Can't find 4 calling birds to give to your true love this Christmas? No geese a-laying or swans a-swimming? You can find them all, plus more, if you participate in a Christmas Bird Count this season! (Even if you aren't an expert birder).
The Christmas Bird Count is an annual bird count that has been happening for over 100 years!! It is the longest-running citizen science initiatives in the world and has created an incredible wealth of bird population data that has been used in hundreds of scientific papers and reports across the globe.
Long-running citizen science initiatives such as the Chritmas Biurd count are incredibly important not only because of the sheer volume of data they collect, but also because of the longevity of the data they collect. Long-term data sets are the gold standard in biology and statistics because it lets us tease out any small thigns that might happen in favour of bigger trends. There are so many things that can affect wildlife in the short term. Things such as cyclical weather patterns (e.g. el Nino/Nina) and singlular climate events (fire, flood) can all create noticable changes in wildlife populations or habitats in the short(ish) term. These small changes make it difficult to tell whether these changes in the abundance or presence of a species is natural or whether it is a concerning trend. When biologists have very long term (several decades!) data sets, its allows them to properly take into account these natural events and account for them in the statistsics to see if there is an overall trend for the species being studied.
To learn more about why long-term data collection can make such a diufference in conservation, keep reading!
Let's use a classic example to see why long-term data is so important- the lynx and hare cycle!
Lynx eat snowshoe hares almost exclusively, rarely choosing to eat anything else. If there are lots of hares around, a lynx will be healthy and strong. She will have healthy kittens and more of those kittens will survive. After a while though, with more and more lynx eating hares, the numbers of hares in the area will drop. This reduction in food makes the lynx less healthy and she will birth fewer, less healthy kittens that may not all survive. The numbers of lynx drop, which means the numbers of snowshoe hare go up, and we are back at the start!
If biologists had just 5 years of lynx population data, it could look like the graph above, leading us to think that something catastrphic is happening to lynx in the area. But because of decades and decades of current and historical research, and data from biologists, hunters, Indigenous peoples, outdoor recreationists and trappers we actually know that lynx populations in any given area generally look like the graph below!
With so much long term data, it would be much easier to tell if something had started to do wrong with lynx populations, and would also be easier to prove and pinpoint.