Updated: Feb 15, 2022
The following conversation was had between the author and Pete Read, the long-standing Compiler of records from London's participation in the Christmas Bird Count.
For readers who may not be familiar already, what is the Christmas Bird Count?
PR: The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the longest-running Citizen / Community Science project consisting of a study which tries to show where the birds of the Western Hemisphere are located from December 14 to January 5 each year. The CBC tradition began in 1900 and was originally hosted by the Audubon Society in the United States. It has since expanded to include affiliates such as Birds Canada who participate in compiling the data. Today, over 2,000 CBCs are run simultaneously each year, ranging from Canada to the tip of South America.
Are the data used for anything else besides comparing Christmas Bird Counts year over year?
PR: The data collected by observers allow researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Surveys, the CBC provides a picture of how bird populations have changed in time and space. The long-term perspective is vital for informing strategies to conserve birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.
How many years has the CBC been held in London?
PR: The very first CBC in London took place in 1909, conducted by 2 London high school students who were prompted by information given by a local teacher, and inspired by the initial CBC in Toronto 1900. Since then, Nature London (formerly the McIlwraith Field Naturalist, under various names) have hosted the CBC. After 112 consecutive Counts, the London Christmas Bird Count is the longest uninterrupted Count in Canada! From humble beginnings of 2 participants, we now have up to 170 people taking part each year.
What is it actually like to get out there and count birds at that time of year?
PR: The conditions vary as much as the weather, but the experience is always enjoyable. It is a great project because even if you cannot abide wintery conditions, you can watch your feeders from the comfort of your own home. If you are more adventurous you can go out and try to locate birds on routes throughout our Count Circle. Some in the field are walking and others have a driving route. Watching birds is of course always fun, and participants take pride in helping with such a worthwhile project. It is a special experience no matter what birds you find. Some birders take part in many local CBCs throughout Ontario and beyond.
You mentioned a Count Circle. Can anyone in London count the birds at their feeders?
PR: Only people inside a specific area are eligible to submit records from feeders to the CBC. Before the1950s, Counts were held in the general area of a location. Nowadays, there is a specific methodology to the official CBCs. Each count takes place in an established 15-mile diameter circle that is organized by a count compiler. Our former area encompassed all of London. However, the present Count Circle that was drawn after the new rules unfortunately excludes part of London, in favour of including previous long-time explored locations and superb habitats from historical London CBCs. The London Count spans east to west from Clarke Road and Dundas Street to Komoka and Delaware; north to south, it spans from north of 9-mile Road down to the interchange of the 401 and Highway 4, south of Lambeth. Only bird feeders and field parties inside this area can be counted towards the London CBC.
Tell us about this year's data. Was there anything that stood out as unusual? How does the 2021 CBC data compare to previous years? Are there consistent trends?
PR: Generally, every year is different, mostly due to weather conditions. If there is a particularly cold fall and there is snow and cold in early December before the Count, species that are able to linger after fall migration may depart from the area. This would include waterfowl who vacate when water sources freeze, and local nesting and migrating birds which rely on there being no snow and plentiful food, like American Robins. Some birds that usually eat insects but can also eat seeds and small fruit, like the House Wren, may linger if conditions are good. Also in the mix are the so-called "birds of winter" which arrive from the north to our more hospitable climate and come to our bird feeders, like Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays and so on. We also might get winter finches like Crossbills if the annual crop of cones that the birds feed on to the north of us is not able to sustain them. So, perfect conditions to produce the most species and individuals in London would be a mild fall and winter, up to the day of the Count at least, combined with more harsh conditions to the north leading to less available food for birds.
This year saw a rather cold fall and first half of December in London, so we lost most of our lingering species. Meanwhile, in areas to the north, milder conditions allowed birds to remain there to subsist on a relatively high abundance of food. So, this past CBC in London found fewer species and less individuals than the average over the last 10 years. Even so, we still had very good results for an inland count (counts along the lower Great Lakes often find more birds due to habitats and general moderating winter conditions). There were about 13 unusual species found this year, according to our statistics, but the most unusual was probably a Gray Catbird.
One of our long-standing records is that of the Northern Cardinal, our chosen City Bird for London. We have a rivalry going with other areas of Southern Ontario to count the most Cardinals. London is sometimes referred to as the Cardinal Capital of Canada.
A lot of people are worried about birds declining. Do we see signs of that in London? Are there some species in London that are faring better than others?
PR: It's difficult to establish trends in abundance dynamics from year-to-year, since a lot of variation can be explained by weather conditions. Breeding bird surveys are needed to monitor changes in abundance on a wider temporal scale. This year in London we saw reduced numbers for many species that rely on open water, such as waterfowl, but again, this would be expected given the weather and is not cause for concern. In other recent years, we often found very high numbers of such birds if the water is open. Counts for other species such as Horned Lark and Snow Bunting were low, as were winter finches, but this can be explained by the tolerable conditions and food availability farther north.
Bird species that are able to maintain themselves at feeders are generally seen in higher abundance these days, as more feeders are available. It is very important for people who feed birds to continue to provide food throughout the winter once they start. Otherwise, birds that they attract may end up in a problem if their vital food source disappears in the middle of winter while other naturally-occurring components of their diet aren't available.
Other species which have increased in recent CBC records include Sandhill Crane, Pileated Woodpecker, Cooper’s Hawk, and Merlin. These species are relatively new to be breeding in the area, and seem to be on the rise elsewhere too.
Some species that used to be found here annually have all but disappeared from our winter scene, like Evening Grosbeak, which is now listed in Ontario as a species of Special Concern for conservation. This decline may be a result of logging and habitat loss to the north of us, among other factors.
Some other species have risen in numbers quite a lot over the last 10 to 20 years. These include waterfowl, which are able to remain in southern Ontario due to the generally longer open water period resulting from global warming. Some species like Canada Goose and Mallards have increased due to their success at breeding in urban areas and the abundance of food found here. Previously, much of their habitat was lost from marshes being drained. These birds also seem to benefit from spilled grains in the harvest of agricultural fields.
A good number of passerine (songbird) and other species have increased in numbers on the London CBC. This may be partially explained by climate change as well. I am thinking of Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Bald Eagle, all depending on less ice in the river and on the ponds. But again, much depends on the freeze-up. Other species such as American Robin can linger with milder temperatures and benefit from plantings around homes with berries, as well as natural areas with plants such as Wild Grape.
Some species have declined as a result of loss of habitat. Urban development in the City of London is responsible for much of the loss of what is not considered protected habitat, like overgrown fields and hedgerows and brushy areas. There are many species that breed in such “marginal” land such as Eastern Towhee, which used to be seen more often in the winter, but is now rare.
Changes in composition of habitats resulting from other factors may also convey certain benefits. For example, the deaths of many Ash and other trees recently caused by pests and disease have provided more habitat for woodpecker species, which may create niches for other species that use the new holes and cavities left in trees by woodpeckers.
Gallinaceous birds, like pheasants and Ruffed Grouse, have all but disappeared from the area, likely due to an increase in ground foraging species such as raccoons which may pilfer their nests. The Wild Turkey, which was introduced back in the 80s, is an exception to this, with recent years seeing increased numbers.
Gull species are benefiting from local dumps and are generally found in increasing numbers in London.
All around, even given the fluctuations expected to result from weather-influence on our Counts, I would say our feeder birds numbers are elevated. Only continued studies will determine if this is the case. If there were no feeders, would these birds head farther south? I think other ongoing studies on migrating birds and nesting birds will show a decline in many species.
If people want to support the CBC and other bird monitoring initiatives in the future, how can they get involved?
PR: One way to help is to financially support organizations hosting the Counts, such as Audubon, Birds Canada, and Nature London, in order to help them fund these studies. Most people taking part are volunteers, but paid staff that are needed to help with the data compilation. Also, you can register your bird feeders with the London CBC compiler (if you are within the Count area) in November. Or, if you are already fairly knowledgeable about the winter birds of the area, you could ask to be a member of a field party. Information about how to get involved is posted on the Nature London website.
Are there other volunteer birding projects in which people can take part in our area?
PR: Yes! If you are fairly competent in bird identification and able to use a computer, you could volunteer to collect data for a 5-year project for the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. As the title suggests, the Atlas aims to find out which species are breeding in the area. Birders who find evidence of a breeding bird can enter observations online into a database. The Atlas helps to pinpoint which species are changing significantly in abundance, and provides data to inform conservation and rehabilitation of bird populations. You can find out more and register to participate in the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas here.