This past holiday season, as they have since 1900, citizen scientists fanned out across America to count birds. As those birders finish up this year’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the National Audubon Society’s 2011–12 CBC report provides statistical data that demonstrate the importance of national wildlife refuges to birds.

At least 70 bird species have their country– or continent–wide high counts conducted at least partially on refuges. For example, nowhere else in North, South or Central America can a person find more snow geese than the 490,000 counted during the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge CBC in western Missouri. The same is true for the 37,000 tundra swans at Mattamuskeet Refuge in coastal North Carolina; the 30,000 sandhill cranes at Muleshoe Refuge in west Texas; and the 3,600 red–throated loons at Back Bay Refuge along Virginia’s southeastern coast.

The list goes on. Refuges in more than a dozen states and from all eight U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regions host country–wide high counts for particular bird species.

“I have fond memories of visiting Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge every winter while I was growing up and marveling at the sight and sound of 100,000 snow geese picking up off the water at once,” says National Audubon Society chief scientist Gary Langham. “The Christmas Bird Count data clearly show that refuges host enormous numbers of birds across the country.”

CBCs are remarkably simple. Essentially, volunteers nationwide follow routes within a 15–mile diameter circle and count all the individuals of all the bird species they see or hear. Some people count birds at their backyard feeders, while diehards are traipsing the backcountry well before dawn.

It all started when, at the urging of Audubon Society visionary Frank Chapman, 27 birders conducted 25 CBCs on Christmas Day 1900. A century later, more than 63,000 people participate over a weeks–long holiday period. In the 2011–2012 CBC season, people in 1,739 U.S. count circles observed more than 60 million birds of more than 700 species and sub–species.

A Meaningful Difference

The CBC numbers are proof positive that the National Wildlife Refuge System, a network of conservation lands and waters established in large part for migratory birds, is making a meaningful difference—and not just for waterfowl.

True, many waterfowl species have their high counts on CBCs encompassing refuges—the 22,000 Ross’s geese at Merced Refuge in central California or the nearly 1,400 wood ducks at Pee Dee Refuge in the Piedmont of North Carolina, for example. But refuges also host national high counts for a variety of other bird types, including falcons, hawks, cranes, galliformes, loons, petrels, albatross, shearwaters, boobies, tropicbirds, terns, plovers, sandpipers, dowitchers, rails, blackbirds, jays and flycatchers.

Merritt Island Refuge in Florida has the high count for federally threatened Florida scrub jays, Harris Neck Refuge in Georgia for clapper rails and Sabine Refuge in Louisiana for Forster’s tern. Even the ubiquitous red–winged blackbird has its continent–wide high count on a refuge–centered CBC: a staggering 3.2 million at Squaw Creek Refuge.

“National wildlife refuges provide quality habitat in strategic areas for migratory birds,” says Doug Brewer, manager at Virginia’s Back Bay Refuge. “The CBC high counts for red–throated loons and king rails here show the importance of this refuge at a critical time of year.”

Noah Kahn is a manager in the Refuge System Division of Budget, Performance and Workforce. More information about birding and refuges is at