Chronicling the Decline Of the Backyard Bird

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

After spotting a flock of dark-eyed juncos and some American goldfinches in a stand of sycamores yesterday, Denise Ryan pointed and screamed: "Oh, it's a yellow-bellied sapsucker! Yes!"

Ryan doesn't see sapsuckers often. She took out her pencil and marked the bird under the woodpecker family on her tally sheet.

The two-mile expedition Ryan led through the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in upper Northwest Washington was part of an annual survey by the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia to count bird species along a 184.5-mile stretch between Georgetown and Cumberland. The data collected by volunteers over 10 years, the latest of which will be compiled in the spring, are being used to spot long-term population trends.

"Since 1967, there's been a 70 percent decline in common backyard birds because of habitat fragmentation" or development, said Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, who was among the six people participating in the census with Ryan.

Scarlett said species including grackles, meadowlarks and sparrows are on the decline. Bird counts across the country, she said, have guided the Interior Department in establishing conservation programs.

"It's important in urban areas to keep trees," she said. The department "has signed memorandums of understanding with cities to help in tree planting."

Wearing binoculars, the six on Ryan's count team followed a trail at the park, veering off occasionally to explore more rugged terrain along the banks of the Potomac River. A bird flew off in the distance.

"That looks like a mourning dove," said Mary Pfaffko, a wildlife biologist at the D.C. Department of the Environment fisheries and wildlife division, her blue hummingbird earrings dangling.

"Yes, that's a mourning dove," Scarlett said.

"There's a flock of four [Eastern] bluebirds right there," said John Beetham, a freelance writer.

"Nice spot, John," said Ryan, a legislative representative at the National Wildlife Federation.

A few moments later, Pfaffko noticed a flock above. "What are those? Oh, those are starlings. Those aren't good," she said, adding that they are exotic birds that jeopardize the food supply for native species.

Shortly afterward, Beetham reported seeing two mergansers. "You rock, John!" Ryan said.

Beetham, she said, is considered a star in the local bird-watching community because he won a pair of high-end binoculars as the 1 millionth visitor to an online bird site.

Members of the counting team said they have been active in bird-watching for five or more years. With their trained eyes, they are able to spot species from great distances, even by sound. Beetham said the secret is learning the shapes of birds, their colors, their flight patterns and the places within the habitat that they are most likely to be found.

Ryan pursed her lips and made kissing sounds, which she said in the bird world are a distress call that might get the birds to come out of hiding. She doesn't do that too often, she said, because she doesn't want to "stress out" the birds.

To hone her skills, Ryan listens to bird songs and calls on CDs. A high-pitched chirp sounding like a ringing bell is her clue that a golden-crowned kinglet is near. A call that sounds like "bay-bee" is an American goldfinch, and a tea kettle sound is a Carolina wren.

"You get to know what they sound like," Ryan said. "It's like hearing your child speak in a crowd."

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