Ways of Counting Birds

In the early 1990s, a friend recruited me to help him with an annual wetland breeding bird survey run by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. At the time, they had an interesting method that they requested surveyors use for recording the numbers of birds they found at the census sites. It consisted of using a series of dots, lines, and boxes to represent numbers, like this:

The theory was, I guess, that these symbols would reduce transcription errors by either the surveyors themselves or the people at ODOW who would have to take the field data and input it into the state's database. As I recall, after a few years, they sent a note saying that we could abandon the symbol system. I enjoyed the symbol system, though: the little groups of boxes and dots next to Wood Duck or Mallard; the occasional single dot next to Virginia Rail or American Bittern; the excitement of four "10" boxes and one "7" box next to Cattle Egret the year that we had those hanging around for a season. It could be a pain to draw the dots and boxes, though, and I imagine that's why the let that standard fade away.

This is National Audubon Christmas Bird Count season, of course, so a lot of us who compile and participate in the counts are thinking about numbers and the various ways that people give them to us--by computer, on water-stained pieces of paper; on the backs of envelopes; read over the phone; on clearly printed taxonomically correct data sheets. There are lots of numbers and more ways than one to interpret or misinterpret them.

A few years ago, Vic Fazio began the Ohio Winter Bird Atlas project, which is now run by Black Swamp Bird Observatory. The atlas data collection period is concluded and Black Swamp and volunteers are working on writing up the results. This survey had a different protocol than dots, lines and boxes or "pure" numbers. The Ohio Winter Bird Atlas asked that observers provide estimates of most species using "Xs." A single X meant 1 to 9 birds of a given species were seen; XX meant 10 to 99; XXX meant 100 to 999; XXXX meant "thousands" and so on. This project was looking for estimates of abundance. For rarities, a simple numerical count was acceptable: 1 Rufous Hummingbird, rather than "X" Rufous Hummingbird, for example.

I got to thinking about other ways to represent bird numbers as well as ways to provide information about what the birds were doing while they were being counted. I came up with an imaginary and admittedly silly system that combines bird silhouettes a la the end papers from Roger Tory Peterson's field guides with a partially asemic alphabet, if you will.

Here are a few of the "S's."

I imagine they could be combined in different ways to tell stories about the birds observed on a particular day:

This might produce an effect of

Or perhaps just a senseless tangle of