Birdathon turns friends into competitors

One of the more unusual activities that takes place in the Rogue Valley each year is a fundraiser sponsored by the Rogue Valley Audubon Society, the Birdathon.

Teams of four collect pledges, the value of which are based upon the number of bird species the team detects in a 24-hour period. All species must be seen within the boundaries of Jackson County and must be identified by at least two members of the group to ensure runaway imaginations are held in check. The bird may be identified by either sight or call.

On a day that many would call absurd, friends become competitors. Bragging rights are at stake. No team wants to live with the shame of losing to a rival. It takes a full year before there is the opportunity to restore one's honor.

The fundraising part of the activity is often forgotten as teams carefully plan their routes and measure the chances of detecting more birds at one location versus another. A poor choice costs valuable time.

While most birding involves some aesthetic component, such as the enjoyment of seeing a brightly colored bird like a western tanager or savoring a beautiful song, not so the Birdathon. A stop chosen to collect a green-tailed towhee may be cut short before all feet are out of the car if a call is heard as the doors swing open. And not all feet may be safely back on board before the tires are starting to roll. Have I mentioned there is an absurd aspect to this activity?

Starting at 6 p.m. on Friday, the target is 70 species or more before giving up for a few brief hours of sleep. The next morning starts at 4 a.m. for an attempt at maybe two or three species of owls. There is snow on the ground on the Dead Indian Plateau as we start. It is cold. Why are we doing this? A saw-whet owl calls in the distance. A faint glow on the horizon and a mountain quail sounds off. A few minutes later, a turkey announces its presence. The pace accelerates. 90, 100, 115 species.

The water level is high on Howard Prairie. No shorebirds! A burn where a white-headed woodpecker has been reported nesting produces no joy. Wasted time. The other teams are surely pulling ahead.

Lists are checked. Discussions take place. What species are needed? What habitats need to be revisited? Is this really an activity for mature adults? 125, 135 species. Where do we go to find just one more?

Finally the pursuit comes to a close as 6 p.m. Saturday finally arrives. Thank heavens. I don't want to see another bird for quite a while.

Teams gather over dinner to laugh and tell stories of high adventure and misadventure. Though all are friends, each team carefully conceals its total until the final tally. This year, the winning team ended with 162 species.

This says a lot about the tremendous biodiversity in our region. There is no ocean lapping at the shores of Jackson County. This would add many potential species. Few other land-locked counties in the United States could produce this total. As I reflect on this day, my hope is that the residents of Jackson County appreciate the natural heritage in our backyard, hopefully at a somewhat slower pace.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at

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