The current world record for number of bird species seen in a single calendar day is 431, set by a team of birders working their way across Ecuador. It’s an incredible record, one that required exhaustive planning, a group of skilled birders at the top of their game, and a fair amount of luck in getting favorable weather and avoiding delays. It’s probably about as perfect a Big Day attempt as there can be.
But, I bet it’s already been beaten.
In fact, I bet it’s beaten repeatedly by just one man. An incredible man. A man who can travel great distances in almost no time at all. A man who never gets a flat tire or is held up in customs. A man who is able to visit every country on earth in a single 24-hour period, each year in late December.
I’m talking, of course, about Santa Claus.
Santa supposedly covers 200 million square miles in a single continuous night, stopping at millions of homes in almost every corner of the globe. He’s bound to run into a bunch of birds while he’s at it. What I want to know is, how many exactly?
We’ve got to answer a few questions before we just start tallying species, though, so let’s do some thinking.
Question 1: Does Santa Care About Counting Birds?
I’d argue that, yes, Santa cares about birds. This is a guy who is stuck at the North Pole for literally the entire year. He’s either supervising his toy-crafted elves (mostly spreadsheet work, not very fun) or staring out across a lifeless expanse of frozen whiteness. Christmas Eve is the one day each year he gets out! But, he gets only moments to enjoy it: It’s night-time, he’s not supposed to talk to anyone, and he’s got a lot of work to do going up and down chimneys. The few moments he spends on each rooftop and whooshing through the air in his sleigh are the only times he gets to appreciate being outside of the North Pole. And what might he see or hear up there? Birds.
My guess is that Santa looks forward to counting birds all year long.
Question 2: How Does Santa Have Time to Bird?
It’s estimated that Santa needs to deliver presents to 75 million homes in just one night. I’m not a mathematician, but that’s a lot of houses in not a lot of time. How could Santa possibly deliver all these presents, let alone set the world Big Day record?
The current thinking, thanks to scientists at North Carolina State University, is that Santa “uses his knowledge of the space/time continuum to create ‘relativity clouds’: controllable domains—rips in time—that allow him months to deliver presents while only a few minutes pass on Earth.” Perfect! Santa uses his physics superpowers to take his time delivering presents, and with all the extra time he can go birding.
Question 3: Will Santa’s Big Day be considered valid by the American Birding Association?
The question you’ve all been asking! The American Birding Association, or ABA, validates and sets standards for Big Day attempts. Their Big Day rules say nothing about relativity clouds, only that, “All counting must be within a single 24-hour period, on a single calendar day, determined by where the Count begins or ends.”
The “single calendar day” thing is an issue. Santa starts delivering presents on December 24 and finishes up the next morning—working across a calendar day. Therefore, in order to get a thumbs up from the ABA, Santa could only count the birds he sees or hears during half of his route, either Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. We’ll return to that later.
Would Santa be disqualified for using a magical, flying reindeer-driven sleigh inside a relativity cloud? Not according to the ABA, which specifies that “travel can be by any means.” Great. The guidelines also state that “any geographic area can be covered,” meaning that Santa has the green light to count birds across the entire globe.
Instead of getting into an elaborate debate about which areas people celebrate Christmas and which areas they don’t, I think it’s safe to say that Santa visits everywhere in the course of his magical night. If you disagree, argue about it somewhere else and let me know what you come up with. I want to start counting birds.
So, How Many Birds Does Santa Find?
Now that we’ve established that he’s got magic time on his side and the whole globe’s worth of birds to discover, Santa’s biggest limiting factor for a genuine, Christmas Eve world Big Day attempt is that he delivers presents exclusively at night. Any species he sees or hears must be ones that are active at night in December. The nocturnal limitation is a major barrier for Santa’s species count around the globe, but especially in the Northern Hemisphere, where the middle of a December night is about as quiet as it gets.
Let’s start at the North Pole, where Santa lives and where his Big Day would start. The North Pole is not very birdy on December 24: It’s completely dark and frozen and awful. The eBird database, which collects millions of bird sightings from users all over the world, has no reports from anywhere near the North Pole in December. The most northerly December record I could find was a single checklist submitted from the Naval Arctic Research Lab in Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), Alaska, from December 28, 2010. The birder found just a single species, a Common Raven. That checklist is from 2 p.m., the middle of the day but still dark as night outside. I’m going to count it for Santa. Not a huge start, but a start nonetheless. Santa Bird Count: 1.
There are far fewer birds in the Northern Hemisphere in December than there are in the summer, and not many of the ones that remain are active at night. Owls, which vocalize in winter as they look for mates, are an exception. Searching eBird I found a number of nocturnal checklists reporting owls in December, including Long-eared Owls in Ontario, Canada, Boreal Owls in Finland, Japanese Scops-Owl in Okinawa, and five different species of owl early one morning in Delaware.
In fact, I bet Santa will encounter, somewhere along his world-crossing route, every single species of owl on Earth. All he needs to do is hear a single individual of each species calling to count the bird. I’m giving him a clean sweep. He’s got all year to bone up on his owl calls, and he’s got the space-time continuum on his side, so I think he can do it. There are about 220 different species of owl in the world, so: Santa Bird Count: 221.
The next species I’m certain that Santa will run into, quite literally, is the Chimney Swift. I mean, they roost in chimneys. Scientists actually don’t know much about the South American overwintering range of Chimney Swifts, but they can be found roosting in chimneys, churches, and caves in the upper Amazon basin. So, we can deduce from this information that at least once and likely many times during Santa’s route through western Peru, a bunch of sleeping Chimney Swifts get a big faceful of Santa butt. Santa Bird Count: 222.
It got more difficult from here searching through eBird sightings to find checklists submitted at night in December. The site doesn’t permit a search by time of day, so instead I tried to target species I thought would be active at night and work backward to see what else was on the birder’s checklists.
I had moderate success. A couple of nocturnal checklists in Australia added two species of frogmouth, Tawny and Marbled, as well as a Beach Thick-Knee and a Noisy Pitta (Santa Bird Count: 226). A nocturnal checklist from Colombia added nine new species, including the fantastically named Azara's Spinetail and Common Potoo (Santa Bird Count: 235).
But randomly poking around the entire globe hoping to bump into nocturnal December checklists wasn’t going to work for me. I needed to call in a favor.
Luckily, I have a friend at eBird, Drew Weber, and he agreed to help me out. I asked Drew if he could help me find information about species reported after dark and before dawn around Christmas. Using his access to the database, and with the help of his colleague Matt Strimas-Mackey, Drew sent me a spreadsheet listing the species and location info from every eBird checklist submitted between 6 p.m. December 24 and 6 a.m. December 25 for the year 2016. The motherlode.
There were a lot of species on the list, and I quickly realized that Santa couldn’t count all of them. Drew and Matt included all checklists that began before 6 a.m., but didn’t specify how long they ran. Someone could have begun a checklist at 5:30am but then counted birds until noon, including birds that wouldn’t be found at night. Those had to go.
I knew I needed to pare the list anyway. As stated earlier, the ABA only counts birds seen during a single calendar day, and so Santa would have to choose either December 24 or 25. I ditched all the species reported on the 25, leaving me with a pretty good list of the world’s birds active on Christmas Eve.
How many are on there? The eBirders of the world reported 25 different species of owl on Christmas Eve 2016, including a Barn Owl in California, an Oriental Scops-Owl in India, and a Black-capped Screech-Owl in Argentina. Two of the four reported hummingbird species—Ruby-throated and Broad-billed—were seen flitting around the grounds of the Crown Paradise Golden Hotel in Jalisco, Mexico. Birders in 20 countries submitted their sightings, from Bhutan to Spain to New Zealand. In total, the list included . . . are you ready now? . . . 362 species.
So, excluding the owls I already counted for Santa’s list, that brings Ol’ Bowl-Full-of-Jelly’s total to 662 species.
This is certainly an undercount. Despite the comprehensiveness of Drew’s list, it was missing some of the birds I had found on my own, birds that other people had reported around the world on December nights, including the Common Raven and the thick-knee. Plus, though there were reports from 20 countries, we know Santa will visit about 140 more, completing a much more thorough search. An actual number would be well over 1,000 species.
But even at 661 species Santa has already smashed the currently-accepted record world Big Day record of 431. Congratulations, St. Nick, it’s a record that will be tough to beat by anyone who isn’t a globe-trotting, time-bending supernatural being. I guess what I’m saying is: your move, Tooth Fairy.