It began Dec. 14 and runs through Jan. 5. Birders all across the Americas will gather in small groups to census bird populations in the annual Christmas Bird Count.
Volunteers from hundreds of locations will devote one entire day to counting all the wild birds they can find. Local leaders determine the exact date that local counts will occur.
It all began on Christmas Day 110 years ago when ornithologist Frank Chapman organized groups of birders to see who could identify, count and record the most species. This first Christmas Bird Count was an alternative to Christmas holiday “side hunts.” Prior to 1900, groups of hunters chose sides and competed to see who could kill the most game.
Wildlife conservation was in its infancy at the turn of the century; scientists and the general public were just beginning to notice and worry about declining bird populations.
The Christmas Bird Count was one of the first attempts to engage the public in conservation, and it has become the longest running citizen science program in the world.
The National Audubon Society sponsors the Christmas Bird Count, and Audubon President John Flicker calls Chapman’s effort “a visionary act. No one could have predicted how important the Christmas Bird Count would become as a resource and tool for conservation. It allows birds to send us a wake up call about the importance of addressing the warming of our climate and the loss of vital habitat through action at every level.”
Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director, explained that, “it’s all about the power of citizen science. Our theme is ‘I count’ because the work of tens of thousands of volunteers really adds up for the conservation of birds and our environment.”
Though skilled birders form the backbone of Christmas Bird Counts, beginners are always welcome. It’s a great way for first time birders to learn how to identify birds in the field and make real contributions to science.
More than a few veteran birders have gotten their start on a Christmas Bird Count. I remember one count years ago when my wife and I lived in Stillwater, Okla. Two students joined us as we took off just before dawn. At daybreak, we parked by a wooded stream and heard both barred and screech-owls.
By mid-morning, we had added red-tailed hawk, pileated woodpecker and a dozen other common species to our list. In the hour before noon, we hiked across a patch of prairie dotted with scattered post oaks and eastern red cedars. There we picked up a loggerhead shrike, Bewick’s wren, red-breasted nuthatch, Lincoln sparrow and a prairie falcon.
At that point, a wicked wind whipped across the prairie, and the temperature plummeted. We spent the afternoon watching feeders from our living room. It proved to be the first of many Christmas Bird Counts for those two students.
Christmas Bird Counts provide a snapshot in time of winter bird populations. Information collected over many years is particularly valuable because it illuminates long term trends.
Christmas Bird Count data is frequently used in peer-reviewed scientific publications, was incorporated into this year’s first U.S. State of the Birds Report, and has been used to link bird population declines to climate change.
Christmas Bird Counts also allow us to celebrate success stories. Winter bird counts have tracked the recovery of bald eagles, brown pelicans and a variety of other water birds.
For example, on that first Christmas Bird Count in 1900, no bald eagles were reported. Last year, volunteers reported 23,618 bald eagles in the U.S. alone. Include Canada, and add 8,896 more.
Results for brown pelicans were similar. In 1900, no brown pelican were reported. Last year volunteers recorded 60,458 pelicans.
To participate in a Christmas Bird Count near you, contact your local Audubon Society or nature center. Or visit www.audubon.org/Bird/cbc and click on “Get involved.” And don’t let inexperience discourage you. Count groups are set up so that each group has at least one experienced birder. This insures accuracy of bird identification and enables veteran birders to work with beginners.
And if you’re not up for an all-day field trip, volunteers can also make their observations at backyard bird feeders.
Finally, be prepared. Dress warmly in layers, wear comfortable shoes and take binoculars and a water bottle.