Backyard Connections: Join the Christmas Bird Count!

by Melissa Harding

bird countIt is almost time for one of the most fun and exciting winter naturalist traditions: The Christmas Bird Count! The Christmas Bird Count, or the ‘CBC’ to those in the know, is the longest running citizen science project in the world. From December 14 to January 5, thousands of volunteers, armed only with binoculars and bird lists, will head out into their local wilderness areas to count birds. Scientists, birders, families and students all take part in this adventure, some even heading out before dawn to get the most accurate count possible. Counting the birds, number and species, in any given area provides data about population trends that help scientists to better understand overall bird health around the globe.  This is a huge contribution to science and helps guide conservation action.

The data that is collected by the CBC is used by researchers to learn more about the long-term health and status of birds in North America. This data is then combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Project Feeder Watch to create a fuller picture of how bird populations change over time. Scientists can look at the effects of things like pollution and habitat fragmentation; the count can also show scientists where environmental threats exist that may not have yet been identified, like ground water contamination or pesticide poisoning. Not only is this good for birds, but it can be good for people as well. Birds can act as environmental indicators that show us potential threats to our own well-being, including climate change.

Luckily, there are far fewer species of birds to be found in the winter than in the spring. This is because many of the birds that we take for granted in the summer, such as warblers and flycatchers, are actually only visiting. In fact, at least two-thirds of North American birds migrate some distance each fall. Most of these migratory birds are predators, feeding on insects and worms. These birds need to migrate in order to find food; many travel to tropical locations near the equator. Most of the birds left behind are seed-eaters, such as cardinals and sparrows, and can find food all winter long. Since the variety of species is reduced during the CBC, many of the birds left are well-known backyard feeder birds or larger waterfowl and raptors. This makes it easier and lot more fun to bird in the winter – you can be sure that you will know the birds that you see!

Getting involved in the Christmas Bird Count is easy, but does require a little bit of planning. This is not the kind of citizen science project that you can do on your own, since it is a true, scientific census. There is a very specific way that the count is organized, so registration is required. Each count takes place in a 15-mile diameter circle and each circle has a count compiler. There are multiple count compilers in an area, so there may be several counts going on near you.  If you are new to birding, your area count compiler will put you in a group with more experienced birders. Even if you are not great at identifying birds, you can still participate in the fun! If your home is within one of the 15-mile circles, you can even bird from your backyard! To get started, check out this list of counts near year on the Audubon website.

Want to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count? Check out the Audubon Society website!

New to birding? Check out the Audubon Society’s online bird guide.

Think the CBC is fun? Learn more about other upcoming Audubon citizen science projects, The Great Backyard Bird Count and Hummingbirds at Home.

The above photo is courtesy of the National Audubon Society, by Geoff LaBaron.

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