Birding That Counts

Thousands of volunteers make invaluable contributions—and have lots of fun—taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count.

At first it was just a game, but it was launched for the best of reasons. Back in 1900 Frank Chapman—editor of Bird-Lore, the precursor to what would eventually become Audubon magazine—suggested a new Yuletide recreation. He wanted to replace the old “side hunt,” in which teams of Christmas revelers had gone out with guns to see which side could bring back the biggest pile of dead birds and other animals. Chapman’s suggestion? Go out with keen eyes and a notebook instead, and see who could count the most birds in their native habitat.

The “side hunt” has faded away, but Chapman’s little alternative has grown and grown. In December 1900 only 27 people went out to count birds, at 25 sites, mostly in the northeastern states. This winter an estimated 60,000 people in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere will take part in the 112th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). From Alaska to Antarctica, between December 14 and January 5, within count circles registered in advance with Audubon, teams of birders will take to the field for fun, for tradition, and for science.

I was 10 in 1965, when I took part in my own first CBC, with the Wichita Audubon Society. I caught that “spirit of wholesome competition” that Frank Chapman had invoked back in 1901. Each modern CBC occupies a circle with a 15-mile diameter, too large an area for one group to cover, so Wichita Audubon had divided its circle among several teams. When we all got together in the evening to compile our totals, it was great fun to compare notes: Which team had recorded the most horned larks? The most red-tailed hawks? The rarest bird? Then we would wait to hear whether Wichita had listed more species than other Kansas counts, such as Topeka or Lawrence. But despite this competitive urge, it was obvious that no one was excluded, and that a total beginner would be welcomed along for the fun of the count.

Underlying the sense of adventure there has always been a sense of purpose. The good people of Wichita Audubon impressed that upon me during my first CBC. It was exciting to find a rare white-winged junco but just as important to keep a faithful count of the other juncos—not to see whether we could tally more than other teams but to have an accurate gauge of how junco populations were faring. We were on the front lines of tracking the status of common birds. Those numbers meant something.

The modern effort has come a long way since the era when two dozen scattered counters mailed in handwritten lists. Today CBC results, stretching back to the count’s inception, have been computerized, and this massive database can be analyzed to track shifts in distribution, seasonal irruptions of nomadic birds, and large-scale population changes. When combined with breeding bird surveys, the effort provides a powerful tool, providing early warning when a species begins to decline. Frank Chapman’s little holiday game has matured into a major force for science and conservation, and it’s still as exciting and enlightening 112 years later. Learn more here.

2012 Update: Support the Christmas Bird Count

This December Audubon removed the mandatory participation fee that previously funded the CBC and replaced it with a voluntary donation system. Now your contributions are more important than ever to maintain the count, tell you about the results, and to take conservation action.