An Age of Transition at the Christmas Bird Count

CBC Director Geoff LeBaron looks back on 124 years of both constancy and change, and announces a change of his own.
Geoff LeBaron. Photo: Annabelle Hendersøn

There have been several significant transition points in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count program since Frank Chapman launched it during the 1900 holiday season.

Since that inaugural count, people have always counted every bird of all species encountered during one calendar day; they have reported the number of observers and time and distance during that day, from a prescribed area, making sure to minimize the possibility of double counting. With Frank Chapman’s retirement in 1934 came the first big inflection point. To ensure the longevity of the program, Chapman handed the reins of the CBC over to an advisory board and team of editors, which included the now-legendary Chandler S. Robbins. The next big change arrived in the 1950s, when the CBC team standardized the area of each count to be a 15-mile, or 24-kilometre, circle; this meant that some of the older counts needed to be combined into these new, larger circles.

The count expanded again during the 73rd CBC, in December 1972, when the editors included counts from Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time.

During the 1970s and 1980s, researchers began to recognize the potential value of the CBC as a data set, especially when combined with the results of the Breeding Bird Survey, which had begun in the mid-1960s, also by Chan Robbins. However, to that point there was no historical CBC database, only small subsets of computerized results in a few places, plus all the printed results in Bird-Lore, Audubon Field Notes, and American Birds.

Computers Come for the CBC

In 1997, “BirdSource” was created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, an online, interactive website where people could submit their bird sightings to a database. Here’s a link to the announcement.

BirdSource needed a large data set to enable the results to be tallied and analyzed, and funding was obtained to finally computerize the entire Christmas Bird Count data set. From 1998 to 2000, the 100-year CBC data set was created, literally by hand from printed copies of all the magazines, by the amazing John Shipman in New Mexico. John was a true afficionado of CBC data, and also handy with computers, and thus was the perfect person to create the database. To go with that database, an online data entry application was also developed to enable compilers to enter their own data, rather than having contractors create only printed results. Since 2000, all CBC results have been entered into the online database, which has become one of the most important data sets for researchers to track the health of avian populations across the Western Hemisphere.

I was recently reviewing early years of CBC results in Latin America with Rosabel Miró, the executive director of Panama Audubon, when I found this surprising introduction in the 73rd Christmas Bird Count summary:

“North America's premier exercise in mass masochism and cooperative science, celebrated its 73rd year in fine style, with a new record for the number of recorded participants and for the number of published counts.”

The above quote is certainly NOT how I would characterize the Christmas Bird Count! I have now written 36 summaries since taking over the position of “Christmas Bird Count Editor” for Susan Roney Drennan in December of 1987. Here is how I began my first summary, that for the 88th CBC:

“To be in the driver's seat here as the Christmas Bird Count editor, or at least along for the ride, gives a whole new appreciation to the "simple" concept of the Count. The past year has been especially fraught with problem solving, and this issue in your hands is a much better and more readable one than ever before. Back by popular demand, with some welcome changes, is the old time-tested prose format.”

A New CBC Editor Arrives

My first CBC as editor was the year after the infamous “tabular” issue. While many people had requested a tabular, rather than narrative, format for the CBC results, the resulting publication was not what the great majority of recipients wanted in their hands and consumed a huge amount of paper to produce. The 88th CBC results, my first as editor, returned to a streamlined version of the narrative format. Since then, it has been an amazing time to be directly involved with the Christmas Bird Count. The program has evolved from being a 100 percent paper effort to a 100 percent online presence, including a critical database that is used on a weekly basis to help us protect the birds we love so dearly. And the CBC database, the combined results of every participant’s hard work and dedicated effort, has transformed from something that researchers were hesitant to embrace to one where we can hardly keep up with the weekly inquiries requesting data.

It's been talked about many times, but one of the primary reasons the Christmas Bird Count has continued to be so successful isn’t just a great bird-filled day in one of our favorite locations, it’s also about sharing that day with longtime friends and new birders. The social aspects of the CBC are the glue that holds the whole thing together. I still travel to Rhode Island to do my traditional CBCs down there, where I started participating 46 seasons ago. The attachment I have for my sectors, my fellow birders, and the wonderful birds there runs very, very deep. Being in charge of the CBC program has made me even more appreciative of everyone—compilers, participants, and regional editors alike—who make the CBC happen, who are the Christmas Bird Count. I wish I could thank each and every CBCer from top to bottom and beginning to end in person!

This is also the last Christmas Bird Count summary I will write.

After 37 years, and at age 70, I have decided to retire from Audubon at the end of the upcoming fiscal year, in June 2024. Someone else will be summarizing the upcoming 124th CBC. It has been an honor and a privilege to shepherd everyone’s effort and data along for all this time, and even to this day I sometimes have the same thought I had when Susan Roney Drennan, then the Editor-in-Chief of American Birds, offered me the job of CBC Editor on December 7, 1987—how can I NOT take this job working for Audubon?

Thank you, SRD, for the offer that day. And perpetual thanks to all involved with the Christmas Bird Count for everything you do for the birds we all cherish.