''It's a cawdinal, daddya,'' my 3-year-old daughter said while we were looking at the birds coming to the vinegar bottle birdfeeder we made. I pulled out my little sheet of paper and marked it down: one cardinal. My son, a year and a half younger, screamed and pounded on the window in excitement. The ''cawdinal,'' and every other bird, flew off.
And so began the 111th Christmas Bird Count.
For the record, it was my eighth Christmas Bird Count, which I have been doing ever since I moved to Warren. I only count the birds that come to the birdfeeders in my yard and my neighbors', but there is usually a good number of birds over the course of the day.
Geese are often a part of the Christmas Bird Count.
Photo by Jeff Tome
I am not alone. Last year, there were 62,623 other people across the Western Hemisphere counting the birds around the same time.
Why count the birds? Well, I do it because I like to watch the birds come to the feeders and get my kids excited about nature. Birds are fun for kids to watch. They scare easily when little ones pound on the windows, but come back quickly.
More importantly, the birds that people count on the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) go into a database that scientists can pull useful information from. In the 1980s, it was noticed that black ducks were hard to find in the winter. A program to limit hunting on that species helped them rebound.
The data also shows that, over the last 40 years, many birds are shifting their ranges northward as winter temperatures rise. Many birds are now found between 200 and 400 miles farther north than they were in the 1960s. On average, the range has moved 35 miles north. Scientists can compare historic information to the information collected now to track how the populations of birds are shifting.
Christmas Bird Count data is useful because the number of different birds may change a lot over a person's lifetime, but without the data to back it up, it's just a bunch of people of a certain age saying ''I remember seeing brown thrashers all the time and they were as common as robins. You hardly see a brown thrasher anymore.''
OK, that person was me. As a kid, I saw brown thrashers hopping around the yard like robins. A quick search of the CBC database shows that there really were twice as many brown thrashers when I was a kid compared to today. (Ha! Maybe I can remember some things!)
Some of the birds that are disappearing the fastest are some that surprised me. The common grackle, who I think of as a pest at my feeder that eats way too much, has a population 61 percent lower than it was in 1966. The population went from 190 million birds down to 73 million.
The ruffed grouse population dropped from 15 million birds to 6.8 million birds.
Part of the problem may be changing habitat. More forests are growing up and there are fewer farm fields and old brushy farm fields around. Birds that like those fields and brushy areas are disappearing with their habitat.
Other birds that breed in the arctic tundra are losing their breeding grounds to thawing of permafrost layers as the arctic warms. This trend is expected to continue.
Personally, I find it amazing that information taken by people long dead is still alive. The data taken at the CBC is available to anyone to look at online from the very first one 111 years ago to the one in 2009. That information is helping scientists to understand migration patterns, population trends, climate change, habitat changes and more.
You can be a part of this immortal data as well. All you have to do is be able to count the birds in a block that is assigned to you. Your data goes to Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where it is used by scientists and others.
The Warren Christmas Bird Count is on Saturday, Dec. 17, and the Jamestown Count is on Dec. 18. If you are interested in volunteering to help count birds, call Audubon at 569-2345 and we'll put you in touch with the right people.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary who has been watching birds since he was a hatchling. The Audubon Center is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just east of Route 62. More information on Audubon and the Christmas Bird Count can be found at jamestownaudubon.org.