Tufted Titmouse by Bill Thompson/USFWS
On a calendar, Christmas might appear as one day, but if you are a bird watcher, the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is actually a twenty-three day event. The CBC is one of the world’s oldest and longest-running citizen science efforts. Now in its 116th year, the count takes place from December 14 to January 5. It is organized into circles, and each circle counts as many birds as possible on one day, either on a predetermined route, or at their backyard bird feeder. Data is compiled, and used to learn about long-term bird trends. The data collected has been used in many reports and publications, such as the State of the Birds Report, which the Service produces.
The CBC began on Christmas Day, 1900. Previously, many families would have Christmas hunting competitions-- known as side hunts--to see who could kill the most birds. Frank Chapman, and early Audubon officer, wanted to offer an alternative. The first count took place in twenty five locations, from California to Canada, counting 90 different species.
This idea clearly caught on. This was a time of growing awareness of bird conservation, culminating with the signing of the first Migratory Bird Treaty (the Centennial of which the Service will mark next year), so it came at the right time, and touched a chord with people. Today, there are thousands of bird circles, in all 50 states, and twenty foreign countries, with tens of thousands of participants. Last year, over 68 million birds were tallied!
By now, you might be wondering on how you can be a part of this tradition (if you aren’t already). It is pretty simple. You can find a circle near you, and get in touch with the circle lead to find out the day of the count and determine whether you will follow a route or monitor your feeder. After the data is collected, it is sent you your compiler, and added to a report. You are welcome to participate in as many circles as you wish.
Hundreds of national wildlife refuges from Alaska to Texas to New Jersey will be hosting Christmas Bird Counts, so be sure to check out wildlife refuges near you or check out the winter events.
"The majority of refuges are within a Christmas Bird Count circle, which is wonderful because CBCs are one of the world's oldest examples of citizen scientists contributing to wildlife conservation," says Mike Carlo, National Wildlife Refuge System birding coordinator.
Short-eared Owl by Tom Koerner/USFWS
Legendary biologist, founding author of the Golden Guides, and retired 60 year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Chan Robbins had this to say about the CBC: “If we had not had a Christmas Bird Count in those early years, we would not have as strong an understanding of long term bird trends. Many of these changes take place gradually.”
It is a busy season, but if you are considering starting a new tradition that gets you outside, contributes to bird conservation and understanding, and helps build lifelong relationships, consider being part of the Christmas Bird Count this year.
-- Chris Deets, Outreach and Education Coordinator, Migratory Bird Program