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Close up of face of great horned owl. Photo by Susan Rachlin, USFWS.

Christmas bird counts on National Wildlife Refuges in the Southeast

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.” If you are a bird lover, this holiday song may be especially near and dear to your heart. Of course no one in their right mind would turn down five golden rings, but to be presented with an opportunity to watch seven swans a swimming – as a birding enthusiast, that’s something you cannot put a price on. That priceless gift of enjoying birds in their natural habitat is one that is being protected by a time-honored tradition known as the Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count is a long-standing program of the National Audubon Society, and this year marks’ the 114th Count. It is the oldest and largest citizen science event in the world. Between December 14th and January 5th, thousands of volunteers across the United States, Canada and many countries in the Western Hemisphere go out from dusk until dawn counting birds. Volunteers follow routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day.

The Christmas Bird Count originated from a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” Before the turn of the century participants would choose sides and go afield with their guns, and whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won. It was ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, who proposed a new holiday tradition, a “Christmas Bird Census,” that would count birds on the holidays rather than hunt them. The first Christmas Bird Count took place on Christmas Day in 1900.

The Christmas Bird Count is not only a fun holiday tradition, but one that provides critical data on bird population trends. Its data informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps to identify environmental issues with implications for humans. In the 1980s, Christmas Bird Count data documented the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck. This led to conservation measures being put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on this species.

Another important scientific contribution the Christmas Bird Count has made is its data relating to climate change. The movement of North American bird species revealed by Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report in 2009 is one of 24 key indicators included in a new Environmental Protection Agency report showing how climate change impacts Americans’ health and environment. Audubon’s analysis relied on 40 years of data from the Christmas Bird Count.

National Wildlife Refuges provide habitat for over 700 species of birds. More than 200 refuges were created to specifically to protect, manage and restore habitat for migratory birds. Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping-stones while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes. We are proud to provide havens for birds across the southeast, and compiled the following information of bird counts on refuges.


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