Thursday, December 5, 2013

The 114th Christmas Bird Count: A Holiday Tradition

cbcpressroom_tuftedtitmouse-judyhowleThe year was 1900. The National Audubon Society did not yet exist and wildlife management was in its infancy. Through the century just ending, many people in this country participated in a holiday tradition known as a “side hunt.” Groups would gather, choose “sides,” and then compete to see which side could shoot the most birds (and other animals) in a day.

But some citizens were then becoming concerned about declining bird numbers. That year, American ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore magazine and later a leader in the emerging Audubon Society, proposed a new form of hunt in which participants would count birds instead of killing them. He called it a Christmas bird-census.  Chapman urged readers to help by “spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds” and then submit to Bird-Lore a report of their count “before they retire that night.”

In response, on December 25, 27 people counted birds in 25 places, mostly between Massachusetts and Philadelphia. Obviously, in most locations these Christmas counts were solo operations!

But a tradition was started. Counts, now called Audubon Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), have been held each year since, making CBC’s the longest-running example of citizen science.

Much has changed in 114 years, of course. Counts no longer have to be on Christmas day, for instance. They typically happen on a weekend day between mid-December and early January. And each count takes place within a circle 15 miles in diameter and centered at a specific location. But the concept is the same. People allocate part or all of a day to scouring the countryside to find and record as many birds as possible. The organizer for each count then tallies the total of all observers and sends them to Audubon.

Although most participants do it for the joy of the hunt, they also are contributing to scientists’ understanding of trends in bird populations. Scientists can’t be everywhere, and CBC records, combined with those from other citizen science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, have enabled ornithologists to detect changes in bird numbers and locations, including range shifts resulting from climate change. In turn, the resulting knowledge allows experts to design appropriate conservation strategies when needed. Some call it “birding with a purpose.”

Today, there are more than 2,300 count circles spread across the continent, and some 60,000 people participate annually. Several counts take place in or near the Adirondacks (see list below).

The best thing is that anyone can help – and help is needed. Birders of all abilities are welcome. Novices can be paired with seasoned observers. Those with more experience can cover new parts of the circle. And if you live in a circle, you can even stay home and count birds at your feeders! Advance registration is essential, however, so organizers know what resources they have available.

I have been enjoying CBC’s for more than 20 years and look forward to doing so each year. So start your own new tradition. Find a count near you and give it a try. Take the family or some friends. See if you, too get hooked!

More information about the CBC is available online here.

CBC Location, Date – Contact Name (Phone #/email)

Elizabethtown, Dec. 21 – contact Charlotte Demers (

Bolton Landing, Dec. 14 – Lake George Land Conservancy (518-644-9673)

Hudson Falls/Glens Falls/Fort Edward, Dec. 14 – Linda White (518-792-4446 or 222-5675)

Old Forge, No Date – Gary Lee (

Plattsburgh, Dec. 15 – Michael Burgess (518-564-5277/

Potsdam-Canton, Dec. 21 – Jeff Bolsinger (315-854-0852/

Saratoga Springs/ Schuylerville, Dec. 21 – Larry Rowland (

Saranac Lake/Lake Placid, Dec. 29 – Larry Master (518-645-1545)

Watertown, Dec. 14 – Gerry Smith (315-771-6902)

Photo: A tufted titmouse courtesy of Judy Howle

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Wally Elton is a writer and long-time birder and 28-year Project FeederWatch observer living in Saratoga Springs. He also is a volunteer Great Backyard Bird Count ambassador.

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