The Christmas Bird Count

Author: Heather Farrington, Zoology Curator

One of the largest and longest-running citizen science programs in the country is the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). In the late 1800s, “Side Hunts” were a common holiday tradition. The goal of these competitive hunting outings was to see who could shoot the most animals (particularly birds and mammals) in a given period of time. Before long, people began to notice that bird populations were declining. On Christmas Day in 1900, an ornithologist by the name of Frank M. Chapman started a tradition of simply counting birds, rather than killing them. And so began the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Throughout the nation, there are 15-mile wide, circular territories established for the count. Each territory is intensively surveyed for one day sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Volunteer efforts are coordinated, and data are collected and compiled, by a designated count leader for each territory. The leaders then submit the data collected to the National Audubon Society, which generates the national data set. There are nearly a dozen count circles in the Cincinnati Region! See the map below for territories in the area and link to the interactive national map.

So, why do nature lovers throughout the nation go out and count birds in the winter? Not only is it fun to join other bird lovers in the effort, but the information gathered is incredibly valuable. The data collected show us where birds are spending their time during the winter months, and relative abundances of species in different regions. When birds move south for the winter, exactly how far do they go? What species stay here for the winter? What birds are found in urban versus rural areas? Where do water birds go when lakes and ponds start to freeze over?

Because the count has been going on for so long, we can see changes in winter bird distributions over many years. How do local weather or environmental patterns impact winter bird populations? Were there drought conditions this year? Was there flooding in a particular area? Was there a wildfire? How did these events impact what birds stuck around in the winter from one year to the next? The CBC allows us to answer questions like these.

Would you like to help with the count this Christmas? No matter what your skill level, you can help! When I participated in my first CBC ten years ago, I was new to birding, so the territory leader assigned me to a group of experienced birders as a data recorder. I met some amazing people and learned so much during my time on the count. Do you live inside one of the territory circles? You can even count birds in your backyard or neighborhood for the territory leader.

For more information on the Christmas Bird Count, check out the National Audubon Society webpage. If you would like to participate, you can find the dates for the territory counts as well as names and contact information for territory leaders across the nation. This information is also posted for some of the local counts on the Cincinnati Audubon website.

Be sure to contact leaders in advance so they can coordinate their volunteers to maximize coverage of their territory and avoid double-counting areas. Happy birding!

Bird count map

An interactive Christmas Bird Count map from the Audubon Society.

Posted in Zoology.