It was dark when I left the house. And cold. And raining. Soon I was shivering in a field with several other people, their silhouettes still hazy in the pre-dawn light.
Just before sunrise, we heard a low, nasal “mmttzzzzz.” An American Woodcock giving its first call of the day before launching into its dazzling, whistling aerial display. Had we stayed in bed that morning, we would have missed hearing the woodcock. And the whole world would have missed knowing about it.
So began my first Audubon Christmas Bird Count in December 2010. Damp parka and all, I was hooked. Because what I saw and heard might matter for birds worldwide.
Something for Everyone
Having participated every year since then, I can honestly say that the Christmas Bird Count (“CBC”) has something for everyone. For birders, the CBC is a good excuse to spend the day outside with people who share the same passion, often with exclusive access to properties usually closed to the public.
For newcomers to the bird world, the CBC is a crash course in learning which birds are which. It’s common practice to pair novices with those more knowledgeable.
And for the scientist in all of us, there’s the thrill of contributing to one of the largest datasets ever recorded, with statistics going all the way back to 1900. The CBC is actually the longest running wildlife census in the world, and how it started is an interesting story.
The Christmas Side Hunt, a competition to shoot as many birds as possible, was a popular way to spend Christmas day in the late 1800s. In peaceful protest against this annual bloodbath, early Audubon leaders decided to count as many birds as possible on Christmas day.
And here’s how far this new tradition has come. The first CBCs in 1900 had 27 participants. Last year, there were more than 55,800 CBC participants in the U.S. alone!
The CBC is a magnet for volunteers, in part, because it produces fascinating results. CBC data helped shape Aububon’s major report on birds and climate change. American Woodcocks, for example, are climate-threatened and declining throughout their range. So out in a dark field on that December morning, I actually contributed to our understanding of how a changing climate will affect this species.
CBC data also helps us better understand birds like the Snowy Owl, whose population can suddenly soar. And it helps us document the invasive spread of birds like the exotic Eurasian Collared-Dove, or the recovery of Bald Eagles from the 1960s to today. In fact, some 200 scientific publications have referenced the Christmas Bird Count.
So if you, like me, love birds, please join a Christmas Bird Count in your area. Count for a day, or just a few hours, and make a memory with friends or family members. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a Snowy Owl in South Carolina — it’s happened before — or you’ll spot a rarity never before seen in the region. Regardless, your volunteer time will contribute to an amazing research project that spans the last century.
Please check out this video about how the CBC got started, featuring a charming older birder who understands the importance of this data. Then see below to find a CBC near you.
Happy Christmas Bird Counting!
Christmas Bird Counts for Dec 2017 - Jan 2018
12/15 Hilton Head Island - Nan Loyd firstname.lastname@example.org
12/16 Lowcountry - Buddy Campbell email@example.com
12/16 Augusta - Lois Stacey firstname.lastname@example.org
12/17 Congaree - Kathleen O'Grady email@example.com
12/18 Four Holes Swamp - Matt Johnson firstname.lastname@example.org
12/ 29 Litchfield - Chris Hill email@example.com
1/2 Charleston - Jen Tyrrell firstname.lastname@example.org