I can’t think of any branch of science that has benefited more from volunteers and amateurs than ornithology. I have three citizen-science projects to tell you about today. None require a large time commitment but do offer the chance to advance our knowledge of birds.

The first is participation in a National Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). These one-day counts will be held between December 14, 2023, and January 5, 2024. This continent-wide project has been going on since 1900 and offers a hugely valuable way to track changes in winter bird abundance. I believe the CBC is the first citizen-project undertaken in the United States.

You can find a list of over 30 Maine CBCs on the Maine Audubon website: https://maineaudubon.org/birding/christmas-bird-count/. The email address of the count compiler is provided. All you need to do is to contact the compiler and ask tol be assigned to a team. You don’t have to be an expert to participate. The more eyes, the better. Plus, communal birding is great fun.

During the winter, owls mostly persist on bird and mammal prey. Rather than passing the sharp bones through their gut, owls regurgitate the bones, feathers, and fur of their prey as distinctive pellets. The pellets are usually disgorged beneath an owl’s roost tree. The pellets are usually easier to find once the ground is snow-covered.

The Maine Owl Pellet Project (google the project name for more information) is a collaborative project between the University of New England, the Maine Dept. of Inland Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Volunteers are provided with information on how to find pellets. Pellets are sent to the project directors and specialists puzzle out the prey in each pellet based on the disarticulated bones.

The project directors are particularly keen to find out how often the northern bog lemming appears in pellets. This lemming is state-threatened and we have much to learn about this rodent.

In any winter, a subset of northern finches may migrate south of their boreal breeding grounds to spend the winter in New England or further south. These irruptions are thought to be triggered by low seed production in the far north by the trees each species depends on.

In some years, we are graced by appearance of large numbers of Red Crossbills. But the classification of these crossbills is complicated. Across North America, at least 10 populations defined by distinctive flight notes are known. Another, called Type 12, has just recently been recognized. Birds with different call types differ in shape and in dietary preference.

Dr. Cody Porter of the University of Iowa is particularly interested in the Type 12 Red Crossbills in the eastern United States. He is asking birders to record any red crossbill they find this winter (a recording with your phone is fine) and the type of conifer the bird was feeding on.

To get a clear understanding of the dietary preferences of different red crossbill types, he needs many recordings. To find details of this project, just visit: https://ckporter.weebly.com/eastern-red-crossbill-ecology.html

Bird eponyms

A few months ago, I wrote about the controversy surrounding the memorializing of people in the common names of birds. For instance, Swainson’s Thrush and Cooper’s Hawk. A broad movement exists to advocate for the removal of all these eponyms from common names of birds because some of those names honor people with disreputable and even despicable pasts.

On November 1, the Checklist-committee of the American Ornithological Society Council voted to begin the removal of all eponymous bird names in the Americas. We will no longer have Bicknell’s Thrush on Maine mountain tops or Hellmayr’s Pipit in Argentina.

The process will take years and will involve many stakeholders such as birders, social scientists, communication specialists, taxonomists and the general public. Choosing which eponyms to change would be problematic so the decision was to remove all eponyms.