Every year, between December 14th and January 5th, ordinary citizens from Alaska to Antarctica become citizen scientists, as they spend the day in the field gathering data on the identity and location of birds within a small local area. Any interested person is invited to participate in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), regardless of birding experience, age or level of skill, making it an ideal winter outdoor family activity.
Novice birders are placed in groups led by experienced birders, making the Bird Count a fascinating way to learn the basics of birding. All a participant needs is willingness to learn, and the physical ability to negotiate the terrain. Binoculars will allow you to identify many more birds, and a guidebook comes in handy. Birders who cannot trek may participate from the comfort of home by signing up to count and notate the birds that come to their own backyard feeders.
How Does Counting Birds Make a Difference?
Begun in 1900, the Christmas Bird Count is the oldest on-going wildlife census in the world. As the National Audubon Society’s Geoffrey S. LeBaron has said, the Count is “the great grand-daddy of citizen science projects.” The raw data it provides, year after year, enables research scientists to track population trends among bird species, and to detect changes that may indicate environmental issues. For example, data currently shows that the range of many birds is shifting northward in a way that correlates with climate change.
Over the years, effective conservation efforts have been spurred by CBC data pinpointing species suffering from loss of habitat or other environmental issues. The count also provides evidence of conservation success stories, as in the population resurgence and range extension of once-troubled bird populations, such as the Bald Eagle or the osprey.
The extraordinary longevity of the Bird Count means that, according to Mr. LeBaron, “over time… you can actually analyze decades with other decades. There’s nothing else that has the entire time span of over a century and also the broad geographic scope that the Christmas Bird Count has.”
As a result, CBC has contributed to the first “State of the Birds” report issued in 2017 by the United States Department of the Interior as well as to Audubon’s own 2017 report on the powerful effects of climate change on the birds of North America.
History of the Christmas Bird Count
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count was created in 1900 as a non-lethal alternative to a nineteenth century tradition known as the Christmas Side Hunt. In the Side Hunt, teams vied to see how many birds and small mammals they could kill in a day, gathering afterward to tally the bodies and socialize. Frank Chapman, a visionary early member of the Audubon Society, proposed a radical change: that participants “hunt” not by killing birds, but by sighting, counting and identifying them.
The first Count boasted 27 participants. It took place in 25 locations from Florida to Maine, and resulted in a total of 90 identified species. Over one hundred years later, nearly 60,000 people participated annually from over 2000 locations, including Antarctica. In 2015, 661 species were spotted.
Birds in Winter
The Bird Count occurs at the same time every year, at the end of the long fall migration period, during the non-breeding season. The birds counted are either permanent residents or wintering birds. In the north, there will be markedly fewer species to count than in the spring or summer, while southern areas will be filled with wintering migrants. Clay Henderson, former president of the Florida chapter of the National Audubon Society, has pointed out that 200 years ago, no one knew where the birds went when they migrated. As explorers moved into areas like Florida, he said, “they realized, this is where they go.”
How to Participate in the Christmas Bird Count
To participate or for more information, visit the Christmas Bird Count page on the website of the National Audubon Society, and search for counts within your region. There is a $5.00 fee per person.