In 1900, Frank Chapman, editor of Bird Lore (forerunner of Audubon magazine), whimsically urged people to go out and count birds on Christmas Day. The foray was intended as a civil alternative to the then-traditional “side hunt”, where teams vied to shoot the greatest number of furred and feathered creatures possible on Christmas Day. Anything that moved was fair game, the winning team commended in sportsmen’s magazines.
But Chapman’s folly caught on!
So here we are.
Driven if only by tradition, birding field parties will be scouring 1,500 National Audubon Society-sanctioned count “circles” from Canada to South America during the official 3-week Christmas Bird Count period (always 12/14 – 01/05). Participants tally the number of birds of each species they see or hear during each circle’s designated 24-hour timeframe. NY State has 69 official count circles, each managed by a “compiler” who sets the count date, musters field parties and compiles all of the data collected by the birders in the circle.
Count circles are 15 miles in diameter, too big for a single field party to adequately census in one day, so compilers typically divide circles into smaller territories which a car-load of wide-eyed “bird dogs” can cover in a day’s time. On the appointed date, the eager field parties trudge through likely birding hot-spots within their assigned territory, often on public lands such as state parks and other conservation properties. They conduct windshield surveys en route, beginning at midnight to count owls, and ending hours later as the cold, hungry, and exhausted teams meet at a compilation pizza party.
What do you find on a Christmas Bird Count? In some locations, not much – like in Prudhoe Bay in 1994 only 1 species of bird, a Common Raven was spotted in the darkness of a winter’s mid-day. In contrast, 425 bird species were found in one circle in the Andes in 2007. In New York State, you can expect anywhere from 40 to 80 different species and numbering up to many thousands of birds, depending on the locale of your circle and recent weather patterns. That’s the beguiling thing about birding…you just never know.
If you are interested in joining a field party or submitting free-lance data, you can contact the nearest compiler. See if your location falls within a count circle by going to christmasbirdcount.org. Click on the “join the Christmas Bird Count” box on the right, then click the highlighted phrase “A map view of circles” on the next page. Then type in your locale at the “find a location” box and scroll to find the nearest circle. A yellow bird icon represents the center of a count circle. Click on the icon to reveal compiler contact info.
Openings may be scarce, as established teams tend to stick together year after year. Having the same teams patrol the same routes at pretty much the same time of day, year after year makes for reliable data. Joining a field party is very regimented field work, and, yes, it is work.
But good data like this helps us see changes in our environment and is the lifeblood of sound wildlife and natural resource management. Long-term studies like this are rare and with over 116 years of observations, CBC data has become a gold mine for professionals studying winter bird distribution and abundance and broader topics like climate change.
A retired NYS DEC Environmental Educator, Craig D. Thompson has served as President of the Audubon Society of the Capital Region and Vice Chair the Audubon Council of New York State.