Claire Peterson

(KPAX) There are over 400 different species of birds that call Montana home at some point during the year, but because of global warming and urban development, their future is not certain.

Five Valleys Audubon is a Missoula chapter of a national birding association that brings awareness to the importance of birds in Montana and ways to protect them. By partnering with the community and local experts, and conducting regular bird surveys, Five Valleys spearheads bird conservation in the state.

This year's bird count survey will partner with 34 count circles from around Montana to monitor the populations of local birds. The Missoula count circle has a 7.5-mile radius and will be filled by volunteers and expert birders.

The Christmas Bird Count is part of a tradition that dates back to 1900 and was started by 27 observers. 113 years later in 2013, the Christmas count involved over 70,000 observers.

Five Valleys Audubon secretary Andrea Stierle says it's important for the association to conduct surveys and keep track of the data.

“Data is very important as we tell our stories," Stierle says. "We don’t just have a feeling that birds are at risk, we can see that in the declining populations as we do our surveys.”

In the last 50 years, 3 billion North American birds have been lost, according to a 2019 population assessment by Cornell University.

"Birds are at risk, right now, most species of birds are seeing decline," Stierle says. "Songbirds are declining around the world, a number of waterfowl are declining around the world. A lot of it is due to habitat loss, climate change.”

Climate change and global warming can be devastating to bird populations as they continue their natural migratory patterns.

"If they show up in an area that is now hotter and dryer than it is usually, the plants they are returning for, the insects they are returning for and expecting to eat, may not be in the same chronology anymore and that can be catastrophic," she says.

Stierle says we can help protect birds at a local level by limiting our use of pesticides, encouraging landlords to use habitat-friendly development, and placing bird feeders and water in our yards. Montana has personally seen the effects of declining North American bird populations.

“One of the things we find in the Missoula valley is we used to have one of the largest populations of long-eared owls in the country, but because of all of the development that is going on, we’re losing the habitat of long-eared owls," Stierle says.

Five Valleys tries to spread its bird protection message by partnering with bird experts and local people who are passionate about bird conservation. On Monday, Dec. 12, they hosted a presentation by Uschi Carpenter, who has made a career in bird photography.

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Carpenter started her career as a landscape photographer, but over the last couple of years, she has exclusively photographed birds. She pairs her photos with poetry to try and add another level to her art.

"Bird can fly," she says. "They defy gravity. They come in all shapes and forms and colors. They are absolute magic to me."

Carpenter wants her photography and poetry to highlight the beauty of birds and hopefully inspire people to want to protect that beauty. She shares Five Valleys' goal of conservation and climate change awareness.

"We need to pay attention to climate change and habitat destruction so that we can do something about it," Carpenter says. “North America has lost three billion birds in the last 50 years, since 1970, and if we project that into the future, it’s almost like the end is in sight unless we do something about it.”

Stierle says Five Valleys will continue each year to try and share the importance of bird protection. Their Christmas Bird Count is hopefully a fun event that the local community can support.

“If we lose the birds if we lose the wildlife, this is not going to be a planet fit for people to live in either," she says.

For more information on Five Valleys, or their Christmas Bird Count, visit their website.