It’s officially summer as most of you read this, even though it’s been unofficial summer since Memorial Day. Summer, and especially early summer, is breeding season for much of North America’s wildlife. It’s a time when at least male birds are conspicuous as they defend territories to insure that enough food can be found for their young. Singing and displaying their bright breeding plumage are part of territorial defense. Although intended for others of their species, those behaviors also make it easier for humans to find and identify them. That’s why this is the season for the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey.
The Breeding Bird Survey is a joint project of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service. It was begun back in 1966 as a means of mapping (thus the USGS connection) breeding populations of of birds. It has also helped to document shifts in population levels and distribution over time. The survey, like many others, is composed of many designated routes scattered across North America that are surveyed by knowledgeable birders at the same time each year. The routes are driven and/or walked with measured stops at intervals. Birds are identified by song and/or sight at each stop. A singing male typically indicates a breeding territory being defended by that male, even though the female or young may not be seen. The technique of surveying the same count route or area each year is similar to the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which is more than 100 years old.
Birds aren’t the only creatures that are breeding and being monitored now that it’s summer. A group called the Xerxes Society specializes in insects. Their initial focus was butterflies, and they conducted an annual Fourth of July butterfly count at various areas around the country. A check of their website shows that their focus has broadened considerably beyond butterflies, though. Although they’re still concerned about butterflies, particularly monarchs, they’re now conducting active studies on migratory dragonflies, bees and other pollinators. Serious declines in honey bee populations continue to make the news, but several species of bumblebees are also seeing steep declines in population.
Game species like ducks, pheasants, quail and turkeys are also being surveyed at this time of year all across North America. Biologists from the Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and organizations like Ducks Unlimited are conducting breeding pair surveys and brood counts as young waterfowl hatch. This is part of the annual process of estimating North American waterfowl populations. Population estimates are a first step in the process of determining what hunting season lengths and bag limits will be when waterfowl begin their fall migration. It’s a complicated, negotiated process to balance legal harvest limits all the way from northern Canada, across the American states and into Mexico, while protecting necessary breeding populations for the trip back north next spring.
Pheasant hunters may not know that estimates of fall pheasant populations begin in the spring when biologists survey crowing rooster pheasants. Like other surveys, the crow counts follow the same designated routes each year. Surveys continue into summer as broods hatch. One of the best known pheasant population surveys is the August Roadside Count. This count is based on the premise that pheasants hate being wet. Half grown broods are still with their mothers as they emerge onto road shoulders to dry off after a night roosting in heavy, often dew-covered vegetation. Biologists and interested pheasant enthusiasts drive designated routes and physically count birds they see before they duck back into roadside cover. Quail and partridge numbers are also tallied.
Some of the data on North American wildlife gathered in various surveys is collected by professional biologists and entomologists. However, much of the data gathered on our continental populations of wild creatures has been gathered by unpaid citizen scientists, who drive and hike countless survey routes on summer mornings.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.