Christmas Bird Count Around Nickajack Lake

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - by Jonathan Carpenter

Science is typically thought of as being conducted by individuals who have professional careers in science, conducted by scientists. However, though this often true, there is a type of science referred to as “citizen-science”. Much of what we know about the ranges of organisms, that is the geographic area within which a species or population exists, comes from data collected by individuals who painstakingly volunteer their time. These individuals do not necessarily have careers in science.

Citizen-science is a big deal these days, especially in the conjunction of easy internet access.
Indeed, there are currently many citizen-science based websites where data can be entered in real-time from an app on a phone or tablet. To name a few of the most popular online databases, there’s Ebird, a site on which all wild bird sitings can be logged, and, a similar site for storing insect photographs. There are many of these kinds of sites, but there are also many organizations, like the 
Cumberland Mycological Society, that gather folks together on what are often called 
forays. During these forays, which might last for a day, or maybe a weekend, a group will work together to ?nd as many species as possible and then donate their information to various databases. The Cumberland Mycological Society, for example, donates all their mushroom species lists for speci?c sites to the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program. 

This concept of citizens from various careers collecting valuable data began in the Winter season of 1900-1901, in New York. An ornithologist (bird scientist) by the name of Frank Chapman wanted to create a program for people to count birds, instead of shooting them, which was a common past time at the beginning of the 20th Century. 

Currently, most species of wild bird are protected by the Wild Bird Treaty, and other National and International laws. In 1900, however, wild birds were killed en masse for their feathers. Why feathers? Women’s hats! Frank Chapman wrote about being able to identify feathers from more than 50 species of birds on a single walk through the streets of New York City, all from lavishly feathered women’s hats.

Chapman, knowing many other ornithologists across the country, established a protocol for these scientists to promote bird-watching by getting citizens to count birds in a standardized fashion. This protocol was, and is, called the Christmas Bird Count. The counts take place in established circles that are 15 miles in diameter. 

Though the count can take place any day between mid-December and early January, the counting within each particular circle takes place during a speci?ed 24-hour period. All birds are counted, all species and all individual birds. The citizen-scientists that do the counting keep up with the time they spend counting and the number of miles they cover during the count. Currently there are over 2,300 count circles spread over North America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Guam. In Tennessee, there are 30 of these count circles.

This season, I tried to squeeze in as many of these counts into my schedule as I could ?t. I did six. Not only did I get to meet many of the birders (bird-watchers) of Tennessee, but I got to check out a lot of new territory as well. On December 21st I met up with Danny Gaddy, Katherine Boyles, and Cathy Cook to survey an area around Nickajack Lake. There were 11 people counting the birds in this count circle on this day, split up into several diferent groups. At the end of the day, the data were compiled by local resident, Davis Spicer.

The total number of bird species counted for the day within the circle was 91 species! 

While over 11,900 individual birds were tallied by the diferent observers. All of these birds were seen within just 310 linear miles! Some of the more interesting birds seen were a House Wren, a common bird of the Summer months but much rarer in our area during the Winter, a Palm Warbler, an easily missed little warbler identi?ed by it’s incessant tail bobbing, and two Loggerhead Shrikes, a rapidly declining species that is best known for it’s peculiar habit of hanging it’s prey (most often lizards) on the barbs of barbed-wire fences.

All of the data collected on this circle, and all other circles, are donated to the National Audubon Society. All of these data, for all the history of the Christmas Bird Count, are free to access on the Audubon Society’s website,

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