Update: Counting Birds for Conservation

Dec 18, 2017

Update:  Members of the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society Wednesday captured the hummingbird spotted near Valley Water Mill.  The tiny bird was banded, weighed, photographed and released.  It was determined that it was an adult female rufous hummingbird.  

Before the Great Christmas Bird Count began at the  start of the 20th century, according to the National Audubon Society, hunters took part in a holiday tradition called the Christmas Side Hunt.  They’d form sides, go out with their guns, and whichever side killed the most birds was declared the winner.

But starting on Christmas Day in 1900 ornithologist, Frank Chapman, proposed a new holiday tradition:  A Christmas Bird Census in which people counted birds rather than hunting them. 

That census continues today, and data is used to monitor the health of birds and to guide conservation action. 

The count began this year on December 14.  This is the 118th year for the event, which is described as the nation's longest-running community science bird project.

Greg Swick, a member of the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society, said the Great Christmas Bird Count allows researchers to track what's happening over time.

"Since it's been going on so long, we're getting a real good picture at the trends in birding--bird numbers, backyard birds to wild birds.  Audubon looks at that from year to year and can get some really important scientific data from a citizen science group," he said.

Swick, three former participants of the Audubon/Missouri State University Conservation Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems or GLADE program, Brooke Widmar, Klee Bruce and Anna Skalicky, along with MSU grad student, Kendell Loyd and KSMU reporter, Michele Skalicky, walked more than five miles Saturday morning in north Springfield counting birds.

One of the first birds to be spotted was a brown creeper, which participants agreed was a good way to start the day.

The most exciting moment of the day, however, was when Widmar, an MSU student, spotted a hummingbird on a Greenways trail near Valley Water Mill Equestrian Center.  It turned out to be a rufous hummingbird.  According to the Missouri Department of Conservation's website, hummingbirds other than rubythroats are rarely seen in the state.  The rufous hummingbird normally breeds from the Rocky Mountains to the west coast.  A few winter along the Gulf Coast, and they are most often sighted in Missouri as they pass through during migration from late summer to early winter.

Rufous Hummingbird in North Springfield
Credit Michele Skalicky

The tiny bird flew from branch to branch, stopping occasionally to allow the group to take photographs.

Swick and the other participants in the little group of birdwatchers were excited to brag about seeing the rufous hummingbird and getting pictures of it during a compilation gathering at the end of the day.

Kendell Loyd compares spotting a rare bird to a runner's high.

"If you see one that you didn't expect or you see one that shouldn't be there, you get bragging rights to be able to say that you saw it," he said.

Klee Bruce contributed much to the bird count over the weekend, easily spotting various species.  The high school student from Ozark is just 16 but is very passionate about birding.

"To me, birds are the link to like so many aspects of natural science.  I mean, birds can be indicators to so many other things," she said.

A lot of her friends tease her about her fascination with birds, but she said when you're passionate about something you "stop caring what the rest of the world thinks about it."

Swick said taking part in the Christmas Bird Count allows him "to get away from the trappings of the season" and from the busyness of life.  And he takes part because he said, "I love working with young people...I see the future of conservation in the young people, and so to have young people out here interested in this, that's wonderful for me."

The Great Christmas Bird Count runs through January 5.