The annual Christmas Bird Count is a citizen science project organized by the National Audubon Society. Birders of all ages and experience levels are welcome to participate in what can become a treasured holiday tradition and a great chance to see winter birds.
The first Christmas count was organized on December 25, 1900 by renowned ornithologist and bird advocate Frank Chapman. The count was proposed as an alternative to the then popular “side hunt,” a practice of massive bird and wildlife hunts on Christmas Day. That single day’s count took place in 25 locations with 27 participants, recording a grand total of 90 species and 18,500 birds.
Today, the Christmas Bird Count takes place in hundreds of locations throughout the Western Hemisphere, with thousands of participants finding hundreds of bird species. More than 15 countries host counts, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guam, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Bahamas, and new count areas are continually being considered.
How the Christmas Bird Count Works
Unlike many bird counts that focus only on the total number of species seen, the Christmas count is an actual census that seeks to count every bird of every species sighted. To do this, groups are organized within Count Circles that have a 15-mile diameter. Within that circle, participants follow a prescribed route for the all-day count. A single Count Compiler, generally an experienced birder, organizes each circle and is able to offer advice and guidance to new participants and novice birders. There is no limit on the size of a group participating in a single count circle, but the Count Compiler may choose to break up large groups to cover smaller portions of the circle.
Individuals who live within the Count Circle and want to participate can contact the Compiler and arrange to count birds at their feeders during the day. Those results are then reported to the Compiler to be included in the census totals.
The exact date of the Christmas Bird Count can vary depending on the location of the Count Circle, but all counts in all locations take place between December 14 and January 5 annually. This allows some flexibility for each location, but ensures that each count is still within the “Christmas” time frame for accuracy and for more reliable year-to-year data comparisons.
After the count is finished, the results are reported and compiled. The collected data can help conservation efforts by tracking the spread of bird populations and noting potential environmental threats that may be impacting the birds. This is especially crucial when counting endangered birds or when participating in areas with changing habitats.
Participating in the Count
Birders of all experience levels are welcome to participate in the Christmas Bird Count; they only need to contact the Count Compiler in charge of the circle where they want to count. There used to be a $5 fee for every participant over the age of 18 excluding participants counting at their own feeders, but in 2012 it was decided to make the event free to all participants. Because of the discontinuation of fee collection, the “American Birds: Summary of the CBC” print publication was discontinued but the same data analysis was made available online to all participants. Individual groups may still have some fees, however, typically to cover meals or transportation during the event.
Christmas Bird Count Tips
If you plan on participating in the count…
- Dress appropriately for the weather. In northern climates, warm layers are recommended, and good shoes are a must for every birder. Because this is an all day event, comfortable attire is best.
- Since this is an all day count, bring suitable snacks and water to drink. While there will be times for restroom breaks, do not count on longer meal breaks, depending on your Count Circle and Compiler. Many individual counts will arrange a celebratory meal after the counting is completed.
- Bring along all necessary birding equipment for a day in the field, including binoculars, field guides and spotting scopes if available.
- Be honest with your birding experience when speaking with the Compiler. They will be sure to pair you up with a more experienced birder if you are more comfortable with stronger guidance, but may rely on your expertise to guide novices if needed.
The Christmas Bird Count is an annual holiday tradition for thousands of birders. Easy to participate in, this event can be a fun and rewarding way to contribute to birding studies every year.
For more information, visit the official website.
Photo – American Robin in Winter – © Jonathan Oleyar / courtesy NAS