Christmas is for Counting Birds

2008dec20-cbc-392rThis Saturday I’m heading out on Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). I’ll be joining tens of thousands of other birders around the world in a tradition that is in its 110th year.

December isn’t exactly the best time to be outside birding. A few years ago, our group experienced blizzard conditions and a toasty high of six degrees F. (Amazingly, we saw over 200 American Robins in our count area that year! I kept expecting penguins.) Other years have been somewhat milder, but December in Colorado Springs is never for sissies. Why do we bundle into multiple layers of clothing and get up in the dark to spend most of the day outside counting birds?

The holiday season is also incredibly busy. Shopping, decorating, baking, parties—who has time to tally birds? Why use up a precious Saturday right before Christmas in order to take a bird census?

Decembers during the nineteenth century must not have been as hectic as they are now. In those days, lacking decent binoculars and field guides, birding was done with a shotgun. For some reason, it was considered great sport to go out on Christmas Day for some competitive birding. Crowds of merrymakers would divide into two teams, and whichever group brought home the biggest pile of dead birds (and other creatures) was declared the winner. I guess they really knew how to have fun back then.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept of conservation began to have an impact. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the fledgling Audubon Society, suggested that the birds would be better served by being counted, rather than blown to smithereens. Thus, on Christmas Day, 1900, 27 hardy birders participated in 25 different bird censuses in locations ranging from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California.

The Audubon Society still sponsors the CBC, held every year between December 14 and January 5. The data collected this year will be compared to previous years. Trends indicate the long-term health and status of various bird species across North America. Conservation measures can then be implemented for those populations in serious decline.

More recently, birders in other parts of the world have joined those in North America. Participants in Central and South America now provide data about wintering migrants—songbirds that breed in the United States and Canada—that previously went uncounted. Also, 2008 marked the first time a CBC was held in Antarctica (and we complain about the weather here?)!

Joining in the Christmas Bird Count is a great way to involve the whole family. Anyone who can recognize the birds is welcome to participate; you don’t need to be an expert. Beginners can tag along with experienced counters, in a hands-on learning opportunity. Contact your local Audubon chapter, or go to the national CBC website to get started.

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