Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: The Christmas Bird Count is 113 Years Young

“Birds are the most popular group in the animal kingdom. We feed them and tame them and think we know them. And yet they inhabit a world which is really rather mysterious.”

—David Attenborough

As the holidays approach thousands of individuals in the U.S. and abroad prepare for one totally nonsectarian holiday tradition: the Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900.  From December 14 through January 5 thousands of volunteers throughout the United States and other countries will arm themselves with binoculars, bird guides and checklists to count as many birds as they can in a 24 hour period.

The Christmas bird count was actually started as a counter to another holiday tradition called a “Side Hunt”  where teams armed with guns and ammunition  would compete to see who could kill the most birds.  At the turn of the previous century scientists and conservationists were increasingly concerned about declining bird populations.  The idea behind the Christmas Bird Count was to count birds rather than hunt them.

Frank Chapman,  a well-known ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History and the editor of Bird-Lore (now Audubon magazine)  came up with the idea. On Christmas day in 1900 27 participants counted 18,500 birds that represented 89 species.

The Christmas  Bird Count has gained popularity over the decades.  During the 101st count, in the winter of 2000–2001, 52,471 people in 17 countries participated in the count.  In the early first part of the century the Frank Chapman sold Bird Lore to Audubon and the Audubon Society also took over organizing the Christmas Bird Count and collecting and analyzing the data.

The Christmas Bird Count is conducted by volunteers who all follow a carefully prescribed method.  Each individual count is performed in a “count circle” with a diameter of 15 miles. At least ten volunteers, including a compiler, count in each circle. They break up into small parties and follow assigned routes, counting the birds they see.

There are challenges. Some areas in the count circle do not get covered.  Sometime a bird that is seen can’t be identified. Sometimes birds are missed.  It is hard to count all the birds in a flock, particularly a large one.  It is also possible for a bird to be counted twice although there are  rules to address this problem such as prohibiting counting birds when a counter retraces his or her steps. Observers are also tasked with trying to keep track of flocks of mobile birds such as crows and must use their judgment.

Nevertheless, the Christmas Bird Count has become one of the longest-running citizen science projects in the nation and abroad. The data reported in these surveys have chronicled fluctuations in many bird populations. And it has made a difference.

In 1960,the Christmas Bird Count helped in documenting the decline of several bird species, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. The decline was eventually attributed to thinning eggshells caused by the pesticide DDT. DDT was banned in 1972, leading to the recovery of many of these species.

In the 1980s Christmas Bird count data were used to document the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck, which led to the establishment of practices to reduce hunting pressure on this species.

In 2009, the Christmas Bird Count data were instrumental in  providing the foundation for Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change analysis, which documented range shifts of bird species over time. In 2007, the data was used in the development of  and Audubon State of the Bird Reports – Common Birds in Decline, which revealed that many familiar birds were dropping in number dramatically.

The Christmas Bird Counts have helped scientists and policy-makers to identify threats to birds and their habitats including wetlands. By engaging volunteers it has also promoted awareness of the need to take action to protect bird populations.

Now, in 2013 the practice of ‘Side Hunting’ is long since obsolete while the Christmas Bird Count is alive and strong and attracting an ever growing number of citizen scientists. It shows that sometimes the best way to change practices is to find new ones.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Canada CBC page

Christmas Bird count is longest-running citizen science project

Winner/losers in Oakland’s Christmas bird count

Meeting Frank Chapman

Christmas Bird Count – a citizen – science project

Annual Christmas Bird Count offers insights into changing conditions for America’s bird species

Christmas Bird Count and Project FeederWattch

Christmas Bird Counts – From Small Beginnings, Great Things!

Timeline of Accomplishments (Audubon)

Soldotna Area Christmas Bird Count slated for Saturday

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