Most bird watching folks have been on, or at least heard of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This count, believe it or not, does not fall on Christmas day. "Why?" you ask. The concept of this count is to take a snapshot of the birds in any given area throughout North America in a specific time frame, not just one specific day. A group of folks that are deemed citizen scientists head out with their binoculars and tally of all of the birds they have seen in the area they have been tasked to search. At the end of the day, over a cup of hot chocolate, or something stronger, the numbers are combined and are then sent to Audubon for compilation. Anyone can join a Christmas Bird Count and I highly recommend that you make it out this year to be a part of something that has been more than a century in the making. Let me tell you more about it.
Before and into the 20th century, there were games called “side hunts” which was the sport of sending two "sides" off to shoot everything that moved. The winner was the group with the biggest pile of fur and feathers at the end of the day. In the year 1900, a very conservation minded gentleman of the American Museum of Natural History, named Frank Chapman, suggested that there be a census of the birds in the areas of metropolitan cities leaving the birds to fly another day. This first census would, on the first year of its inception, involve 27 individuals in 25 different locations from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California to the east coast of the United States of America where the majority of the tallies were performed. This concerted effort landed a list of 90 species of birds. Since that day there have been counts every year for over 115 years with this season's count being the 116th.
Christmas Day has never seemed like the best day for counting birds……. at least that is what my wife has been telling me for years. There are tens of thousands of people that do make it out and brave the cold, the snow, the wet and in California and Arizona, the warm sun. This all happens on a day somewhere between Dec 14th and Jan 5th. These folks as groups or individuals are given a tract of land to search for and count the number species and individuals within that area and list them all down. This tract of land is within a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle that was divided into manageable sizes which allows a person to cover it in one day. See the Tucson CBC coordinated by Rich Hoyer. Those brave souls, especially the Californians and their sun, count all of the birds they see and hear in one day, paying special attention to not double count the same birds. I will bet you are thinking, how do you know if I have counted the same bird twice? I will tell you. There are several ways to ensure that your survey isn't counting the same bird twice. For example, if you see a flock of 6 robins and a little later, see a flock of 15 robins in the same area, then you would only count the flock numbering 15, which assumes that it is possible that the six are in the second flock. Another guideline is if you were to see three female Wood Ducks in a pond and then at the other end of the pond, you saw three males and one female, you would count that as six Wood ducks, ensuring you wouldn't mistakenly count the female you saw twice. No one is going to arrest you if you happened to count one additional sparrow in a group of 20! Have fun and do the best you can. At the end of the day, you, your tired feet and your list of birds come back in to submit to the area coordinator. Hopefully you will be able to tell your fellow volunteers all about the lifer you and your team counted that day.
The CBC has continued over the last century and then some, because people love to get out doors, enjoy nature and share in their experiences with fellow birders, but the count has so many other important purposes. The tallies of certain species in a given year, in a given location are able to mark the interruptive species and their movements. That is, finding out where the birds that live like nomads, with no set wintering location, have landed for that year while searching out the best food sources. The yearly data also identifies trends like introduced species and their expansion thoughout the continent like the Eurasian Collared Dove. It can also point out the decline of birds in certain locations which may identify habitat loss or the affect of global warming. It makes a large difference in the conservation of birds and the environment in general when you can look back at the information over a hundred and fifteen years to see where the trends are heading. Unfortunately the trends are not indicating anything very positive for the overall health of our birds on this continent. That does not bode well for our ecosystems in general as birds are a great litmus for the overall health of our natural system as a whole.
I think it would be a great time to get yourself involved in this time honored tradition by getting a hold of a coordinator in your area and signing yourself up. Please have a look at the Audubon page which tells you where the closest count is to you and who you should contact to become one of those volunteers. Get out and enjoy a day walking around your city or town and donate your time to a great cause. If you are a novice, a newbie, a neophyte, don’t worry, there will be lots of veterans that would gladly have you along as an extra set of eyes. Pointing out the bird is half the battle, but then let the veterans argue over what flavor it is. At the very least, you could be the chauffeur in the group which allows the hard core birders to go the day without getting into a fender bender. Be sure to bring a set of binoculars and a field guide for your area.
There is more than one way to count a bird. There is also the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) which is very similar, but usually on Valentine’s day weekend. This does not require signing up with a group of people or even asking that you leave the comfort of your living room window if that is not your thing. All you have to do is count the birds you see on your feeder and send your list to the GBBC Website. This data is entered into a large database that keeps a snapshot of the weekend for the same reasons the Christmas Bird Count has. If you can’t make it happen at Christmas or Valentines day? No problem, all you have to do is go to eBird and you can do your own count anytime you want, in as many locations as you want, as many times as you want. I personally have 445 checklists for this year and 2150 lists over the time that I have been posting to eBird. Check out TheBirdBloggereBird blog explaining a little bit more about the site and all of its cool features.
We have gone from shooting every bird that moved, to counting each one so that we can make a difference and ensure that they will have the best chance to survive and thrive along side us. It doesn’t take a professional biologist to be a part of history, just a citizen scientist. With the advent of the internet, being a citizen scientist now a days is as simple as having a look around and making and sharing a couple notes online. It doesn't take much to do something better for the world you live in today, just a small effort on your part can create a massive movement continent wide. See you in the field this Holiday Season and don’t be shy, come back and tell us about your day with the birds.