National Audubon Christmas Bird Count Is More Than Just A Day In The Woods Counting Birds

Mill Point, WV – During December and early January, birders across the country will head out into the woods to count bird species and individual birds during the annual National Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Rich Bailey, West Virginia state ornithologist and coordinator for the Elkins and Pocahontas County bird counts says the data collected over the years helps experts determine whether a particular species is increasing or in decline and why. He says a classic example of this is a bird called a Loggerhead Shrike.

“This bird 50 to 75 years ago was a pretty common bird in West Virginia; it’s a shrub land bird, a grassland bird,” he says. “Back in that time the way people farmed was different. Now it’s much more of an industrial large scale affair and Shrike habitat has whittled down and whittled down just because of the change in land use by people to the point now where we have just a few spots in the state where there are pairs of Loggerhead Shrikes that are nesting and having babies.”

Bailey says the Shrike like some other species, are very particular about their habitat. He says if a nesting pair is found in a given area, it can be an indication of a good mosaic of good quality habitat.

“What really is kind of a bellwether are the trends that they’re seeing,” he says. “If they’re noticing for example during wintertime that certain species are declining year after year, that’s a bellwether; but it’s a bellwether for the type of habitat that that specific bird uses.”

Bailey says they’re seeing some of the biggest trends in the birds not typically counted during the Christmas bird count.

“We monitor a lot of what we call neo-tropical migrants,” he says. “These are the birds that come here for the summer to nest, but then they fly south for the winter. For the most part, our winter resident birds are actually pretty stable. They tend to have the ability to adapt pretty well; whereas a bird that migrates, migration in of itself is an inherently dangerous activity.”

He says the Scarlett Tanager, a beautiful bird found in West Virginia in the summer, is a good example of the perils of migration.

“When a baby Scarlett Tanager hatches out her in the summertime in June, that bird is going to fly south for the winter,” he says, “and then it’s going come back and try to breed the next year. On any given bird that hatches, it stands only a 25%, on average, survival chance of making it back to breed the following year, migration is that dangerous. It means that the birds basically have to crank out more than the replacement for themselves.”

Bailey says that equates to several successful nestlings in one nest or nesting multiple times. But he says the result of human encroachment has reduced both the quantity and quality of habitat. And there is also competition from other invasive species such as the Brown Headed Cowbird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests.

“Scarlett Tanagers are maybe producing less Scarlett Tanagers and actually producing some Cowbirds instead,” says Bailey. “The Cowbirds come because of habitat fragmentation; forest patches are smaller, they’re all divided up into chunks now instead of large contiguous patches of woods. The overall effect is that there’s just fewer birds producing fewer babies.”

He says some of the birds they track are declining over 10% in population each year. He says some birds such as the Rusty Blackbird are actually causing a lot of concern because their population is dropping so fast. However, he says some birds like the Indigo Bunting are actually doing much better because of changes to habitat due to human activity. That bird likes to nest on the edge of the forest surrounding a large pasture, exactly the kind of habitat that is being created more and more by humans.

While the Christmas Bird Count is the largest, it’s not the only data collected during the year.

“DNR [Division of Natural Resources] sponsors what we call the winter bird count, and that’s folks counting birds at their bird feeders in their back yard,” says Bailey, “and that’s going on right now as well. There’s the Great Backyard Bird Count and that happens in February.”

To find out more about the Christmas and other bird counts, visit the National Audubon Society at

Story By

Heather Niday

Heather is our Program Director and Traffic Manager. She started with Allegheny Mountain Radio as a volunteer deejay. She then joined the AMR staff in February of 2007. Heather grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area and now lives in Arbovale, West Virginia with her husband Chuck. Heather is a wonderful flute player, and choir director for Arbovale UMC. You can hear Heather along with Chuck on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8pm as they host two hours of jazz on Something Different.

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