Wildlife: Winter is a hot time for citizen science projects

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Colder weather means it's time for two important citizen science projects: the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.

This year is the 113th CBC. Pittsburgh area counts are scheduled for Dec. 15 and Dec. 29. To join a local CBC visit www.aswp.org, click "Join the Christmas Bird Count," and contact the leader of a count near you. Or call the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP) at 412-963-6100. The CBC is the longest running citizen science program in the world. And it's free.

Though skilled birders form the backbone of CBCs, beginners are always welcome. CBCs are a great way for new birders to learn field identification. Count groups are set up so that each group has at least one experienced birder. This insures accuracy of bird identification and enables veteran birders to encourage beginners.

CBCs provide a snapshot in time of winter bird populations. Information collected over many years is particularly valuable because it illuminates long-term population trends.

Last year, a total of 63,227 volunteers participated in 2,248 CBCs. The highest count came from Ecuador, where volunteers tallied 492 species. Locally, 103 birders tallied 73 species in 2011. Notable species included a bald eagle and a rufous hummingbird. According to Brain Shema, ASWP's conservation director, the 10-year average for Pittsburgh area counts is 65 species.

Another winter-long citizen science project is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch. From the comfort of a cozy living room chair, participants simply count birds at feeders. Based on data submitted from 5,120 northeastern sites last year, chickadees (black-capped or Carolina, depending on location), dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, downy woodpeckers and blue jays were reported at 90 percent or more of the northeastern FeederWatch sites.

Launched in 1987, Project FeederWatch compiles information gathered by volunteers from all across North America. Last year 112,774 checklists were submitted from across the U.S. and Canada. FeederWatch volunteers devote just a few minutes every week or two to identify and record the birds that visit their feeders. No special knowledge is required because the materials provided to volunteers include posters that facilitate bird identification.

To become a FeederWatch volunteer, visit www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw, call 800-843-2473 during business hours or send a check to Project FeederWatch, PO Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011. The $15 fee ($12 for Lab of Ornithology members) covers all materials, data analysis, and publication of each year's results.

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Rd., Cameron, WV 26033.


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