A group of birders participates in a previous Christmas Bird Count. [Photo by Tom Haraden / Moab Sun News]

When you’ve been a part of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count for as long as Marian and Nick Eason have, you’re bound to notice some interesting trends.

Take the story of Moab’s now-ubiquitous common ravens, for example. In the mid-1980s, when the Easons joined their first Christmas Bird Count, the highly intelligent birds weren’t as common within the city limits as their name suggests, according to Marian Eason.

“There are a lot more in town than we used to see,” she said.

How many more? They might have the answer to that question after Saturday, Dec. 20, when Moab Bird Club members and amateur ornithologists gather for the latest bird count at various locations around Moab.

Over the years, these “citizen scientists” have contributed to an immense database that pinpoints winter bird populations across the country and around the globe.

According to the National Audubon Society, the database ultimately helps conservation biologists and researchers form a better picture of how bird populations change over time. With that information in hand, they can identify potential threats to a species’ habitat, as well as the steps that could be taken to improve it.

The bird count began 115 years ago as a non-lethal alternative to a now-forgotten holiday tradition called the Christmas “Side Hunt.” According to the Audubon Society, Christmastime revelers in the late 19th Century would compete to see who could kill the most birds.

Common ravens faced equally grim fates in earlier and perhaps less-enlightened times: According to the Audubon Society, people drove the birds out of human settlements across their historic range, one dose of poison or one gunshot at a time.

But in more recent years, the natural scavengers have gradually recolonized many of those same communities, where a growing smorgasbord of waste awaits them.

“I think that a lot of that (growth) has to do with trash and garbage,” Marian Eason said.

Indeed, it’s not unusual to see ravens scavenging for food in parking lots or other urban areas: A Moab Sun News reporter, for instance, recently spotted one snacking on a lollipop from the safety of a utility pole on 100 West.

While Marian Eason can’t guarantee that participants will see similar sights, she can promise that they’ll have a great time.

“Even if you aren’t a birder, it’s fun to get out there and see what’s here,” she said.

Local Christmas Bird Count coordinator Marcy Hafner likens the worldwide count to one of the biggest sporting events in the country.

“It’s like the Super Bowl of the birding world,” Hafner said. “People show up, and everybody’s excited about it.”

This year, Hafner will be pairing first-timers with experienced bird watchers, and each team will then set off at different times and locations within a 15-mile radius of Shrimp Rock in the Sand Flats Recreation Area. According to Hafner, observation sites will span from the Colorado River and the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve to Castle Valley, Spanish Valley and all of Moab.

Birders are far more likely to see winter birds and year-round avian residents, although Hafner said that there are always surprises to be found. Last year, for instance, participants spotted two Swainson’s hawks, as well as one lone turkey vulture.

“Every year, it’s different,” Hafner said.

One of the most noticeable changes, according to Eason, is the ever-expanding growth of Eurasian collared doves in and around Moab.

The Old World species were likely released in the Bahamas some time in the 1970s, and then showed up in Florida not long afterward. From there, they gradually fanned out across much of the country.

During their first count, the Easons noticed about five collared doves. Nowadays, however, they’re likely to see hundreds, including a group of about 24 who hang out in their yard.

“(The increase) certainly shows in the records that have come out of the bird count,” Marian Eason said.

At the same time, the Easons have noticed negative fluctuations in the numbers of other species, including a decline in the local robin population.

It turns out that robins love Russian olives, which are also a favorite of juncos, chickadees and other species; Eason said she has even seen mallards jump up on the riverbanks to feast on them.

“They’re a valuable food source for quite a few birds,” she said.

However, that food source is dwindling as the invasive, non-native trees are removed from the banks of the Colorado River, Mill Creek, Pack Creek and other riparian areas.

Eason doesn’t question the need to get rid of the trees, though. Instead, she hopes that wild roses and other natives, along with crabapples and landscape plantings, will eventually supplant the Russian olive’s place in their diets.

It’s anyone’s guess right now as to whether those hopes will come true. But local residents might be able to help Eason and others gain a clearer picture of the robins’ future in Moab — by volunteering this weekend.

Christmas Bird Count set for Dec. 21

“Even if you aren’t a birder, it’s fun to get out there and see what’s here.”

When: Saturday, Dec. 20; times vary. Event participants are also welcome to attend a post-count brunch on Sunday, Dec. 21.

Where: Various locations around Moab, Spanish Valley, Castle Valley and beyond. For more information, or to participate, contact Marcy Hafner at 435-259-6197, or email marcymoab@yahoo.com.

Cost: Free

If you would like to participate in the Christmas Bird Count, contact Marcy Hafner at 435-259-6197, or marcymoab@yahoo.com. Bird count organizers will be holding a post-count brunch for participants on Sunday, Dec. 21 at 10 a.m.

For more information about Moab Bird Club meetings and activities, contact Marian or Nick Eason at 435-259-6447. The Moab Bird Club meets on the third Tuesday of each month; members take turns hosting the meetings at their homes.