The Christmas Bird Count has become one of those great holiday-season traditions. Like most grand traditions, it started small. Back in 1899, Frank Chapman -- editor of Bird-Lore, the precursor of the magazine that would become Audubon -- made the novel suggestion that people might consider going out on Christmas day and counting birds, rather than shooting them. Only a handful of individuals took Chapman up on his suggestion the first year. But the idea caught on, and now tens of thousands of people take part in the CBC every year.
Of course, few actually go on the count on Christmas day itself. This year's count period starts on December 14 -- yes, just a few hours from now -- and runs into early January. Kim and I will be out there predawn, joining our friends to cover a section of the Toledo count circle. Last year in that area we saw an Iceland Gull, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a lingering Fox Sparrow, and other choice finds. Picking up a few rarities is fun, giving us bragging rights when all the groups of counters get together to compile results at the end of the day. But in the long run, the scientific value of the CBC is the fact that it gives us some clues about population trends in widespread, common birds, like Red-tailed Hawks and Song Sparrows.
If you live anywhere in the U.S. or the more settled parts of Canada, chances are there's a CBC happening near you. And if cold-weather birding isn't your cup of iced tea, you can still enjoy the count vicariously via Audubon's web-based coverage and analysis of the past and present Christmas Bird Count.