On the Record

Birds of a feather

On the Record with Mike Andrews

Mike Andrews
Mike Andrews

Mike Andrews of Genoa loves birds.

He has been around the country and the world to birdwatch. Some destinations he has traveled to observe birds include Ecuador, Canada, the Bahamas and Iceland. He even met his wife while participating in a bird count in Maine.

The most recent bird count Andrews participated in was the National Audubon Society’s 117th Christmas Bird Count, where birders count how many different species and individual birds they see in a 24-hour period. The CBC is held on one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 each year. Scientists use the data to assess the health of bird populations and to help guide conservation planning.

Andrews was the DeKalb County’s CBC circle compiler for the past decade. This year, Nick Barber, an assistant professor in Northern Illinois University’s Department of Biological Sciences, took over the role as compiler. 

Today, there are more than 2,500 different counts that take place across the Americas and in Pacific Islands. Last year, more than 75,000 people volunteered to help out with the count.

Andrews spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss the CBC, DeKalb County’s bird count circle and the scientific importance of the count.

Milton: What is the Christmas Bird Count?

Andrews: The Christmas Bird Count is sponsored by the National Audubon Society, but you don’t have to be a member to participate. The count is an official count of each species and individual bird seen within a 15-mile diameter circle. We completely cover the circle as accurately as possible. I like to think of it as citizens’ science. All of the information we gather is useful from a scientific perspective.

Milton: Why is it important to hold the count one day around the same time each year?

Andrews: By choosing one day to hold the count, it’s easy to see trends over decades and track the rise and fall of bird populations. When you look at information from counts across America, it can tell you a lot about how birds are adapting to climate changes and human encroachment on what was previously wildlife areas.

Milton: How can bird counts help scientists?

Andrews: When you see a drop in species, you wonder what is happening. Maybe that bird eats insects or helps pollinate a flower. By studying declines or increases of birds, it helps us understand other things in the environment. For example, a few years back, West Nile Virus wiped out most of the crows. Now we are seeing the crow population come back. That means that either the disease has run its course or the birds have built an immunity to the virus.

Milton: Tell me more about DeKalb’s circle.

Andrews: The circle for DeKalb County has been the same for decades. You have to petition to change an existing circle or to establish a new one. In our circle, we have six sections, each with a leader and a team. We have people that check parks and forest preserves, drive roads and watch feeders in backyards. The center of the circle is near Clare Road, Glidden Road and Route 64. We check from Genoa to Malta, Kirkland to DeKalb.

Milton: How is the DeKalb CBC different from other counts?

Andrews: Birds in our area have slightly different habitats. We have forest preserves, farms and country roads. I have done counts in other parts of the country, including the coast of Maine. Some counts have hundreds of people helping. In our circle, we had eight people this year. Other circles count all day, we usually count from first light to last light.

Milton: What should people do if they are interested in joining a bird count?

Andrews: We need more people that are interested in birding. The CBC isn’t when you learn how to spot birds. For a bird count, you have to be an experienced, middle-of-the-road birder. But to learn, you have to pay attention and be stealthy and quiet. On counts, you have to bring along boots, binoculars and walk around or drive slowly, scanning ditches and the sky for birds. … If you’re like me and have been bitten by the bird bug, try to participate in bird walks, join birding organizations and clubs and learn from people that know more about birds.

Milton: Have you always been interested in birds?

Andrews: I’ve loved birds since I was a kid. I remember seeing a great horned owl from my bedroom window when I was younger. As a teenager, I saw more and more birds and became interested in what I was seeing. I’ve been birding seriously since my early 20s. When I moved here 13 years ago, I started an online club called Crow. The club shared about birds in DeKalb County. Now I’m birding all the time, I notice them while driving or walking. I’m always paying attention.

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