Before the rise of the conservation movement, hunters participated in a Christmas day tradition known as a "side hunt," during which teams would compete to see who could kill the most birds. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in the fledgling Audubon Society, proposed a new Christmas tradition in which birds would be counted, not killed. And so the Christmas Bird Count was born.
In anticipation of the 115th Christmas Bird Count, here are 12 ways the count has evolved in the last century.
1. It's one of the longest running citizen science projects in the world.
The CBC is considered the gold standard in citizen science. A video narrated by venerable citizen scientist Chan Robbins outlines the history and importance of the CBC. Using his 60-year-old binoculars, the nonagenarian has participated in more than 400 counts.
2. It's shown that climate change could impact North American birds.
The CBC was an integral part of Audubon's Bird and Climate Change Report, which examines changes in the ranges of birds in your neighborhood due to climate change. Many local favorites will become scarce; some state birds may not even return to their states.
3. It can be used to track long-term trends in bird populations.
Analysis of more than a century's worth of data can reveal the decline of some species, and the recovery of others, providing a deeper understanding of conservation measures that can help birds. For example, CBC counts have exposed the plummeting numbers of the American Black Duck, leading to restrictions on the hunting of the species.
The recovery of the Bald Eagle after the banning of DDT can also be traced in CBC data.
4. It can also track dramatic short-term changes.
The CBC was used to monitor the Snowy Owl irruption of 2013, the biggest surge in the bird's population in close to a century. Keep an eye out for Snowy Owls again this year; one individual seems to be making its way southward already.
5. It's a great way to follow the spread of invasive birds.
The Eurasian Collared-Dove, after being inadvertently released in the Bahamas in the 1970s, first showed up in the United States in South Florida in the '80s. CBC data reveals that its range has now spread as far north as Minnesota. The collared-dove is only one example of the incredible expansion of exotics nationwide, as documented by the CBC.
6. It comes up with larger numbers each year.
More birders, more locations, more species—more birds, period.
For the original Christmas Bird Count, 25 surveys took place in locations ranging from Ontario to California. The 27 birders counted around 89 species—roughly 18,500 birds all told. Last year, counts took place in each of the 50 states, every Canadian province, and more than 100 locations in the Pacific Islands, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Close to 72,000 birders recorded 2,403 species, for a whopping total of more than 66 million birds.
7. It has given rise to other citizen science projects.
The success of the CBC has inspired citizen science projects reaching as far as the heavens. Other Audubon projects, as well as projects studying frogs, butterflies, and even stars, have been crafted around a similar crowdsourcing model.
8. It doesn't cost anything.
Beginning in 1955, participants had to pay a mandatory fee to contribute to the count. Now you can join the fun for free. In 2012, to make the counts accessible to more people, Audubon discontinued the fee. But it still does cost money to organize such a giant network of events!
9. It's bi-lingual.
In an effort to make the count accessible to as many people, in as many places as possible, information and instructions for the count are available in Spanish.
10. It's mostly paperless.
In the early years of the count, birds were tallied on paper in the field. These count sheets were submitted to Audubon Magazine's predecessor, Bird Lore, and summarized in a yearly report, American Birds. Nowadays, you can register online for many locations; results are compiled in an electronic database. Old issues of American Birds are available online.
11. It has been documented through tons of videos.
In 1900, the video camera had just been invented. Now, there is a video describing the historical methods of the CBC in detail. In fact, there's a plethora of videos, on topics ranging from kids participating in the count to post-count celebrations.
12. It's perfect for shutterbugs.
One of the newer aspects of the CBC is that you can share your shots with an appreciative audience of fellow counters. Feel free to mine through albums from other counts too, to get a sense of how vast and diverse the event really is.
To learn more about the Christmas Bird Count, or to find a survey near you, go to birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.