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In This Place

The Biggest Month in Citizen Science

Stan Lupo / flickr /

If you’re into bird-related citizen science, then this is your month. From the Cape Cod Waterfowl Census, to the Christmas Bird Counts, to Project FeederWatch, December offers several ways to contribute to long-term studies of bird populations on Cape Cod and beyond. You just need some binoculars and, depending on the project, some basic bird knowledge.


This past weekend marked the 35th annual Cape Cod Waterfowl Census. This effort to survey all the fresh water bodies on Cape Cod was begun by uber-birder Blair Nikula and the Cape Cod Bird Club back in 1984, a year when the top song, incidentally, was When Doves Cry by Prince. A gorgeous tune, but I digress.

They say there are over 1000 freshwater ponds on Cape Cod, whoever they are, but observers focus on a subset of around 300 of those ponds on this annual count. Mallards, Buffleheads, and, as you might expect, Canada Geese are the most abundant species year after year. If you combine Greater and Lesser Scaup, then scaup rank in the top two or three most abundant ducks most years. If you’re wondering why you never see one of the most abundant ducks in the region, it’s because they are bunched into a very small number of ponds, mostly in Falmouth and Harwich, where they appear as barely identifiable rafts of duck-like objects way out in the middle of the pond. Also, they don’t eat bread, so you won’t see them at your local illicit duck feeding station. This year’s count has come and gone, but check the Cape Cod Bird Club website for how to help next year.

If you want to contribute to an even longer, and much broader dataset, this is the 120th year of National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. This project depends on enthusiastic, mildly crazed birders who fan out across a 15 mile circle to tally all the birds they see and hear on count day, coming together at the end of the day to share sightings and tabulate data. We’re lucky to have no fewer than 8 Cape and Islands counts between December 14 and January 5, from the obscure Stellwagen Bank and Tuckernuck counts to the venerable old Cape Cod count, entering its 88th year. The Vineyard, Nantucket, and Mid-Cape counts typically vie for top species honors, so make your pick and check back here in the coming weeks as the results come in. Count dates and contacts are on the bird club website.

For those who prefer to watch the birds from a window while holding a warm beverage, there’s even a project for you. Cornell’s Project FeederWatch, managed jointly with Bird Studies Canada, asks folks to watch their feeders for an hour on two consecutive days each week and report what you see. With over 30 years of data, this project has provided important insights into changes in winter bird populations and even the spread of an eye disease in House Finches. A surprising number of peer-reviewed scientific papers have come from these backyard birder data. This includes a recent study showing that Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks have increased three-fold in urban areas of Chicago over the last 21 years, occupying areas with little vegetation as long as there were other birds to eat.

So, December clearly has something for everyone, if by “everyone” you mean people who love birds and want to contribute to their conservation. And from my perspective, I guess that’s everyone who’s anyone.