Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count: Doing Crowd-science Since 1900

For three weeks, upwards of 60,000 volunteers will head outside as part of the largest, longest-running wildlife census in the world: the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

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From the Arctic Circle to New Orleans to South America, these volunteers take part in 2,000-plus "count circles" with passion and commitment; they know they belong to an army that has made a difference since 1900. They are among the millions of community heroes who act when Congress won't, who take conservation personally, and who teach their kids that individual action matters. If that all sounds pretty inspiring, it is.

From December 14 to January 5, these crowd-scientists provide the information that scientists need to understand how environmental changes are affecting birds. The data they gather help land use planners avoid disturbing precious breeding grounds. Just three months ago, the two major Eastern power grid coalitions agreed to factor this data in as decisions are made about where to put new mega-power lines.

Two years ago, Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data confirmed what observers had long suspected: many bird species are moving their winter ranges further north. Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change analysis revealed that 58 percent of the species seen during the count were showing up significantly further north than 40 years ago—right in line with charted temperature increases.

In addition to showing why it's so important to reduce atmosphere-warming carbon emissions, this disturbing finding added new urgency to “adaptive management” conservation planning. That’s using population trend data and sophisticated mapping technology to predict what habitats and species are at greatest risk from climate disruption’s inevitable impacts. With that knowledge, we can protect remaining habitat—and create alternative habitat where that’s the best option.

By highlighting species facing precipitous declines, the CBC jump-starts targeted conservation. In one example, the count’s confirmation that populations of American Black Ducks were plummeting triggered limits on hunting. Sound science requires a long-term perspective, so the durability of Audubon’s CBC matters.

It all started when Audubon was a fledgling social network. People—mostly women— had come together in community-based chapters to take on a fashion industry that was slaughtering birds for hat feathers. At the same time, an early American tradition drove tens of thousands of (mostly) men out for a Christmas bird hunt. In general, these weren't hunters looking to bag dinner; this was recreational killing. So when the Audubon Society proposed in 1900 that we celebrate birdlife instead of shooting it from the sky, a concept was born.

It’s how Audubon first learned that the community is the organization—as we're seeing today with Facebook, Twitter, and others.

When I googled “Christmas Bird Count” today I got more than 700,000 returns. Many were notices from local papers and Audubon Chapters about upcoming counts throughout the country, in Canada, the Caribbean and beyond. Some were citations from scientific research that relied on the data. Still others featured personal stories from volunteers. Over the next three weeks, that number will grow.

Tens of thousands of “crowd-scientists” will dress in pre-dawn light to take part in one of their favorite holiday traditions. Bill G. in Texas and Mary Lou P. in Iowa will be marking their 50th counts. In Connecticut, 17-year-old Matt M. will be participating in his second. But whether these CBCers brave icy winds or enjoy balmy breezes, two things will unite them: 1) They love birds. 2) They know that individual action matters.

That’s the lesson of the Christmas Bird Count. Whether your tradition includes Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa or the winter solstice or any other way to mark the season, birds and nature are causes for celebration. And the greatest gift we can give them, each other, and our children and grandchildren is a healthy, sustainable future.

If you'e interested, go to to find a "count circle" near you.