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Christmas bird count helps gauge climate change

Several south Okanagan chapters of the Christmas bird count found higher than usual numbers of the Bewick's Wren in this year's count.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED / Wikimedia Commons
January 01, 2020 - 6:00 AM

Good winter weather made for an enjoyable and productive Christmas bird count in the Okanagan this year.

Participant and organizer for three South Okanagan bird counts, Richard Cannings says the annual count is providing some useful data regarding climate change and its effect on wildlife populations.

“Birds are like the canary in the coal mine. Their migratory patterns warn us of things to come, and can help tell us if something is going on in the environment,” Cannings says.

This year the count found numbers of the Bewick's Wren up substantially over past years.

Cannings says the bird has been in the Okanagan for about 15 years and has been moving north as winters grow warmer.

“It’s mostly a coastal bird, and that’s along the south coast, but it has spread up the Columbia and in to the Okanagan. Normally, it’s been nice to get one in the count, but this year they suddenly seemed to be prevalent. We counted five in Penticton, 10 in Vaseux Lake and 12 in Osoyoos,” he says.

“Climate change has brought us warmer winters and hotter summers, but warmer winters are more dramatic. Our winters are spent around freezing most of the time, so any more temperature above there is going to have an affect on wildlife.”

The Okanagan and Thompson regions have a number of bird counts, each chapter organized locally. Cannings currently organizes three counts in the South Okanagan, part of 450 conducted Canada-wide each year. At one time, Cannings looked after all the incoming data from the bird counts, but hasn’t done that since becoming MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay in 2015.

Cannings says the role of the Christmas bird count used to be a social one, but more than a century since the first count took place, the annual event has built up a huge database and has become an important part of bird research.

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