Christmas bird count rallies thousands to record avian information
December 29, 2011
The Christmas Bird Count has begun.
During the holidays, thousands of bird watchers armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists get ready to bundle up and head out in search of feathered friends during the 112th annual Christmas Bird Count.
What’s been deemed the longest-running citizen science project in American history runs until Jan. 5.
The purpose is for volunteers to identify and tally every bird in their specific route and designated 15-mile-wide circle counted annually. The goal is to get an annual census of which birds – and how many of each species – are using a particular habitat. By repeating the process year after year, wildlife managers are able to document and analyze long term trends in species abundance and health.
“The information gathered by scientists and volunteers is invaluable to determining long-term trends in bird populations,” said John Koshak, a watchable wildlife specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Birds are sensitive to changes in the environment. By studying trends, we can determine which bird species are declining and which ones are on the increase.”
According to Leon Bright, membership coordinator for the Arkansas Valley Audubon Society, this year’s counters in his area are seeing lots of species, but not as many individuals as in years past. “We documented 127 species at Pueblo Reservoir, which is two short of the all time record. The total number of birds, however, was down.”
Bright said the same trend was observed in the Wet Mountain Valley count near Westcliffe.
“The lower number of birds might be related to the drought conditions,” he said.
According to the Audubon Society, the Christmas Bird Count is a family tradition for their members.
On Christmas Day 1900, the first Christmas Bird Count was done as an alternative to what was known as a “side hunt.” According to the Audubon Society’s web page, a “side hunt” was when people formed teams to see which team could shoot the largest bag of feathered and furred wildlife. Recognizing that this kind of intense hunting might have a serious impact on wildlife populations, the national association of the Audubon Society began organizing volunteers to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them.
By tradition, the modern Christmas count takes on the guise of a friendly competition, as groups vie with each other and with history to find more species than their peers did. After a day in the field, often in raw conditions, birders gather to compile their totals and recount the best sightings of the day.
Bright cites two reasons people participate in the Christmas Bird Count.
“They love birds and want to help out as citizen scientists. And they love the camaraderie of being with others,” he said.
The Christmas Count is a way for new and novice birders to learn about bird habits and bird identification skills from experienced birders. Old hands derive satisfaction from knowing that their observations are part of an enormous body of scientific data that’s important to bird conservation in Colorado and beyond.
For many birders, the highlight of the day is spotting a species they have never seen and adding it to their life list. Others will marvel to the unpredictable and sometimes dramatic interactions between species like raptors and their prey. A lucky few may see a unique bird or a species never before recorded in their circle.
Give the gift of science this holiday
Avid bird watchers or folks even slightly interested can give the gift of time and viewing skills as a participant in this year’s Christmas Bird Count.
There is a specific methodology to the CBC, but everyone can participate. Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. Each circle is led by a Count Compiler. Beginning birders can join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.
The CBC tallies species but also counts all birds all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day. If observers live within a CBC circle, they may arrange in advance to count the birds at their feeders and submit those data to their compiler.
To find the posted date of a count near you, or to join a CBC, go to http://www.audubon.org.