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Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

Natural Census

While it should be clear to most people now, thanks to all the posters and television commercials, why participating in the U.S. Census matters, less widely known are the reasons for taking part in wildlife counts. The National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, the North American Butterfly Association's Fourth of July Butterfly Count, Wisconsin's Sandhill Crane Count -- perhaps you've read about these events in your newspaper or favorite nature magazine. You even may have helped on a few. But what, really, do such counts accomplish?

Trends The most useful wildlife counts occur annually in the same area at the same time each year. The Christmas Bird Count, for example, has taken place for almost a century, and the information gathered from a hundred or so counts has been invaluable to several generations of ornithologists studying wintering birds. Without annual counts, it's all but impossible for scientists to see long-term trends in animal movements and populations.

Alerts Up-to-the-minute population information is another important product of wildlife counts. Remember that most endangered species were once common animals that, for whatever reason, have slipped toward extinction. Wildlife counts help conservationists determine what species need our assistance.

Collaboration Wildlife counts also allow scientists and the general public a rare chance to work side by side. Since there are too few professional biologists to keep track of all the wildlife in North America, volunteers on national and local counts have become valuable resources to the scientific community.

Public Relations In addition, wildlife counts help draw attention to nature itself and the efforts people undertake to preserve habitats and protect animals. One report on the evening news can reach thousands and sometimes millions of viewers.

Legislation Even public policy can be shaped by the efforts of wildlife counters. A perfect example is what happened when a person doing a butterfly count in New England the day before and the day after aerial spraying for mosquitoes presented counts showing a dramatic drop in the butterfly population: the agencies that regulate spraying in the area sat down to rethink their spraying policies.

Diversion Last but not least, wildlife counts are fun. While larger counts often have experts and celebrities on hand, even smaller ones generate a lot of good feeling.

To take part in a wildlife count, call a local nature organization -- the Audubon Society has chapters all across the country -- and ask if you can help count birds, bats, butterflies . . . whatever you like.