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Birdathons: Counting for conservation

by Brete Griffin

The annual migration of millions of birds is considered by many to be one of nature’s most enigmatic and awe-inspiring phenomena. Over the last several hundred years, intensive efforts have been made by scientists and amateur ornithologists alike to understand the “hows” and “whys” of the complex migratory patterns exhibited by birds. Initially, people realized that one of the best ways to do this was to document the kinds and numbers of birds in a given area over an extended period of time. Field observers began keeping lists, or informal counts of the bird species seen along with their abundance at a selected site. During the 1900s, in part because of growing interest in the study of birds, more formal counts were organized at a regional level: the annual Christmas Bird Count began in 1899, the Breeding Bird Census in 1937, and the Breeding Bird Survey in 1965. As the database of observations expanded and information was collected over longer periods, it became apparent that populations of some migratory birds were in decline. Recognizing the importance of long term data in studying population dynamics, the scientific community collaborated with birding groups to develop a more standardized methodology for collecting this information.

Today, serious birders and scientists continue to work together to achieve a more systematic and rigorous approach to studying bird populations. Many public and private organizations rely heavily on dedicated volunteers to monitor migration and to maintain operations at banding stations. Organizations such as the American Birding Association, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the National Audubon Society, Partners in Flight, and Conservation International realize that public aware-ness and education campaigns are of critical importance if migratory birds and their habitats are to be preserved.

One way you can educate your students about migratory birds and at the same time contribute to monitoring and conservation programs is to organize a “birdathon” at your school. A birdathon is an annual bird count, usually done during spring migration, which serves as a major fundraising activity to sustain bird monitoring and conservation programs across North America. Several bird observatories that are part of the Migration Monitoring Network (such as the Long Point Bird Observatory in Canada and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California) use birdathons to educate the public about the plight of many migratory bird species. Similar regional bird counts, such as the World Series of Birding (New Jersey Audubon Society) the Great Texas Birding Classic (Texas Parks and Recreation) and the Space Coast Flyway Festival (Titusville, Florida) operate with the same aim, to encourage support for bird conservation programs in their respective regions. The SEEDS Foundation in Canada has a Bird Identification and Tally activity for home and school as part of their Challenge Program for schools.

By organizing a bird count as a class or club project in collaboration with one of these organizations, you will not only raise students’ awareness of migratory bird conservation but may also be able to raise money for school environmental projects. Birdathon participants gather pledges from their friends, families and other sponsors, either as a flat rate or as a specific amount per bird species recorded (e.g., one dollar per species). The funds collected are used by sponsoring organizations to sustain long term bird-banding projects, support scientific research by graduate students, assist community habitat restoration projects, and develop educational materials for the public. Depending on the policy of sponsoring organization, a percentage of the total proceeds raised by your class or club may be returned to your school to subsidize a variety of environmental projects and activities. In addition, corporate sponsors often donate prizes to organizations conducting birdathons; prizes given to school groups who fundraise for bird conservation have included reference books (bird identification, of course!), telescopes, and class sets of binoculars.

Birdathon logistics

Fitting it in: A birdathon can be organized as a field trip by your school environment club during a school-wide celebration of an event such as Earth Week or Wildlife Week. Alternatively, a bird count can be done in conjunction with another regularly scheduled field trip in environmental science or geography. For example, a Grade 10 science class visiting a local conservation area to conduct an ecological analysis of aquatic or terrestrial ecosystems could incorporate this activity into the study. All you need is a bird species checklist, binoculars and/or a telescope, and a field guide to help with identification. If none of your staff members, parent volunteers or students has expertise in bird identification, you may wish to contact a local naturalists’ club for help. As part of their education outreach programs, many birding organizations encourage members and affiliated groups to assist schools.

Where to go: The basic idea of a birdathon is to maximize the number of bird species seen or heard during a 24-hour period. An ideal strategy is to visit a number of sites representing different habitat types in order to increase the diversity of bird species observed. As an extreme example, participants in the World Series of Birding can go anywhere in the entire state of New Jersey to find the most bird species in a 24-hour period! This is obviously not a practical plan for student groups, but with a little prior research you can choose a site that has a good mixture of habitat types. Not everyone has a Point Pelee or a Cape May nearby, but a local park or conservation area can be very productive. An area that combines both aquatic habitats (lake or marsh) and terrestrial habitats (open fields, shrubby areas, stands of mature woodlands) will likely support a good diversity of species, fragmentation effects notwithstanding.

When to go: The best time for a birdathon is any day during the peak period of spring migration, which in North America occurs from mid-April to the end of May, depending on geographical area. Try to choose a day that corresponds to the period of migration in which the greatest bird species diversity is usually recorded in your area or latitude. A local naturalists’ club or bird observatory can provide this information or, better yet, you could start a database of migratory bird surveys to answer this question for yourself. If planning your outing for early May, consider scheduling it to coincide with International Migratory Bird Day which takes place on the second Saturday in May.

Weather is an important factor in a successful birdathon and it is a good idea to schedule an alternative rain date in case of inclement weather. The ideal time to observe birds is just after a front has moved through the region, as bad weather often forces migrating birds to the ground to find food or shelter. Unfortunately, most school field trips must be planned well ahead of time and even our best weather-sensing technology cannot predict ideal weather too far in advance, so pick a date and cross your fingers!

Fundraising details: If you intend to use your birdathon to raise funds for a bird conservation organization and/or to support school environmental projects, have students begin gathering pledges a few weeks before the event. Most organizations provide pledge forms to participants, but students may also create their own. If the organization is officially designated as “not for profit” (most of them are), all contributions from supporters are tax-creditable and receipts can be issued.

To be fair to your sponsors, let them know how many species you expect to see during your birdathon, as your total could range anywhere from 20 to over 100 species depending upon local conditions. Most sponsors prefer the flat-rate strategy so they don’t have to worry about your group having “too good” of a day!

Curriculum integration

Birdathons are adaptable for both elementary and secondary school students and have several cross-curricular applications.

Elementary students: For younger students, simple tallies of species abundance and diversity can be made through participation in a program such as Cornell Laboratory’s Project Feederwatch or Classroom Feederwatch in which daily or seasonal changes in bird numbers are monitored right on the school grounds. If you have done a little homework on the habitat variety in a local park, a well-planned walk for even one hour through different areas of the park could be very productive in terms of both bird numbers and species diversity.

In Canada, the SEEDS Bird Identification and Tally (BIT) Challenge is an excellent format for doing surveys with younger students. In addition to providing survey forms for recordkeeping, the project also allows for a large-scale online summation and comparison of your students’ bird data with that of other schools in the region or across the country. As examples of cross-curricular applications, the SEEDS website also offers a creative writing assignment as a language arts activity, and the bird count data is amenable to simple descriptive statistics and other mathematical operations.

The American Birding Association has developed educational programs such as the Youth BirdQuest to encourage younger students to learn about birds and develop a sense of stewardship for the natural world. A corporate sponsor of this event gives prizes for different categories of achievement for participating students. The association also sponsors students for summer birding camps and publishes a bi-monthly newsletter for and by young birders as part of their youth education program.

Secondary students: A birdathon will naturally integrate with secondary science or environmental science curriculum units that include sections on ecology or animal behaviour. Ecological topics and concepts which can be addressed include food webs, predator-prey relationships, niche characteristics, succession, habitat, trophic levels, carrying capacity, competition, natural selection, population dynamics, adaptation, migration, phenology, biodiversity, biomagnification, and wildlife at risk. Observations made and data collected during the birdathon can reinforce concepts covered in the classroom and bring to life the connections between and among different species of organisms (not just avian ones!). For example, a sighting of a Peregrine Falcon or a Bald Eagle could bring to light recovery programs designed to bring back bird species formerly extirpated because of chemical- or pesticide-induced reproductive failure. A sighting of a Kirtland’s Warbler is an opportunity to emphasize the need for forest management practices that use controlled burning to maintain large tracts of Jack Pine in an early successional state. Catching a glimpse of a Prothonotary Warbler will remind everyone of the need to keep swamps from being drained and of the value of providing artificial nesting sites for those threatened species that cannot “excavate” their own and are thus dependent upon the availability of tree cavities. The use of nest boxes to help the Eastern Bluebird population recover is an example of a success story using this particular strategy.

The study of migratory wildlife is an excellent way to learn about how organisms adaptively respond to changes in their environment. Students could research and draw range maps for migratory species and investigate factors that cause and influence the evolution of migratory behavior. If birdathon data can be collected over several years in a given location, students can analyze variations in species occurrence and abundance, and assess the possible causal factors by monitoring changes in weather patterns. Comparisons could also be made between locations (using surveys done by other schools) to determine the effect of habitat changes on bird species abundance and diversity. Through statistical analysis and graphical representation of the data, students can detect and analyze any patterns in the comparative study over time or between sites.

Recent developments in both tracking and monitoring technology, such as satellite-linked tracking devices and radar detection, have greatly contributed to our understanding of the navigational mysteries of bird migration. Many conservation and educational organizations now have websites for the online tracking of some migratory bird species (Coulter, 1997). Journey North, for example, has online data pertaining to the northward progression of spring, and invites students and others to contribute data on first sightings of migratory wildlife and first blooms of plants. Although the use of computers in environmental education continues to be a concern (Thompson 1995, 1997), if used in conjunction with ongoing field research a computer can be a powerful analytical tool for the large-scale collection and processing of ecological data.

If conducting a birdathon generates interest in doing further work to help protect and conserve habitat for migratory birds, you and your students may wish to follow up by checking out the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Citizen Science Projects. Examples of projects currently being run are the Nest Box Network, Warbler Watch, Forest Bird Monitoring, and the Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project. The results of various monitoring projects o rganized by the Cornell Laboratory are being used to help achieve specific goals of the North American Bird Conservation Plan such as the purchase of land that hosts breeding populations of declining species. Such projects also help people better understand the complex issues surrounding birds and conservation and thus become more effective stewards within their own communities.

Participating in a birdathon truly has multiple benefits for students. It is a valuable educational tool through which students will apply ecological concepts learned in the classroom, gain experience in an environmental monitoring technique, and develop an environmental ethic while carrying out meaningful fieldwork. It is also a means of helping to raise community awareness of the local habitat needs of migratory birds, while helping to support regional and international efforts to help save and preserve migratory wildlife.

At the time of writing, Brete Griffin taught science at T.L. Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario. He is currently Education Coordinator for the American Birding Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

This article was published in Green Teacher 60, Winter 2000, pp. 31-35.

References/Literature Cited:

Anglin, Lise. Birder Extraordinaire: The life and legacy of James L. Baillie. Toronto: Toronto Ornithological Club, 1987, ISBN 0-9695562-0-9.
Bonney, R., S. Carlson and M. Fischer. Citizen’s Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 1995.
Coulter, Bob. “Tracking Migratory Animals: Going Online for Environmental Education.” Green Teacher 53, Fall 1997, pp. 20-21.
Green, Paul. “Early Birding: The American Birding Association and Education.” Winging It, 9:2, 1997, pp. 1-6.
Greenberg, Russell and J. Reaser. Bring Back the Birds. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1995, ISBN 0-8117-2519-7.
Hameister, Roxine dePencier. “Surveying Biodiversity.” Green Teacher 55, Spring 1998, pp. 32-36.
Laughlin, Sarah and Diane Pence. A Guide to Bird Education Resources. Washington, DC: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, 1997.
Quanz, Ken and Edward Cheskey. “Avian Attraction.” Green Teacher 47, April-May 1996, pp.15-17.
Terborgh, John. Where have all the birds gone? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-691-02428-6.
Thompson, Bill. “Computers and Environmental Education: Valid Educational Path or Donkey Trail?” Interactions [journal of the Ontario Society for Environmental Education] 7:5, 1995, pp. 19-26.
—— “Sharing and Finding Information on the Web: A Second Appraisal.”Interactions 9:5, 1997, pp. 23-26.

Studying Migratory Birds: Organizations and Resources

THE following organizations provide assistance in conducting research on migratory birds and planning for birdathons. Some of the listed websites have online migration tracking features and others are included to provide extended learning opportunities or to help teachers and their students get more directly involved with local and international migratory bird conservation efforts.

National and International Birdathons
Bird Studies Canada holds the international Baillie Birdathon each May; 25% of funds raised go to a nature or conservation club/project of participants’ choice. Contact Bird Studies Canada, PO Box 160, Port Rowan, ON N0E 1M0, (888) 448-BIRD, website

SEEDS Foundation sponsors the Canada-wide Bird Identification and Tally Challenge each year on the May 24th weekend. Elementary school classes receive tally sheet masters and curriculum packets, and enter and compare bird counts with other classes through an online database. Contact SEEDS, (800) 661-8751, email, website

Point Reyes Bird Observatory organizes an international birdathon each year in September. Participants receive tally sheets and information; all funds raised are used for programs of the observatory. Contact Point Reyes Bird Observatory, 4990 Shoreline Hwy, Stinson Beach, CA 94970, (415) 868-1221, email, website

The American Birding Association helps school groups organize Youth BirdQuests, birding competitions and fundraisers which can be held any day of the year; 50% of funds raised go to local projects/50% to the ABA. Contact: ABA, PO Box 6599, Colorado Springs, CO 80934, (719) 578-1614, website

National Audubon Society: Regional birdathons are organized by many state chapters. For general information, contact National Audubon Society, 700 Broadway, 6th floor, New York, NY 10003, (212) 979-3047, website birdathon/

Regional Birdathons
Arkansas: Audubon Society of Central Arkansas,

California: Madrone Audubon Society,

Florida: Space Coast Flyway Festival. This annual November birdathon is limited to a single county in Florida, but the website offers good examples of pledge forms and a set of birding rules and ethics that would be useful in organizing your own birdathon. Website:

Iowa: Loess Hills Audubon Society,

Maryland: Audubon Naturalist Society,

New Jersey: World Series of Birding, NJ Audubon Society,

New York: National Audubon Society,

Texas: Great Texas Birding Classic,

Washington (state): Audubon Society of Washington,

Other Projects and Organizations
Cornell Lab of Ornithology sponsors bird-monitoring projects such as Project Feederwatch, Classroom Feederwatch and Nest Box Network, through which students contribute to scientific research. Website

Journey North: An online education initiative through which students track the northward progress of spring, entering data on first sightings of birds and other animals and first blooms of plants. Website

Partners in Flight: An international coalition of organizations working to reverse population declines of migratory birds, co-sponsor of International Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday in May. Website

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center: Education initiatives include co-sponsorship of International Migratory Bird Day and an International Pen Pal program that pairs North American classes with Latin American counterparts who “share” the same migratory species. Website