For the Birds Radio Program: Breeding Bird Survey 1989

Original Air Date: July 14, 1989

Laura conducted a Breeding Bird Survey for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month. Why is this such a perfect project? (4:09) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

A few weeks ago I conducted a Breeding Bird Survey for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey. Surveys like mine are conducted every summer by volunteers throughout the United States and Canada. Each route is exactly 25 miles long, and each observer begins exactly 30 minutes before sunrise—on my route that was at 4:38 am. Everyone must stop every half mile and count every bird seen or heard during a three minute period at each stop. The data are recorded on five computerized field report forms, and then totals are transferred to one big sheet, and the whole bundle is mailed to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.

The Breeding Bird Survey is one of the true success stories of government-coordinated volunteer programs. From its beginnings 23 years ago, the Survey has grown until last year 2,076 routes were run, all by volunteers. The data is used in assessing all kinds of avian population trends, and is also used as an indicator of environmental degradation from man-made and natural causes. Did last year’s drought hurt bird populations? This year’s data will hold some answers. Are tropical deforestation and forest fragmentation in the United States causing a steady decline of our migrants? Analyzing trends over the past two decades may eventually give solid answers. The Breeding Bird Survey is the only ongoing effort to collect uniform data of this kind in North America.

This was my first year running a Breeding Bird Survey. My good friend Barb Akre drove so I could concentrate on recording data. The number one species on my route was the White-throated Sparrow–all together I counted 65 singing their Old Sam Peabody song.

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

Second place went to the Nashville Warbler–I had 56 of them singing. Nashvilles have an easy-to-recognize, two-part song that sounds like “See bit see bit see bit see weet weet weet weet weet.”

(Recording of a Nashville Warbler)

Right behind the Nashville was the Red-eyed Vireo, with 55. This forest species was once the most abundant songbird in North America, but has declined as the eastern forest dwindles. Red-eyed Vireos sound like robins, only instead of singing whole sentences, they sing simple, three-syllable words.

(Recording of a Red-eyed Vireo)

Four loons were yodeling, and two bitterns—also known as thunder pumpers or water belchers—gave their distinctive call:

(Recording of an American Bittern)

I heard four Ruffed Grouse, which wasn’t surprising considering that they’re at the crest of their population cycle. I doubt if the 8 Black-billed Cuckoos I heard were making much of a dent in the tent caterpillar population—when I scouted out the route the afternoon before, they were crawling all over me and my little girl Katie. Fortunately, Katie loves all creatures great and small, and as I watched her gently removing them from her pants so she wouldn’t hurt them I thought about the true meaning of tolerance and kindness. There weren’t many caterpillars when I did my actual survey, early the next morning. It was a pleasant day for watching birds—all in all I ended up with 63 species and a lot of worthwhile memories.

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”