Bird counters out in full force as part of Christmas tradition

| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

Local volunteers will flock together and have their eyes to the sky this weekend as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count, a 113-year tradition through the National Audubon Society, is an annual effort to survey avian populations during a three-week window around Dec. 25 for research purposes.

Though small groups outside the city limits had been hosting local counts in the 1920s, the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count officially started in 1961 and will be held this year on Saturday, Dec. 29.

The information collected from the census project is compiled in a database by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to be used by researchers.

“There's actually been a tremendous amount of research done on counts and bird trends just using the data,” said Bob Mulvihill, ornithologist at the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, in Fox Chapel.

Each year, volunteers in 13 geographic locations around the Pittsburgh area spend the day counting species of birds in their communities or at feeders within the established count-circle boundaries.

“It's important to do every year because bird populations are really dynamic and the purpose the Christmas Bird Count is to assess the changes in number of birds over time,” said Mulvihill, adding that the Pittsburgh count often tallies 70 to 75 avian species.

“The more data points you can get, the better you can see the trends.”

Joyce Hoffman of Shaler Township said she has seen the bird populations fluctuate since she started volunteering as a counter and coordinator for the Shaler count area in the 1980s.

“We used to lead in white-breasted nuthatches, but they've been going down. We used to not have crows but now we have a crow roost (close by).

“You can see where some things have changed. The red-bellied woodpecker, when I first started, it was rare to see … I would never have had a mockingbird back in 1980; now, I can tell you where to go to get them. When I first started to bird, we never saw a turkey; now, I get them on my deck, but we had pheasant, but now we have no pheasant.”

Hoffman said there are certain birds she likes to see on her Christmas Bird Count list and others she wants to see.

“I'm hoping to get a merlin this year,” she said.

One of the highest species count sites in the Pittsburgh area is the North Park location, which usually averages 38 to 45 species.

“I have a little competition with myself and with a group,” said Bob VanNewkirk, of Ross Township, who has been coordinating the bird count at the North Park location for 10 years.

“I tell them the number of species seen last year and try to beat it by one. We always try to outdo ourselves. We just hope to find as much as we can.”

VanNewkirk said some of the surprises in recent years have been sightings of eastern bluebirds and a fox sparrow — the first one seen in North Park in 10 years.

“Besides the fun aspect, it is the conservation of birds and everything that is related to birds and its habitat,” VanNewkirk said. “This is my little way … that I can help and support.”

The Pittsburgh-area count circles span the county and include Fox Chapel, Franklin Park and northern Ohio Township, Hampton Township, Indiana Township, Kilbuck and southern Ohio Township, North Park, Oakmont and Harmar Township, O'Hara Township, Penn Hills and Verona, Pittsburgh's Frick and Highland parks, the City of Pittsburgh, McCandless and Ross Township, and Shaler Township.

Mulvihill said with the number of areas to cover, the Christmas Bird Count relies heavily on volunteers to donate their time to identify the birds and record the findings.

“You could not do a bird survey of this size and scale without volunteers,” Mulvihill said. “The Christmas Bird Count, I call the granddaddy of citizen science projects.”

Many of the local count coordinators said the Christmas Bird Count is a way to enjoy the outside on a winter day or even learn a new skill, and families, individuals or even Scout troops shouldn't be intimidated by the project.

“Bird watching to me is such a popular way to socialize and be outside and contribute to a very important citizens' project,” VanNewkirk said.

“If you can't tell the difference between a robin and a blue jay that's OK, come anyway. I try to match up people who are very good bird watchers with someone who is inexperienced.”

For more information on the Christmas Bird Count or to contact an area coordinator to volunteer, visit

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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