Annual community Christmas Bird Count under way in QCA

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Thomson, Ill. (KWQC) - It's a time of year when we count the days to holiday celebrations. But there is another count that has become a longtime tradition, known as the Christmas Bird Count.

Kelly McKay is a wildlife biologist in charge of the count for the Quad City region. We caught up with him tracking birds gathered on a partially frozen backwater of the Mississippi River in Thomson, Ill. He'll cover miles of fields and woods in Iowa and Illinois as part of a much bigger project, one that brings tens of thousands of people from across the country together for the Audobon Society Christmas Bird Count.

For 23 days volunteers will fan out across the region to identify different species of birds. It's significant because it's something that's been going on every year for more than 100 years.

"It's the longest continuous wildlife survey on the planet," said McKay. Experts work side-by-side with ordinary 'citizen scientists' to pool their findings. The long-term data is then used to establish trends, whether they are changes in the bird population or changes in where they migrate.

"What we've seen over the last quarter century, is the winter ranges of a lot of these species are shifting dramatically northward," McKay said. "We think that's due to climate change," he added.

That may explain why robins, once a sign of spring in our region, are no longer heading south for winter. McKay has been part of the count since the 1980s and has seen some species decline while others have increased. And while chemicals were once the biggest threat to birds, today he says it is the loss of habitat. In fact, scientists have found that tracking bird patterns is much like a canary in a coal mine.

"They're sort of an indicator of our environment as a whole, so it's incredibly important," he said. And so is the community Christmas Bird Count.

The bird count continues until January 5th. If you have an interest in helping out, you can find more information on the Audobon Society website:
Or, the Quad City chapter website:
You can also contact Kelly McKay at 309-235-4661.