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The 121st Annual Christmas Bird Count

2020 may be the year to make the world’s oldest citizen-science initiative part of your holiday tradition

As this challenging year draws to a close, it’s safe to say that one thing 2020 has proven is that old customs and habits can be adapted to suit changing times. It’s a lesson that the pioneering ornithologist Frank Chapman, a curator at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, learned back in 1900 when he proposed the idea for the first Christmas Bird Count (CBC.)

A new tradition begins. In Chapman’s time, the “side hunt” was a Christmas Day tradition. Groups of men would gather, choose sides, and embark on a competitive hunt in which each side would shoot as much wild game as possible. At a time when people believed birds to be a limitless resource, hundreds of non-game avian species were wantonly killed. Chapman, an early conservationist and officer of the Audubon Society, had a better idea. He proposed that instead of killing birds, parties of could go out, observe, and record all the species they saw.

On December 25, 1900, Chapman organized 27 different people in 25 North American locations from New York’s Central Park to Toronto to California and beyond. They counted 18,500 birds, identifying 89 different species across all their locations. Their findings were published in Bird-Lore magazine, which later became Audubon magazine. Since then the count has been held every winter. This year, as many as 70,000 volunteers will be participating in the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia and beyond.

An invaluable contribution. The twelve decades of data provide scientists with critical, long-term information on the health and status of bird populations across North America. It also helps conservationists develop strategies to protect birds and their habitats, and identify environmental issues with larger implications for people and the planet.

How does the CBC work? Most counts do not actually occur on Christmas Day, but are conducted on specific days between December 14 and January 5. Field parties under the direction of a count compiler focus on an established 15-mile wide diameter circle. Observing within a specified sector (so there’s no overlap), volunteers count every bird they see or hear in one given day—from midnight to midnight. Novices are often paired with more experienced birders, and many groups celebrate their outcomes with a dinner or social activity. Compliers consolidate the data and enter it into the database, where editors review and confirm it.

Adapting to the times. In the year of COVID, even the CBC’s time-proven methodology is being adjusted. This year all groups must adhere to local masking and social distancing regulations. Some groups are cancelling, and others are anticipating that more and more participants who live within the 15-mile wide diameter circles will be doing feeder watches versus field work. Feeder watchers will observe the area within 100 yards of their property, and record the maximum number of each species tallied at one given time.

If you are new to such “feeder watch” counts, your task is to count only the greatest number of each species seen at any one time. For example, if a party of six chickadees visits your feeder, and a second party takes turns, your total should be six. Concord-based naturalist and author Peter Alden (a Spark Birding founder) recounted a story how “one beginner at a local feeder used a numerical clicker and told us she had 406 chickadees at her feeder that day! As a compiler, I reduced that number to six”.

That rare glimpse. Peter Alden enjoyed his first Christmas Bird Count as a high school student in 1960, and has participated ever since. Citizen science notwithstanding, he notes that among more seasoned birders there’s an element of friendly competition. “Everyone is eager to spot that rare find, or the irruptive species that might show up in great numbers, only to disappear again for several years.” Irruptive migrants appear during times of food shortage that are irregular and not predictable based on season or geography. Northern Finches, Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, redpolls, and waxwings are among the notable irruptives you might spot in the New England area during a Christmas Bird Count.

Peter adds, “Those of you with newer iPhones or professional cameras should take photos of any unknown or rare bird you encounter and email those photos to your town or count compiler so that experts can ID your bird ASAP”. This will allow a local expert to try to relocate that mystery bird to make a positive ID.

How to Join. Since 2012, CBC participation has been free, and is funded 100% by donations. To join a CBC field group (even if you are participating from your feeder), you must register in advance. First, find a field circle near you using this map. If you click on the circle you want to join, a pop-up will appear with email contact information for the compiler, who can then facilitate your registration.

For more information, visit the Audubon Society’s page on the 121st Annual Christmas Bird Count.


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