Breeding bird surveys in Montana – birders needed

By | May 30, 2016

We all know that the Montana birders are increasingly lending their eyes, ears, and expertise to citizen science efforts. From sending sightings to eBird to joining in the Christmas Bird Count, wildlife biologists are greatly adding to their understanding of where birds are and how they are faring over time.

It may be surprising to learn, but much of what biologists know about trends over time stems from the long-standing and highly regarded Breeding Bird Survey. 

Scientists and conservationists alike need a better understanding of these trends in the 21stcentury, and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) has been shown to be an incredible tool. Unfortunately, in Montana, huge areas of land are not adequately sampled.  One look at a map of BBS routes across the nation shows how “empty” parts of Montana are.

That’s why citizen bird watchers are so important.  If you have ever wondered about how BBS works and whether this could be a volunteer project for you, keep reading.  Biologists are significantly increasing their routes this year and need talented birders.

BBS started in 1964 and results from more than50 years of data show that many of our breeding birds, formerly common, have seen significant declines in breeding populations. More than 60 percent of grassland bird species are experiencing declining populations. In Montana, grassland species including Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow, McCown’s Longspur, and Chestnut-collared Longspur are all declining. Bird populations are an excellent measure of environmental health and documenting declines helps private and public land managers make decisions for bird conservation.

More than 4,400 BBS routes have been established in the U.S. and Canada. The survey of the BBS routes is dependent on volunteer birders to conduct the surveys. Observers, traveling by car, conduct three minute point counts every half mile on a 25-mile-long route established on existing roads. The survey for each route is conducted once each breeding season, most typically during June. Volunteers adopt one route (or more), and must be able to readily identify the birds (by sight and sound) that are typically found within the habitat of their adopted route(s). Observers who can survey a route for several consecutive years increase the statistical quality of the survey.

Montana has had 65 BBS routes. However, additional routes are being added to increase the survey density, particularly in grassland areas.  Information from the new routes will add to the existing survey database and provide additional information to land managers and researchers to provide better data for bird conservation. Members of the Montana bird conservation community are currently recruiting observers to survey vacant BBS routes.

Currently, there are four pre-2015 established routes that are vacant and 15 new routes that need to be setup and surveyed.

Information on the Breeding Bird Survey including location and species lists for vacant routes in Montana can be found here.  Those interested are encouraged to become part of the largest bird survey effort in North America and provide a valuable contribution to bird conservation.

For more information, contact Dan Sullivan, Montana BBS Coordinator, at 406-443-4229 (, Allison Begley, FWP Avian Conservation Biologist at 406-444-3370 ( or Sean Fields, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at 406-727-7400 x 218 ( ).

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About NFNews Editor

Patti Hart is the editor-in-chief and founder of the Patti lives on the North Fork during the summers and travels the world for the rest of the year, updating NFNews every day wherever there is an internet connection.

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