During the final weeks of December, bird watchers from around the country look forward to a special outing: the Christmas Bird Count. Referred to as the “CBC” by those who-whoo-who know, the annual event connects birders to the present, past, and future.

Kill Counts

Geese and Swan on Water

The CBC came about, over 100 years ago, in response to another holiday tradition. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, the “Side Hunt” was a traditional Christmas field outing that terrorized wildlife. Participants headed out into fields and forests and shot wildlife for fun and sport. Groups would then haul their quarry back to town and compare kills. What seems archaic today was a common practice at the close of the 19th century.

At this time, wildlife conservation and the environmental movement were in their fledgling stages, as the plentiful wildlife and abundance of wild lands meant people didn’t realize or even consider the overall impact of this aggressive hunting activity. This was a time when plume hunters were decimating heron and egret populations, collecting feathers for the millinery or hat-making trade and markets were brimming with waterfowl shot by commercial hunters. Birdwatching as we know it today was a pastime enjoyed by few and they were probably suspect at that time.

Birding in the Modern Era

Red and Gray House Finch on Perch

But change was in the air at the start of the new century. Ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer of the newly hatched National Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday activity: counting, instead of shooting, birds on Christmas Day. During that first year in 1900, 27 birders participated in 25 counts scattered across North America in places such as Pacific Grove, CA; Germantown, PA; Bristol, CT; and Toronto, Ontario. All told, the counters ended up with 89 species which, today, could easily come from one of those counts.

This year, the CBC will celebrate its 119th birthday. It’s the longest-running citizen science project in North America and provides a snapshot of winter bird populations across North America and into Latin America, and population changes from year-to-year.

Counts rarely happen on Christmas Day anymore and instead take place one day between December 14 and January 5. The Count Day straddles the middle of Count Week and is the main day that birders flock outside to identify species and count their numbers. The three days pre- and post-Count Day during Count Week are days for scouting in advance or looking for species that were missed on Count Day. Birds observed during the six days of Count Week are tallied by species only.

Last year, during the 118th annual count, 2,585 Christmas Bird Counts were submitted. That total number of counts was the highest number in the CBC’s history. Nearly 2,000 of the total counts were held in the US, while the others were held from Canada (463) and Latin America (165). The number of participants was 76,987, although some people joined in on multiple counts; truly the CBC is a birder’s delight.

A staggering 666 species of birds were recorded in the US alone and over 59 million birds were tallied from all the counts. Rarities abounded and some birders added “lifers” to their list.

How to Get Counting

Birds in Flight

So how to participate this year? Either contact your local birding club or Audubon Society and see when their count is scheduled or visit the National Audubon Society’s website. Because count compilers are busy organizing teams and individuals, it is best to contact the compiler prior to the count date if you are new to the game. The compiler will organize teams and assign zones to be checked within the Count Circle. No experience is necessary and all are welcome.

Each count area is a 15-mile diameter circle, called the Count Circle. Compilers will often have maps that show where each team will cover so that there is little overlap and birds don’t get double counted. Birders may make notes about unique observations, especially flocks of birds moving from one zone to another in case another team observes the same flock. The circle generally includes a variety of habitats, from residential to remote, to provide the best representation of an area. Teams keep track of birds and their numbers, the participants time in the field, weather, and the number of miles driven or walked.

The beauty of Count Day is if someone isn’t able to join birders in the field, there is a feeder watch component for the CBC for those at home. Simply observe birds in the backyard throughout the day and keep track of the highest count for each species. As birds will come and go throughout the day, don’t keep a running total because this may provide multiple counts of some birds. Send in the data to the compiler at the end of the day.

Many CBCs also host an evening potluck to share stories from the day and tally up species observed. This is a good time to find out which bird species were missed, since there will three more days to locate these species. If found, the birds will be listed as Count Week (CW) species and be included in the total.

The National Audubon Society compiles and reviews all the data sent in by the compilers. An annual report summarizes the count effort and each count’s data is accessible through the NAS website. Reviewing previous year’s counts is a good way for new birders to research which species have been observed over the years. Since the data is available to everyone, researchers also analyze the data for population trends, range expansions or contractions, or other situations that reflect bird populations over time.

For those participating for the first time, especially in cold climates, be prepared with warm clothes, binoculars, a field guide, and enthusiasm. The reward is often a fun day afield counting birds and sharing the day’s accomplishments with others in the birdwatching community.