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  which will not 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 Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. 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. The email address of the count compiler is provided. All you need to do is to contact the compiler and you will 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.

The Maine Owl Pellet Project 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. 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 covered with snow.

Volunteers are provided with information on how to find pellets, which are sent to the project directors and specialists to 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.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at whwilson@colby.edu

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