Imagine a research team 42,000 members strong. Ranging in age from 9 to 90, they’re up before dawn in their quest to outdo one another in a daylong data collection binge. Then contemplate a database with more than a billion entries. It spans 90 years and includes more than a thousand species of birds sighted in the Western Hemisphere. That’s the Audubon Society Christmas, Bird Count, the world’s largest and oldest wildlife survey.

A statistician’s nightmare? Possibly. But increasing numbers of scientists say that it’s also a scientific windfall.

More than ever before, biologists and wildlife scientists are making use of the Christmas bird count which this year runs from December 16 until January 3. This annual census covers 1,550 locations in all 50 states, as well as Canada, the West Indies, and Central and South Amer ica. It began quite modestly in 1900 when 26 bird-watchers turned out to...

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