveling to and from counts (85.5), 267.25 hours actually counting birds (236.5), and only 32 hours sleeping.
Note that I put the mileage in bold letters and also note the 32 hours of sleep in 23 days. A hazard to himself and anyone else on the road.
Based on the above I think that I can safely make the claim that Christmas Bird Counts have a very large carbon footprint and since count circles continue to be added each year it will continue to get worse. It's ironic to note that because carbon stays in the atmosphere for long periods of time there is still some climate warming carbon from Christmas Bird Counts since the first car mile. I'm sure that a graph of car miles over time would be similar to the Keeling Curve.
When I asked about the car miles for the 112th CBC I indicated that I had plans to write an article about car miles used in CBC's. Kathy Dale asked me to allow some input from Audubon in the article. While I don't know if the article will ever get written I guess this post may count as one so I will use this quote:
Audubon appreciates the hard work of all our volunteers and the bird trend data collected are more important than ever to document shifts in birds ranges across the Western Hemisphere, says Geoff LeBaron, Christmas Bird Count Director for National Audubon. At the same time we also recognize the need to reduce our carbon footprint in all aspects of our lives, including the CBC. We applaud the efforts to conduct green CBCs and encourage others to do so where possible. Ride a bike, walk, carpool or otherwise find ways to reduce your footprint.
While I feel this is a great quote I can't find any efforts on the part of Audubon to promote these sentiments over the whole of the count area. Perhaps it's time for Audubon to make an effort to at least adhere to their own climate change policies.
Audubon should at least make birders aware of the hidden carbon costs of the CBC's. Compilers should be asked to record the full actual car miles needed to get their CBC counted. CBC's that use less “actual” miles need to be recognized as an incentive for others to reduce their miles. Responsible birders who care about birds will find ways to reduce their carbon footprint.
Frank M. Chapman decided over one hundred years ago that it was time to start protecting birds instead of shooting them. It's time for Audubon to make some changes.
Here are some further comments.
Audubon's efforts to reduce their climate footprint for their citizen science projects are nonexistent. That's probably because it would be a painful experience for them and the people doing the research. The Audubon Climate Report should have been a starting point for this discussion but so far that hasn't happened. The report explains the climate change impacts to birds in great detail but birders, in general, are not willing to reduce their carbon output when birding and many are not willing to admit they are a carbon polluter.
What would it take to “green” Christmas Bird Counts. First Audubon would have to start making it a goal of the counts. Incentives would have to be offered for counts that reduce their car mileage. When birders are offered a challenge they will respond. The goal is to reduce not eliminate carbon. In urban and other appropriate areas the public transportation system should be encouraged. Think of the news reports and publicity for Audubon because of counters using local public transportation.
Audubon should stop the practice of starting new counts in areas and habitats that are already well covered. Counts should have to justify their existence. ALREADY ESTABLISHED COUNTS should have to justify their existence. If they can't they should be retired. I know–this would be a controversial proposal but Audubon's own scientists as well as others have an issue with this. In fact they have some issues with how the counts are done and the value of the data. Here is a link to a 2003/2004 report titled, Improving the Christmas Bird Counts: Report of a Review Panel.
While CBC data have been widely used in scientific publications, the survey was not designed for statistic analysis of population change (i.e., rigorous monitoring), and the data set presents serious challenges that analysts must address if appropriate inferences about populations are to be drawn. As noted by Bock and Root (1981:17): “The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is an enormous but weakly standardized avian count…CBC data are an inappropriate substitute for more controlled census work associated with local projects. Scientists would ignore CBC data altogether, were it not for their potential application to large scale studies.”
Why is it that scientists are wary of using CBC data? The two key issues areas follows.
1) Within circles, counts are not complete censuses, but rather are incomplete samples. Because count effort is not uniform or standardized, the proportion of the true population that is counted each year and in each location is highly variable…
2) Count circles are not randomly selected, but rather are purposefully chosen; often to be near urban areas or in protected and bird-rich locations such as parks or nature preserves. Density of count locations is correlated with human population density. Many data analysts of the past have taken minimal steps to avoid over-representation of geographic areas where count circles are most dense, and it is often an unspoken assumption (as yet untested) that habitat and bird populations within circles are representative of the landscape as a whole.
In reading the report, attempts are being made to make CBC bird data more usable but are many of the counts even needed to get the data? Pictured above are counts in the New Jersey, New York, and Chicago/South Bend areas. This happens more in densely populated areas all over the United States.
If Audubon can create a panel to make the data more valuable why can't they have a panel to make the data greener? They just have to make an effort. Do it for the birds.