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With the Christmas Bird Count underway, some are asking: Where have all the birds gone?

A northern cardinal flies through the Jacob’s Well Natural Area on June 4, 2021. Michael Minasi/KUT
Michael Minasi
A northern cardinal flies through the Jacob’s Well Natural Area on June 4, 2021. Michael Minasi/KUT

For the 123rd year in a row, the Christmas Bird Count is happening all over the country. Bird enthusiasts and nature lovers head outside, take a census of birds in their area and report what they’ve found to the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Always planned around the holidays, the count has been called the longest running citizen science project in the world.

Recently, though, the project has shown a drop in some bird populations. Last year’s Christmas counts in Texas showed the biggest rate of decline in bird numbers in 14 years, according toa reportfrom the Audubon Society.

Texas bird counts now “have had five years in a row where declining species out-numbered increasing species,” the study says. “Ninety-one species (24%) were at their lowest level for the decade.”

In some cases, these declines mirror global trends, said Nicole Netherton, executive director of the local Audubon chapter Travis Audubon.

“Birds are telling us that there's something wrong, that our systems are imbalanced,” she said. “Climate change, biodiversity loss. We're seeing this on a large scale, not only locally but across North America.”

But there may also be reasons unique to Texas that explain a sudden drop in numbers.

“The lack of birds has become readily apparent and left many wondering the same thing – 'Where Have All the Birds Gone?'" writes birder Noreen Baker as part of Travis Audubon’s Ask-a-Birder project.

Baker was responding to a question from Wes Renick, manager of Wild Birds Unlimited, who says people are noticing fewer birds at their backyard feeders and bird baths.

The reasons, Baker speculates, could include recent drought and the 2021 winter storm, which “did kill birds over a large area.”

Less troubling reasons for this year’s decline in Texas bird sightings could be that there has been more food available in other states that has postponed or slowed bird migrations through Texas.

Netherton said it’s important not to become too discouraged with the recent trend.

“It’s not that we’re seeing this decline and saying, 'Oh no there’s nothing we can do,'” she said. “There’s lots we can do. But the first step is to have an awareness, and be able to point to the data.”

All the more reason, she says, to participate in a bird count. They happen until Jan. 5. You can find more details on bird counts in Central Texas and beyond here.

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.