BBS: The Canadian Wildlife Service Perspective by Tony Erskine

Presented at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Science Meetings on October 12, 2006

The Start of BBS in Canada

 - I was asked to give "a Canadian perspective on the start of BBS." This subject might occupy us for hours, but I'll try to keep it short. Chan Robbins developed BBS from what most people had thought an unrealistic dream into the most systematic population-monitoring program of comparable geographic extent. My presentation spans a significant part of the total BBS area in North America, but Canadian BBS operations involved no innovations except such as were dictated by the different ecological and political systems within which they function. 

 - Chan, after involvement in various bird-counting exercises over the previous 20 years, started a BBS pilot project in Md/Del in 1965. The results convinced his superiors that he was onto something promising. He was encouraged to expand it over a much larger area in 1966, including eastern Canada (Figure 1). Although the ultimate objective of developing BBS was a population-monitoring tool, the first hurdle everywhere was mostly logistics, how to obtain enough suitable surveys in each state or province sampled.

Erskine - Figure 1

    From the start, BBS was planned to rely on volunteers. The first task was to find individuals in each state or province who had confidence in birders' abilities to identify birds by song, as well as knowing their state or province well enough to deploy the available observers usefully.

    In 1965, Canada had far fewer birders than now, and also far fewer professional ornithologists. A major difference from the USA was that very few Canadian universities then employed biologists with much experience in bird study; in 1965, almost the only ones in eastern Canada were Dave Scott (at U West Ont), Bruce Falls (U Tor) and Fred Cooke (Queens U; Fred only arrived from UK that year). Most professional ornithologists - and there weren't many - in Canada worked in federal or provincial wildlife agencies, mainly on game birds; a few others were museum curators. Within CWS, Graham Cooch, Les Tuck, and I were the only people in the east in 1965 with much birding experience.

    Possibly I was the only one of the above-named that Chan knew personally as an active birder, involved in volunteer bird-study activities (CBC, mapping census, nest-records, bird-banding), thus an obvious contact. Also, regional bird groups then had little profile in the Maritime Provinces where I lived, so there were few alternatives there. For the other eastern provinces, larger and more organized, he contacted the 'umbrella organizations', Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON) and Province of Quebec Society for Protection of Birds (PQSPB).

- Chan outlined the BBS idea to me at the Columbus, O., AOU meeting in August 1965, and asked if I thought we could survey one BBS route in each degree-block of lat/long in the Maritimes. I'd not thought of areas in terms of degree-blocks, but after a minute or two I agreed that we could do it. Presumably Chan contacted the other provinces in eastern Canada around that time, and evidently he got some acceptance there.

    Chan gave me copies of two articles on the BBS pilot project: one outlining the idea and methods, and seeking participation; the other summarizing the 1965 effort. With that information I sought approval from my CWS supervisors for my becoming involved. I didn't anticipate serious objections, and I didn't receive any; in its first year, the project seemed to demand only a few days of time from me and from our clerical staff. Little did we know!

    I needed route locations for attracting volunteers. Chan for months was very busy setting up BBS in the rest of eastern North America, so I made our route selections myself, and recruited observers. The official BBS forms weren't available yet, so I devised forms suitable for our regional avifauna, and sent them to our observers in late May 1966 (when surveys could begin).

- The official forms from Patuxent didn't reach Sackville until mid-June, and other provincial coordinators in Canada probably didn't receive theirs much sooner. That delay, understandable in a new project on such a vast scale, must have reduced the effort put forward in Quebec and Ontario in 1966, where only 3 routes, and none, respectively, were completed that year. My initiatives gave BBS in the Maritimes a 'flying start', and 33 routes, in 21 of 22 sampling blocks, were surveyed that year. Responses from our birding community were very enthusiastic, including "better than the CBC". My report to CWS noted that the BBS was feasible in the Maritimes as to logistics, but we'd probably have to wait several years before trends in the data would become apparent. 

    It may have been unrealistic to hope that BBS would take-off as speedily in other Canadian provinces as in the (much smaller) Maritimes. FON, the naturalists' 'umbrella organization' for Ontario, covered much besides birds, and then had only one or two paid employees. In retrospect, maybe FON should have 'farmed-out' the project immediately to Ontario Bird-Banding Association (OBBA) or the latter's then-new Long Point Bird Observatory (LPBO), which were focused on birds though entirely voluntary? I never heard whether observers were actually recruited in Ontario in 1966, and I suspect that the forms, received late, were never distributed then. The delay in distributing forms was perhaps the 'last straw', but there may not have been much enthusiasm - or spare time for improvisation - at the organizational level in Ontario that year.

    In Quebec, Chan was understandably misled by the group's name. PQSPB, although having wider aspirations, included mainly English-speaking birders of the Montreal area. With no French-language bird guides existing in North America then, francophone birders were few, and their 'umbrella group' had minimal profile. The local scope of PQSPB allowed them to distribute forms, once received, and a few surveys were done there in 1966. Recruiting observers and distributing forms was most of what was expected from volunteer coordinators.

- BBS in Canada in 1967 went somewhat better. Expansion of BBS westward took in the US prairies, which end near longitude 100EW. Extension westward in Canada added - to the area scheduled for coverage in 1966 - Manitoba, but not Saskatchewan or Alberta, of which the southern parts include the main Canadian prairies. Forms were distributed to coordinators in good time in 1967, and the Manitoba coordinator (Bob Nero, at provincial museum, with strong links to the birding community) got 11 assigned routes surveyed that year.

    The Ontario story of 1967 I know only from hearsay. The FON contact then assigned the BBS project to a summer student, who enlisted volunteers and assembled the results for 20 routes. However, the student thought those results couldn't be representative; he did not forward them to Patuxent, and those copies seemingly were mislaid or discarded soon afterwards. Several Ontario volunteers were upset not to hear anything regarding their efforts, and some refused further involvement with BBS as a result. The very active naturalists club in Kingston, Ontario, made enquiries, learned of the suppression and loss of the original returns, and forwarded results of the four routes they completed - still a very meagre return from Canada's most populous province, with its many skilled birders. In Quebec, with more lead time than in 1966, PQSPB recruited more observers, including some beyond the Montreal region; 7 routes were surveyed there in 1967. Birders in the Maritimes covered 43 routes in their second year, with all degree-blocks sampled.

- Chan's expectations, and mine, had been that we'd need several years of BBS data before trends in bird population indices would become apparent. 1967 forced me to think again. In the Maritimes, at least one spring in ten, on average, has a lot of beastly weather; in the 1960s almost every other spring was late and cold, and 1967 was among the worst (Figure 2). When I went to Cape Breton Island in late April, pack-ice was in on the sea-beaches; a month later (when I got outdoors again, after mumps), the last weeks in May featured three successive days with maxima below 45EF, during the peak of arrival of insectivorous songbirds - with predictable mortality resulting.

Erskine - Figure 2

    If BBS indices couldn't represent changes in bird numbers on that scale, they wouldn't be worth much, and the opportunity to prove the worth of BBS needed grasping. My new supervisor, Hugh Boyd, arrived in May 1967 from UK, where the songbird population monitoring scheme (Common Birds Census) had recently documented effects of the disastrous winter of 1962-63, which came between their first two summers of census work. We in CWS suddenly were faced in late summer 1967 with trying to devise, with no advance preparation, means of presenting population changes in BBS indices, from our first two years of data. Anyone who has watched, over the decades since, the tortuous processes of trying to convert BBS data into meaningful population trends will understand our frustration - and our excitement - at that time. Equally important was that an influential CWS manager then became convinced that BBS was potentially important to CWS objectives.

- In 1968, BBS was extended west to the Pacific coast, in USA and in Canada. Western volunteers were fewer, and BBS sampling there was set at lower levels. In Canada's three western provinces, the target was two BBS routes per 2x2-degree lat-long block, and that modest level of coverage was not achieved for several years in any of them (1968 surveys totalled 3, 5, and 16 in Sask., Alta., and B.C., respectively). A major difficulty was that few birders there had learned to identify birds by song. That wasn't surprising, as such skills had been little developed even in the east a few years earlier. With such meagre coverage, detecting trends in the west remained inconceivable for several years.

    Meanwhile, in eastern Canada the birding communities in the larger and more populous provinces had become aware that a new and exciting bird-counting activity had been launched without them being involved. Serious volunteer coordinators emerged in Ontario and Quebec before the 1968 BBS campaign got underway. Martin Edwards (of the Kingston club, then new Vice-President of FON) and Henri Ouellet (of McGill University's Redpath Museum) recruited volunteers on much wider scales than before. Martin recognized at once that the original BBS route selection for Ontario (done at Patuxent) had used ancient topo maps that showed few roads other than main highways; for 1968 use, he re-aligned most Ontario routes, using the same starting points but mostly along roads with less traffic. A similar adjustment took longer in Quebec, where secondary roads were less good. With 41 BBS routes surveyed in Ontario and 17 in Quebec in 1968, the potential for future use in Canada was more promising. In the Maritimes, 46 routes were surveyed.

Erskine - Figure 3

- Also in spring 1968, a meeting of CWS managers took place in Ottawa. Three men independently suggested to CWS Director Dave Munro that more people were needed in non-game bird management. Denis Benson feared that educational bird-banding might produce huge numbers of unusable records; Graham Cooch was concerned that Canadian nest records were being siphoned off to a new program at Cornell University; and Hugh Boyd argued that a Canadian lead was needed in BBS. Dave Munro assembled these men, listened to their proposals, and suggested, as no new positions were available, "Why not bring Tony Erskine to Ottawa and have him deal with all three problem areas?" Munro knew I was interested in volunteer bird-study exercises, both from my activities before joining CWS, and because I had formally requested authorization before starting up nest-recording and BBS projects in the Maritimes, within CWS. Boyd, as my supervisor, would have to give up my services in Eastern Region, but such a move fitted well with his hopes of involving CWS in conservation of birds other than hunted species. BBS thus became a factor in CWS expanding its role in landbird population coordination.

    Two weeks later, I was in Ottawa, enroute to museum study in Toronto, and to the Wilson meeting in Illinois - where the first meeting of BBS state and provincial coordinatorswas held. Munro offered me the non-game biologist position, and I accepted. I was not transferred to Ottawa for another six months, but I started contacting provincial coordinators and encouraging their efforts. And so BBS came to Canada, welcomed both by volunteers and by CWS, and helped by vile spring weather in the Maritimes. Some clouds indeed had silver linings!

- A very brief summary of the sequel follows: I stayed in Ottawa until 1977, with BBS as one of my main projects; the others were nest records, and birds in boreal Canada. Only the last was primarily investigative, my roles in the others being mostly coordination. The BBS was Chan's idea from the start, and I made sure that Canadian coverage stayed up to speed, for use in either country. That involved communications with provincial coordinators, and brief annual visits to them and any volunteers they assembled for those occasions. Annual reports, showing the expanding range of BBS coverage and year-to-year changes in numbers found on routes with comparable coverage, were circulated to volunteers before the next field season. As coverage increased, we added analyses for new regions: Maritimes from 1967, southern Ontario/Quebec from 1969, southern prairies from 1970, central Ontario/Quebec & central prairie provinces from 1972.

Erskine - Figure 4

    Like most parts of Canada, B.C. initially had too few routes for useful analyses. When the B.C. coordinator resigned in 1972, I reviewed results there to date (in 5 years, 27 surveys on 12 routes), and decided that coastal and interior routes might be combined for analysis; earlier I'd thought those avifaunas too different to be combined. No one else offered as provincial organizer, so I took that on, writing ca.100 letters to people in B.C. in three months. The result was 38 routes surveyed in 1973, and in 1974 there were 48 (+ 5 from my own field-work). By 1975 B.C. birders were eager to take on BBS coordination themselves.

    By the end of 1975, field-work for my boreal birds project was completed, and I was ready to write that up - and also the first 10 years of the BBS in Canada, before shifting to a new position. George Finney took on BBS Canadian coordination in 1978-82, continuing overall supervision and annual reports.

    Then the project was passed to CWS Surveys unit, which was fully occupied in processing waterfowl harvest survey data during the months when BBS analyses had to be run if reports were to be ready before the next field season. The result was that BBS in Canada ran for the next 7 years on momentum, plus the varying enthusiasm of provincial organizers, without annual reports. Coverage dwindled gradually by one-third or more by 1988, when I was asked to 're-activate BBS' in my pre-retirement assignment.

    That done, in 1992 CWS assigned Connie Downes to BBS full-time. By then, computer systems had advanced so the bull-work of preparing data for analysis input was greatly reduced. A person with BBS as top priority was still needed to ensure that all things happened on schedule, to give BBS volunteers timely and informative feedback. Without volunteers, there wouldn't have been a BBS.       

Erskine - Figure 5