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50 Years Later, North America's Biggest Bird Count Keeps Delivering New Insights

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the North American Breeding Bird Survey, a set of newly published papers show how valuable the project's volunteer-driven dataset is to conservation.

Every June for the past 18 years, Matt Pelikan has dedicated a day to a very particular drive. He wakes up early—early enough to be on the road by 4:30 a.m.—straps on his binoculars, and drives to the same spot on the northwestern side of Martha’s Vineyard, a small vacationing island off the coast of Massachusetts. From there, he follows the same 25-mile route every year, winding his way across the island and pulling his car over every half mile to stand on the side of the road. He stays there for three minutes, tallying every bird species he sees or hears, and then drives to the next stop. The full trip, including all 50 stops, takes up most of his morning.

Pelikan’s route is one of some 4,000 25-mile routes driven by volunteer birders every year as part of the North American Breeding Bird Survey, now in its 50th year. This year, on June 4, Pelikan—a Nature Conservancy ecologist and author of the Martha's Vineyard Times column “Wild Side”—tallied about 60 bird species, including an Alder Flycatcher, which is rare on the island. His counts will be combined with those from similar routes across the continental United States, Canada, and Mexico, and together they compose a formidable long-term dataset on the populations and distributions of more than 500 bird species.

“This is quite a sought-after opportunity in the birding community,” Pelikan says. “I feel lucky to participate in such a meaningful project.”

The North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) was the brainchild of naturalist, scientist, and bird conservationist Chan Robbins. In the 1950s, while working at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he received reports of the pesticide DDT killing birds and wondered what the large-scale impact on bird populations might be. To find out, he devised a way to monitor populations of wild birds and took a bet that birders and other passionate individuals, given a consistent set of instructions, would volunteer to track birds across the country.

He was right: In 1966, Robbins launched the BBS, which has since contributed to hundreds of scientific studies and continues to grow in scale and scope. This week, to honor the 50th anniversary and commemorate the success of community science, The Condor: Ornithological Applications published a special set of papers based on BBS count data.

“The BBS is an influential survey with a lot of dimensions to it,” says John Sauer, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist and co-editor of The Condor’s special section. “It’s continuously proving to be effective in getting enthusiasts involved in important science, assessing the quality of information, and then applying it to a huge variety of conservation problems.”

Using years of BBS data, one of the anniversary papers identified seven species of grassland birds in need of conservation attention, including the Upland Sandpiper (pictured here) and Lark Sparrow (above). Photo: Andy Teucher/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

Over the years, researchers have culled countless insights about bird populations and distributions from the volunteer-led counts, and The Condor highlighted a few of them. In one of the special papers, researchers estimated the elusive Wood Duck’s population size—averaging about one million birds—using BBS and additional demographic data. In another project, BBS data was used to predict bird species distributions in the Northern Great Plains and identify seven declining grassland bird species that need conservation attention.

And in one long-term review of many BBS studies, researchers found that bird species are in decline across habitats throughout North America. For instance, only one-third of grassland bird populations increased since the 1960s. “Robbins used to tell us how surprised he was by the magnitude of the BBS and how these insights lead us to areas that need our attention,” Sauer says. “The BBS process has become increasingly credible as more data pours in.”

This credibility will continue to grow with the survey. Sauer, who has worked with the BBS since 1986, and other survey researchers are working to expand it into the rest of Mexico in years to come, and eventually aim to reach the rest of the hemisphere. That will require education and training to develop the future generations of community scientists and birders key to keeping the program running.

Such efforts will rely on the passion BBS has already inspired in so many birders to put their skills to use in service of something greater. “This work is really satisfying because I can see my little piece of the puzzle in the larger scheme of the survey,” Pelikan says. “I do this every year, but I still make discoveries. I hope I can continue to contribute for as long as I can—or as long as my high-frequency hearing holds!”

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