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Breeding Bird Survey returns in 2021

Breeding Bird Survey
Breeding Bird Survey results reveal that the Prairie Warbler has experienced significant population declines similar to those seen in much of the rest of the shrubland bird suite. This shows how survey results can inform conservation planning about species and the overall health of their habitats. Photograph by Bill Hubick

A year after it was cancelled due to the pandemic, the North American Breeding Bird Survey is back in 2021.

Over the next few months, approximately 2,200 observers will conduct surveys on nearly 3,300 routes in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. The program, which began in 1966, tracks the health of wild bird populations across the continent and is coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey, Canadian Wildlife Service, and Mexican National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity.

For more than a half century, survey results have helped land and resource managers understand the status and trends of more than 500 bird species, providing a foundation for management and conservation decisions. The survey is primarily conducted by volunteers, or “citizen scientists,” who are highly skilled in identifying and counting birds by sight and sound.

Survey results were fundamental to recent findings that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds during the past five decades. That study, which was co-authored by the USGS, found there are 29% fewer birds in the United States and Canada today than in 1970.

“The Breeding Bird Survey has provided critical insight on the health of North American birds for the past 54 years,” said Thomas O’Connell, director of the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center. “The survey is conducted on an annual basis and follows consistent and standardized methods that allow for an accurate understanding of population change, helping inform decisions related to bird conservation across the continent.”

This research helps land and resource managers identify how birds are impacted by diseases and environmental toxins, invasive species, climate change, human activity, alterations to land cover, and other influences. This includes identifying priority locations for conservation as well as at-risk species before they are candidates for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and Canadian Species at Risk Act.

BBS works amid social distancing guidelines

Blue dots show the locations of Breeding Bird Survey routes across North America. Image by USGS

“As in past years, we’re expecting more than 2,000 participants,” said O’Connell. “Since surveys take place over large areas with limited interaction with people, they are a great opportunity for our volunteers, who are so critical to the effort, to contribute to the conservation of North American birds while socially distancing and enjoying the benefits of being in nature. The safety of participants is our top priority, and while much of the upcoming season will operate as previous years, guidelines have been provided to minimize risk of exposure to coronavirus.”

State and local safety measures during the pandemic may differ depending on locations, so BBS staff advise participants to comply with local guidance. Other guidelines include performing surveys alone or with those in a participant’s “social bubble,” maintaining a distance of six feet from others, wearing a mask, practicing good hygiene with proper hand sanitizing, and not conducting surveys if feeling sick.

Field activities for the 2020 survey were cancelled in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That decision was made to be consistent with last year’s shelter-in-place recommendations and nonessential travel policies issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This ensured that BBS activities did not contribute an exposure risk. In addition, access to roadways on BBS survey routes was limited due to closed public lands.

BBS observers are assisted by an additional 1,000 or so participants, who help with driving, collecting GPS coordinates, and recording descriptions of the surrounding environment. Approximately 225,000 miles and more than 22,500 hours are logged annually by the survey’s dedicated workforce. BBS staff compile and analyze the data and release it to the public.

The project’s title refers to breeding birds because the survey is done during the peak of breeding season, ranging from April to July depending on the location. This time is ideal for reoccurring population counts because most birds are not in migration.

If you live in the U.S., are skilled at birding by ear, and are interesting in taking part in the BBS, contact your state coordinator(s), who work in their respective birding communities to find birders with the demonstrated ability to identify and survey singing and calling birds. More info for prospective participants in Canada is here. Available routes and contact info for Mexico are available here

Thanks to the U.S. Geological Survey for providing this news. 

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